The Things I’ve Learned

Months ago, early one morning, when I couldn’t sleep, I jotted down a series of thoughts about what I had learned after 25 years in the business. I posted it as a series of Tweets, and people seemed to enjoy reading it. I thought without the constraints of X (stupid Elon Musk) I would repost here as a blog post where I could expand on a few thoughts. These are in no particular order.

Things that I Have Learned after 25 years in the Sound Business

Editing is what you do AFTER Assembling. You cannot edit something that doesn’t exist. Editing is the process of refinement and is crucial to the process. Many people stop after assembling, not realizing that it is only then that the REAL work is about to begin.

I’ve always found ‘Editing’ to be a strange description of what we do. It took me a long time to understand that Editing is about refinement, not building. So many times, for lack of experience or lack of time, we get something built and never take the time to go back through it. And then again. And every time we take the time to refine something, we improve it. It was a hard lesson to learn that much of what I had done in my first pass was simply a stepping stone to get me to pass two or three, and much of that pass-one work could be abandoned.

The goal is to do the job at hand with the least amount of sound. Be concise. Too many tracks layer into mud. It’s about finding the right sound, not about track count. More tracks do not equal better sound. Usually, the opposite.

This is really an extension of the first observation. It’s often not until you can take the time to go into ‘refinement’ mode that you realize many of the original building blocks are in fact no longer needed, or wanted; that they only served a purpose to help you find other, better material. Before the final mix of Prince of Persia, the editor Ken Fischer and I muted about 60% of the material in the pre-dubs, knowing that when the music arrived, much of the detail we had prepared would be lost. Whether it was the right call to put that much music in the movie is for another discussion, but not once during the final did we have to unmute any of the regions we had muted. See the next observation for another example.

I originally cut about 70 tracks of rain for the Bree scene in Lord of the Rings. I had convinced myself that every one I added was ‘adding’ something. I was wrong. In the end, the mixer and I realized we needed about 6 of those tracks.

In one of the biggest learning moments in my career, I sat on the mix stage with Chris Boyes as we premixed the Bree scene for Fellowship of the Ring. I was in charge of cutting all the backgrounds for the movie, and in this rainy scene, I cut many tracks of rain. Chris made it work as we went through the first set of tracks, and the scene sounded good. Even in that pass, he was muting out things that just weren’t needed. In the second pre-dub, he asked, “So what’s next?” to which I replied… ‘More rain’.

My heart sank when we got to the NEXT pre-dub pass, and I had to explain that there was yet MORE rain to mix. We probably mixed that scene with 10 to 12 tracks of the 70 or more I had prepared. It was the first big wake-up call to ‘edit’ my work, to figure out what is essential in the tracks, and pare it down to that. The right sounds were in there; they were just hidden amongst many tracks that were no longer doing anything, and those tracks should have been removed or at least muted before we arrived at the mix.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.” Your job is not done until you remove every sound you can. The goal is to keep only that which is essential.

This is my favorite quote of all time about the creative process. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, wrote it. It has become one of my strongest core beliefs that the best art is done with the least amount of material. It’s just that FINDING the right material often necessitates a long and arduous journey.

Do not become attached to the sounds. Nothing is precious. If you can mute something and not hear any difference, not only should you mute that sound, but you should also remove it from the tracks.

If we know that the goal is to do the most amount of work with the least amount of sounds, to find the essential sounds, then we must be brutal in dealing with material that no longer serves us. One strategy is to create a series of X-Tracks at the bottom of your session. If you are on the fence, move material there and hide it. But there should be a pass in every edit where you attempt to mute something on the track while everything is playing. If muting that sound doesn’t make an audible difference, that piece probably doesn’t belong there.

You will rarely find the exact sound you want. You will likely have to build it from at least a few pieces. Learn to dissect the sound you hear, and search for the parts. The low end, the attack, the decay.

For some, this comes naturally, and for others, it’s quite difficult. I always could mentally break apart sounds and go searching for the pieces. I think this is a skill worth building. If you wanted to build a complex explosion, you’re unlikely to find exactly what you want in one sound. You must find the attack, the bass, the debris, perhaps something stylized. While you are creating a single sound moment in the film or project, it will likely be built up from many component pieces. If you are auditioning sounds and you think, ‘That sound isn’t bright enough’, instead of giving up on that sound, think, ‘That fulfills PART of what I need the sound to do,’ and then find that brightness. Layering is your friend.

Plugins are often not your friend. Over-processing is rampant these days. I use plugins almost always as a last resort, not step one. Finding the right sound(s) and simple manipulation and editing tools should get you 90% of the way there.

The proliferation of good and affordable plugins is a great thing. But it has led, I feel, to an overuse of plugin processing, not only in design but even in mixing. I see mix templates with all ten inserts on tracks with live plugins. In my opinion, nothing good can come of that much processing on the sound. Plugins are useful tools; some are very necessary. But ‘plugin stacking,’ where you add a series of plugins, sometimes seemingly randomly, is not only likely to lead to a lifeless sound, it means you won’t even understand and, therefore, have control over the processing you’re trying to achieve.

You need only to learn and master a handful of plugins. An EQ, a compressor, a reverb. Pick one and master it. You do not need 12 different compressors and 15 EQs. One good one will suffice.

You need only a handful of plugins to do great work, and it’s important that you pick one in each of the following classes and then master it. Truly learn that plugin inside and out. You need one good EQ, Compressor, Reverb, Limiter, and Gate. And if you do a lot of sound effects mastering, perhaps a Multi-Band Mastering plugin. And probably these days, a good Noise Reduction plugin. Of course, there will be specific processing plugins and creative plugins that you will want, but at the core, I do believe that those five plugins are all you need to get started.

Noise reduction, Izotope, all of these tools can do wonders, but it’s very easy to overuse them and suck the life out of a sound. Use them just enough to achieve what you want, then back off a little. Once the backgrounds are in, it will mask many things you are trying to remove.

Modern noise reduction tools are amazing. We now have tools to remove reverb, nearly any noise, hum, or wanted sound. New AI tools expand this even further. And yet, these tools can often be overused, resulting in a sound lacking depth and richness. I often hear the same with sound effects. To remove all the noise is often to remove the ‘space’ around the sound. And often, the space around a sound makes that sound interesting. In a recent podcast I recorded with Ben Burtt, we both recognized that the space you record something in as often as important as the sound itself. It’s easy to kill that ‘space’ with modern corrective plugins.

Editing and Mixing are two halves of the same coin. A good editor always mixes, and a good mixer is always editing. While the toolset might differ slightly, these are not two distinct jobs.

The unification of the Oscar Sound Awards upset many sound people, but I will argue that it was good for the Sound Community and the ‘right’ thing to do. So much mixing now occurs during the editing process that the lines are increasingly blurred. This doesn’t mean mixing isn’t a distinct skill; a great mixer will still take the source material and hopefully turn it into something special, but on a practical level, with many mixes now happening ‘in the box’ by the time we bring tracks to the stage, much ‘mixing’ has already happened. More importantly, what I mean by my statement is that the editing and mixing processes shouldn’t be considered distinct phases but two parts of the same refinement and combined effort that results in the soundtrack.

The lack of sound is often more powerful than the existence of sound.

This one seems very basic, yet it’s amazing how adverse many of us are to silence or even quiet. I see many films where I think, ‘Give my ears a break already! We seem afraid of quiet, yet quiet is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal.

Adding a sound to remove it later for dramatic effect is a powerful tool. It can raise tension, focus attention, and enhance suspense. Have some background activity going on and slowly remove tension to heighten tension.

Knowing the goal of arriving at silence, or quiet, one useful trick is to artificially add or increase a sound to give yourself somewhere to go. A simple example might be a tense scene exterior, two people deep in conversation that builds tension. You might introduce sonic elements into the backgrounds to slowly pull them out. Of course, the opposite is true; perhaps you build up the crickets increasingly into a nearly deafening chorus in a heated argument. This can work both ways. But the key point here is that ‘change over time’ in either direction is power.

The mind is amazing at removing static sounds. Even simple room tones and airs tend to work better with some movement in them. I believe the mind notices ‘changes’ in sound, not sound itself. Use this to your advantage.

Building off the previous observation, change is what the ear notices. There are times when static air is fine in a scene. But I much prefer movement, either in mixing or even in editing. Often, I’ll do long fades between different regions in the backgrounds, slowly moving between different pieces. This works especially well in winds, traffic, and insects. Create ‘waves’ of changing sound to bring life into your ambiance.

The power of film music is all about how it starts and ends. These are the powerful moments. When you cover your film wall to wall in music, the power of your music will be lost.

The same thing applies to music. If you plaster your movie with nonstop music, the brain will slowly filter it out. You’ll stop paying attention to it, and it just becomes fill. I see SO many movies today with 75%, 80%, 85% of the movie scored. This is a nightmare. It never achieves what the director wants in my opinion. It is how a cue enters and resolves that often has so much of the power and emotion of the moment. In the film Castaway, we open with nearly 40 minutes or more with no score. When the main character finally gets off the island and sees it from a distance for the first time, we get our first piece of music, and the absence of music until that point makes the cue a powerful statement.

If you are a composer, learn to score AROUND the sound effects, around the action. We have no choice but to hit sync; you do not, and often should not.

Alan Silvestri is a masterful composer. One of the things I’ve often admired about his work is his ability to score ‘around’ the action. Knowing that sound effects have to hit ‘sync’, the best action scored must consider this and work WITH sound effects. There is an effect in music we call ‘Micky-Mousing’, a reference to the old cartoons where music often WAS the sound effect of a film. Every footstep, crash, and action was tied to a musical motif. We still tend to make movies this way. And I understand why. Early on, when the composer works in a vacuum, no sound effects are yet completed for the film; of course, the tendency is to mark those moments with music because it feels strange and wrong without them. But the composer and director must understand that sound is coming, and ideally, they should request bounces of our work when composing to know what and where we are hitting with sound effects.

There is no loud without quiet. Dynamics are your friend.

It is such a simple concept but seemingly ignored in so many modern films. I hear films that are just nonstop noisefests, no breaks, no attempt at carving out holes and ear breaks. If everything in your movie is loud, then nothing is loud. A loud jump scare moment only works if it comes out of a quiet preceding moment. Do not be afraid of quiet!

Dialog panning into the surrounds is, in general, a very bad idea, no matter what Alejandro Iniratu thinks 🙂

OK, I know this one will irk some, but dialog panning must be taken cautiously. This is less of a stylistic argument and more of a practical one. There is such variation in the listening environments of the audience that, to me, extreme dialog panning is just a risk. I remember seeing films such as Roma and The Revenant at home, in a very good home theater, but even there, as the dialog pans into the surround, most of it became inaudible to me. Maybe I’m just getting too old, and this type of dialog panning will become the norm in time. Call me a purist, but pan that dialog at your peril!

More sound channels do not inherently make a better soundtrack. Often the reverse. Atmos is great, but some of the greatest sound moments in film were done in mono.

Dolby Atmos’s arrival on the scene opened up a fascinating and powerful new tool. Yet some of the earliest attempts at using it were a bit ‘interesting.’ With all these new speakers in the toolset, I heard mixes that definitely used all the new speakers but often left me questioning ‘why’ they used them. I took part in one Atmos mix where the mixer, more or less, seemingly arbitrarily, places all the different musical instruments around the room, many in ‘object’ form. It certainly sounded ‘enveloping,’ but it also just sounded wrong. I remember the first playback of that reel. The director’s first question was, “Why are the drums coming from over my head?”

I think Atmos is amazing and used correctly, and, more importantly, ‘intentionally,’ it is a very powerful new tool. But if you’re going to use all those fancy new channels, you should know why.

The best sound moments are simple, not complex. They are about the ideas and then skillful execution.

This one is very simple. Less is more. Tell your story directly and with as few parts as necessary. The same applies to writing, to composing, and to sound. The scene before Al Pacino kills for the first time in The Godfather is the perfect example. It consists of one passing train and screeching wheels on the tracks. It perfectly sums up his mental state and creates palpable tension. That moment is about finding and implementing one sound. The famous director Tarkovsky had a theory of more or less one sound playing at a time. By modern standards, his films may seem sparse and empty, but they are also incredibly ‘focused’. The Mirror is an amazing example of focused sound design. Even in complex visual scenes, we may hear only one sound.

Great sound design is about awareness. Awareness of story, character, plot, theme, mood… Sound design is an Aware, Emotional, Dynamic, and Intentional use of sound to support the story.

You cannot fulfill your job if you are not paying attention to the film. You do not work in a vacuum; you work FOR the film. We all do. If the director has done their job correctly, the film will have a clear intention. A scene will have a clear intention. A shot will have a clear intention. Your work must have intention as well. And your work cannot have intention without being aware. The film will often tell you what it wants and what it needs. But you must constantly communicate with the director and the picture editor to understand what they are trying to do. Only in that way can you help them, and also help the film.

Great sound cannot save a mediocre film. You cannot fix it in post. You will never be able to fix it in post.

The old adage of ‘Fix it in Post’ is now so often tossed around as a joke, but of course, many filmmakers think that sound can save them from bad earlier decisions. It’s rarely the case. A film properly designed with, for, and around sound can be such an amazing experience, and it happens so rarely. Get involved with your project as early as you can. Read the script and offer notes of moments you can see that sound can or should be a major player. Suggest changes. If I sense the picture editor is receptive, I often offer picture change ideas if I feel it will help us use sound to achieve what we all want. In SOLO: A Star Wars Story, edited by the amazing Pietro Scalia, I gave several thoughts about picture changes that could elevate the film. Pietro is one of Hollywood’s most revered and powerful picture editors, but he was also very open to ideas and always made me feel welcome to have that open dialog.

There are as many creative opportunities for sound in documentaries, podcasts, and independent dramas as in big Hollywood features and AAA games. Sometimes more. Great sound transcends genre or industry.

I sometimes receive heartfelt letters asking me for work. They often come from overseas, from people who plead that they can never be fulfilled unless they can work at Skywalker Sound and work on the largest-budget movies in history. My heart sinks every time I get one. I have had an amazing series of luck finding myself in a position both to work at Skywalker and on some of those films. And yet, as I now look back over my career, it is always the smaller films, the more intimate ones, the documentaries that I am most fond and proud of. I would tell you that my best work was probably done in projects you likely haven’t seen.

Carry a recorder with you always, or have one close by and ready to go. You never know what amazing sound will present itself out of the blue. Record your own sounds. It is what will help you create your sound signature. Build a library and keep it well organized.

To be a sound designer, you must also become a sound recordist. I truly believe this. Recording will make you a better editor and a better designer. It will also help you achieve a ‘voice’ about your work that will stand out from everyone else just using the same commercial libraries. You can buy a good quality portable recorder for around $100 these days; there is no excuse except laziness not to gather your own material.

Show your work to others that you trust. Find people who will understand what YOU’RE trying to do and not just opine about what THEY would do. Learn to accept criticism as the ultimate gift. But always accept and give it with kindness.

I know this one can be hard. It’s hard for me. It hurts when you show something you created gets criticized or rejected. Yet this is how we learn. The key here is to find those who critique your work as ‘the work’ and not as some attempt to stoke their ego by telling you what you did ‘wrong.’ I almost always run the reels for all the sound effects editors together during the editing process. That process has sparked many good ideas.

It’s often much easier to see a solution to a problem in someone else’s work than in your own. We get blinded; we convince ourselves that something is working and, more dangerously, something is ‘perfect.’ You must get feedback. I’ve been doing this for almost 25 years, and I still love that pass of feedback that generates new and exciting ideas or makes me rethink something.

But fight for what you believe in, to a point. If you truly believe something in sound will improve the movie, stick up for it and present it to the director. Speak up when you know it’s coming from a place of bettering the film, and not when it’s clear it’s your ego.

Do not be afraid to make suggestions. Do not be afraid to be passionate. The best clients WANT that from you. They want your ideas, your experience, and your expertise. If they don’t, try and find new clients who do. I never feel afraid to fight for something I believe in. That does NOT mean I’m obstinate and whiny. But it means if I truly believe something is in the best service of the film, then that is my JOB to fight for that. But it’s also important to recognize when what you want to fight for may only be founded in your ego.

A good picture editor should be as open to hearing your ideas about making a picture edit as they expect you to be about making a sound edit. I have often gotten picture edits that help sound better help the film.

Noted in an earlier example, if you are a picture editor, listen to your sound team. Please be open to working together as much as you expect us to be when you have sound notes. If we ask for a 15-frame tail extension on a shot to help with a sound transition, hear us out; we often know what we’re talking about. Leaving our egos at the door is the best way to a conducive and creative collaboration.

A good composer should accept criticism like they dish it out. Music is not more precious than sound effects because it costs much more. Music is malleable. Music is mutable.

I have been involved in so many mixes where music became a problem. In almost all cases, there was way too much of it. Sometimes, during the mix, we would all decide to remove cues only to have the composer arrive for playback and fight to put them back in, seemingly only because the cues existed. There is often a mindset: ‘ Well, we recorded that cue, so it must be useful or needed.’ Films change during the writing, shooting, editing, and even mixing. The best composers, mixers and directors recognize that music is just one more soundtrack piece and must be treated with the same healthy irreverence as any other piece.

Check your ego at the door. It won’t suit you. The best experiences, the best mixes, are always achieved when everyone present understands that we all work in the service of the film, not our agendas, wants, or desires.

One of the hardest things we have to do in life, art, and business is to check our ego. I don’t profess to have mastered this. But I do try and recognize more and more before I give a note; is this note coming from my desire to make the film better, or from some wounded position or my ego? I have often cut sounds that I love, only to have them removed from the film. This is part of our jobs. To fight for them only based on ego does a disservice to our work.

Mix stages are very expensive editing rooms.

Prepare your tracks before the mix. Make decisions before the mix. I’ve heard stories of editors preparing 20 gunshots to leave it up to the mixer to ‘build’ the final gunshot during the mix. The argument is ‘We need to give them options.’. I disagree. To task the mixer with that burden is a waste of ‘mix’ time. If you want to prepare 20 gunshots at the ready in case your chosen one is rejected, fine. But present your best work, your chosen work. Make decisions before the mix that is part of your job.

Little Gold Statues are fleeting. Try not to get attached to them.

I know, I know. This one is pretty controversial. I abhor art awards. As a Finnish director told a colleague, “A film is not a racehorse.” I have more to say and have already started a long blog piece as we enter awards season. But art awards are no more than publicity and popularity contests. Take pride in the work itself.

Every person you meet has something to teach you. Never close yourself off to that idea.

Be open. I have been doing this for so long that I feel quite comfortable with my skills now. But more than anything, I still love learning new things. I’ll mix a film with a mixer I greatly respect in October. As much as mixing the film, I’m excited about a new collaboration and learning opportunity. Never close off your mind to new thoughts, ideas, and challenges.

Be content. There are always projects you will miss out on, places you’d rather be, and companies you’d rather work for. Stay focused on doing your best work wherever you are, in whatever industry. Enjoy the process and stop imagining rewards you think lie elsewhere.

To live in the moment is a wonderful thing. To ‘work’ at the moment as well. We will all be tasked with projects or roles we don’t want. I have worked on plenty of films I would never choose to see in a theater. None of us have the luxury of picking on passion projects. Yet, we must all approach these projects with the same level of professionalism that we approach the projects we love. This is often hard. Sometimes very, very hard. But you must try for your sanity and because it’s your job.

Take care of yourself in mind, body, and spirit. We don’t discuss the toll this industry will take in hours, stress, and mental health. Put yourself and your well-being first.

While teaching in Finland, I remember coming across a small machine near where you bus your dishes in a cafeteria. The machine had just four buttons where you could register your happiness level. “Happy or Not” is the machine, yes. We need to ask ourselves this question constantly. Often, we will not be, and it’s a good reminder to move our direction and focus in life toward that happiness we all seek. .

Take care of your co-workers. Stand up for what is right when someone is being mistreated. Notice when they are stressed, and a simple gesture of kindness can go a long way to help someone who is suffering.

This is a rough business. We work long hours. We work under a lot of stress, with tight deadlines and demanding and sometimes difficult clients, in an industry that often doesn’t seem to have our best interests in mind. We need to have each other’s backs. Be kind to yourself and be kind to others. When someone is exhausted, overworked, underpaid, or under-appreciated, step in if they can’t fight for what is right and say something.


1 Comment

  1. Really great stuff Tim. I will add this to my Resource library for my students.


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