Sounding Off

There has been quite a lot of controversy about sound of late. Audiences of the BBC’s Jamaica Inn complained of poor audio quality: the actors were mumbling and the dialogue was lost under music and sound effects, they complained. More recently the Beeb have come under attack for the same kind of problems with their retro crime series, Quirke.  When I saw the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis at a London cinema (who should have known better), the sound delivery system was wrongly set up, rendering most of the dialogue inaudible (there was nothing wrong with the Coen brothers’ sound mix because I checked it on the DVD). So sound, and the skills surrounding it, are mostly forgotten or ignored until something goes wrong. Soundmen have long accepted that they are the second-class citizens of the crew compared with their more glamorous counterparts in the camera department.

Many of you will know I am of a certain age – an age before the luxury of digital. After leaving The Royal College of Art film school I was apprenticed to some film editors in Westbourne Grove where I slaved over sixteen-millimetre film bins and brown magnetic sound stock of the same gauge. I also made tea and coffee and answered the phone expertly.  After seven years of art education I felt I had reached my true metier, dear reader.

We edited films on the trusty Picsync, a Moviola and a Steenbeck. Both picture and sound were cut and joined using heavy-duty film joiners with specialist Sellotape. The joiner had two blades; one made a straight cut for the picture down the edge of the frame, the other blade made a diagonal cut in the sixteen mm sound stock – magnetic sound signals are diagonal apparently. The joiners needed regular adjustment and cleaning with an evil-smelling solvent; my job as well. Syncing up the sound and picture to the clapperboard was also my job and the editors I worked for wanted it done quickly and accurately. The synced-up rushes would then be numbered so that the editor could keep track of the sync while hacking things up to make the story work.

Charles Davis’ 16mm Moviola, as photographed by Michael Proudfoot

As you might imagine dusty trims bins and constant re-cutting of the sound track made for a fairly inhospitable environment for the analogue sound signals embedded in the flimsy brown mag stock. In hot weather the glue from the tape would make its way onto the tracks and would have to be gently cleaned off with the evil smelling solvent. We quite often had to re-transfer sound from the original location-shot quarter-inch tapes.

When the cut had been approved and we had ‘picture lock’ the cutting room became a sound track-laying suite. The editor would spend the best part of a week (for a sixty-minuter) laying all the sound off onto separate tracks using the Picsync, which had a gang of four tracks so you could see and hear each different effect. In between each section of dialogue, effects or music, all on separate tracks, we laid in blue Mylar spacing.

At the end of the week we would arrive at the sound-mixing studio with at least six or seven film cans containing up to twelve tracks of sound the same length and in sync with the picture. Another one of my jobs was to produce a ‘dubbing chart’ – an A3 map of exactly what we had laid and where we had laid it – neatly labelled and coloured-in using crayons (I knew that art training would come in handy one day.) The dubbing mixer was another skilled person who was carefully recruited; one of the editors I worked with, Charles Davies reckoned there were only three really good mixers in the London area and he would wait until his top men became free to mix the films he edited. Charles edited our award winning documentary The Enigma of Nic Jones.

So this is a ramble and I’m sorry, but what I’m trying to say is; before digital, which revolutionised sound in terms of quality and what you can actually do with audio, we spent a huge amount of time getting sound right. What you could hear and how it sat in the mix was argued about, done and re-done again until it was as right as the brown stuff and sticky tape would allow us to get it. We always played tricky sections through the small TV-sized speakers on the desk rather than the huge studio quality speakers under the screen. If anyone was mumbling, then all sorts of EQ-ing and other measures were brought into play to make sure the audience could hear the mumbler. If it was drama then there was always the final straw of Foley where the artists could re-voice their dialogue completely.

Some editors are going to get upset with me now… I never became a film editor but I served an apprenticeship (a proper one not the reality TV thing). One of the disadvantages of the digital film future we all now live in is that certain aspects of craft training have been lost along the way. So now we have some really fantastic picture editors who don’t really understand sound or what the sound mixer will have to do when it comes to the very last (and possibly most important) moment in a film’s production. The sound mix is the last chance to polish the narrative and add other layers of experience to the story. It is also the last chance to sort out the problem of the mumbling actor or noisy background. More importantly, there is now a whole generation of producers and directors who have never experienced sound in film as another dimension as important as 4K Alexas, drones, Steadicams, 3D and so on.

Michael P

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