Emmy Contenders: The sounds of TV's top shows
Issue: July 1, 2016

Emmy Contenders: The sounds of TV's top shows

Emmy season is upon us. Any second now the official list of nominations for the 68th Emmy Awards will be released and we’ll all hold our collective breath to see who takes home the statuettes in September. Until then, let’s take a look at a few shows, from a sound perspective, that have a shot at that top honor. These four shows — House of Cards, Silicon Valley, Mr. Robot and Better Call Saul — consistently sound amazing, thanks to the hard work of their respective post sound teams. 


Since 2013, Netflix’s House of Cards has racked up nearly two-dozen award wins and over a hundred nominations. Both the composer, Jeff Beal, and the re-recording mix team of Nathan Nance (dialogue and music) and Scott Lewis (effects, backgrounds, Foley) have won Emmys for past seasons of the series. Will they have repeat success? Up for consideration, for sound mixing, is the Season 4 finale, Episode 13 titled, “Chapter 52.” 

In “Chapter 52,” the re-recording mixers had the opportunity to play with emotional elements. In the episode opener, military police walk through a hallway in Guantánamo, shackle an inmate and lead him away. Pounding drums — played by guest musician on the score Peter Erskine, blend with transient laden sound effects of boot thumps, chain rattles, clanging doors and handcuff clicks. “We were able to play with the sound effects and music to build tension there,” says Nance, who happens to be a drummer himself. “Composer Jeff Beal’s music is awesome but I really enjoyed this season because of guest drummer Peter Erskine. The drums brought a whole other level of tension that hadn’t been there before. It also culminated at the end of this episode. These drums come in and they really build up that tension.”

That ending scene relied on sound to paint a graphic mental picture. In the situation room, on-going negotiations with two terrorists end in the death of their captive James Miller (played by Sean Graham). On a projection screen, President Frank (played by Kevin Spacey) and First Lady Claire (played by Robin Wright), and a room full of advisers watch as the two men hold a knife to Miller’s neck. Just as they slit Miller’s throat, the camera cuts away to a close-up of Frank and Claire. Lewis recalls, “We wanted the sound to make everyone wince because visually you don’t see what’s happening. That was a moment where sound played a big role. It sounds really brutal.” 

Nance’s careful futz processing of the terrorists’ dialogue sounds realistic while still allowing the actors’ inflections to come across clearly. On all of his futz processing for the show, Nance says, “I usually end up with an overcomplicated combination of plug-ins. I use Audio Ease’s Speakerphone, and especially on this show, I’ve been using iZotope’s Denoiser feature. If you push that too far it becomes unpleasant in typical dialogue situations, but to me it sounds like a bad cell phone connection.” 

Nance and Lewis mix House of Cards in 5.1 surround in the Alfred Hitchcock room at Skywalker Sound (www.skysound.com) in Marin County, CA. They have been mixing the series together since Season 2, and last season they started mixing the show on an Avid S6 console, which was still in beta at the time. Lewis says, “We were actually one of the first people at Skywalker Sound to use it. We got to do a lot of beta testing and tell Avid what we liked and didn’t like, and they were really good about taking our comments into consideration.” 

Nance feels, as far as the hands-on control, the S6 does a good job of mimicking an actual mixing console by separating the editorial portion of the surface from the mixing portion. One advantage of the S6 over a traditional console is the ability to map plug-ins to the surface, including third-party plug-ins like Nance’s go-to reverb, the Relab LX480 — a Lexicon 480 emulator. Using the S6 touchscreen display, he can manipulate the plug-in parameters right from the board. “The S6 is a much better mixing platform than the options that were available before with the Avid ICON. With the S6, I rarely go over and grab the mouse. To me, that’s important because I can do more than one thing at a time on the console. With a mouse you are literally only able to do one thing at a time,” says Nance. 

With House of Cards, a Pro Tools-based, in-the-box workflow makes sense to Lewis and Nance since picture changes can happen for any episode at any point in the mix process. “It’s like working on a 13-hour movie. The best option for us is to stay in the box,” concludes Nance. 


HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley, which just finished up Season 3, has won nine awards and 33 nominations, including an Emmy nomination last year for outstanding sound mixing. Re-recording mixers Elmo Ponsdomenech (dialogue and music) and Todd Beckett (sound effects, backgrounds, Foley), on dub Stage 7 at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA (www.sonypictures.com), say submitting an episode of Silicon Valley for Emmy consideration often comes down to a good guess since they’ve barely started mixing the season when asked for a submission. “We pick the show we think might be the busiest. We do the same quality of work on all the episodes, but it’s nice to submit one that has different locations to mix things up a little bit,” explains Ponsdomenech. For this award season they chose Season 3, Episode 6, titled, “Bachmanity Insanity,” where the Bachmanity Capital company heads throw a million dollar launch party on Alcatraz.

Away from the show’s typical quiet locations, like inside Pied Piper’s house/office known as ‘the incubator,’ or various corporate office buildings, the party in Alcatraz offered a chance for Ponsdomenech and Beckett to flex their mix muscles. For example, in contrast to the show’s standard use of music for scene transitions, Ponsdomenech got to pump Hawaiian music throughout the Alcatraz party sequence. He says, “Most of the music in the show is transitional. The composer Jeff Cardoni is excellent. His music is young and hip, and it fits the show really well.”

Additionally, there’s a lot of group ADR in this episode, another atypical element for the show. Sound effects of laughter and light clapping — provided by Warner Bros. supervising sound editor Matt Taylor and sound effects editor David Barbee — fill in the tracks. A water feature splashes happily. As the camera moves through the party to find Dinesh (played by Kumail Nanjiani) and Richard (played by Thomas Middleditch) drowning their women sorrows, the music washes out and their dialogue takes center stage.

“Ben Patrick, the production mixer, does a great job. It’s a difficult show because the actors tend to mumble and talk fast, but Ben gets it. So really it’s just a matter of cleaning it up on our end,” says Ponsdomenech, who relies on the Harrison MPC4-D console for EQ, de-essing and futzing, as well as the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 for more precision EQ. For overall EQ and compression on the dialogue, he also uses the analog Rupert Neve Designs Portico Channel Strip. 

Before Erlich Bachman (played by T.J. Miller) and his biz partner Nelson ‘Big Head’ Bighetti make their big announcement at the party, a DJ air horn sound effect blasts the crowd, cutting off the music and silencing the chatter. “We spent a while trying to find just the right air horn,” notes Beckett. 

Series writers/executive producers Mike Judge and Alec Berg enjoy experimenting on the dub stage with ways of making each scene funnier — whether it’s finding the right air horn blast, or crafting the perfect pre-party wind storm that freezes guests waiting outside of Alcatraz. “During the mix, Matt [Taylor] will pull up different effects and Mike and Alec will wait until they get the whole room laughing before they make their choice. They rely on the laugh a lot and they trust that we don’t just laugh at everything,” adds Ponsdomenech. “We are really lucky to get to work on the show because we get to laugh all day.”


After only one season, USA Network’s hacker-themed series Mr. Robot has earned 10 award wins and 11 nominations, including an MPSE best sound editing nomination. This will be its first entry for the Emmy awards. Supervising sound editor Kevin W. Buchholz, working on Season 1 of Mr. Robot at Larson Studios in Los Angeles (www.larson.com), submitted Episode 6, titled, “br4ve-trave1er.asf.”

Buchholz chose this episode because of the synergy between composer Mac Quayle’s score and the sound design. He gives two examples from this episode. The first one occurs when protagonist Elliott Alderson (played by Rami Malek) is taken to the riverside and held at gunpoint. In the distance, the steady pounding of a pile-driver rings out off-screen — a typical construction sound for New York City. The sound starts as a background element but gradually, the very rhythmic clunk sound finds its way into the score. “It becomes a part of this heartbeat for this intense scene where our main character Elliot may get executed here beside the river. But then it starts to break apart and goes back to being just a rhythmic, background element,” Buchholz explains. “You have this synergy between the score and the sound design. With Mr. Robot, there is a lot of opportunity for that synergy.”

Another example happens during the prison break. Sirens wail after a drove of inmates flee on foot through the prison yard. Quayle took Buchholz’s siren design and wrote a pulsating score that worked with the siren’s pitch. “The sound design and the music also walk hand-in-hand for that scene. Those two were some of my favorite moments creatively. It was great to see these ideas through, from concept to mix, since so many times these kinds of concepts never make it into the show, or the movie, for a multitude of reasons. This episode had two very interesting moments that we were able to actualize,” he says.

An Emmy for sound editing also includes Foley and ADR. On the Foley side, Buchholz worked with Foley artist Adam DeCoster and Foley mixer Andrew Morgado. Buchholz notes the scene in which Elliot and Shayla Nico (played by Frankie Shaw) are seated together in a Dominican restaurant when kidnappers violently grab Shayla. “There was some really great production sounds there but they were all over the production dialogue. Adam and Andrew worked very hard to get that same generic, hollow aluminum type chair sound, to get all the chair scrapes and bumps, and all the grabs to make sure it fit. The production sound was so great, so violent, and that was hard to duplicate,” says Buchholz. He gave a crash down of the production effects to DeCoster and Morgado to work against on stage so they could match the tone of the production sounds. “It’s so seamless that you can’t really tell the difference between what they shot on the Foley stage and what we were able to use from production.” 

DeCoster and Morgado were also responsible for all the footsteps, including those of the fleeing inmates. “You have one guy performing an entire prison break’s worth of footsteps, but that’s really just par for the course for the great Foley artists in this town,” says Buchholz.

In ADR for Episode 6, Buchholz reveals their biggest challenge was building an off-screen conversation where Darlene (played by Carly Chaikin) flirts with a police officer to distract his attention from Elliot, who is hacking the patrol car’s computer. “It was really difficult because we weren’t replacing anything that was recorded in production," says Buchholz. "We were actually creating a conversation in post to play during that scene. We didn’t have the two actors in the room together, so we just shot tons of takes with different inflections to try to have one person play off the other.” 

Very rarely does Mr. Robot use ADR for technical reasons since Sam Esmail (the show’s creator/writer) is particular about making sure that the performances given on the day are the ones that make it to air. To prepare the production dialogue for the mix, Buchholz says they start with the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 and notch out any offending frequencies. Then, if necessary, they go for more surgical tools like iZotope RX Advanced. “ADR is one of those things that we use only in an absolute total no-other-option scenario. So you have a creator who does not care too much for ADR and the challenge of creating an entire scene in post using ADR lines. We had to script this whole thing happening off-screen, and it was really tricky to make that play naturally.”


There are series spin-offs, and then there is AMC’s Better Call Saul — a story so compelling it wouldn’t even need to eventually link up with Breaking Bad’s storyline. After two successful seasons, Better Call Saul has won eight awards and earned 34 nominations, including an Emmy nomination last year for outstanding sound mixing. Series re-recording mixers Larry Benjamin (dialogue and music) and Kevin Valentine (sound effects, backgrounds, Foley) at Smart Post Sound in Burbank, CA (smartpostsound.com) selected Season 2, Episode 10, titled "Klick," for consideration this time around. 

In "Klick," there are two key opportunities to play with sound in terms of the mix. First, Chuck (played by Michael McKean) suffers a collapse in a photocopy store and his brother Jimmy (played by Bob Odenkirk) rushes him to the hospital — unfortunately for Chuck since he has an incapacitating fear of electricity. As Chuck is being wheeled down the hospital hallway under the flashing glare of overhead lights, the viewer gets a taste of his delirious state. Music, vocal effects and sound effects swim around the surrounds in a sonic stew, portraying Chuck’s craziness. For the dialogue processing, Benjamin created two-channel mono copies of the line or breath he wanted to treat. Then he panned each copy to a different point in the surround setup, and effected each copy differently, using tools like Avid’s ReVibe, Waves Morphoder and MetaFlanger, Serato’s Pitch n’ Time and Soundtoys Crystallizer. “Larry [Benjamin] does really great work with the dialogue," says Valentine. "For the most part, the dialogue is delivered to the stage unaltered from how it sounded on the set and Larry has the delight of processing the bejesus out of the stuff.”

On the effects side of the board, Valentine got to craft a three-minute dialogue-free sequence in which Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks) is posted in the desert, sniper-style, preparing to take a shot at Hector Salamanca (played by Mark Margolis). The sequence is built with long shots and Mike’s POV. “The sound plays a critical role in terms of informing us how the car horn is treated, and the cicadas and when the ambience comes in,” explains Benjamin.  

Valentine adds that it was important to have just the right treatment of the bugs, and to have the bugs stop and start depending on the gunshot. He credits supervising sound editor Nick Forshager, owner of Wild Tracks, with delivering thoughtfully executed sound design and effects to the dub stage. “Nick does such a great job of hitting all the little details. For example, we see a close-up of a paper target and we see this tiny little tab of paper fly out when the bullet hits it. There are sounds for all of that,” says Valentine. 

Valentine and Benjamin mix Better Call Saul in 7.1 surround using an Avid ICON D-Command. “Of all of the shows that we’ve worked on over the years, there have been no better collaborators than Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould]," Benjamin says. "They really encourage us to experiment and have fun with the show."