audio in movies

I have set up this page to give beginners and students in the film business some basic advice on the audio related matters of creating and producing films.

Working a long time as a composer and producer of music for movies and other media productions I got the chance of earning a great deal of knowledge about movies in general and about the audio related aspects of film making in particular. This process is still going on with every new production I'm attached to. I soon realized that many mistakes related to mixing audio and music to picture reappear frequently and so I came up with the idea of summarizing the most important points and outline the most frequently made mistakes that may happen while editing music and audio in post production.

Enjoy reading!

Table Of Content

01. A few words on sound and music in general

02. Why is music and sound so important for a successful movie

03. Use of library music vs. custom tailored soundtrack

04. How to get the best out of library music

05. Most common mistakes on sound and music in post production

06. How to handle the recorded ambient and vocal material

07. Adding a narrators voice

08. Panning of speech, music, and sound-FX





01. A few words on sound and music in general


When dealing with sound you should always keep the following in mind:

a.) First of all, the sense of hearing is kind of archaic. Mind you, the ear is the first fully developed sensory organ. It is already functioning in the sixth month of pregnancy!

b.) Hearing is a very important alarm sense not only for human beings but furthermore for the vast majority of creatures on earth. As opposed to the sense of sight we are dealing with a more or less unfocussed sense. Nature has given us the ability to overhear everything that is happening around us probably because we only have a very restricted viewing angle. It is a powerful mechanism supporting us to prepare in a timely manner if an enemy is approaching or anything else that might endanger us is coming close. Most of the time you'll hear things first before you can have a look at them.

c.) Audible expressions probably build the most important way of communicating emotions of any kind. This leads us to the subject of music. It is not without a cause that music is often spoken of as an universal language with no frontiers that is easily understood by people around the world. While there are many differences among the musical styles from different cultures, there's one thing they all have in common: it's the emotional aspect of music. Music in fact is a powerful pristine emotional language.






02. Why is music and sound so important for a successful movie


As a movie maker you are a special kind of story teller and to be successful with that, you need to get the audiences attention. The most important element to capture the audience is to get a grip on them emotionally, to raise their empathy.
It's very clear, especially in connection with what we already have discovered in the introduction under point 01, that audio plays a big role in that task.
Actually there are only two paths to get in touch with the audience emotionally.
One is the ability of your actors to express emotions in a genuine and believable way, which again is more or less a matter of sound considering the vocal expression.
The other is by making use of music and active sound design.
In that light it is not overstated to say that a great soundtrack makes 50% of a movies success.
A goofed soundtrack on the other hand can completely ruin an otherwise great picture.
As a consequence you definitely should save some money within your productions budget to get a custom made soundtrack.
Now I do know from my day to day work that it frequently happens, especially with independent productions, that they'll run out of money when approaching the post production stage.
Reaching that point, the budget usually has left only enough money for purchasing some kind of library music, which leads us to the next point.






03. Use of library music vs. custom tailored soundtrack


Keep in mind that your movie is very much like some kind of business card to you, showcasing your skills as a film maker. That applies especially if we're talking about a short or a trailer resp. teaser. It's a part of your reel and having an impressive trailer in your personal reel will always be a big help in raising funds on your future projects.
So it is not that bad an idea to invest some money in that.

The bottom line is, a custom made soundtrack will always beat the use of library- or sometimes also called stock-music. The use of library music usually is kinda patchwork and has a smack of not being well suited for the picture.

Another thing you might consider is that a custom made score may already include all necessary sound fx if the composer you're hiring is willing to incorporate that. I for one do include the complete sound fx and the sound design work if a client wants that. I even mix in the recorded voice track and apply necessary corrections if demanded.

By the way, I really do not see a clear border between music and ambient noise or sound fx. What I'm getting at is, some music, especially in movies and even with acoustic instruments, is more like noise and some sound fx resp. noises can quite reach some musical quality as with rhythmic machine like sounds or brassy sounding metal sheets. For instance, in a great many of movies, especially with thriller and horror movies, the orchestra gets very noisy to generate a creepy suspenseful atmosphere. The musical term for that is atonal.

Anyway, unless you're planning some extra money for hiring a sound designer, that you'll need to get decent sound fx and audio you will have to fiddle around with all that on your own.
You may be able to create some decent soundtracks with library music though, if you pay attention to the issues that are outlined in the next paragraphs.






04. How to get the best out of library music


If you work with licensed prerecorded music you'll have to do a lot of mixing on a couple of audio tracks, fade in and out, dynamic changes and so on. It will never keep up with a custom made score but if you are able to develop your skills with that, you may create some decent soundtracks though.
You'll need a good deal of musicality, a sensibility for musical tuning and how, respectively which sounds can be mixed in a satisfactory way.






05. Most common mistakes on sound and music in post production


a.) hard cutting the music e.g. not making use of fading (fade in and out, xfade)
b.) wrong volume adjustment resp. relation between music, voice and ambient sound
c.) not adjusting the peaks of the music to meet the according event on screen
d.) placing music when there should be silence and vice versa
e.) selecting a musical track that is inappropriate for the scene
f.) wrong panning (see point 0.8 below):






06. How to handle the recorded ambient and vocal material


Basically, the quality and usefulness of the audio you've recorded together with the picture depends on the effort you were able to put in that matter.
For speech the goal is to have the least amount of reflections and ambient sound. The recorded talking should be as clear and intimate as possible.
If you want the reflections resp. room sound to be included, let's say you are shooting in a cave and want that special sound reflection to be attached to the voices, you might consider a microphone position that captures more of the room sound. However I'd rather recommend you to record the voice as clean as possible and apply some reverb or delay fx later on during the post production.
With any decent fx plug in on your workstation you will get considerable better results, plus you'll have the flexibility of trying out different types of reverb.






07. Adding a narrators voice


Often you may want, or the script demands a narrators voice. By the way it is a very common approach with trailers or teasers.
Try to select the narrator carefully. Most of the times a narrator should have a clear and calm voice.
A male narrator should have a sonorous voice full and rich of sound. A female narrator should have a warm sweet voice, full and rich of sound either.
If ever possible, the narration should be recorded with a Large-diaphragm Microphone. This will give the voice a big and warm sound.






08. Panning of speech, music, and sound-FX


Music usually shall be mixed with enhanced stereo, emphasizing 60 to 180° and leaving most of the center angle up to 60° for speech.
Sound FX may use full spectrum of 180° but shall be carefully adjusted (volume and EQ) to not interfere with speech and music.
Multichannel like 5.1 is more complicated but generally follows similar rules to get music, speech and sound-FX not to interfere each other.


TO BE CONTINUED