Soundtrack: Nat Geo's <I>Genius: Aretha</I>
Adrian Pennington
Issue: September/October 2021

Soundtrack: Nat Geo's Genius: Aretha

National Geographic’s eight-episode series, Genius: Aretha, is the definitive scripted series on the life of ‘Queen of Soul’, Aretha Franklin. The dramatized life of the gospel prodigy, outspoken civil rights champion and legendary singer stars Cynthia Erivo ( Harriet, The Color Purple) and is triple Emmy nominated, including nods for Erivo and for the sound mix, completed entirely remotely, by the team at Soundtrack in New York.

Re-recording mixer Dan Brennan has worked at Soundtrack in New York since 2006, with dozens of indie film and TV projects to his name, including Bone Tomahawk, Quantico and The Righteous Gemstones. He explains that production on Genius: Aretha started before the pandemic and always planned to have a large element of remote workflow.

“The audio team was split between Los Angeles and New York, with some of the show’s producers also in LA and some in Atlanta, so our first task was to figure out how to make it work with everyone spread across the country,” says Brennan. “At that time, we thought we’d connect a stage in LA with one in Atlanta, probably over Source-Connect, lock them together and do our playbacks that way. It was complicated but it could work.”

How far did you get down that route?

“We were in the process of figuring it out when the pandemic hit, and we had to change gears. Now the question was, ‘How are we getting this to anyone?’ Ken Hahn (CAS) and I were here on-stage, but everyone else was remote, including showrunner and EP Suzan-Lori Parks in New York. Our music editor, Marvin Morris, was in Denver. We tried a couple of software solutions for streaming to LA and didn’t find one we really loved. Then we came across Sohonet’s ClearView Flex. Once we put it through its paces, we knew the stability and the quality was there. It was a no-brainer for us.”

Aside from connecting multiple production personnel remotely, can you tell us about the particular challenge of mixing Genius: Aretha?

“All shows have their complications and music is always unique because it can be so subjective. On Genius, we were recreating classic songs that people know from top to bottom. We all have memories of how old we were when we heard them, where we were and who we were with. Cynthia performed the songs live, on-set, and the music team did classic arrangements so when they brought the material to us, we were like, ‘How can we take their work and elevate it even more?’ 

“The creative intent was to make you feel the emotion of what you remember from those songs without rendering an exact copy. We knew that this was going to be challenging, but when we realized that everyone was not just going to be on various stages but at on home on their laptops, that gave us huge concern. What people listen on really affects how a show like this works.

“The Disney Nat Geo team understood this, and we were able to send everyone the same pair of headphones so that at least there was a consistent piece of the listening process. We just needed to figure out how to get the stream to them and make it easy for them to jump on and interact.”

Can you outline your workflow?

“We had one ClearView Flex at Soundtrack and we were broadcasting from there. When we first set it up, we broadcast the stream from one of our stages here and took that to one of our other live mixing stages, so I was able to A-B the mix that way. I was able to go from one room to the other and see where the translation was. We learned that ClearView Flex is really pretty solid in terms of audio fidelity.

“A broad workflow for us would be that for the first day or two, Ken and I would work through pieces on our own, then we’d get online with the music team in Denver and LA, and with music producer Jamelle Adisa. After working through the music numbers with them, our showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks and director Anthony Hemingway would do their pass, and we’d take in notes. Sometime after that step, we’d do network playbacks for the crew at Nat Geo and Fox, where we had more than 15 people in the virtual room.

“We’d have everyone on Zoom to chat first and then we’d have everyone switch over to ClearView. When we had our first big playback — the first time we had it fully maxed-out — I was curious to see how the box was going to hold up. Would it strain the servers? Would there be glitches? Not at all. We had no faults through the whole season. It was remarkable just how consistently stable ClearView was, and I’ve since gone on to use it on a couple other projects. It’s been rock solid.”

As the pandemic recedes and back to the facility becomes an option, how has the work environment changed?

“We’re still maintaining social distance at Soundtrack, but it’s true that producers are excited to come back in and hear their work on the main stage. At the same time, I’ve just completed the mix on Dr. Death (crime drama miniseries for Peacock), while the music editor, showrunner and picture editor were in separate LA locations. 

“So, I’m seeing people want to come back and have a full-mix experience, but also, when needed, it’s nice to have the flexibility to just send a stream to someone who is in a color session or is traveling. Wherever they happen to be, they can just jump on. That’s a tremendous advantage.”

What would make the remote playback experience better?

“I’d say that what has changed during this time is my own approach to mixing. I never paid a lot of attention to my headphone translation of mixes. I’d listen to stereo folddowns through small speakers, but on Genius, I realized that most people who were going to be signing off and making notes would be listening on headphones. So, I started to listen back on headphones a bit more and I let that influence my process a little. It wasn’t a major change, but enough for me to understand that certain aspects of the mix might feel too wide in this environment, or that other aspects I’d not noted before translated really well. 

“Audio can be so subjective to the space you are in, and different environments can produce different playback experiences. With so much content streaming to TV, my view now is that experiencing playback in a home TV environment shouldn’t ignored, but embraced. 

“On the last show I did, I was streaming a 5.1 mix to a client with Apple TV, and he was watching it the way it was going to be watched when it streamed a few weeks later. There’s something about that that I like. Playing back on a stage sounds awesome, but no-one gets to hear it. A project will never sound as good as it does on the stage. Unless you do a theatrical premiere of your first episode, you are never going to get that same sensation again. I like that we can mix for both. I can get all the detail on the stage and a real sense of 5.1, while my showrunner, working remotely, can get a sense of how it sounds in a living room.” 

The Emmy nomination is exciting!

“I’m very proud of our work. The whole team put so much into it. It was the first time I’ve done a scripted biopic of someone who is relatively modern — someone we have video and recordings of, so it was interesting to tell their story through a medium that we are used to seeing them in. With Aretha, we were working with her songs and music, and trying to put the audience right in the story with her.”