Audio: Hulu's <I>Pen15</I>
Issue: March/April 2019

Audio: Hulu's Pen15

Hulu’s new series Pen15 tries to show middle school as it really happened. Writers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star in the adult comedy. Now in their 30s, the two play 13-year-old versions of themselves as outcasts in the year 2000. They are surrounded by actual 13-year-olds, who don’t hold back in pointing out their awkwardness. 

The series spans ten 30-minute episodes and has its soundtrack posted at Monkeyland Audio ( in Burbank. James Parnell serves as supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on the show, and recently took time to speak with Post about its audio demands. 

This is a show about 13-year olds, but it’s not really for 13-year olds?

“Yeah, it's an interesting show, with obviously a pretty wide range of subject matter. It's obviously an adult comedy. It's produced by Andy Samberg..and I really think it deals with all of the things that we would have dealt with growing up — obviously with an adult comedy perspective on it.”

How did you get involved in this project?

“I work for a facility called Monkeyland Audio, based in Burbank. I'm just on Glendale/Burbank border, and I got brought onto this show right from jump. Basically, our VP of operations, whose name is Michael Toji. [He] put me forward as the sound super/mixer for the show. 

“We got involved as early as sound spotting sessions, on the initial first episode lock cut. We sat and watched what would have been called the ‘rough cut’, but it was the locked editor’s version, with all the rough sound, all the rough dialogue. We basically took down their wish list of stuff: the first day of school, and Maya's labeled ‘the ugliest girl in school’, and they had all of these requests. Like, when she's having that confrontation with the girl the hallway? To make everybody's voice kind of reverberate in the halls, and to hear her heartbeat and tinnitus effect and stuff in her head. All that stuff was mentioned in the first episode in a spotting session.”

So you saw one episode with the understanding that this was going to be a 10-episode package and that the first episode would kind of give you a feel for what the latter episodes would also involve?

“Yeah, exactly! I think we actually watched first and the fourth (episodes) because they had locked the fourth. We watched two, understanding that the other eight would follow shortly afterwards, and sure enough it did.”

When you are looking at a rough cut or an editor's lock, is the sound quality good or does it need restoration or repair? 

“It's a double-edged sword. In one world, the technology has allowed editors to get incredibly good at what could be best described as mocking up the sound of an episode, so you get a pretty good roadmap of where their head’s at, where they are they want to take the episode. But it's up to you to kind of take that and interpolate, and build it so that you're not straying or deviating too far from what they had, and what we refer to as the temp mix or the offline mix, which is the offline edit. 

“You do run into issues. They are using what we call the ‘mix track’, which is the production sound mixer on-set, who is mixing all the audio sources, all the clip microphones on the actors and stuff. They're using that to edit the dialogue, so they don't necessarily know where the huge issues are in dialogue. Where we need to record ADR. And they are also really worried about certain scenes that are really noisy, but that's often as a result of the mixer mixing all of the mic channels together. We can go in and take a single actor's microphone and play that and it's much cleaner.”

So, from a picture standpoint, they're not necessarily focusing on the best audio? 

“Exactly. That's exactly right.”

Is it usually available, or are you sometimes saying, ‘Hey. this might be the best that we have.’”

“It's delicate. Sometimes you're in a situation where the performance is such that the producers or the creators would never dream of approaching the actors and asking them to re-record on an ADR stage. They wouldn't ask them to try and duplicate moments that are 100 percent performance-driven. It's really tough for actors to recreate that magic, so sometimes you just have to deal with that or noisy recordings.”

What tools are you using?

“I am a huge Pro Tools user. I love Avid. There's a whole, wide range of noise reduction plug-ins. I won't bore you with them, but basically the best, in my opinion, is made by Izotope. They just released the RX Advanced Post Production suite and it is fantastic. They have this plug-in called Dialogue Isolate and they have Spectral Denoise. They're fantastic. They do the unimaginable with noisy dialogue and just completely clean it up.”

Can you cite a few examples of where you got creative with the soundtrack?

“There's a couple of couple of fun ones like the very last episode. The climax of the whole season is the middle school dance. This was actually a large part of the creative talks. When they enter the dance hall, the mix transitions from what we call source music, where it's just like the sound of the music in the space, to full score. I think it's a Nelly song, actually, that we end up playing, and then there's kind of a slow-motion walk over to the middle of the dance floor, and then we transition back to the score. Those kind of hand offs are interesting, but that's not so much sound design.” 

How about a sound design example?

“The very first time Maya and Anna decide to go out, and not stay in and play together, they go walking around the neighborhood and wind up meeting the ‘cool girls’ in their class, who are drinking beers and taking whip-its. Maya inhales like a dust cleaner, and her voice ends up pitching down like I like six octaves, and she just has this slow fall onto the couch, where she [passes out]. That was pretty cool. We had to work on the vocal sound design of pitching her voice down as she falls on the couch. It’s pretty cool and pretty funny as well.”

This being a Hulu series, where all 10 episodes would be released at once, what was your schedule like?

“The post production schedule was rushed. Not rushed in a bad way, but just rushed. There was no room for error. So it was like, spot the episode, take three days for a typical sound effects build and dialogue editorial and backgrounds editorial, and then we'd have a day to mix an episode on the mix stage. 

“What we would do is, two days in a row, I would just be mixing, clients unattended, and then a third day, we would play back two episodes in a single day with clients. It was tough because each episode is basically 30 minutes. It's not like a network TV show where 30 minutes, it's 22 minutes. So it's a lot of material to get through. It's like a 60-minute play that day, and it's a lot. 

“That poses challenges in terms of the clients being able to get all of their notes out. If they wanted to boost a line of dialogue or whatever, [they’d have to] prioritize things. It was creatively challenging in that way.” 

What kind of feedback are you receiving?

“I’m basically kind of A/B-ing my mix with the temp makes as I go, just to make sure that I'm not like straying too far into left field. I'll mix it in terms of where I see the episode going, and then when we play back, the notes range anywhere from, ‘Hey, this line of dialogue isn't matching the preceding or previous line of dialogue.’  ‘We need to remix this scene because the backgrounds are stepping on the dialogue.’ Or the music — if it's a party scene — is too loud. It's everything from whole scene rebalances, which typically doesn't happen, to little things, like dialogue levels or sound effects.”

Is the dialogue an issue because you are selecting from different sources?

“Yeah. Often times it has to do with just the EQ that I have on a character's voice. Usually, TV shows are two-people mixes. One person will be handling dialogue and music, the other person will be handling sound effects, backgrounds and Foley. And this was just me, and me alone. So it's a lot to get through. So sometimes there'll be little line mismatches. It'll sound boomier and then get a little bit thinner later on in the line and I'll have to do my best to match that.”

Is that a stereo or 5.1 mix?

“All of Hulu’s stuff, natively, we have to do in 5.1. So it's a 5.1 mix and 5.1 playback, and then what I'll do is, after the clients leave, and I'm doing my final stuff or I'll be printing the episode, I'll flip over and be listening to stereo just to make sure that when we're translating — when we're down mixing 5.1 to stereo — nothing's getting lost, which does tend to happen if you fold a 5.1 mix down into two channels.”

What do you mix on?

“I’m using the Digidesign D-Control. So yes, it's an oldie but a goody. Typically I am attacking dialogue right away — dialogue and backgrounds — making sure everything kind of blends. Then adding music, and then adding sound effects, and then Foley.”

Does Monkeyland have Foley services?

“We do. We have an in-house Foley facility and a great team of people who record and perform. It gets recorded on-site and edited on-site and delivered to the stage.”

What kind of deadlines were you facing?

“Hulu was starting to request deliverables as we were mixing the later episodes. So, as we finished one, we did print mastering and sending it off, it would be going through the QC process and then coming back. So while I was on Episode 4 or 5, we were getting QC fixes for Episode 1. And that's part of the complication too. I would be the one handling the QC fixes, [so] my day would consist of getting to the mix stage early, prepping the mix, and trying to get through a whole episode. I'd also have to deal with our post-production supervisor calling us up saying, ‘Hey, the quality control team noticed a small drop out at the end of Episode 2. Can you take a look at that?’”

The episodes were released in February. Does that mean you were working on it in like October/November of last year? 

“The first spotting session, I believe, was mid to late October. Episode 101 started mixing October 10th. Episode 101 and 103 were the first mixes. The very last Pen15 mix day was on November 16th. And that gives you an idea of how much goes into the process.”

What’s next for you? 

“I just finished a movie for Netflix. It's a Netflix original called The Perfect Date, which is going to be coming out, I believe, in March. I just finished mixing that. I wasn't the sound supervisor on that, I was the re-recording mixer.”