Sound: The legacy of <i>CSI</i>
Issue: July 1, 2016

Sound: The legacy of CSI


Sound designer/supervisor/editor David F. Van Slyke has been a mainstay on the Hollywood scene since 1990, earning a reputation as a creative and collaborative sound professional who burns the candle into the early morning hours in an effort to craft unusual and unexpected sounds for whatever project he’s working on. 

In 2000, with numerous big feature films under his belt, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Star Trek: First Contact, he was placed into the crosshairs of director Danny Cannon by Dave Rawlinson and Craig Hunter, owners of the full service sound facility RH Factor (Burbank, CA), as the strongest contender for the position of sound designer on the pilot for CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). A graduate of the Berklee College of Music (1982), Van Slyke holds a degree BA in Traditional Composition but gravitated toward the siren call of sound design just as technology was moving from magnetic tape to computers. 

He would make a great fit with the rest of the CSI team, which included Cannon, picture editors Alex Mackie and Alec Smight (Smight went on to direct many CSI episodes), and post production supervisor turned director Phil Conserva. No budget was available for a composer for the initial pilot — needle drop scores from other films were used. Van Slyke’s composition background afforded him the musical chops “and great ears,” according to Conserva, to “mesh the sound design with the music and that gave us a level of comfort.” That comfort lasted 15 years and 335 shows, until the series went out with a Season 16, two-hour special in September 2015. The episode was nominated for a Golden Reel Award, its eleventh.

Nominated seven times, CSI won an “Outstanding Sound Editing” Emmy in 2003. At this time last year, Van Slyke was working on what would be the finale for the series. He shared thoughts with Post recently, reflecting on his long tenure as the sound designer/sound editor for CSI, and the effect time, technology and friendship had on him professionally and personally.

Post: 15 years is a long time to work on any show. Tell us about your experience?

Van Slyke: “Spending a decade-and-a half creating sound design for one procedural crime series like CSI, is rare — far from the normal length of engagement for a sound guy like me. Usually, you pass the torch on to someone else. But that’s exactly how I spent half my time from the 2000 pilot until last September when the show’s two-hour finale CSI: Immortality aired. The other half of those 15 years I spent sound supervising, re-recording mixing and sound designing other TV pilots, movies and commercials. 

“CSI aired for 15 seasons and I sound designed and sound edited for all 335 episodes. As we readied ourselves for the final show, as I worked along side my team members, my ‘comrades’ some of whom had been on all or most of the episodes, I started feeling nostalgic remembering the early days of the series, the laborious post processes and short turnaround times we were bound by, which never hampered our creativity. We always held to our standards, met our deadlines and turned around a show in six days.” 

Post: Can you talk about getting started on the show?

Van Slyke: “CSI director Danny Cannon had picked me from several resumes presented by RH Factor, the sound company contracted by Jerry Bruckheimer to do the CSI pilot. Danny is known for being highly sound-oriented and hands-on when it comes to the sound of his projects. His vision was to do things in a cinematic style for the pilot. He wanted me down the hall from him and his picture editors, Alec Smight and Alex Mackie, so I moved my mobile rig with Pro Tools 4.3 on a Mac 9600 with a zip drive to their editorial rooms in Santa Monica.”

Post: What was the pilot like?

Van Slyke: “The pilot was a grueling two weeks. Often I would work late into the night to create unique sounding ambiences and high-tech sounding scientific computer processes. In the opening scene of the pilot, Danny wanted to hear the essence of Las Vegas, so I designed several subtle sounds of gambling devices and machines to blend in with the sound of distant traffic on the exterior high shots of the Las Vegas Strip. There was a bed of casino sparkly sounds and accents for the big billboards that flash constantly. This was a theme throughout all through the series’ episodes as a way to sonically brand the Vegas Strip. In the opening theme of the pilot there is an extreme close up of a .38-caliber handgun being loaded that I super-sized the sound of the bullet touching the chamber and then sliding into the chamber. [It] sounded very metallic and chilling with a cinematic hit as it slid into the individual bullet hole, which is much more impactful then the production sound from the set or Foley.”

Post: What was your experience prior to CSI?

Van Slyke: “I had just come off working on The Young Riders and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, both of which were Western-themed TV series with a lot of horses, very few guns and a lot of off-stage chickens. When the pilot came, I was working on Nash Bridges, a cool cop show set in San Francisco with Don Johnson. I was game for new creative challenges CSI held out to me.

“The executive producers of CSI, Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue, and Anthony Zuiker wanted the show to sound high-tech. Since the visual effects for CSI were groundbreaking, I constantly strived to create sound design on par with the quality of the visual effects. Some of the very cool visual effects of note I devised sounds for were the ‘slo-mo whoosh’ into the barrel of a gun to see the inner workings of a misfire — a sound designers dream — and the zoom into a working hard drive close-up and slo-mo.

“The fingerprint match/no match computer stayed the same during all the seasons with slight variations as they varied the graphics. This was a very complex set of beeps that accompanied scrolling sounds for the process bar that shows how much of the matching process is complete.”

Post: The show has signature sounds.

Van Slyke: “Among the various sounds I was tasked with conjuring were ones that represented the character of each of the rooms in the CSI office, including the trace lab, layout, fingerprint, interrogation, the garage, and the morgue. For every CSI device, I fabricated a signature sound — even when I had the actual device recorded, I almost always replaced it with a sexier high-tech sound. Some examples are the Ground Penetrating Radar, the E-Nose (it analyzed air for gas components), Laser Ablation, and Mini Centrifuge.

“In the CSI rooms there were computer screens running the programs the investigators used and each one had to be assigned custom-made beeps and computer working sounds. I wasn’t satisfied with the high tech beeps available in sound libraries, so I created my own. As a leitmotif for the hallways of the CSI lab, I bounced all the elements and used previously designed devices ‘on screen’ processes as ‘off screen’ high-tech spotted backgrounds in the episodes that followed. I especially used them when the cast did the walk and talk down the hallways of the CSI Lab.”

Post: The morgue is one of the signature sets.

Van Slyke: “The morgue was designed to be heavy and a little disturbing for the pilot, I used an off-stage sawing of bones, but that didn’t last.  Maybe a bit too disturbing. The hum of the big lights were detailed to represent different areas of the morgue. For the x-ray table, I created a precision ratchet sound with signature beeps on the computer screen. The door was designed was to be clunky yet solid; to get that sound I used an antique refrigerator opening and closing. And then there was a drain. As the blood and guts went down the drain, they were often sprayed with a water hose.”
Post: The interrogation room is another space.

Van Slyke: “For the interrogation room, I designed a colored room tone that was tight and deep sounding, and pitched an underwater element down then EQ’d it. In this room there were no off-stage sounds to give it a feeling of containment.

“The most notable signature sound was the ‘flash in’ and ‘flash out’ of flashbacks. This was the style of the show and I was constantly making new impactful flashes. We even had dedicated tracks since it happened many time per episode. I gave the picture editorial department a set so they could have a template to choose from. Every couple of years I’d design another set of flashes and add them to the editor’s palette.

“The snap zoom sound I designed the first season was used throughout the series. Instead of a jump cut to a close up, the picture editors did this very fast whoosh/blur visual when an important story point was made and that’s when I made a very dramatic whoosh in and hit to accent the visual move.”

Post: How did your gear evolve over the years?

Van Slyke: “The constant leaps ahead in technology from 2000 to 2015 had an enormous impact on how I sound designed and how the workflow changed — all good, of course. I like to work collaboratively with the directors, producers, composers and picture editors. It is great having them sitting behind me when I sound design or mix. I can do one of their notes practically by the time they finish their sentence explaining their reasoning.  Sometimes I would interrupt their lengthy pleading to say, ‘I’ve done your note. Here’s what it sounds like now. See if you like it.’ I don’t miss the days where we had to say, ‘I’m going to have to unlace the changes you asked for because you changed your mind and it’s going to take an hour or two.’ I am perfectly ok with a creative changing their mind in the moment and not being limited to what their previous choice was. I love it when they say, ‘Hey I just had an idea can we try it?’ The answer is always ‘Yes!’”

Post: Can you talk about your workflow?

Van Slyke: “We used to work in acts because the session size had limits. So there would be Act 1, 2, 3 and 4. I’d back them up to one or two CDs.  We delivered to the stage via a courier/runner who would pick up a 9GB SCSI sled at 6am on the day of the dub. For the first few years, RH Factor Sound paid me to use my Pro Tools system, but I had to buy two 9GB sleds at $750 [each]. How times have changed! We switched to Internet deliver with DigiDelivery and Aspera around 2005.

“Picture-wise, I was delivered VHS tapes and then I digitized the picture on my $5,000 JVC Super VHS player using a video card. At some point around 2007, we moved over to DV tapes, which needed another player to digitize. Finally, around 2010, we started to receive QuickTimes over the Internet. The fully digital delivery paradigm had arrived at CSI.

“Now TV stages typically have a stems recorder Pro Tools system. With the power of Pro Tools 10/11 HD, I can actually carry an extremely high track count and record the print master and dialogue, group, music, sound effects, backgrounds, and Foley stems in the same session.

Post: What are you working on these days?

Van Slyke: “As CSI Season 15 ended, the sound supervisor Mace Matiosian and Warner Bros. hired me to work on the Showtime drama Power and the Bruckheimer pilot Training Day, which has been picked up for a mid-season replacement. Since then, I’ve done several other documentaries and pilots. I’m currently sound designing and sound supervising Season 3 of The Strain for the FX network, which is a very sound-driven show, with lots of cool creatures and sound design opportunities. Recently, I worked on a documentary Holy Hell that screened at Sundance and was executive produced by actor Jared Leto. It’s about a misplaced guru. At the moment, I’m having fun creating a huge variety of realistic animal sounds in a doc that is hoping to slow species extinction called Saving Eden. I love doing it all!”


Phil Conserva was part of the CSI team from the pilot days, working alongside David F. Van Slyke for the run of the show from 2000 through 2015. He produced and directed numerous episodes, and is currently a partner with another CSI alum, Louis Milito, in Rhino Pictures, Inc., an LA-based production company. In 2015, in collaboration with former CSI associate producer Carlos Marimon, they created Cuban Chrome, a non–scripted series for Discovery Channel about the creative ways mechanics in Cuba toiled to keep their beloved classic American cars on the road during the long US trade embargo. Conserva has kept busy since CSI went off air, creating and developing new series in non-scripted and digital genres. ( Photo: Slyke and Conserva back during Season 1.)

Here, he shares his thoughts with Post about the groundbreaking sound design Van Slyke created for the series and its role in the CSI legacy.

Post: Can you recall the early days of CSI?

Conserva: “’Evidence doesn’t lie. People do.’ That was our motto and the poster for the first season of CSI. Our show was about the minutiae — the science, the [forensic] evidence discovered by nerds who were usually in the background on cop shows. We brought them to the foreground, telling the detectives what’s happened rather than the detectives telling them. It was the changing of the guard in what was a cop drama.”

Post: CSI’s sound has a lot to do with atmospheres? 

Conserva: “Danny Cannon, director for the pilot, was super knowledgeable about music and wanted to make sure our sound design was threaded with and complimented the music direction [which was needle drop] and also supplement the lack of music since we couldn’t have a composer. David enticed me with the possibilities sound design could add to the show. We discussed the pulse of the show, and that the design was pretty centric to storytelling and we’re always in moody, dark situations.”

Post: CSI was the first show to take viewers inside the body and show perspectives from the point of view of weaponry.

Conserva: “We would zoom into the bullet wound, creating a sped up, hyper-reality for the sake of taking you back to the moment that left that person dead. CSI allowed the audience an opportunity to be in the shoes of the forensic investigators and was the first series ever to give viewers a front row seat to the minutiae collection that makes the difference in solving a crimes. 

Post: Can you talk about some of the show’s signature sounds?

Converva: “One of the signature sounds David created is the snap sound to go with the radio blur effect. We were telling the picture and then reversing it, creating a hyper-reality that took you back to the moment of the crime. We did a lot of signature sounds, like the low rumble that makes you know you’re in the hot seat and CSI is coming after you. Each show we’d expand.”

Post: What was the workflow?

Conserva: “We tried to pre-produce our sound before we got to the mix stage. When we could finally afford a composer, we brought John Keane on board and David, being a musician and having a great ear, would share his files with John to ensure they would not interfere with each other and even work within the same tone range and key. I think that was the key to our Emmy-winning sound design in 2003.”

“As we were aging into our second or third season, we were finding a more dynamic look for the show and our machinery was more visually pronounced, so we upped our ante with the sound design. It was always evolving.”

Post: The body sounds related to bullet wounds, etc., are quite memorable.

Conserva: “That was what was unique to our show and entailed a lot of fresh design work by David. Based on each shot we pushed our envelope visually and knew that sound was going to work as hard to create a sonic experience that was as exciting sonically, as it was visually, if not more. It was a full team attempt and I think that was another factor that won us our Emmy.”

Post: Can you describe the snap/zoom?

Conserva: “[That’s a] mind’s eye perspective. With the snap/zoom sound, we brought science to the moment of death, a little bit closer and quicker. We augmented the visuals with sound design that rendered a more visceral experience for the viewer as we zoomed them from standing over the body to the inside, following the trajectory of the bullet or blunt force trauma that occurred and was the cause of death.”

Post: The show had a definite impact on audiences. People call it the “CSI effect”?

Conserva: “We showed all the potential evidential collection, so real juries began to ask for the same during trials. They had trouble convicting without the levels of evidence that they saw every week on CSI. The other piece of the show’s legacy are the groundbreaking signature sounds David created that became widely emulated by other shows and set the bar for truly creative sound design.”