Fall TV: The sound of CBS's <I>FBI</I>
Issue: October 1, 2018

Fall TV: The sound of CBS's FBI

From explosions, sirens and gunfire to the quiet, subtleties of the interrogation room, the sounds of CBS’s newest crime drama, FBI, are carefully planned and executed. The new series, which stars Missy Peregrym ( Rookie Blue), Zeeko Zaki ( 24: Legacy, Valor), Jeremy Sisto ( Clueless, Law & Order, Suburgatory) and Sela Ward ( Sisters, Once and Again, House and CSI: NY), is the latest from creator/executive producer Dick Wolf, who brought the Law & Order and Chicago franchises to television.

FBI is a procedural drama that, through its two lead characters — special agents Maggie Bell (Peregrym) and Omar Adom “OA” Zidan (Zaki) — focuses on the inner workings of the New York office of the FBI. The pilot episode opens with a bang — literally — as a NYC building explodes and the show’s stars arrive at the scene to investigate. Having already worked with Wolf on several of his hit shows, including Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, the short-lived Chicago Justice and Chicago Med, supervising sound editor Kevin Buchholz arrives on the scene himself, fully prepared to lead the sound design on the new series.

“It’s trite when people say that New York is a character — you’ve heard that so many times before,” says Buchholz. “But it truly is. My wife was born and raised there and we go back there often. I work on another show that is based in New York City, so I have three summers of field recordings that I’ve done there, all over New York. Some of it is from a stealth-like setup, where I have a backpack and I sneak around and get different sounds from throughout the city. I have gigs upon gigs of sounds of New York, so, even with all those sounds, there’s still so many different things you can feature. I think what’s really great is, when you get so many authentic sounds of New York, and then you manipulate those sounds to support your narrative, to support your story, there’s this neat, contrived authenticity. My sounds are accurate but I’m curtailing them to support our story. That’s actually one of my favorite things to do — comprise a scene completely of sounds I recorded or pulled from a library or a combination and then Foley comes into the picture, and then sounds recorded from a loop group. I like knowing that something we made is completely contrived and none of it is actually organic but it plays like you’re sitting on a street corner in midtown.”

According to Buchholz (pictured), early talks with show producers ended in agreement that, while the show definitely needs to sound like New York, the sound design’s responsibility “is always to drive the story and to make sure our lead characters are not only representative of the department, of the FBI, but also as individuals as well. Whatever we can do to complement that. If that means, giving them more sonic latitude when it comes to footsteps since they’re our heroes or getting out of the way of certain circumstances to focus our viewers more on their individual trials and tribulations and what they’re going through from a character development standpoint. That was one of our challenges, to give them both a believable, detailed world they live in, but also to get out of the way when we need to, so the viewer can focus on them as people.”

Buchholz says he relies on a combination of his recordings from over the years with what he pulls from various sound libraries to create believable sound with detail. When discussing some of these early scenes, he points out that the FBI’s car sirens, for instance, “don’t have the big wailers that you’re used to hearing, with NYPD, they have very specific sirens that they almost rarely use, so the couple of blasts you hear are authentic to the car. And those things aren’t recorded, those are built from libraries and other recordings.”

Buchholz also discsusses how his team completed the sound for the aftermath of the explosions. “If you remember with 911 and what happened there, there was a quietness to the city. There was chaos, but when they cordoned off [that] large, multi-block radius, there were a lot of people that weren’t able to come in, so we tried to incorporate something similar to that. You wouldn’t have a ton of sirens. You do hear some distant sirens, but the biggest thing that we thought would be the most effective to really help you understand the mass and the gravity of what was going on, was with the first responders. So, something we did was, with Joe Cappelletti, our group ADR director, we got a loop group of actors and went onto the back lot here at Universal, to New York street, at about five in the morning, and we recorded reactions to the blast. All the sounds that you hear that are just after that blast, are all the first responders — the NYPD, everybody who is coming in — we recorded that as naturally as we could, on that back lot. What that enabled us to do, is really get the reflections of the voices and what it would really, truly sound like with people running around, making quick commands back and forth, calling things out to one another. I thought that was my responsibility to represent that, the humanity of those first responders, to feel those voices flying around you, with a mother weeping, and the introduction of our characters coming to assess the damage. That was something you don’t normally do on a television show.”

Buchholz also points to the interrogation scene in the series opener. “There are different tones we play, and it’s kind of the absence of energy — it’s focused, there’s a weight to it that’s very much intentional. There are some low frequencies in there that we’re playing up, like the fluorescent hum. Everything about that interrogation room is about focus and weight and then when we go to the JOC, which is that hub of all the different departments that come together — NYPD, Homeland Security, CIA, CDC, every government agency you can think of — in this kind of cluster in that center area where Jeremy Sisto is running everything and directing everything, that’s got this frenetic pace. It’s a contrast.”

Due to network restrictions, Buchholz was not able to discuss specific make and models of tools used, but he says he relied on a number of microphone setups at multiple distances for some of the field recordings, including cardioid style mics recorded in a stereo pair for closeup, omni-directional mics recorded in a stereo pair for a little further away, and condenser-style mics to capture furthest distances. Field recorders for on-location, as well as editing systems, and plug-ins to clean up audio, were also used. Buchholz says, “We use all the usual suspects — everything. Any tool I can get my hands on, I will take.”

Buchholz says that time was another challenge on the series. “I’ll always take time over money because we want to work on [the show] until they take it away. We had a little time on the pilot, but it was the pilot. There’s so many moving parts — I’m really pleased with how it came out ultimately, but everyone is trying to find their footing, so there’s a lot of things that can make a pilot a bit more arduous because it’s new for everybody. It was a pretty daunting task because of the schedule — it was really tight, our post time was really short — so it’s kind of remarkable the way it all came together the way it did.”