What does an ADR Mixer do?

If you’re a film fan and wait right till the end to watch the closing credits of a film you may have seen the titles ‘ADR mixer’ or ‘ADR editor’ scroll up on the screen. Perhaps you’ve wondered what ADR or ‘Automated Dialogue Replacement’ is. Like many of the roles in audio post-production, this is one that isn’t well known outside of the world of professional audio. And we’re curious to know more.

To discover more about this important area of work within post-production we met up with award-winning ADR mixer, Mark Appleby, from Goldcrest Post Production Studios. For nearly twenty years, Mark has been recording ADR at Goldcrest for film and TV series. To give you an idea of the number of films and series Mark has produced ADR for: this whole article could be filled with the titles he has worked on. Everything from Baby Driver, Kingsmen, Ready Player One, About Time, Cruella and The Queens Gambit to the most recent James Bond film, No Time To Die. Who better to talk to about ADR than Mark Appleby? 

Mark, could you explain the basics? What is ADR?

One of the cool things about ADR is that the audience generally doesn’t know it exists. It’s a secret. So the better we do our job, the more the secret is kept. The process of ADR is basically to re-record and replace dialogue that does not meet the filmmaker’s high standards. The majority of the ADR we record is for one of two reasons. Number one, the sound that was recorded on the day is not usable because of interfering background noise. And number two is because of new lines of dialogue that are written after filming to help the story along.

What are some typical challenges with background noise? 

There are a few famous film studios in London. You have Pinewood Studios and Shepperton Studios. And near Watford, you also have Leavesden Studios which is owned by Warner Bros. They are all within a mile or two of the biggest motorways in the country, the M25 and the M1. You can literally see the motorway from Leavesden. The same applies to Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. So if they are shooting on the film set and planes are flying overhead and traffic going past it’s highly likely that some of the dialogue will have to be re-recorded. 

Certainly, if you are shooting exteriors. If a recording studio that has been soundproofed is used, then maybe you don’t have an issue. But if the crew is shooting exteriors at Pinewood, it is almost guaranteed you will hear the traffic from the M25 and you will hear aeroplanes leaving and landing. 

And what about the sound of the crew members walking on set during recordings? If there is a movie scene recorded with just two people walking and talking, ideally we should only hear two people’s footsteps in the recorded dialogue, right? However, a whole camera and light crew are walking around. Some of the crew need to be really close to the actors while shooting. A lot of times you will be hearing too many footsteps on top of the actors’ dialogue. In that case, some or all of the scenes will need to be re-recorded as well.

And what about production purposes for replacing audio?

The next biggest reason to use ADR is that the movie makers come up with new ideas after filming. In this situation, extra lines that have never been spoken before will need to be recorded. In some cases, a scene that was too long is being removed or cut down, but it had some vital information in it. The director might remove a scene and place the one line of dialogue that they really need from it in another scene, possibly on the back of someone’s head as ADR. So we get the actor in to re-record the specific dialogue. The writers are always rewriting the script after the filming process. So we’re recording new dialogue that has been written to help explain the story after the event. 

what Does a typical ADR session look like?

What would happen is the film, by this point, is cut together, let’s say the film is locked.  ‘Locked’ is the stage in production where the movie has finished being edited. The movie is now ready for extra audio recordings and mixing. There’s something called time code, which means that every frame in a show has a unique number to it. And that number goes sequentially. We start the movie and we go all the way through with a list of lines of dialogue in the film, marked down by the editor, that need to be rerecorded, whether that’s because of background noise or because the director has asked us to do so. The director might also ask for ADR if a different performance is required.

We, as ADR mixers, end up with a list with time codes of where the dialogue lands. The name of the queue, which is usually just a number and the character’s abbreviated name, and then the actual dialogue itself. What I get supplied with beforehand is the QuickTime movie with sound… dialogue, music and effects, hopefully, split separately so that we can manipulate each one individually. Although that’s not always the case! Before the actor or actress comes in, we go through all the cues in Pro Tools and add markers to the time codes. Then the actors come in to record. Obviously, he or she will need something that cues them in so they know when they have to start their dialogue. It’s a little bit like karaoke where you get that ball that bounces along on the screen. 

What we use here in the studio is a white line on the screen that goes from left to right. When it hits the right-hand side, that’s the actor’s starting cue. Some actors want the cue to be accompanied by a sound. They will hear three beeps and on the fourth imaginary one, they start speaking their line.

How did you get into the field of ADR?

Actually, I didn’t have many jobs before this one in sound. I started here quite young. And have been working at Goldcrest for nearly twenty years now. I have always been interested in audio and microphones and recording. Before starting my career I studied audio engineering at Alchemea which was a very good place to study. And then once I left there, I quite quickly fell in love with sound for film, probably more than audio engineering for music.

That could be interesting for readers who pursue a career in the music industry and haven’t thought about a career in the post-production of movies?

Yes, it definitely is. I worked at a couple of music studios but only for a day or two as a runner. Then I got the job here at Goldcrest, still as a runner making tea, coffee and fetching parcels. Relatively quickly, within a year, I ended up in the studio helping out with ADR, foley and mixing

What skills or knowledge do you need to do well in ADR?

I would say that all the technical aspects you can learn in college are not necessarily what makes you good at the job. Because you can teach that to someone. What I think makes you good at the job is being a likeable person since you are in the room with people the whole day. You have to be humble. It’s a people’s job. But most importantly: accept that you are not the star of the show. You are often in the room with A-list actors and famous directors and you mustn’t try to take over and run the show. You have to take a backseat and you have to accept that you are the referee in the football match and not the star player. Although you have the technical knowledge to achieve what they need to achieve, it’s their session.

You are there to help them work their way through the session without overstepping the mark and interfering too much. Sometimes, you might need to a little bit, if they’re going down the wrong track. I think it’s more about the personality of the person, rather than the technical knowledge. Of course, you do have to have technical knowledge. If you don’t have the knowledge, you will make mistakes. 

“I think it’s more about the personality of the person, rather than the technical knowledge”.

Top tips for someone wanting to get into ADR?

Starting out as a runner is a good idea. One of the good things about working at Goldcrest is that we have assistants. I was an assistant to start with and I have had a lot of assistants in the past. Sometimes there are days when they don’t speak much at all. You just do your bit, but you get to watch and listen. And that’s sometimes a challenge within this industry, that without people having assistants, those assistants don’t get to watch and learn. They are thrown in at the deep end as a youngster. And they may make mistakes that tarnish them for a while.

any other tips on starting as a runner or an ADR mixer?

On top of being a friendly personality, you have to watch and learn. It doesn’t always mean watching people do it right! It’s quite helpful to watch people do it wrong because you get to see what not to do. If you only ever see what people do right, then you don’t know what mistakes to avoid. It’s as important as attending a session without mistakes. 

We have a lot of young people coming into the studio for work experience. Instead of listening to the director who has made a dozen box-office hits, they want to tell them about a short film they made: we went down to a hotel and we did this and we did that. The whole time the director is listening because they’re being kind, but actually the youngster has missed an opportunity to listen to them speak. By trying to show you are keen and willing and enthusiastic, you might miss the opportunity to listen to someone else’s very informative story. It’s a fine line.

And also, studying on a course like the Advanced Diploma in Audio Post Production for Film and TV. Learn how to work with microphones, XLR cables, work with Pro Tools, work with mixing desks. Learn signal flows and editing. And very important: if you have a technical issue, take some time and try to fix it yourself first before asking a teacher. I don’t have a teacher to help me. If it’s going wrong, I have to fix it on the spot and I have to get through it calmly without the clients knowing there’s a problem…

So try to get in at a studio as a runner, watch and learn, be humble, and know your Pro Tools! Do you have one last tip for young aspiring ADR mixing and recording engineers?

Yes, everybody here at Goldcrest has worked as a runner at some point. Work hard and do what you are passionate about. Try to improve and learn every day. You will get there. Good luck!

Thanks to alumna Yoma Schertz who researched and interviewed Mark Appleby for this article. If you’re curious to find out more about Audio Post Production check out our articles on ‘Dolby Atmos | Everything You Always Wanted To Know and our Audio Post Production Glossary | 10 Top Terms Every Engineer Needs To Know.