Sound editor (filmmaking)

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A sound editor is a creative professional responsible for selecting and assembling sound recordings in preparation for the final sound mixing or mastering of a television program, motion picture, video game, or any production involving recorded or synthetic sound. Sound editing developed out of the need to fix the incomplete, undramatic, or technically inferior sound recordings of early talkies, and over the decades has become a respected filmmaking craft, with sound editors implementing the aesthetic goals of motion picture sound design.


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes the artistic contribution of exceptional sound editing with the Academy Award for Best Sound.

There are primarily three divisions of sound that are combined to create a final mix, these being dialogue, effects, and music. In larger markets such as New York and Los Angeles, sound editors often specialize in only one of these areas, thus a show will have separate dialogue, effects, and music editors. In smaller markets, sound editors are expected to know how to handle it all, often crossing over into the mixing realm as well. Editing effects is likened to creating the sonic world from scratch, while dialogue editing is likened to taking the existing sonic world and fixing it. Dialogue editing is more accurately thought of as "production sound editing", where the editor takes the original sound recorded on the set, and using a variety of techniques, makes the dialogue more understandable, as well as smoother, so the listener doesn't hear the transitions from shot to shot (often the background sounds underneath the words change dramatically from take to take). Among the challenges that effects editors face are creatively adding together various elements to create believable sounds for everything you see on screen, as well as memorizing their sound effects library.


The essential piece of equipment used in modern sound editing is the digital audio workstation, or DAW. A DAW allows sounds, stored as computer files on a host computer, to be placed in timed synchronization with a motion picture, mixed, manipulated, and documented. The standard DAW system in use by the American film industry, as of 2012, is Avid's Pro Tools, with the majority running on Macs. Another system in use presently is Yamaha owned Steinberg's cross platform DAW Nuendo running on Macs using operating system Mac OS X but also on Windows XP. Other systems historically used for sound editing were:

The WaveFrame, Fairlights, and Audiofile were of the "integrated" variety of DAW, and required the purchase of expensive proprietary hardware and specialized computers (not standard PCs or Macs). Of the two surviving systems, Pro Tools still requires some proprietary hardware (either a low cost portable device such as the "Mbox" or the more expensive multichannel A/D,D/A converters for more professional high end applications), while Nuendo (a successor to Cubase) is of the "host based" variety.

Sound-effects library

Sound-effects editors typically use an organized catalog of sound recordings from which sound effects can be easily accessed and used in film soundtracks. There are several commercially distributed sound-effects libraries available, the two most well-known publishers being Sound Ideas and The Hollywood Edge. Online search engines, such as Sounddogs, A Sound Effect and Sonniss allow users to purchase sound effects libraries from a large online database.

Many sound effects editors make their own customized sound recordings which are accumulated into highly prized personal sound effects libraries. Often, sound effects used in films will be saved and reused in subsequent films. One exemplary case in point is a recording known as the "Wilhelm Scream" which has become known for its repeated use in many famous films such as The Charge at Feather River (1953), Pierre Marette Story (1957), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Reservoir Dogs (1992). Credited with naming and popularizing this particular recording is sound designer Ben Burtt.


Early talkies

The first sound process to substantially displace silent films in the moviegoing market was the Vitaphone process. Under the Vitaphone process, a microphone recorded the sound performed on set directly to a phonograph master, which made Vitaphone recordings impossible to cut or resynchronize, as later processes would allow. This limited the Vitaphone process to capturing musical acts or one-take action scenes, like Vaudeville routines or other re-creations of stage performances; essentially, scenes that required no editing at all. However, Warner Brothers, even as early as The Jazz Singer , began experimenting with the mixing of multiple phonograph recordings and intercutting between the "master" sync take and coverage of other angles. The original mixing console used to make the master recording of The Jazz Singer, still viewable in the Warner Bros. Studio Museum, has no more than four or five knobs, but each is still visibly labeled with the basic "groups" that a modern sound designer would recognize: "music", "crowd", and so on.

Warner Bros. developed increasingly sophisticated technology to sequence greater numbers of phonograph sound effects to picture using the Vitaphone system, but these were rendered obsolete with the widespread adoption of sound-on-film processes in the early 1930s.

Mechanical editing

In a sound-on-film process, a microphone captures sound and converts it into a signal that can be photographed on film. Since the recording is imposed linearly on the medium, and the medium is easily cut and glued, sounds recorded can be easily re-sequenced and separated onto separate tracks, allowing more control in mixing. Options expanded further when optical sound recording processes were replaced with magnetic recording in the 1950s. Magnetic recording offered a better signal-to-noise ratio, allowing more tracks to be played simultaneously without increasing noise on the full mix.

The greater number of options available to the editors led to more complex and creative sound tracks, and it was in this period that a set of standard practices became established which continued until the digital era, and many of the notional concepts are still at the core of sound design, computerized or not:

Historically the Dubbing Mixer (UK) or Re-Recording Mixer (US) was the specialist who mixed all the audio tracks supplied by the Dubbing Editor (with the addition of 'live sounds' such as Foley) in a special Dubbing Suite. As well as mixing, he would introduce equalization, compression and filtered sound effects, etc. while seated at a large console. Often two or three mixers would sit alongside, each controlling sections of audio, e.g., dialogue, music, effects.

In the era of optical sound tracks, it was difficult to mix more than eight tracks at once without accumulating excessive noise. At the height of magnetic recording, 200 tracks or more could be mixed together, aided by Dolby noise reduction. In the digital era there is no limit. For example, a single predub can exceed a hundred tracks, and the final dub can be the sum of a thousand tracks.

Digital sound

The mechanical system of sound editing remained unchanged until the early 1990s, when digital audio workstations acquired features sufficient for use in film production, mainly, the ability to synchronize with picture, and the ability to play back many tracks at once with CD-quality fidelity. The quality of 16-bit audio at a 48 kHz sampling rate allowed hundreds of tracks to be mixed together with negligible noise.

The physical manifestation of the work became computerized: sound recordings, and the decisions the editors made in assembling them, were now digitized, and could be versioned, done, undone, and archived instantly and compactly. In the magnetic recording era, sound editors owned trucks to ship their tracks to a mixing stage, and transfers to magnetic film were measured in hundreds of thousands of feet. Once the materials arrived at the stage, a dozen recordists and mix technicians required a half an hour to load the three or four dozen tracks a predub might require. In the digital era, 250 hours of stereo sound, edited and ready to mix, can be transported on a single 160 GB hard drive. As well, this 250 hours of material can be copied in four hours or less, as opposed to the old system, which, predictably, would take 250 hours.

Because of these innovations, sound editors, as of 2005, face the same issues as other computerized, "knowledge-based" professionals, including the loss of work due to outsourcing to cheaper labor markets, and the loss of royalties due to ineffective enforcement of intellectual property rights.

Animation sound editing

In the field of animation, traditionally the sound editors have been given the more prestigious title of "film editor" in screen credits. As animated films are more often than not planned to the frame, the traditional functions of a film editor are often unnecessary. Treg Brown is known to cartoon fans as the sound effects genius of Warner Bros. Animation. Other greats of the field have included Jimmy MacDonald of the Walt Disney Studios, Greg Watson and Don Douglas at Hanna-Barbera, and Joe Siracusa of UPA and various TV cartoon studios.

Other fields

In the production of radio programs and music, persons who manipulate sound recordings are known simply as "editors", in cases where the producers themselves do not perform the task.

See also

Related Research Articles

Sound effect

A sound effect is an artificially created or enhanced sound, or sound process used to emphasize artistic or other content of films, television shows, live performance, animation, video games, music, or other media. These are normally created with foley. In motion picture and television production, a sound effect is a sound recorded and presented to make a specific storytelling or creative point without the use of dialogue or music. The term often refers to a process applied to a recording, without necessarily referring to the recording itself. In professional motion picture and television production, dialogue, music, and sound effects recordings are treated as separate elements. Dialogue and music recordings are never referred to as sound effects, even though the processes applied to such as reverberation or flanging effects, often are called "sound effects".

Audio mixing Process by which multiple input sources or sounds are combined into one or more output channels

Audio mixing is the process by which multiple sounds are combined into one or more channels. In the process, a source's volume level, frequency content, dynamics, and panoramic position are manipulated or enhanced. This practical, aesthetic, or otherwise creative treatment is done in order to produce a finished version that is appealing to listeners.

Post-production Part of filmmaking, video production and photography process

Post-production is part of the process of filmmaking, video production, and photography. Post-production includes all stages of production occurring after shooting or recording individual program segments.

Mastering (audio) Form of audio post-production

Mastering, a form of audio post production, is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device, the source from which all copies will be produced. In recent years digital masters have become usual, although analog masters—such as audio tapes—are still being used by the manufacturing industry, particularly by a few engineers who specialize in analog mastering.

Multitrack recording

Multitrack recording (MTR), also known as multitracking or tracking, is a method of sound recording developed in 1955 that allows for the separate recording of multiple sound sources or of sound sources recorded at different times to create a cohesive whole. Multitracking became possible in the mid-1950s when the idea of simultaneously recording different audio channels to separate discrete "tracks" on the same reel-to-reel tape was developed. A "track" was simply a different channel recorded to its own discrete area on the tape whereby their relative sequence of recorded events would be preserved, and playback would be simultaneous or synchronized.

Reel-to-reel audio tape recording

Reel-to-reel audio tape recording, also called open-reel recording, is the form of magnetic tape audio recording in which the recording medium is held on a reel that is not permanently mounted in an enclosed cassette. In use, the supply reel containing the tape is placed on a spindle or hub; the end of the tape is manually pulled out of the reel, threaded through mechanical guides and a tape head assembly, and attached by friction to the hub of the second, initially empty takeup reel.

Digital audio workstation computer workstation or software application used for editing and creating music and audio

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an electronic device or application software used for recording, editing and producing audio files. DAWs come in a wide variety of configurations from a single software program on a laptop, to an integrated stand-alone unit, all the way to a highly complex configuration of numerous components controlled by a central computer. Regardless of configuration, modern DAWs have a central interface that allows the user to alter and mix multiple recordings and tracks into a final produced piece.

Audio editing software Computer application for manipulating digital audio

Audio editing software is software which allows editing and generating of audio data. Audio editing software can be implemented completely or partly as a library, as a computer application, as a web application, or as a loadable kernel module. Wave Editors are digital audio editors and there are many sources of software available to perform this function. Most can edit music, apply effects and filters, adjust stereo channels, etc.

Sound design is the art and practice of creating sound tracks for a variety of needs. It involves specifying, acquiring or creating auditory elements using audio production techniques and tools. It is employed in a variety of disciplines including filmmaking, television production, video game development, theatre, sound recording and reproduction, live performance, sound art, post-production, radio and musical instrument development. Sound design commonly involves performing and editing of previously composed or recorded audio, such as sound effects and dialogue for the purposes of the medium, but it can also involve creating sounds from scratch through synthesizers. A sound designer is one who practices sound design.

Vitaphone Sound system for film

Vitaphone was a sound film system used for feature films and nearly 1,000 short subjects made by Warner Bros. and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1931. Vitaphone was the last major analog sound-on-disc system and the only one which was widely used and commercially successful. The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but issued separately on phonograph records. The discs, recorded at ​33 13 rpm and typically 16 inches (41 cm) in diameter, would be played on a turntable physically coupled to the projector motor while the film was being projected. It had a frequency response of 4300 Hz. Many early talkies, such as The Jazz Singer (1927), used the Vitaphone system. The name "Vitaphone" derived from the Latin and Greek words, respectively, for "living" and "sound".

Remaster refers to changing the quality of the sound or of the image, or both, of previously created recordings, either audiophonic, cinematic, or videographic.

Flatbed editor

A flatbed editor is a type of machine used to edit film for a motion picture.

Audio restoration is the process of removing imperfections from sound recordings. Audio restoration can be performed directly on the recording medium, or on a digital representation of the recording using a computer. Record restoration is a particular form of audio restoration that seeks to repair the sound of damaged gramophone records.

History of sound recording

The history of sound recording - which has progressed in waves, driven by the invention and commercial introduction of new technologies — can be roughly divided into four main periods:

Audio post production is all stages of audio production relating to sound produced and synchronized with moving picture. It involves sound design, sound effects, Foley, ADR, sound editing, audio mixing, etc.

Stem mixing and mastering

Stem-mixing is a method of mixing audio material based on creating groups of audio tracks and processing them separately prior to combining them into a final master mix. Stems are also sometimes referred to as submixes, subgroups, or buses.

Foley (filmmaking) Reproduction of sound effects in filmmaking

Foley is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to films, videos, and other media in post-production to enhance audio quality. These reproduced sounds, named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, can be anything from the swishing of clothing and footsteps to squeaky doors and breaking glass. Foley sounds are used to enhance the auditory experience of the movie. Foley can also be used to cover up unwanted sounds captured on the set of a movie during filming, such as overflying airplanes or passing traffic.

A re-recording mixer in North America, also known as a dubbing mixer in Europe, is a post-production audio engineer who mixes recorded dialogue, sound effects and music to create the final version of a soundtrack for a feature film, television program, or television advertisement. The final mix must achieve a desired sonic balance between its various elements, and must match the director's or sound designer's original vision for the project. For material intended for broadcast, the final mix must also comply with all applicable laws governing sound mixing.

Audio mixing (recorded music)

In sound recording and reproduction, audio mixing is the process of optimizing and combining multitrack recordings into a final mono, stereo or surround sound product. In the process of combining the separate tracks, their relative levels are adjusted and balanced and various processes such as equalization and compression are commonly applied to individual tracks, groups of tracks, and the overall mix. In stereo and surround sound mixing, the placement of the tracks within the stereo field are adjusted and balanced. Audio mixing techniques and approaches vary widely and have a significant influence on the final product.

Sound follower

A sound follower, also referred to as separate magnetic, sepmag, magnetic film recorder, or mag dubber, is a device for the recording and playback of film sound that is recorded on magnetic film. This device is locked or synchronized with the motion picture film containing the picture. A sound follower operates like an analog reel-to-reel audio tape recording, but using film, not magnetic tape. The unit can be switched from manual control to sync control, where it will follow the film with picture.