Is Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR) a realistic option for low budget films?

At short film festivals and student screenings I quite often hear audience members talking among themselves. More often than I would like, I hear comments such as: “That short film looked great, but it’s a pity about the sound quality, I could barely understand the actors”. On low-budget short-films, there often isn’t enough money or time to spend on fixing the sound. But a surprising amount can be achieved with just a little expense and a bit of patience.

One way of improving the sound after the shoot is by adding Foley sound effects (footsteps etc) which I cover in another article. This article looks at fixing problems with recorded dialogue by using ADR — Automatic Dialogue Replacement.

The Realities of Location Sound

At the risk of stating the obvious, location sound consists of sound recorded on location — usually while the cameras are running and the actors are speaking (of course, there’s often a lot more to it than that). Recording good, clean location sound can be a challenge. Wind noise, distant traffic rumble, aircraft noise, air-conditioner hum, and many other issues can make life tough on a dedicated sound recordist. Even sound recorded on set in a sound stage (or studio) can be a challenge depending on the nature of the set.

Many sound recordists will also tell you that one of the most common challenges to getting good recordings is the attitude of the filmmakers to sound, especially less experienced filmmakers. Many filmmakers seem to think that film and video are visual mediums, so they do not put enough thought during pre-production to the needs of the sound department. Plus it’s an unfortunate fact that sometimes other crew departments (cough camera department cough) seem to think that the sound department should fit in with their needs, rather than work together as equals – but that’s an issue for another article!

Even big budget films, with top-of-the-range sound gear and experienced operators, can often find it difficult to get good quality sound when they’re shooting scenes outside a sound-proof studio. A significant percentage of the dialogue often needs to be re-recorded during post-production — an expensive and time-consuming process.

Things are even worse for low- and no-budget filmmakers. They often can’t afford the best sound gear, their sound crew sometimes don’t have an enormous depth of experience, and they seldom have access to a sound stage so sometimes nearly all of their shoot is on location.

While it’s important to strive for the best sound quality possible on the shoot (another subject for a future article!), once you’re in post-production you should plan on having to dub some parts of the dialogue – the chances that everything will be okay are very unlikely. Make sure your talent know that you may be calling them back for ADR sessions — nothing’s worse than realising you need to dub an actor’s lines and discovering that they have left the city/state/country/planet.

Why Dub?

When it comes time to edit, you need to listen to the sound quality of the dialogue carefully. It’s all too easy to dismiss a bad dialogue recording as okay simply because you are so familiar with the script that you can recite the lines in your sleep. When your audience watches your film, they will be hearing the line for the first time and only once, and if the line is muffled, off-mike, or obscured by background noise, they’ll miss it.

Dubbing can also help you get out of any mistakes made by the scriptwriter or the actor which were missed during the shoot. For example, an actor correctly says the line “I killed the fourth assassin”, but during editing someone (infuriatingly) points out that the character actually killed the fifth assassin. Since the words “fourth” and “fifth” look kind of similar (they involve similar mouth movements on screen), you could probably dub the correct line without most of your audience noticing.

Also, dubbing gives you the chance to fix any plot holes or inconsistencies caused by script problems, last-minute scene changes, or editing decisions. By dubbing an extra line without lip-synch (when the actor’s mouth is not visible on screen) it can help clear up any story problems. A quick “I’ll see you tommorrow” or “I wonder where Burt is” as a character leaves the room could help the next scene make more sense. These sneaky fix-it dubs are often called wild lines. Look out (and listen) for them next time you’re at the movies, they are quire obvious sometimes!

Of course, it is true that when a scene is badly dubbed, with mis-timed sync and mis-matched acoustics, it can sound worse than the bad dialogue recorded in the first place. But if the dubbed version is acceptable then (even if it sounds a little fake) it’s better than the audience missing a plot point.

What’s So “Automatic” About ADR?

The “automatic” in “automatic dialogue replacement” refers to the automated recording technique known as “looping”. By continually playing a line, or part of a line, over and over again (either literally on a loop of tape and/or film or, more often now days, from a hard drive on a computer), an actor is able to repeat the new dub of the line over and over until the timings and inflections of the two match. Or the loop could be of the visuals of a scene, played over and over on a screen so the actors could rehearse their lines again and again until they were ready to record.

Although the actual physical loop of film or magnetic tape is rarely used in this age of digital recording, the process is still often referred to as “looping”, such as “We’ll need to loop that line”.

ADR On The Cheap

Don’t let visions of sound-proof screening rooms, time-coded playback, and expensive mikes put you off ADR for your small independant short film or feature. You don’t need any of that to get decent ADR – or, at least, none of that is needed to get something better than bad location sound. All you need is a quiet room with dead acoustics (no reverb), the mike you used on location or something similar, a copy of the segments that need to be dubbed, a TV and video player for the actors to watch, and a stable recording device like a DAT, or even a camcorder with HiFi sound will do.

Plug the mike into the recording device, and get your actors to watch and listen to the scene again and again. When you think they’re ready, record them (turn the TV down or get them to wear headphones). Try to keep the mike the same distance from them that it was (or should have been!) on the shoot, so the acoustics will match. If the scene has unusual acoustics, then try to recreate the sound. Say, if the scene is a conversation in the trunk of a car, then it’s a simple matter of creating a confined space for your actors to speak in (you would add car noises and other effects at the edit suite and at a Foley session – ADR is just for dialogue). If the scene is in an empty cathedral, it would probably be easier to add all that reverb at the edit suite.

When you’ve got a few good takes of each line it’s a simple, if tedious, process back at the edit suite to replace the unsatisfactory dialogue with the replacement dialogue. Since this method doesn’t use time code, you’ll need to add it “manually”, which can be tricky – but at least it’s cheap!

Remember, the story and the characters come first. Without a large budget, your ADR isn’t going to be perfect, but if it helps the audience understand your characters and story, then it can’t be a bad thing.

Updated: 8 August 2001
Originally written for’s Filmmaking page.