There are many instances in film where a characters dialogue needs to sound like it is being transmit through an object in the world of the film. Characters talking through a mobile phone is the most obvious example, but for more diverse examples you can think about a military commander coming through a radio, a TV news host speaking through a television, or a prison guard making an announcement over a PA system. These moments are crucial sound design elements that draw the audience into the world of the film and immerse them in the story. In this article we will explore some dialogue processing techniques that you can implement to give your dialogue the feeling of coming through Tape, Telephone, Television, and Radio / Walkie Talkie. Read on below to discover more!
This is probably one of the less common challenges you will come across but it does come up now and again. How can you make dialogue sound like it was recorded on tape and has that vintage feel? Well luckily there are a range of great tape emulation and saturation plug-ins out there.
Waves Kramer Tape - Waves Kramer Tape sound fantastic and gives you full control over how extreme you want your tape effect to be. There are wow and flutter controls for more heavy effects, and it also includes precise control over the level of tape noise and tape speed. https://www.waves.com/plugins/kramer-master-tape#eddie-kramer-on-the-kramer-master-tape Avid Reel Tape Saturation - In their own words, Avid's "Reel Tape Saturation emulates the colour characteristics, tape compression, and saturation effects of popular analogue tape formulation". This tool has a great range of presets and is fairly easy to get to grips with without too many parameters to choose from. https://www.avid.com/plugins/reel-tape-suite Soundtoys Decapitator - As the name would suggest, this plugin is more of a "heavy hitter" than the previous two, but it will give you a huge palette of different kinds of saturation to play with. https://www.soundtoys.com/product/decapitator/
If you didn't want use a one-stop plugin and would rather create the effect from scratch you can follow this basic recipe. - Subtle EQ. Roll off the top end to darken, Slight boost in the lows/lower mids. - Apply gentle compression with a ratio of 2:1 to smooth out the transients and mimic the softening effect of tape. - Use a mild distortion to add harmonics and a vintage character to the dialogue. - Layer with a small amount of pink noise/tape noise for a subconscious tape feel. - Finish with a final colouring EQ to shape the overall tone of the dialogue. Think warmth, vintage etc.
This is probably the most common task you will face when it comes to futzing dialogue, given how often telephones are used by characters to communicate. Generally speaking, you can achieve the telephone effect by making use of a drastic notch EQ as shown in the images below. These EQ settings sharply remove both the high and low frequencies, whilst giving a strong boost in the 250Hz - 5 kHz range.
Two slightly different phone EQ settings in Pro Tools' 7-band EQ.
Some general things to think about for each of the common types of phone include: Mobile Phone - Use a steep EQ curve and narrower bands to suggest a colder, more digital feel. Also worth considering is the phone signal strong or do we need to add some slight degradation to the dialogue?
Landline - Warmer and more homely feel. Employs a gentler EQ curve and contains more low-mid frequencies. Payphone - Similar to landline but with a more industrial feel. More top end and perhaps some compression to "Squash" the dialogue and make it feel like its coming through a cheap phone speaker.
Characters speaking through television is another common situation that you may face when working on a film. Much like the telephone as shown above, achieving a television effect is most easily done through the use of EQ.
Retro/ Analogue TV - Roll off some top and bottom end frequencies whilst applying a boost to the low mid range. A retro TV set works by receiving radio signals via its aerial, and therefore, we may also need to convey that the TV has a weak signal, with static, distortion or other interferences with the audio. To create this effect we can make use of effects such as lo-fi/ bitcrush to degrade the quality of the signal, as well as subtle flanger, tape flutter effects to suggest a compromised signal. For extra depth you can try layering in a high-pitched tone such as the one shown in the video below.
Modern Flat Screen TV - A modern TV works via digital broadcasting and therefore doesn't not have many of the sonic features that make an analogue TV so distinct (Aerial, static, fluctuating signal etc.) However much like the mobile phone example in the previous section, we can make use of EQ to convey a slightly digital feel to the sound. You can roll of the top end frequencies more gently than you would with a retro TV sound effect to make it feel more modern. You can use the EQ setting below as a good starting point for both retro and modern television effects, but generally we are taking a similar approach as with the phone EQ only far less drastic. Here you can see we are rolling off the top and bottom end whilst focusing on the mids.
A Television Speaker EQ setting from Pro Tools' 7-band EQ.
Radio & Walkie Talkie
Radio and Walkie Talkie effects are very common in movies, especially in the action and police genres. We may also need to create a vintage radio effect if we are working on a historical film, or documentary with flashbacks and re-enactments. Some processing techniques for achieving these sounds include: Vintage Wireless Radio - 1920's - Use a fairly drastic notch EQ with a sharp removal of both the highs and lows. Focus on the 350 Hz - 4 kHz range. You can also play around with lo-fi and distortion effects to give more character to the sound. Also, consider using "The Kings Microphones" plugin from waves, which emulates some classic microphones from this time period. https://www.waves.com/plugins/the-king-s-microphones
Modern Radio - 1960s onwards - To achieve a more modern radio effect, you can follow a similar process to the vintage radio as described above only be a lot more gentle with your use of EQ and distortion processing. Whilst we still want our sound to have a vintage character, radio from this time period had a much cleaner sound given the advancements in both microphone and broadcast technologies.
You can use an EQ setting such as this to convey a modern radio effect. Police / Army Radio - A Police or military radio effect will be very similar to both of the radio examples given in this section, except that we would give more prominence to the use of distortion and lo-fi processing. Giving the dialogue an extra layer of static and degradation really helps to sell the idea that the characters are in an active warzone, police chase or shootout etc.
Pro Tools Lo-Fi plugin as shown on the left is a great tool for adding harmonic distortion, degradation or noise to your dialogue tracks.
As you can see from the points we have discussed above, there are a lot of different methods that can be used to achieve your desired dialogue effect. Its worth spending some time becoming more familiar with each of these techniques, and putting the principles we have discussed here into practice so that you can develop your own creative methods that are suited to your ear.
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