“Dialogue is my forte,” says Christopher Koch, CAS, re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor at PostWorks NY, who has cleaned, edited, and mixed some of the most challenging dialogue imaginable: the dialogue on reality TV series. What makes it so challenging is that the run-and-gun filming style is combined with a mad dash, day and a half post sound schedule. With no possibility of ADR, it’s do or die with the dialogue captured on location — whether that location is a busy street, a noisy kitchen or a quiet interior.
Koch considers dialogue — in his film and reality series mixing — to be the crux of what's going to drive the story. “I strive to match all dialogue to the quality of the studio interviews. I use that as my baseline or benchmark for how the rest of the show is going to sound.” Koch is currently mixing reality series like Chopped on Food Network, Black Ink Crew: Chicago on VH1, and Say Yes to the Dress on TLC.
Beware the ‘Frankenbite’
Often in these unscripted series, Koch is asked to create “Frankenbites” — dialogue lines from vérité segments intercut with quieter interview dialogue — to help move the story forward. The trick is to make those “Frankenbites” sound seamless. To accomplish this, Koch seeks to match the vérité dialogue to the interview dialogue by trying to “retain as much robustness and low-end as possible while cleaning up the vérité clips. But sometimes,” he explains, “you may have to degrade the interview dialogue to make it sound like it was recorded in the vérité environment.” Then, to further help the transition between the edits, Koch layers ambience from the vérité segments underneath the interview bites.
Cleaning and matching dialogue can sometimes be a four- or five-step process. Koch often starts with the AudioSuite versions of iZotope’s RX 5 Audio Editor Advanced plug-ins inside his Pro Tools session. First, he uses Dialog De-noise to clean up and render out each vérité clip separately. Then, on the interview dialogue, he may have to use De-reverb to reduce the reverb tails. Next he uses Decrackle to remove any wind noise or fabric rustle on the clips. “I do these types of processes as AudioSuite renders, before I even get into trying to match the EQ by hand, or by experimenting with iZotope’s EQ Match,” says Koch. With the EQ Match module, users can match the EQ profile of one sound source to another. “Sometimes it can get you out of a jam since it does more than just match EQ. If one clip has more compression on it than another, or if one sound source was significantly further from the mic, then EQ Match can take care of those aspects as well.”
When working with iZotope RX’s AudioSuite plug-ins, Koch makes a copy of the dialogue clip after each step of processing and then mutes those copies. “I’ll have three or four muted regions of processing in case I have to unwrap a step. I do all this before I get into working with levels, or adding reverb or other processing,” he says.
Not only does Koch clean clips using those AudioSuite tools, but he also runs several instances of iZotope’s zero-latency Dialogue De-noise plug-in, with different noise profiles loaded on separate tracks. “I want to have maximum control over the vérité dialogue, so I may be running iZotope’s realtime Dialogue De-noise plug-in on individual tracks that I denote as ‘denoise’ tracks, or on the dialogue bus.”
De-noising on Black Ink Crew: Chicago
Once he has the dialogue as clean and robust as possible for a scene, he then feathers back in the location ambience on an effects track to give the dialogue a sense of place. For VH1’s Black Ink Crew: Chicago series (main image), which follows the artists and employees of Chicago’s 9MAG tattoo studio, Koch has a collection of ambiences that were captured on location. “I’ve been doing the show for more than 12 episodes, so I have my own library of ambiences from that specific location that I can lay in underneath the lines.”
For outdoor scenes, Koch tends to start with realtime Dialogue De-noise processing rather than AudioSuite renders. But if a few clips are overly noisy or have a specific issue, like a siren running through it, then Koch will use AudioSuite RX De-noise processing to address specific issues on those clips. “I’ll hit any pieces of dialogue that are really out of bounds to get those to where the other clips are, and then those all get the realtime Dialogue De-noise treatment. I often have multiple stages of RX happening — De-crackle, De-noise, Ambience Match and EQ Match are basically up in my AudioSuite renderform throughout my day. Then inline, on a set of ‘denoise’ tracks, I’ll have the realtime Dialogue De-noiser. It’s a combination of both.”
One feature of iZotope RX 5 Advanced that really impresses Koch is Spectral Repair. He’s used it to take out crickets, sirens and cell phone rings. “Loading the sound files into the Spectral Repair, you can easily see, for example, that at 7K there is some crazy high-end sound happening, and you can paint that out. If something falls off a table during an interview, you can paint that sound out. You can paint out crickets. You can easily see that in the noise profile and just paint it out.” He admits it doesn’t work all the time, but when it does, he has made it a point to show his clients what taking out that offending sound entails. “Often when you’re able to take something out, the clients assume that it was easy to take out. So when I pull a rabbit out of my hat, especially with the Spectral Repair, I can show clients. The tool is so visual that we can let them see what we’re doing. More often than not they are amazed by what we can accomplish.”
Partying is a big part of Black Ink Crew: Chicago, and the tattoo artists often “turn it up” at 9MAG with live music or a DJ and a boisterous crowd. “It’s noisy. There are a lot of people talking and eventually drama will happen. There will be a fight, and you’ll have subtitled snippets of dialogue that tell the story,” says Koch, who not only has the challenge of pulling those snippets of dialogue forward in the mix, but also has the added challenge of removing as much music as he can from the background.
“They’ll have music playing that they don’t have licensing for, so I will have to strip that out. I do a lot of low-end roll off and hopefully some effective EQ on the top end. Then, I try to make the vérité dialogue match the frequency spectrum of the new music track that gets laid into the scene,” explains Koch. Even if the dialogue processing slightly destroys the dialogue in the party scenes, Koch feels what’s most important is that the dialogue tucks into the new music tracks. “The subtitles end up helping out in those situations too.”
Mixing in the Chopped Kitchen
Koch’s approach to dialogue on Black Ink Crew: Chicago is similar to his approach on Food Network’s series Chopped — a culinary competition show recorded in a busy studio kitchen. Judges weigh in on the contestants creations and the contestants have the opportunity to critique their own performance. Both of the series use interview segments, which set the sound quality benchmark that Koch aims to maintain throughout his dialogue processing. Koch reveals that “even though the interview segments on Chopped are recorded on a set (as opposed to a tattoo shop), those segments can still be quite noisy.”
The show happens in a live kitchen with four chefs frantically rushing around, frying food and clanking pots, all while the judges are doing their commentary. Koch explains, “I do a pass of nat sound — where you have a shot of someone cooking and he/she is using a blender and then frying something. In and amongst all of that nat sound you might have instances where the judges’ voices are bleeding through, and not relevant to what’s happening.” In this situation, Koch turns to the Ambience Match feature in the RX 5 Audio Editor Advanced standalone module. With Ambience Match, Koch can recreate the background ambience in sections that have the unwanted commentary. He simply selects a chunk of nat sound, “learns” the ambience, and then renders that over the sections where the voices bleed through. “It even works for sizzling sounds and sounds that you wouldn’t think might register. It does a really decent job on the fly, so I keep that one open.”
He also has realtime Dialogue De-noise plug-ins running on the judges’ tracks. “I have separate tracks specifically designed for the judges during cooking, when I know there is going to be more movement in the studio kitchen, and another for the quieter moments when there is no cooking happening,” he explains.
On reality series, Koch typically acts as sole mixer on an episode, but during the season, different episodes may be mixed by different engineers at PostWorks NY. The studio has handled post sound on Chopped for a long time and they’ve now developed more series for the brand, including Chopped Junior and a Chopped-based web series. “As our workload has increased, we have more engineers come on to help,” notes Koch. “We all use the same Pro Tools session template for the show, so that if another engineer is working on it, then we can still maintain some consistency in my approach to dialogue denoising.” His ultimate goal: dialogue that sounds full and natural, as if it was recorded in a quiet environment.