Flashback: In The Mix – Devoured



I just finished working on a horror film called Devoured. Directed by Greg Oliver and written and produced by Marc Landau, it stars a very talented Marta Milans in the leading role.


The film was almost entirely shot on location in the famous Raoul’s restaurant in Soho. Karim Raoul was a key producer on the film as well. An inherent challenge of shooting in any working bar or restaurant is dealing with the noisy equipment that inevitably lives there. The primary problematic items are usually refridgeration units and HVAC. I can’t tell you how many movies I have worked on that include a dialog driven bar scene completely saturated with beer cooler hum. If you want to record great sounding dialog in a bar or restaurant, you have to turn off the coolers.  


Now this is harder than it may seem.  First you have to figure out how to turn them off, which may not be easy if the staff has all gone home for the night.  Secondly, you have to figure out how you are going to manage all of the stuff in those coolers that needs to stay cold. The best solution is often to have crew move all the items from the bar coolers to a walk-in cooler located far off in the restaurant (this is what PAs are for). This can be a big job, but if you are shooting all night it can really pay off. Another option is to turn them on and off between set ups or even takes. This can be a chore too, but as long as they are off when rolling sound, that’s all that counts. Another option, although not as good, is to somehow baffle the coolers with sound blankets or cardboard or something. Of course this is not the same thing as having them off completely, and if you cover the vent fans that can cause some overheating if you’re not careful.


In this case we had not only the noisy coolers behind the bar to deal with, but in the basement, where a lot of the film was shot, the humming of ice machines, walk-in compressors, and fluorescent lighting was extremely loud. Since this stuff could not be shut off, we had to embrace the humming as a part of the sound design. Since this is a horror film and not a love story, and a great deal of the action in the basement was creeping around, it totally worked. We added a whole array of drones and freaky distorted voice washes to create a virtual symphony of controlled noise. The score, by Carly Paradis, also had its share of drones and tones that worked well with all of the other elements.


There were a few scenes however that really needed some extra love in the form of noise reduction. In my experience there is no “magic box” when it comes to noise reduction.  The type of tool that ends up working really depends on the specific situation.  We tend to use a host of plug ins and even some outboard processing to get the job done.  Our usual bag of tricks will include Waves X-Noise, Waves WNS, Oxford De-noiser, and the Cedar DNS 2000.


I actually encourage my sound editors to do as much noise reduction during the edit as they have time for. I always insist that they leave the unprocessed audio on adjacent tracks or on hidden X tracks, so that I can go back to the raw audio if I feel the noise reduction is not quite right. I also say that less is often more when it comes to noise reduction. The audience listens to the dialog not the noise. In other words, make the dialog sound as good as possible and take out only as much noise as you can before it hurts the sound of the dialog. I think it’s much worse to hear the noise reduction than to hear the noise.


An approach I often take is to mix the dialog for a given noisy scene without noise reduction, using only EQ, and Notch EQ, and fader movement to mitigate the noise. Then I solo just the dialog tracks for that scene and bounce them down as a mono file and import that file back into the mix and line it up with the original dialog. I then noise reduce that single dialog file for the whole scene with a tool of choice. I might try several tools to see what works best. I can also compare the noise reduced file against the original dialog tracks by soloing back and forth between them. I want to hear that I have really improved the tracks and not sucked the life of them. 


The good thing with this project is that these scenes did not need to get saved, just improved.  In the few moments where the noise was too much we did ADR. Once all of the ambient, FX, and music elements were mixed in, the end result was a very rich and satisfyingly full soundtrack with plenty of texture and plenty of punch.

Thomas Efinger