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A Few Notes On Music In The Final Mix 
by By Randy Thom, C.A.S
Music mixers are going to hate me for saying this, and they should, but most of the time re-recording music is, technically, one of the easiest jobs in the movie business. On the other hand, the ten per cent of the time when it isn't easy it isn't just hard, it's hell. It's as difficult technically and politically as any job could be without people's lives being at stake. Music scoring, on the other hand, is very demanding, and there is only a handful of people who are masters of that craft. 

The dialog mixer's job is hell most of the time. Trying to smooth out constant transitions between noisy, distorted production (usually not the production mixer's fault) and lifeless, artificial-sounding ADR (everybody's fault) would be hard enough if the mixer only had to please him/her self. But there are also the daily political-psychological mine fields to cross. For better or worse, the dialog mixer is often expected to be as logical as Mr. Spock, as wise as Yoda, as tough and efficient as The Terminator, as nurturing as Mom, as business-like as Dad. 

The effects mixer's job on most films, and it hurts me to say this because I'm often an effects mixer, is largely about staying out of the way. But he/she is also occasionally likely to be the focus of intensely high expectations and withering criticism. It's like the old description applied to riding shotgun on a stagecoach: long periods of boredom interrupted by short periods of terror. 

These days when the musical score shows up at the final mix it is almost always clean, rich, and technically a pleasure to work with. Not so long ago this wasn't the case. I remember the score for "Return Of The Jedi," which I re-recorded, was extremely noisy. Eric Tomlinson had otherwise done a wonderful job recording the music, but the quiet passages were undeniably hissy. 

Nowadays the dialog mixer spends an hour wrestling with fifteen seconds worth of sow's ear trying to bring it a few per cent closer to a silk purse. He then pours himself some coffee and watches the music mixer spend the next hour adding filigree to the edge of what was already a silk purse. In this sense music mixers are spoiled. Since they don't usually have to contend with major faults in the original recording they are free to spend much of their precious mixing time fine-tuning, manicuring, and tweeking their eight or sixteen faders. Meanwhile, a high percentage of the effects mixer's material hasn't been heard, and won't be heard, though he has more like forty eight faders worth to worry about. And the dialog mixer would give anything for a few more minutes to try to remove a little more of the ambient noise from the production track. 

Music mixers do have their frustrations, though, and one of them is music copied off cd's which is supposed to be put into the film in that two-track form. You can eq it, add some reverb, ride it to keep it out of the way of dialog, but not much else. It often winds up being assigned to only the left and right channels of the final mix, which presents a problem in the form of the "Haas Effect." If you are equidistant from the left and right speakers it will sound ok. But if you are even slightly closer to the left speaker than the right, then any material (like maybe the vocal) which in the source mix is equally loud in the left and right will seem to be coming only from the left speaker. Because the sound arrives at the left ear only a few milliseconds before it arrives at the right ear, our brain tells us that the source of the sound is to the left. 

To all the people sitting on the left side of the theater (even one seat away from the center) any mono material in the two channel mix will seem to be coming only from the left. To those sitting on the right, that stuff will seem only to be coming from the right. 

This problem can't be entirely fixed if you are stuck with a two channel source that has mono elements, but one way to make it slightly better is to bleed some of the two channels into the center speaker. You'll make the music less stereo this way, but at least the vocal won't jump so dramatically from one side of the theater to the other when you cross the center line. 

The Haas Effect obviously isn't limited to music. Any mono sound that you send equally to two or more widely separated speakers will sound like it is coming exclusively from whatever speaker is closest to the listener. 

Another music re-recordist's headache is reel transitions. More and more often the directors want music to go across reel boundaries. The fact that changeover projection is rapidly dying out makes things a little more tidy in this regard, but even in the best of scenarios, platters are going to be assembled and disassembled multiple times, and the frames at the beginnings and endings of reels are the most vulnerable to being damaged or lopped off. 

If there is a musical sustain across a reel change then at least there may not be a noticeable tempo interruption, but the sustain will tend to reveal a level or timbral discontinuity more than a musically dynamic transition would. So, you're sort of in the dumper either way, especially if the lost frames can't be compensated for by the digital track's error correction scheme. 

People often ask me how much collaboration there usually is between the composer and the sound designer. There is almost never any collaboration between the composer and the sound designer, or between the composer and the supervising sound editor. And that's a shame. The assumption by the people who hire the composer is usually that he/she will work at break-neck speed for four or five weeks, then be available for a couple of days of fixes later on. Working under this kind of schedule, the last thing the poor composer wants is to have some sound effects nerd taking up his time on the phone, asking what "register" the music cue is in at the beginning of reel seven. The director has probably told the composer that it is on his/her shoulders to save the movie at the head of reel seven, so chances are that every hertz in the audible spectrum will be present in the score in that area anyway. 

On "Contact" Alan Silvestri, the composer, and I had the great fortune to spot the film together with Bob Zemeckis. We had a pretty clear understanding from the beginning that in certain areas the track was going to be driven by the music, in other areas by effects. Bob is one of the few directors out there who doesn't think you have to fire every one of your guns simultaneously to make an action sequence work. 

Dennis Sands scored and re-recorded the music on "Contact." He's as good at what he does as anybody in the world. Dennis and I have a saying which governs our work together. It was stolen from the English subtitles on a Hong Kong action flick. The quote is: "No eyes, no groin." Sometimes that's the most collaboration you can hope for, and occasionally it's more than enough. 

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