There are so many variables in mixing a Web series. It’s not an easy job. There are no set guidelines for levels. There are no set guidelines for encoding the audio — something the mixer has no control over. You spend tons of time getting a mix perfect and then it gets squashed during the encoding process. Frustrating!
Viewers listen to playback on everything... from home theater 5.1 set-ups to iPhone speakers. For these true audio pros, it never comes down to, “Oh, this is just a Web series. It’s no big deal.” They bring their A game (and A studio) to every show, despite time crunches, despite budget constraints, and in the face of so many unknowns.
Supervising sound editor Kevin W. Buchholz recently completed Season 4 of Arrested Development, now available on Netflix. His audio team includes re-recording mixers Sherry Klein and Alexey Mohr at Larson Studios (www.larson.com) in Hollywood.
Larson offers nine dub stages split between two locations, a facility on Sunset Blvd. and their Wilcox Ave. location, which is only two blocks away. Arrested Development was mixed in both locations. As a full-service audio post facility, Larson Studios offers 7.1 mixing, sound design, Foley, ADR, dialog editorial and everything in between.
Arrested Development, created by Mitch Hurwitz, is now a Web series. All 15 episodes were made available on Netflix the same day. Keeping the sound consistent across all 15 episodes, from the mix levels to the details in the ambience, was absolutely necessary because viewers can jump from episode to episode, or watch all the episodes back to back.
To maintain a consistent level, re-recording mixer Klein, who handled the dialog and music for 10 episodes, set a -23 dB dialog norm for everyone to adhere to. “We had no broadcast constraints in terms of what our dialog norms had to be, so that was what we used to maintain levels. The biggest challenge in the beginning was figuring out how we were going to make all this play at once, knowing that people were going to jump around.”
The show is mixed in 5.1, much like a typical network show, but Buchholz notes that since Netflix content is streaming and there are no broadcast processing treatments, the team had the freedom to create a dynamic mix that best conveyed the story. Re-recording mixer Mohr handled the sound effects on four episodes. “The best opportunity of the delivery medium was having that freedom and confidence that as you crafted it, so shall it play,” he says. “That is really a wonderful treat; you’re not doing something that you hope will hit the broadcast treatment in a favorable way. The mix will play exactly as you built it. We love Netflix. We love streaming. We’re happy for the future.”
When viewers are watching on their smart phones, tablets or laptops, they’ll probably be listening over headphones. Mohr feels a headphone mix enables them to play sounds at a more subtle level and still be confident the details in the effects will come through. “Arrested Development has many layers to the onion and is clearly designed to be re-watched and reconsidered. One episode is relative to the next. Mixing for headphones affords us the ability to keep sound effects in a lower pocket and still feel confident that the joke will play and people will still understand what they’re seeing.”
He also notes that a good mix is a good mix that will translate on any number of playback systems, provided the mix is delivered the way it was created. Since the show isn’t going through any broadcast processing, “we could craft something that’s going to sound good on a large number of playback systems, including headphones.”
Now that Arrested Development is a Web series, the show’s runtimes are longer. For broadcast, a half-hour show is about 22 minutes, making time for commercial breaks. With no breaks to account for, the episodes in Season 4 are 28-38 minutes long. Mohr notes the content is also more dense. “The jokes come quickly. The call backs are frequent. The cuts are frequent. The storytelling is very involved and deep.”
According to Buchholz, “Arrested Development has stories coming together in realtime and being told from different perspectives.” He was able to recall scenes from prior episodes, and export elements from those scene to the mixers for use in the current episode. To achieve this, Buchholz kept a master session that included all the completed episodes. He updated his master session every time an episode wrapped. “The only way I could keep track of these nexuses as we called them — these areas where the stories would all overlap — was to take the finished mix sessions and copy them into one master session. I always had a copy of all the final mix sessions with me in one master mix session.”
In addition to Klein and Mohr, many other mixers worked on the show, including Lisle Engle (six episodes), Josh Schneider (four episodes), Jamie Santos (five episodes) and Chris Philp (one episode). Having a master session proved invaluable. When a scene was recalled from a previous episode, Buchholz had the exact elements that were already established for that scene. “As the story is being told, it’s the exact same point in time, so it was important that we had the exact elements.”
He was the thread that held the audio team together. No matter who was in the mix chairs, he was able to provide them with the correct elements in a coherent way.
Mohr notes that with Pro Tools 10, Buchholz could export a selected series of tracks that were spotted to the new position in the current episode. “For Kevin [Buchholz] to have the forethought to have all those sessions in one, and then to have this ability in Pro Tools 10 to quickly fly these precise sound effects builds out as needed, was a great thing that accelerated our workflow and kept things moving smoothly.”
Buchholz notes that creator Mitch Hurwitz spends a lot of time getting the dialog right, from performances to placement. So he and his audio team did everything they could to preserve production sound.
Buchholz worked with dialog editors Shannon Beaumont and Todd Niesen to pull words and syllables from out takes and other places in the dialog. “For the entire series, there was only five or six times we needed to use ADR to replace a line due to wind or noise or some other technical issue,” explains Buchholz.
On the mix stage, Klein recalls constantly moving lines of dialog and voiceover to make sure all the jokes were coming through. “We’d try moving the dialog two frames to the left, or two frames to the right, or overlaying it with the VO to make a point,” she says. “It was all about getting the jokes available to everybody that was watching. Whether it was the first pass, second pass or third pass, if you watch that show a couple of times, you will get them all. They will uncover.”
The music is another key element to the comedy. It’s not just a series of cues — it acts as a character. Music editor Jason Newman and composer David Schwartz worked closely with Hurwitz to craft the music tracks. Mixing the dialog and music, Klein was constantly aware of the music placement, the levels, and how the music and the dialog interacted with the effects because it was part of the comedy.
Buchholz adds, “The challenge was in making sure the voiceover hits where it needs to, the dialog hits where it needs to, and that the jokes embedded in the music hit where they need to. It’s a delicate balance of these elements that are fighting for the spotlight.”
For each episode, Buchholz spent five to seven days working with the audio team on the Foley (Adam DeCoster, Tom Kilzer, Andrew Morgado), sound effects (Lisle Engle, Bob Arons), dialog edit (Shannon Beaumont, Todd Niesen), ADR (Nate Poptic, Dana Olsefsky, Greg Stacy, Kim Lowe) and music edit (Jason Newman). The re-recording mixers spent two days per episode on the final 5.1 mix.
For Mohr, having an entire season, all 15 episodes, play back seamlessly is a testament to the broad team of people involved with the project. Even with all the different mixers and different audio editors who worked on the series, there is still a consistent sound.
According to Mohr, if you watch the entire season straight through, you wouldn’t notice the change in the mixers or editors. A contributing factor to the consistent sound is that everything was done at Larson Studios. “It’s a wonderful mix facility. It has multiple mix stages that are all equipped with the same gear and have the same capabilities. That affords us the ability to not only move talent around, but also have confidence that everything is going to work the same way. What we hear is going to be the same. We are going to get the same results and everything will playback the same way in every room.”
Klein, who worked on the original series years ago, feels that mixing Season 4 of Arrested Development is a highlight in her long career. Not only were the mix sessions full of rewarding challenges but at the end of it all, the episodes play back exactly as they were mixed. “The fact that they were streamed with Netflix, and that we didn’t have to go through any broadcast network made it more rewarding at the end. We didn’t have to watch that first broadcast and go, ‘What did they do to our mix?’ With streaming, it allows us the bandwidth and capability to actually air our mixes as we mixed them.”
Kunal Rajan, MPSE, Streamy Award-winner for Best Sound Design on the Web series Fear Clinic, is the supervising sound editor on a new Web series Tainted Love, which premiered May 5 on the Machinima Prime channel on YouTube.
Rajan owns Black Box Entertainment (www.blackboxentertainment.com), which did the dialog editing, background effects and sound design on the series. David W. Collins, who recently won a BAFTA Game Award for Audio Achievement on Journey, a game developed by Thatgamecompany, is the re-recording mixer.
Tainted Love, created by Orlando Jones, is an action/comedy that fuses live action and comic book style graphics to tell the story of newly expectant parents. Their desperate criminal behavior is a misguided yet well-intended attempt to raise money to pay for all the things that come with having a baby.
Collins feels the combination of live action and animation helped the production to feel bigger than it really was. “When we have a big moment in the story, huge fights or gun sequences, the picture switches to animation and it just opens things up incredibly. It reminds me of the old school smoke and mirrors type of production, where you use every trick in the book to make it come across as a much bigger story than what we had time and budget for, and it really works.”
Director Avi Youabian asked Rajan to treat the sound as if it were a feature film, since Tainted Love was not intended to be a Web series when it was first created. For inspiration, Rajan watched scenes from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to get an idea of how they handled going from live action to the comic book style animations. “It’s not like how you would do a typical animation. I treated it more like a live-action film. I tried to make it sound more like real life. Sometimes creating surreal sounds is easier than making something sound real. Especially with the comic book visuals, it was hard to make it sound real, yet still sound violent and gritty.”
According to Rajan, the animators were working around the clock to meet the deadline for Machinima. He had new picture almost every day. In the short time frame he had to create the sound, he admits it was challenging to keep up with picture changes and animation changes.
Rajan worked with a team of freelance sound editors to divide and conquer the Foley, ADR, sound effects backgrounds, and dialog edits, while he focused on the sound design. Rajan edits at his studio in Los Angeles on a Pro Tools 10 HD system using a Control 24 control surface. He owns over 4TBs of sound effects.
When Tainted Love was re-worked to be a Web series, the original 30-minute cut was broken down into six episodes, each being about five minutes long. Rajan explains, “To make each episode work, there was a lot of re-writing in the editorial, in terms of scene order and the narration of the scenes. We recorded ADR to help tell the story better for each five-minute episode.”
They also used voiceover, narrated by Orlando Jones, to help tell the story. Rajan approached the voiceover as if it were production dialog. It has a very casual feel. “It feels like Orlando is just talking to you.”
The ADR and voiceover were recorded at Tibbo Sound (www.tibbosound.com) in Los Feliz, CA, with the Emmy-winner Stephen Tibbo. For a few lines of voiceover, Jones was unable to make it into the studio, so he recorded his lines using an iPhone and sent them to Collins for the mix. “As much as I complained about the fidelity, ultimately I just realized that it doesn’t matter too much,” he says. “If the script was not working, or the copy was lame, that would have been way worse than whether or not it was recorded on a great sounding mic. These kinds of things were huge challenges and we had to figure out how to make it work.”
The music on Tainted Loved, composed by Joey Newman and Matt Hutchinson, had a huge impact on the picture edit, the sound design and the mix. Rajan says, “The music was the life of the series. Even though I spent hours and hours working on the sound design, I told the director that we should mute all the sound design and let the music drive the scene. The music was so good that you just had to hear it.”
Director Youabian also edited the series. He cut the picture to fit the music, so the whole series has a musical feel. Collins says, “The music was constant, and so we decided that the whole series needed to feel like a constant dance. If the music drops then there is something else to take its place. Everything is up, and if it’s down, then it’s to land a punchline, or a laugh.”
As a sound design manager at Sony PlayStation, Collins’ day-to-day work is mainly on videogames. Tainted Love, though, fits right into his area of expertise. The six-minute long, high-intensity episodes are non-stop, just like a game trailer. “When you’re given bite-sized content, you want to constantly keep the ball in the air. You’re constantly juggling the sounds and guiding the ear.”
To make the big soundtrack fit a small screen, Collins mixed the series in stereo, paying close attention to how wide he panned the sound. “If I panned something too much it would become distracting in a strange way because you’re looking at such a small screen. It was an interesting challenge. Everything has to translate down to the tiniest screen and the tiniest set of speakers. I learned a lot from listening on headphones and watching it on my iPhone.”
Collins would post the temp mixes on the Web, and check playback very often on his iPhone. He notes that it was one of the best tools he had for playback.
There are no set loudness levels for the Web, so Collins measured different Web programs to see what they were mastered to. He found everything from -5 dB of headroom, to just completely slammed. “It’s gotten better over the years, but it was clear that I couldn’t do the standard home theater levels. It had to be pretty slammed overall.”
By constantly listening to the mix on his iPhone, and through headphones, he made sure the levels remained in check. “That was a really great way of figuring out what was going to pop out and what wasn’t. When you’re listening to something full frequency it doesn’t translate the same. That was the idea. Someone had to be able to watch this series on a bus, on the subway, on a laptop, on an iPad or iPhone, and it still needed to read.”
Collins mixed the series at his home studio on a Pro Tools HD2 system running Pro Tools 8. He monitored the mix on Mackie HRH24s and also on a pair of Beyer T 70 headphones. Normally, Collins uses his home studio for tracking, voiceover or ADR for freelance work on projects like documentaries. Mixing Tainted Love on his HD2 system was a bit of a challenge. “As you can imagine, my horsepower situation, in terms of TDM, was not the best. But, we were mixing in stereo and I was able to manage my voices and use a lot of plug-ins natively, as well as using TDM. I drove my system as hard as I could in order to do the mix.”
Collins uses the Waves Mercury bundle in his home studio. He notes that it was something he couldn’t have lived without. “There are so many great tools in there for me to work with, from meters to compressors to effects.”
One interesting side note is Collins’ home studio just happened to be across the street from Youabian, who would make changes to the picture, and then walk over to Collins’s house to check out the updated mix, just as if they worked down the hall from each other in a studio.
“That was really crucial,” Collins says, “because we mixed the whole thing, all six episodes and the trailer, in about two weeks, on our off-hours. It was very much a late night and weekend type of job. It was awesome that Avi was across the street. At one point towards the end, Noam Dromi, the producer, and Avi came over to my home studio. I’ve got a 46-inch flat screen above the desk so they could sit behind me and look over my head at picture. It felt like a little studio project.”
BURNING LOVE: BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
Re-recording mixer David Miraglia (http://davidmiraglia.com) recently finished mixing Season 3 of the Streamy Award-winning Web series Burning Love. Miraglia has been the re-recording mixer on all three seasons. Though Burning Love started as a Web series, Season 1 made the jump to TV; it premiered on E! on February 25. Conforming a Web series to fit the TV format took a lot of extra editing, but the result was well worth it. Justin Walker, supervising sound editor on the series, says, “I am proud to see it grow from a Web series to a television show.”
Burning Love is a spoof of reality shows like, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette, where contestants compete for “love.” Season 3, titled Burning Love: Burning Down the House, is a bit different. The “favorite” contestants from the first two seasons compete for a $900 cash prize instead of love. The show stars Michael Ian Black (from sketch comedy The State) as the host, and Ken Marino (also from The State) as Mark Orlando, the “bachelor” in Season 1. You can watch all the episodes in Season 3 for free on Yahoo! Screen.
While Burning Love: Burning Down the House is a scripted series, there were many times when the actors and actresses improvised lines. “Takes were especially long, sometimes spanning over 15 minutes,” reports Walker. “The crew would seldom cut to start a new take.”
This meant it took longer to find alt takes to fix dialog problems. With 10- or 15-minute-long takes, Walker explains, the haystack is much larger to find the needle in. On the upside, listening to alternate takes revealed many laugh-out-loud gems of audio. “You could tell that the crew was having a hard time not cracking up in the middle of a take.”
Miraglia used the Izotope RX plug-in to clean the dialog tracks. It’s his go-to tool for noise reduction, de-clicking and distortion removal. “I love the advanced window of the Denoiser. You can really get in there and dial out the unwanted noise and frequencies. That whole suite of tools is amazing, and when you dial it in just right you really don’t hear any processing artifacts.”
As with most reality shows, the music was wall to wall. Burning Love: Burning Down the House used production music provided by DL Music. There are music beds for the interview sections, as well as short cues to highlight the comedy or the psuedo-drama.
Miraglia mixed the music with dynamics in mind, allowing room for dramatic swells when appropriate. In addition to making room for the big moments with the mix, the picture edit also allowed moments for the music, or effects, to take over. “The editors would intentionally create little pockets for us to mix up or sting out music to create the appropriate punctuation where needed.”
Miraglia also used Elastic Audio in Pro Tools to re-time the music tracks to hit the picture better in particular moments.
From a sound effects standpoint, Burning Love: Burning Down the House is much different from other reality shows. Miraglia and Walker did a lot of work with the background ambience and sound design. Miraglia says, “Not many reality shows do backgrounds, but we made sure that the sound was fully filled out. We were elaborate with the sound effects work we did.”
Miraglia and Walker have worked on many projects in the past, and he mentions that Walker used to be his assistant, so he’s very familiar with Miraglia’s style of working. That relationship ended up being crucial when it came to finishing Burning Love: Burning Down the House on time. They were asked to complete the series a month early. Instead of mixing two episodes a week, Miraglia had to mix three episodes a week, plus juggle other projects he was working on. “We were on fire. It was a huge challenge but we managed to get them all out really quick. I’m really well organized and all my templates are laid out meticulously. Justin knows how to prep things for me since he was actually my assistant for the longest time. We know how to work really well together, and just staying organized helped.”
The show was mixed in 5.1 at Miraglia’s studio in Hollywood, where he’s currently mixing Finding Bigfoot for Animal Planet. When mixing for TV, Miraglia knows exactly where his levels need to be, but in mixing for the Web, it’s a big challenge trying to find the right output level. Miraglia calls the Web the wild, wild west.
“There are no standards. You never know if the ads that get played before and after your show will be louder or softer than the program. We did a lot of research on the levels of the videos out there, and what the ads were being mixed at. Everybody is all over the map.”
Miraglia points out another element to the challenge of mixing for the Web. For Burning Love: Burning Down the House, the audio being played back on the Yahoo! Screen site has a lot of artifacts created from the encoding format they used.
“That’s crazy. Why can we watch YouTube videos and the audio sounds great, but when we watch a Web series on Yahoo! Screen, they use poor encoding that has super compressed audio and super compressed video. They’re trying to create a place for Web series and support the whole new media movement, and to hear those artifacts in the final playback is disappointing. We spend a lot of time really refining those mixes.”
Miraglia believes there should be standards for the Web, just like there are standards for broadcast. After seeing the full HD version of Burning Love: Burning Down the House during playback at Paramount, Miraglia was surprised by how it looked online. “When they have it on the site in that small window, you can see compression artifacts. The picture wasn’t as bad as the sound I thought, but, really, who is at the wheel? Who is doing the encoding? I really want to talk to them and say, ‘Why are you doing it like this?’ You have to know how to encode the media. The Web is the wild, wild west, across the board, and you never know what you’re going to get until it airs. Then it’s like, ok, well, that’s how it turned out.”
Miraglia always checks his mixes on a variety of speakers, and in different formats. He listens in 5.1, stereo, and mono. He auditions the mix on Genelec studio monitors, cheap TV speakers, laptop speakers, Ultrasone headphones, and also less expensive Skull Candy earbuds. “I’m a big proponent of checking mixes because things can sound so different on different devices.”
Glenfield Payne is a supervising sound editor at Harbor Sound, the sound division of Harbor Picture Company (www.harborpicturecompany.com/sound) in New York City. Harbor Sound opened for business in April, just in time to mix the pilot episode of Alpha House for Amazon Originals. Amazon Originals made several Web series pilots available for free download. Based on audience feedback, they selected several pilots to become full Web series. More Alpha House episodes are in production, but no release date has been set.
Alpha House follows four senators, including Gil John Biggs (John Goodman) and Senator Vernon Smits (Bill Murray), who share a house in Washington, DC. They all have their troubles, but then again, what politician doesn’t. The show is a political comedy written by Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip.
For Payne, working on a new show in the new studio space was the most rewarding part of the experience. Harbor Sound was started by five guys who all worked at Sound One before it closed last September. Joining up with Harbor Picture Company has been a symbiotic relationship for Payne and his team. They provide audio post services for a picture company that does great editing.
“It’s been a really great collaboration,” says Payne. “The picture guys know what they’re doing and they’re well sought after. It’s great for them to be able to say to their clients, ‘We’ve got sound too. It’s actually a group of people who have been doing this a long time, and doing it well. Why don’t you go take a look?’”
Payne has been in the audio post biz for 20 years. His past work includes O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Titus, Fargo and Broken Flowers (another project with Bill Murray in it).Since most of the pilot was shot indoors, Payne notes the production dialog was very clean, so he was able to spend more time making it sound good, and less time fixing technical problems. There was also minimal ADR. For the few lines of ADR they did need, Payne used the Audio Ease Altiverb plug-in to help match it to the production dialog. “In the beginning of the pilot, Bill Murray is being arrested, or taken off to a court appearance. We have some agents pulling up outside, so there was ADR and Foley in that scene. To keep it from sounding too dry, we ran it through convoluted reverbs in Altiverb, and it made it sound like it was coming through the window, from two floors down, on the street.”
Though Alpha House is a Web series, Payne was asked to approach the sound with a film sensibility. The clients, he notes, like the fact that he typically does film work. He says, “They liked that we weren’t going to approach the sound as just a TV show. We were going to approach the sound as something a little bigger.”
Payne took full advantage of the 5.1 format by spreading out the background sounds to bring the spaces to life. He wanted it to feel like there’s a whole world happening around the viewer. For example, there is a scene where John Goodman walks out of a senate meeting and into a hallway in the senate building. “There are people coming down the steps behind us that we don’t see. People cross the screen from the front to the back, and from the back to the front, and so we took advantage of panning those people and making sure we hear sounds all around us.”
Payne is looking forward to working on the upcoming season of Alpha House. He hopes there will be some interesting locations, like Afghanistan, which was briefly alluded to in the pilot episode. Payne says, “I’m hoping that we’ll get to do a bunch of helicopters flying overhead, or maybe they’ll be out in the field, or at the base in the middle of Afghanistan. That is the type of stuff we get to have fun with.”
For Rob Fernandez, re-recording mixer on the dialog, Foley, and music for Alpha House, the challenge was to create a soundtrack that worked for laptops, tablets and TV broadcast in 5.1. “We mixed it to the highest quality medium of all these formats, which was TV broadcast 5.1 and down-mixed from there.”
He checked the mix through very small TV speakers, though, for future episodes, Fernandez plans on checking the mix through laptop speakers. “I listened to the mix on my laptop at home after it was released, and there were some instances that did not translate well.” Alpha House was mixed in Studio B using Pro Tools 10 and an ICON D-Control. Studio B at Harbor Sound is a Dolby-certified 5.1 mixing stage.