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Hello All!

I understand that workflow in sound designing a movie usually ends up in 3 tracks; Dialogue, Sound Effects, and Music. I've been asked to level out a feature length movie which doesn't have an organization as such, however I was curious if there are set db levels where these tracks should generally sit.

For example, the Dialogue should sit between -15 to -10 db

Also welcome to any other pointers for mastering sound for a movie.

Thank you so much! Kevin

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4 Answers 4

Kevin,

Check out this video on calibrating your studio speakers to a standard monitoring level:

http://vimeo.com/22735507

Calibrate to 79dB for a home studio. If you don't have an SPL meter, you can download one on a smartphone and it will do just fine. It's might be a bit louder than you're used to.

Once you're all calibrated, watch a film or show that has similar sonic style or a sound mix that you know/respect. Listen to the dynamic range; if your interface has meters on it, note where the dialog lands in loud/quiet portions, when the effects/music hit the limiters, etc. It might even help you to switch back-and-forth, especially if the reference film is very similar to yours.

Also, try summing your mix to mono and playing it back over different speakers. It will tell you a lot.

Best,
~Matt

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(ta for the mention!) –  Brent_in_Sydney Sep 16 '12 at 10:56
    
Of course! I learned some crafty new editing tricks I never know about from your "Pro Tools in Radio" video. Cheers! –  Matt Glenn Sep 16 '12 at 12:50

Hi Kevin,

In general movie soundtracks are not mixed to specific dB levels. Mixers mostly trust their ears and therefore they need a calibrated room. Where are you going to work on the levels of the soundtrack.

Do you have access to a Dolby Mix facility? You could rent one, with assistance, and this should allow you to get the levels right in the mix.

Good luck!

Arnoud

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As said above, you want to calibrate your playback environment first. Than, in my experience, with dialogue you want to be hitting equal to about -27 DB LEQ(a) up the center channel, usually measured on a stage with a Dolby LM100. That usually results in your dialogue average meter sitting around -16 dB to -12dB with peaks hitting around -6dB, maybe as hot a -3dB on a huge scream (this also depends upon how much compression you use on your dialogue, some prefer more than others). This method has seemed to produce desirable results which translate well. When I have leveled out my dialogue edits in the past with this dialnorm target even with the less-accurate Phasescope plugin and compensating for how it measures it's levels, I've heard the sessions thrown up onto the stage and the dialogue plays back at the right energy level and a good translation, granted the mixer will be further refining and adjusting it. Aside from that, as mentioned on here as well, with FX and MX it's all by ear/taste usually, since dialogue levels are the anchor to which you sculpt around. If there's any level 'rules' for FX or MX, I just make sure they top out at -1dB max, but I set a brickwall at -3dB so that only once a blue moon if something is just too loud and it pushes past the brick wall it will still be free of clipping. So about 99% of the time those things will top out at about -3dB and maybe 1% of the time they're reach up to -1dB.

This is all with features in mind though, as I understand TV works a little different, where I've seen it that dialogue is hard brickwalled at -10dB and the overall summed mix levels were hard brickwalled at -6dB and the LEQ(a) target can be somewhere arouound -24 or even a little hotter. I'm sure some TV mixers on here could chime in on that as I'm not very knowledgeable about that area.

My opinion is that dialogue is the 'black/white' anchor you want to establish level-wise, and you'll probably find that everything else for FX and MX intuitively fall into place once you've established that. Listneing to movie samples will definitely help give you a sense of the balance, but at the end of the day it's usually only the dialogue which has a hard and fast 'rule' as far as meter levels go.

As far as watching examples, as Matt said, I do recommend an exercise of caution because many times a DVD/BLuRay/iTunes is using a re-mixed version of the theatrical print, usually with a tighter dynamic range, and sometimes smothered with compression or even as much as 6dB hotter of a reference level (because a standard living room has an ambient 40 to 50 dB level whereas as theater is 20dB or so). Unfortunately it's not a well-known practice nor is it specified on the packaging, but it does happen and even then, there's non standardization in that some films are released to disc with the theatrical as-is (often quieter sounding), other's are remixed for DVD but keep the same reference level, and others are severely crunched and boosted during the remix.

I know one example I like to always go back to is MI:3 - unfortunately the compression on the DVD printmaster is palpable during the opening mission, to my ears almost like nails on a chalkboard. So I guess what I'm getting at is that Matt's ideas is a good one, although I'd recommend you more or less try to find a clear area of dialogue in the film first and level out your playback level otherwise you may very likely be comparing apples to oranges by having listened to the DVD too low or too hot. Equal loudness can affect how you judge the mix balance, as sounds become more impactful and punchy when they're louder but dull and rounded when they're lower.

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Very good point, thanks. Interestingly, I got a chance to tour the complex at Meyer Sound Corp. in Berkeley, CA earlier this year, and part of the tour was a movie presentation in their Pearson theater. The movie clip they showed was "Master and Commander" because, as they discovered themselves, the Blu-Ray mix is a completely unaltered copy of the feature mix, and thus is a rare gem for listening at home. Apparently Master and Commander Blu-Rays were blowing out home speaker systems... who knew! –  Matt Glenn Sep 13 '12 at 6:54
    
@Matt doesn't surprise me ;) I think it gives new meaning to that sales phrase on BluRays saying "hear it exactly the way it was mixed". My guess is, a lot of the time and unbeknownst to the consumer, fat chance! Although when one does come along like that film which does actually deliver un the goods of an unalterd theatrical print, it throws the consumer for a loop. Usually the theatrical sounds quieter overall (when compared to another disc which has been remixed and crunched). I'm guess that people turned their system up for the dialogue and than BOOM! when it got to a loud part. –  Stavrosound Sep 13 '12 at 20:52

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