Rob Marshall On The Challenges Of Time And Budget For Audio Post Professionals

Re-Recording Mixer, Dialogue Editor, ADR Mixer, Sound Editor… Rob Marshall’s roles span an impressive array of films, TV series’, music videos, documentaries, and video games. Now based at The Dub Stage in Burbank, California, Rob’s journey to Post Production and sound design, began (like many others) from a love of music, and particularly an appreciation of how sound was used in film. Initially honing his skills through short-form projects for many years, it was the transition back to movies and documentaries where Rob discovered the greatest job satisfaction. 

Here, Rob talks more about his journey, the challenges of Post Production at a time when budgets are being squeezed and how he has, and continues to, overcome those obstacles with the help of a few important tools…

How did your career kick off for you? Were your parents in the industry or was it a musical start?

I, like a lot of people in the industry, was a musician and then ended up finding myself in Post, but I would say my love for movies, and working in sound for movies, actually started before I even had an idea of what sound could be. As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, I loved going to the movies, loved watching them, not realising how much sound played a part in film. I can remember, when I was around 10 or 11 years old, The Fifth Element came out, and just watching that movie, seeing what Mark Mangini did with the soundscapes, I just loved the movie. I was a big Luc Besson fan, I was a big sci fi person, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I was in my teens rewatching The Fifth Element, I realised the reason why I liked that movie so much, it was how they created sounds for something that didn’t exist, one being 500 years in the future in what New York City could become, as well as how the sound allowed you to escape to a new set of exciting world(s) in the film. 

It was about that time when I started understanding that I loved sound for film, and I loved how you could create a soundscape for a story that doesn’t actually exist in the real world. It took me a little bit of time to get into Post Production. When I was in high school, I was a musician, I loved playing music and then recorded music, liked the engineering and technical aspect of cutting an album. So, after high school, I went to the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles to become a recording engineer and to work in recording studios because I loved the whole technical aspect of recording music, and thought that would be the perfect job and a perfect career for me.

After I started working in various recording studios, I realised that while music production was fun and it was challenging, that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. It was actually kind of taking my passion for music away from me, so I decided I to pursue other courses. At that time I was also working as a projectionist, because even back then, in the music industry, much like now, I wasn’t making enough money to pay rent so I had to have two jobs. At that point of being a projectionist, getting to be around movies all day, I thought, I love film, and now I know the sound aspect of music, but there’s also sound for film, and so I started thinking about what I could do to get into that world. I had a lot of friends who went to film school here in Los Angeles and they needed someone to cut and mix their short films, web series, and stuff like that. I had no idea how to do any of that stuff, so just on a whim I was like, ‘yeah, I’ll help you do your film’, not understanding all the aspects of what went into dialogue editorial or effects editorial, and then how to actually mix for a short film or anything like that, so I just winged it. Since all my friends were film students, they didn’t care, they just wanted to make it work. It was a good learning experience to understand how you use sound for storytelling and what were the things that we needed in order to make the story move forward. At the time, like most people starting out, I thought I’ll just let music kind of help me make the emotion and move the story along as I was very timid about how to make dialogue and sound design work with all that.

... on a whim I was like, ‘yeah, I’ll help you do your film’, not understanding all the aspects of what went into dialogue editorial or effects editorial, and then how to actually mix for a short film or anything like that, so I just winged it.

After working on a few short films, I realised I needed to get some more education since I hadn’t really done Post Production sound enough to be confident and look for more work. I went back to school and got a degree in digital media arts that focused on Post Production and after that, I got a job at a Post Production sound house that did mostly commercials. What I found working for them is, if you want to learn, and fast track how to do Post Production sound for any type of film or video medium, short-form advertising is the best because you do it all almost in one day. Commercials were great because we got to record the voiceover, we were dialogue editing, we were sound designing, we were doing music editorial, and we were mixing typically in an eight-hour day for a 30 or 60 second advert.

I did that for almost ten years, and just understanding that process, you basically learned everything all in one go, and it was very informative and very exciting. One of the best parts about doing commercials was every day you almost always had a new project to work on, so it kept you on your feet and offered a new set of challenges for each spot.

After some years of doing commercials, I wanted to get back into long-form because I liked the story aspect and at that time, I had gotten a couple of movies and documentaries to work on and loved being a part of the film making process. I realised it was really fun because I got to help build a very comprehensive and evolving story, depending on what the film was. So, right before the pandemic hit, I made the decision to focus and transition myself back into long-form as a mixer because I love mixing the most out of all the aspects of post sound production. I can sound design, I can edit, but it’s when you bring all those elements together with dialogue and effects, and balance them out against the music is where the magic happens for me. The best part about mixing to me, is that it is when the filmmaker and the clients actually get to see their entire film for the first time. They’ll hear it in bits and see it in bits while in video editorial with temp soundtracks, but once they come on the dub stage, that’s where we pull all the elements together, yeah you might not have a color graded video or you might not have all the VFX in there, but you finally get to see the movie or the show as it was more or less intended. And so, long story short, I’ve been in the long-form world for the last four or five years, primarily mixing, but I do still do editorial and a little bit of sound design. And I love what I do. 

What are the kind of challenges you find yourself commonly facing?

I would say with almost every project you get, the biggest challenge is making sure that you and the client or the filmmaker you’re working with are on the same page and that you can deliver a sonic soundscape that was already in their head. It’s that kind of age-old adage, for a musician, when they write a song, they have a certain tune in their head and when you go to lay it down it’s usually not even close to what they had in their head to begin with, but you’re compromising per se to make that song work. I feel with film soundtracks it’s a very similar path. So, we’re working with the client to get them this idea that they have in their head onto the screen and out of the speakers as close as possible that will compliment the visuals and over all story. I would say that just the biggest challenge there is making sure that everything that they’re expecting, you’d be able to deliver, but also within the budget and the time allotted.

Your role, in a sense, is pulling all the strands together at the end, so it will make sense – the music, the dialogue, the foley etc. Do you find that the quality of some of the content you're getting isn't what it used to be because “we'll fix it in post” is becoming quite a common thing.

I do. The ‘fix it in post’ thing has obviously been a very long-standing joke, and unfortunately, I think it’s taught at a lot of schools for filmmakers that Post Production people are magicians that will just make everything that you did wrong in production, right. But what I have found in a lot of projects, and this started to happen even 15, 20 years ago, nowadays with the technology for production, we’re able to do turnarounds faster. I’ve done some production mixing before and it used to be when you’d set up a scene, typically you’d do a shot, do a couple of takes, and then everyone stopped down and had the gaffers go reset the scene which typically took 15, maybe 30 minutes of time, then the DP has to block the scene, and the actors need to rehearse. But I’ve worked on a couple of projects where the director just wanted to keep going faster and faster to get as many shots done in a day, but when you have to speed up the production, quality is going to be sacrificed in one way or another, meaning your sound team is not going to be able to figure out what’s the best place to mic, can the actors have a costume change, can we get the lav back on them into a better place for clarity, etc.

I remember the last film I did production mixing for, I asked the Director and the AD if we could get two minutes of tone because we were going to need it for post and they just looked at me like, ‘what the heck are you asking for? That’s not a thing’. And I’m like, ‘well, no it is, it’s what we need’ so they get the set to quiet down, I hit record, and immediately 15 seconds in someone’s phone goes off, someone starts talking, they rustle, and I’m like, ‘come on guys, this isn’t cool’. Sadly, some people just don’t respect the role sound plays on set for a film. That’s not everyone of course.

... our biggest problem nowadays is we’re not getting the same quality of sound that we used to and I think that’s not a fault of the production mixers per se, it’s just everybody wants to get the production done as fast as possible because they’re squeezed on every level.

So yes, no one has time, no one understands why we ask for these things, but the biggest challenge nowadays is the fact that those productions are having to speed up due to the budget constraints and we’re now, as audio Post Production professionals, getting audio that’s not always the best in the world. Whether that be, the boom mic is off axis, it’s a really noisy room, the lav is buried underneath the costume or it’s crackly and stuff, and the Director is under this misguided impression that we can fix a lot of things that are happening in production, but in reality it’s kind of putting a band aid on a giant wound. We can do stuff in post, but it’s not going to be great and you’re going to have to end up possibly ADR-ing a lot of stuff which eats into the post budget. So yeah, I would say our biggest problem nowadays is we’re not getting the same quality of sound that we used to and I think that’s not a fault of the production mixers per se, it’s just everybody wants to get the production done as fast as possible because they’re squeezed on every level. 

We as Post people are very proud of what we do. We love making films and TV shows and we would love to have the best quality audio possible, but nowadays it’s just not going to happen as easily with the schedule and budgetary constraints, and I would say that’s now par for the course. It’s the norm to get noisy audio from some productions, which may not be helped by the production mixer due to various reasons. And one of the things that I’ve noticed is now that we have smaller cameras and smaller crews for lighting and stuff like that, a lot of more location-based scenes are happening (which is awesome, as it makes more for a real scenario for the actors), these all increase the noise that we have to deal with on production audio. Those are a lot of challenges we have to deal with.

A good example is a film I did a couple months ago where they didn’t plan on having rain in a scene but it started raining that day and so they just shot the entire scene in the rain, and because it’s just pouring rain the boom is barely able to get near the actors so we’re relying heavily on lavalier mics and it just sounded really bad. The Production Mixer told the Director that they’d have to ADR it because it wasn’t great audio. When we got into post and we started cueing for ADR, she’s like, ‘no, it sounds perfectly fine.’ And, we as audio professionals, are like, ‘no, no, I can barely understand what they’re saying, we should ADR this’. And this director was adamant about having the realism of the rain being around the lines. Then it’s our job to figure out how can we give her what she wants, but also make sure that the audience can hear the spoken lines and still enjoy what they’re watching. 

So obviously with all these pressures being pushed down to Post, I'm guessing that technology is often your lifesaver?

Yes. Again, with production having to be squeezed, Post feels the squeeze just as much, maybe even more. It used to be the case that we would have 8-10 weeks of editorial – dialogue, backgrounds, hard effects, design, stuff like that, on a film. Now, depending on what the budget is, it can be half that so you may only have one month to work on everything. When you’re editing dialogue, it’s a very meticulous process and very detailed trying to make sure that every line comes through clean and easy before it hits the dub stage.

It can be very difficult to do all of that in time and budget, so you’re going to have to start finding alternatives to speed up your workflow, and the only way to do that is to have tools that allow us to not cut corners, but allow us to speed up our process, while preserving as much quality to the audio as possible. These tools are helping us basically speed up our dialogue clean-up and provide things to the stage that are not going to make the Re-Recording Mixer pull their hair out upon listening.

What was the first Accentize product you experienced?

The first one I ever heard about or used was Chameleon, I used it a couple years ago for a film where we had an actor who spoke Korean in the film, but he was not Korean as a first language actor – English first, Korean second. They were having him play a native Korean person who spoke no English, and basically, in production, the on-set Dialogue Coach for the Korean was saying that he just couldn’t get the lines perfectly right for who his character was so we had to bring him back in to ADR him. The problem presented to us was some of the production takes were amazingly good as far as pronunciation and delivery and stuff like that, but other ones were not. So, we brought him in, had to re-record him, took quite a bit of time to get him to just really hone his lines and have the Dialogue Coach and Director be happy with it.

But then our biggest problem there is matching the room verb and the room tone for the production going into the ADR. There was a lot of cutting in, cutting out, whereas typically, in a lot of those scenes, you’ll just ADR the whole thing so it stays consistent, but the Director was very adamant about trying to keep production the same. So, Chameleon came in, it was our Dialogue Editor Justin Walker who recommended it to us, and he said, ‘check this out, it mimics and it clones the verb of production’. Before you’d use Altiverb or another convolution reverb, trying to second guess it and it’s never quite perfect – you can spend hours trying to dial in a reverb to match what’s going on in the space that was recorded for production. Chameleon was great because we were able to sit there, take a 10-second-long line. It would analyse it, figure out what the reflections are, figure out the tone of the room, and we could apply that back into the ADR lines, tweak it a little bit, and it was almost one to one. It was perfect for that scenario of us having to match this actor going from production to ADR, then back to production, then ADR, almost seamlessly.

... when Chameleon 2 came out, it just got even better. After using it on that scene, I went out and bought Chameleon myself and said, ‘this is going to change my life for the better’.

It was an amazing plug-in for that and then when Chameleon 2 came out, it just got even better. After using it on that scene, I went out and bought Chameleon myself and said, ‘this is going to change my life for the better’. Then I found, since I mostly do effects mixing when I’m working with a two-person team, Chameleon has been extremely useful when I’m trying to match hard effects or foley to production. So, a lot of times, we’ll have PFX (production effects) that are being recorded and then we end up having to take those out sometimes because they’re either on top of a line or it just doesn’t sound quite as good because again, the boom is off axis and whatever’s happening is over here and it just sounds phasey, so we’ve got to replace that in Foley. Chameleon is something I’ve used as a trick to make the foley sound even more natural for the scene because I have the original reverb from production to put on it, which is awesome. So that was my first foray into Accentize and then the other thing that we used after that was Spectral Balance. 

I first used it as an ADR matching tool and I have used other tools that were out there for a couple of years, that didn’t quite work very well. There’s some EQs out there that offer the “EQ matching capabilities” and, for certain things, that works okay, not bad. When it comes to production dialogue and trying to match ADR, depending on how the ADR is recorded – if the talent is too close to the boom in the booth, if the booth is too small, if there’s a piece of glass right in front of them – EQ matching is extremely difficult. What I found with Spectral Balance was you could use the production as your reference, throw Spectral Balance in there and you can audio suite the ADR and it’s not a surgical change in EQ, it’s a very kind of soft, gradual, overall shift and it made the ADR just sound closer to production. Once you start getting surgical, start pulling stuff up and down with narrow Q’s, really high peaks and crests, it can just get really jarring to hear those transitions and Spectral Balance was great for trying to help mold the ADR closer to what we were trying to do with production.

It wasn’t always a perfect match, but it was acceptable and much more natural feeling going between the production to the ADR. That was my first use of it and then after that I did mess around with it as a dialogue master bus EQ. I was working on a documentary and we had an entire section where we had about five or six interviewees cutting in between their different interview spots and they’re all set somewhere where they’re sitting down so you’ve got this mishmash of tone. As a Dialogue Mixer, you’ll go through trying to control these areas, trying to suck out some of the verb and make the EQ work for each thing but Spectral Balance was great, after you do all of that work, to put it on the dialogue master, and for it to just give you a final balance. It just kind of equalled everything out, so, as we’re going from subject A to subject C, then subject B, the transition was not as jarring. When you have talking heads like that for documentaries, it can be a very hard thing to deal with because it’s literally two separate places, two separate types of people. One person might have a lot of low energy in their voice, the next person might have a very high, trilly voice and that’s a very difficult thing as a Dialogue Mixer to control, so that your audience isn’t having to adjust to this new person talking. Spectral Balance was great for just a final icing on the cake to blend everything together.

… I could have intelligible dialogue that, yes, I sucked out all of the noise, but I could put the noise back in (meaning the rain), and now the dialogue pops, it still had the emotion …

So, you'd had a lot of experience with Chameleon and Spectral Balance, then what happened the first time you pushed up the Amount Control on dxRevive?

Well, we’ll go back to that story of me talking about the rain. dxRevive had just come out and I’m working on this film, and again, we have just the lavs, it’s raining, and it’s just coming down, and I can barely understand the dialogue. We have a signal to noise ratio issue, but if you’re just playing it as is, I’m hearing pitter patter on top of soft, emotional lines, and it was just killing me. The fact that the Director was adamant that she loved the lines and that it didn’t need to be replaced, it confused me, but as a Dialogue Editor and a Mixer for her, I was like, ‘whatever, if that’s what you want, I want to help you and I want to make sure this works for everyone’.

So, I went ahead and used a couple of other dialogue isolation tools that were available to me and they just couldn’t do it. The timbre of the rain was too close to some of the harmonics of the voice so it was taking out too much of the voice, stuff like that, and also, being all lavs, we’re losing a lot of the low end energy from the voice and so dxRevive Pro had come out, I downloaded the demo and said, ‘okay, let’s see what this can do’. I messed around with it and it’s one of those situations where, typically when you’re cleaning up dialogue, you want to maintain some of the noise so that you still have the natural feel, but when you have this much noise (rain), I needed to get rid of it and then just put the rain back in and dxRevive Pro at the time was the only tool available that I could put that on there. I first tried 50%, it did it decently well, still had a little bit of issues with intelligibility and I said, ‘you know what, let’s put it on the studio thing (algorithm) where it’s supposed to give that extra warmth and sort of make it sound like it is ADR and let’s put it to 100% so it just sucks out everything else and let’s just see what it does with the voice. I’m not going to say ‘by a miracle’ because the guys at Accentize really know what they’re doing, but they were able to give me a tool that, in this scenario, I could have intelligible dialogue that, yes, I sucked out all of the noise, but I could put the noise back in (meaning the rain), and now the dialogue pops, it still had the emotion and I had control over the elements now whereas I didn’t have control before and the really funny thing is I get into the mix with the Director, we get to that reel, and she’s listening to the scene and goes, ‘you know, I’ve never heard those lines that clear before’. That’s probably the best compliment I could have gotten that day.

Did you show her what you’d done?

I just told her that I had some tools at my disposal, I’ve found that if you show the director how the cake is baked, then they start to question the ingredients and recipe. I wanted to be able to give her some cleaner dialogue and if she’s happy, I’m ecstatic. So, she didn’t realise what her dialogue could have been. She was just accepting what it was and didn’t really feel it needed to go any further, and then I showed her what it could have been, and she was actually much happier. Not only was she happy, but the Executive Producer who was next to her was also ecstatic because I think they were also a little concerned about those lines being lost. So, dxRevive really saved me in that scenario.

It was from that moment that I said, ‘okay, this is going to stay in my toolkit because if it can do this, what else can it do?’. Since then, almost every dialogue editorial project or a mix that I’m doing with dialogue, dxRevive is in my toolkit of things that I will go to first to clean up dialogue, to make it pop basically.

And do you tend to go for the Production Sound algorithm or the Studio Sound algorithm? Or does it just depend on the circumstances of the job?

It completely depends on the scenario, or the type of dialogue that I’m working with. I try to do the Production (Natural) one first because that one doesn’t add in the low end to the dialogue, but I do notice with that one, it will sometimes find a lot of reverb in the production dialogue, and it will accentuate that, sometimes a little more than I want. I don’t have a set it and forget it preset, I always have to figure out what works the best and then go with that. Then sometimes I may try both algorithms and just A/B them and have them in my tracks just to say, here’s what I want to do, but then give the client an option – here’s one that’s a little less processed, but it’s all based on what is needed for that piece of dialogue.

Coming to the Pro feature multi-band adjustments, do you find yourself using that much?

In the beginning, I wasn’t. The one thing for every tool that we have in our arsenal as mixers and as editors, the simpler, the better, because A) when it’s simple to use, it means I don’t have to think about it as much. Again, the best thing about dxRevive when it first came out was you have a big knob to turn up and down, and so I liked that at first and I would just kind of leave it as is because I don’t have time on most projects to sit there and tweak and figure out what the plugin is doing for me. It’s not until afterwards where I have maybe a week break that I can just go, ‘let me dive back in there and see what more I can do with this plugin’. And so, at first, no, I did not use any of the bands, I just kind of left them all at Unity and said, ‘do your thing’, because 90% of the people who use this plugin are probably going to do the same thing, and again, whatever I can do to make it simple is better for me. I did start messing around with the bands when I had some time. I feel it is really nice to actually have those bands because with most dialogue restoration tools, there’s certain times where one chunk of the dialogue is perfectly fine and then the other chunk is where all of the problem areas are, and being able to solo, mute, and adjust all that stuff is really useful to be able to go in and just say, ‘I only want to process this section here’, and when you get the four band in there, that is extremely useful to just say ‘I only need to get rid of this weird high end element that’s affecting my dialogue’. So yes, I have got more precise using dxRevive Pro with the multi-band stuff, but a lot of times when I just need a quick fix, I don’t even bring them up, I just have it set to unity and call it a day.

What one piece of advice would you give to 16-year-old Rob so that he would have a really good career doing what you’re doing?

That’s a great question. I love it. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so I would say that problems will always arise, but it’s actually those challenges that make the job more fun most of the time. Again, this is me being a creative and an engineer, you don’t want everything to be perfect right out of the gate because then what are you really doing? Your job is not that fun if you’re not actually having certain things to fix or to augment. Again, as mixers, ‘the problem’ is part of our entire job. It’s not really a ‘problem’ per se, it’s figuring out how we make all of these elements come together to make one cohesive story point for the client and for the audience. That’s the thing I would always tell anybody in this industry, it’s going to be difficult sometimes, but it’s getting through those challenges and making a cool product that makes it completely worth it.

Regardless of how much pain, sweat and tears you’re putting into the project, at the end, you’re going to feel (usually) really good about yourself and how the product came out. That’s what I actually love about this industry, especially in film, I can pull my hair out and I can be digging my nails into my skin sometimes just because it’s a very stressful issue that I’m dealing with on a project, but, at the end, once everyone says, ‘this is awesome, cool’ and we go to print master, then you’re like, ‘this was worth it, this is great’. I get to have a lot of fun here. So yeah, I would just say to anybody, the problems will always be there, they’re never going to go away and they may get bigger as you go along, but it’s learning from those things that makes it worthwhile to keep going and evolving as a creative in this industry.