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Opinion: What’s so automatic about ADR?

A campaign to drop the ‘ADR’ abbreviation in favour of the far more accurate ‘DR’ - Dialogue Replacement

Dialogue, whether in a film, drama or documentary, often has to be re-recorded for a variety of reasons. Some examples include: extraneous, unwanted noises on set; technical problems like audible lighting buzz or distortion on the recordings; an actor’s attempts at the accent he or she swore they could do falls short of acceptable; a director wants a “different performance” from the actors; it’s a sci-fi film and everyone’s voices are going to be re-recorded and made to sound more ‘futuristic’.

The Americans, with a nod to history and a bit more savvy I feel, call the activity ‘looping’. Film studios, where this art began, would take a performance line by line and create hundreds of circular film loops, with a matching audio mag track, that repeated round-and-round until the artist got it right. Before these sessions some poor projectionist had the unenviable task of splicing together each individual loop from a copy of the film. No wonder they avoided using the term ‘automatic’! Here in the UK we call it ADR, or Automatic Dialogue Replacement. Why? In my experience there’s precious little that’s ‘automatic’ about it!

Now before I am sued by various DAW and software manufacturers, I am fully aware of all the various tools at my disposal to help me when I need to do ADR: stacking takes; naming; recalling; having the script in vision; various audio and video cues etc. These aid the recording but do not automatically put the actor in sync. Some thespians are superb at hearing what they did and repeating their timing and intonation precisely. The vast majority are not. I do not wish to be reminded of the number of times I have performed dialogue replacement that went on and on and on, to the point where the director, the artist and I have gone completely lip blind:

Director: “That was out – late I think.”

Artist: “I thought I nailed it that time!”

Me: “I thought it was a frame early!”

A few hours of this and I defy anyone not to lose critical judgement. It would be great if there was a software product that could synchronise all the newly recorded voices with their originals in one go automatically. “Haven’t you heard of Synchro Arts Vocalign Pro and Revoice Pro?” I hear you shout. Yes. And they are superb. However, even with these powerful plug-ins I still spent 3 days recently re-syncing ADR recordings on a movie line-by-line while I found the best setting on each line. The ADR was so soft, I couldn’t put more than one line into it at a time.

So, in conclusion, I am campaigning to drop the ‘ADR’ abbreviation in favour of the far more accurate ‘DR’ – Dialogue Replacement. We know it will probably take a lot of hours, but at least we won’t expect it to be done ‘automatically’.

David Hamilton-Smith is a sound engineer working in post-production.