Blade Runner 2049’s dynamic and emotional mix

By Jennifer Walden

“This film has more dynamic range than any movie we’ve ever mixed,” explains re-recording mixer Doug Hemphill of the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. He and re-recording mixer Ron Bartlett, from Formosa Group, worked with director Denis Villeneuve to make sure the audio matched the visual look of the film. From the pounding sound waves of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score to the overwhelming wash of Los Angeles’s street-level soundscape, there’s massive energy in the film’s sonic peaks.

L-R: Ron Bartlett, Denis Villeneuve, Joe Walker, Ben Wallfisch and Doug Hemphill. Credit: Clint Bennett

The first time K (Ryan Gosling) arrives in Los Angeles in the film, the audience is blasted with a Vangelis-esque score that is reminiscent of the original Blade Runner, and that was ultimately the goal there — to envelope the audience in the Blade Runner experience. “That was our benchmark for the biggest, most enveloping sound sequence — without being harsh or loud. We wanted the audience to soak it in. It was about filling out the score, using all the elements in Hans Zimmer’s and Ben Wallfisch’s arsenal there,” says Bartlett, who handled the dialogue and music in the mix.

He and Villeneuve went through a wealth of musical elements — all of which were separated so Villeneuve could pick the ones he liked. His preference gravitated toward the analog synth sounds, like the Yamaha CS-80, which composer Vangelis used in his 1982 Blade Runner composition. “We featured those synth sounds throughout the movie,” says Bartlett. “I played with the spatial aspects, spreading certain elements into the room to envelope you into the score. It was very immersive that way.”

Bartlett notes that initially there were sounds from the original Blade Runner in their mix, like huge drum hits from the original score that were converted into 7.1 versions by supervising sound editor Mark Mangini at Formosa Group. Bartlett used those drum hits as punctuation throughout the film, for scene changes and transitions. “Those hits were everywhere. Actually, they’re the first sound in the movie. Then you can hear those big drum hits in the Vegas walk. That Vegas walk had another score with it, but we kept stripping it away until we were down to just those drum hits. It’s so dramatic.”

But halfway into the final mix for Blade Runner 2049, Mangini phoned Bartlett to tell him that the legal department said they couldn’t use any of those sounds from the original film. They’d need to replace them immediately. “Since I’m a percussionist, Mark asked if I could remake the drum hits. I stayed up until 3am and redid them all in my studio in 7.1, and then brought them in and replaced them throughout the movie. Mark had to make all these new spinner sounds and replace those in the film. That was an interesting moment,” reveals Bartlett.

Sounds of the City
Los Angeles 2049 is a multi-tiered city. Each level offers a different sonic experience. The zen-like prayer that’s broadcast at the top level gradually transforms into a cacophony the closer one gets to street-level. Advertisements, announcements, vehicles, music from storefronts and vending machine sounds mix with multi-language crowds — there’s Russian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and the list goes on. The city is bursting with sound, and Hemphill enhanced that experience by using Cargo Cult’s Spanner on the crowd effects during the scene where K is sitting outside of Bibi’s Bar to put the crowds around the theater and “give the audience a sense of this crush of humanity,” he says.

The city experience could easily be chaotic, but Hemphill and Bartlett made careful choices on the stage to “rack the focus” — determining for the audience what they should be listening to. “We needed to create the sense that you’re in this overpopulated city environment, but it still had to make sense. The flow of the sound is like ‘musique concrète.’ The sounds have a rhythm and movement that’s musical. It’s not random. There’s a flow,” explains Hemphill, who has an Oscar for his work on The Last of the Mohicans.

Bartlett adds that their goal was to keep a sense of clarity as the camera traveled through the street scene. If there was a big, holographic ad in the forefront, they’d focus on that, and as the scene panned away another sound would drive the mix. “We had to delete some of the elements and then move sounds around. It was a difficult scene and we took a long time on it but we’re happy with the clarity.”

On the quiet end of the spectrum, the film’s soundtrack shines. Spaces are defined with textural ambiences and handcrafted reverbs. Bartlett worked with a new reverb called DSpatial created by Rafael Duyos. “Mark Mangini and I helped to develop DSpatial. It’s a very unique reverb,” says Bartlett.

According to the website, DSpatial Reverb is a space modeler and renderer that offers 48 decorrelated outputs. It doesn’t use recorded impulse responses; instead it uses modeled IRs. This allows the user to select and tweak a series of parameters, like surface texture and space size, to model the acoustic and physical characteristics of any room. “It’s a decorrelated reverb, meaning you can add as many channels as you like and pan them into every Dolby Atmos speaker that is in the room. That wasn’t the only reverb we used, but it was the main one we used in specific environments in the film,” says Bartlett.

In combination with DSpatial, Bartlett used Audio Ease’s Altiverb, FabFilter reverbs and Cargo Cult’s Slapper delay to help create the multifaceted reflections that define the spaces on-screen so well. “We tried to make each space different, “says Bartlett. “We tried to evoke an emotion through the choices of reverbs and delays. It was never just one reverb or delay. I used two or three. It was very interesting creating those textures and creating those rooms.”

For example, in the Tyrell Corporation building, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)’s private office is a cold, lonely space. Water surrounds a central platform; reflections play on the imposing stone walls. “The way that Roger Deakins lit it was just stunning,” says Bartlett. “It really evoked a cool emotion. That’s what is so intangible about what we do, creating those emotions out of sound.” In addition to DSpatial, Altiverb and FabFilter reverbs, he used Cargo Cult’s Slapper delay, which “added a soft rolling, slight echo to Jared Leto’s voice that made him feel a little more God-like. It gave his voice a unique presence without being distracting.”

Another stunning example of Bartlett’s reverb work was K’s entrance into Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) casino hideout. The space is dead quiet then K opens the door and the sound rings out and slowly dissipates. It conveys the feeling that this is a vast, isolated, and empty space. “It was a combination of three reverbs and a delay that made that happen, so the tail had a really nice shine to it,” says Bartlett.

One of the most difficult rooms to find artistically, says Bartlett, was that of the memory maker, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri). “Everyone had a different idea of what that dome might sound like. We experimented with four or five different approaches to find a good place with that.”

The reverbs that Bartlett creates are never static. They change to fit the camera perspective. Bartlett needed several different reverb and delay processing chains to define how Dr. Stelline’s voice would react in the environment. For example, “There are some long shots, and I had a longer, more distant reverb. I bled her into the ceiling a little bit in certain shots so that in the dome it felt like the sound was bouncing off the ceiling and coming down at you. When she gets really close to the glass, I wanted to get that resonance of her voice bouncing off of the glass. Then when she’s further in the dome, creating that birthday memory, there is a bit broader reverb without that glass reflection in it,” he says.

On K’s side of the glass, the reverb is tighter to match the smaller dimensions and less reflective characteristics of that space. “The key to that scene was to not be distracting while going in and out of the dome, from one side of the glass to the other,” says Bartlett. “I had to treat her voice a little bit so that it felt like she was behind the glass, but if she was way too muffled it would be too distracting from the story. You have to stay with those characters in the story, otherwise you’re doing a disservice by trying to be clever with your mixing.

“The idea is to create an environment so you don’t feel like someone mixed it. You don’t want to smell the mixing,” he continues. “You want to make it feel natural and cool. If we can tell when we’ve made a move, then we’ll go back and smooth that out. We try to make it so you can’t tell someone’s mixing the sound. Instead, you should just feel like you’re there. The last thing you want to do is to make something distracting. You want to stay in the story. We are all about the story.”

Mixing Tools
Bartlett and Hemphill mixed Blade Runner 2049 at Sony Pictures Post in the William Holden Theater using two Avid S6 consoles running Avid Pro Tools 12.8.2, which features complete Dolby Atmos integration. “It’s nice to have Atmos panners on each channel in Pro Tools. You just click on the channel and the panner pops up. You don’t want to go to just one panner with one joystick all the time so it was nice to have it on each channel,” says Bartlett.

Hemphill feels the main benefit of having the latest gear — the S6 consoles and the latest version of Pro Tools — is that it gives them the ability to carry their work forward. “In times past, before we had this equipment and this level of Pro Tools, we would do temp dubs and then we would scrap a lot of that work. Now, we are working with main sessions all the way from the temp mix through to the final. That’s very important to how this soundtrack was created.”

For instance, the dialogue required significant attention due to the use of practical effects on set, like weather machines for rain and snow. All the dialogue work they did during the temp dubs was carried forward into the final mix. “Production sound mixer Mac Ruth did an amazing job while working in those environments,” explains Bartlett. “He gave us enough to work with and we were able to use iZotope RX 6 to take out noise that was distracting. We were careful not to dig into the dialogue too much because when you start pulling out too many frequencies, you ruin the timbre and quality of the dialogue— the humanness.”

One dialogue-driven scene that made a substantial transformation from temp dub to final mix was the underground sequence in which Freysa [Hiam Abbass] makes a revelation about the replicant child. “The actress was talking in this crazy accent and it was noisy and hard to understand what was happening. It’s a very strong expositional moment in the movie. It’s a very pivotal point,” says Bartlett. They looped the actress for that entire scene and worked to get her ADR performance to sound natural in context to the other sounds. “That scene came such a long way, and it really made the movie for me. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to tell the story properly but we got it. When K sits down in the chair, you feel the weight. You feel that he’s crushed by that news. You really feel it because the setup was there.”

Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a story that questions the essence of human existence. While equipment and technique were an important part of the post process, in the end it was all about conveying the emotion of the story through the soundtrack.

“With Denis [Villeneuve], it’s very much feel-based. When you hear a sound, it brings to mind memories immediately. Denis is the type of director that is plugged into the emotionality of sound usage. The idea more than anything else is to tell the story, and the story of this film is what it means to be a human being. That was the fuel that drove me to do the best possible work that I could,” concludes Hemphill.


Jennifer Walden is a NJ-based writer and audio engineer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.


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