This is it, the final installment in my "How to Make Machinima" guide! This week, we're going to look at audio editing and final mastering.
If you're late to the party, here's what we've covered so far:
• Part 1 – Voice Acting and Audio Recording
• Part 2 – Storyboards and Animatics
• Part 3 – Filming
• Part 4 – Video Editing
When we left off last week, I had just completed the video editing process. If you're keeping pace with me, you should now have a complete video version of your new machinima. With the video cleanly edited and looking good, it is now time for me to turn our attention to the audio.
Before we dive in, I should say this: mixing the audio for your machinima can be very simple. All you really need to do is record your voices and slap them on top of your video footage in your editing program. But, if you've been following this guide so far, you already know that I never like to do anything the easy way. ;)
There are three primary layers to the audio landscape of any machinima or video. We're going to go through them in the following order:
3. In-game Audio
If you remember Part 1 of my guide, I have all the voice acting for Season 2 recorded and mixed into a single audio file. Up until now, this audio file has served as a placeholder. It is recorded in Mono, meaning it doesn't yet have any of the panning in place. Now that I have the video fully edited, I can go back to the voice recording and add in all the panning and effects. When a character is on the left side of the screen, I can make it sound like their voice is coming from the left, and so on.
For all my audio editing, I use a multi-track recording program called Sonar. This recording program is often used for recording and mixing music. You can separately take a bunch of different instruments, such as drums, guitars, keyboards, etc, and record them on to their own tracks. You can then mix them all together into a stereo sound file. You would use Sonar to control the volume level of each instrument, their stereo placement, and you can even add different audio effects on to individual instruments. For example, I could make the drums sound like they are in the center, add some echo to the guitar and move it 45% to the left, then move the keyboards to the right and make them a little louder. This is exactly how I mix the audio for my machinima, except instead of instruments, I have voices.
I have every character's dialog loaded into their own track in Sonar. This gives me the ability to adjust the volume level and panning of every character's voice separately. It also allows me to adjust these parameters moment to moment. For example, if there is a shot in my machinima where a character walks from the left side of the screen to the right side of the screen, I can make their voice move in the same way.
With Sonar set up and ready to go, I open my Playtime Season 2 Video in a separate window and press Play. As I watch the video, I am taking note of each character's position on-screen as they speak. I slowly move through the entire video, stopping every 10 or 15 seconds to go back into Sonar and make the appropriate adjustments to the volume and panning of each character's voice. I continue this process until I've reached the end of the video. I now have all the dialog properly mixed.
On a side-note, I wanted to take a quick moment to discuss my general stylistic approach to mixing all the audio for Playtime Season 2. When I mixed the audio for Season 1, I took a very cinematic approach. The stereo panning of the voices was strongly exaggerated, I paid insanely close attention to each character's distance from the camera and adjusted the volume of their voice accordingly, and there were spacial effects like echos and reverbs all over the place. Sit down and watch Playtime Season 1 on your big flat-screen TV with your sweet surround sound speakers cranked up real loud, and it sounds fantastic. Lots of detail and subtlety.
The problem was nobody watches machinima like that. Playtime is a web series, which means most people who watch it do so on their computer, with tiny little speakers that sit directly in front of them. In this situation, all the audio subtlety that I worked so hard to create just turns to mush. Worst of all, it could sometimes be a little tricky to hear what my characters were actually saying to each other.
So, I decided to take a slightly less subtle approach to mixing the audio in Playtime Season 2. There is still plenty of panning and reverb effects going on, but I made a point of keeping every character's voice a little more front and center. The result is a slightly less cinematic audio mix, but one that is more clearly audible on tiny little laptop speakers or iPhone headphones.
So the voices are essentially done. Next up: music. I'm going to go through the process from the point of view of someone who is making their own music for their machinima.
I wrote and recorded all the Music for Playtime Season 2 myself. Being a musician, I have a simple-but-decent setup for recording at home. Nothing too fancy: a couple of microphones, keyboards, lots of guitars, a handful of amplifiers, drum machines, and a little mixer with a USB port to get all the sound on to my computer. To record the music, I use the same software that I use to record and edit the dialog: Sonar. I edit and mix each piece of music, then turn them into a stereo audio file.
With all the music complete, I once again boot up Sonar and open my "Playtime Season 2 - Audio Mix" file. I have all the voices mixed and ready to go. Now I begin adding the music in. I create another track specifically for music, and add in each piece of music at the appropriate times. I have complete control over the volume of each piece of music, and I fade them in and out accordingly. I do a lot of subtle adjustments to the volume of the music, particularly during scenes when characters need to speak while there is still music going on. Being able to hear the dialogue clearly is my primary concern, so I would actually turn down the volume of the music any time a character speaks. When done correctly, the viewer won't notice the music constantly getting softer and louder around the dialog. This requires a lot of subtle adjustments, but is definitely worth the extra time.
I now have all the voices and music properly mixed together. Only one thing left: the in-game audio.
In its current form, my Playtime Season 2 video file has no voices or music, but it does have all the in-game audio that got recorded along with the video. All the footsteps, gunfire, and environmental sounds (waterfalls, birds chirping, etc). With so many different audio layers coming together, I need to have direct control over the mix of the ambient noise as well as the voices and music.
Using a program called Video Converter Pro, I rip the in-game audio from my Season 2 video file. I now have all the in-game audio in a 25 minute long audio file. I take this audio file and add it into my Sonar audio mix. I then go through the entire season again, adjusting the volume of the in-game audio so that it balances properly with the music and dialogue. Once I have everything balanced nicely, I use Sonar to create a single stereo audio WAV file. This WAV file is the complete Playtime Season 2 audio track. It is now a simple matter to take this audio file, and add it to the silent Season 2 video file in my video editor. I press Publish, and after a couple of hours of rendering I have Playtime Season 2 in its complete and finished state on my desktop. After two months and over 300 hours of work, Playtime Season 2 is finished!
Thank you very much for reading my "How to Make Machinima" guide. Above all else, it is important to remember that there is no single "best way" to make machinima. Every machinima maker develops their own techniques and processes based on what works best for them. You don't have to follow these exact steps to make a great video. But hopefully reading about my approach to making machinima will give you an idea of where to start.
If anyone has questions, feel free to contact me.