Soundtrack: Netflix's <I>The Fall of the House of Usher</I>
December 15, 2023

Soundtrack: Netflix's The Fall of the House of Usher

Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher premiered October 12th, and is based on the original work by Edgar Allan Poe. The miniseries was created by Mike Flanagan and follows the story of Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), the CEO of a corrupt pharmaceutical company, who is forced to confront his past when his children start dying in mysterious and brutal ways.

Jonathan Wales, served as the series’ co-supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer and scoring mixer. He was given the creative freedom to experiment with how the show’s sound and dialog interplay with one another to make the deaths of the six children even more intriguing. As the show has several dark and gothic elements, Wales aimed to incorporate a more traditional symphonic-style score to contrast the dark tones. To achieve this, a more thematic score was recorded with a smaller orchestral group and used to drive along the pace of some scenes. 

Here, Wales shares insight into working on the miniseries, as well as some of its audio challenges.

Jonathan, can share your approach to enhancing the sound and dialogue to make the deaths of the six children unique?

Jonathan Wales: “Throughout the show, we were very focused on creating the right sonic spaces for the story to unfold. There’s a lot of dialog in The Fall of the House of Usher - sometimes in scenes with many people, often with only one or two. Either way, it was very important to establish the sense of the spaces in which the scenes occurred. To that end, I did a lot of work with the backgrounds and the dialog reverbs/early reflections so that each space, each room, had its own identity. I think that really helped to ground the specific locations with the particular characters. In the modern-day Usher office, for instance, it’s completely sterile. There’s almost nothing going on outside that you can hear. Voices are more muted or sometimes a little extra big in the rooms. This helped create an ‘Ivory Tower’ vibe to the sound. It’s tough because that also means there’s just nothing to hide behind! The dialog was a big challenge to get it all feeling right and natural. Similarly, the old house where the Dupin/Roderick interview is occurring as a narrative throughout the show - this is the opposite. The walls are porous. The wind is whistling and occasionally howling through. It has a very specific feel, so even if you close your eyes, you should immediately know you are in that room, with the storm slowly brewing off-screen.”

What other dialog scenes presented a challenge?

“The scene with Verna (Carla Gugino) on the bed during the masquerade, for instance…she’s almost whispering, yet we have to get a believable perspective of the party still going on. Those dialog recordings were rather challenging and took much work. The glass conference room in the office was also really tough because there’s seldom a usable boom angle, but all the radio mics often sounded very different from each other and from line to line due to the wide variety of wardrobes. Plus, you’re in a reflective room all around, with a giant reflective table! Yeah, that was a ton of fun! Additionally, we were trying to keep it completely sonically sterile, so there’s no help from FX or BGS either. As with all of Mike’s shows, we basically do zero ADR. That holds true mostly here as well. There is almost no ADR at all throughout the entire show. Only the voiceover in Episode 1 and some of the poems were specifically recorded in ADR.”

Can you talk about the death scenes? 

“For each of the deaths, I think what really sells them is the acting and how much we already know and love/hate the characters in such a short period of time. My job was to basically preserve the raw nature of the performances while building up the backdrop and the mechanics behind these incredibly-different ways to die. From acid rain, a giant pendulum slicing you in half, being attacked by chimps while listening to a whispered monologue, an off-screen beating heart that only one of the characters can ever hear…and then a huge storm that swallows an entire house. Yeah, lots of perspectives.”

How did you manipulate the sound to create the illusion of a cat hiding in Leo's walls?

“Honestly, it’s the craziest thing when you think about it. There’s a cat in the walls. Which is moving around. The thing is - even without the cat sound, that scene completely works because Rahul’s acting is so incredible. He completely sells that he’s hearing the cat - which is why I think it all works so nicely in the final version. 

“The actual cat sounds were all constructed by Trevor Gates, our sound designer on the show, so huge credit goes to him for figuring out how to make cat-in-wall sounds believable. For my part, the key was making sure that all the perspectives worked and that the audience would completely believe that the cat was actually there. Or here. Or up above. I think that was an overarching theme sonically for the show. The idea is that the audience would be a participant in the show through sound. We are trying to let the audience have the same experience as the character - almost as if you’re in his head or right beside him in the room. That way, the story becomes real to both the audience and the character simultaneously. 

“Mixing in Atmos obviously really allowed me to have fun with the cat going overhead in the ceiling and to really get the directions correct. Throughout the whole sequence, though - the most important thing is that you’re enhancing the dialog and the storytelling, and never taking it over. Getting the balance between a character losing his mind, with really-big music, and a ton of important words - yeah, that was also a lot of work.”

Can you tell us about your equipment setup? 

“On Usher, I actually did most of the mixing at home, including the score mixing and the final mixing. That was something we’d been doing on Midnight Mass and then The Midnight Club, so we knew the workflow well. However this time, we went and did reviews with Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy in a larger room at Deluxe in Hollywood for the final tweaks. My home setup is essentially a full dub-stage, comprising two ProTools playback systems and one recorder. These are all connected to an Avid MTRX II using Digilink, with the Dolby renderer being connected over Dante. I was mixing in Atmos at all times until we were finished creatively.

“At home, I have a 32-fader Avid S6 console, and I’m listening on PMC IB2s main speakers, with PMC surrounds as well. Honestly, it’s the quality of what I’m able to hear at home and how amazing the translation is to other rooms that really makes this workflow possible. The setup at Deluxe, whilst slightly different, was actually able to be set up to completely mirror my setup at home, making the round trip seamless.”

Is there a scene or episode that you feel stands out from a soundtrack perspective?

“I had a lot of fun in so many different places in this show. How many times do you ever get to have a cat actually running around in the walls, after all? Personally, the masquerade was one of my favorites, because we also had these incredible Newton Brothers remixes of Chris Isaac's ‘Wicked Game’ and Nine Inch Nails' ‘Closer’. Because I literally had access to all the tracks of those remixes, we were able to really play with how all of that music felt in the space, and push it as far as we dared without losing the dialog.”

Can you take us through your workflow and how you approach mixing sounds for an episode?

“I almost always do a quick mix of the backgrounds, just so I have something to work against. That’s important so I can understand the environment the dialog needs to sit in. In the case of this show, I was also doing a lot of augmentation to the darker drony/ventilation-type backgrounds. The things you feel rather than hear. I did a lot of that on the fly to get the spaces to feel more different across the time periods. 

“With the dialog, I’m then cleaning it up, but also really figuring out what reverbs and reflections will distinguish each location. How to make the voices all feel like they belong together in that space. That was a big feature of this show, as each location is specifically dialed in, so the dialog takes on the identity of the room it’s in. It also really helps to gel everything together when there are mic angles coming from all over in these beautiful sets, where booms can sometimes be a big problem. 

“After that, the next element I work on usually depends on what’s the next most important. If the FX are driving a scene, then I do them next. If music is more the thread, then I will do that. It’s all about trying to get the primary elements of the scene working together correctly. Once you get that right, everything else just falls into place. So if two people are talking in a room and there’s a score, then obviously it’s the dialog and music that have to work right. Even in the big scenes at the end — bodies outside falling down, for instance. That was built with dialog and music first, and then everything else was added in. The pendulum scene was the opposite. It was built with dialog and FX, and then we actually tried putting music in, but removed most of it because it was just too much to process at that moment, and it felt like it was softening Froddy’s death.

“I was also the scoring mixer on this show. (It) was a great honor, and also really helpful, as I had done a bunch of work on the music already once I started mixing the episodes, so I really knew what we had and what the musical concept was from the outset.”

What tools do you prefer to use?

“I’m working exclusively in Avid ProTools Ultimate. It gives me not only the flexibility to do anything I can imagine, but it’s rock solid and fully integrated with the console, the ProTools Atmos recorder, and Atmos itself. There’s a reason why it’s the industry standard. It’s not only the big things, but the workflows all across the spectrum of work - from score mixing to dialog mixing to intense sound design are all so fluid and completely well-defined that I don’t really have to think about the technical side of what’s going on. I can just stay in the creative flow.”

What was the most significant challenge you encountered while working on this series? 

“It is really hard to choose one thing. Actually, I won’t because I think the biggest challenge was making it all gel together. With so many characters in so many settings - keeping it all feeling like a singular work was something I was really striving for. There’s a musical identity from the score, combined with the different time periods and crazy things happening, yet ultimately, it’s a collection of stories told, very often, in simple scenes between two people. Think of Leonore’s death, for example: It’s just a monologue from Verna on the bed - in the middle of all the craziness of the episode. Yet it’s also one of the most emotional moments in the show. 

“It’s keeping all of these things tied together in a way that feels natural and intentional. I think that’s the hardest part. One way I was able to solve this was because we didn’t work in order. So I think I started on Episode 3 and then worked in a bit of a random order, with Episodes 1 and 8 going back-to-back at the end. That was actually really helpful because, by the time we got to mixing Episode 1, we already knew what all of the rooms and locations sounded like - plus, we had figured out the basic feel of the show, between music and dialog.

“This was a very special project for me, and I’m incredibly proud of how it turned out. So many others were involved on all levels, but special credit should go to Kelly Cabral, my co-supervisor; Trevor Gates for all the incredible sound design; and Snacky, our incredible music editor - for keeping all the music straight. And believe me, there is a ton of wonderful music from our friends, the Newton Brothers. I hope you all like The Fall of the House of Usher as much as we enjoyed working on it!”