Survive Dialog Editing With Your Wits Attached

The premise behind the 11th Hour Audio Challenge is simple – you’re here to learn something new in audio and learn it fast because you’ve got 28 days to make your production a winner.

cover art for Gower Hall

I’ve been involved in the Challenge since 2016. It got me seriously into scriptwriting, provided a boot camp in recording techniques, and enabled me to meet a fantastic array of talented people. The 2021 challenge was my first head-first plunge into the technical side of creating a show through dialogue editing. I rapidly discovered it to be a fantastically useful experience and not just for production.

Dialogue I’ve discovered is really the core of audio drama.

Stumble into your first production and pretty much everything else you can busk on. You don’t need your own script, you don’t have to have anything more than a phone to record and sound effects can wait until you’re more practiced. Get the dialogue wrong though, and it won’t sail.

Knowing how to dialogue edit in a team is a key fail-safe. I’ve learned the hard way on previous productions, that if you don’t have the recordings well organised and someone in production gets sick or walks out, then either the production folds or you’re going to have to call in some favours quickly.

At the same time, it can be what makes even major productions succeed. A Writer/Producer once confessed to me that the production series could only be financed if he put in the time doing the dialogue. This enabled him to save the money he needed on the acting and sound effects, the result ended up winning the BBC Audio Drama Awards and a string of commissions off the back of it.

Finally, getting better at dialogue editing, makes you better at everything else. It makes you appreciate the importance of good casting (oh, the pain of fluffed lines), it makes you think about the decisions you need when directing (alternative takes, more background sounds) and most of all, it makes you better at writing, because you end up switching seats and listening to your carefully worded masterpiece as the audience does, often discovering that it could be made quite a bit clearer or shorter in the process.

So here are my tips

Make life easy for yourself, start planning early
In a small production, you might take on many roles, so think about what will cause problems for dialogue later on: have you got experience actors? Are they in a suitable recording environment? Have you agreed with the recordist on how the files will be organised? Is the recording likely to need additional sounds (background arguments, grunts, moans, gasps…) that the cast can improvise on the day? Is there an agreed method for knowing where one take starts and another ends (a clap at the start of each new take whilst recording can save you a lot of time)?

It’ll take longer than you think

The dialogue is going to take you longer than you think. It just is. At the start, think about an hour a finished minute. You’ll probably start moving faster than that and wondering who came with that formula – and yet at the end, you’ll discover it’s right. As such, get started as soon as humanly possible in your schedule. The faster you get this out the way, the more time can be given over to refining the sound design (which will take even longer) or requesting pick-ups (which won’t arrive when you need them). When possible, let the composer get an early listen, the more activity that can happen in parallel, the better.

Know your digital audio workspace (DAW)

There are a lot of opinions over which digital audio workspace is best but for a beginner, there are really only two questions: can I get this to work for me; and can I get to work for the sound designer?

The first question is often just really an issue of messing around and trying out tutorials and ultimately there are always the materials out there to get a rough and ready knowledge of any DAW – just give yourself time to experiment on something first. But the challenge often comes with the second question, how you can get the files to the sound designer. Do they have the same DAW, or will you need to export the finished tracks (stems)? This is one of those issues you want to plan with your team early in pre-production.

Organise, organise, organise

A well-organised piece will save you a lot of time. I create folders by scene and then label files by character and then takes so I can import these as tracks. If you have those hand-claps in the recording it’ll help you cut up the takes a lot more quickly.

Align your recordings, strip out the silence

If the recording goes really well, sometimes all you need to do is align the takes, strip out the silences and tweak the timings. This is where you want to be.

Most frequently you’ll be confronted by a range of takes and bitty pick-ups. Line these up as far as possible, as it removes the pain of trying to find, compare or hunt down dialogue later on.

Often you won’t have time to compare all the different takes and if you do, it’ll probably drive you crazy. One tip a Producer suggested to me, is to take the second take (which still has the energy in the performance) and work from there. Another recommendation was to look for YouTube tutorials on silence stripping tools in DAWs like Audition, if you can do this, it’ll help you work much fast.

Silences also matter

It’s easy to really get into the edit and forget all those things that humans do – pause, stumble, gasp and of course, breath. Good tight dialogue is often key to a zippy action-driven or comedic script, but you don’t want your audience to be exhausted or the actors to sound like a runaway computer, let them breathe a bit.

This is also important for sound design. Wherever possible a sound designer will want to spend less time on the dialogue and more time on crafting the aural environment, so the better you make the dialogue the less pain they have. Still, dialogue and sound design are integral so give a bit of space where you know things are happening so that the sound designer doesn’t have to move around a lot of dialogue every time there is a line of action in the script.

Export

This should probably be one of the first considerations: make sure you can transfer your tracks (stems) to the sound designer, mixer, etc. Ideally, it’s best if everyone can work in the same session, but often different DAWs and different versions make this impossible, so be prepared to find the WAV export settings on for your tracks and a suitable cloud storage system to transfer the files (WeTransfer, DropBox, GoogleDrive sharing options, etc.).

Sit back and enjoy

And there you go. You’ve done it. Whatever happens next, your vision is safe. The sound-designer, composer, mixer, etc., may turn it into a thing of unsurpassable beauty, or a cast member may end up taking sick, leaving you with a last-minute panic. Nevermind. You’ve got the dialogue. It’s yours. It’s great and you can always rework it later if there is a problem. You’ve spent the one whole day you planned for this (and the week you didn’t), time for a drink now and relax.

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