When, between the music track you need to insert speech -- be it voice over or dialogue -- how do you automate the music volume?

  • How far do you go with levels?
  • How quick? How's the curve of the automation related to the duration of the speech itself: in and out?

    I'm trying to make it sound as clean as possible so it wouldn't be even noticeable to the main audience (the sad part of our job: what gets well done, usually goes unnoticed).

    Thank you!

  • Thank you very much to you all! It has been really helpful and made me notice some other solutions I haven't thought about. Cheers to everyone! Nov 14, 2011 at 1:53

4 Answers 4


Ah, the ever-present battle of Music and Dialogue ;)

As Shaun and some others have mentioned, context is everything. A perfectly poor example in my opinion is Inception. Overall, production is pretty crystal clear so they can rock the music nice and loud. But Ken Watanabe has a thick accent, so much so that the music drowned him out in 2 specific spots (if not more). It was about the 3th time I saw the film in a theater that I finally understood what he said (and I'm a dialogue editor). So in this case, I feel the music was mixed well against very clear English-language for an English-language audience, but in the case of someone who wasn't speaking so clearly in English, it wasn't mixed well in my opinion.

The approach I like with music when I'm mixing is to set up my submaster to give it about a 3-4dB attenuation at 1kHz with about a 0.75-1.0 Q. Always - never gets automated, just sits there globally. I've found that this little attenuation allows the dialogue to more effectively cut through at the chief intelligibility range and lift it dimensionally off the screen. I then follow it up with a stereo imager - my personal favorite is the one by Flux because it has a nice fat phase scope so I can see what's going on. It's set to a conservative width of +0.7 to +1.0 dB. Again, not enough to change the characteristics, but it helps open up that center-channel 'hole' so that music can be pushed more aggressively without blurring dialogue. The catch here though is I only use this stereo imager when mixing in a 2.0 environment, not 5.1. This imaging width increase I find helps simulate the LCR discreteness that's heard when a true 5.1 is folded down and played back. In 2.0 we don't have that center channel dedicated to dialogue, so the stereo imaging width helps carefully simulate that "forced discreteness" to be allocated across the LR phantom center more decisively, rather than the blurry LCR image that a 2.0 naturally has.

After that, for me it's about babysitting the meters and riding the levels of music against the dialogue intuitively. I personally prefer not to work with expanders/sidechain compressors. Nothing against them, the faders just feel more comfortable to me. The goal to my ears is the make sure dialogue is always heard, but at the same time respect the composer's material and push it where its appropriate to give it moments to shine when dialogue is robust enough to handle the music rockin' or where there's no dialogue. Shaping the volume ramping too is one of those intuitive things, but I try to follow the natural crescendos and rise/falls of the music so that the build up or build down has a natural feel - sometimes it means quick a sudden changes, and other times it can very long and gentle

I wish I had a more quantitative way to answer the question as far as the automating/mixing goes, yet unfortunately that's the best angle I can share. With post sound I've observed that I work intuitively under a mantra which has resonated with me the most - "if it sounds good, it is good".

  • I should take notes of this answer! I had already done the project that concerned me about this matter and I had a similar approach, but went to cut 4-5 dB on some more frequencies, but it'd be nice to compare to your 1k approach. And for the rest I let the music flow with context and feeling of the scene. I agree with you about using side-chain, it was way more natural to create dozens of automation points. Really, I will compare this approach and post it somewhere in my blog. This is a very interesting matter and no one knows what it takes to get good dialogue sound. Feb 25, 2012 at 13:22
  • Cool, have fun with it! I'm not so sure it's that no one knows what it takes to get good diallogue, as it's more of that htere's no one correct answer ;). I also forgot to mention that I apply a Reverb too, usually RVerb using a Studio-sized space, sized at 0.9 or so with a 45-60ms Predelay and a slightly rising high-end on the decay to brighten it. I've been told this tends to be a common reverb type at stages for the music submaster/stem. Also, having stems from the composer helps out a lot since it allows you to troubleshoot specific problem areas without compromising the entire cue. Feb 26, 2012 at 7:38
  • Oh, I meant "not-sound persons" have no idea the amount of work that is needed to get good dialogue. Of course. :) Feb 29, 2012 at 22:56

This one is kind of hard to answer; it's one of those things that you can only judge in context.

A related idea that you may want to consider is a notching EQ automation. I'll use that if I feel that volume automation is too heavy handed for the style and phrase of music in a given spot, or if I want to keep the music louder to give the piece more energy. An easy (fast) way to do this is to route your music through an aux with the EQ on it. Crossfade between the original and the processed version as needed.

  • Thank you, that's a nice approach. I'll experiment cutting in the main frequencies of the dialogue. Nov 10, 2011 at 19:21

Shaun's note is great, it really does depend from piece to piece. I think you really can push the music down pretty far if you pick your moments right, so don't be afraid. My sense is that audiences are somewhat conditioned to that happening from years of subconciously absorbing the conventions of film mixing. Try masking the volume jump with an incoming dialogue line, another loud moment, or just on a picture cut and see if that sells it.

Another thing you can try if you want to leave the music louder - if it is just one part of the music that's competing with the dialogue, use a multiband compressor like Waves C4 to squash those frequencies a bit. That way when you turn the music down, you won't have to bring the bass, drums and overall music presence down so far just to get rid of the problem area. If you have stems, even better..

Another option is compressing the dialogue and gaining it back up. For some styles, you may be able to get away with a lot of this without it sounding weird. But I would go easy on this one myself.

All that stuff together plus Shaun's EQ trick and you should be in pretty good shape.

I would try to test the clip on someone who doesn't know the dialogue afterwards and see if it's still intelligible to them as a final check.

  • 2
    I haven't tried it myself as I don't have the plugin, but the Waves C6 has a sidechain input. As a hybrid of @Luca and @Shaun's ideas, you could key the C6 with a bus from your spoken track. It would duck just your chosen frequencies out of your music track. Which would save you from crossfading between two tracks of the same music, and allow you to not have to be so severe with your dips. Nov 11, 2011 at 13:43

It is indeed contextually sensitive.

However, I read in Techniques of the Sound Studio that the BBC did studies that found that music needs to be 6db below adjacent voice in order for the audience to sense it as the same volume as voice. That's because music is usually a more broadband sound and voice is relatively narrow band. How does that work into dropping music below dialog? If you have a segment of music up full followed by a segment of voice over music, at the point where you begin your fade under the voice, the music should be at -6. You can gently sneak it down to -6 as you approach the transition and then begin your fade under the voice.

One other technique I also find very useful is based upon the fact that hiding one end of the music fade under the voice entrance makes the fade less pronounced. I simply make sure that the down end of the fade is underneath the beginning of the voice. Exiting the voice over music segment to music up is simply a reversal of the same technique on both counts above.

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