Foley Artists and Headphones: Benefits

February 04 2023
12 min
5107
Author
Yuri Pridachin
Own and Operate at Foley First

Hi! This is Yuri from Foley First.

You can find a lot of discussion online about the use of headphones by Foley artists during recording. Following the comments and polls, you’ll inevitably find someone who is categorically against headphone use because they are inconvenient and constrain movement during the performance, and someone, on the contrary, who cannot imagine Foley recording without headphones.

In this article, I don’t want to push anyone to use headphones. Instead, I just want to tell you why we here at Foley First find it necessary to record exclusively using headphones, and, of course, I will be happy to share some of our experiences.

I can't say that I know a lot of Foley artists who prefer to work without headphones while recording, so I can't share their perspective on this matter. But that's not my goal. Ultimately, whether to use headphones or not is a personal choice made by each artist based on their own preference, just like some Foley artists prefer to record steps, for example, with one foot, or some artists record steps exclusively while sitting on a chair.

Even so, using headphones while recording Foley gives several significant advantages that help improve the material and make the recording process more productive, even if you fully trust your Foley recordist, and even if they have extensive experience.

 

Working with stems

Matching the guide track

During recording, my team and I always rely on and follow the guide track contained in the video file or audio stems delivered separately by the client. It is crucial for us to reproduce Foley organically from a technical and artistic point of view and to match the sound as close as possible to production sound. Of course, we sometimes face scenes that require increased emotions, and in that case, it is not always useful to rely on production sound. Nevertheless, a guide track or stems is always a hint and direction vector in the recording process. In the guide track, we can hear the surface texture for steps and shoes, the manner of a character’s movement, their character, and much more.

Having reference sound always at hand during Foley recording is both convenient and useful. It’s also helpful to hear the characters’ dialogue, be constantly immersed into the movie, and not be stuck in the vacuum of our own Foley room.

Hearing the MX soundtrack can also help us catch the scene's mood, perhaps even helping us put the right semantic pauses in during recording. This especially helps in action scenes, where we have to capture the right energy and spirit. Do I mean we keep the MX track unmuted during recording? Sometimes yes. Sometimes even loudly, if it helps the performance. Closed-type headphones and the correct microphone distance during performing will prevent the headphone sound from leaking into the recording. We apply this method mainly to chase and fight scenes.

For these reasons, if I as Foley Artist have the opportunity to hear the reference track or production tracks or stems during recording, then I will certainly take it. This also gives me a great chance to discuss the movie and the recorded material with Foley mixer.

 

How Foley sits in the mix

It is important for us to be able to quickly and on the spot check how well the recorded material fits into the mix. This is especially true when choosing shoes for characters and fine-tuning the surface texture before recording steps. It's always great when it's possible to quickly check the recorded material in the headphones at a low level and see how the Foley works in the scene together with the music and dialogue.

Yes, you can attenuate the microphone and play back material through the acoustic speaker in the Foley room instead of using headphones. But all this takes a little longer. Most importantly, depending on the location of the listener and the speaker in the room during playback, the frequency response of the material being played back can vary significantly, which does not give you an objective picture. This is especially true when the task is to accurately control the low-mid frequencies so as not to overdo the steps for the character, or to adequately build the surface.

If you know how your headphones sound and trust your ears, you can check the Foley and figure out how well the recorded material sits in the mix right on the spot.

 

Off-screen action and music scenes

It is important for me to keep the storytelling off-screen.
Instead of the mixer explaining to me what is happening off-screen, what and where it should sound, I can create the story myself based on the dialogue and tips from the DX track, which will lead to correct, chronologically and semantically more accurate filling of the action happening off-screen.

Additionally, using headphones while recording Foley footsteps for dance scenes is, of course, vital. This is the very time when we definitely have to hear and follow the rhythm and music from the reference track in order to perform in sync and accurately convey the emotion of the scene.

 

Controlling sound

Controlling and tuning mic distance

As an FS Foley recording artist, it is convenient for me to find the exact and best position of the microphone before recording. It is generally accepted that the Foley mixer should ensure that the source is not too close to or too far from the microphone. Still, instead of waiting for the recordist's approval every time, with headphones, I can place the mic myself and do it as accurately as possible.

When I monitor myself through headphones, I can tell if the footsteps do not sound far enough away during recording. In this case, I do not hesitate to stop recording, adjust the distance, and redo the take. Here, the issue is not that I no longer trust the Foley recordist/mixer, but that it is more comfortable for me to take the initiative and build a sound to my liking. I can do it fast, then change the microphone’s position, ask the recordist's opinion, then adjust and ask again, and so on. For this to work, the Foley artist should have extensive experience not only in recording Foley but also integrating them into the mix so as not to make a mistake.

 

Recreating surfaces

If you fully trust your headphones and have experience integrating your Foley into the mix, then in addition to helping you choose the proper position of the microphone, using headphones can help you with building a surface for steps and calibrating it yourself, helping immensely with the quality of the material and speeding up the recording process.

For example, I can hear in my mind the texture that I want to recreate for the scene in the film. I know what shoes I want to apply, how the texture, in my opinion, should interact with the sole, how it should sound on scuffs, and how well the footsteps should be read in the mix at a low level. Instead of retelling my idea to the mixer, modeling the surface, and asking for feedback every time, I can do it myself.

Will it be faster? Yes, it will. Do I take on someone else's job? Maybe, but I don't think so. Will this improve the quality of the material? Absolutely.

Also, during recording, with headphones on, I can sense that, for example, dirty concrete translates a large number of transients and sounds too sharp in interaction with the chosen shoes or vice versa, has poor articulation, and the steps do not sound obvious. In this case, by monitoring the sound in the headphones, I can determine the problem myself, stop recording the take, adjust the texture, and start recording again.

Simply put, as a Foley artist, it is more comfortable for me to build the Foley's composition in the film and recreate in the smallest detail the sound I hear in my mind myself. The task of the mixer, in this case, is to systematically guide me through the film from scene to scene, from character to character, keeping up with me, and making sure that nothing is missed. All of this is possible when I use headphones throughout the process.

 

Check Foley under reverb

Several times I have had to use real-time reverberation during recording. This would have been impossible without headphones.

For a real-life example, once I needed to fill a scene with the footsteps of ballroom dancers in a large theater. It was important not to soften or overweight the steps, to make them work at low levels and be well articulated withstanding the scene's mood. The surface had to be dense and moderately hollow but not sound heavy under the DX track.

The dry sound of recorded footsteps and footsteps processed by reverb in the same scene feel different. Therefore, to avoid making a mistake with the performance and narrative, we put a reverb plug-in with minimal latency in the artist's microphone input. Thus, I had the opportunity to record steps under reverb, hear a wet signal in real-time, and balance between the energy of sound extraction and pressure. It sounded great, and the result fit into the picture perfectly. We recorded both dry and processed signals. After recording, it turned out that the dry signal also sounded very organic.

Of course, the re-recording mixer will have its own reverberation settings for the scene, different from our preset. But this method definitely helped to recreate lively and organic steps. We delivered both options: dry and processed sound. The client was happy. Was it possible to do such a trick without using headphones? I'm not sure.

By the way, if a film has a location where the action unfolds over more than 50% of the TRT, then I can request the reverb plug-in preset from the re-recording mixer which they use on their DX track or capture impulse response from DX track. Applying these settings to recording and reviewing steps, I can choose the shoes and texture for recording that will work best in these scenes for the selected acoustic space.

 

Performer and recordist are on the same page

In these scenarios, it may seem like the Foley artist takes all the work on his or her shoulders, and the recordist only pushes the buttons. That's not quite true. Everything happens in close collaboration, and we discuss every scene and each character. We experiment and brainstorm together. But yes, if the Foley artist knows exactly what he or she wants to get, it's faster and more comfortable to take the initiative and find the best microphone position yourself, fine-tune the texture, and so on. If the artist doubts or needs input, the mixer intercepts the initiative.

When both the Foley artist and Foley recordist use headphones of an identical model, they can be more sure that they hear the same sound than if the mixer monitors the Foley through an acoustic speaker and the artist uses headphones or works without them at all. In that case, the recordist would be more responsible for the recorded material's quality. So it's great when all team members in the session can be in close co-op, discuss the material, and at the same time hear the same sound.

 

Drawbacks

While it’s often useful, Foley artists monitoring Foley in their headphones do not always benefit the performance. And here, it's not even about the comfort or discomfort of using headphones.

In one of the feature films we did at Foley First, I needed to recreate footsteps for a fight scene in a hangar where a gravel texture was featured. From a distance of 1.5 meters in our Foley studio, the footsteps recorded for the middle shots of the scene sounded very good in solo: the texture was homogeneous, not too sharp, and without transients. But no matter how hard we tried to put footsteps in the mix, even under reverb, the Foley did not work—the sound contrasted too much with the production audio track, out of tune with the music and dialogue.

Leaving the microphone at a distance of 3.5 meters from the Foley artist and making dialogue and reference music tracks louder during another take, the mixer found that the Foley worked perfectly in the mix. But as a sound engineer and Foley artist wearing headphones, it was very uncomfortable for me to hear my own footsteps that sounded out of the axis, were muddy, and felt unusual to my ears. So I removed my headphones to eliminate the discomfort when recording and recorded the scene without monitoring. The Foley lay down in the mix perfectly.

Headphones have a very specific sound; most importantly, a person's perception of sound in them is significantly different from the perception of sound through the speaker system. The headphones translate artifacts and record defects in the smallest detail, which the acoustic speaker system can blur. It helps if you get used to it. Of course, some of the shortcomings can be corrected by following Foley plug-ins processing, but the best solution is to prevent them from being recorded.

Also, we hear our own acoustic space in our Foley room much more clearly in headphones than we do through acoustic speakers. Therefore, there is a chance of making a mistake with the correct microphone position, and there is a risk of overdrying the sound. Only after repeatedly listening to your own material through the speaker system and headphones will you be able to calibrate the perception of sound and skillfully place the microphone.

 

Controlling the energy of the performance

Calibrate levels. Weak performance

Along with paying attention to the set microphone distance, by monitoring through headphones, Foley Artists can more accurately transmit Foley energy so that the recorded sound does not sound too quiet and works well in mid/far shots. They can also ensure that the Foley is not too active for more intimate scenes.

Using headphones during the recording session, before doing a take, a Foley artist can do a couple of quick rehearsals to find the right energy and the best performance, especially if the sound signal is going through processing like equalization, compression, and so on.

In the case of signal processing, what you can hear with your ears in your Foley room space will be significantly different from what you hear through the headphones and may not benefit the scene.

I've heard Foley which sounded quiet and didn't have energy. The Foley artist worked without headphones and put exactly as much energy into his performance as he saw his character do. The Foley artist could not know that such a sound supply might not be enough, and it seemed to the Foley recordist that everything was fine, since the Foley sounded fat (a lot of lows), but they were recorded very close.

When the re-recording mixer tried to put the recorded material into a far shot scene, he found that the Foley did not work because it sounded very close, and after cutting the low frequencies, there was no energy left.

I asked the artist to put on headphones, set the microphone 2 meters away from Foley pit, and monitor his performance under the dialogue during recording. It turned out that the footsteps with his usual performance “fell apart.” The Foley had no shape, no energy, and no well-audible texture.

Hearing footsteps through headphones while recording is an excellent way to see how much or how little energy the Foley artist puts into sound extraction and how the surface and shoe work. But the signal level in the headphones must be properly calibrated. If the signal level is too high, the artist will (imperceptibly to him- or herself) perform constrained and quiet. If the signal is too quiet, the artist will put too much energy in, trying unintentionally to shout down the reference track.

During recording, a Foley artist almost always must recreate a sound with more energy than how it is heard in real life. For example, if you set a glass on a table in real life, it has a certain energy and volume to it. To recreate that same sonic experience (the energy and volume of the sound) for the Foley, the Foley artist generally has to put in more energy and make the sound louder than it would naturally be in real life.

Especially noteworthy is the recording of clothes. Such a quiet Foley group is very difficult to record correctly without controlling the sound in headphones. (By the way, I talk about how we at Foley First record clothes in another article, “Foley recording. Clothes.”)

 

Talkback

The easiest way to stay connected

Using headphones for both Foley artist and Foley mixer is perhaps the technically easiest way to always stay in touch and have a dialogue during recording. This scheme is easy to set up.

A huge plus here is that you hear the same sound picture, unlike when one person uses headphones and another the acoustic speaker system. With both in headphones, you are on the same page.

 

To avoid constantly pressing the talkback button to communicate with the artist, we devised a scheme for using a gate for the Foley mixer. The artist starts to hear the recordist as soon as the recordist begins talking. That is, the signal is flown only when it reaches a threshold level — kind of an "infinite fun" mode on the recording.

 

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of the article, I am not here to pressure anyone to use or not use headphones during recording. After all, for many, it can be an inconvenient and distracting factor, and working without them will be better and more productive. All of this is very individual, and everyone has their own work style and “handwriting.”

But here at Foley First, none of us records without monitoring in headphones. Yes, sometimes wires can interfere with work and restrict movement, but for us, the pros outweigh the cons.

I hope this little article was helpful.

 

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Thanks for reading!

Text edited by Rebecca Wilson Jones

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