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Filmmaking 101: What is Sound Editing?

By Clark Davis / Updated September 10, 2023 / 13 min read

What is Sound Editing?

Sound editing is the process of selecting and assembling audio recordings to construct the final soundtrack for a film, television program, commercial, video game, or other media production.

Sound editing encompasses a wide range of techniques and requires both technical skills and creative sensibilities aimed at manipulating sound recordings. At its core, it involves taking separate audio tracks of recorded audio in production – such as dialogue, sound effects, background ambiance, and music – and manipulating them to achieve the desired emotional impact and fidelity.

The sound editor will clean up any unwanted noises, adjust volume levels, add effects, and ensure consistency across audio transitions. This helps augment the storytelling and draws viewers into the cinematic world through evocative, believable soundscapes. The end result of sound editing is a balanced, polished soundtrack where no single element overpowers the mix, and everything works together synergistically.

Some of the key responsibilities of a sound editor include:

  • Dialogue editing – Selecting the best takes, removing “ums” and “ahs,” fixing any blips or mismatches, and applying EQ and compression.
  • Foley editing – Recording and blending sound effects in sync with actions on screen, such as footsteps, cloth rustles, and props handling.
  • Background and ambiance editing – Providing the subtle sound textures of different environments.
  • ADR editing – Re-recording dialogue in post to replace production audio if necessary.
  • Sound design – Creating unique, impactful sounds that help tell the story.
  • Music editing – Integrating any scored music or licensed songs into the mix.

The expertise of the sound editor is crucial for mixing sound and for enhancing immersion and emotional resonance. Their technical and creative contributions help elevate the overall production value, clarity, and realism of the audio experience. Quality sound editing is what separates amateur films from professional blockbusters.

Overview of Sound Editing

While the introduction provided a broad definition of sound editing, this chapter will delve deeper into the various roles, techniques, and applications involved in crafting professional soundtracks. Sound editing requires a diverse skill set, and there are many different types of audio manipulations a sound editor may perform.

What Does a Sound Editor Do?

The role of the sound editor is to take the raw audio elements captured during production and mold them into a seamless audio experience that matches the visuals on screen.

What is sound editing?

The sound editing team is led by the supervising sound editor, who manages the post-production audio workflow. Some of the key crew members include:

  • Dialogue editor – Responsible for editing, cleaning, and polishing all dialogue tracks. They seamlessly stitch takes together and fix any inconsistencies.
  • Foley editor – With a team of foley artists, captures and edits custom sound effects in sync with the visuals. This includes footsteps, cloth movement, props handling, and more.
  • Sound effects editor – Gathers, edits, and enhances sound effects like doors closing, guns firing, or glass shattering.
  • Music editor – Edits and integrates score music and any licensed songs into the mix.
  • Sound designer – Creates unique audio elements like sci-fi laser blasts or supernatural ambiances.

The sound editor will carefully analyze all the sounds and visuals and use their technical skills and creative flair to construct an immersive soundtrack. They essentially “paint” the audio landscape to match the intention and emotions of each scene.

Types of Sound Editing

There are a wide variety of sound editing techniques used to build a comprehensive audio mix:

Dialogue Editing

Making speech clear, consistent, and polished. This forms the backbone of most films/TV shows.

Foley

Recording sound effects like footsteps timed precisely to the visuals. Adds realism and texture.

ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement)

Re-recording dialogue in post if the production audio is unusable.

Sound Effects

Gathering and enhancing natural sounds, like gunshots, car engines, Monster roars, etc.

Backgrounds/Ambience

Provides the general sense of space and environment through room tones or crowd walla.

Music Editing

Integrating score and licensed music seamlessly into the mix.

The sound editor uses all these elements to craft an impactful and realistic soundtrack that amplifies the audience’s experience. We’ll explore the techniques and benefits in more detail in later chapters.

Sound Editing vs. Sound Mixing

While sound editing and sound mixing work hand-in-hand to create audio for film and TV, they are distinct roles with different responsibilities. Understanding the differences helps appreciate the specialized expertise each brings to the post-production process.

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Sound Editing

As we’ve explored, sound editing involves selecting, processing, and assembling the raw audio tracks into a polished soundtrack. Key tasks include:

  • Dialogue editing – Cleaning and balancing all speech tracks
  • Foley – Recording custom sound effects in sync with picture
  • SFX editing – Gathering, editing, enhancing sound effects
  • Music editing – Integrating score and licensed songs

The sound editor manipulates component elements like dialogue, effects, ambiance, etc., to achieve the desired aesthetic and emotional impact.

Sound Mixing

The sound mixer takes the edited materials provided by the sound editorial team and combines them into a unified final sound mix. Their primary focus is on the balance between elements and overall fidelity.

Mixers have three main domains to blend:

  • Dialogue – Ensure speech is clear and intelligible
  • Music – Integrate score and songs smoothly with other elements
  • Effects – Mix sound effects and ambiance for seamless immersion

The mixer adjusts volume levels, EQ, dynamics, and pan position so no single element masks others. The result is a balanced stereo or surround soundtrack ready for the theater.

audio mixing board

While sound editors and mixers work closely to construct the audio, their skill sets are distinct and complementary. Editors handle micro-level audio manipulation, while sound mixers focus on macro-level balancing and polish. Quality sound requires expertise in both roles.

Applications of Sound Editing

While sound editing is most commonly associated with film and TV production, it is a versatile craft used across many different media. Anywhere audio recordings are utilized, a sound editor can provide value. Let’s look at some of the key realms in which sound editing is applied.

Film/TV Production

Film production is the most prominent and demanding arena for sound editing. Blockbuster movies and premium shows require an intensive audio post-production stage, including:

  • Dialogue editing – Ensure clear, consistent performances
  • Foley – Support action with custom sounds
  • Sound effects – Heighten realism through layered sounds
  • Atmospheres – Establish a sense of space and mood
  • Music editing – Integrate score and songs

Skilled sound editors are indispensable for suspending disbelief and drawing viewers into cinematic worlds.

Music Production

The music industry also relies heavily on audio editing and processing. Applications include:

  • Comping – Combining the best sections of multiple takes
  • Pitch correction – Fixing flat or sharp notes
  • Timing adjustments – Quantizing and aligning rhythms
  • Dynamic control – Compression, limiting, gating
  • EQ – Tonal balancing and enhancing instruments
  • Effects – Reverb, delay, distortion, etc.

These techniques help produce polished, radio-ready tracks.

Podcasting

For podcasts, sound editing helps improve speech clarity, remove unwanted noises like lip smacks, and balance interview volumes. Transitions, music, and effects are also commonly added in post. This polishing maximizes listenability.

Wherever audio is critical to the experience, sound editing plays a vital role.

Techniques of Sound Editing

Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals of the sound editing process and roles let’s explore some of the core techniques used to manipulate audio elements and achieve certain effects. Sound editors utilize a wide range of tools and skills to create immersive soundscapes.

Noise Reduction

One of the most common tasks is reducing unwanted background noise in dialogue and other recordings. This unwanted noise could involve broadband noise like HVAC rumble or more sporadic noises like camera operation sounds. Techniques include:

  • Spectral noise reduction – Reduces static and hum by targeting specific frequencies
  • Adaptive noise reduction – Analyze the audio to distinguish between the desired signal and noise floor and filter out the latter.
  • Gate and expander plugins – Attenuates audio when it falls below a set threshold to remove room tone

Proper noise reduction results in much cleaner, intelligible dialogue.

Equalization

EQ allows sound editors to boost or attenuate specific frequency ranges. This is useful for:

  • Simulating distance – Reducing high and low-end frequencies makes things sound farther away
  • Fixing dialogue -strategically boosting nasally or muddy voices
  • Shaping sound effects – accentuating key frequencies like engine rumble

Careful EQ moves each element into its own tonal space in the mix.

Dynamic Processing

Tools like compression, limiting, and expansion control the audio’s volume dynamics. Common uses:

  • Compressing vocals – evens out fluctuating levels
  • Limiting gunshots – prevents peak transients from clipping
  • Expanding ambiances – increases variation between loud and soft sections

This processing creates more consistent audio elements.

The sound editor has a deep toolbox of techniques to create expressive and balanced soundtracks. Their technical expertise helps craft clean, impactful audio that matches the visual storytelling.

Software is Used in Sound Editing

Sound editing today relies heavily on specialized digital audio workstation (DAW) software and plugins. Let’s look briefly at some of the key tools of the trade.

sound editing software

Pro Tools

Developed by Avid, Pro Tools is the industry standard DAW for sound editing, mixing, and mastering. It offers advanced multitrack editing, processing, and routing options. Pro Tools is ubiquitous in professional studios.

Adobe Audition

Adobe’s DAW has powerful audio restoration tools for noise reduction, clipping repair, and frequency isolation. It’s commonly used for dialogue and sound effects preprocessing.

iZotope RX

An essential sound editor’s utility, iZotope RX enables advanced audio repair and enhancement. It features spectral editing tools for eliminating noise, hum, clicks, and distortions.

Native Instruments

This company produces virtual instrument and effect plugins widely used for sound design. Reaktor and Kontakt allow the creation of unique sounds from scratch.

Waves Plugins

Waves make premium mixing and mastering plugins like EQs, compressors, reverbs, and more. These are standard tools for processing and shaping audio elements.

FMOD

Specialist middleware for interactive audio in games. Enables adaptive music, real-time parameter-based effects, and dynamic mixing.

The sophistication of modern sound editing owes much to continual software advancements. Machine learning innovations promise to further streamline tedious tasks in the future. But craft and creativity remain at the heart of great sound editing.

Challenges of Sound Editing

While sound editing can greatly enhance productions when done right, it also comes with its fair share of difficulties. Crafting seamless, engrossing audio requires both technical prowess and creative vision. Some of the main challenges include:

Technical Limitations

The source audio recordings can present limitations in post-production. Issues may include:

  • Poor production sound quality – muffled dialogue, clipping, excessive noise
  • Inconsistent audio – big changes in ambiance/tone between shots
  • Lack of coverage – missing wild lines or alternate takes

Additionally, some complex edits, like splicing words or syllables together, can result in unnatural artifacts. There are also limits to how much processing like EQ or compression can help poor-quality audio.

Cost Considerations

Professional sound editing requires specialized personnel, equipment, and studio time. For lower-budget productions, costs may force compromises:

  • Fewer days for sound editorial and mixing
  • Smaller crew – less specialized roles
  • Limited access to libraries of sound effects/music
  • Minimal ability to do ADR or sound design

The financial realities of a project often dictate the level of polish possible for the soundtrack.

Sound editors must leverage their creativity and problem-solving skills to work within limitations. Recording supplementary FX and background music for ambiance can help smooth over production audio gaps. Resourceful editing and processing can stretch budget-constrained elements further. However, quality sound editing relies on having the time, personnel, and resources to finesse all aspects of the soundtrack. Financial or logistical restrictions will inevitably force some compromises.

Brief History of Sound Editing

The craft of sound editing has evolved enormously since the early days of cinema. Let’s take a quick look back at how this crucial post-production role developed over the decades.

When Was Sound Editing Invented?

In the silent film era before the late 1920s, there was obviously no need for sound editing. Things changed radically after The Jazz Singer (1927) introduced synchronized dialogue through Vitaphone technology. Rudimentary sound editing was necessary from that point to work with these early “talkies”.

The 30s and 40s saw the establishment of Hollywood studios with sound departments focused on tasks like dialogue editing and Foley recording. Sound editors worked on massive analog mixing consoles to create mono soundtracks.

Magnetic tape recording in the 1950s brought increased flexibility for arranging and duplicating sound elements. Stereophonic sound in the 70s added greater dimensionality.

Sound Editing and the Academy Awards

The craft of sound editing has been recognized by the Academy Awards since the ceremony’s early days. The Academy Award for Best Sound Editing was introduced in 1963, originally known as Best Sound Effects Editing.

The first Oscar-winning sound editor was James Corcoran for the WWII epic The Longest Day in 1963. Over the years, the award has had numerous name changes – Best Sound Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing – reflecting evolutions in the craft.

nomination and oscar reward concept golden statue 2022 07 15 18 43 40 utc scaled

In 2020, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the “Best Sound Mixing” and “Best Sound Editing” categories would be combined into a single award, named “Best Sound,” starting from the 93rd Academy Awards in 2021. This decision was made to consolidate the two sound categories, as there was often confusion about the distinction between them.

Evolution of the Role

As productions became more complex, sound teams became more specialized. Specific roles like sound effects editing, ADR, and sound design emerged over time.

The 1980s saw the introduction of digital audio workstations like Pro Tools that revolutionized workflows. Sound editors could now easily manipulate audio on computers.

Today, sound editing involves a sophisticated Suite of digital tools for cleaning, processing, and mixing audio. While practices have evolved enormously, the fundamental goal remains the same – augmenting visuals with impactful soundscapes.

Conclusion

While the foundations were established in the early days of cinema, sound editing has evolved enormously over the decades alongside technological advancements. Today, it involves specialized digital tools for cleaning, processing, mixing, and re-recording audio with precision.

However, the fundamental aim remains the same – supporting visual storytelling with evocative sound design. From the blockbuster ambiance of sci-fi alien planets to the intimate tones of indie dramas, sound editing is indispensable for the suspension of disbelief.

Looking ahead, machine learning innovations like AI-assisted audio cleanup promise to further streamline workflows and reduce tedious tasks. But human creativity and critical listening will always be at the heart of expert sound editing.

In our rapid-fire multimedia era, sound continues to play a vital role in immersive world-building and emotional engagement. The skill and artistry of sound editors will remain essential for transforming raw audio elements into seamless audience experiences. Their behind-the-scenes contributions are worth appreciating next time you get engrossed in a movie, TV show, or video game.

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