Moby Loves Independent Filmmakers

For independent filmmakers and artists, the quest for new and royalty-free music sources is endless and exhausting. I was surprised, actually overjoyed, to find this resource from musical artist Moby recently:

http://www.mobygratis.com/

According to the site, these selections from Moby’s catalog are free to “non-profit filmmakers, film students, and anyone in need of free music for their independent, non-profit film, video, or short.” Moby has scored or had music featured in Heat (1995), Cool World (1992), Scream (1996), and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) to name a few, and now can also be in the soundtrack and credits of your independent film.

You must create an account on the site and “apply” for permission to use the track in your non-profit work. I requested one last week for a work-in-progress and received approval within several days. Awesome!

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Recording Voice-overs at Home

A friend recently asked for advice about recording her own voice-overs (VO’s) at home, and although I get asked frequently about home studio setups I was surprised to find I hadn’t written on the subject. Although she was asking about corporate video VO’s, this would apply to voice acting, audio books, ADR, podcasts, and pretty much any home audio recording. If you’re recording music at home, you will need additional information. This article is based on my research, experience, and DIY no-budget indie video/movie production, so any additional input is welcome – please comment!

Low Budget ADR Booth

With little resources, my independent film ADR booth was essentially a padded closet.

When NOT to Record at Home:

I like to start with this advice, especially if you’re getting paid for your work. Whenever it’s convenient, I recommend that new talent record in their client’s studio (if applicable) or in a nearby studio if the costs are low enough to be covered by the gig. This ensures that from the very beginning you submit work which is of a high enough quality to get you more work; in the meantime, you can glean a little knowledge of the “professional” studio’s equipment, space, and technique.

Recording at Home:

So, you’ve decided to ignore the advice above and delve into home recording. Recording from home can save you travel and studio rental expenses on every job, allow you free reign to experiment on your own time, and potentially bring in more income if your setup is impressive enough to charge others for its use. Honestly, it is not terribly difficult to set up an acceptable home recording space. There are several considerations when recording your VO’s at home, and I will focus on these essentials:

  • Isolation (Filtering External Noise)
  • Absorption (Stopping Reflections)
  • Recording Equipment
  • Monitoring Equipment

Getting each of these factors to the level of professional, near-perfection can get very expensive, but getting to an acceptable level isn’t.

Isolation:

The first factor here is location. It is generally harder to isolate sound in the city than in rural areas. You may not have many choices, and likely don’t plan to change residencies to accommodate your recording needs, but you can choose which room is the most isolated from outside noise. Listen for car/air/train traffic, outside AC units, lawnmowers, neighbors (especially in apartments), and running water (e.g. toilets flushing elsewhere in the home).

Absorption:

This pertains to what your voice does within your chosen recording space. The simple rule is: soft surfaces absorb sound (good), and hard surfaces reflect sound (a.k.a. echo = bad). If you record in tiny box, it will sound like you’re in a tiny box. For most recordings, the sound should be as “dead” as possible (no echo), because echo can always be added later, but never removed. Empty closets make great booths because there is so little surface area to account for if you’re trying to pad the walls.

Reflection Filters: A compact, very cheap solution, which also has a professional look, reflection filters work by blocking sound reflections directly around the microphone instead of for the entire room (here’s a search on Amazon)

Auray Reflection Filter (Photo property of Auray)

Auray Reflection Filter (Photo property of Auray)

If covering the area around the mic isn’t enough, many studios “treat” the whole room. Your largest hard surfaces are your walls, which you will want to cover as thoroughly as possible. First cover the wall behind your microphone, the direction you’re speaking towards. Then work your way around.

Sound Panels: The most attractive and stylish solutions are VERY expensive. They range from very thin to several inches thick. Cheaper ones look like egg crate foam, more expensive ones look like thick canvases.

Sound Blankets: Big ugly blankets that cover large amounts of wall space for very cheap. The ones I bought for my booth at home came from Audimute. I didn’t care about color, so I got an offprint pack (about $300 for five 8’x4′ blankets.) Audimute discontinued this version, but they are essentially glorified moving blankets. You could ask a moving company for used blankets, or try hardware stores, just make sure they’re very thick.

Audimute Sound Absorption Sheets

Audimute Sound Absorption Sheets (Image Property of Audimute)

Recording Equipment:

This area can be largely a matter of opinion, so I won’t dwell much on microphone models and makes. You will need a microphone, and you will need a reliable way to get it into your computer without having it sit directly next to your computer. The clicking, whirring sounds a computer makes will ruin a recording every time, so try to get a long cable to distance your mic from the computer. Some folks will use a mixer, and in the long run I would recommend it, but it may not be necessary at first. Audacity and Reaper are free software options if recording to a computer. Personally, I run a cable all the way out of my closet, under the door, over to my computer desk. Building a divider “wall” between your mic and computer will work too, and could be as easy as propping up a pillow beside the computer. If the wall on the other side isn’t treated though, the sound will bounce right back at you.

Monitoring Equipment:

This is often the most overlooked part. You cannot ensure that you’re capturing and sending off a great quality audio file unless you have professional equipment to listen to it with. Laptop speakers, earbuds, and portable devices are complete garbage. A good set of speakers will cost you, and won’t block outside noise while you strain to listen, so I recommend a good pair of headphones. Not all headphones are accurate. An expensive brand of music headphones, promoted by a famous rapper, for example, may boost the bass too much and make you incorrectly adjust your voice to remove this heavy bass. I haven’t used every pair of headphones, but I would bet my career on my Sennheiser HD-280s. At $100, they are one of the cheapest pairs of passive noise-cancelling, high fidelity headphones on the market (Sennheiser HD 280’s on Amazon). You do not need to buy $2,000 headphones when you’re starting basic voice-over work.

You can do all of this with nearly nothing, or you could wipe out your bank account getting the best gear available, it’s all up to you. You can record great sound on the cheap just by considering the four key topics above. Happy recording!

NASA Sounds from Space

Having recently discussed sound in film, I thought this would make a good followup. Check out this article from CreateDigitalMusic.com about NASA’s recently released sound library:

http://createdigitalmusic.com/2014/10/nasa-posts-huge-library-space-sounds-youre-free-use/

https://soundcloud.com/nasa

The quality of some of these sounds is questionable – they all have a sort of low-fi transistor radio feel to them – but I’m imagining them being used precisely for that atmosphere (pardon the pun). These will make great background sound effects or ambiance for space-themed scenes, particularly where the sounds are supposed to feel like radio transmissions.

Create Digital Music’s article also touches on a legal discussion, which is always enlightening. Nasa’s page on SoundCloud has links to their “Use Policy,” which is probably the most important thing you should look for any time you’re using content you didn’t create personally.

Sound Decisions

AudioWave

“Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience.” –George Lucas

“The truth is, for me, it’s obvious that 70, 80 percent of a movie is sound.” –Danny Boyle

“Sound is fifty percent of a film, at least. In some scenes it’s almost a hundred percent. It’s the thing that can add so much emotion to a film. It’s a thing that can add all the mood and create a larger world. It sets the tone and it moves things. Sound is a great “pull” into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.” –David Lynch

Regardless of percentage, sound is a crucial part of your movie; in their heyday, even silent films were screened with specific musical accompaniment. Sound is also an often neglected topic for early filmmakers. Every semester I view student projects with good cinematography, creative visuals, wise editing choices, then audio that distracts from all of these. For many filmmakers it seems as though once we finally get a clear grasp on visuals, we suddenly realize there is another world we haven’t considered. I’m not crazy enough to suggest a comprehensive guide to sound design is possible in one blog post, and I don’t have the knowledge to do it anyway, but here I will provide a few simple tips that helped introduce me to the missing half of my films…

I break the basic components of film sound into:

  • Dialogue: Characters speaking to one another, or to themselves.
  • Ambient Sound: The “background noise” – sometimes it’s simply “white noise” (that hissing sound that fills all rooms), often it adds emotion or tension (i.e. the sounds of heavy traffic and honking, rainfall, or birds chirping in spring).
  • Foley / Sound Effects: Any sound an object makes, from footsteps to car engines to lazer guns. Sometimes it’s easy to assume what sound an object would make, othertimes you may have fun inventing the sound (especially for fantasy/sci-fi).
  • Music/Score: A simple strike of a piano, or an elaborate Hanz Zimmer score – music can fill your soundscape with extra emotion. Music can be a powerful way to subconsciously influence the mood of your scene.

Although sound decisions can be made all the way through the editing stage, you should start thinking about the sound in your film early, just as you would storyboard the visuals. Here are steps you can take at each stage:

Preproduction:

  • Research: Watch films (or scenes) with your eyes closed. Yes, it seems absurd at first. First try this with scenes you’re familiar with, then try “watching” one you haven’t seen. Listen to what exists around the dialogue. You will likely notice quick music transitions or a score that carries the whole scene. If there is no music, you will almost always hear ambient sound – even if you thought the scene was “silent.”
  • Ask: What sort of sound will your scenes require? Can sound save you production hassles and help you “sell” the scene, or will sound gathering be a hassle in itself? Imagine your elaborate dinner scene with the chaotic ambiance of a busy restaurant in the soundtrack while two characters eat in the corner. Your audience will never suspect the scene was shot after-hours or in the dressed-up corner of your apartment.
  • Ask: When will you be able to avoid capturing sound on set? It’s easy to replace the sound of an establishing shot of a sunrise, so when you’re on location you only have to focus on visuals. It’s much trickier to replace sound from a heavy dialogue scene.

Production:

  • Some sound, especially dialogue, may be recorded in production along with the picture. Even if you plan to dub your dialogue (ADR), good production sound is needed as a reference.
  • Use an external microphone (not the camera’s mic) so you can position it close to what’s most important and away from potential camera noise. This could be as simple as a boom mic or lavaliere on your talent, or as complex as a mixing board with several inputs.
  • Notify cast and crew know if you’re recording sound, with a simple “Quiet on the set!”
  • If a shot has no dialogue, but you’re recording sound anyway, position the mic towards what’s important (e.g. nearby traffic or a man’s footsteps)
  • Don’t forget to record “room tone” – a clean recording of ambient noise on set that you can use later to fill in gaps where other sounds have been removed.

Post-production:

  • ADR: Re-dubbing dialogue is a common practice in Hollywood, but it’s not for the faint of heart. This tricky process requires matching the natural feel of your location, authenticity of your talent’s performance, and the timing to match their lips on screen.
  • Foley: Adding or enhancing sounds that would’ve occurred naturally, but aren’t captured in your raw footage with enough intensity, is called “Foley.” You may record your own sounds, or pull from outside sources. I often pull from, and post sounds to Freesound.org for others to enjoy.
  • Music: This topic could use its own post, but for the time being let me note that a shift in music indicates a shift in the scene. This shift can be from one type of music to another, from music to silence, or from silence to music. Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn do a fantastic job explaining music as a transition in this lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-IKKcrkprY

I’ve reached the maximum length I’m comfortable with for a post, but this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. You may have noticed, I didn’t touch on equipment in this post… yes, I am intentionally avoiding that topic. My hope for the independent filmmaker is that this launches a new quest to discover the world of sound and its impact on the films you watch, and the films you create.

Sites I like:

Download/Upload Sound Effects:
Freesound.org

Royalty-free music:
Incompetech.com
Bensound.com

Forum:
Socialsounddesign.com

I also recommend browsing Archive.org; although organization there can be confusing, there are some great public domain resources in audio as well as other media.