Picking Takes vs. Dialogue Editing vs. Sound Design — a Beginner’s Guide

How do you tell these three apart for audio drama? Here’s how I do it, in case that’s helpful.

Picking Takes: Taking the raw recording from the actors and deciding what take to go with when multiple were recorded. This is often the director’s job, but it sometimes goes to the dialogue editor or showrunner (if those people are distinct from the director). Sometimes this involves opening a DAW and deleting the takes you don’t want, other times it involves listening through and providing your dialogue editor with written instructions of what take to cut in.

Dialogue Editing: Taking the selected takes and ordering it according to the script. The biggest thing a dialogue editor does is decide timing, which is especially relevant for asynchronously recordings. However, timing takes properly is an art no matter the format of the recording session. I’ve noticed that the dialogue edits I do on live-but-remotely-recorded sessions involved tightening the dialogue by removing lag from the call.

Sound Design: Taking the dialogue edit and building the audio world around it. There is action sound design (adding SFX for what the characters are doing) and environmental sound design (adding SFX to represent the environment). Often, the sound designer is in charge of mastering the audio, which includes cleaning and leveling it.

[SFX] On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise. Enter ALONSO, SEBASTIAN, ANTONIO, FERDINAND, and GONZALO.

  1. ALONSO: Good boatswain, have care. Where’s the master?
    Play the men.
  2. BOATSWAIN: I pray now, keep below.
  3. ANTONIO: Where is the master, boatswain?
  4. BOATSWAIN: Do you not hear him? You mar our labour: keep your
    cabins: you do assist the storm.

We’ve got 3 actors, who I will call by their character names: Alonso, Boatswain, and Antonio. Let’s say these actors recorded 3 takes of each line. I’ve labeled each take A, B and C.

Alonso: 1A, 1B, 1C

Boatswain: 2A, 2B, 2C, 4A, 4B, 4C

Antoni: 3A, 3B, 3C

The person picking takes will listen though and decide which one to go with. Let’s say our director has chosen 1C, 2A, 4A, and 3B. This choice is less arbitrary than I have made it seem here, but this is not an article about directing, so we’re moving on. Now we have our takes!

The dialogue editor will take these four lines and order/time them appropriately. I can’t show you timing easily in this article, but for order: 1C, 2A, 3B, 4A. We now have the full exchange in audio.

The sound designer will take the clip of this exchange and add sound effects. For our action SFX, we’ve got characters walking in at the beginning. The sound designer would probably add 5 pairs of footsteps on wood to reflect this. For our environment SFX, we’ve got the sound of a ship in a storm. The sound designer would probably add the sounds of waves crashing, a ship rocking, thunder, lightning, rain, etc. They may also apply filers to the audio of these actors to better reflect their environment, or just make the audio sound better in general by removing background noise, clipping, popping, etc.

Occasionally, the sound designer will pass their audio off to someone else to master it. This person makes everything sound its best, and produces the final product.

These jobs are frequently bundled into one category of “audio editing” or “audio production,” but if you’re bringing people on board for your show it’s important to make sure the two of you have the same expectations for what their job is. Are they picking takes? Editing dialogue? Doing sound design? Mastering the audio? It can all blur together, so discussing specific definitions can be helpful.

This was a quick little article I wrote in one evening, but I hope it’s helpful to you! I’m not going off of industry standard terms and definitions here, just what I’ve seen a majority of audio fiction creators call these jobs. Questions? Feel free to ask me on twitter @starplanes.

Tal is a SoCal based podcaster who cannot be stopped from making things and will occasionally write about audio fiction.