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Foley Tips

I’m currently in the middle of a foley pass on an indie feature that I’ve been mixing solo. The dialog edit is just about set and most of the sound effects work is in a good spot, but some remain.  The cues that I tend to leave to the end are the ones that require the detailed touch of Foley.

I’ve always really enjoyed the process of Foley and I like to think most sound designers feel the same way because you get to actually perform sound effects.  Sometimes it’s as simple as opening and closing a door several times until you get the right “ka-chunk”, but many times it becomes a creative problem solving exercise where resourcefulness, creativity and psychoacoustic knowledge combine to guide you to the perfect, natural sound.

But that sounds a lot like Mixing in general, so why is Foley different and why do I tend to leave it to the end?  Foley requires a different work mode. Now you’re recording and moving about, not just sitting comfortably in your mix position. The room gets cluttered with props. Sometimes you’re performing the same action over and over again. If you have a lot of distinct cues, you have build sounds with multiple other sounds. And if you have a lot of quiet, subtle sounds, your focus becomes microscopic, which can get tiring.

There are loads of pro secrets out there for creating perfectly stomach-turning gore and bone-splitting, but I wanted to put together a list of tips for the process itself, which I’ve been consciously utilizing in order to help me work quicker and avoid burning out:

Use Playlists To Sort Your Recordings

I use Pro Tools, but I’m sure all DAW’s at this point support multiple playlists within one audio track. I used to record Foley sounds directly to the destination track, but this was mostly out of expedience (laziness) and it gets messy. You also risk over-writing existing work. Now I record everything to a devoted Record track, titled “FOLEY RECORD_”, and create a new playlist for the new sound. Not only is this neater, but it also allows you to recall sounds quickly that you may need to pull from later on, for example, clothing rustle and footsteps.

Proximity Effect Is Your Friend

Proximity Effect is the term for the increase in low frequencies a directional microphone picks up as the audio source moves closer to the mic. A low frequency boost can be an obvious gift when you’re trying to match a sound that benefits from low end punch, but it’s especially helpful if the sound on screen is “close” to the viewer.  Not only will exploiting Proximity Effect save you time EQ’ing the sound with more low end, but the sonic qualities of the high frequencies and everything in between will also get an enhancement.

Use the Whole Room

If the sound cue occurs deep in the frame or was recorded far from the boom op’s mic, consider recording the sound the same exact way.  (This works great for ADR as well.  See below.)

If you have a room with similar reverb qualities as the one on-screen, it’s a no-brainer to record Foley there.  The room tone might match even as well.  I recently had to record items falling off a kitchen counter onto a parquet-like floor.  My first instinct was to record all of these sounds in the pristine isolation of my mix room and process the sounds in Pro tools, but I instantly recalled recording footsteps once on my creaky wood floors in the hallway.  In the end, my kitchen “sounded” like the one on screen (the reverb characteristics and room tone matched pretty closely) and all of the sound effects I recorded there matched impeccably.

Apply ADR Techniques

In ADR, finding out which model microphone was used on set and matching that in post is the first step for experienced ADR engineers.  Consider that Foley is not a whole not different: you may have to record sound effects that already occurred on screen but don’t exist as an isolated clip that can be cut and manipulated easily.  If the movie’s dialog is lav-heavy over the boom, perhaps switch to the lav for clothing rustle; or better yet, combine it with higher quality clothing rustle recorded on a shotgun mic so there’s both sonic continuity in the production track (from the lav), as well as more high-fidelity rustly sound that may sell it more naturally.

Time/Pitch Shift 

Time Shift is a common tool to make Foley recordings work.  The recording isn’t usually dead-on synced up, so a nudge and a slight time shift can help.  Pitch shift is maybe a little less obvious.  As with any Audio Post tool, if you have to use too much of it, you simply didn’t record it right, but a slight pitch shift can do wonders on Foley recordings that are almost there but not quite.

I recently used Pitch Shift with success on the sound of a whiskey-on-the-rocks being handled, drunken, and put down on a table. I didn’t have ice cubes small enough to match the ones on screen and it sounded noticeably different in the recording, but I found that a three-semi-tone pitch shift made big cubes and clink and sing like little ones.

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