In The Studio: Top Ten Must-Have Tools For Post Production

December 14, 2012, by Jeffrey P. Fisher

This article is provided by the Fisher Creative Group.

Whether I’m working on corporate video, documentary, or independent film, there are several go-to tools that help me to transform the raw sound into a living, breathing complete soundtrack that makes an impact.

I’m an in-the-box kind of guy, so all my tools are software plug-ins for the audio programs that I use (Sony Acid, Sound Forge, and Vegas Pro with a little Reaper thrown in, too).

Often times I’m sked exactly what plugins I find essential to my workflow, and everyone loves a list, so here’s my top 10 must have audio tools for audio post.

10: EQ
This is the crucial tool for so many fixes and creative needs. I prefer a flexible parametric unit with control over frequency center, boost/cut amount, and width (or ‘Q’).

Tight notches are fantastic for getting rid of weird noises and overall noise reduction, too. Sometimes I want the EQ to be transparent and just do its job.

Other times I need my EQ to have a sound, preferably a vintage sound, for which I trust the UAD Pultec Pro EQ as my go-to for its ability to emulate the original passive EQ.

9: De-esser
This tool is great for taming sibilant dialogue and voiceover tracks, and depending on the model, even popped Ps.

Essentially this is frequency-dependent compression so its uses can extend well beyond reducing the damage caused by plosives and sibilants.

Try it to reduce an excessive room tone or ring or even a constant or intermittent noise such as hum or buzz. If the plug-in provides control over frequency and width, it’s a much more versatile tool.

8: Noise Gate
When you need to totally eliminate noise in between phrases, sections, sound effects, and such, this tool is invaluable. I prefer to close off all unused channels and really keep the noise down.

The downside is that on really noisy material, the cutting in and out of a noise gate draws more attention than leaving the noise in place prick brings us to …

7: Expander
An expander is the dialogue/sound editor’s and mixer’s best friend. It works the opposite of a compressor (which makes loud things quieter) and makes quiet things even quieter (it expands the dynamic range).

This lets you push noise down in a more natural, less noticeable way (than a gate). It can be tricky to setup, but can be fantastic on dialogue where it can lower the noise in between phrases and during pauses.

And then when talent talks, the noise comes back but smoother and masked by the words. You won’t get lucky and have a single setting for a whole project, but perhaps can use settings that work for individual scenes or characters — especially if you already smoothed the dialog and used room tone fills effectively.

Expansion can also reduce the effect of too much reverb on dialogue when recorded in a very live room or too far from the mic. It’s not perfect, but it can work a bit to make voices sound closer and less muddy (coupled with some EQ fixes).

6: Pitch Shift
Shifting pitch offers a lot of possibilities for experimentation in sound design. It also makes a terrific sweetener for low-frequency sounds.

For example, I’ll often double a sound and shift the copy down an octave for more power and greater impact. This works great on gunshots, thunder, and so forth.

Sometimes I’ll copy some background and pitch shift the two instances slightly and then hard pan them to add some nice, wider stereo which leaves room in the middle for all-important dialogue.

5: Compressor(s)
Dealing with dynamics is as important as handling the tonal aspects of sound (using EQ). And just like EQ, I like my compressors to sometimes just work and not get in the way and other times to really have a sound that provides some new color.

Standard compressors are a dime a dozen, and I have several. But for color, I rely on the LA-2A and Fairchild software emulations from Universal Audio.

I also like the 88RS channel strip. On dialogue, music & effects (and other major) busses, I often resort to iZotope Ozone4’s multiband and this plug-in sometimes ends up on the stereo bus, too (with a touch of compression, loudness maximizer, and just-in-case limiter).

4: Early Reflection Reverb
Location sound recordists often use a lot of close miking on performers to get cleaner dialogue (thank you!).

However, this can sound a bit dry in the mix or not fit the camera’s perspective. Reverb is the tool of choice to add back in the missing ambience and give some air to the words.

However, while simulating parking garages and auditoriums is relatively easy, it’s the subtle reverb effects that are infinitely more valuable.

For creating good room sounds, a reverb plug-in that offers a lot of control is what’s needed. I like the freeware Ambience program along with a good convolution-based reverb using plenty of impulse responses (I’ve collected over the years).

3: Stereo Widener
There has to be room for the dialog, so moving music, sound effects, and especially background ambiences out and away from the center is useful.

A stereo widener is the key, and I use the one in iZotope Ozone 4 for my work. You have to be careful with these, though, and make sure any widening you do is mono compatible.

You don’t want part of your soundtrack sounding funny or going missing altogether if your work gets played in mono (or through out-of-phase speakers).

Always check the mono compatibility of your work. Always. One of my favorite stereo widening tricks is … well … the subject of a soon to come article.

2: Limiter
I use a limiter for some dynamics control in interesting ways such as limiting a duplicate of a sound very hard and mixing that back in with the unlimited version (great on percussive sounds).

I also use a limiter on the master bus to catch overs. I don’t hit it hard, just a bit to tame the errant slight peak.

It’s also useful for limiting dynamic range for alternate delivery (e.g. web) without having to totally remix a theatrical/DVD soundtrack.

1: Noise Reduction
My final desert island tool that I truly couldn’t work in audio-post without is noise reduction.

I find the best option to be iZotope RX Advanced, which has saved many a worthless source file.

And, well, that’s it! Hopefully you’ve found this list useful. If you have any particular tips on your own techniques, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Jeffrey P. Fisher provides audio, video, music, writing, consulting, training, and media production and post-production services for individuals, corporate, and commercial clients through his own company, Fisher Creative Group. He also writes extensively about music, sound, and video for print and the Web and has authored numerous books and training DVD’s.

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In The Studio: Top Ten Must-Have Tools For Post Production