3,700 words – 15 minute read time
IN THIS POST:
– SOUND EDITING
– what it is, what we will be learning + why it matters
– what equipment you will need to actively participate
– who am I, my motivation & the experience I draw from
SOUND EDITING 101 – From the Script to the Final Mix
This post marks the start of a new aspect of HISSandaROAR. My aim is to slowly build a creative study course, by working through the entire process of creating the soundtrack for a film. I have completed this process many times, on a wide range of films. From no budget short films, through to VFX heavy US Studio films where I was supervising a team of sound editors, through multiple temp mixes, endless conforms & tight delivery deadlines.
From an educational perspective, this is also a process I have worked through many times, back when I used to have virtual interns via my MUSIC of SOUND blog. Every question the interns asked prompted a new discussion and also helped to clarify the motivation for particular approaches to such work.
So before we start, I thought I would use this post to outline what we will be studying and why it is important. I’ll also outline how the course will occur and what equipment you will need to actively participate. And finally a brief outline as to who I am, my motivation & the experience I draw from.
A TYPICAL LESSON
Each lesson will involve a specific aspect of working as a sound editor, with a practical exercise for you to complete. For these exercises, I will provide video & any sounds required, but I do not plan to ‘mark your homework’ or provide a certificate or anything at the completion of the course. As with any creative activity, the course may actually never end. No matter how much I think I may know, on every project I have done, I have learned so much. Every film is unique and requires the creation of a unique sound world to reinforce & support the story. The learning process never ends!
But I do plan to spend the first month of lessons establishing basic skills. For example, there is no point explaining in detail a complex method of eg designing a creature vocal, when a student may not yet even have the skills or experience to know how to set up an editing session in their DAW with an understanding of sync, formats and standard approaches to such work. Sometimes I see videos online of people demonstrating their ‘sound design’ and it often feels more like they are demonstrating their collection of plugins. Maybe they are far along the path and have all of the basic skills of sound editing and sound design ingrained. But from my perspective, and so I don’t repeat myself, first we are going to learn to walk. When I started work as a trainee sound editor, if you could not reliably ‘sync rushes’ (with or without a clapper board) then you would not be progressing to more creative tasks. So you can consider me a little bit ‘old school’ in that respect. If you feel you already know all the basics then I would still appreciate your participation as a form of peer review.
“DOING” VERSUS STUDY
While I appreciate many tutorials currently exist solely on Youtube, that is not my approach. If all you want is a recipe ‘How to design light saber zaps’ or whatever, then this likely isn’t the course for you. I am not going to be making talking head infomercials, because I believe it is important to differentiate between passively watching a video, with actually working.
My aim is to help you develop practical, repeatable skills by gaining insight into the process AND practicing such techniques yourself. There will be no rote learning. This course will not be passive. Sound editing is a practical art, and extends far beyond your computer, involving many aspects of your life and personal history.
I also believe that learning HOW something is achieved is not enough. The reason WHY is vitally important, and WHEN provides the context. Without understanding why, you won’t remember how.
As part of the course I will also post listening exercises for you to do, to help you develop critical listening skills, and methods for analyzing reality for future reference. These exercises are not intended as a ‘one-off’ – the aim is that these listening exercises become a part of your daily life. I have the first listening exercise clearly in mind, it requires no equipment at all, so I will post it next week so you can make a start and get a feel for what is involved.
WHO ARE YOU? WHO IS THIS FOR?
At some point I will post a questionnaire as I am intrigued to gauge interest and learn of your background, but I suspect the first participants will actually be people who already know me and my work. Maybe you are already working professionally with sound (and/or music) or working in adjacent industries such as game audio, podcasts, picture editor, composer etc.
But I think my target audience is actually me, as a kid. When I was getting started, access to gear and experienced people was practically impossible. Reading books and manuals was the only way I could gain any insight into my dream job of becoming a sound effects editor for film. I remember how hungry I was for it. And how frustrating it was to have zero access to anyone with real experience. This is also why I choose to make this course freely available, as I feel the people who it may benefit most may not be able to afford a paid course, especially during COVID. Now more than ever people are time rich. Let’s use that time to gain some skills!
For experienced people, working through the practical exercises may well be unnecessary, but I am also very interested in the idea of this being PEER REVIEWED. I consider the lovely people who support HISSandaROAR to be kindred spirits, and I know this to be true from many conversations over the years. So if you are experienced and you can correct or provide better insight to something I write in this course, then please do! Again via comments on a post or via email. This will be especially welcome when discussing established workflows, and some technical details. I am experienced, but I also know the limits to my knowledge. Corrections and input are welcome.
WHAT DO YOU NEED?
You’re going to need access to a computer and a DAW. I personally think you need to be using ProTools, because it is a standard in the film industry. Films are mixed on a dub stage, and those are usually fed from multiple ProTools workstations so regardless of your preference, I believe you need to know how to use ProTools.
Can you use a different app? Maybe. I am well aware that for sound post production some people do use Reaper and some use Nuendo. But please do not confuse a music app with a DAW for sound post. For example, I own and love ableton LIVE, but it is not a DAW designed for post-production. Of course you can make and edit sounds in LIVE but the complete lack of a timecode-based timeline is just one example that shows how unsuitable it is for such work. I have never used Apple Logic, and while I know plenty of musicians who love it, I don’t know anyone working as a film sound editor who uses it as their primary DAW.
I am sorry if this is not welcome news, but it is my reality based on years of experience. If you don’t have access to ProTools or Reaper or Nuendo, it doesn’t mean you cannot participate. But how you achieve the exercises I set will be up to you, and any shortcomings will become very apparent. That will also be a learning experience.
I do not mean for this aspect to be elitist or expensive at all. And this is where you need to be careful: I am not advocating for you to go buy ProTools Ultimate and a whole lot of expensive hardware. I could cut sound for a film on a 10 year old laptop running a version of ProTools so old it works with an MBox.
Do you need a recorder? Microphones? Maybe, maybe later, but again please don’t think I am encouraging GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) – I much prefer the idea of PRACTICE over PURCHASE. If you have a computer, a DAW and a pair of speakers or headphones then you are good to go. And anything else can be considered as/when we come across it. As we will be working to picture a lot, I think a second screen is also very useful. But don’t go buying a new screen – running a cable to your TV may be all you need.
Same for plugins – I am not going to try to sell you on any specific plugins. The plugins that come with your DAW are likely enough to learn basic techniques. When we get into more complex design, if I use less common software it will only be to show you why and when such things are useful.
The only other necessities are your time and attention.
THIS IS A SAFE SPACE
It is not news to anyone that the Internet can be a toxic place. But I cannot state this strongly enough: this is a safe space. Sexist or racist language or any form of discrimination will not be tolerated. I consider myself to be a rational and caring person, with a strong sense of empathy. I also readily admit to having a slightly warped sense of humor. So if ever you feel offended by something I have written, or disagree with it, then I welcome respectful discussion, publicly via comments on the post or if you prefer, privately via email.
Please bear in mind that the frequency of new lessons will depend entirely on my available time. Often the only way work is ever finished is due to a deadline. So there may be weeks at a time where I have zero availability for anything other than meeting my own deadlines.
I am providing this course for free, and maybe a useful way of thinking about it is that you are students participating in the beta stage of course development. By the end of the year we will have travelled a long distance, discussing many aspects of film sound along the way. And you will have gained both some practical experience, and essential knowledge.
SUBSCRIBING TO LESSONS:
If this course is of interest my best advice is:
1. subscribe to RSS
2. subscribe to the HISSandaROAR Mail list
A quick note on the differences between these two:
RSS is updated automatically, every time I publish a post. So if you want to know immediately when a new lesson has been posted then RSS is the best way. To read RSS I use and recommend the great (free & open-source) OSX and iOS app: NetNewsWire
With regards to the HISSandaROAR Mail list, I am very wary of over-use. No one wants multiple emails in a week from the same company, as that starts to feel like spam. So the Maillist is primarily for library releases (max 1 or 2 a month) where I will also summarise and provide links to the lessons since the last email newsletter.
But I want to do what works for you, so if you would prefer email notification for every lesson posted, please let me know in the comments and I will set up a separate EMAIL LIST for that purpose…
UPDATE: ok enough people have requested this now. I will set up a separate Email List and will update this post with a subscription form once its ready. Thanks!
Following this post in quick succession will also be two related EDU posts, CAREER ADVICE 1 and CAREER ADVICE 2. These are articles that I wrote and published at MUSICofSOUND blog back in 2010, and which I still receive appreciative comments & emails. So I have revised and updated these, and while aspects of them will be covered in greater detail in individual lessons, I believe they are essential reading, as they establish my values and my attitude to work: I do not believe in having a job. I believe in finding your vocation.
ASK ME ANYTHING
I will also add an AMA post – ASK ME ANYTHING
So if you have a specific question or a request for the course, then please feel free to comment there.
Or if you prefer to ask privately and/or anonymously please use email
As I mentioned, in my youth access to equipment was a major challenge. Computers didn’t exist yet, the Internet also did not exist. And a basic field recording set up (Nagra and mic) cost as much as a house deposit. But even worse, the means of manipulating and editing sound was totally inaccessible. To gain access to any sound equipment at all required a lot of study, and building experience and trust with those who did have equipment. Skills were earned the hard way, and reference materials were also difficult to access.
Contrast that with now, the situation has completely reversed. A laptop and a handheld recorder are affordable. While advertising makes us feel we need the latest gadget, we do not. Gear is not the issue.
And while the Internet has been provided an explosion of easily accessed information, it has created a different issue: who can you trust? Sometimes when I notice someone voicing big opinions online, I wonder who they are. With what authority do they speak? If it is related to film sound then IMDB soon reveals the depth of their experience.
But last year (2021) I had an experience on Twitter that really drove this point home. Before I describe it, a little of my background. My career has predominantly been as a sound editor and sound designer for film. I attended Film School in 1990 and in 1991 started work as a trainee sound editor at a studio that had bought the very first Digidesign Sound Tools in New Zealand, and then the very first ProTools. I have suffered through every version of ProTools since. By 1997 I was freelance and was sound designer on my first feature film (SAVING GRACE) Between then and 2014 I worked on 40 feature films, along with hundreds of hours of TV drama, and short films.
Through all of my experience, and from observing and discussing other peoples work, I have a fairly good idea of how film soundtracks are put together. But on Twitter one day, a very experienced sound editor shared some insight to a recent project they had completed. They supervised a team of sound editors and described how they had assigned work to each sound editor. Specifically, they gave Sound editor 1 all of Reel 1 of the film to edit & prepare all sound effects, and ambiences. They gave Sound editor 2 all of Reel 2, Sound editor 3 all of R3 etc… Many people thanked them for sharing these insights, but no one questioned it.
I read it & it stopped me in my tracks. I had never heard of anyone working this way, ever. That isn’t to say it’s not a potentially interesting idea. But in my experience, it is a very different approach to ‘the norm’. (Often one sound editor is assigned to all Ambiences, another might do all vehicle FX, another might do all practical FX etc.. I will discuss in future why I consider this approach as preferable)
Wanting to understand their motives, I politely asked a few questions but my first question was this:
How common is this approach?
The answer: very rare.
No one they knew worked this way with a team.
Can you see the problem?
Someone with authority and experience shared their methodology, but without the context of revealing that it was a very unusual approach. It seemed that people accepted it as standard practice, when it definitely isn’t, as the author readily admitted when asked. I do not share this to criticise them, the reason I share this experience with you is due to what I consider an essential basis of what I am going to teach:
SOUND EDITING REQUIRES CRITICAL THINKING.
The methods and techniques I will cover in this course are what have worked for me. But they are not universal truths. Some of them might be, but you should read and consider anything and everything I say, and decide for yourself if it is applicable to your work. What worked for me, may not work for you. You might know a better method, or you might discover one after trying what I suggest. Similarly the equipment I use has been chosen and evolved due to experience. But it is ‘only’ my experience.
The pandemic has revealed how dangerous a lack of critical thinking can be, with some people disappearing down dubious rabbit holes while “doing their own research” and in some horrific cases, it has cost them their life.
There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going, and there is also no way to buy or download experience. You have to get it the same way I did, by being proactive and working hard, over many years. By being open to ideas, but also to develop critical thinking and questioning all assumptions.
This is really an existential question. Why do anything?
I personally consider film to be the ultimate art form, as it requires the best collaborative work from a huge group of people working at the top of their creative powers. If you add up the individual years of experience that all of the cast and crew have, and combined them into one entity, it would total hundreds of years of very diverse experience.
Great films, brilliantly written, acted, directed, executed, and post-produced, all work to serve one purpose: to reach into the hearts & minds of the audience and engage them in an art form, storytelling, that dates back to the origins of our species.
And I can share the moment that set me on my path. For reasons I won’t bore you, I started a degree in Electrical Engineering. I thought it had the potential for an interesting career. I was wrong. I freaking hated it, but I persevered. At the same time, I was also playing bass guitar in a band, and we managed to get a $500 grant to record & release a tape of our music. Thankfully no copies of that tape still exist, but that recording was the most fun I’d ever had. We didn’t have the budget to go to a studio, so we rented a Teac A3340 4 track reel-to-reel and our live engineer Bryce rented mics and a desk and we set up a temporary studio in our flat.
Thus began the slow-motion process of dropping out of my studies. But one day at Uni a friend suggested I skip my lectures and come to a film screening. He was studying film and there was a screening of a newly released film… Naive, bored me tags along… And guess what happened? I had my life changed!
The film was WINGS OF DESIRE by Wim Wenders. If you have never seen the film, then I cannot recommend it highly enough. But please treat it with the respect it deserves. What do I mean by that? Well, until I saw this film, my idea of cinema was 100% Hollywood. I’d seen Star Wars and everything else that was coming out of Hollywood, but WINGS OF DESIRE was unlike anything I had seen before. Brilliant cast and acting, iconic locations, incredibly beautiful cinematography but best of all: a story that required your attention on a deep existential level. This was no escapist super hero movie. I left that screening a different person.
This was the late 1980s and I knew I could not make a living as a musician, but I had begun to borrow a Nagra & shotgun microphone from the Film Dept at Uni and had also bought a Yamaha SPX900, which had some basic sampling ability. I started to connect the dots, and the desire to work on films became my life’s mission. But how to get work?
One day I saw an ad in the local paper, with two roles available at the Natural History Unit (a Government funded entity that produced nature documentaries) – one was for a field recordist, the second was for a post-production sound editor. OMG!!! I applied for both, and I managed to get an interview and travelled to Dunedin for the interview. But sadly I did not get the job. My lack of experience was the issue. Such is the catchcry of many young people: “I can’t a job because I have no experience! I can’t get any experience because I don’t have a job!” (This issue will be discussed in depth later!)
But then something weird happened. I found out who did get the job! They were a friend that I knew well (hi Ray!) and I knew he did some live music mixing etc… So why did he get the job and I didn’t? Eventually I caught up with him & asked and guess what his answer was? He had spent the previous year attending Film School!
I researched the Film School he went to and the following year I applied. Now this particular Film School was clever in that every year they aimed to be able to put together a little film crew from the 20 students. So I applied and when I was interviewed they asked why I wanted to attend, my answer could not have been more honest or direct. I want to work in film sound!
That year the School had 400 applicants. And out of those 400 applicants I was the only person who specified sound as my core interest! They confirmed me right then & there, and I spent 1990 at Film School and the following year managed to get a role as a trainee sound editor. And that was all the start I needed!
1991 to 2021 is 30 years of hard work, and learning on every project. But I am also still that wide-eyed kid who just wants to mess with sound! I look around my studio now, with that kid’s determination in mind and I truly believe if you want it badly enough, you can achieve it. But it takes long-term thinking, commitment and a lot of hard work.
I hope you will join me on this long-range sonic mission!
For any feedback, questions or comments I have set up a seperate email address for this purpose.
EDU at HISS and a ROAR dot com
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