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Home Brew ADR, Part One

June 1, 2010

ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement) is basically the act of restoring film dialog that has been compromised by various technical glitches. ADR can be needed because an actor’s voice was compromised by noise on the set, or because a different language is needed for international versions, or because an actor can’t dance and sing at the same time.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Why should I care?”

Well, consider that the independent film community is growing at lightning speeds, and video technology is growing right with it. Your nextdoor neighbor could be the next James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, or Alfred Hitchcock, and you may have a chance to work with them from the beginning. In addition, indie filmmakers don’t have near the budgets of the big movie studios, but they still need much the same audio work done—just for far less dollars. Are you seeing the land of opportunity come into view?

Until recently, it would be near impossible for someone with a home studio to do ADR, as it required specialized training and high-end gear. Today, however, most DAWs can deliver the technical goods, and some audio-post-production tips can help unlock the secrets of effective ADR recording. The ultimate goal of ADR is to let the viewer think about the story, and not struggle to understand the dialog, or wonder why sounds keep changing around. Trust me, achieving that goal is harder than it sounds. Next issue, we’ll detail an actual ADR session, but for now, I’ll list the basic tools you’ll need to explore doing some thrilling film sound at home.

What You’ll Need

Microphones. When you replace dialog, you’ll need to ensure the tones and timbres are very close to what was originally recorded on the set. It would be quite jarring if a viewer were to hear a taxi driver speak in a resonant baritone for one line, and then hear the next line sounding thin and brittle. To match the on-set sounds, you’ll need a reasonable range of microphones, from smalland large-diaphragm dynamics to small- and large-diaphragm condensers. You don’t have to have the best of everything, because the mic of choice for location sound is typically something on the order of a Sennheiser ME 66—a mid-priced, shotgun-style condenser.

Monitors. The actor will need to watch the film in order to match the onscreen mouth movements to the dialog being replaced. This monitor can be anything from a second computer screen to a dedicated TV-style monitor. If you go with the TV screen, you’ll likely need a digital-video converter. [Tip: Canopus makes great cheap solutions.] And don’t forget that the engineer will need a monitor, as well.

The Film. Unfortunately, most filmmakers won’t part with their movie until the last minute, so you’ll need to be okay with delivering super-precise, time-consuming audio work on a very tight deadline. If possible, get a rough cut as early as you can, so that you can familiarize yourself with the project “off-the-clock.” Then, when the talent arrives, you’ll have a better idea of how to work with certain cues. Warning: Make sure that whatever footage you get is the picture-lock version. Picture lock is the very last edit the filmmaker does before the movie goes in for color correction (the visual mastering process). If you are working with an edit that is not a picture lock, you’re in danger of replacing items that will be out of sync when you get the next edit version.

Directions. You know the drill—some creative people are better at giving clear and explicit directions than others. But when you’re replacing dialog, in order to avoid unnecessary stress, you’ll need a specific list of the dialog parts you will be replacing.

In addition, you’ll need a list of the ambient sounds required for each scene. Remember, when you replace dialog, you are also replacing the ambient cues captured on the set. For example, picture a bartender speaking in a crowded bar. When he or she was recorded on set, some elements of the crowd noise and ambience leaked into the mic—elements that obviously will be missing when you replace the dialog in your studio. Sometimes, the film soundperson will provide you with ambient sounds for each scene, but you should also be prepared to “invent” ambiences that match the scene’s sound design. After all, you don’t want the replaced dialog to be shockingly obvious because the crowd noise dips or disappears for a few lines.

See the July 2010 issue of EQ for a step-by-step guide to ADR tracking.

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