What Does An ADR Engineer Do?
by Justin Sevakis,
I was watching some of my favorite anime and noticed a title of ADR engineer in the credits. I'm somewhat familiar with the role of ADR director, voice actor and script writer in anime dubs. What role does an ADR engineer play in a dub and how much does it contribute to the quality of a dub?
ADR Engineers are the unsung heroes of dubbing, the quiet technicians you basically never hear from or about, never see on convention guest lists, and never hear excitedly discussed among fans. But these engineers are often highly skilled people, and their work is arguably just as essential to the production of a dub as the director him/herself.
At the most basic level, the ADR Engineer is the guy or girl who sits at the workstation and runs ProTools (or another multitrack digital audio workstation platform, but it's pretty much always ProTools). He/she monitors the sound coming in, listens closely to the recording, and makes sure that the recording is technically up to snuff: there's no background noise, the voice actor is properly "on mic" (I.e. stays positioned JUST SO in front of the highly directional studio microphone), air-producing noises like P's aren't causing wind noise ("popping your P's," in industry-speak), and that all the equipment is functioning properly. Volume levels are carefully monitored and adjusted. The "shape" of the recording, as determined by the microphone, the actor's position within the sound-proof booth, settings on the microphone pre-amplifier, and other details most people never notice but really affect the overall experience are all within the ADR engineer's purview.
Once all those things are set, it's the ADR engineer's job to keep the actual dubbing going. It's their job to jump to the correct position in the program for each line that must be recorded, and then record each take in an organized way that will allow for easy editing and mixing later. Once each line is recorded, he or she must tweak the timing of the newly recorded clip and play it back for the director, who will decide if that line is good enough, and matches the on-screen lip-flap of the character. All this jumping around and multi-tasking has to be done very quickly, as recording time is expensive, and people are being paid by the hour.
Those are the basic tasks of the ADR engineer. Depending on the engineer and their level of involvement with the studio, he or she may have input in the design of the facility. This could include the acoustic qualities of the recording booth (including its shape and the material used to absorb sound so that there is no echo or outside noise), the microphones and microphone pre-amplifiers being used for recording, and even the "studio monitor" speakers used to listen to the work in progress. The engineer must also be skilled at basic studio troubleshooting -- if the recording is picking up interference or buzz from somewhere, or the mic isn't working at all, the engineer is the one who has to know what to do, or everyone gets sent home and the day is an expensive waste.
In the penny-pinched world of anime dubbing, the ADR engineer sometimes has even more on their plate. I've seen engineers fill in for the director on more than one occasion. This is common when recording "walla" -- large groups of indistinct chatter that is actually comprised of layers of individual improvised performances, but I've even seen the engineer have to take the reins for much, much more -- essentially picking up the slack for an absentee ADR director.
The ADR engineer may later end up serving as the mixer/sound designer. The mixer takes the ProTools "session" that was created during recording, cuts in the appropriate take of each line, and applies filters to make the voices match the atmosphere in the show. They might add a subtle echo, or apply other tricks to make a character sound closer or further away. They have to control the "position" of the voice between the speakers (two speakers for Stereo, or 5 for surround), to change where the voice appears to be coming from. Sometimes a good take must be Frankensteined together from parts of multiple takes that each have their own problems. They then have to balance the voice recording with the pre-made music and sound effects tracks supplied by Japan, and may add additional effects or filters based on how the resulting scene feels. This is really a separate job, but with anime, it's not unusual for this to be done by the same person. Sometimes there is no credited mixer or sound designer, and in that case it may be that it was either the ADR Engineer and/or the Director who took on that challenge. There are even ADR directors who also engineer at the same time.
So, yes, the ADR Engineers of the world have big, very important jobs. They are absolutely the unsung heroes of dubbing, and they don't get nearly enough credit for what they do.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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