Monday, November 26, 2012


You work five days a week on a show, three of those often until midnight or later. If next week’s script isn’t ready, or a new story needs to be pitched out, you may work on the weekend as well. (Some shows, to keep up with what needs to be done, work seven days a week. For eight or nine months.

I once heard myself lament – shamefully – concerning the grueling process involved in making a TV series – adjust this for inflation, because it was in 1981 – “There must be an easier way to earn three hundred thousand dollars a year!”

Sunday is quite often your only day off. But then, it often turns out, there’s a “mixing session” scheduled, and your only day off flies lamentably out the window.

What is a “mixing session”? A “mixing session” is the final post-production procedure before an episode is delivered to the network. During the “mixing session”, the music is inserted into the program – primarily the “playouts” and “play-ins” between scenes – and the sound effects and dialogue are given their last refining adjustments.

As I recall, the “mixing sessions” took about three hours per episode, and we generally handled two episodes per session, so that was six hours deleted from your only day off of the week, plus “driving time.” The mixing studios were never anywhere near my house.

The “music mixing” element is generally easy. The show’s composer writes and records a number of “music cues” – those seconds-long musical “bridges” you hear between the scenes, and during the “mixing sessions”, you “lay in” those music cues, meaning you insert them into the show, taking care that the timing of those insertions are just right.

You do not want to start the music too early and step on a scene-ending laugh, nor do you want to play the music too long into the following scene and risk covering a significantly expositional line of dialogue.

It’s all “trial and error.” And “feel” – getting the timing just right. Line – laugh – music – picture “up” on the next scene, “fade out” music – first line of dialogue. If you’re compulsive, this relatively simple task could take a considerably amount of time. I mean, you’re sitting there, having lost your only day off of the week. You may as well “get it right.”


Before continuing further, let me acknowledge that “sound mixing” for a sitcom is “Nursery School” compared to “Post-Graduate” sound mixing of a feature film, on which months may be spent dealing with literally hundreds of effects. In sitcoms, your primary goal is for the dialogue to be “clean”, meaning clearly hearable – I wrote that stuff. And I not want it covered up.

So, for example, a character’s speaking when they open a door “at night”, and outside, from an earlier pass at the sound mixing, an “owl” hoots, inadvertently covering the dialogue. This “sound cue” now has to be adjusted.

You don’t want to take the “owl” sound removed entirely, because the hooting creates the illusion that of an actual “outside”, obscuring the reality, which is, “You’re on a studio soundstage, and there actually is no “outside.” This is the reason the “owl sound” was inserted in the first place. The objective now is, in the service of “protecting the dialogue”, to retain but “soften the owl.”

This alteration is possible because the dialogue was recorded on the stage during a live audience performance, while the “owl effect” was added from, what, in my day, was an eight-track cassette of “ambient owl noises”, selected from the studio’s “Sound Library.” Emanating from different sound sources, the two sounds can be manipulated individually, allowing you to “soften the owl” without “softening the dialogue.”

However – Example Two:

A character delivers dialogue while closing the onstage door, inadvertently causing the “door close” to, as with the overly loud owl, to cover the dialogue. This situation is different. In this case, both the dialogue and the “door close” have been recorded by the same onstage microphone, meaning, in sound-editing parlance, that the two sounds – the dialogue and the simultaneous “door close” – are “married.” You can therefore not alter one sound without altering the other. The two are inextricably bound together. Hence the term – “married.”

What do you do in such cases? If the line of dialogue is important enough, you “wipe” – meaning you erase – both it and the “door close” from the sound track. You then bring back the actor, and you re-record their line of dialogue on the “Dubbing Stage.” “Step Two” is, you fabricate a new “door close”, and you technically “move it away” from the re-recorded dialogue (you might have to change the picture, so it is not showing the door when it closes, thus obscuring the fact “door close” sound has been moved.)

Your other option is to “manufacture” a softer “door close”, so it will not interfere with the re-recorded dialogue.

Sounds like a lot of work, but it matters. I mean, I know it’s only a sitcom, but still.

Oh, yeah, FYI? The actor was almost certainly instructed to close the door before starting their dialogue, but they forgot. If they’d remembered, none of this “reconstruction work” would be necessary, and I’d be home considerably earlier, enjoying what remains of my only day off of the week.


The last procedure I will describe concerning the sound mixing process is called “Foleying.” Sometimes, the sound library is lacking the precise sound effect that you have imagined in your head. In that case, it is necessary to stop, and construct an entirely new effect, right then and there.

I will now stop talking and defer to a “Foley” scene from Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981), in which Albert plays a film editor toiling on a third-rate “Space Epic.” The clip will tell you everything you need to know. About sound editing.

And obsession.



Ryc said...

You said that acting classes helped your writing. Did understanding the sound mixing also influence your writing?

Mac said...

I wanted to beat that sound engineer to death. Nice "Heaven's Gate" gag slipped in at the end.