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How Movie Soundtracks Are Made

  • 6 min read

 Every movie starts with an idea, followed by a script (referred to as a Screenplay). Although the exact path from script to each film may vary slightly, the basic filmmaking steps are:

  • Pre-production: This is how the film will be brought to the screen is discussed. The budget is determined, the cast and crew are hired, sets constructed, locations determined, storyboards and pre-visualizations are made, preliminary sound and visual special effects are planned and tested if needed.
  • Production: The film is shot and live sound is recorded. Other sound elements and visual special effects are created.
  • Post Production: All the elements of the film (picture and sound) are assembled through the editing process into the final film. Sometimes added scenes may be filmed or existing scenes reshot (aka “reshoots”) if needed. Visual effects and sound are refined if not executed as planned during the production stage.

Incorporating Sound Into Movies

Sound in feature films began in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer. Before that, films were silent and movie viewers had to rely on a live piano/organ player, band, or orchestra playing music during the film presentation. There was no audio dialog - periodic dialog cards were displayed in the film to move the story for viewers. 

During the last almost 100 years, sound presentation in films has been fine-tuned with dialog, music, and sound effects, and is easily 50% of the movie viewing experience. However, since movie viewers fixate on the visual image, the complexity of how sound is integrated into movies is often overlooked. 

Sound Design

The process of planning how sound will be incorporated into a movie is Sound Design. Sound Design takes into account Dialog, Music, Sound Effects.

Sound Design determines what types of sounds are needed (including music) and where they will need to be placed. This includes:

  • Sound Recording Execution: What sounds will be recorded on-set and which will need to be created separately and placed in the film during post-production.
  • Music: How music will be used in the film (songs, score) and how music and special effects sounds will be used to express or elicit emotion and otherwise complement the film. 
  • Sound Bridges: How sound may be used to transition between scenes or locations.

Once the overall Sound Design of a film is determined, it is executed in three steps: On-Set Recording, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.

On-Set Recording

This mainly focuses on character dialog. The goal is to capture the dialog as outlined in the screenplay and implemented by the Director. The person in charge of on-set audio recording is the Production Sound Mixer. This person oversees both the recording of sound as well assembling all the equipment needed to record sound on-set. They may also do a preliminary sound mix of onset recorded sound as a reference for the final edit.

Sound Editing

Sound Editing is the process of creating sounds and placing them in the right spot. Also, if the dialog was not recorded well on-set, it may be re-recorded and dubbed during post-production for better clarity. Sounds that weren't or can't be recorded during shooting are often created by Foley Artists

Foley artists work in a studio where they view the scenes from the film that need their services to create needed sounds. The studio has the props needed as they watch their assigned scenes from the film. Typical sounds that they may need to create include footsteps, door squeaks, windows or glass breaking, something being squished, something falling and breaking, etc...

Another type of sound editing is the creation of sounds that don't exist naturally, such as Godzilla's roar or the lightsaber motion in Star Wars. These sounds may be created by a combination of natural sounds or digitally sampled sounds. Check out some examples of sound editing

In addition to dialog and sound effects, music is also a part of the sound editing process but is created and implemented by a music supervisor, and if needed, a music composer.

Music is most often acquired in two ways: 

  1. Pre-recorded songs or other musical works. One example is previously recorded songs that are associated with a specific historical period. 
  1. Music recorded using a band or full orchestra recorded recorded "live" in a special studio. In some cases, filmed scenes may be played live for the orchestra to see, and/or monitored by the recording staff in the recording control room.

Music is placed in a film either as a Score or Soundtrack.

  • A score refers to an original musical piece or background music performed by a person, band, or orchestra for specific cuts or scenes in a film.
  • A soundtrack is a compilation of all songs and/or music (original or not) in the film as a whole. Soundtracks usually contain vocals. 

Sound Mixing 

Once all of the sounds and music have been recorded and edited, the final step in incorporating the sound into a film is Sound Mixing.

A Sound Mixer goes through the entire film, making sure all sounds that have been recorded, created, and placed are balanced properly. Some sounds need to be soft, some need to be loud. For surround sound, the sound mixer also has to make decisions regarding the directionality and balance of sound elements in relation to the action taking place on the screen. Depending on the surround format, sounds may be assigned a specific channel (such as dialog in the center and music in the left and right channels), or assigned to a specific point in space and/or motion direction (such as planes, birds, or rain from overhead or vehicles coming from the side or rear). 

Also, dialog needs to be balanced so that it can be heard. 

In addition, music needs to be mixed so that it provides the desired emotional impact without overwhelming the other sounds in the movie.

One great example of how sound mixing works is the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now.

Sound Mixing for the Cinema vs Home Theater

Sound Mixing not only has to satisfy the Director and/or Studio's desires but may need to be re-mixed several times for presentation in different venues. 

For exhibiting in modern movie theaters, sound formats such as Dolby Atmos (up to 64-channels), DTS:X, Barco 11.1, Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS), Datasat Digital, formats and IMAX 6-Channel surround sound may be used. However, while these formats work in large theatrical venues with a large audience, they don't work well in the smaller home theater environment. 

This means the film sound has to be remixed for home theater using such formats as Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 or scaled-down versions of Dolby Atmos, DTS-X, and Auro 3D Audio (home version of Barco 11.1). These formats may be found on one or more playback options, such as DVD, Blu-ray, UHD Blu-ray, and select streaming sources in conjunction with soundbars, home theater receivers, and integrated wired and wireless home theater systems. 

However, even with re-mixing and downscaling, there may still be issues with Dialog and surround balance the content is not being played on the same devices, and not all rooms consumers use to watch movies are the same size, shape, or have the same acoustical properties. To correct these issues, most soundbars, home theater receivers, and home theater systems provide dialog enhancement settings and/or ways to adjust the speaker levels of each channel.

Movie Sound and Enclave Audio

A great way to experience movie sound at home is with the  Enclave Audio CineHome II and CineHome Pro wireless 5.1 surround sound home theater systems.

The CineHome II and CineHome Pro systems can be set up in about 10 minutes with the Enclave Audio Mobile App (iOS, Android), or compatible TVs with the CineSync or Roku TV Ready feature.

Enclave CineHome systems come with a central CineHub, five speakers (left, center, right, left, surround, right surround), and a separate subwoofer. Each speaker has a built-in amplifier, which needs to be plugged into AC power. However, the speakers and subwoofer receive audio signals from the CineHub wirelessly using WiSA technology. This means that speaker wire clutter is eliminated. 

The CineHub accepts stereo or decodes Dolby Digital or DTS surround signals via HDMI-ARC/eARC or Digital Optical connection from the TV and sends the sound signals wirelessly to the correct speakers. For stereo-only sources, signals are sent to the left/right front channel speakers, but Enclave Audio also provides a Whole Room Stereo or Pro Logic II setting that utilizes all the speakers for more room-filling sound.

NOTE: The script-to-screen and sound inclusion process discussed above is also similar for TV shows and Video Games.