The Living Thames is a 60-minute documentary that I completed the sound design and mix for. I don’t mix very often, and the less you do it, the longer it tends to take when you do. Nevertheless, I had a really enjoyable time working on this film, which was thanks to some lovely material (and fascinating stories), and the constant encouragement and energy of Dorothy Leiper, the director.
It is a film about the River Thames that takes viewers on a journey; from the river’s history, to its function at the heart of London life, all the way along the estuary and eventually out to the sea. The Living Thames won Best Longform Film at this year’s Charity Film Awards and Best Feature Documentary at the Madrid International Film Festival, as well as screenings in London, Sofia (Bulgaria), and is an official selection for World Cinema Milan (in December 2019). This is wonderful recognition for all the hard work and time put in by Dorothy, the Thames Estuary Partnership (who backed the film), the film’s presenter Chris Baines, and many, many others who either contributed to the film or helped to get it made.
You can read my thoughts below on how the sound design came together for The Living Thames. For more information about the film and its message, visit: https://thamesestuarypartnership.org/news-and-events/the-living-thames/
Clockwise from top left: (1) The Living Thames’ presenter Chris Baines, at Kew Bridge, (2) at the Thames Estuary Path in Erith, (3) and (4) me in the sound edit.
What were the tools and techniques that got you through this project?
I always try to implement some new technique or piece of software for every project, however small. It’s very easy to get into grooves and just do what you’ve always done, particularly when projects are more often than not running at 80 miles an hour. For The Living Thames, with a less hectic schedule to work with, I really wanted to use it as an opportunity to get really stuck into my Pro Tools Dock and the Pro Tools Control software. I’d bought the Dock very early in the year, I think, and hadn’t really got stuck in. So, in terms of new techniques and tools, I would say this project was a really important step forward in that sense. Apart from that, I’m always trying to become more discerning with specific tools for specific jobs, and improve my knowledge of them. So, to that end, EQ and in particular EQuality, which is a fairly new purchase, but which I liked because it’s very easy and intuitive to use, and with good results.
Overall, I think the biggest step forward I wanted to take in terms of technique was just trying saving time where time could be saved, with automation and good project organisation. My hope was that this would leave me with more time for the more creative, more enjoyable stuff. I don’t have my workflow completely down, and it adapts each time, a little bit here and there, but I was really pushing myself to use more automation, and use it sensibly and efficiently, shortcuts too. All those little time savers.
So, is there anything in particular with regards automation that you will now integrated into your workflow for future projects?
Definitely. For this project, I did the whole sound edit and then the mix. Because I had two days to mix it (at Sound Disposition in north London), I did a lot of premixing things in my little studio. One thing that I would say I learned and that I think works for me is to do my automation in layers. Particularly with ambiences, but also with dialogues, too. What I mean by layers is, I guess, in stages. For example, using Auto Join in Latch mode. on a first pass, and then Touch mode for subsequent passes. Simple stuff, but it means being able to get the right result more quickly and efficiently. Also, really taking advantage of automation Preview and Capture.
Now that the project is over, how do you feel about the different phases of the project, and in particular, how was finishing up, usually the hardest part?
Okay, well let me work backwards from the end, then. The very final stage was finalising the project and project files for archiving. I say 'archiving', but what I really wanted to do here was make sure that I didn’t have lots of duplicated files. I’d been pretty meticulous throughout the project of linking audio files rather than copying them, so I was already fairly confident that there weren’t too many extra files floating about. However, there was quite a bit of hassle at the start of the project with the conformed audio, and I wanted to make sure that the total archived project was as light as it needed to be.
If I think of the kinds of audio files I had: conformed audio from production, library sound effects and ambiences, recorded sound effects and ambiences, sound footage from archived video material, the first step was to do a Save Copy In of my final mix session, making sure that 'Convert to Specified Format' is checked. That way I don’t get any unpleasant surprises. Once that was all done, I go back to my other sessions (dialogues, FX tracklay, music, premix) and relink the audio files from there. Any audio files that are in these sessions but not in my final mix session. I force relink the 'missing’ audio files to the session in question. Then move them to the audio files folder of my final mix session. That way, across all my different sessions, I just have one 'Audio Files' folder containing all audio for the whole project. The Living Thames was the first time that I had worked this way, so I expect to refine this a little bit as I go on.
So, that was the very final stage. Before that was QC of the final mixes and making the deliverables. I won’t go into detail on that because there was nothing particular remarkable about this. I’m just listening out for things audio errors (clicks and pops, dropouts) that may have found their way to the audio file, and also things in the mix that may fall foul of general audio QC.
I don’t ordinarily do a lot of long-form mixing. I think with this project, as I said earlier, because the schedule wasn’t 80 miles an hour, it allowed me to be a little bit more reflective on the process as it was on-going, and to think about perhaps ways in which I was working that were different to past projects. On that point, I’d just say that mixing film and television material is quite attritional. I don’t mean that in a negative way, just in a different way from mixing a piece of music. My experience is that one is often working to get to a point where you’ve sufficiently masked the deficiencies, have pushed the key emotive and narrative elements as far as you dare, and then have made all the other components as coherent and unified as possible. In the most simplistic terms, I would say that’s what I reflected on as being my mix thought process for this project.
How did you find mixing the dialogue? Were there any particularly sticky moments?
A couple of sticky moments, which is going to be par for the course when working with production dialogue captured in challenging circumstances. It’s documentary about the natural environment, so about 95% of it is shot outdoors. Ironically, however, one of the trickiest passages was the one scene shot indoors, where there was a section of about 2-3 minutes with dialogue that was just very problematic for a few different reasons. In the end, the director, Dorothy, and I made the decision to re-record that section. Fortunately, the contributor was available, and we were able to record his new lines in the same location (although in a different part of the building). He was very accommodating but actually had a cold when we did the ADR session, so there were some challenges there too. ADR is never ideal, and the end result was a lot better than it would have been had we not ADR’d it. What I will say though is that for this segment there were a few things that worked in our favour in terms of making it workable. Other than that, with mixing the dialogue, it was just riding the fader constantly, obviously using trim automation for further refinements.
Did you use many de-noising tools?
Yes and no. Obviously, when one is editing dialogue, noise reduction doesn’t really come into the equation, unless it’s something that’s massively obvious. Even then, the original has to be retained for the mixer to make the call. For this project, I was able to call on Cedar 8, Izotope RX6 Advanced, and Waves X-Noise. An interesting thing happened with the workflow, though. Of course, I knew I was going to be mixing this project, so I was able to get a head start on how I might like things to sound in the mix room, but before I went into the final mix, I got rid of all my Cedar plug-ins instantiated and bypassed RX on all the dialogue tracks. I had already rendered Cedar DNS One on a few choice sections that I had thought might cause particular headaches in the mix. What happened was that, in the end, RX6 remained in bypass, and was only brought into action when it was absolutely needed, and out of about twenty renders that I performed using Cedar, I only ended up using one. My threshold was that if the background noise was impacting negatively on intelligibility, or getting in the way of the storytelling I’d use the dialogue de-noiser. This almost subtractive way of de-nosing was quite new to me and I’ll definitely work this way again. Aside from general de-noising of the dialogue, I did of course use RX6 for all manner of specific, offline tasks.
Want to share any reflections from work on this project?
I’d say that one of the things I’ve learned on reflection, and this might sound either very crazy or completely obvious, is to use my ears more. Use my brain less and my ears more, when mixing, certainly. What I mean by that is rather than thinking something sounds a certain way because the brain is making associations or connections that are subjectively rationalised, really trying to react to what my ears are telling me. Of course, this is subjective as well, but working based on what my ears are communicating to me and acting accordingly. This isn’t the only way to work of course; one has to be aware of the storytelling aspects, the creative aspects, the psychological aspects of what is happening, but just forgetting all that and relying on how things sound, oddly, hasn’t always been top of mind in that, kind of, forensic way that it needs to be when you’re at the fine, fine end of the sound mix.