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Take One - Adding Sound Effects and Music

Sound Effects

We should now have all the shots edited together in the correct order. These will mostly retain the live sound, which was recorded on the shoot. Now we have to consider all the remaining missing elements which need to be added to combine together to produce the final soundtrack.

To begin with, we should consider any missing sound effects, which are needed to fill in any blank spaces. A typical omission could be the sound of a phone ringing.

Supposing that we have a scene where one of our actors responds to a telephone call. He walks to the phone, picks it up and begins a conversation with the caller. We have probably inter-cut this shot with the person at the other end of the telephone. What is usually missing is the sound of the phone ringing. Since the proliferation of mobile phones, usually you can expect an actor to suggest the novel idea of ringing the land-line phone for real from a mobile. Unfortunately, this will usually cause interference which will be picked up on the camera microphone, so adding the effect in post-production is a better idea.

Another example could be the sound of a car engine idling. For a scene in one of our films, Demons (1995) we had a scene where a man has pulled up in his car and is talking to a woman stood by the roadside. We tried to shoot the scene with the car engine idling whilst the conversation was going on, but we encountered two problems. The first was that there was a certain amount of interference from the engine, which was reproduced as a crackle on the sound. The second was that we were struggling to hear all of the dialogue above the engine noise. The solution was to turn the car engine off and record a clean dialogue track. I then used the camera to record the car engine running which would only be used as a sound wild-track. At the editing stage, the engine noise was mixed in and also reduced to a lower level to maintain clear audible speech. In such a way, you have the two elements of the sound separately and can then experiment to get the correct balance.

In addition to missing sounds, you may also want to add sounds, which will create atmosphere. In a thriller, this might be a dog barking in the distance, a creaking door or squeaky floorboard or the sound of a window breaking.

There are also occasions when the sound has to be manipulated for other reasons.

In 2004 we shot a film called End Game. This was largely shot out in the countryside and as luck would have it, it was a very windy day. This not only caused problems with shielding the microphone but also we had trees overhead which were full of rustling leaves. The effect was not constant as the wind came in gusts and therefore this had to be evened out on the computer. Some noise was reduced using the Adobe Audition programme and some noise was added to the quiet sections to smooth the track out.

As the plot included a sinister caller who was menacing the “hero” on his mobile phone, the sound was manipulated throughout the film. The telephone voice was recorded at home at a later date, using a mini disc recorder. The lines were spoken “on set” by production assistant Narelle Summers and these sections had to be removed and replaced with the voice of our actor, Richard Dipple, at the editing stage. Of course, not only did the gaps have to be adjusted as the two people involved spoke at a different rate, but also wind noise had to be overlaid behind Richard's voice.

I also made the decision that the voice would not be distorted. This was due to an idea I picked up from the professional film: “Phone Booth” which left the telephone voice undistorted. I suspected that it would be controversial with some of the competition judges and I was not wrong!


To some degree, our choice of music is a very personal decision. Naturally, the chosen piece should suit the genre and fit the mood of our film, but often there will be a number of alternatives, which would be appropriate for our movie, and individual taste will come into play. Some may prefer a light orchestral piece, others may go for Jazz or even electronic music. The crucial thing though, is that the music must be suitable. Possibly more than any other single element, music will suggest the mood or feeling that we want to create and from the outset, this needs to be the right one.

I will deftly skip through the subject of the copyright situation as this is a complex issue. However, the basic principle is that you should have clearance for any music used. The IAC has licences which are available at a nominal rate. You may also need to obtain permission from the Musicians Union if the disc was bought commercially, i.e. from a shop. You could opt for “copyright free” music (really royalty free) which includes an “up-front” payment when you buy the disc or get a talented amateur to compose some for you. The choice is of course yours.

Upon reaching the stage where music is to be chosen, I usually have a very clear idea of the type of tracks I am looking for. I trawl through the CDs I already have and then if nothing is found, I return to a demo disc which features brief samples of other discs and types of music available. When the right music is found, it leaps out at me immediately as being the correct one to use.

Sometimes there can even be a choice of two possible ones and in this case, both are loaded into the computer and watched with the visuals. You can then see (and hear) if you have got it right and which is the best.

Crucially, the music has to fit. By this I mean that it should not raggedly spill over into the next scene, but should fade out or end when the scene or the mood changes.

I have often been asked if our music is specially composed, which I take as a compliment as the answer is always no! The trick is to edit the music track as you would the visuals. It is very unlikely that a film and piece of music, both created separately and unconnected to each other, will synchronise perfectly. To achieve this we need to edit the music track or on rare occasions, the visuals, to make them match.

A piece of music which is too short, can be extended by repeating sections or adding pauses. If you are editing on a computer, the modulations are visible and it is very easy to chop up the music into sections for it to be manipulated.

What I would call “thriller” music, the kind with single stabbing notes which are sometimes punctuated by a “sting”, are perfect for playing around with to exactly synchronise with your pictures. If nothing is too recognisable, you can work wonders by moving sections around.

Music with sustained notes can be overlapped on separate tracks and mixed together at an appropriate point. No-one will notice if this is done correctly, especially if it is done over some other sound such as speech or traffic noise. Using these methods, tracks can be lengthened or shortened as required.

On a recently completed film called Confidentially (2005) I had planned that no music would be used at all as an experiment. I felt that the film could survive without it and was tempted to leave it this way. However, when sections of music were added as a test, it became clear that this was (as usual) an improvement and this will most likely be the version of the film, which will go to competition.

One more example is the film Behind The Clouds (1999) which was a fictionalised story based on real events. It concerned bereavement and was different from anything we had done before. The music had to exactly right! I became convinced that I needed solo piano music, something I had never used before. I started by going through pieces by Chopin and then on to more unusual tracks from obscure discs I have built up over the years. Nothing seemed right, but I persisted. Eventually when nothing had turned up, out of desperation I returned to my usual music of choice at that time, electronic synthesised pieces. Amazingly, I found a track, which could be best described as an “electronic choir”. It gave me the fool proof “hairs-on-the-neck” moment, which told me this was perfect. And it was. When it was mixed in with the voice over and run with the visuals I definitely had goose-bumps.

One final point to make is that I think it is essential for the last note of music to end with the last frame of film, usually on the final credit or title. Nothing looks more sloppy and unprofessional than play out music which wanders off over black at the end of the film. At a show or festival, the audience don't know when to clap as there may be something else to come and the projectionist is confused about when to stop the tape or disc. If the two are perfectly synchronised, there is no mistake! To be able to do this we have to add the titles and credits to our project and this will be tackled in part 12 of the series.

- By Ken Wilson (first published in FVM)

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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