14 min read
“When it’s bad, you notice. When it’s great, you’re immersed.”
Frank Serafine is talking about sound design—and it’s something he talks about a lot. And as the the Academy Award-winning sound designer behind Tron, The Addams Family, and The Hunt for Red October (and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Lawnmower Man, and my favorite show as a kid Thunder in Paradise, and so, so many more), it’s something he knows a lot about too.
It’s why we were so pleased when Frank took a moment to sit down and chat sound design with us. Because sound design has the power to completely engross us in a scene it may not be something we often give a lot of thought to, which may be true at the editing bay, and well before.
It’s happened to all of us, we know our audio efforts could be stronger. We know that sound is half of what we see, and that it really steers our perception. But with so many elements to consider, with so many pressing delivery dates, and with a back log of edits that stretches to Christmas 2026, any notion of maximizing the audience’s auditory experience can quickly slip through the cracks.
But it doesn’t have to be so. Frank is a wealth of knowledge, and during our talk he shared a lot of insight into not only Hollywood-caliber sound, but had some great ideas for novices too.
Frank had a lot of great ideas for ways wedding, documentary, and small studio filmmakers can become better sound designers—starting right now.
Don’t just add the music track and think your sound is done. If you do, you’re cheating your audience of an even more believable experience.
1. Know in the Field
When you’re on the beach with a frolicking just-married couple or about to cover an incredible turning point in the main character of your documentary’s life, you might not even consider the impact of sound on your story until post.
This is a mistake.
Getting it right in the field—making sure you capture great audio well in advance of taking a seat at the editing bay is the first big jump in upping your sound design game. This boils down to capturing the audio of your characters and capturing the audio of the room (or not).
Frank had a number of tips, but in particular, stressed the importance of getting separate audio tracks for characters when shooting. This gives you way more to work with in post, and allows for stronger dialogue edits later.
“Use lavalier mics on each actor so that you have separation (of audio tracks), and the boom operator needs to be educated as to how to position the microphone. These are very important.”
Sometimes the boom mic picks up the sounds in the room, not just the characters. Sometimes you want that, sometimes you don’t (Frank usually doesn’t).
“A lot of times the mistake is made of not separating the audio tracks, and the actors are all bunched onto one channel. Then when it comes time to edit you have a big problem.”
Separation of tracks allows for isolation, and more precise dialogue editing in post.
“Also, understand what the noises are on set—and mitigate them. A lot of times you’ll be on a set (or in the field) and there will be an electricity hum coming from a transformer—something like that—blanket it.”
So in sum, “understand the acoustics of the room and position the mics as close as you can to the actors.”
Now, we aren’t Frank, and most of us will never work on films of the scale and scope that he does regularly. Sounds blankets are awesome to cover an electric hum, but that’s certainly not the reality if you’re shooting a wedding or documentary. But this is still incredibly valuable info, we just have to look at how to apply it.
If you’re a wedding or doc shooter, definitely work to get a mic on each of your main characters. In a wedding this mean the bride needs her own mic. Yep, that will be slightly uncomfortable for some of you to wire it under her dress and attach a recorder or transmitter to her leg, but the difference is massive.We started using mics for each of the main speakers in our weddings years ago and once you feel the difference, you won’t go back.
And more than just getting a mic on each person, be very conscious of your locations. While we often can’t use sound blankets, we often can switch locations, move slightly, or at the very least – position our mics to minimize the noise. A boom mic capturing somebody speaking that is also pointing towards that electric hum will sound way worse than angling it away from the hum.
And the third insight here is to also be very aware of the sounds in the field, not just to minimize them, but to also pick them up as needed. If you’re shooting a documentary scene or wedding outside in nature, it can add so much depth to take the time and capture the sounds of nature, as individually as possible, and then use those to add depth to your story.
Check out Jess & Brian’s wedding that we shot a few years ago in Ireland. Note for the vows and the first meeting the sound quality that comes from having a mic on each of them. In this, Jess as a small mp3 recorder with a lav mic all hidden underneath her dress. Another neat insight is that there first meeting location was going to be next to a waterfall (i.e. pretty and SO loud). The waterfall was also way more public and so we looked for a more private location that would also be better for telling their story.
The first step toward better sound design is getting it right when you’re shooting. Try to have a mic on each of your main audio sources, be aware of the noises in your environment, and pick up any important sounds separately while in the field.
Clean and isolated audio now allows for more amazing sound design later.
2. Know Where to Start
Once production wraps and you enter post it’s time to assemble the sound experience that will leave your audience completely absorbed, and this requires more than music and clean audio.
To recreate believability and really drop your audience into the scene, you’ll want to add sound or enrich sound that’s already there. But where do you start?
Frank recommends starting with sound libraries before venturing into creating your own sound, and he had a number of insights into the history of sound libraries, and why some are better than others.
He notes that there are sounds you can get in libraries that you can’t get anywhere else, so for that reason he heads there first before trying to recreate sound in a controlled environment.
Which sound libraries should you look to first?
He mentioned three sound libraries specifically. The first was his own, Serafine Collection Sound Effects Library, because as he mentioned, the sounds were recorded from a sound editor’s approach, and take into account distance and echo, among other details.
“Say you’re a wedding videographer and you just need a background bird effect you might not want to go out and spend the money on a sound effects collection. There’s a company called Sound Snap that is subscription based. You can go in and pull sounds very cheaply—a couple dollars—and just join for a certain amount a month. They have a very large collection—some of my stuff is in that collection.”
For us, we spent years without even considering adding in extra sounds. We’d either use what was there, or we’d remove it, but the idea of adding in extra sounds to create depth wasn’t on our radar. But for the past few years every single project has sounds coming in that were recorded separately or from a sound library.
We actually checked out Sound Snap based on our interview with Frank and just signed up for a yearly subscription, unlimited sounds, at $250. For us, that’s amazing deal as well could easily spend $100-200 on a project if we really add depth to the picture through sound. Though we just dove in this week, the site has been a huge resource and we’ve been using a ton of sounds. For transparency, we have no connection to Sound Snap, we just heard of them through Frank.
Check out this piece we just launched for Freefly, one that we called Stay Curious. Now, it’s pretty cool if you know that almost every sound in this piece came out of a library or was recorded in our studio. Goose spent literally days building out nothing but the sound design. But it adds so much to the experience.
We can spend so much time perfecting our lighting, getting the best camera, a kick-ass slider – yet we pay 1% of the attention to our sound. Don’t let that be you. Commit to giving your sound as much attention as your picture.
3. Know what’s out there
Just as microphones and recording devices have advanced considerably over the decades, so too have the available sound tools in post. There are a host of new tools on the market, and they’re making sound correction much, much simpler.
The times have certainly changed. Here’s Frank talking about what sound editing was like when he first started in Hollywood nearly 40 years ago.
Now a number of platforms make the life of a sound designer considerably easier, and Frank shared a few that he likes to use.
Frank describes a few programs, including SpectraLayers by Sony and iZotope, that allow sound designers to remove previously stubborn audio issues.
“Sometimes I’ll have a perfect take on a scene, but I’ll get a mic bump. It used to be that you couldn’t EQ out a mic bump—the technology wasn’t available to us…It was either shelving EQ, or 13-band EQ, or fat EQ—whatever you could to try to EQ out that mic bump.
“Now through these programs you can ‘photoshop’ your problems, in a way.
“Mic bumps were impossible to take out before, now I can take them out. You look at the dynamics of the histogram, which is a new waveform technology. It’s basically a color representation of the dynamics of the audio. So you visually look at the colors, say for instance a mic bump is purple, then you go and use the brush tool to basically brush it out. Like photoshop.
“All of this is very, very new technology.
“This is great for smaller projects on a smaller budgets especially. Generally smaller budgets don’t allow for what we call looping, which is taking the actor back in to re-record.”
These new platforms offer a more affordable, straightforward, and time-sensitive option to clean up messy audio, in a really accessible and user-friendly way.
We don’t have any experience with any of these, and often when it comes to advanced mixing and mastering, we send out our files to somebody who lives in that world. Costs vary from about $25-50/hr for their time, but they can totally dial in your sounds, and many can help build out your sound design. Why few are local, you can export an OMF from Premiere or Final Cut, and that gives them all the layers and handles, so they can dial things in, add sounds, and send back a mastered version. We have a couple great folks we use all the time – if you’d like to hire somebody to help you with sound design or mixing, email us and we are happy to share our contacts.
Another big part of handling sound in post is simply just staying organized. Develop a track structure so that you put your narration or voice over on one tracks, your characters are on another couple tracks, your sound effects or ambiance on others, and then you have a few for soundtrack. This may seem tedious as you are starting out, but it is a HUGE habit to develop and make it much easier to bring in a sound designer and to add to your own sound design in an efficient way. It’s the worst when you delete something thinking it was background noise only to realize 15 minutes later it was a critical line of dialogue. And a sound design won’t want to touch your project if you are organized in a way that they can understand and dive in.
Check out some of the options for sound design in post. There are some awesome new options available, and even Premiere’s offering has a lot of potential. Consider bringing in a sound designer to help finish your projects – it can be more affordable than you think. And always, always, try to keep your sounds organized in post.
4. Know what it takes
There are steps you can start taking right now—isolate your audio to put your characters on different tracks, take advantage of the incredible amount of sound effects already available, and explore what options you have for gear—but know that good sound design takes time.
It can be tough to see something with awesome sound design and then look at your editor and see a line of visuals with no sounds and wonder where you start.
Realize that a lot of different elements make up sound design, and for this reason Frank sees sound design as a lot like music and himself as a composer.
“I approach sound design in the same way as a composer would approach orchestrating a full orchestral score. A lot of elements go into creating a particular sound, so it may take dozens of elements that go into making just one effect—not to mention the mixing of levels that goes in between them all.”
And according to Frank, there are two big things that go into strong sound design: experimentation and experience.
So be inspired by what you’re hearing, what you’re not hearing, and what you want to hear. And know that when you’re playing around with different sounds—that’s experimenting, and it’s a big part of the transition into better sound design. And out of that experimentation comes experience.
Often as we dive into a piece, we’ll try out a bunch of things before we find what works. It would be rather shocking to imagine going with your first edit of a video, just running with the shots in the first way they came together. Sound is exactly the same. You need to try things out, see what works, and be willing to put in the time to iterate and keep making it better. If you give yourself the same amount of revisions on the sound side as you do on the visuals, you’ll get incredible results.
Just get in there and try, experiment, play around. Then share it, watch it again, and make it better.[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@stillmotion” url=”http://bit.ly/1dBeGRf”]An Oscar-Winning Sound Designer Shares 4 Killer Tips Worth Listening To[/tweetthis]
It was a pleasure chatting with Frank Serafine, and if you’d like to take advantage of his wisdom to not just consider sound design, but to take it to another level, you might have the chance. Frank’s currently on a national tour, Sound Advice, of day-long workshops in which he’ll cover sound recording, sound editing, sound effects, sound mixing, sound design, and more.
And because we’re so glad to be part of your journey to be a better filmmaker we’ve arranged to give away one seat on Frank’s tour at workshop near you!
If you’d like to win a day with Frank honing your sound skills let us know in the comments by answering this one question:
What’s your single biggest struggle with sound?
It’s a shorter contest, so let us know your answers by Tuesday, May 5 at 11:59 PST.
So appreciate everyone’s comments. We’ve reached out to the person who snagged the free spot on Frank’s tour, but there’s still an opportunity for you to learn Frank in person! Use the discount code SATSTM20 to save $20 off the final price before May 10. Thanks again everyone!
PS — Record scratches. Mary? Who’s Mary? I’m Mary, a writer here at Stillmotion. I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself with a post–that’s coming–because I wanted to share Frank’s sound smarts with you first. So enjoy! And you’ll hear from me again soon.