Skip to main content

Anatomy of a soundtrack

They were re-performed by Foley artists in studios full of props and pits, containing all sorts of materials and textures such as pebbles, melons, and raw meat. Next time you're about to cook a chicken breast or a steak, punch it and listen to the noise it makes – sound familiar? It's the classic punch sound.

For some of the best Foley effects in modern cinema check out Casino Royale. There is fantastic detail in the mix that few films manage to match. If you have the BD select Chapter nine (Chapter 14 if you have the DVD). From the bathroom scene to the card game, this is a great example of how it should be done.

What an atmosphere

Atmospheres are 5.1 tracks of atmospheric sounds. When filming a scene the sound recordist (think John Travolta in Brian De Palma's Blow Out) may well record a 5.1 or stereo track of the background noise of the location that they are using while they set up. This may then be incorporated into the sound during dubbing to give a more real-life feel to the scene. Other films will just use library atmospheres of interiors, birds tweeting in gardens, savannah sounds, rain forests, car noises, etc.

In the olden days of 35mm mag, the mixer used to have three or four loops of mono atmospheres that would play continuously up faders on the desk. They may have had a garden atmosphere, an interior, a night-time scene etc, and would just open the fader when they were required. They'd repeat every 20 seconds or so, because that's how long the loop of the film was, but no one would ever notice.

Nowadays, atmospheres are recorded as 5.1. If not, they are stereos that are split into 5.1 surround using reverbs or delays to make the them sound 'real'.

Finishing touches

While these separate parts are being honed and refined, the re-recording mixer pulls all the aspects of the mix together. He or she has a cornucopia of tools available to them on the dubbing stage and they must use them to the full to get the best from the tracks.

When the soundtrack is deemed to be in good shape the film enters the 'final mix' stage. This can be an intense period where each member of the team works up to 100 hours a week as the deadline approaches. Notes are continually coming from the film's director and producers; issues such as artistic differences, mixing desk automation problems and even picture edits play their part.

There are times when I cringe at bad ADR or hear things that stick out like a sore thumb. But there are also times when I hear something so phenomenal that it gives me goose bumps. The last time it happened was during the mastering of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian in the scene where Lucy Pevensie walks through the forest being enveloped by the magical leaves.

The music, atmospheres and effects are so beautifully fitted together in the mix that you know that all the hard work of the sound department was worthwhile (the team on that film had been working seven days a week for six months, mind). Have a listen to it when it comes out on disc later this year – film sound rarely gets better than this.

So, the next time you put on a film and break out the popcorn, spare a thought for the guys and girls who have toiled night and day to entertain your ears.

There's a lot more to a movie's sound than just setting up a mic and pressing record!

First published in Home Cinema Choice 160