Talk to any television sound mixer and he’ll tell you how the march of technological progress has created new channels of opportunity, streamlined workflow and provided greater creative choices. But the same technology that has liberated so many sound mixers from antiquated Moviolas and single stripe audio can pose a new set of challenges, be it single-camera comedy, hour-long drama, or Emmy-winning musicals named Glee.
When correcting anomalies and adding sound effects, ADR and Foley to ABC’s Cougar Town, Universal Studios Sound’s (www.filmmakersdestination.com) Paul Tade often performs a sort of sorcery — a power that would stir the envy of any Angelino who’s ever inhaled carbon monoxide for lunch while stuck in Freeway traffic, which, for the sake of accuracy, includes everyone in Los Angeles.
“One of our sets is a dry dock for the character Bobby, for his boat, where he lives, and it’s actually a parking lot across the street from the studio,” says supervising sound editor Tade, a 20-year veteran of shows like Baywatch and Scrubs. “They shoot with a portable greenscreen so they can backplate it with a beach scene, and the object for me is to filter out the West Side traffic noise and buses, and turn it into a beach scene, with seagulls and ocean noise and people playing on the beach. The main sets are meant to be residential, so we put in residential traffic, birds, children playing, lawnmowers and the occasional garbage truck, to denote an early morning scene.”
Basic techniques used for either a comedy or a drama, to be sure, but with a single-camera show like Cougar Town, producers bring different expectations to the stage than they would with a multi-camera comedy.
“In a single-camera comedy, it’s very rapid fire and there’s no room left for the imagination; they’re trying to get as much fun and comedy into 22 minutes as they can, so dialogue and music are featured more so than in an action drama, like a 24 or Lost. We have to make sure that no matter what goes on with music or sound effects, it doesn’t obscure the comedy and the storyline.”
There are several ways to punch up the comedy, says Tade, whose tool of choice is Avid’s Pro Tools. “For ADR, they might want a different approach on a punch line,” he says. “So if they want more irony from the actor, for example, something they didn’t capture in the original shoot, they might want to add a line to punch up a joke. Otherwise, we have the obvious devices on comedies — crashes and falls. But a lot of the edit notes are music notes, because on a single-camera show where there is no live audience, when I go to a spotting with the producers, often times the discussion is about what can we use for a music transition or what kind of a music cue can we put here to make it funnier. In single-camera comedy, music is sort of used as the laugh track, so we have to weave the dialogue and music together to form a seamless whole.”
Fittingly, Iowa-born Tade majored in music at the University of Iowa, and it was the dim prospects of making a living as a drummer in his home state that sent him packing for the West Coast, where he found studio work but soon saw the writing on the wall. “I was a drummer in the 1980s, when drum machines were taking over the industry,” he says. “They were taking a lot of the work away, and I asked my friend who had been working in the studios to give me a call if he needed an assistant.”
More than 20 years later, Tade is still in the game, and on the right side of technology. “We bring 40 channels of sound effects and backgrounds to our little comedy, and that’s typical, as opposed to the old days, when you’d bring one stereo background and one mono background to each scene. Now we fill it up, we make sure there are choices for the client so they can realize their vision on the mixing stage. By the same token, just the detail with regard to Foley and dialogue choices, the infrastructure that digital processing has brought to the mixing stage makes all that much more accessible and, consequently, the client expects a lot more. Gladly, the technology has made it an option.”
THE BIG BANG THEORY
When Charlie McDaniel talks to other sound mixers, “How’s your production dialogue?” is a typical refrain bandied about.
“When I get production dialogue that’s in bad shape, I’ll go to see if we have any logs, or booms, or if I can steal a line from somewhere else,” says McDaniel, a Warner Bros. re-recording mixer for CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. “In the half-hour world, we don’t get a lot of time to mix these shows. We get four hours to mix and playback and print master, and that’s quite a change from shows I’ve worked on in the past, like Seinfeld, when we did get a little extra time because there were so many exteriors.”
McDaniel sees Seinfeld as a groundbreaking comedy — and not just because it was the first show about nothing. “Jerry and Larry David used to come in and to let me play the backgrounds, as if it were a feature or a live drama. I kind of believe that Seinfeld changed the sound of comedy, from the standpoint of playing the show not as stage show but as a show itself. In the ’70s, you heard no backgrounds, you won’t hear anything on stocks shots, or exteriors or door opens — on Golden Girls, you were lucky to hear a bird when the door opened to the outdoors. But on Seinfeld, you hear everything. You’ll hear cars honking on the street outside when you’re in Jerry’s apartment, you’ll hear all kinds of things. Larry and Jerry, at that time, were very new to the post production end, they came from stand-up, so they relied on Tim Kaiser to guide them through from this standpoint, and Tom Cherones, who was really big in the early Seinfeld.”
McDaniel sees some parallels between the Seinfeld approach and what’s happening in current comedy — especially The Big Bang Theory.
“If you hear a lot of these multicam shows nowadays, you can actually hear a lot of that stuff, and people are saying, ‘We want more of that.’ Chuck Lorre used to be the person that didn’t want to hear any live stock in his shows. But that’s one thing that Chuck has opened up about in the last two or three years, ever since Bang started. In the driving scenes on the older Two and a Half Men [his other show], you don’t even hear the car; he was opposed to that. Now with Bang, they’re in the cafeteria, or in the Cheesecake Factory, and he’s letting us play the reality of that, rather than the producers who think, it’s a live [to tape] television show — they don’t want to hear crickets on the stage. They want the audience to know this is a staged show, rather than well produced from a sound standpoint, so they just want to hear the jokes, the dialogue and the audience. But Chuck realizes that the sound in the cafeteria brings you more into the show, more into the characters.”
On Bang, Chuck Lorre works in a different form than other shows. “We get that show, we start at eight in the morning,” says McDaniel. “Bob [Bradford, the recordist] will get a round of edit notes. After they’ve gone through the picture editor, they’ll say, ‘We need to take this and that out,’ which normally a dialogue editor would do. So we come in at eight, I start taking out hums and buzzes, and doing any clean-up and putting in the backgrounds, mixing the audience and music, then we go back and Bob locks his Pro Tools up to mine and I’ll crossfade into whatever fixes Bob did. Then we’ll go back again and do a playback for the executive producer, and she has notes, and then the executive producer will come in and finish her notes and then we’ll do a playback for Chuck. Multiple playbacks like that are unusual.”
Lorre is very hands-on, says McDaniel. “More than most. He’s in on every mix; he’s the whole process. In fact, I still use some outboard analogue gear because it’s faster, and I have to be fast, especially when Lorre is in the room. When he says, ‘I want more echo on that,’ he doesn’t want to see you going over click and click and click on a mouse, and I can change things faster on a Neve than on a Pro Tools session.”
GLEE & CASTLE
Joe Earle has witnessed similar sea changes in the mixing of sound on TV shows — and its process. Currently the re-recording mixer at Technicolor (www.technicolor.com) for Castle and the Emmy-winning Glee, Earle hails from the days of Moviolas, single-stripe audio and 1/4-inch with a razor blade.
“For shows at Lorimar like Dallas, they used to mix for a week to get a one-hour episode,” he says. “The time schedule has compressed; now we start at eight or nine, and we’re playing back that show to a producer at five or six that day.”
The co-producer who runs the post end on Castle is Mark Kahn, “and he’s always urging us on. Our playback for producers is one o’clock on the second day, and it’s a little tight because the executive producers give the composer notes late in the afternoon, sometimes the night of the first day of the dub, so he’s up rewriting and mixing music cues all night, which I don’t get sometimes until right before they walk in the door.”
Glee, however, is a different animal. “The music on Glee is pretty much locked long before they finish cutting the show because they have to do so much of it to playback,” he says. “On Glee, the focus is mainly on the big music numbers. The writing is very intelligent, and the cast members are great. My hat is off to what the actors are committed to doing each and every week — they act, they sing and they dance... four or five numbers per week. In fact, we just finished the “Regionals” episode, which has 11 pieces of music in it, including two original compositions by Adam Anders, the music producer on the show. Because that show is so chock full of big numbers, we have to hold up our end in dialogue and effects so that there’s no drop off when these big numbers end. The dialogue tends to be big and loud and bombastic, the comedy elements and the effects are usually pretty big; they don’t play a lot of backgrounds except in the high school hallways, and any hard effects are played right up there where the music levels are.”
As far as the music on Glee is concerned, Earle believes it was a great convergence of elements that brought him and the music producers together — he’s a former drummer. “The music producers on the show are very successful pop music producers, and they wanted somebody who knows how to do all the elements — dialogue, music and effects. But I think the hardest thing to get around is the Autotune to make it work. We don’t overuse it, but you have to understand they’re producing four to five pop music songs per week, compared to making an album and taking a year to mix it, getting 70 takes to get a phrase right. It would be impossible without Autotune.”
So while Glee and Castle are different in their approach, Castle also mixes in a lot of music — in a 42-minute show, there’s about 39 minutes of music. “The difference on Castle is they never stop talking,” says Earle, who went to USC film school. “Almost every line is overlapped with the next line, and the only time they stop talking is the two- or three-second establishing shot into another scene; and all of that is pulled along by a great music score by Robert Duncan.”
Glee usually shoots in only four locations, while the production mixing on Castle tends to be more challenging because they go wherever the story takes them — a warehouse district in New York, a soap opera stage, the side of the freeway, etc. “We do the mix on ICONs, and I have a great dialogue chain that helps me clean things up, and then I use the Cedar DNS noise suppressor to help clean the dialogue, but the EQs on the ICON are pretty good.”
When asked the difference between an ordinary and an exceptional sound mixer, Earle thought for a second, replied, “The end result,” and then laughed.
“If you actually hear something that sticks out, that’s something that you can fix,” he says. “It all has to blend and play, so that you don’t realize you’re being manipulated, although, really, in essence, you always are being manipulated — by the score, by the dialogue, the picture. The key to great mixing is to not stand out.”
For Warner Bros.’ Andy D'Addario, technology has opened up a world of options while presenting its own unique challenges. As the re-recording mixer working on dialogue and music for Hawaii Five-0 (sound effects are handled by Ezra Dweck), D'Addario thinks big — big, as in theatrical.
“You could take this sound and play it in a motion picture theater,” says D'Addario, who comes from the movie side of the business, with credits including Wedding Crashers and the Rush Hour films, among others. “I give a very theatrical approach to television, so we put in a lot more detail, we're more layered, running many more tracks than your standard TV series, background-wise, because we're trying to place wherever we are in Hawaii. So there are lots of background elements to pace us, at the beach, the bad part of Honolulu, etc., and we have a lot of car chases, a lot of action sequences that are bigger than it would be on your standard TV show. As far as a mixer goes, we're doing a lot of detail.”
This theatrical detail is enabled by the ICON control surface from Avid. “That work surface enables us to create what we can in the time that's allotted,” he says. “I’m able to do a lot of detail work on the ICON. This particular mixing stage [at Warner — www.wbpostproduction.warnerbros.com] is unique because you can choose what surface you want to be on. You can be on the Neve or you can be on the ICON.
“It was designed that way a few years ago by Warners to be a combination room — if you're a traditional mixer that likes Neves, you can have that, if you like the ICON you can have that. That is so cool, and no one else has that. If I wanted to do dialogue on the Neve and do effects on the ICON, I can do it. We have a lot of tough production dialogue; the whole show is on location — there's no soundstage — and the ICON allows us to do detailed dialogue clean-up as well as feature-style work in the time we have for a TV show.”
The time restraints of television, however, especially on a theatrical sounding show like Hawaii Five-0, can cause habitual frustrations. D'Addario, like most sound mixers, wishes there was simply more time.
“We just have a tremendously short turnaround, and that makes it especially challenging,” he says. “We recently had a situation where they finished shooting on a Saturday and we aired on a Sunday. We had two days to prep the sound, a one-day turnaround on the dialogue. As far as workflow, we cut on Avid, they spot it, we get an EDL from a picture, and then the dialogue is assembled and cut, and the sound designers go to work and do the sound cutting on it, so that's nothing new, but the quick turnaround, that's standard nowadays in TV. We'll work around the clock.”
And then he has to just let it go. “That's really difficult for me. There hasn't been one thing I've worked on that I can say, 'Wow, I'm 100 percent thrilled; I can walk away.' But I hope that's what people like in me — that I'm always working to improve it. But at some point you get it to where it's in a good place and you live with it.”
This is not always easy when there's an ample amount of dynamism in your show. “Television has limited dynamics technically,” he says, “but there are numerous ways I work within that scope, delivering a soundtrack that plays with punch on television yet has the dynamics of a motion picture. The ICON, along with its numerous Pro Tools plug-ins, enables me to do that.”