Sound Is Half Your Film
You know it: Sound is literally half of your film. It’s important, but the foundational theory of documentary sound design is a completely different discipline than cinematography, editing, or even music mastering. It is a world of its own. I have always only been a sound engineer, and having worked in that capacity both on set and off with great producers and cinematographers over the last decade. I can surely say that their craft is a world apart from my mine. That we can come together and combine are respective masteries for a common goal is a true gift, and I’m honoured to call my contribution a career.
Through that career I have nestled myself enjoyably in the unscripted post-production realm of documentary, and commercial advertising because it is these kinds of visual stories I find most interesting, meaningful, and fun; and because they have allowed me to hone in on a system. I love systems. There is a unique set of theory and skill that film releases require, and I’ve developed that standard into a system that is readily deployable for documentary style projects that are narrated by various interviewees, supported by music, and peppered with subtle foley or engaging SFX. A system that optimizes for both professional quality and turnaround efficiency. It’s thanks to that system, and this type of project focus that I can keep my overhead low and team small – resulting in very reasonable pricing and flexible availability for my clients.
But enough about me, let’s talk about what’s inside that system for you…
The Sound of Your Voices, Balanced in Relation To Each Other
The most primary task I conduct as a documentary sound designer is to ensure that the speech telling your story is clear, concise, and within the right target window that distribution mediums require. This window sets the relative level of your music and SFX as well, so understanding this window and how to shape a voice within-it is paramount to the entire balance of your film.
Since documentary narratives are often recorded in various locations with tight timeframes from non-actors, there is no ADR escape route. We work with what we have, and this is partly why i love it. Thanks to some brilliant engineers, we have cutting edge software that can enhance the signal you want and remove the signal you don’t, bringing your narrators more forward and present so their contribution to your message can be heard. Now, it is not always possible to fix poorly recorded audio, and sometimes it feels more natural to just leave some of the location-character in. Knowing how far to go is a skill I’ve honed over more than a decade, and my promise to you is that if it’s possible to fix without diminishing returns, I can – and will – do it. Sometimes the process feels like pure sorcery. I suppose in some sense, it is.
Just like with colouring, having a calibrated system and special analytical plug-ins are key to balancing your various voices in a correct and sequenced manner. These tools don’t come with DaVinci, Premier, or Final Cut Pro. So if you’re doing your best but scratching your head, unsure if what you’re hearing is in the right target standard – my tools and I are here to help.
Enhancing the Visual Elements with Sound Effects
Another important aspect of my approach is custom sound design and foley for documentary B roll. Incorporating subtle sound effects over scenes can really help them pop out of the screen, enhancing the visual elements of your documentary, and your viewer’s experience. Sound effects can help bring the viewer into the scene and make them feel like they are experiencing the events first-hand. Foley artistry can also be used to create additional sound effects that add to the realism of your documentary. By carefully selecting and placing sound effects throughout the documentary, we create a more immersive experience for your viewer. On average I’d say about 70% of sounds in a documentary are sourced from my personal licensed archives, while 30% are made from scratch with synthesizers and samplers. All are always tailored with some sort of EQ, compression, or FX to help them match the depth of the scene correctly – It is incredibly fun.
CHECK IT OUT
DOCUMENARY EXCERPT FROM THE ARCHIVE
This is a documentary about weight cutting in mma fighting leagues. Our excerpt here showcases a sonic blend of vocal balance, music, and custom Foley SFX for punches, kicks, grapples, and a thrilling look into the mind of a fighter.
The Emotional Impact of Musical Scoring
As you well know, music is absolutely essential for the pacing of edits. Typically, music scoring is something I bring in partners for if it is needed. Most often when I receive a project it is already at picture-lock, and the editor and client have signed off on how the stock or composed music tells the story alongside the narrative. What I do is re-mix the music to create more space for other elements, and polish the in and out cues to help the scenes flow together more seamlessly.
Composing and mixing/mastering are actually different skillsets. If you hire one person who says they do both, you’re likely getting a B-rate version of both So without getting into the weeds about it, I like to be upfront that I am a sound designer and mastering engineer who is connected with and collaborates with skilled composers when that special touch is desired. So don’t be shy to ask if you want to offload the music supervision of your project to help with the editing process. We can source stock music examples to help the editing phase, and create custom cues as desired, with easy collaboration in Frame.io
Ensuring Everything Works Together For Your Distribution Channel
Peaks, and LUFS, and RMS! Oh My! Have you looked at the audio portion of a spec sheet from a streaming service or festival and started squinting? Yeah…it’s a different language. Thankfully, I speak that language! We can produce various outputs as needed to ensure your work stands up amongst its peers wherever it’s going. Thanks to modern automated levelling algorithms, the restrictions on target levels aren’t as narrow as they once were – but it’s still important to know what they are because if you’re too loud near the end of your film, the quieter parts up front are going to be more quiet than you intend on final delivery, and nothing is more annoying for a viewer than having to adjust their own volume all the time!
Optional 5.1 Surround Mixing
I also offer 5.1 up-mixing when it is required for a particular theatre or streaming platform. Often times you hear people say “down-mixing” – but that’s when we start from 5.1 first principles. Most often, documentaries are going where stereo delivery is paramount first and can easily be translated upward if needed. That said, we can start from 5.1 too! These are all great considerations for our initial conversation.
You Receive The Stems For Future Repurposing
Sometimes we have to make tiny edits after completion, or in the future we want to use a piece of the film in a reel but only need the Voice and SFX layers. I get it. I’m always here to make the edits as needed, but I also like to provide you with the stems to keep on-file so you can quickly make any adjustments you might need to at a later date. Freedom and flexibility are strong values of mine, and given the oft’ crazy time limitations in our industry it’s nice to inject flexibility into the talent chain when we can.
Flat Rate Pricing
One thing repeatable systems are fantastic for is predictable pricing. For long format documentary material beyond 10-minutes you can expect the all-inclusive master to cost around $120 per minute in edit length, with flexibility and discounts available as we get into feature-length territory. Up front budgeting is easiest on everyone. Please don’t be shy to reach out if you’re working with a tighter budget, sometimes it’s possible to offer special packages of particularly important services if you can’t afford the whole enchilada. Flexibility is one of the benefits of being independent!
Curious About Anything Else?
Send me an email or a text at your leisure. I’d love to hear about what you’re working on, and I’m always happy to chat about the possibilities – with or without a contract.