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Do you — or Oscar voters — know the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing?

This morning I returned to familiar conversational territory when a colleague in the office raised the question of the Oscars’ Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories. Particularly a) whether there is any real difference between them and b) whether anybody can explain it. Before you read any further, assume there is a difference and have a shot at answering. Can you explain what separates the two awards?

The answer to the initial question is of course yes, yes and yes. There is a real difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing and it can be explained in a fairly straight forward manner. Sound Editing is the creation of an audio landscape; the things you hear made up from scratch. Sound Mixing is how the already made sounds are fitted and balanced. I remember reading a writer ambitiously describe the difference with relation to other jobs on the set. Audio Editing in a sense is like direction; Audio Mixing like cinematography.

Now that we’ve established there is a difference, and an easy way to explain it, there’s a third — and just as important — question: do Oscar voters actually understand the difference themselves?

Without interviewing each member of the Academy it is obviously impossible to generate a definitive answer. However, taking a broad look at past data can be useful to at least form a general impression. For example if, over a significant period of time — say, the last 25 years — the Academy overwhelmingly selected the same film to win in both sound categories, the insinuation would be that they were inclined to group the categories as one and the same.

It didn’t take much researching to discover that, over the last five Academy Awards, there are four instances in which the same film has won Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing — a disconcerting preliminary finding. However, the numbers rolled out into a more encouraging set of results. Over ten years that number is five and over the last 25 years it reaches 11. Unsurprisingly, films heavy in action and/or spectacle (i.e. Inception, The Hurt Locker, The Matrix, The Bourne Ultimatum) tend to be the ones that win dual audio awards.

Eleven gongs out of 25 years proves that collectively the Academy are not judging the awards on audio autopilot and, at the very least, are separating the categories mentally. For those who want to geek out, below I’ve pasted the Sound Editing/Mixing Oscar results for the last quarter century.

2012

Best Sound Editing
Hugo

Best Sound Mixing 
Hugo

2011

Best Sound Editing
Inception

Best Sound Mixing
Inception

2010

Best Sound Editing
The Hurt Locker

Best Sound Mixing
The Hurt Locker

2009

Best Sound Editing
The Dark Knight

Best Sound Mixing
Slumdog Millionaire

2008

Best Sound Editing
The Bourne Ultimatum

Best Sound Mixing
The Bourne Ultimatum

2007

Best Sound Editing
Letters from Iwo Jima

Best Sound Mixing
Dreamgirls

2006

Best Sound Editing
King Kong

Best Sound Mixing
King Kong

2005

Best Sound Editing
The incredibles

Best Sound Mixing
Ray

2004

Best Sound Editing
Master and Commander

Best Sound Mixing
Return of the King

2003

Best Sound Editing
The Two Towers

Best Sound Mixing
Chicago

2002

Best Sound Editing
Pearl Harbour

Best Sound Mixing
Black Hawk Down

2001

Best Sound Editing
U-571

Best Sound Mixing
Gladiator

2000

Best Sound Editing
The Matrix

Best Sound Mixing
The Matrix

1999

Best Sound Editing
Saving Private Ryan

Best Sound Mixing
Saving Private Ryan

1998

Best Sound Editing
Titanic

Best Sound Mixing 
Titanic

1997

Best Sound Editing
The Ghost and the Darknesss

Best Sound Mixing
The English Patient

1996

Best Sound Editing
Braveheart

Best Sound Mixing
Apollo 13

1995

Best Sound Editing
Speed

Best Sound Mixing
Speed

1994

Best Sound Editing
Jurassic Park

Best Sound Mixing
Jurassic Park

1993

Best Sound Editing
Brad Stoker’s Dracula

Best Sound Mixing
The Last of the Mohicans

1992

Best Sound Editing
Terminator 2

Best Sound Mixing
Terminator 2

1991

Best Sound Editing
The Hunt for Red October

Best Sound Mixing
Dances with Wolves

1990

Best Sound Editing
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Best Sound Mixing
Glory

1989

Best Sound Editing
Who Framed Roger Robbit

Best Sound Mixing
Bird

1988

Best Sound Editing
Robo Cop

Best Sound Mixing
The Last Emperor

 

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  • 1
    Bradley J. Dixon
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know much about the Oscar process, but are these two awards voted by every academy member, or only by those in the sound branch? I imagine sound engineers would very much know the subtle differences between sound mixing and sound editing.

  • 2
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Great question! Here’s a 4th one: is the difference really worth bothering with? Couldn’t the same distinction be made on other areas like costume e.g. one for the design of the various costumes and another for how they’re used in the film?

  • 3
    fnqvmuch
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    “Sound Editing is the creation of an audio landscape; the things you hear made up from scratch. Sound Mixing is how the already made sounds are fitted and balanced. I remember reading a writer ambitiously describe the difference with relation to other jobs on the set. Audio Editing in a sense is like direction; Audio Mixing like cinematography”

    Who wrote that? Not so much ambitious as erroneous.
    Based on (admittedly mostly pre-digital) experience, in Australian practice at least, the recordist gets as much as possible on location, then after the picture editors cutting copy is handed over and the sound editors including effects dialogue and music then collate fabricate and assemble and mix down to, say 32 tracks (?) of sound for each frame – which the sound mixer then prioritises, sweetens and assigns a place to in stereophonic space and sound pressure level, working with the director to achieve the desired effects and the suspension of disbelief.
    That’s basic – I could go on but I’ m sure there wil be others
    Steven

  • 4
    fnqvmuch
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    No other pale deaf respondents?
    To go on then; the mixer might more accurately be compared to a producer of a band or artist’s studio recording.

    While a Mixer’s work might be apparent, IMHO, all an Editor’s work is discrete; if done properly everything just sounds like it looks.

    ( should note the Recordist now is likely to be mixing from a whole bunch of radio microphones, not just one or two booms)

  • 5
    Aliar Jones
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    No I don’t think that’s accurate…the mixer is simply to person who balances and brings the music score and sound effect / dialog tracks together in a cohesive way.

    The equivalent of the ‘music producer’ role is still the films director since they make the decisions about what stays and goes in the audio track.

  • 6
    fnqvmuch
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Decisions based on what they are offered at that stage of their baby’s gestation by a person who mixes for a living … based on their final mix experience and auteur’s concept of the finished production – versus people who make sound for a living?
    Beg to differ.

  • 7
    Aliar Jones
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Decisions based on what they are offered at that stage of their baby’s gestation by a person who mixes for a living

    Yeh, as in, the director makes that choice.

    Differ all you like, it’s still the director’s call, except (obviously) where he leaves it to the people who make sound ‘for a living’

    like me.

  • 8
    fnqvmuch
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, was thinking of the perennial student director ( be it 2nd, 3rd or post-grad year) , that would rock up to their mix with armfuls of trims having pretty much forgotten about cutting sound … maybe that doesn’t happen anymore.
    We should compare cv.s?

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