A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 3

Sound design and the film mixing process

Walter Murch is not only known for his work and awards in the realm of picture editing, but he’s also made significant contributions to the art of film sound. That’s where we pick up in Part 3.

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Walter, let’s switch gears and talk about sound and your work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer. There’s an origin story about the term ‘sound designer’ credited to union issues. That might be a good place to start.

Frances [Ford Coppola] tells the story, but he gets it wrong. [laugh] There were union problems, because I was in the San Francisco union. Many of the films were financially based in LA, so what am I doing working on that? On The Rain People, for instance, my credit is sound montage. I wasn’t called sound mixer, re-recording mixer, or sound editor. We were just trying to avoid blatantly stepping on toes. I had the same sound montage credit on The Conversation. Then on Apocalypse Now I was credited with sound re-recording, because it was an independent film. Francis basically was the financier of it. So, it was an independent film, partially supported by United Artists.

The sound design idea came up because of this new format, which we now call 5.1. Apocalypse Now was the first time I had ever worked in that format. It was the first big film that really used it in a creative way. The Superman film in 1978 had it technically, but I don’t think they used it much in a creative fashion.

As I recall, at that time there was the four channel surround format that was left, center, right, and a mono rear channel.

Star Wars, which came out in 1977, had that format with the ‘baby boom’ thing. 70mm prior to that would have five speakers behind the screen – left, left-center, center, right-center, and right. What they decided to do on Star Wars was to not have the left-center/right-center speakers. Those were only used for super low frequency enhancement. Then the surround was many speakers, but all of them wired to only one channel of information.

Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now

We didn’t use those intermediate speakers at all and brought in Meyer ‘super boom’ speakers. These went down to 20Hz, much lower than the Altec speakers in those days, which I think bottomed out at around 50Hz. And then we split the mono surround speakers into two channels – left and right. Basically what we call 5.1 today. We didn’t call it 5.1, we just called it six-track or a split-surround format.

This was a new format, but how do you use it creatively? I couldn’t copy other films that had done it, because there weren’t any. So I designed an entire workflow system for the whole film. Where would we really use 5.1 and where would we not? That was a key thing – not to fall into the trap that usually happens with new technology, which is to overuse it. Where do we really want to have 5.1? In between that, let’s just use stereo and even some long sections where it’s just mono – when Willard is looking at the Kurtz dossier, for instance.

Willard’s narration section, if he’s in the focsle of the boat at night reading the memo, it’s just mono – it’s just his voice and that’s it. As things open up, approaching Hau Phat (the Playboy Bunny concert) it becomes stereo, and then as it really opens up, with the show beginning, it becomes full six-track, 5.1. Then it collapses back down to mono again the next morning. That’s the design element. So I thought, that’s the unique job that I did on the film – sound design – designing where we would fully use this new format and how we would use it.

Mark Berger, Francis Ford Coppola, and Walter Murch mixing The Godfather Part II

In addition, of course, I’d cut some of the sound effects, but not anywhere near most of them, because we had a small army of sound effects editors working under Sound Effects Supervisor Richard Cirincione. However, I was the main person responsible. Francis at one point had a meeting and he said, “Any questions about sound? Walter’s the guy. Don’t ask me, ask Walter.” So I effectively became the director of sound. And then, of course, I was the lead re-recording mixer on the film.

Some readers might not be familiar with how film mixing works and why there are teams. Please go into that more.

Previously, in Hollywood, there would usually be three people – DME sitting at the board. That is how The Godfather was mixed. If you are facing the screen behind the console, then D [dialogue mixer] on the left, M [music mixer] in the middle and E [sound effects mixer] on the right. On the other hand, in San Francisco I had been the solo re-recording mixer on Rain People, THX-1138, and The Conversation. 

Walter Murch handling the music mix, Particle Fever

As soon as you have automation you don’t need as many people, because the automation provides extra fingers. We had very basic automation on Apocalypse Now. Only the faders were automated, but none of the equalization, sends, echo, reverb, or anything else. So we had to keep lots of notes about settings. The automation did at least control the levels of each of the faders.

Of course, these days a single person can mix large projects completely ‘in the box’ using mainly a DAW. I would imagine mixing for music and mixing for film and television is going to use many of the same tools.

The big difference is that in the old days – and I’m thinking of The Godfather – we had very limited ability with the edited soundtracks to hear them together before we got to the mix. You had no way to set their levels relative to each other until you got to the mix. So the mix was really the creation of this from the ground up.

Supervising the mix, Coup 53

Thinking of the way I work now or the way Skip Lievsay works with the Coen brothers, he will create the sound for a section in Pro Tools and build it up. Then he’ll send the brothers a five-track or a three-track and they just bring it into the audio tracks of the Premiere timeline. So they’re editing the film with his full soundtrack. There are no surprises in the final mix. You don’t have to create anything. The final mix is when you hear it all together and put ‘holy water’ on it and say, that’s it – or not. Now that you’ve slept on it overnight, let’s reduce the the bells of the cows by 3dB. You make little changes, but it’s not this full-on assault of everything. As I said earlier, bareback – where it’s just taking the raw elements and putting them together for the first time in the mix. The final mix now is largely a certification of things that you have already been very familiar with for some time.

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Click here for the conclusion of this conversation in Part 4.

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 1

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 2

©2023 Oliver Peters

Audio Plug-ins for the Holidays

You wanted to spruce up your audio toolkit, but already blew the budget on presents for the family and friends. Fear not, because here’s another list of free (or close to it) audio plug-ins that are worth getting excited about. Last year I wrote about excellent free tools from TBProAudio and Tokyo Dawn Records/Labs. These are still worth checking out and I use some of these on nearly every mix. However, since that post, I’ve run into a few more that are worth highlighting.

Focusrite Hitmaker Expansion bundle

OK, this first selection isn’t technically free on its own. It comes as a bonus offering if you purchased a Focusrite Scarlett, Clarett, or Red interface after Oct. 1, 2022. I don’t know whether the details will change or if this offer is time-sensitive. Nevertheless, if you need an audio interface, then it’s worth checking these out. (I personally use the Scarlett 2i2 interface with several different workstations.) This bundle includes some “free” plug-ins, some instrument packs, and some extended trials for subscription services. My personal favorite in this group is the Focusrite RED 2 & 3 Plug-in Suite.

Analog Obsession

If you want that vintage sound across a wide range of plug-in types, then Analog Obsession offers some of the best, regardless of price. These are free, however, a Patreon subscription is recommended, mainly to help further the development effort. New products are routinely added. These are AU/VST/VST3 plug-ins, but now AAX is also being added, starting with the newest Comper plug-in. The developer plans to make all of his existing plug-ins compatible with Pro Tools in soon-to-come updates.

There are two things I really find attractive about these tools. First, the developer builds in unique features that not even the most expensive competitors offer. For example, Comper is really two compressors, which can be used in series. Each offers VCA, FET, and Opto modeling that can be switched or blended. (Tip – on most Analog Obsession tools, click on the logo – it turns red – to enable oversampling.)

Second, there is no need for some separate licensing application. This is often the case with other companies, even when the plug-ins are free. You can quickly end up with half a dozen different licensing applications on your system, simply to manage a variety of plug-ins.

iZotope

Many other companies often include a handful of free plug-ins within their otherwise paid portfolio. You have to look, but they are out there. For instance, iZotope, which is known for RX, Ozone, and other high-end sets, also offers a few freebees. These include Vinyl, Ozone Imager, and Vocal Doubler. Vinyl is designed to purposefully degrade your mix with analog artifacts, like scratches, dust, warping, and more. The Stereo Imager module is part of Ozone, but is also offered for free as a separate plug-in. As the name implies, Vocal Doubler is there to enhance vocal recordings with a doubling effect.

KiiveAudio

Amongst Kiive’s range of plug-ins is the free Warmy EP1A Tube EQ. This is a 3-band equalizer modeled in a vintage fashion. The classic difference is that the low end has both a boost and an attenuation (cut) control. The allows you to simultaneously boost and cut low frequencies at slightly different points, enabling a punchier bottom end.

Klanghelm

Manley Labs introduced its legendary Variable Mu® Limiter-Compressor in 1994, which remains an analog mastering standard to this day. Klanghelm’s MJUC is a tip-of-the-hat to this hardware. But sticking with our free theme, you can also get the simplified MJUC jr. version. It’s designed as a master bus compressor for smooth leveling without pumping effects. Klanghelm offers two other freeware products: IVGI and DC1A. The first is designed for saturation and distortion. The latter is a compressor to use if you want a bit of analog color to your sound.

Klevgrand

I pointed out Klevgrand’s excellent noise reduction filter, Brusfri, in last year’s holiday post. However, Klevgrand also features a free plug-in tucked away on their site. FreeAmp is a free, stripped down version of their REAMP filter. Both are designed to model different instrument amps. FreeAMP combines all the profiles into a single universal profile so you can quickly dial in a desired amount of overdrive saturation.

Sonimus

Like Kiive, Sonimus offers a single free, vintage-style equalizer, the Sonimus SonEQ Free. It features similar controls to Warmy; however, with even a few more tricks. Given the two, I’d opt for SonEQ. An added benefit is the detailed manual from Sonimus, which spells out exactly how each control alters the sound.

VahallaDSP

Valhalla is one of the most-respected reverb/echo software developers. SuperMassive is their free plug-in for delays and reverbs. As the name implies, you can go from standard ambiences all the way up to very large and spacey effects.

So that’s a short list of free audio plug-ins that are great additions to your toolkit. Regardless of whether you mix music or cut videos, be sure to check out and see how these might enhance your workflow.

©2022 Oliver Peters

NLE Tips – Audio Track FX

I’ve written quite a few blog posts and articles about audio mixing methods in Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro. But over time, methods evolve, change, or become more streamlined, so it’s time to revisit the subject. When you boil down most commercials and short-subject videos (excluding trailers), the essence of the soundtrack is just voice against a music bed with some sound effects. While I’ll be the first to say you’ll get the best results sending even a simple mix to a professional mixer, often budget and timeframe don’t allow for that. And so, like most editors, I do a lot of my own mixes.

My approach to these mixes is straightforward and rather systematic. I’m going to use Premiere Pro examples, but track-based mixing techniques can be universally applied to all NLEs. Even FCP works with track-based mixing if you properly use its audio roles function. I will almost never apply audio effects at the individual clip level, unless it something special, like simulated phone call voice processing.

All dialogue clips usually end up on A1 with crossfades between to smooth the edits. Add room tone between for consistency. This also helps the processing of the track effects, especially noise reduction. If I have more than one voice or character, then each goes onto a separate track. I will use clip volume adjustments in order to get the track to sound even across the length of the video. With this done, it’s time to move to the track mixer.

In this example from a recent product video, the reviewer’s voice is on A1. There’s a motor start-up sound that I’ve isolated and placed on A2. Music is on A3 and then the master mix bus. These audio plug-in effects are the ones I use on almost every video in a pretty systematic fashion. I have a nice collection of paid and free, third-party audio plug-ins, but I often stick to only the stock effects that come with a given NLE. That’s because I frequently work with other editors on the same project and I know that if I stick with the standard effects, then they won’t have any compatibility issues due to missing plug-ins. The best stock plug-in set can be found in Logic Pro and many of those are available in FCP. However, the stock audio effects available in Premiere are solid options for most projects.

Audio track 1 – Dialogue – Step 1 – noise reduction. Regardless of how clean the mic recording is, I will apply noise reduction to nearly every voice track recorded on location. My default is the light noise reduction preset, where I normally tweak only the percentage. If you have a really noisy recording, I suggest using Audition first (if you are a Creative Cloud subscriber). It includes several noise reduction routines and a spectral repair function. Process the audio, bounce out an export, and bring the cleaned-up track into your timeline. However, that’s going to be the exception. The new dialogue isolation feature in Resolve 18.1 (and later) as well as iZotope RX are also good options.

Step 2 – equalization. I apply a parametric EQ effect after the noise reduction stage. This is just to brighten the voice and cut any unnecessary low end. Adobe’s voice enhancer preset is fine for most male and female voices. EQ is very subjective, so feel free to tweak the settings to taste.

Step 3 – compressor. I prefer the tube-modeled compressor set to the voice leveling preset for this first compression stage. This squashes any of the loudest points. I typically adjust the threshold level. You can also use this filter to boost the gain of the voice as you see in the screenshot. You really need to listen to how the audio sounds and work interactively. Play this compressor off against the audio levels of the clip itself. Don’t just squash peaks using the filter. Duck any really loud sections and/or boost low areas within the clip for an even sound without it becoming overly compressed.

Audio track 2 – Sound FX – Step 1 – equalization. Many of my videos are just voice and music, but in this case, the reviewer powers up a boat motor and cruises off at the end of the piece. I wanted to emphasis the motor rumble, so I split that part of the clip’s audio and moved it down to A2. This let me apply different effects than the A1 track effects. Since I wanted a lot of bottom end, I used parametric EQ at full reset and boosted the low end to really get a roaring sound.

Step 2 – compressor. I once again applied the tube-modeled compressor in order to keep the level tame with the boosted EQ settings.

Audio track 3 – Music – Step 1 – equalization. Production music helps set the mood and provides a bed under the voice. But you don’t want it to compete. Before applying any effects, get the volume down to an acceptable level and adjust any really loud or quiet parts in the track. Then, apply a parametric equalizer in the track mixer panel. Pull down the level of the midrange in the frequencies closest to the voice. I will also adjust the Q (range and tightness of the bell curve at that frequency). In addition, I often boost the low and high ends. In this example, the track included a bright hi-hat, which I felt was a bit distracting. And so in this example, I also pulled down some of the high end.

Step 2 – stereo expander. This step is optional, but it helps many mixes. The stereo expander effect pushes the stereo image out to the left and right, leaving more of the center open for voice. However, don’t get carried away, because stereo expander plug-ins also alter the phase of the track. This can potentially throw some of the music out of phase when listened to in mono, which could cause your project to be rejected. If you are mixing for the web, then this is less of an issue, since most modern computers, tablets, smart phones, not to mention ear buds, etc are all set up for stereo. However, if you mix is for broadcast, then be sure to check your mix for proper phase correlation.

Mix bus – Step 1 – multi-band compression. The mix bus (aka master bus or output bus) is your chance to “glue” the mix together. There are different approaches, but for these types of projects, I like to use Adobe’s multi-band compressor set to the classical master preset. I adjust the threshold of the first three bands to -20 and a compression ratio of 4 across the board. This lightly knocks down any overshoots without being heavy-handed. The frequency ranges usually don’t need to be adjusted. Altering the output gain drives the volume hitting the limiter in the next step. You may of may not need to adjust this depending on your target level for the whole mix.

Step 2 – hard limiter. The limiter is the last plug-in that controls output volume. This is your control to absolutely stay below a certain level. I use the -3 or -6 preset (depending on the loudness level I’m trying achieve) and reduce the input boost back to 0. I also change it to read true peaks instead of only peak levels. 

Step 3 – loudness meter. The loudness meter keeps you honest. Don’t just go by the NLE’s default audio meters. If you have been mixing to a level of just below 0 on those, then frankly you are mixing the wrong way for this type of content. Really loud mixes close to 0 are fine for music production, but not OK for any video project.

The first step is to find out the target deliverable and use the preset for that. There are different presets for broadcast loudness standards versus web streaming, like YouTube. These presets don’t change the readout of the numbers, though. They change the color indicators slightly. Learn what those mean. 

Broadcast typically requires integrated loudness to be in the -23 to -24 area, whereas YouTube uses -14. I aim for a true peak target of -3 or -6. This tracks with the NLE audio meters at levels peaking in the -9 to -6 range. Adjusting the gain levels of the multi-band compressor and/or limiter help you get to those target levels.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Sonible smart:comp 2

Audio software plug-ins (effects and filters) come in two forms. On one hand, you have a wide range of products that emulate vintage analog hardware, often showcasing a skeuomorphic interface design. If you know how the original hardware version worked and sounded, then that will inform your expectations for the software equivalent. The other approach is to eschew the sonic and visual approach of analog emulation and build a plug-in with a modern look and sound. Increasingly this second group of plug-ins employ intelligent profiles and “assistants” to analyze your track and provide you with automatic settings that form a good starting point.

Austria has a long and proud musical history and heritage of developing leading audio products. There are many high-end Austrian audio manufacturers. One of those companies is Sonible, which develops both hardware and software products. The Sonible software falls into that second camp of plug-ins, with clean sonic qualities and a modern interface design. Of key interest is the “smart:” category, including smart:comp 2, smart:limit, smart:EQ 3, smart:reverb, and smart:EQ live. The first four of these are also available as the smart:bundle.

Taking a spin with Sonible’s spectro-dynamic compressor

I tested out smart:comp 2, which is billed as a spectro-dynamic compressor. It’s compatible with Windows and macOS and installs AU, VST, VST3, and AAX (Avid) versions. Licensing uses an iLok or is registered to your computer (up to two computers at a time). Let’s start with why these are “smart.” In a similar fashion to iZotope’s Ozone and others, smart:comp 2 can automatically analyze your track and assign compressor settings based on different profiles. The settings may be perfect out of the gate or form a starting point for additional adjustments. Of course, you can also just start by making manual adjustments.

Spectro-dynamic is a bit of a marketing term, but in essence, smart:comp 2 works like a highly sophisticated multiband compressor. The compression ranges are based on the sonic spectrum of the track. Instead of the four basic bands of most multiband compressors, smart:comp 2 carves up the signal into 2,000 slices to which compression is dynamically applied. As a compressor, this plug-in is equally useful on individual tracks or on the full mix as a mastering plug-in.

In addition, I would characterize the interface design as “discoverable.” When you first open the plug-in, you see a clean user interface with simple adjustments for level and ratio. However, you can click certain disclosure triangles to open other parts of the interface, such as control of attack and release timing, as well as side-chain filtering. There are three unique sound shaping controls at the bottom. Style controls the character of the compressor between “clean” (transparent) and “dirty” (warm and punchy). The Spectral Compression control dials in the amount of spectral (multiband) compression being applied. At zero, smart:comp 2 will act as an ordinary broadband compressor. The Color control lets you emphasis “darker” or “brighter” ranges within the spectral compression.

Simple, yet powerful functions

Start by selecting a profile (or leave on “Universal”). Play a louder section of your mix and let smart:comp 2 “learn” the track. Once learning is done and a profile established, you may be done. Or you may want to make further adjustments to taste. For example, the plug-in features automatic input riding along with automatic output (make-up gain). I found that for my mixes, input riding worked well, but I preferred a fixed output gain, which can be set manually.

There’s a “limit” function, which is always set to 0dBFS. When enabled, the limit option becomes a soft clipper. All peaks exceeding 0dBFS will be tamed to avoid hard clipping. It’s like a smooth limiter set to 0dBFS after the compression stage. However, if your intended use is broadcast production, rather than music mixes, you may still need to add a separate limiter plug-in (such as Sonible’s smart:limit) in the mastering chain after smart:comp 2. Especially if your target is lower, such as true peaks at -3dB or -6dB.

smart:comp2 did a wonderful job as a master bus compressor on my music mixes. I tested it against other built-in and third-party compressors within Logic Pro and DaVinci Resolve Fairlight. First, smart:comp 2 is very clean when you press it hard. There’s always a pleasing sound. However, the biggest characteristic is that the mixes sound more open with better clarity.

smart:comp 2 for mixing video projects

I’m a video editor and most of my mixes are more basic than multitrack music mixes with large track counts. Just a few dialogue, music, and sound effects tracks and that’s it. So the next test was applying smart:comp 2 on Premiere Pro’s mix bus. When I originally mixed this particular project, I used Adobe’s built-in tube-modeled compression on the dialogue tracks and then Adobe’s  multiband compressor and limiter of the mix buss. For this test, I stripped all of those out and only added smart:comp 2 to the mix output buss.

I noticed the same openness as in the music mixes, but input riding was even more evident. My sequence started with a 15 second musical lead-in. Then the music ducks under the dialogue as the presenter appears. I had mixed this level change manually for a good-sounding balance. When I applied smart:comp 2, I noticed that the opening music was louder than with the plug-in bypassed. Yet, this automatic loudness level change felt right and the transition to the ducked music was properly handled by smart:comp 2. Although the unprocessed mix initially sounded fine to me, I would have to say that using smart:comp 2 made it a better-sounding mix overall. It was also better than when I used the built-in options.

How you use plug-ins is a matter of taste and talent. Some pros may look at automatic functions as some sort of cheat. I think that’s wrong. Software analysis can give you a good starting point in less time, allowing more time for creativity. You aren’t getting bogged down twirling knobs. That’s a good thing. I realize vintage plug-ins often look cool, but if you don’t know the result you’ll get, they can be a waste of time and money. This is where plug-ins like the smart: series from Sonible will enhance to your daily mixing workflow, regardless of whether you are a seasoned recording engineer or a video editor.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Audio Design Desk

The concept of the digital audio workstation stems from a near-century-old combination of a recording system and a mixing desk. Nearly every modern DAW is still built around that methodology. Gabriel Cowan, CEO and co-founder of Audio Design Desk, sought to modernize the approach with a DAW focused on sound design, using the power of metadata for workflow efficiency. The application was launched a couple of years ago and has since won several trade show awards for innovation, including a Product of the Year Award for audio just last week at the 2022 NAB Show.

Every video editor knows that a kicking sound track can often elevate an otherwise lackluster video. Audio Design Desk is intended to do just that, regardless of whether you are an editor, musician, or sound designer. The application is currently a Mac-only product that supports both Intel and M1 Macs natively. It breaks down into sound design (synthetic sounds, like whooshes, drones, hits, and risers), foley (real world sound effects), ambiences, and music.

Click here to continue this article at Pro Video Coalition.

©2022 Oliver Peters