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Make sure your individual elements are logically grouped on as few tracks as necessary to keep the mix from becoming a massive confusing mess. On the other hand, use as many tracks as necessary to give the mix engineer the flexibility he or she needs to remove or change individual elements. To some degree, that depends on the engineer’s style, the amount of time for the mix, and the mixing system’s capabilities. I’ve delivered as little as a stereo pair of hard sound effects and a stereo pair of ambience, and as many as 32 tracks of hard sound effects.

If you handle dialog and music as well as sound effects, never put them on the same tracks—the panning and EQ tend to be totally different for these elements, and combining them creates a conceptual headache. Ask the mix engineer what he or she wants and make it happen. Make sure your sound elements are clean, are well edited, and sync to picture nicely. Time is a precious commodity during a mix, and fixing problems comes at the expense of making the best mix possible.

Always bear in mind that dialog comes first. If a sound effect gets buried or a clarinet part can’t be heard, it is unfortunate but not drastic. However, if a spoken line is unintelligible, the audience is robbed of the story. People are tuned to listen to human speech, and they get annoyed when they can’t understand the words. Thus, music and effects are always subservient to dialog in a mix.

Dialog is so critical that the standard mixing convention in film is to use the center channel primarily for dialog. Separated from the music and effects that fill the rest of the space, the words are always heard in the middle of the screen. Dialog is sometimes compressed and limited to help it ride above the rest of the mix. You can also use EQ to make sure that too much information in other elements doesn’t compete with the same frequency range as the words. If a line is still not reading well in the mix, turn everything else down a bit.

How do you make music and effects coexist peacefully? As mentioned earlier, one answer is to ensure that important events don’t happen simultaneously. Another approach is to have the textures augment each other through contrast. For example, music that is tight and nicely percussive matches languid, airy, continuous ambiences. Similarly, ambient, Brian Eno–esque soundtracks contrast well with a tighter, sparser, more event-driven approach to sound effects.

Music and effects can always inhabit different parts of the frequency spectrum. There will be times when the music feels buried or the effects’ subtlety is lost. That is all part of the deal—it is most important to tell the story effectively and artfully. If that means whole swaths of sound or music get lowered or removed in the mix, so be it. The creative process of shaping and changing the sound culminates in the mix itself.

Limiters are useful for increasing the overall perceived level of an element or mix. I try to avoid using limiters when creating premixes or stems (partial mixes); I prefer to preserve as much dynamic range as possible. In the final mix, though, limiters are often used to shoehorn everything in. Kent Sparling, a rerecording mixer at Skywalker Sound, believes that limiting in the mix is a necessary evil. “It’s a shame to have to make everything louder to compensate for a problem in the storytelling,” he says.

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.