A Case of Dicks.

A Case of Dicks.
When the web series Amateur Dicks needed expert sound & music work, the mystery was easy to unravel.

Red Plaid Productions' Amateur Dicks tracks the investigative caseload of four broke, unmotivated, and baked roommates that were a little too inspired by a Magnum P.I. marathon. The ultra-low-budget series follows the exploits of these pseudo-sleuths as they try to solve cases they stumble upon.

For the pilot episode, I wrote & produced the Amateur Dicks theme music (an homage to classic action-detective series themes of the 70s and 80s) and bit of cool underscore music. When episode 2, “Case File #2: The Devil Wears a Double D,” came around, the creators envisioned a noir vibe, and I took on the task of not only a larger volume of underscoring, but also the overall sound mixing & foley effects.

One of the major giveaways of low-budget productions is the sound mix and quality. I was hopeful that I'd be able to bring a layer of gloss to the episode's audio that would belie its humble budget.

How did I crack the case? Read on, and (if you're not on mobile) check out the interactive video that lets you hear the separate layers!

The final mix session in-progress & growing more complex.

I. From Captured Audio to Clean Session

Fortunately for me, the episode's editor was using a video application that allowed exporting of their edit to an interchange format readable by Pro Tools, the most popular digital audio recording, mixing & production software. After some fiddling, they were able to get me a session. Unfortunately for me, the roughly 12-minute edit resulted in a bonkers amount of individual audio files — one for each and every tiny cut, for each character's lav mic and the boom(s). And, the video software, Premiere Pro, auto-generated “useful” filenames like “f886ef04-504c-427c-a01d-6ec1c0d44b25.494.aif”.

Not very descriptive or easy to work with.

So, first off, I had to set about cleaning and organizing my Pro Tools session. I went through take-by-take, hunting to find the cleanest audio for each spoken line, and trimming them to within a few seconds of the words (leaving enough space for noise print capture later on) and moving them to consolidated tracks per-character. I then exported these selected audio files by character/mic and by scene.

From here, the audio went through a variety of cleanup steps. General noise and ambient sound was a challenge to remove, requiring multiple passes through audio restoration tools (especially during an outdoor sequence filmed near busy Brooklyn streets). Room ambience & reverberation was also removed as much as possible, as it often fell right into the resonant frequency of actors' voices and further muddied their spoken lines. And, even if it the room reverberation didn't cause resonance issues, I wanted to be able to control the room reverberation more granularly and compress the voice part separately, as the different mics didn't always put the actors in the same audio space despite being in the same room. And finally, some lines couldn't be clearly heard in any takes, so I had to either make due, find a usable instance in the take where the actor was picked up by another character's mic, or find an alternate take that required some more magic later on; these alternate takes got cleaned up and prepared for some surgery.

With the dialogue cleaned up, it was time to start reassembling the episode.

II. Dry Audio to Dialogue

Next, the cleaned-up dialogue files and reference video went into a new, empty mix session.

From here, I carefully chose the reverb for each of the four scenes to re-add the room (or outdoor) echo/reverberation that I'd removed during cleanup, placing the actors in the same space. The actors' individual tracks got compression and EQ. Some lines required automation of EQ or multiband compression to compensate for takes that didn't sit right.

Lastly, there were some instances where the only “good” audio take for a line was one that was faster or slower than the character's mouth in the chosen video take. There were also two separately-recorded noir-ish voiceovers for Johnnie that were too long to fit into the video edit's timing. For these, I did a combination of splicing/crossfading and Flex Time to realign the words being said with the characters' mouths.

With the dialogue set, I turned my attention to effects.

III. A Reactive World

First off, I laid down ambient audio beds for each scene: general hum/room hiss for the apartment scenes and traffic/street noise for the outdoor scene. Ambient noise like this helps to fill in the gaps between audio cuts, rather than returning to complete silence between splices (which is another dead giveaway for a low budget production.) This was pretty straightforward. But then, I had to tackle the foley.

Foley, for laypeople, is the art of adding everyday sounds to film & video. Think of footsteps crunching on gravel; the squeak of a chair; the (usually overdone) sound of a sword being pulled out of its scabbard; leaves rustling in the wind; or the (usually ridiculously overdone) handling noise when guns are moved around in your favorite movies and TV shows. Things like that are usually foley, rather than audio recorded on-set during filming.

But, just as important as what you choose to put in via foley is what you choose to omit. If every action and thing onscreen has an attendant piece of audio, it can be sensory overload for viewers and it can get in the way of dialogue. So, it's important not only to have high-quality foley, but also to remain appropriate to the production.

(Foley is also separate from sound effects — gunshots, glass breaking, etc. — and overall ambience. This episode required all three, as most productions do, but I spent the lion's share of my time on the foley.)

In the scene featured in the case study video player below, here's just a very short, very partial list of foley effects I had to locate or create:

  • Door opening/slamming
  • High heel footsteps
  • Digital recorder handling noise
  • Furniture creaks
  • Miniblind handling sounds
  • Sounds of a leather purse
  • Chain lock
  • And many more.

I used a combination of some audio libraries I have as well as audio I recorded myself and just started putting foley in. When I felt I'd gone too far, I'd remove elements. Quincy Jones famously offered a tip on song mixing that applies in foley too, where you put in all your good ideas but then just keep removing as much as you can without losing the vibe. Plus, the director, my friend Rich Tayloe, had a keen sense of what may have been “too much” in the audio mix.

With the hard stuff out of the way, it was on to the most fun of the process — for me, at least: composing and producing the music!

IV. Music Maketh Man

The Amateur Dicks theme is a cheese-o-matic homage to the theme songs from late-70s/early-80s action-detective shows like Magnum P.I., driven by brass, strings, wah-wah guitar, bass, drums, bongos (of course), and a sliding synthesizer. I wanted to bring elements of that theme into the jazz/noir vibes of this episode.

In the scene featured in the case study video, the Dicks are meeting their client, the mysterious, femme fatale dame, Evelyn. Rich, the director, had a very strong vision about how he wanted the scene's underscore to play out once he heard the jazzy, noir direction I was taking it, having me add breaks where the music petered out for comedic effect.

The scene and onscreen door both open with a piano chiming some chords and a Harmon muted trumpet, followed by a jazz quartet playing The Dame's Theme, with the trumpet taking the lead over dense piano chords, bass, and brushed drums.

Next up, a full, luscious string section (in stacked octave unison) echoes the variation of the Dame's Theme over the piano chords, with a French horn adding punctuation, followed by an additional string melodic exploration in further stacked octaves and an exclamation point on the surprise “physical evidence” and some expositive underscore. The jazz quartet takes back over, and a “va-va-voom” drum part escorts The Dame to the door, where she crashes into the dark with the strings closing us out before some noodling by the jazz quartet.

Peel Back the Layers

Using the video player below, you can toggle between the on-set audio or the layers of the work I did for the second scene in the episode by clicking the buttons below. Note: this audio has been compressed for the web, so it's not maximum quality. Also note, if the video & audio get out-of-sync because your browser's loading and playing multiple layers, just scrub the video timeline and they'll lock back in.

Click to load interactive video player.

Buffering synchronized video & audio, please wait…

Watch the full episode, “Case File #2: The Devil Wears a Double D,” on YouTube.