Written by Randy Thom
In the almost forty years I’ve been mixing films I’ve seen and heard and tried all kinds of approaches to processing sounds. As I’ve said elsewhere, including my little piece on “Tools,” it’s been my impression that the longer one mixes, the less processing one does. When you’re young and infatuated with the tech tools, they seem to call out to you and beg you to give them a shot.
Mixers, especially dialog mixers but not only dialog mixers, often get themselves into trouble with clients by using two kinds of processing a bit too much: reverb and noise reduction. I’ll save noise reduction for another day. Let’s talk about reverb.
Falling short of the ideal match makes the mixer feel like a failure to some degree, so he/she vows silently to at least make sure it’s clear that an effort has been made to do that match.
Obviously, sound bounces around. In almost every place in the known universe whenever a sound moves through air, or any other medium, it also gets reflected by all kinds of objects and surfaces. It’s natural. So, when a mixer is trying to fit an ADR line as seamlessly as possible into a sequence where noisy, reveberant production dialog precedes and follows that ADR line, the inclination is to add a bit of reverb to the line which mimics as closely as possible that of the production material. The problem is… it’s extremely difficult to match the production reverb exactly. Actually, it’s impossible. I’ve never heard it done perfectly (the good news is that perfection isn’t necessary). Falling short of the ideal match makes the mixer feel like a failure to some degree, so he/she vows silently to at least make sure it’s clear that an effort has been made to do that match. The result is very often too much reverb, at least according to the director or the picture editor, and once either of them has made the comment the other will usually agree.
The same thing happens with adding reverb to foley and hard effects, but in general the more “realistic” and less stylized a sound is supposed to be, the less artificial reverb will be tolerated by the typical director or editor. At one end of the spectrum is a straightforward dialog line (very little reverb tolerated), and at the other end would be something like an off-screen magical aura sound (quite a bit of reverb tolerated).
I think another natural tendency of ours also drives us to over-reverb: humans are innately fascinated by reverb. It’s why so few of us can resist blowing our car horns when we drive through a tunnel. It’s why the voices of the clergy seem all the more holy in the echo-y environment of a typical place of worship. Maybe it comes from our distant ancestors (maybe not so distant in my case 😉) inhabiting caves. We associate reverberation with seductive mystery, and it makes us mixers feel the power of a shaman to call forth that mystery, that transcendence. To quote my good friend Gary Summers: “Why is the past always so echo-y?”
In any case, we can rarely resist sprinkling reverb here and there, and it tends to get us into trouble. In all the years I’ve worked in movies I’ve rarely heard a client ask for MORE reverb… sometimes a different kind of reverb… but not more reverb. But I’ve heard many, many, many ask for less reverb. There has been a bit of an aesthetic trend away from reverb in the last decade or so among many directors. More and more of them seem to feel that any overt use of it is a cliché. Maybe the pendulum will swing back, but for now my advice is to get your kicks honking your horn in tunnels rather than dubbing stages.
A big thanks to Randy Thom for letting us share this insightful post from his blog on A Sound Effect!
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