Dialogue Editor Brian Armstrong Answers Questions About Bates Motel

In just 11 months, you’ll have the skills, hands-on training, and real-world experience to launch your audio engineering or music production career the day you graduate.

And with our fast-track to graduation, launching your career won’t leave you buried in debt.

At our most recent Grad Panel and subsequent Open House, CRAS grad Brian Armstrong stopped by to give our current student body some enlightening tips and stories about his time spent in the audio industry.

One of his accolades was working as a dialogue editor for the A&E show Bates Motel.

The television channel A&E has recently launched a critically acclaimed show entitled Bates Motel. Based off the classic horror movie Psycho, this show takes a look at the more formative years of Norman Bates. CRAS Grad Brian Armstrong, sound and dialogue editor, was kind enough to host an open forum on reddit.com and answer as many questions as he could about his role in the show.

If you weren’t doing audio work for television/film, what would your dream job be? Audio related or not.

I really love my job. I am working on getting some credits to work my way up the ladder to supervise movies/television shows as well as produce them.

What inspired you to become a sound editor?

Music, oddly enough.

When I was in college, my roommate had a guitar and I had never played an instrument before in my life. Whenever he was gone, I would pick it up and mess around with it. It inspired me to listen to a bunch of different types of music and that’s when I decided I wanted to do something in that world. I went to The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences after college and learned the “brains on” approach to making music. They had a Post Production class that felt a bit like an afterthought, but it got me very interested in the movies and TV world. I did an internship in Burbank at a post production facility doing a bunch of reality TV shows and promos for big movies. Eventually I decided to pursue bigger projects and haven’t looked back since.

I do not like a lot of TV shows, and I have never seen or heard of your show. I typically watch shows like Bob’s Burgers, That 70s show, and a couple of crime shows like Criminal Minds. Why should I or someone like me watch your show? If I shouldn’t even watch it then who is your target audience?

I think Bates Motel is pretty unique in that it’s a modern twist on a very classic story. As I typed that, I guess its not SO unique of an idea, but given the fact that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is such a cult classic, making a “prequel” to it that takes place in today’s society (albeit a small town) is pretty ballsy. When I think of Psycho, I immediately am in another place and time. Admittedly, it took a leap of faith on my part to accept what the creators are doing, but it pays off.

I can’t speak directly on behalf of A&E as to their target audience, but Norman Bates is an awkward 17 year old high school student struggling with fitting in, making friends, and dealing with his controlling mom. I’d venture to say the target audience is definitely a younger (early 20s – mid 30s) crowd. Having said that, its not ignoring the “older” folks who perhaps saw and loved Psycho when it first came out.

Thanks for your answer. I will give episode 1 season 1 a shot this weekend. I’ve been trying to think of sound-related questions and realized I know absolutely nothing so here goes: How much work do you put in per episode? What takes up most of your time? Do you sometimes have to get actors to come back in to record they part again? Also how do you manage to make it sound like they are at that one location in the episode and not in a noiseless studio?

Awesome questions for someone who doesn’t know anything!

I have five days to edit the dialogue for a 42 minute episode. YouTube and FaceBook take up most of my time.

Yes, actors do come in and re-record some of their lines. Its called ADR. Reasons for this could vary. A line might be added to clarify a plot point. The performance might not be as good as the director or editor want it to be. There could be an sound on the track that there’s no way for me to remove (cell phone interference, planes flying over head, cars passing, etc.)

Once I do my “magic” on the show, I hand it off to the re-recording mixers to do the final work on balancing all the elements of the show (sound effects, dialogue, and music). The dialogue mixer is the guy who finesses the ADR and EQ’s and adds reverb to it so it sounds like its not recorded on a sound stage.

I’m an audio engineer interested in getting into this kind of editing work. I’ve always done music, but I’ve also worked with licensing music for film and TV, which is what sparked my interest in post production audio for film or TV. What advice would you have for someone like me?

Music editors have a great gig. I went to school to learn live sound but quickly realized that wasn’t my scene and interned at a post production facility in Burbank. The first step, I would say is to just familiarize yourself with all the different aspects of post production audio and finding someone/somewhere that will let you get your hands on some stuff and just go for it. There’s a lot of debate about whether you should focus on one thing or be open to any opportunities that come up. I think you should do both. Be open to opportunities but promote yourself as one thing you are really good at. For example, I promote myself as a dialogue editor, but I certainly wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to be a music editor or a sound effects editor if the right show came along.

Good luck and maybe we’ll share a stage someday!

I noticed from your workstation photo that you like the equal gain crossfade, as opposed to the equal power. Any particular reason? I tend to lean towards equal power.

First of all… how did you notice that from looking at my Pro Tools session?

Secondly, my crossfades are actually all equal power when they’re used within a region. If its within a region and I use equal gain, I hear a dip in the fill I can’t hear when I use equal power.

For fades in and fade outs, I create a long enough fill to fade out with any type of fade (as long as its straight). Its just sort of how I adapted to dialogue. I’ve found that seeing fades that aren’t a straight line makes some mixers a little nervous.

Bottom line, if it sounds good, it is good.

That’s interesting what you mentioned about using equal gain/straight line fades, and some mixers getting nervous about non-linear ones. Obviously, equal power is almost always the way to go within a region. But for ins and outs, that actually kind of makes sense, if the mixer is planning on riding each line in and out a bit. Easier to anticipate the linear fades.

I’ve never had the opportunity to watch a seasoned re-recording mixer working with dialogue in its early stages, so I’m pretty curious about that aspect. From my own perspective, I’ve noticed that if I use equal power fades, hidden under “mods”, I don’t have to ride each and every line’s in and out point. 

Truth be told, I don’t know the fundamental difference between equal power and equal gain fades. All I know is what I hear. And yes, I think you’re right… it’s a mixer seeing something out of his/her control that makes him/her nervous.

Equal power retains the relative volume of the fade in and out clips, if you’re fading clips with different sound characteristics. Equal gain prevents the selection from summing and overloading, if your clips have the same relative volume. Source: just got a Pro Tools cert, working on my post production certs and chops now. There’s also a “none” setting, which keeps the fades independent of each other.

Hey there. I’m a SFX and music editor from Vancouver, BC. I was wondering what mix stage your show mixes at, how many days do they get to mix, and is there a predub? You say you get 5 days to cut, is that the same amount the other editors get? Are you freelance or affiliated with a certain studio or company?

Bates Motel mixes on Stage B at Bluwave on the Universal lot. FX mixer Alan Decker and dialogue mixer Nello Torri are the driving forces behind the mix. I believe the other editors get five days as well (there’s only one other). Its a two day mix and no, there is no predub.

I am a contract hire (IATSE Local 700), so I guess that’s freelance. I don’t really know what to call it. I’m working for Atomic Sound right now on Bates.

I’m studying post sound in Vancouver right now and graduate in a few months. Is it necessary to be in the union to work on shows in LA?

It is necessary if you want to work on union shows. The first two or three years I made a living doing non-union work (mostly reality) but I’ve loved being a part of the Local 700. Met some really cool people and worked on some really cool projects.

The great thing about the union is you can technically be “on the roster” once you have met the requirements and then pay your initiation dues once you land your first union gig.

Here’s the union website for more information: www.editorsguild.com.

I see you’re using Izotope Decrackler. Are you using it to clean up some lavs or what? I don’t end up using Decrackle so much as Declicker and Denoiser.

The setting I have on the Decrackler is GREAT for removing mouth noises and certain types of clicks and pops. Its really a tool I’ve grown probably too reliant upon. Its always open (along with reverse and my color palette)

Honestly, I haven’t played around much with Declicker. Denoiser I don’t mess with because the dialogue mixer I’m working with likes to do all that. I get his hesitation. A lot of times dialogue editors will use it too heavy handed and end up with a phasey track. The only time I’ll ever use Denoiser (on this show anyway) is to identify a specific frequency that is persistent in the whole take and can be seamlessly removed.

I do post for a lot of independent stuff, and as such, I do everything in the sound process – from dialogue edit to mix and everything in between. Because of that, I can’t say that I actually know where the dialogue editor job ends. I’d love to understand as I would like to be able to get hired for these kinds of jobs and not scrounge around independently. When you say you’ll use Denoise to identify a frequency, does that mean you’re just doing it to find out if it is removable and you don’t need to tag that region for ADR? Or are you actually going through and EQ’ing the dialogue as you go? If so, are you putting a channel strip plugin in, or are you doing it in Audiosuite? 

I’m very familiar with the world of “independent” work. I started in a small post production facility that did it all and in very unrealistic turn around times. Your questions target the exact problems I’m still overcoming working with mixers.

I’ll answer the Denoiser question first. Sometimes when I’m working on dialogue I’ll hear a constant tone. If it’s a VERY specific frequency, I’ll either bring up an Audiosuite EQ for the ol’ sweep and pull. If that’s not successful, I’ll bring in the Denoiser, let it “learn” an empty section of the region and it will show me what the exact frequency bell looks like. Then I’ll bring the EQ back and get rid of it that way. However, if it’s more of a hum or a broader frequency tone, I’ll leave it alone and let the mixer deal with it. Sounds mean, but that’s their job and that’s what they do best. What sounds good to me in my headphones will NOT sound the same on a stage with big speakers.

The line between mixer and editor is constantly moving with each new show I’m on. The best way to be a valuable dialogue editor is to first recognize that your job is simply to prepare your tracks for the mixer. Secondly, the communication HAS to be alive and well between you and the mixer as to what he or she wants and doesn’t want. They can be very specific so its good to make sure their expectations are crystal clear. You also want to be on the stage for the first mix, even if it means doing so on your own time. The BEST way to learn is to watch your tracks get manipulated on the stage. I guarantee you’ll more in one day on the stage with Kevin O’Connell or Nello Torri than you will in ten years working on your own.

NEVER use a channel strip plug in if you’re just editing. 10 times out of 10 the mixer will just import your tracks into a template they’ve created and are comfortable with. I ALWAYS use Audiosuite for destructive edits, and I ALWAYS make a copy before applying the effect and put it in the x tracks. I never leave mixers unable to undo anything I’ve done. Its way too egocentric for me to think I’ve solved all the problems on my own. Haha.

What show on TV currently does a very bad job at what you do?

I wouldn’t want to rat out anyone I might end up working with in the future, so I’ll openly admit to answering a completely different question while escaping yours.

If there’s one aspect of post production I really dislike its group ADR. Group ADR is basically getting a bunch of people in the recording studio and making them yell things specific to a scene. If its a bar scene, they’ll say things like, “yeah, I’ll take a beer” or “Over here, man!” and try and tie lines to specific actions people in the background are doing.

The show that the group stands out the most on, TO ME, is Boardwalk Empire. Quite often I will laugh my ass off at the things those actors come up with. Its no one’s fault. Group ADR is a very necessary evil… it just sometimes stands out to me way more than it probably should in that show specifically.

I just realized that pretty much every single reality show that involves talking head interviews is pretty bad when it comes to dialogue editing. They don’t have multiple takes to work with and (ideally) its non-scripted so editors have to work with what they have. Next time you watch a show with talking head interviews, listen ANYTIME they cut away from the person talking. I guarantee the reason they cut away is because they’re changing what the person originally said in one way or another.