4 Simple Steps To Make Your Dialogue Sound Like It Was Mixed By A Pro

So, you’ve got your project to picture lock, and you’re ready to start laying on the finishing touches. Now what?

Quite simply, it’s time to make your sound as good as it can possibly be. After all, audio is a uniquely powerful tool that can help you make your work more impactful and really stand out in a crowded market. It’s not something you want to take lightly.

Now, you might be excited to dive into some intricate sound design, but it’s important to nail down the basics first, and that means making sure your dialogue is crisp and clear.

If you’re curious how exactly to do that, Dallas Taylor from Defacto Sound, an award-winning sound design studio, shared a simplified version of the process that he and his team use to get the dialogue for films, games, and commercials sounding great.

We’ll dive into the step-by-step details in a moment, but here’s a broad overview of the process, and the order each step should be completed:

  1. Noise Reduction: pulling out unwanted background noise, such as electrical hum
     
  2. EQ: boosting and cutting certain frequencies to make the voice sound its very best
     
  3. De-Essing: getting rid of harsh sibilant sounds
     
  4. Compression: balancing out the mix so that levels remain consistent

These don’t always make a dramatic difference on their own (unless your source file is bad or you’re really overdoing it with the effect), but when they’re done well all together, it makes a massive impact on the quality and clarity of your dialogue.

So now let’s dive into each of those tools individually and talk about how to get the most out of them.

Noise Reduction

Noise reduction is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the process of removing unwanted background noise from any given track.

The main thing to note about noise reduction is that it inherently diminishes the quality of your audio. The more noise you need to remove, the worse the source material is going to sound. It sucks, but there’s really no such thing as a magic bullet when it comes to removing unwanted noise. It’s always going to be a tradeoff.

So the absolute best strategy with noise reduction is to avoid it altogether by capturing clean sound on set. It sounds obvious, but this is one of those instances where a “fix it in post” mentality can get you in trouble later on.

If you’re on location, make sure to turn off any electrical appliances (refrigerators and air conditioners are the biggest culprits) while you’re rolling. Beyond that, it’s a great idea to test your sound gear at the location before shooting begins. This is a great way to identify and resolve sound issues before they become a thorny problem in post.

If you’re already in post and dealing with a noisy source file, you’ll want to apply noise reduction as lightly and judiciously as possible to maintain as much audio quality as you can.

EQ

Once you’ve dealt with the noise reduction process—or if you took care of business on set and didn’t have to deal with noise—it’s time to start tweaking a few key frequencies to make your dialogue sound great.

There are three main frequencies that Dallas and his team like to focus on when it comes to EQ-ing dialogue tracks.

80Hz: Anything at or below this point is usually rolled off. Unless you’re recording that guy who does dramatic voiceovers for movie trailers, nothing in this range is going to make your dialogue sound better, so just roll it off and be done with it.

250Hz: This is where the “meat” of most human voices lives. So if the dialogue sounds a little bit boxy, chesty, or muffled, you can grab that 250Hz frequency and pull it down with a fairly wide bandwidth by about 1 or 2dB. Just that one tweak alone can make a world of difference in a muddy dialogue track.

4,000Hz: This is where the presence and brilliance of most voices live. Just like you can pull down the midrange by 1 or 2dB, you can boost the 4,000Hz frequency by about the same amount (using a fairly wide bandwidth) to add some real sparkle and clarity. This is what will make those dialogue tracks really pop.

One last note about EQ before we move on. If you need to boost or cut any frequency by more than 2-3dB, there’s probably something deeper going on with your source audio file. At that point, you’re not really sweetening the audio anymore so much as you’re doing restoration. And the restoration process is requires a different mindset altogether that we won’t be covering here.

De-Essing

Most modern microphones are fairly balanced on the EQ side of things, but tend to have an “essy” quality to them, as in they overemphasize sibilant sounds like “ssss” and “shhh”. And when these sounds are overemphasized, it can make for a rather unpleasant listening experience.

That’s why a basic de-essing plugin is a must.

Luckily, most de-essing plugins these days are simple and automated, meaning you won’t have to do much with them in order to get good results.

Just tell the plugin which frequency you’d like it to kick in at, and tweak it until your sibilant sounds are less aggressive. Look for anywhere between the 4000Hz-8000Hz range for this.

Compression

Last, but certainly not least, is compression. As Dallas says, one of the biggest differences between an editor’s mix and something professionally mixed is compression. The difference is night and day.

Essentially, compression limits the dynamic range of a track, bringing the peaks down and making everything sound more balanced and even throughout the mix.

Compression plugins come in all different varieties, some more complex than others, but there are three basic tweaks you can make no matter what kind of compression tool you’ve got.

First off, Dallas almost always prefers to use a fast attack. The attack refers to how quickly the compressor turns on when it encounters a signal loud enough to work on. Basically, a faster attack makes it less noticeable that compression is being used, whereas slower attack times can make it super obvious.

Second, you’ll want to find a good threshold, or the point where the compressor kicks on. For instance, if you set the threshold to -10dB, the compressor will only act on signals above that point. Usually, you’ll want to be somewhere in the -10 to -20dB range depending on how healthy your audio signal is.

Lastly, you'll want to keep the compression ratio, or the amount that signal is attenuated, fairly low. Probably in the 2:1 or 3:1 range. This keeps the compression effect relatively subtle, while still giving you a more balanced dialogue track.

Wrapping Up

So there you have it. This is the same thought process that Dallas and the award-winning sound designers at Defacto use for the vast majority of their dialogue work.

It’s pretty subtle, simple stuff, but the difference it can make in the overall quality and clarity of the spoken word is massive. But don’t take my word for it. Dive into the plugins that come with your editing and audio apps and start trying it out for your next project. 

One quick note, though. When you’re first working with these various plugins, your tendency is going to be to overdo each one. And that’s totally ok. You need to push the sliders and knobs all the way to clearly hear what they’re doing.

That said, the best results usually come from subtle tweaks. So if you’re not careful with these tools, they can lead to some pretty gnarly-sounding results, which might leave you feeling a bit disheartened. If it ever feels like you’re making tweaks and the mix just isn’t getting any better, it’s probably because you pushed them too far in any given direction. So dial everything back, or start fresh.

If you're looking for even further insight on how to take your sound game to the next level, Dallas is putting on sound design workshop that will rock your socks off.

Click here for to visit the Together Workshops site to learn more about it.