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 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 25

COLOR ME OBSESSED was a completely different beast from my last two film. A set of talking heads, over a hundred-twenty appear in the film, all with their own specific set of sound issues. An air conditioning unit we couldn’t shut off, LA street sounds, NYC street sounds, MPLS street sounds (I fucking hate street sounds), refrigerators, hums, buzzing, other bands playing loudly in the arena upstairs, dog tags jingling, interns turning log pages loudly, and one part-time uncredited B-camera person who moved so clunkily, Matt asked if someone was “bouncing golf balls off the window.”

We began, as always, at the first frame and worked forward. Tweaking, no so much those many voices, but those many distracting sounds behind them. Matt would, as he had for both You Are Alone and Friends (With Benefits) make everything sound perfect, all the levels even, etc and so forth.

The sound was halfway decent at best. And I’m not sharing the blame here. I take full responsibility for the sound in the film. And I even apologize in the end credits. But I didn’t want to shoot everyone in a sterile studio setting. That might work for Errol Morris, but it wouldn’t work for me. I wanted backgrounds organic (fuck, I hate that word) to the people being interviewed. If they owned a record shop, they’d be interviewed in their shop. To hell with the trucks zooming past outside on Lyndale. Or Grant Hart from Husker Du being interviewed in the basement dressing room at the 7th Street entry. I mean, could any setting be more perfect? Plus, we didn’t have a sound man. Our trusty mic stand stood in nicely. And many of the musicians we filmed seemed impressed by the quality of our shotgun mic.

And honestly, I might be overstating this a bit. When you see the film you’ll be thinking there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the sound.

And you’re right.
It sounds great!
Thanks to Matt Gundy.