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December 2014
Issue: April 1, 2013

Audio for TV Series

By: Jennifer Walden
We are a creative bunch, and the reality of our work is tight deadlines. The trick is to keep a balance between working quickly but carefully without sacrificing creativity. So how do we do that? 

The key is to make our workflow as efficient as possible, so we don’t waste time on the process of getting the job done. We make templates with our go-to reverbs and compressors so they’re ready to go. We customize our control surfaces. We database our sound effects. We spend a little time doing the not-so-fun tasks, so we can spend more time doing what’s really fun...being creative. At the end of the deadline, that’s really what it’s all about. (Let’s face it — we’re not in this for the money.)

COMMUNITY

Turning around an episode of Community, a half-hour comedy centered around a close-knit group of community college students, in just two days is possible (it actually has happened on the rare occasion), with the help of a customized Avid Pro Tools template designed to meet the show’s audio needs. 

Mark Binder, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, has been working on the NBC sitcom since day one. He and co-supervising sound editor Nick Shaffer created a workflow that allows all the audio elements to be fed to the dub stage as efficiently as possible. “All my editors working on this are building into an infrastructure, a tree system, that feeds the stage flawlessly. Every audio food group — effects, backgrounds, ADR and so on, has an element of that root system — so when it hits the stage, it’s immediately entered into the mix.” Using this workflow, Binder and his team are able to spend more time being creative. “Our template is king. It’s catered around this show so we can just plug the elements in and play.” 

Another time-saving technique was to build audio kits, with the convolution reverbs, ambiences and other sound effects, for the main environments on the set. “We went out and shot convolution reverbs for everything we could,” says Binder. “We did a tremendous amount of location recordings.” While there are common locations in each episode, like the study room, almost every Community episode has a new location. Having a streamlined template with pre-made audio kits gives Binder and his team a good starting point. “We know how it’s all going to fit in at the dub, but what goes on those tracks isn’t a constant. That is where we are able to spend more time, in figuring out the right sound and the right world to build for that show. We can take advantage of the technology to help us spend more time being creative. ”

Community is in its fourth season, but there have been a lot of changes this time around. For starters, show-runner, Dan Harmon, is no longer at the helm. Working with new creatives has been a bit of a learning curve, but Binder says, “To a large extent it’s exciting to have new blood to feed off of. It kind of freshens things up a bit. Even if Dan Harmon was still at the helm, it wouldn’t be the same. Dan hated to repeat himself. We always anticipated a change happening, but now we are learning someone else’s gate and pace.” 

In the past seasons, the audio team contributed a lot to the show, and Binder feels that even with the changes in personnel, the audio team still has a say when it comes to creative audio ideas. “Not to say that we’re writing scripts,” Binder clarifies, “but with audio, we can find a couple more laughs in the world of Community.”

It’s not an easy job to record Community. It has an ensemble cast, sometimes with improvised lines, and the set has some reverb issues. Also, every episode has a new location. ADR is usually a last resort, so the goal for Community is to not have to do it at all. Since production mixer Tom Stasinis didn’t return for Season 4, says Binder, “We had the challenge of finding a new production mixer who was the right fit for the show. We had to find someone who could out-think the production, someone who could find the right mics, and find mic placements that would diminish the reverbs instead of just throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Well you got what you got.’”

Binder and his team do the majority of the editing, sound design, ADR, Foley and pre-mixing at The Barn, a studio owned by Binder, located just north of Burbank. His company, IMN Creatives (www.imakenoise.com), started out providing audio post services for feature films like Paranormal Activity and The Possession of Michael King. Community is their first foray into TV, and Binder was thrilled that they made the decision to do the show. “I now think everybody doing theatrical should have some experience of working in TV. It forces you to constantly use those muscles that allow you to jump in the cockpit and habitually attend what you’re doing so you can really be creative on the spot.” 

Binder feels the hardest part of TV is having to be creative quickly. When a client asks to hear the color orange, and something they never heard before, Binder is able to deliver. “If your muscles are trained and you don’t get intimidated by the fact that you have to move fast, the magic comes a little easier.”

All the group walla is recorded at The Barn. The entire facility is set up for recording, so if they need to record a “group walk-by down the hall,” they can do just it. Binder prefers to use multichannel mics, like the Holophone H2 and the DPA 5100 (which resembles a large bicycle seat in shape) instead of a standard boom mic. “The Barn was designed to be a recording instrument. It has hallways, and dry rooms, and live rooms, and bathrooms, and since we built the facility from scratch, I wired everything. A walk-by in Community is literally someone walking down a hall, and it’s recorded in LCR.” The Barn’s location is so quiet, they can record outdoors, and they use iPads to stream the video, so they are able to record outdoors in sync. 

Binder (left) recalls recording the walla group outdoors for a paintball episode. He had the walla group shouting things like, “I’ll kill you,” and screaming bloody murder at the top of their lungs. After recording what they needed, Binder and his team went back inside to record the interior group wallas. 

During their recording, he heard a loud knocking on the door. “I opened the door and, I kid you not, there were three cops out there, with their guns drawn, saying there was a disturbance reported. Someone said they heard a woman screaming for her life. Of course when we opened the door they could see that it was a recording environment, but even so, I took my hands out of my pockets very slowly, and said, ‘I swear to god we’re just recording some sound here.’ Nonetheless, they weren’t too happy.”

The team typically has seven days to complete an episode. After all the audio elements are edited and pre-mixed at The Barn, the episode is taken to Paramount for the final mix. In an effort to provide more efficiency to their clients, Binder is building a new facility in Glendale, CA. Instead of working out of The Barn and Paramount, the new 8,000-square-foot studio will provide audio and video services under one roof. It will have two large dub stages, a sound design/music studio, an ADR stage, as well as editorial rooms. “We were spread out before, with our stages at Paramount, and with our editing, ADR and mixing at The Barn. We’re trying to bring everything under one roof to accomplish things more efficiently. We learned a lot doing Community, and the lower-budget films.” 

Community has a digital workflow for the entire production. At their new facility, Binder will be able to offer shows like Community a cohesive and efficient workflow by handling the camera packages, dailies, production audio and everything in between, all the way through to the end of the post production process. “We’re not here to be a Technicolor; we’re not here to be anything but this very slick and smart boutique. We’re not super cheap and we’re not super expensive. When we get the job, we put as much of the budget onto the screen, or into that TV box, as possible.”  

DA VINCI’S DEMONS

Bang Post Production (www.bangpostproduction.com), in Cardiff, Wales, is a boutique audio post facility owned by Paul McFadden and Doug Sinclair. This small shop is turning out big TV titles, like Doctor Who, a very popular show in the UK, which also airs on BBC America. They are currently working on Da Vinci’s Demons for which McFadden is supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer. He notes that they’ve worked on series in this genre before, but never on this scale. “The size of the production is something new for us. We’re a little boutique post production house. Even Doctor Who is not in the same league as Da Vinci’s Demons.”

Da Vinci’s Demons is set during the Renaissance in Florence, Italy, and it follows the “untold” story of 25-year-old painter/inventor Leonardo Da Vinci. The show starts airing on Starz this month.

Since the series takes place in 16th Century Florence, McFadden and Sinclair, co-supervising sound editor, had to be very conscious of what they used to create the soundscapes. By pulling audio elements from commercial sound libraries, their own recordings over the years, and newly recorded material for the show, they were able to build unique soundscapes for each location in the show. Their biggest challenge was finding material that was free of car sounds, distant music, or colloquial language that wouldn’t fit the time period. 

According to Sinclair, who handled the sound design, “We had to be very aware of all that. It’s actually been quite challenging to build up a library of sounds to create the soundscapes for each location. We have to make it sound like you are actually there in Florence in the 16th Century, and make it immersive and believable.”

McFadden, who was in charge of the ADR, Foley and dialogue on the series, recorded group walla for the marketplace scenes in both English and Italian to add more depth and believability. “We got an Italian crowd that came in and gave us proper Florentine. They did native calls of the city, which really embellished the soundtrack and gave it some realism.” 

Da Vinci’s Demons was shot in Swansea, Wales, in a repurposed car factory that had been derelict for nearly a decade. The converted factory made a superb soundstage, one big enough for them to build all the palaces inside. The main downfall though was its location. It was right next to the main highway, making exterior shots challenging. “There has been a lot of technical ADR recorded because of the location,” says McFadden. 

Instead of waiting for the shoot to wrap to start the ADR process, they began right away. When the actors had downtime between scenes, they would go to McFadden, either on-set at his mobile ADR stage, or to the Bang facility in Cardiff. He would fit the new recordings into the track and send it back to the picture editor. “The editor can actually use the ADR in the cut within a few hours of it being shot,” says McFadden. It was great for the workflow of the production.” Working with the actors in between their shooting schedules was not only a time saver in the post process, it was also beneficial for the performance. The actors didn’t have to remember what their character sounded like. 

“They were still in the zone, “ says McFadden. “They’re coming off set, still in character, and sometimes still in costume.” Using Tonto Films’ — Tonto Films and Television Limited in Wales is the production company for Da Vinci’s Demons — Aspera server, everyone on the production was able to send and receive material quickly. McFadden would receive cuts of the show, and then send the ADR, effects or other audio elements for the editors to lay in. “Aspera is a bit of software we could never do without.” 

To help fit the ADR into the production dialogue, McFadden used the Audio Ease Altiverb plug-in to match the reverbs for the ADR to the various reverbs recorded on-set, like in the castles, country houses and palaces. “We’ve got lots of convolution reverbs that match the reverbs that are actually captured on the production sound. The ADR is matching perfectly since we’re using that plug-in. It’s great.” 

To clean up the production dialogue, McFadden used a combination of the iZotope RX2 plug-in, the WNS Waves Noise Suppressor plug-in, and the Waves Q10 plug-in to clean up the production tracks. McFadden notes the Q10 was invaluable for removing the hum from the generators that were on-set.

Much of the Foley on Da Vinci’s Demons was created using actual props from the show. The boots, armor, swords, and even the paper and quill pens were all taken from the set. That way, if they had to enhance the production sound, or replace it if it was lost during ADR, they’d have the exact sound that was recorded on the production track. Sinclair was happily surprised by the sound of the props. 

“A lot of times you get the swords they use on-set and they sound very light, for obvious reasons, because they’re props and it’s easier for the actors to use them. But we were able to record the prop swords and when you banged them together they made a nice clank. All of those are what you see on-screen.”

Sinclair created many of the weapons sounds by combining the prop Foley with sounds of historical weapons from the Boom Library. “There are a couple series from Boom Library with historical firearms and historical swords. We used quite a lot of that.” He also used Foley of creaks, gears, and winces, along with elements from sound libraries, to create the sound design for Da Vinci’s inventions.

“Coming up with the sounds for the inventions was great fun.  The glider, and pieces like that, all have to be brought to life soundwise. You can’t use anything modern, or anything electric, or anything with an engine. It’s all got to be based off wood, and clockwork, and those sort of mechanics.”  

McFadden, Sinclair and the others on the audio team had two weeks per episode to get the sound ready for final mix. They used Soundminer to catalog the dialogue, ADR and the effects for quick searches. On-set, McFadden used a multi-track recorder to record the ADR. He gets the dailies copied onto a drive, which he then links to in Pro Tools 10. He can then replace the AAF audio coming from the Avid with the field recorder tracks. “Also, we database all the dailies, noting any faults, like a bang or clank over a line, so we can instantly find other takes of the scene and fix the audio accordingly. ”

Bang Post Production also has a system of color coding their media so multiple editors can work on the same episode. For example, if one editor was doing dialogue on the first half and another was doing dialogue for the second half, they can easily identify the new material those editors create. Says McFadden, “We clone the media and color code it so any new material that is generated has its own color. We can then move and copy the new files back and forth, rather than copying the whole thing again.” 

Typically, the final mix for an episode is three days of pre-mixing and two days for the final 5.1 mix. The show is mixed in Pro Tools 10 using an ICON with the HDX2 system, and a Pro Tools HD6 as a dedicated stem recorder. The composer, Bear McCreary, delivers the music via the Aspera server, so the re-recording mixers can easily pull it into the session. “He delivers the music sessions all nicely bused out into LCR and 5.0 stems,” says Sinclair. We just bring that in at the pre-mix stage and replace his temps with the final score. His workflow has made the process a great deal easier. Getting music at the last minute, with all the changes, can be difficult on a show like this, but with his score, there is very little change in the final mix.”  McFadden takes turns mixing the show with re-recording mixer Howard Bargroff, who mixed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. “We swap back and forth a lot on Da Vinci. Between us, we just get it done,” says McFadden. 

GAME OF THRONES

When it comes to audio post, HBO’s Game of Thrones is not treated like a typical television series that’s delivered one episode at a time. Instead, it’s approached as a 10-hour feature, with the entire season delivered up front. This fantasy series, based on novels by George R. R. Martin, follows the lives of several noble families and their fight for dominance. Season 3 premiered in late March. 

This is very helpful for Tim Kimmel, supervising sound editor at Todd AO Holly-wood (www.todd-ao.com) and his audio team. They can look at the entire scope of the season and create sounds that can grow and develop along with the characters and creatures. When designing the sounds for the dragons and other creatures, Kimmel says, “You can almost paint yourself into a corner. The dragon may be flying around in one episode and doing something else in another. Getting the entire season is very helpful for us when creating the arc of the character or creature.” 

Once the project was delivered to Kimmel, he and sound designer Paula Fairfield watched all the dragon scenes to see how they transformed throughout the season. “The dragons are getting bigger so they’re developing more personality and more attitude this season,” he says.

There are three dragons, and Kimmel and Fairfield had the challenge of making them all sound like dragons, but with distinct differences for each. Overall, they have a sound similar to last season, but slightly bigger.

They’ve grown from the size of chickens to being more like large swans. “We need to have room to grow with them. We needed to find that middle ground of sounding bigger, but we couldn’t go too big with them yet.”

The dragons sounds are a combination of animal noises, some you would expect, like large bird sounds, but there are also dolphin sounds, and even raccoons. “We tried to keep them unique,” explains Kimmel. “We didn’t want it to be a standard dragon screech. There is a very wide array of sounds that we used. There’s a ton of animals in there.” 

Kimmel used the Noveltech Vocal Enhancer plug-in to blend the different dragon sound elements together. “When you’re using so many different elements to create a voice for a creature, it’s hard not to make it sound like it’s a bunch of different elements being combined. The Vocal Enhancer was a really great tool for blending the elements. We could even tweak it to make certain things pop out a little bit more. It’s a really great tool.” 

In addition to the dragons, there are other creatures in Season 3. Kimmel worked with a vocal artist to create expressive sounds to give the creatures personality. The vocal artist was able to make noises that didn’t sound human, and had the emotion and attitude that the creatures needed.
 
For example, Kimmel says, “We had to try and sell pain for this one creature and going through a library can be a little tricky to really capture that. Bringing in a vocal artist was a lot of fun. We spent a couple of hours recording him just screaming and grunting and making all sorts of sounds.” 

Season 3 takes place in many of the same locations as the previous seasons, so Kimmel was able to reuse the ambiences and backgrounds for those environments. This gave him more time to create sounds for the new locations, one of which has a new language. To build the background voices in the new language, a walla group was given a phonetic outline so they could mimic the language.

Using the phonetic outline, the group was able to create generic background walla that sounds similar to the language. “They were also fed specific lines that have actual meaning in the language. We can’t use English walla in the background in those scenes because no one is speaking English, and you can’t draw from a library for a language that doesn’t exist.” 
 
Kimmel started work on the series in the first week of December and won’t be finished until the beginning of May. Since he is given the entire season all at once, he doesn’t work on it one episode at a time. Instead, he is working on different pieces of many episodes at one time. “Even though we might be mixing Episode 1, we’re creating a creature in Episode 7 and going over some ADR on Episode 5, and then we have to check if we can fix something in Episode 9. There is a lot of juggling on this show.” 

Kimmel uses spreadsheets to help him keep track of where he is on each episode. By keeping the spreadsheets up to date, he can quickly see what needs to be mixed, or what creature needs to be done, or if he needs to go back and update an episode. Since the dragons are CG, their detail is rough in the beginning. As the visuals improve, and more detail is added to the skin and body movement, the sounds for the dragons need to change. “We could be finished mixing an episode, but some of the visual effects won’t be final, so we move onto the next episode. Once we get updated visuals for the previous episodes, we have to hop back on it and update and tweak our sound.” 

The series is mixed in 5.1 at Todd AO in Hollywood by re-recording mixers Onnalee Blank and Matt Waters. Since they mixed the previous season as well, they were very familiar with the project. “I was very happy to get them back,” says Kimmel. “They definitely helped me to get started on the right foot since they knew the show from last season. They’ve been great.” 

This is Kimmel’s first season on the series. While he admits to feeling a little overwhelmed at the beginning, after getting all 10 episodes at once, he also was extremely excited to start work on the show. “You chip at it piece by piece and you get through it. It’s really exciting. It looks amazing so we have to make it sound amazing. Yeah, there are a few challenges but it’s very rewarding.” 

SCANDAL

They call it, “Scandal-pace.” That’s how fast the dialogue moves in the ABC series Scandal, a political drama centered around Olivia Pope, an ex-White House communications director, and her crisis management firm. That fast pace sets the tone for the whole show. ShondaLand, the series production company owned by the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, directed the actors to talk as quickly, and with as much intensity, as they can. 

Stephen Fitzmaurice, re-recording mixer who handles the dialogue and music on the show, says, “They also talk right on top of each other, which from a mixing standpoint, is a challenge because you want the audience to be able to understand every word the first time.” 

Clear dialogue is always a priority, but when the dialogue is moving fast for the entire 43 minutes of program material, it’s essential that every word is understandable. “We don’t want people hitting the rewind button trying to understand what was said,” he explains.

While Fitzmaurice has many noise reduction tools at his disposal, he feels that great editorial work is the best solution for most dialogue issues on Scandal. Supervising sound editor Kathryn Madsen credits that work to dialogue editor Dave Cowan. “He just does a great job editing the dialogue, to make it as good as possible before it even hits the dub stage,” she says. 

Some shows may shy away from ADR, but not Scandal. The ADR and sound editorial teams are key players in getting the dialogue as clear as possible. With so much ADR, Madsen says, “There is the danger of losing some dialogue somewhere, so I go through and make sure nothing has been left out, nothing is missing.” She goes through the entire episode line by line before it gets to the dub stage to make sure that nothing was left out after the ADR and dialogue edit are complete.

There are times when ADR isn’t an option, like when the actors are performing difficult emotional scenes. “You just don’t want to force an actor to loop a long section of a difficult performance, or for a scene that is really difficult for them to duplicate,” Fitzmaurice says. “If our sound editorial team can help us find solutions first, then I can use our noise reduction tools much more effectively.” 

On the dialogue, Madsen finds that water is her biggest battle, either from rain, rain machines, or in shower scenes. Fortunately, with all the ADR they do, she is confident in the actors’ ability to give great performances. “They are fantastic loopers,” she says. “With Scandal-pace, it helps to be good at ADR, and Tony Goldwyn, who plays President Fitzgerald Grant, he’s the best looper I have ever worked with in my career. He is amazing. I don’t even have to touch his stuff. He is perfect.”

Though Scandal is a political drama with fast-paced dialogue, it’s not all hushed whispers and intrigue. There are many opportunities for sound design moments in the show. David DiPietro, re-recording mixer who handles the sound effect and Foley, likes that Scandal provides him with an opportunity to be creative. “Oftentimes in one-hour dramas, there isn’t a lot of time for sound moments, but the picture editors on Scandal, Matt Ramsey and Greg Evans, have done a terrific job of integrating those,” he says, recalling the opening of one episode, where the camera is passing through Olivia Pope’s offices, and the televisions are on in all the rooms. “The process of making the soundscape, where we hear the same futzed television, except it’s happening in different rooms and then it all comes together, is one of the reasons that I do this job. We don’t get into sound so that we can clean up messes and try to get out of it as quickly as possible, we do it so we can be creative.”  

Scandal often uses video montages to transition between scenes, or to recap events in the show. For example, Fitzmaurice notes in Episode 208, a montage was used to express the First Lady’s emotions after the president was shot in the head. “We are in the emergency room with the First Lady and we have to go through this big traumatic scene where she’s going through what happened in the previous episode in her head while we’re also looking after Fitz and figuring out what is going on. There is a whole lot of fragmented dialogue pieces that come through with a lot of sound design elements. I would credit the picture editors with creating more sound moments this year that maybe weren’t as prevalent last year.”

Typically, the audio team has five days to complete the ADR, Foley, effects, and dialogue edit, before it’s sent to the dub stage for a two-day final mix. Though, they have been asked to edit and mix an entire episode in three days, Fitzmaurice and DiPietro try to work as efficiently as possible to get the job done. 

In order for DiPietro to get all the sound effects and Foley in place for the final mix, he has to have good communication with the sound editors. “I always get so much material to work with, so if I get to the dub stage and I already know where things are, it makes my job much easier and much more efficient.” Picking-up reoccurring sounds, like the signature Scandal camera clicks, and also the reverb and EQ settings from Season 1, has helped him to keep a consistent sound between the two seasons. Says DiPietro, “We tend to flashback to older episodes quite often, so a lot of that comes back.”

For Season 2, DiPietro was hired to mix the sound effects and Foley, a position he took over from Fitzmaurice. He used Fitzmaurice’s Season 1 templates as a starting point for Season 2. Fitzmaurice now mixes the dialogue and music, a position he took over from the newly retired Larry Stensvold. They had been working together for the past 15 years. Having worked together on Season 1, Fitzmaurice adopted a number of techniques from Stensvold. “As a great mentor and friend, Larry took me through what he did, and I try to take what was done, and adopt parts of that. At the same time, I try and bring my own style to the show.”

Scandal is mixed in 5.1 using an ICON D-Control with Pro Tools HD 9. Fitzmaurice likes the flexibility the ICON provides. Since the control surface is very customizable, he is able to get to the things he needs quickly. “One of the wonderful things about the ICON is you can put specific things on the knobs in front of you. Also, having everything automated is a huge help workflow wise, because that means you aren’t spending time trying to figure out how to get in and out of your mix when you need to make changes.”

Scandal is mixed at Westwind Media (www.wwm.tv) in Burbank, which has worked on Grey’s Anatomy — also created by Shonda Rhimes.