Rerecording Mixers vs Sound Designers

Before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion this isn’t some weird game show based on the relative merits of these roles in the creation of a film soundtrack, quite the opposite. Brent from ProTools Professional blog emailed me a few philosophical questions about these two roles and how the relationship is influenced by technological and creative advances…

Mixing

“I was wondering how you see the relationship between the sound designer and the re-recording mixer?”

In my humble opinion the relationship between sound designer and re-recording mixers is crucial and while both roles have the same motivation (i.e. to do what best serves & fully realises the film) the process and approach is very different. This may be stating the obvious, but its relevant to the discussion of the blurring of the lines between these roles. As sound designer I care intimately about how and why every element of the possible content exists, and its intended purpose. Rerecording mixers care about these aspects as well but their focus is more about context. I may have literally crawled through broken glass to capture a sound and sometimes my view of the merits of that sound may be swayed by the efforts involved in recording & evolving it, but the rerecording mixers have objectivity that I could never have. While I will have spent a minimum of two months working with the director, picture editor and sound editorial team creating the content and discussing the motives and intentions for each element of the soundtrack, the rerecording mixers are working in the immediate real world. Let me explain this with a little psychology…..

As humans we inevitably compare our actions against those of others (friends, family, total strangers) – when we see what we deem bad behaviour it is based on a judgement of that action compared with our own. But here is the point: that judgement is often a comparison between our own intent versus others actions – and the difference may well be HUGE. Intentions do not exist, they are only potential actions, and when the time comes our own reality may turn out differently than intended. Only then can we truly compare actions with actions. So while we record, edit & prepare all the material, we are focusing on intent ie on the intended context of the final mix (which as a concept is mercurial and different for every person involved) whereas the rerecording mixers are working in the actual real context, with everyone (& their associated opinions) in the room.

I totally appreciate & always aim to implement (depending on time & budget of course) the idea of the ongoing temp mix, as this lets us regularly visit a form of final context. But as a sound editor there are also many, many times I must put aside the final context and focus solely on some tiny detail of the content, to insure it is as good as it can & needs to be. The time spent mixing is the most expensive part of the soundtrack process (other than recording orchestras or doing ADR with stars) so during the sound edit period is also the most expedient time to experiment.

But maybe I am focusing too much on process and the seperate roles rather than the relationship involved. What is the basis of that relationship? Primarily it is one of trust. We are all being trusted by the film makers to fully realise their project, the sound designer trusts the rerecording mixers to shape and focus their work into a highly evolved and dramatic form, and the mixers trust the sound designer that the necessary research, consultation, collaboration and preparation has been done to the highest level possible with the available budget & schedule. The relationship is also about respect. Both of these aspects can only really be gained the hard way, through experience.

African proverb

“If you were given the opportunity to pick/hire a rerecording mixer for the next film you are working on, what qualities would you be looking for in that person? From the standpoint of a sound designer, what makes a particular rerecording mixer good to work with?”

This is a fairly hypothetical question for me, as the local film mixing facilities I have worked in all provide excellent rerecording mixers (Park Road Post, The Inside Track) so I have never been in this situation. But if I was to presume I had to mix a film project in another country & had to help choose which rerecording mixers to take the project to…. hmmmm…. These are my own personal opinions, but the factors for me in order of importance would be first: attitude, second: experience, and third: technical ability. Somewhere amongst those three are a combination that best suits a certain project; since someone who relishes blockbuster action films may or may not be the best choice for an existential drama. As careers develop I think people naturally gravitate towards projects that best suit their aesthetics, but that makes it sound like a clearly defined goal when in reality it is an endlessly evolving amorphous composite.

From my point of view what makes a particular rerecording mixer good to work with is multifaceted. Final mixing is intensely focused work, so no one needs any more stress than is necessary. All the mixes I’ve ever attended have been creative, inspiring situations with an absolute minimum of conflict, ego and self aggrandizing. But yet someone has to lead the process and that role usually falls to the rerecording mixers. I’ve observed a few different people as they learn to become a rerecording mixer and the people skills involved are almost the most important part, and yet it takes maturity and experience to gain them.

There is an illusion involved, and occasionally I have heard it wrongly interpreted by inexperienced people. See, a great rerecording mixer makes it seem easy. Work progresses, the final mix of the reel just keeps getting better and better, and everyone in the room is happy especially the people who matter the most: the director and producer. But how does that all happen? The rerecording mixers are making it happen, for everyone. I’ve heard both inexperienced sound editors and wannabe mixers with no film experience exclaim “I could do that” but which part of that are you referring to? It is an intensely complex process and just doing any one aspect of it well takes great skill and fortitude. Managing all aspects of it and making it seem effortless is the sign of a true master. And maybe from a personal satisfaction point of view, sound editors LOVE it when their work sounds good, more so when it sounds great, but the purest creative buzz is when it sounds better than we could ever have imagined it. I have to recount a defining moment from my youth, which has stayed with me because it was the first time I heard a rerecording mixer take my material and make it sing.

This was really early on, I think on the second film I ever worked on & the first one that I got to sit in on the predubs for. The scene was someone using a chainsaw inside a garage. The point of view was someone arriving at the house, looking for the person using the chainsaw. So the car pulls up, the person gets out, walks up the drive, round the back of the house and into the garage. All the while the chainsaw is being used. So I had recorded the chainsaw on a Nagra, and edited it and I got to sit in and watch as the rerecording mixer predubbed it. And OMG! I will never forget how that chainsaw suddenly became part of the world of that film. The multiple verbs the mixer used – a chainsaw inside a garage, heard from down the driveway – and the way he rode them as our pov changed was beautiful. And it appeared completely effortless! “Is that ok?” – my smile was a mile wide. Partly because it sounded better than I ever imagined, but even more so due to the ramifications of what I just experienced and its value.

knock and wait

“As a secondary issue, has the line blurred between these roles as sound designers get more tools to control the balance of sounds earlier in the post production process? I mean, the grunt we now have on a laptop with PT9 and CPTK, as far as making mixing decisions before getting to the stage, what impact has that sort of technology had on blurring the distinction between sound designer, sound editor and sound mixer?”

As technology has developed on all fronts I’ve always been wary of the concept that just because you have access to tools does not mean you necessarily should use them. Don’t get me wrong; of course we use them, for example I’ve owned Final Cut Pro for a number of years and I can use it reasonably well, but I would never call myself a picture editor. I subscribe to the 10,000 hours rule, so yes I can & do edit video I’ve shot (HISSandaROAR videos amongst others) but to assume the role of picture editor takes a lot more than knowing how to use an application. The same goes for mixing.

Mixing is so much more than balancing levels or using plugins… It requires incredible depth & maturity in story telling, aesthetics, standards and an artists feel for shaping hugely complex layers of sound into dramatic focus. And that is without even thinking about the incredible people skills involved.

In the last ten years the main real impact of ProTools developments for me has been with regards to track count and some specific monitoring features eg VCA faders, 5.1 panning etc. Ever since I started using ProTools I’ve balanced the sounds I’m editing & layering, it is an essential part of the sound editing process. The benefit of large track counts is more about the ability to work in context. So I can now run my ambience tracks in the same session as my sound effects, along with dialogue and music guide tracks. And using VCA faders I can non-destructively monitor with the elements in a vague form of balance. But that isn’t mixing, its monitoring.

While having run throughs with the director and/or other sound editors it is definitely important to discuss aspects of the mix. By roughly demoing approaches to transitions and scenes/moments using VCA faders we can help the director clarify their thoughts on what might be the best dramatic approach for the final mix. And often these discussions will inform how we continue to develop the content, but you can never predict the final context so I tend to pursue these aspects non-destructively. A simple example: in discussion we agree that it could be dramatically powerful to lose all ambiences at a certain point in a scene, I try this a few different ways using VCA faders and get the scene working. When we come to predub ambiences I discuss the intended approach for the scene or moment with the re-recording mixer, but we predub the ambiences at a normal level for the scene, so we have the ability in the final mix to choose when/how etc the ambiences are reduced… Sometimes we’ll write automation after printing the stem to create a starting point for such moments, especially in terms of making the first ‘flat fader’ play down of the reel as good as it can be. But Predubs are about making some decisions, not all – you do not necessarily want to commit a creative decision as the only option until it is final context.

Of course the balances we create while editing are carried into the predubs – you only have to disable the automation to appreciate what a mess/cacophony of sounds edit sessions would be without all the volume automation work that has been done. But that hasn’t changed in the last decade – I don’t remember exactly when PT got volume automation but it was fairly early on (mid 90s?) so its not a new development. VCA Faders are more recent – previously I would have had to bus groups of tracks to achieve the same process, which is a hugely unattractive prospect due to the annoying lack of being able to scrub/varispeed individual tracks through a bus. When editing I rely on scrubbing/varispeed a lot and it isn’t acceptable to lose this feature while editing. Mix-only VCA groups solved this problem for me – I use an old MotorMix moving fader controller to balance VCA faders and it works well… But I do not coalesce the VCA automation to the original tracks.

old school

The one aspect of the possible blurring of the roles of sound designer and rerecording mixer that I feel the most uneasy about is in terms of the role of learning. As a sound editor there was a clear developmental shift in my ability when I began attending predubs and final mixes. As a young sound editor, presenting your material to a predub is an essential learning experience. No matter what you thought might work, if the mixer cannot achieve a good result from it, or it is laid out in a way that makes their life difficult then you will surely hear about it. Most fixes are done then & there, eg an extra cut that might be required for perspective etc. But the value in terms of learning as a sound editor is to be there and to do the fixes, and to learn from them. Experience is about learning what does and doesn’t work. Every situation is unique, but your approach is informed at least partly by what you did previously, and attending predubs is a critical part of learning to be a good sound editor. I personally believe you should always attend predubs of your material and if you are eg a trainee or an assistant and are off the payroll by then, ask to attend as an unpaid & silent observer. You need to see what did and what didn’t work as intended, and learn from it. And as a sound designer, where I collaborate with a team of sound editors, I also learn vast amounts at every final mix, at every mix screening and during the final days of mix fixes. What worked, what didn’t work or wasn’t used, what was essential, what might we have put more resources towards in hindsight. All these observations inform every future project.

But what if that line gets blurry – what if the sound designer and the mixer are the same person? I do not know what impact it will have on the result. It occurs already with major projects but they tend to be people who are vastly experienced in both roles. What concerns me is this: if it becomes a trend for people starting out, who do they learn from then? It is a joy to work with different mixers and to see their different approaches, aesthetics etc but if its always your own self inheriting your own tracks I’m not sure that a hugely important developmental stage is being eliminated in the process.

As a side note: reading of the process involved in the evolution of the final mix for True Grit in Mix online is fascinating and makes great creative sense, but I think it is less about blurring the line between rerecording mixer and sound designer, and more about completely blurring the line between temp mixes and the final mix. “Early on,” Berkey explains, “we end up with this first temp mix and then we keep adding to and conforming that mix, and Joel and Ethan listen to it with each cut giving us notes as we go along…. They’ve been listening to our mix in 5.1 in a theater in New York, so when we get to the final mix, it’s about adding some new music cues, but they’ve heard every sound, they’ve listened to the mix and they know everything that’s there and have made notes on it that we’ve executed. Essentially, our mix starts about four months before we finish the final.”

18 Responses to Rerecording Mixers vs Sound Designers

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  2. Enos Desjardins says:

    Great article Tim! I am one of those new generation sound editors who have been brought up fully “in the box” using controllers like the ICON series consoles. So far I am usually mixing most of the stuff I do editorial on. This means that as I am editing I am already balancing levels and applying FX. When I get to mixing I will run it all through an ICON console and keep mixing there. So pretty much a temp mix carrying all the way from start to final mix. I usually provide the director with daily or weekly samples of the work and they get back to me with requests and notes. So indeed the mix is happening throughout editorial. Then in the final mix it is a time to hear it all in a decent environment and squeeze all the juice out of the content! Now this type of fully blurred line between Sound Designer and Re-recording mixer is getting more popular indeed. However, I must say that (especially on a feature length project) by the time have spent 2 months in editorial…when I get to mixing it I not only lack the objectivity to make crucial decisions but I also lack the fresh energy and desire to see the mix out with as much details as I saw the editorial stage through!

    I am still waiting for a decent enough project with enough budget to allow for the film to be mixed on a proper stage with experienced dubbing mixer. I am sure that when that day comes (and I hope it does soon!) I will be blown away as to how much more they can squeeze out of my work than I could have thought! Mixing is an art on all levels and I respect dubbing mixers very much for that.

    All in all, the sound designer is the creative head of sound on a film and is realising the director’s full vision. Only the sound designer who has spent all time through editorial will know what content has been laid in and how it is meant to be played. The dubbing mixer has to know this and the sound designer has to be on stage to make sure the main ideas are mixed as discusses earlier in pre-production and onwards.

    Anyways, great read Tim!

    • tim says:

      “the sound designer is the creative head of sound on a film”

      I think this varies on every project; the creative head of sound/head of department on a film is really shared to varying degrees between the Production mixer, Supervising Sound Editors, Sound Designer & Rerecording Mixers

  3. Stephan Carrier says:

    Great Article. From a mixer standpoint, I learned a lot not just experienced mixers but experienced sound editors, during predubs and mixes. I feel that is the saddest part of what is happening now is the lack of time allotted to newcomers to develop skills and knowledge.

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  5. I know you didn’t mean it this way, but I don’t like the way you titled the article using the word VERSUS. They are not fighting each other, they are on the same team.

    • tim says:

      I state in the very first sentence that I am not using the term literally so I don’t think anyone is going to somehow come to a conclusion that “they are fighting each other”
      Suggested alternatives? “The role of Rerecording Mixers compared with Sound Designers” makes for a rather long URL

  6. I know. It’s a great article, but the truth is that on some dub stages (mostly bad ones, working on bad projects with bad clients) it actually does turn into Editor vs. Mixer, and I hate to perpetuate that mindset. (In the US they were even in different unions until relatively recently.)

    When I posted it on Facebook, I changed the word “versus” to “and.”

  7. By the way, to new students, I explain the difference between editing and mixing to students with the following:

    Sound editors find the right sounds and put them in sync with the picture.

    Mixers take the elements supplied by the sound editors and put them into the proper perspective with each other.

    Yes, I know it’s grossly simplified, but then I take two semesters to explain the subtleties beyond that.

    • John Kassab says:

      Outstanding article Tim.

      It’s great to read more perspectives on this topic – there is so much truth in your observations. I particularly agree that ‘attitude’ is the single most important traight in working with a great mixer. All the experience & tech skills in the world don’t mean very much during a final mix if a mixer suffers poor collaborative skills. It really brings the whole party down.

      Again, awesome work and all the best in 2011!

      Jk

  8. charles maynes says:

    The distinction is a complex one- A rerecording mixer generally has the benefit of a longer view on the subject manner- In this manner they rightly can claim a more Murch / Thom / Rydstrom claim to “Sound Design” because they are dealing with it in a story telling manner- us lower case “sound designers” tend to work to satisfy the moment- and in that pursuit we are not usually concerned with what music or dialog might be doing at any given moment in a sequence- But one thing to remember is that just because one has a fader pack or console as a part of their studio doesn’t make them a mixer- and conversely, just because a mixer has sound design tools doesn’t make him a sound designer- Both require ears- The weird noise maker sound designer might have his tuned different than the the re-recording mixer though- but both are important.

    A recent posting on Gearslutz from the remote forum actually brought a little bit of insight-

    A conductor commissioned a recording of their orchestra, and then complained that the Orchestra recording was more out of tune than she remembered the performance being- I think this was due to the fact that she was concentrating on conducting the ensemble, and not giving full attention to the intonation of it- It was obviously in tune enough to not provide a distraction- but not so much under critical scrutiny.

  9. Alex Hudd says:

    Interesting article. However as the budgets diminish, the line between sound designer/editor and mixer inevitably blurs. I started off at the mix stage and still perform that function in my company, but now I work more in the sound design and editing stage. Lower budgets mean shorter mix times so the sound design and edit has to be top notch before it gets mixed. Additionally I’ll often spend time ‘mixing’ a section of sound design so I can give a WIP sample to the director or producer for their comments. even at these early stage it may well involve all elements: sfx, dialogue, atmos and music. Understanding the director’s intentions is the most important and often most difficult part of the process, but with good communications and looking at the script(!) this can be a very exiting time for all involved in sound post. In our company sound design and mix is so closely intertwined that we all do a bit of each – it’s necessary in this day and age and it keeps life interesting too!

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  11. very interesting indeed.

    i like the blurring of the lines, in an ideal world of endless time and resources i would love to blurr them even more into the direction of picture editing, that sound designing starts already here and cross-influences the picture editing way more than it usually does.

    having done various temp dubs of the films i have been working on, i realized that you can train your ability to jump perspectives: from the detail fanatic sound editor to the the overview person who takes all soundtrack elements into consideration. it’s actually fun to just treat your own work like someone elses…

    sound deseigner have also become more re-recording mixer like because of another thing i noticed: it is that the modern day director – because he/she knows it is possible – will want to here more of an already mixed film when he comes to my sound edit suite to discuss sound than a couple of years ago, so basically i have to start (pre-)mixing as soon as i start editing.

    plus the technical situation that puts me in a spot where i can do things that could only be done at a stage not too long ago… i.e. have a huge amount of tracks on the tip of a couple of group faders to now easily simulate how it would work if we crossfade 200 tracks of battle sound against a temp music cue, while at the same time we push the voice over more and more into the reverb.

    mixing in the box, like it happens more and more also blurrs the lines – technically we are using the same tools, we are just responsible for different parts of the process, but, probably i say that becuase i am a sound designer, i consider the sound designer as the creative head of sound, ideally being there from script to mix…

    that all said i still love and appreciate what you describe as the objective and not as much biased position of a re-recording mixer who is much more free to mess with the material i deliver than i could ever be, cause he/she didn’t need to go thru all the bloody pain to arrive at this point.

    great discussion,–c

  12. I always say that a Sound editor is like an artist who paints. Making his work of art with layers of paint (sound). The Re-Recording mixer is like a sculptor who makes his work of art by removing layers and shaping it. Both create art in the end.

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