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Surely a music composer does all the sound for a film, so a sound engineer isn't necessary?

A Record-Producer.com visitor wonders why a sound engineer might be necessary for making a film. Surely the music composer does all of that?

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Question from an Audio Masterclass visitor...

Sir, I am very much interested in the sound engineering field. My question is, if the music director is composed the background music & all the music in that film. So, what is the job for sound engineer in that film?

Sender: Dinesh S. Kumar

David Mellor replies...

This is a perfect example of a common misconception that everything in sound engineering = music. According to this logic, because the music composer has recorded the background music, then there is no other sound engineering work to do!

Sound for film and TV falls into three categories, plus one 'half' category that I wouldn't quite put on the same level as the others, although it is still important.

The three categories are...

  • Dialog
  • Sound effects
  • Music

And the fourth 'half' category is...

  • Combining dialog or voiceover with previously recorded music.

Clearly the most important aspect of film sound is the dialog. Unless we want to go back to the days of silent movies that is. Dialog involves recording clearly the sounds of the actors' voices during shooting, and then manipulating that recording in post production so that it is of the correct level, has a suitable dynamic range and EQ characteristics, is free from background noise, and is edited so that any noise that exists before or after each line of dialog is removed.

There is often some 'clean up' work to do, and the role of dialog editor is demanding. Where cleaning up is impossible, lines of dialog are re-recorded in a process known as 'looping' in film, or 'automated dialog replacement' (ADR) in TV.

Sound effects should ideally be recorded separately from the dialog so that the two never mix. This allows foreign language versions to be made using the original sound effects track. Otherwise sound effects will have to be recreated as well as the dialog.

Many sound effects can be recorded during shooting. These are the sounds of everyday life such as the background ambience, or 'buzz' of any room, common sounds such as cars running, doors closing, a cup being put down on a table etc.

Some movies require sounds that cannot be recorded - science fiction spaceships and weapons would be one example. Other movies require sounds that are naturalistic, but larger than life - a storm at sea for example. The sound of a storm is easier to create artificially, perhaps by combining library recordings of wind and rain, than to record for real.

Music for film is not commonly recorded by the composer. The composer may make a demo recording, but most films require an orchestral sound track, supplemented by electric and electronic instruments. TV music however is commonly recorded by the composer. However, his or her work would be monitored by the sound supervisor of the program.

Combining voiceover with previously recorded music is most common in TV documentary. It isn't such a great skill, but it is necessary to ensure that the voiceover 'sits' well in the music track. Careful dynamic range control and EQ is necessary.

So you see, a sound engineer has a lot to do in film and TV. In fact, there would be several sound personnel - a location recordist and assistant, specialist dialog and sound effects editors, music recording engineer and editor, and finally a dubbing mixer to bring the whole sound track together.

By David Mellor Wednesday August 31, 2005
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