The Evolution of Film Sound Mixing—Insight from Noted Pros

Feature films continue to grow bigger, more intense, and more complex, with more speakers to satisfy the audience’s appetite to be fully immersed and, ultimately, impressed. Sound editorial, sound design, and re-recording (mixing) have followed suit. Within the film re-recording community, it is often said that multichannel mixes are no longer “locked,” as the crew moves towards print mastering. Instead, to accommodate inevitable picture changes and other creative decisions, the audio elements are “latched” and need to remain live and accessible right up until the last minute. 

Because they can keep projects fully virtual until the last minute, Avid's next-generation workstations, consoles, and control surfaces have become the professional’s choice across all facets of sound mixing. We talked to several mixers and asked them to share their thoughts on how the evolution of mixing has impacted their worlds.

Greg Watkins, re-recording mixer, Warner Bros. (The Hangover, Up in the Air, Dances with Wolves)

“I have been using an ICON D-Control console at Warner Bros. Dub 6 for the past six years,” says Oscar-winning mixer/sound designer Greg Watkins, who has worked on such high-energy movies as The Hangover, Iron Giant, Crimson Tide, Gone, The Company Men, Up in The Air, and Training Day, and recently completed the soundtrack for Copperhead.

“I’m a big fan of mixing ‘in the box,’” he continues, “because of the fine detail you can achieve with plug-ins that is not available on main-frame consoles, including adjusting break points or adding EQ to a single syllable to fine-graph an ‘S,’ for example. ICON offers me the best of both worlds at the mixing and editorial levels.” Watkins knows of what he speaks, having also cut dialog for Copperhead.

 
 D-Control and D-Command are powerful consoles, which offer a great deal of virtual, in-the-box flexibility through the final mix.
Greg Watkins,
re-recording mixer, Warner Bros.

“It’s a powerful way of working since it lets me do more work, if necessary, on dialog tracks, get creative, and try a number of different treatments,” he explains. “I also have an ICON D-Command at my own post facility, Dub Z, where I can work on lower-budget projects, or to pre-dub tracks that I take into Warner Dub 6 for finals. ICON D-Control and D-Command are powerful consoles, which offer a great deal of virtual, in-the-box flexibility through the final mix.”

Tony Lamberti, re-recording mixer, Todd AO (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Shrek)

Oscar nominee Tony Lamberti has been working as a sound effects mixer at Todd AO Stage 1 in Hollywood (the former Glen Glenn building) for the last seven years on such films as Django Unchained, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Parts 1 and 2), Chronicle, and Inglourious Basterds. His recent projects include 2 Guns, with director Baltasar Kormákur,and R. I. P. D., with director Robert Schwentke. 

“I like Stage 1’s System 5 digital console, which offers a lot of creative flexibility for both DSP mixing and also controlling our Pro Tools|HD systems via EUCON,” Lamberti says. “I have around 335 channels available from the System 5’s DSP engine in addition to four Pro Tools rigs: a pair of 96-channel HD systems, a 64-channel HD system, and a 128-channel HDX 2 system for playing pre-dubs.

 
 I really feel like I can have the best of both worlds.
Tony Lamberti,
re-recording mixer, Todd AO

“That hybrid topology of DSP core and Pro Tools|HD offers a lot of mixing horsepower, in addition to creative options. I prefer to combine my tracks on the System 5 and move to final mixing off those multichannel stems. It’s not a question of any sonic difference between DSP core and DAW mixing tracks; more that I like the S5’s summing, EQ, and compression capabilities. It’s simply a matter of preferences, or as I like to say, ‘On a large-scale feature, what elements are easier to get to at any given time—the console or the DAW?’ Then I just go with what makes the most sense. It just depends on my needs. With EUCON on the System 5, I really feel like I can have the best of both worlds.”

Skip Lievsay, re-recording engineer, WB-DC (True Grit, Water for Elephants, No Country for Old Men)

Seasoned re-recording engineer and multiple Oscar nominee Skip Lievsay relocated to New York late last year to head up a new mixing stage co-operated by Digital Cinema and Warner Bros. Post Productions Services. Lievsay is currently mixing the soundtrack for actor/director Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and upcoming projects include The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with director Francis Lawrence. A customized dual operator ICON D-Control console gives Lievsay the power and performance he needs to produce the highest quality audio for high profile film projects.

“The new WB-DC Stage 1 is designed to be lean and mean,” Lievsay says. “Mixing ‘in the box’ means that you do not need racks of outboard equipment. The pair of interlinked D-Control surfaces—one for dialog/music and the other for sound effects—each contains four fader packs and moveable center sections. We have also removed the meter bridge to produce a lower profile that offers an unobscured view of the screen. It also means that people in the rear seating area can also see the action. Between the two D-Control surfaces, we have also added desk space for the producer or director to join us at the console. It’s a very film-friendly layout.

 
 The D-Control surfaces, with [Pro Tools] HDX hardware and Pro Tools software, offer a lot of creative power for film mixing.
Skip Lievsay,
re-recording engineer, WB-DC

“The D-Control surfaces, with [Pro Tools] HDX hardware and Pro Tools 10 software, offer a lot of creative power for film mixing; Pro Tools 10 is a fantastic upgrade for the ICON. HDX and HD Native now both sound very good with 32-bit processing and 64-bit mix paths. Stage 1’s 12-core Mac Pro systems offer up to 750+ channels of simultaneous HDX playback for sound effects, which is perfect for our six-track multichannel stems. My dialog/music systems run in HD Native to provide 256 tracks.

“Mixing in the box is the fastest way of working. I write automation for everything right up to the final print master. During dialog pre-dubs, for example, 99% is done on the editing interface, making volume graphs using a track ball, or a channel fader if I really need it. It’s blindingly fast!

Richard King, sound supervisor/editor (The Dark Knight Rises, Thor, Inception)

Multiple Oscar-winning sound supervisor and sound editor Richard King describes the evolution of his workflow on the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight. “I’ve been very happy with [Pro Tools] HDX. It’s allowed us to utilize the virtual mixing workflow on larger, more complex projects, like The Dark Knight Rises, enabling us to keep every element, as well as many of the design plug-ins, live for the duration of the mix.

“There are so many benefits to keeping everything separate and live for as long as you can, as opposed to mixing from printed pre-dubs. The benefits are not only practical, like changing sounds for late arriving visual effects, but it really leaves the creative options open as long as possible. This has been our preferred way of working for several years and HDX, with its higher track count, has simplified this.

 
 HDX affords us the ability to keep everything fluid and go in and make minute tweaks at any time.
Richard King,
sound supervisor and editor,
The Dark Knight Rises, Thor, Inception

“Working in the older printed pre-dub methodology is crude. Many times I've had to cut up pre-dubs where multiple sounds were married, and you’d have to make the best of it—it was like using an axe to cut a diamond. HDX affords us the ability to keep everything fluid and go in and make minute tweaks at any time.”

Larry Blake, sound editor/mixer (Magic Mike, Contagion, Ocean’s Eleven)

Larry Blake has been mixing in the box exclusively since 2000. Forty-four feature films and 11 feature documentaries later, he's clearly not looking back. “The evolution of Pro Tools and computer technology has allowed me to consolidate what was originally four separate systems/sessions per reel, for a total of 24 sessions for a six-reel film, into one large source session on a single system, with the whole film joined together ‘long-play,’ he explains.

“Stems and a simultaneous print master are recorded onto another system. While I have the resources and easy ability to split my original material—probably separating effects from dialog and music—into a second session on another system, there's something in me that likes the added discipline of keeping it all together in one. Mind you, 15 years ago, if one said that they were 'squeezing' all the units into 192 tracks, they would have been laughed at. Every film I've done in the past four years, including Contagion, Magic MikeSide Effects, and Behind the Candelabra, has been done in this one-session form.

"Simpler is almost always better, in my book. Faster is too—as long as the quality of what the audience hears is not compromised."

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