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.

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.

5 thoughts

  1. I don’t disagree, but I can remember at least one case where a very talented dialogue mixer used reverb to help incorporate an ADR line surrounded by production dialogue from the same actor. No amount of fixed or static EQ or fader moves seemed to make this line sound anywhere close to the adjacent production lines. The mixer then faded in the return of a small room reverb to BOTH the preceding and following production lines as well as the ADR line, and voila! It’s not perfect, but it actually sounds like the actor turned off-mic and came back on-mic in a natural way. The reverb is what’s common between the dissimilar production and ADR. The director was most impressed. The ADR line can be found in this youtube clip about 12secs in:

  2. I’m guilty. As soon as a new reverb or delay comes out, I have to have it. I do think though that the pendulum has swung too far towards over cleaning and dry dialog often at the director’s request. At screenings that I’ve been to recently, It seems that in a effort to get the dialog to jump off the screen, production is being denoised and compressed into sounding more like the ADR rather than trying to make the ADR sound like production. I totally agree that using blanket reverb for flashback type stuff is super cliché and I try to not use that unless it is insisted upon often by the picture editor who did it in the avid temp.

    Thanks for all the great posts!

    1. Hmmm… I tend to have the opposite experience. Directors, and even more so picture editors, fall in love wither the noise in the dialog track, and insist at least some of it be put back, after the mixer removes it. In any case, best not to assume you know what sound they want without a little investigation.

      1. OMG Randy fantastic to see a new article from you! “Tyranny of Reverb” would be an awesome album title… it could even be ironically playful. (Coming from a musical, not dialog perspective where you’d intentionally want oppressive and saturated reverbs.)

        On the plus side, reverb removal is getting more accessible and intuitive, including for those times where the ‘verb is (unfortunately) already “baked in” and you want to clean up some audio… transitioning into what you’re going to write about next with noise reduction (very curious!), have you seen/heard ?

  3. I’ve felt this way for years!!! I’m very sensitive to artificial reverbs – they sound exceedingly fake to me. I’m all for natural reverb where warranted, but that takes a lot of additional consideration in production or effort to reamp/worldize in post, which, unfortunately, rarely happens…

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