The importance of a good sound mix!

My new narrative feature, BROKEN SIDE OF TIME, which premieres on Friday, June 28th at VisionFest in NYC (at the TriBeCa Cinema at 9:30PM), was my first film where I discovered the sheer joy and beauty of shooting with DSLRs.  In this case the Nikon D7000 and a bunch of old manual prime lenses.  It was also the first time I was in charge of recording my own sound…separately.  For that I had purchased a Zoom H4N.  A great little recorder.  I used my Audio Technica AT897 microphone, the same mic which recorded all of the COLOR ME OBSESSED sound, quite beautifully, I might add.  But after just a few hours of filming, we realized the mic was giving us truly low levels.  Not unusable.  But lower than they should have been.  After doing some overnight research, we discovered this very popular mic (along with a model by Rode) was mostly incompatible with the H4N.  I had a Sennheiser overnighted from B&H, and we moved on.

I bring this up because I was truly always worried about the scenes recorded with that old mic.  Specifically an 18 minute scene between Lynn Mancinelli’s Dolce and Audria Ayer’s Viral, which was honestly the main set piece in the film.  The sound was passable at best.  Really quiet in a not-so-quiet location.

Lynn Mancinelli and Audria Ayers in BROKEN SOUND OF TIME with Matt Gundy behind the boards at DuArt Film & Video
Lynn Mancinelli and Audria Ayers in BROKEN SOUND OF TIME with Matt Gundy behind the boards at DuArt Film & Video

Heading into the film’s sound mix last week, that scene was the one which worried me most.  I knew DuArt’s Matt Gundy was brilliant behind the boards.  He had mixed every one of my films since YOU ARE ALONE in 2005.  This would be my sixth feature mixed by Gundy.  But could he really work miracles?  Could all those notch filters and the infamous HissMaster 2000 give him god-like powers?

The answer, in a word, yes.  As much as I liked BROKEN SIDE OF TIME going into the mix, because of Matt Gundy’s ability to add plug-in-Woolite to all the background noise, and gently scub away the drek, watching the film now, I fucking love it.  Matt Gundy saved my film.  It sounds as clean and full as anything playing in the multiplex.  He added sound effects as subtle as a breath.  He mixed certain songs to sound as if they were coming from juke boxes, or even better, from juke boxes in another room.  He took out squeaks in the noisiest mattress every filmed.  He turned by $15,000 feature into a million dollar movie.

That is the difference a sound mix can make.

If you make a film, don’t scrimp on sound, and don’t forget the mix.  It can make the difference between sounding like a bad YouTube video, as so many mumblecore movies do, and a film that deserves an Oscar nom for best sound editing.

Matt Gundy is BROKEN SIDE OF TIME’s hero.  He has my eternal gratitude.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 12

12. The Sound Mix

I can’t really explain it but the mix is one of my favorite parts of the entire process. Four films in a row, beginning with YOU ARE ALONE, and up to and including WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? just a few weeks ago, I’ve done my mix at DuArt in NYC, with Matt Gundy behind the boards, manning what we jokingly (lovingly?) call the HissMaster3000. I love mixing at DuArt. (So much so that I’m pretty sure my dedication to them was one of the reasons a producer who was trying to raise millions to help me turn my first novel THE SECOND GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD into a feature walked away from the project. He said there were better places to mix. I explained DuArt had been good to me when I had no budget, and that when I finally had some money to spend, they would be getting it. We never spoke again.) It’s an old school film house that has always supported independent filmmakers. I support them back. (Yes, I am as loyal as I am difficult.)

The mix is pretty much the last step for me. Adrian Correia, the only DP I’ll work with, has already done the color correct. Please . . . if your DP worked with you, as opposed to against you (see an earlier post), let him/her color correct your film. Or at least sit in on color correction. He knew how he lit the film, and how it should look. If you don’t, you’re back in douche-ville. I trust Adrian implicitly. And usually let him have his way with the color controls.

Back to the mix. It’s like the final dressing. The audio buzz behind someone’s dialog, or the man handling of the boom poll, the horn beeping, it can all somehow disappear when you’ve got a master controlling the knobs.

Take COLOR ME OBSESSED, we ended up using about 125 interviews. That’s 125 different locations with issues ranging from street noise to air conditioning compressors. Or me going “um-huh” 500 times. (I’ve since learned to control that.) Matt Gundy makes it all disappear. Listen to the film. It has a beautiful even tone. Even when rapidly cutting from one location to the next. And this is without any score to help cover up the issues. Matt had all of 4 days to mix 123 minutes. He made it seem easy. (Though at one point Dave Foley did crash the HM3000. If you go back to the Making of Color Me Obsessed series on this very blog you can read much more about mixing.)

Make sure you put aside some cash for the mix. It will be the difference between your film sounding like some amateur YouTube video and a professional feature film. No joke. The difference will be astounding, and well worth the investment.

For WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? which really only had about 20 minutes of interviews (the music which had been mixed and produced by Brian Paulson was perfect as is), I could have easily pulled some crowd sounds lightly under the talking. Hell, the talking sounded pretty damn good as it was. I’d learned a lot since Color Me Obsessed. But still, I spent a half day at DuArt just so the film could get the Gundy touch, and it was completely worth it.

If you love your film, finish it correctly. Dress it up appropriately. It’ll love you back for it.

Next up: film festivals

My filmography.

The making of COLOR ME OBSESSED – part 28

We have four days for the mix. Nothing by comparison to Hollywood comparisons. But then our entire film budget is probably the food budget for two weeks on your average Hollywood film. And from what Matt and Carmen tell me, so many micro-budget films nowadays are bypassing the mix altogether, because they just can’t afford it. So, our four days are a luxury by what should be our standards. But I firmly believe bad sound can kill a film, just as easily as boring cinematography, amateuristic acting, bad writing, etc and so on. It’s an essential part.

We’ll break the four days down as such…30 to 35 minutes or so on the first day, as Matt gets the rhythm of the film, and begins to better understand the horrors of my sound recording. Also, as he gets a perfect setting for an interview, say Husker Du drummer Grant Hart in the basement of 7th Street Entry, he can reuse the setting every time Grant pops back up on the screen.

The rest of the film, we’ll split between days two and three. And yes, we hit the 80 minute mark by the end of Wednesday, leaving us 43 minutes for Thursday, which is a breeze. Except for Dave Foley. (I begin to think he’s just fucking with us.)

Matt Gundy and Gorman Bechard at DuArt mixing COLOR ME OBSESSED

Day four begins as it has every time we’ve mixed. We watch the film from start to finish, to see what needs work, or polish, or a slight tweak. It’s also the first time I get to see the film projected on a screen from start to finish. So, notebook in hand, I wander down to the front, take a seat, and watch…

Damn, I love this film even more with good sound.

The making of COLOR ME OBSESSED – part 27

(Another flight, another bunch of blogs ready to post.)

It’s probably only an hour or so into the first day of mixing when some of my bad sound, in this case the AC units behind Husker Du bassist Greg Norton and Twin/Tone co-founder Paul Stark, both recorded upstairs at First Avenue, proves too much for the board and its collection of filters and knobs. Time (already) to roll in the big guns. Matt says he’ll be right back, returning with what honestly looks like an old fashioned computer from the early 80s, sitting on a metal cart with wheels. He calls it the Cambridge something or other. That its main use is to remove the pops and hiss from the optical soundtracks of old films which the folks at DuArt are restoring. I immediately know anything with such a name will be no match for a bunch of Mats fanatics, so I re-christen the machine the HissMaster3000 (herein HM3K). And we’re ready to rock and roll.

The HM3K is an awesome little contraption. As we move through all 123 minutes of the film, Matt uses it, and the aforementioned knobs and filters to level everything out beautifully, yet allow each location, and there are about 125 different locations in the film, to have its own unique sound. It’s really not until we get to comedian Dave Foley that we really run into issues. The street sounds, in this case downtown Los Angeles, are ferocious. The struggle monumental. It’s like an ultimate fighting match. And as Matt so bluntly put it, “Dave Foley crashed the HM3K.”

The making of COLOR ME OBSESSED – part 23

So the film was locked on February 6th, 2011. Final running time: 123 minutes, 7 seconds, 6 frames.

I outputted the audio to OMFs, and created an uncompressed quicktime file of the film without sound. I copied these, along with any extra sound effects or music I felt we might need, onto a portable hard drive. And the next morning, Monday, Feb. 7th, I took a train to NYC, and hand-delivered them to Matt Gundy at DuArt Film and Video. He wanted everything a day before the mix to make sure the files worked properly.

DuArt is the famous old film lab where every New York filmmaker, from Woody Allen on down, has had their films developed. I’ve gone there since my making my first 16mm short as a part time film student at the New School for Social Research in 1982.

I also mixed the sound of my old horror comedy PSYCHOS IN LOVE there in 1986. So in 2005 when looking for a studio where we could mix YOU ARE ALONE, I once again turned to DuArt. One meeting with Carmen Borgia, who runs the sound dept. and sound mixer Matt Gundy, and I knew we found a home. Carmen understood we were indie and on a budget. And Matt took the time to watch the film and actually seemed to get what we going for.

The mix took four days (four days was all we could afford), yet somehow Matt cleaned up some truly awful background noise. I loved our main location on that film, the Hotel Duncan on Chapel Street in new Haven. But I didn’t love the constant barrage of sirens and hip-hop beats that seemed to find their way onto our soundtrack every time our mics were aimed towards the front of the building. Matt made them all disappear. Magically? Perhaps. It didn’t matter, Whether he knew it or not, he had formed a partnership for life.