A Primer on Oscar’s Sound Editing and Mixing Categories

Inside Out Sound Mixing Ren Klyce
Deborah Coleman / Pixar

Filmmaking is a collaborative medium, as everyone likes to point out. But one key contribution is misunderstood more than any other: sound.

Oscar voters will weigh in on sound editing and sound mixing in final balloting, which runs Feb. 12-23. But even industry veterans can get confused at the difference. Here’s one way of remembering: E comes before M in the alphabet, so sound editing occurs before mixing. But they’re not separate entities; neither can live without other.

“Singin’ in the Rain,” the 1952 comedy set in the early days of talkies, shows how rough the transition to sound was in a scene in which a boom mic picks up every noise. When the film-within-the-film makers think a take is good, the dailies show magnified extraneous sounds. This helped perpetuate the myth that the sound person is on the set, recording all the noises that end up in the final print.

So here is Sound 101, a primer on what each category means, and what to look for.

Sound Editing

The sound editor is responsible for assembling everything you hear on screen — the dialog, the foley, ADR (automated dialog replacement), walla (crowd noises), incidental sounds (paper rustling), atmosphere (wind, a distant tugboat) and sound effects (engines revving, gunshots). Sound editors make audio choices; sometimes they tap into a library of sounds, sometimes they make their own recordings, and sometimes they fabricate sounds that are completely new.

“The mixer decides the shaping, sculpting and dovetailing of different sounds to work together as one.”
Ren Klyce, sound designer

In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” supervising sound editor Mark Mangini and his team received a print that was basically a silent film, so they built from there. They invented sounds for the breathing mechanism of villain Immortan Joe; they also created layers of sound for each vehicle, to make each one distinct (Furiosa’s War Rig included subtle animal noises).

Sound Mixing

This is one of the final stages of post-production. The sound elements have been prepared/gathered in isolation, and the sound mixer takes all of these (plus the music score), and determines the appropriate levels, judging which elements the audience needs to hear. In other words, after the sound editor has assembled what the audience hears, the sound mixer determines how they hear it. The mixer decides when to de-emphasize atmosphere sounds and prioritize music, for example.

The sound mixer has hundreds of channels of audio; with a big action movie, that number can rise to 2,000, as was the case on “Fury Road.” The mixer chooses only a handful of channels at a time, deciding what sounds will best tell the story. In a 20-minute climactic chase, the mixers balanced the noise of vehicles, dialogue and crowd noises. And when Mad Max has a flashback/blackout, there is absolute silence for a beat — a very dramatic choice.

Inside Out” sound designer Ren Klyce notes that the animated movie starts with the birth of Joy, which requires one sound — for baby Riley’s first emotion. When other emotions arrive and start manufacturing memories, the sound gets more dense “as the mixer decides the shaping, sculpting and dovetailing of different sounds to work together as one.”

Name That Category

In 1963, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences initiated a “sound effects” category. In the 1970s, it was known as “sound effects editing.” In 1979, it changed to sound editing.

Separately, starting with the third Academy Awards for 1929-30, there was an Oscar for “sound recording.” It became simply “sound,” and starting in 2003, took on its current name, sound mixing.

Every year, the question arises: Do we really need two Academy Award categories for sound. The obvious answer: Actually, we need about seven categories. But we’ll settle for these two.

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  1. Scott Adams says:

    I’m glad you talked about a sound mixer choosing deciding what elements the audience should hear. I have wanted to become a mixer, because peopled tell me that I would be good at deciding what sound are important to hear when building suspense. I’ll have to keep this in mind when deciding what jobs I’ll try in the future.

  2. p. mierzwa says:

    As a boom operator for 17 yrs., I am offended that this article purports to explain sound for film (and television); it completely ignores the contribution and existence of production sound people. It reads to me like publicity for MAD MAX; nothing wrong with that, but call it what it is. The author, couching this misinformation in an educational way, perpetuates the erroneous history of sound for film. Using a fictional movie version as historical reference? Worse than using Wikipedia. Shame on you, Variety.

  3. Chris Howland, CAS says:

    This article is not at all accurate. You are confusing the Sound Mixer with the Re-Recording Mixer. The sound mixer works during the production process (often called the Production Sound Mixer) and is responsible for capturing all the original performances, as well as all the other original sound elements from the set, during principle photography. They are called the sound mixer because while they are recording the individual elements, they are simultaneously performing a realtime MIX of those elements in concert with what the camera is covering and the talent that’s performing within that particular frame. This is the first realtime interpretation of what the film will sound like and it’s used for dailies and the picture edit process as well.

    The sound is usually not touched again until after ‘picture lock’ when it is then sent to the Post Sound department where the sound coverage is then re-evaluated for the sound edit. The sound edit includes, dialogue editing, ADR and foley. This usually happens while the music cues are being worked on by the composer. Once all these elements are completed and properly timed into the picture edit, then and only then is the project sent to the Re-Recording Mixer to start work on putting the final elements together. Sometimes the “Re-re” (as they are often referred to) is involved creatively during the edit so they can make sure the elements come together properly on both the sonic level and in regards to timing but the actual Re-Recording mix can’t begin until everything else is done.

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