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July 2014
Issue: October 1, 2012

Film Sound: 'Pitch Perfect'

By: Jennifer Walden
Coming to theaters October 5th is the Universal Studios film, Pitch Perfect, which features the music of collegiate a cappella singing groups. Pitch Perfect is a musical comedy about an all-girl singing group, The Bellas, and their rise to awesomeness after they change their approach to song-choice and arrangement. Their ultimate goal is to show up a rival male a cappella group in a championship competition.  

Pitch Perfect is all about a cappella singing, which means there are absolutely no instruments. Every ‘guitar’ part, ‘drum’ part, beatbox, and ‘sample’ is actually sung by a human being. The director, Jason Moore, was adamant about having the characters perform their own vocals. 

Joseph Magee, supervising music mixer, faced a number of challenges when recording the vocals. The first challenge was the location, a dilapidate building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he had to set up a portable studio. Magee said, “The production company decided that for the pre-record there wouldn’t be enough time to take our cast back and forth between the production office, where the dance rehearsals were occurring, and the block rehearsals, so we would need to put a portable recording facility into this twelve story abandoned Louisiana State building, so that’s what we did. We ended up recording 95% of all the a cappella vocals that you hear in the final, in that crazy building.”

The building had exterior glass walls (one of which was cracked from top to bottom), exposed air conditioning intakes and other isolation issues, as well as a broken elevator. Magee was determined to get the cleanest sound possible, despite the recording conditions. He called in a construction crew to build baffles around the air conditioning, build another acoustical barrier down one of the hallways, and install Auralex on every surface they could. Magee said, “It was one of those buildings where the exterior walls are all glass and so, what do you do with that in a control room? You’ve got two walls that are parallel to the other two, and they’re all glass. We had Auralex all over the place. The elevators kept breaking down in the building and the day we had the Auralex arrive, we had to carry it up the ten flights. There were PA’s and us and everybody carrying all this stuff up by hand ten flights of steps to get it into that control room.”

Magee worked with music directors Ed Boyer and Deke Sharon, who both specialize in a cappella singing, to come up with a game plan for how to handle the music. Between the music directors, and a music company in New York, they created guide tracks for the actors and actresses to sing to. The whole process, beginning with the guide tracks, was all done in a cappella. Boyer and Sharon wrote their arrangements right on the spot, using laptops, M-boxes, and Shure SM58s. Magee said, “The music directors were fully capable of singing the demos, including the ‘guitar’ parts, and directing the cast to get just the right sound for a cappella. The people in New York were able to sing their demos really close to the style that we were after, and their demos ended up being a lot slicker than our cast performed it, or our director wanted. The cast copied voices. All of the demos were vocal demos.”

The director was concerned about the tempos of the demos being too stiff, so Magee and his crew shot videos of the rehearsals on iPhones, and sent them to the director so he could get a sense of the live performances. The cast was rehearsing to the guide tracks, and since those rehearsals were being recorded, Magee was able to cut that up and use that as the demos. Magee said, “When we finally got into recording our cast, that was what they were singing along to. They were singing along to their own voices on the demos.”   

Once the tracks were recorded and built, Magee took all the material back to Los Angeles and listened back to everything in a normal control room. He was relieved and extremely pleased at the results. Despite the obstacles with the makeshift studio, the tracks were in good shape. Magee said, “At that point Kevin O’Connell, the re-recording mixer who handled the music and dialog, came over and he went through everything with us and we talked about our plan for how we would proceed.”

With the tracks in a good place, the next step was to build up the arrangements and re-record the lead vocals. Working with Harvey Mason Jr. (www.harveymasonmedia.com), the director brought the actors and actresses into Mason Sound, located in North Hollywood. Mason’s job was to make the arrangements contemporary, something that would resonate with listeners, and also to make sure the lead vocals were the best they could be. Mason said, “This is a fast loop society, everything is going a million miles an hour. It’s really tough, I think, to get people to really jump into a cappella music because they’re used to so much production, and bells and whistles. My job was to add contemporary and cool components to make the songs exciting. That, and working with the actors and actresses to make sure they’re nailing their vocals. It was important to all of us that when the characters were on-screen that it was actually their voices that were on tape.”

Mason (pictured, left) spent several weeks recording the lead vocals. Instead of relying on pitch correction software, he took the time re-punch parts, and get the recordings correct from the performance side. He said, “We really spent a lot of time making sure it was perfect. It’s called Pitch Perfect so we got to be right. They re-sang a lot of the leads just to make sure they were great.”

He didn’t just spend time on the lead vocals, he also worked with the instrument voices as well. After the lead vocals were complete, he was able to build up the tracks around them. Mason said, “We wanted to make sure the leads were done properly first. You never want to step on the leads with the arrangements, so for the arrangements we filled in around the lead vocalists. We wanted to make the arrangements really contemporary and sound really cool to the listener’s ear. We added some cool components to make them exciting.”  

Kevin O’Connell, re-recording mixer at Universal Sound Studios, handled the music and dialog mix on the film. For each of the 80 songs delivered for the final mix, there were up to 120 tracks of a cappella singing and vocalizations. O’Connell said, “I would have the main characters on the first 10 to 12 tracks, and the secondary characters on the next 10 to 12 tracks. Then I’d have scads of background vocals, beatbox, guitar vocalizations, bass vocalizations, and drum vocalizations.”

O’Connell took the principle tracks and panned them around the stage to match where the characters were dancing while they were singing. Next he filled in the background characters vocals.  Then he filled the track in with the different instrument vocalizations of guitars, drums, bass, beatbox, and any other vocalized samples that came with the song. He said, “When you see it, you’ll find it hard to believe that there were actually no instruments during any of those songs.”

The director was concerned about the transition between the dialog and the songs because he didn’t want the audience to be taken out of the scene by the soundtrack suddenly sounding like a produced piece of music. O’Connell (pictured, right) went to great lengths to make sure that that did not happen. He said, “Because I mixed the dialog and the vocals, I was able to treat the vocals as if they were ADR lines in a normal movie. I would generally start with the main characters up front, on the front screen, and slowly build the background characters around them. Then I’d start to spread them out throughout the theater so that when we went from a dialog piece to a song, you just didn’t start all around the theater from every direction. It built up to that so that it didn’t jar you.”

O’Connell relied heavily on the surrounds in his mix. Once the arrangement got large enough, he was able to spread the music tracks throughout the surrounds. Unlike a set orchestra layout, he would move people and ‘instruments’ all over the theater. He said, “Once the song starts to build, it built up throughout the whole theater. We would have every speaker in the theater cooking so the audience is in the middle of the song.”

Another important aspect of the film’s sound was the crowds. The challenge for Bob Beemer, the re-recording mixer who handled the sound effects, was how to add even more voices to a voice heavy track. Beemer and O’Connell built the crowds to be reactive to what ever the singers were doing. They used a combination of ADR group recordings, ADR with single call outs, pre-recorded crowd sounds, whistling, clapping, and laughing to build the crowd soundscape. Beemer said, “Sometimes the actors seem to look in a certain direction so we’d play a call out or a whistle or something just prior to their reaction so it seemed like they’re reacting to the crowd.”

As a secondary effect of the reactive crowds, Beemer believes the audience in the theater may feel like a part of the film’s crowd, especially when there are specific call outs from the crowd effects. He said, “It could seem so natural, if we succeeded in what we were doing, that the audience could think, wow there’s a girl over there yelling at the screen.”

O’Connell summed up the whole experience by saying, “It was a real collaborative effort, between the director, and Harvey, and Joseph, and Bob, and the other music editors. It took an army of people to put this thing together.”