Michael Lee Simpson
BEST SOUND MIXING: MOVIES WITH EXCEPTIONAL AUDIO
Sound plays a significant role in creating immersive film experiences. To craft crisp and balanced audio, sound mixers combine, revise, and enhance different recorded sounds using mixing consoles or digital audio workstations (DAWs). From exhilarating sound effects to musical scores and all the sounds in between, here’s the best cinematic sound mixing.
What is sound mixing?
Sound mixing is the postproduction filmmaking technique of blending tracks to deliver auditory clarity and balance. Mixing is an element of sound design—the process of creating mood, atmosphere, and tone through ambiance noises, foley sounds, music, and other audio effects. Sound mixers for film and TV also help ensure that dialogue is coherent.
What makes good sound mixing?
Good sound mixing relies on the following elements:
Volume: Volume that matches the mood and allows for audible dialogue is a sign of good sound mixing. Should the sound jolt audiences in a jump-scare, move them during emotional moments, or provide a mysterious atmosphere? Volume levels should also make it so that the audience can hear what characters are saying, even if other sound effects take place at the same time. Beyond dialogue that’s recorded during production, sound mixers sometimes add in automated dialogue replacement (ADR) to replace dialogue that doesn’t sound clear enough.
Frequency balance: Most engineers like to adjust frequencies to around 85 dB, which is where audio sounds the flattest. However, that number applies to professionally designed mix rooms. Independent filmmakers using basements, bedrooms, or some sort of makeshift setup should keep the frequency down to about 70 dB. Being aware of the differences—and how it affects the sound mixing process—allows for the best sound mixing results.
Stereo imagery: Stereo imagery adds depth and width to a track, which creates better sound quality. The wide 3D feeling heard in high-quality sound mixing comes from a careful balance between the left and right speakers. Depth is created through stereo signals, proper use of mono and stereo tracks, and ambiance effects.
Panorama/dimension: The addition of musical instruments and sound effects can take a soundtrack to the next level. Even subtle sounds such as the light jingling off a music box, hands clapping, or light footsteps can be a powerful tool.
The best sound mixing in film.
From the gentle musical upswell accompanying a gladiator’s death scene to the unsettling polytonality in a simulated realm, these soundtracks showcase some of the best sound in movies.
“Gladiator” (2000): Sixty-five people worked in the sound department for Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator.” Sound editor Per Hallberg used a Dolby Digital EX mix, an extended format that amplifies the audio, to make a well-rounded effect. Initially, his team attempted to capture the sound of a screaming crowd in the Colosseum by recording around 2,000 extras. They later recorded the chanting of 200 extras in a separate location and combined that audio with shots of the extras in the grandstands. The result is the grandiose Colosseum we’ve come to know: the screaming crowd, the clanging swords, the roaring tigers, and the galloping horses that echo thunderously throughout the film.
“Dune” (2021): When it was announced that Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel was coming to the big screen again, many had doubts about his epic vision being brought to justice—but sound mixers Ron Bartlett and Doug Hemphill worked their auditory magic to bring it to life. Bartlett and Hemphill’s job was to combine Hans Zimmer’s atmospheric score with sound design orchestrated by Mark Mangini and Theo Green. The score, featuring atmospheric tracks such as “Dream of Arrakis” and “Herald of the Change,” represents everything you’d expect to hear on a desert planet—including sandworm attacks, battle blasts, and starships.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979): Sound designer Walter Murch crafted an ambitious masterpiece layered brilliantly with music and intense audio effects. In particular, the helicopter wings provide a distinctively sharp cut. “ ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a symphony of sounds from beginning to end,” says actor-director Anna Rezan (“My People”). “It tells the story of what war does to someone’s mind and thoughts; it immerses viewers in the chaotic world of war. The sound team was confronted with the blessing and demand of designing a theatrical landscape. It’s the perfect example of how essential sound design is to filmmaking, as sound is never an afterthought. It defines the film.”
“The Matrix” (1999): Sound mixers used DAWs program Pro Tools to create the film’s highly technical, disquieting soundtrack. Conflicting themes wind through “The Matrix”—fate versus free will, computers versus humans, and good versus evil—and the incongruous audio only enhances that sense of friction. “The sound mix, including all its constituent elements (sound design, score, song-use), is the primary tool ‘The Matrix’ uses to discombobulate the audience,” says sound mixer Nathan Towns (“Arbor Demon,” “Goodland”). Composer Don Davis’ score relies on “polytonality” and “ever-evolving neo-minimalist textures” to keep the audience engaged, Towns adds. “The sound design, with its heavy emphasis on electronically generated low-frequency sounds and constant playing with the recontextualization of certain sounds (for example, the alarm clock that is, at first, interpreted as a part of the song ‘Plasticity’ by Plastikman, that is playing diegetically at the club when Neo first meets Trinity, is elucidated by the cut to Neo waking up the next morning), further acts to turn this world our characters inhabit into a kaleidoscopic, cyberpunk rabbit hole that they strive to escape.”
“Ray” (2004): Jamie Foxx’s performance in the Ray Charles biopic earned him an Academy Award. The vocals, however, were recorded by Charles himself. Sound mixers had the added challenge of seamlessly merging Foxx’s movements and Charles’ singing during musical performances. More intensely emotional scenes in the film (particularly involving drug addiction) were meticulously designed to make audiences listen. For example, the sound of heavy breathing and clinking glasses intertwined with a foreboding musical score creates a delicate balance between music and drama.
“Braveheart” (1995): Supervising sound editor Lon Bender won an Academy Award for the film’s sound effects, which included whizzing arrows, clanging swords, and thousands of stomping feet. Bender sought to recreate audio effects from the 13th century and blended those with James Horner’s score. “From enchanting echoes of bagpipes to the wild war cries of a fierce army, ‘Braveheart’ beautifully grasps the peaceful landscape of the Scottish Highlands and simultaneously the violent, oppressive regime the characters experience that paves the way to the intense fight for freedom,” explains sound mixer Kostas Exarcheas (“My People,” “Odod Iridos”). “In this case, audio goes from being a background element to being one of your main characters. ‘Braveheart’ stays in the viewers’ ears long after they watch it. It’s one of the most powerful soundscapes ever designed by a sound team.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971): This classic film excels in its ability to relay emotion through songs such as “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Miracle of Miracles.” The musical emphasizes the importance of sound mixing in film, since the soundtrack is especially significant to the overall style. It’s “a phenomenal example of iconic sound mixing for its time; a rich, highly detailed sound environment and swelling soundtrack set the stage for an incredible story,” says Rezan. “It grasps every lilt of the violin, shot largely on silent soundstages, focusing heavily on music to tell the powerful story.”
“The Dark Knight” (2008): Screeching tires, explosions, and a score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard fill the auditory space of this film. The instrumental motif provides a sharp contrast to loud and explosive action sounds; and when the Joker appears, an eerie hum slices into the soundtrack. “ ‘The Dark Knight’ proves that you don’t always need words, but a wholesome environment of the movie that is tense, thrilling, and full of wonderment,” Exarcheas says. “Batman has bat-like hearing, and most of the film takes place at night, so sound effects are crucial and complex elements in the filmmaking process. It’s filled with real and surreal sounds and puts the viewer in a bizarre dreamscape where its characters exist. The film is elevated by its brilliant sound, hence Ed Novick’s Oscar nomination. They built a film that you hear more than you see. They create a world beyond what we can see with our eyes.”