Post-Production Basics: Sound Editing – Dialog

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NEW: 10-part dialog editing blog found here!

Different types of sound editing

Sound editing for picture can be broken into different elements (and job titles):

  • Dialog editing (dialog editor)
  • Music editing (music editor)
  • Sound FX editing/sound design (sound designer, sound fx editor)
  • Foley editing (Foley editor)

These roles could be different people or it could be one person doing all of the above. In credits, if someone is listed as “Sound Editor” they likely worked on multiple elements.

Dialog Editing

As we saw previously in What is an AAF and Why Does it Matter, the materials are brought into an audio workstation from a video workstation (through an AAF or OMF) and then “split” so that each element is placed on appropriate tracks. The dialog editor is responsible for going through all of the dialog tracks for the following:

  • Organizing files within each set of audio tracks
  • Sorting through tracks and removing regions so only usable or preferred/best mics are remaining.
  • Once the appropriate mics are in place: adjusting fade ins, fade outs, cross fades, and filling in holes as necessary.
  • Removing unwanted sounds such as pops, clicks, hums, thumps, or other noises that can’t be removed by real-time mixing. Sometimes the dialog editor can remove other non-desirable sounds like dogs barking or sirens.
  • Repairing sounds that can’t be fixed by real-time mixing (such as mic dropouts)
  • Editing ADR (actor’s lines that were re-recorded in the studio) and voice-over narration
    The fundamentals of dialog editing

Here’s an example of a very basic dialog edit; The above track is edited while the grey track (lower) is how it was delivered by the picture editor (via AAF).

  • Notice how in this example there’s a long fade in and fade out. This is to help make the ambience come in and out naturally.
  • In the middle, the original dialog had a hole between two regions. The dialog edit “filled” that hole and added a crossfade.
  • Towards the end of the clip (the 5th region), an edit was moved slightly to clean up a bad dialog edit in the middle of a word.
  • At the end, the original audio had some unwanted noise. That was replaced with clean audio from earlier in the track then faded out.

Removing mics

Before dialog editing

After dialog editing

This is a before and after look of two tracks of dialog. It’s two people with separate mics talking at close proximity. Even just looking at the waveforms (without listening) you can tell when one person (or both) are talking. There’s a bit of bleed from one mic to the other. If you edit out the bleed it makes the person talking sound much clearer.

Even though you can tell a lot from the waveform it’s still a good idea to listen through each track. Sometimes there’s low level sounds you want to keep like a quiet word or laugh.

Dialog organization

There’s a lot of different ways to organize dialog and the style can change depending on a few factors (like the genre of the project or the mixer you’re editing for). For example, when working on reality tv shows (or documentary), I like working with two sets of dialog tracks: interviews and in-scene dialog. Here’s an example of a reality show where that style of editing would be useful:

Even though it’s the same person talking in-scene and in the interview, it doesn’t make sense logistically to have all that audio on the same track. It’s different locations, different mics (or mic placement), and the source mics probably have different levels and EQs.

That style of dialog editing may not work for a scripted film or tv show, though. It may make more sense to have 5-10 generic dialog tracks. Unless a mixer instructs you otherwise, you typically want to edit the same character/same mic on the same tracks through a scene (in a new scene they may switch to a different track). In this example, there’s 3 people (and three mics):

ay want a different style of dialog editing, though. This is the same audio but with a different mixer’s preferences applied:

  • No “Equal Gain” fades
  • Long fades coming in and out of each region
  • Use A-B tracks for one scene and C-D for the next

Knowing your mixer’s preferences

One of the challenges of being dialog editor for a studio with multiple mixers is each mixer has his/her own preferences. You have to be a chameleon as an editor changing your style from day to day (depending who you’re editing for). Mixers usually have good reasons for their choices (it works with their mixing style) but it’s not necessarily how anyone else does it. It can be tough getting started but take good notes and talk to your mixer if there’s any issues or concerns. You’ll get the hang of it!

If you’re editing dialog for another mixer, it’s always a good idea to speak with him/her before to get a sense for preferences. Some mixers have 5 dialog tracks in their template and others have 20. Some mixers only want a specific type of cross fade. There’s times they will want boom over lav (or vice versa). It can help to see another project that was edited for that mixer or to use the mixer’s template so names will match. In essence, the dialog editor’s job is to make it easy and seamless for the mixer to import the dialog edit and start working as quickly as possible.

Removing sounds

It’s expected for a professional dialog editor to know how to do detailed audio clean up using corrective software or plugins (with functions like declick, decrackle, and hum removal). Detail work is the focus; Broadband noise reduction (globally reducing noise) typically happens during the mix, not by the dialog editor.

RX Example 1 (wind on the mic before; cleaned up with RX on the right)

Izotope RX is commonly used software that dialog editors use to remove problem sounds (RX Elements is a good alternative for just getting started or if budget is an issue). It’s sort of like Photoshop for audio. In RX example 1, there’s wind on the mic that’s causing rumble and clicks. The left side is the original audio; the right side is after it’s been treated by RX 5 (to remove low pops, de-plosives and declick).

The biggest change is in the low frequencies (seen as bright yellow at the bottom of the left photo). What’s impressive is that RX can remove this without compromising the quality of the dialog (with the appropriate settings). A mixer could achieve a similar result with a high pass EQ filter but they would be completely losing low end information – which can cause a shift in ambience or negatively affect the sound of the voice. Izotope RX can also repair mic dropouts, as seen in example 2 below.

Izotope RX example 2: repairing a mic dropout

Tips for dialog editing

Add EQ and compression to your edit tracks (for temporary use) to listen closer to how the mixer will be hearing it.

It may take some adjusting plugins between scenes but the idea is to hear things that you may not catch otherwise. For example, some lavs sound very dull or boxy (especially if poorly placed). A lav might need 6 dB or more of a high end boost – significant enough to hear issues that went totally unnoticed without the boost. I like the Waves MV2 plugin for compression when editing dialog.

Audio Processing

If you’re doing any processing (declicking, etc), it’s really important to keep a copy of the original somewhere accessible. Sometimes it’s muted on the track below or you can make a track labelled “unprocessed” (or something similar) so you or the mixer can quickly get back to the original, if needed.

If only a small portion of a region is processed (and has handles) and the rest of the region is not processed no copy is needed. In general, you want to make it quick and easy for anyone to get back to the original/unprocessed file.

Headphones versus studio monitors:

This is a personal preference, but I typically prefer headphones unless I’m working in a good-sounding room with monitors that I know and trust (my go-to headphones are Audio-Technica ATH-M40x). It’s hard to hear rumble on a speaker that only has a 6 inch woofer, for example.

If I’m working at a studio, however, I would rather edit on a mix stage than an edit bay (it’s not always possible but it’s really helpful if you have the option). Even better is to work in the mix room that the final mix will take place. The mic choices that you make in one room may sound very different in another – especially between a small edit room and a mix bay.

Who makes a good dialog editor?

Dialog editing is a good fit for people who like to work alone and is generally more independent and less stressful than mixing. You have to be detail-oriented and like problem solving. It’s rewarding because it’s often a drastic change between where you started and what it sounds like when you’re done. Dialog editing can be really challenging at times, too. As far as sound editing goes, it’s probably the most important job (because dialog is up front and center – literally).

2 thoughts on “Post-Production Basics: Sound Editing – Dialog”

  1. THis was an excellent run-down and demystifies, quickly, a key process in post-production audio finishing. I’m a picure editor who was desparate to know what happens next after turning over an AAF/OMF file to the sound folks. If you have more in-depth info, I’d love to access it.


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