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🎬 Audio Effects

Conveniently, effects inside Fairlight can be applied at both the clip and track level. They can be assigned directly to tracks containing your clips or to “auxiliary” tracks designed for holding nothing but effects. When we discuss effect controls, “dry” means the original, unaffected, signal and “wet” refers to the signal with the effect applied.

Films generally involve *a lot* of talking so you’ll notice most of these common effects relate to dialog. You’ll spend a fair amount of time sweetening dialog and it’s often worth investing in dedicated plugins for tools like dialog noise reduction and de-reverb.

EQ (Equalization)

An “EQ” is an equalizer that lets you boost or reduce the strength of your audio signal at specific frequencies. Very often EQ is about cutting offensive frequencies more than it is about boosting other frequencies. Common uses include:

  • Restoring some mid to high frequencies to a lav mic hidden under clothing. The clothing blocks those high frequencies (one of the many things that make a lav mic sound unnatural).
  • Adding some base “presence” to a mic that emphasizes mid-high frequencies.
  • ‘Carving out’ space in music for dialog to sit overtop it. Pull mid-lows out of music because they really compete with your voice. Carving out a space in EQ from everything else is often the solution rather than simply trying to boost the dialog. We call it “subtractive” vs. “additive” EQ.
  • Trimming the bottom end hum of a furnace in the background via a “high pass” or “low cut” EQ. This is such a common form of EQ filtering you’ll see these built right into the microphone.
  • Trimming the high end from a recording to eliminate high frequency noise via a “low pass” or “high cut” EQ
  • Many people pay big bucks for microphones that don’t “color” the sound while others pay similarly big bucks for microphones that “color” the sound in a way they like. With an EQ you can add somewhat similar coloration without such big bucks.

The wisdom of “mix with your ears not your eyes” is valid, but here’s a place to start. We know human speech has a range of 400Hz–4k. To add ‘warmth’ and bass: for male vocals, add 5dB around 180 – 200 Hz. For females add 3-5 dB around 400 Hz. Don’t get too carried away with this. Excessive bass boost is not making you sound more manly, in the end it just muddies your mix. When you get to a final mix you really want to have every sound’s frequency spectrum paired down to the essentials. Think of having a fixed amount of space and use EQ to trim anything unnecessary so you don’t hit that limit early. To add ‘presence’ for males add around 5dB around 3,000 Hz and for females add 5dB around 4,000 Hz.

The EQ is best used when you narrow the frequency range you’re targeting (this is called the “Q”), grab the EQ handle and boost it all the way up, then sweep it left and right to easily hear what it’s doing to your audio. Boost the areas you like and reduce the areas you don’t like. To make a generalization, newcomers generally boost and cut like crazy with their EQ while most professionals I’ve seen make quite subtle adjustments. A professional will use a combination of the appropriate mic and recording technique and the polish with EQ.

Compression

Compression makes only the loud stuff quieter. This reduces the dynamic range of the sound. Downward compression takes all sounds above a specified threshold and brings them downward. Since the whole thing is now quieter, you can compensate for the ensuing drop in volume via makeup gain. Upward compression is also technically a thing but for practical purposes in our application it would likely just add noise so we won’t get into it here. Use a compressor to get the average loudness of dialog up without clipping its loudest parts. Put a bit of compression on your “Master bus” or across the entire mix to ‘glue’ things together.

Here, we need to boost the level overall and pull down the loudest parts so they don’t clip. A simple limiter often works just fine for this. A compressor will give you more control. As you do this, keep an eye on your target loudness level. See the compressor section for more details, but in the case above, I’d set the “Threshold” to a few dB more then -3.5 so the compressor starts acting on only those loudest sounds. I’d use a fast response time since the loudest parts are transient and you aren’t likely to hear them in the compressor. This compression creates a bit of space and allows me to push the audio overall up 3.5 dB using the “Gain” knob in the compressor to hit our target loudness.


Limiter

A limiter is just a simple compressor that pulls your overshoots back aggressively. Think of it as a compressor with a very fast and relentless response. You set the threshold at a certain level and next to nothing gets past that level.

That said, the limiter is often used to do the opposite of what it sounds like. Because it has a ‘makeup gain’ similar to the compressor, you can use a limiter to “boost volume” without clipping since it will raise the RMS average but “limit” the top end.

Noise Reduction

Fairlight has a decent little noise reduction plugin built in. For free it’s not half bad. Find a section of audio with only noise present (e.g. no dialog) hit the “Learn” button, then press play. Stop before the dialog starts in again. Fairlight uses this to build a noise profile and pull only the noise from your clip.

If you’re willing to pay, Izotopes plugins are good enough to be considered a standard.

De-click

In the EQ phase it’s common to bump the high end to really give dialog ‘presence’ and ‘clarity’. This can also emphasize the less-pleasant sounds of the human mouth. The “de-click” combats the offensive sounds incredibly well, evidenced by the ability of many of these plugins to only output the offensive sounds for evaluation (not a pretty sound).

Reverb

Don’t think of reverb as a cheesy effect you’ll require only when the dialog needs to sound like it’s in a cathedral. The truth of it is, there’s some degree of reverb in everything you hear unless you’ve creating a situation to specifically minimize it (Google anechoic chamber).

Reverb can be used intelligently to convey a sense of space, like the aforementioned matching of a dry studio microphone to the production sound of a “live” room where the walls are more reflective than the studio.

Reverb is also used aggressively in music production to thicken vocals or create a sound space. The dry, unaffected signal arriving before the reverb arrives (something our audio friends call pre-delay) can really bring the vocal “forward” and give an increased weight and sense of space.

De-essing

This plugin is also important for a similar reason. It takes the “sibilance” or sharp “ssss” sounds edge away. Apply a bit after your EQ.

3rd Party Effects

Ultramaximizer

Put this on your master output bus to do what I call ‘auto-mastering’. It’s a form of compression that has some additional magic sauce built in to bring out some clarity from the mix. Some would crucify me for this one-click mastering suggestion but I’ve honestly found it quite effective in the majority of situations. Use to taste.

Waveform Symmetry

A more advanced trick for added precision in working with audio is to first correct phase issues due to asymmetric waveforms (otherwise a compressor will reduce headroom unnecessarily). It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do this.

Saturation

In the past, an excessively hot signal would oversaturate analog tape giving it additional harmonics, character and “grit”. This can be emulated with digital plugins to add “character” to sound. Though this one is again more common in the music realm, it can be a fun one to play around with for film mixing as well.

Imaging

Stereo imaging plugins can take a mono sound and help you place it in a stereo soundscape. There are also more spatially complex options for creating a sense of a 360ΒΊ environment in your mix. There’s the theory that because we as humans have only two ears and can still pinpoint where a sound comes from in a 3D space, one should be able to recreate this psychoacoustic experience with just two channels and headphones.

De-reverb

There are now plugins that can, to some degree, remove reverb without completely destroying your audio. I wouldn’t plan to use them, always treat your recording space, but in a pinch they’re mini modern miracles.

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