Category Archives: Audio

Netflix’s The Last Kingdom puts Foley to good use

By Jennifer Walden

What is it about long-haired dudes strapped with leather, wielding swords and riding horses alongside equally fierce female warriors charging into bloody battles? There is a magic to this bygone era that has transfixed TV audiences, as evident by the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, History Channel’s Vikings series and one of my favorites, The Last Kingdom, now on Netflix.

The Last Kingdom, based on a series of historical fiction novels by Bernard Cornwell, is set in late 9th century England. It tells the tale of Saxon-born Uhtred of Bebbanburg who is captured as a child by Danish invaders and raised as one of their own. Uhtred gets tangled up in King Alfred of Wessex’s vision to unite the three separate kingdoms (Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia) into one country called England. He helps King Alfred battle the invading Danish, but Uhtred’s real desire is to reclaim his rightful home of Bebbanburg from his duplicitous uncle.

Mahoney Audio Post
The sound of the series is gritty and rich with leather, iron and wood elements. The soundtrack’s tactile quality is the result of extensive Foley work by Mahoney Audio Post, who has been with the series since the first season. “That’s great for us because we were able to establish all the sound for each character, village, environment and more, right from the first episode,” says Foley recordist/editor/sound designer Arran Mahoney.

Mahoney Audio Post is a family-operated audio facility in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, UK. Arran Mahoney explains the studio’s family ties. “Clare Mahoney (mum) and Jason Swanscott (cousin) are our Foley artists, with over 30 years of experience working on high-end TV shows and feature films. My brother Billy Mahoney and I are the Foley recordists and editors/sound designers. Billy Mahoney, Sr. (dad) is the founder of the company and has been a dubbing mixer for over 40 years.”

Their facility, built in 2012, houses a mixing suite and two separate audio editing suites, each with Avid Pro Tools HD Native systems, Avid Artist mixing consoles and Genelec monitors. The facility also has a purpose-built soundproof Foley stage featuring 20 different surfaces including grass, gravel, marble, concrete, sand, pebbles and multiple variations of wood.

Foley artists Clare Mahoney and Jason Swanscott.

Their mic collection includes a Røde NT1-A cardioid condenser microphone and a Røde NTG3 supercardioid shotgun microphone, which they use individually for close-micing or in combination to create more distant perspectives when necessary. They also have two other studio staples: a Neumann U87 large-diaphragm condenser mic and a Sennheiser MKH-416 short shotgun mic.

Going Medieval
Over the years, the Mahoney Foley team has collected thousands of props. For The Last Kingdom specifically, they visited a medieval weapons maker and bought a whole armory of items: swords, shields, axes, daggers, spears, helmets, chainmail, armor, bridles and more. And it’s all put to good use on the series. Mahoney notes, “We cover every single thing that you see on-screen as well as everything you hear off of it.” That includes all the feet (human and horses), cloth, and practical effects like grabs, pick-ups/put downs, and touches. They also cover the battle sequences.

Mahoney says they use 20 to 30 tracks of Foley just to create the layers of detail that the battle scenes need. Starting with the cloth pass, they cover the Saxon chainmail and the Vikings leather and fur armor. Then they do basic cloth and leather movements to cover non-warrior characters and villagers. They record a general weapons track, played at low volume, to provide a base layer of sound.

Next they cover the horses from head to hoof, with bridles and saddles, and Foley for the horses’ feet. When asked what’s the best way to Foley horse hooves, Mahoney asserts that it is indeed with coconuts. “We’ve also purchased horseshoes to add to the stable atmospheres and spot FX when required,” he explains. “We record any abnormal horse movements, i.e. crossing a drawbridge or moving across multiple surfaces, and sound designers take care of the rest. Whenever muck or gravel is needed, we buy fresh material from the local DIY stores and work it into our grids/pits on the Foley stage.”

The battle scenes also require Foley for all the grabs, hits and bodyfalls. For the blood and gore, they use a variety of fruit and animal flesh.

Then there’s a multitude of feet to cover the storm of warriors rushing at each other. All the boots they used were wrapped in leather to create an authentic sound that’s true to the time. Mahoney notes that they didn’t want to capture “too much heel in the footsteps, while also trying to get a close match to the sync sound in the event of ADR.”

Surfaces include stone and marble for the Saxon castles of King Alfred and the other noble lords. For the wooden palisades and fort walls, Mahoney says they used a large wooden base accompanied by wooden crates, plinths, boxes and an added layer of controlled creaks to give an aged effect to everything. On each series, they used 20 rolls of fresh grass, lots of hay for the stables, leaves for the forest, and water for all the sea and river scenes. “There were many nights cleaning the studio after battle sequences,” he says.

In addition to the aforementioned props of medieval weapons, grass, mud, bridles and leather, Mahoney says they used an unexpected prop: “The Viking cloth tracks were actually done with samurai suits. They gave us the weight needed to distinguish the larger size of a Danish man compared to a Saxon.”

Their favorite scenes to Foley, and by far the most challenging, were the battle scenes. “Those need so much detail and attention. It gives us a chance to shine on the soundtrack. The way that they are shot/edited can be very fast paced, which lends itself well to micro details. It’s all action, very precise and in your face,” he says. But if they had to pick one favorite scene, Mahoney says it would be “Uhtred and Ragnar storming Kjartan’s stronghold.”

Another challenging-yet-rewarding opportunity for Foley was during the slave ship scenes. Uhtred and his friend are sold into slavery as rowers on a Viking ship, which holds a crew of nearly 30 men. The Mahoney team brought the slave ship to life by building up layers of detail. “There were small wood creaks with small variations of wood and big creaks with larger variations of wood. For the big creaks, we used leather and a broomstick to work into the wood, creating a deep creak sound by twisting the three elements against each other. Then we would pitch shift or EQ to create size and weight. When you put the two together it gives detail and depth. Throw in a few tracks of rigging and pulleys for good measure and you’re halfway there,” says Mahoney.

For the sails, they used a two-mic setup to record huge canvas sheets to create a stereo wrap-around feel. For the rowing effects, they used sticks, brooms and wood rubbing, bouncing, or knocking against large wooden floors and solid boxes. They also covered all the characters’ shackles and chains.

Foley is a very effective way to draw the audience in close to a character or to help the audience feel closer to the action on-screen. For example, near the end of Season 2’s finale, a loyal subject of King Alfred has fallen out of favor. He’s eventually imprisoned and prepares to take his own life. The sound of his fingers running down the blade and the handling of his knife make the gravity of his decision palpable.

Mahoney shares another example of using Foley to draw the audience in — during the scene when Sven is eaten by Thyra’s wolves (following Uhtred and Ragnar storming Kjartan’s stronghold). “We used oranges and melons for Sven’s flesh being eaten and for the blood squirts. Then we created some tracks of cloth and leather being ripped. Specially manufactured claw props were used for the frantic, ravenous wolf feet,” he says. “All the action was off-screen so it was important for the audience to hear in detail what was going on, to give them a sense of what it would be like without actually seeing it. Also, Thyra’s reaction needed to reflect what was going on. Hopefully, we achieved that.”

VR audio terms: Gaze Activation v. Focus

By Claudio Santos

Virtual reality brings a lot of new terminology to the post process, and we’re all having a hard time agreeing on the meaning of everything. It’s tricky because clients and technicians sometimes have different understandings of the same term, which is a guaranteed recipe for headaches in post.

Two terms that I’ve seen being confused a few times in the spatial audio realm are Gaze Activation and Focus. They are both similar enough to be put in the same category, but at the same time different enough that most of the times you have to choose completely different tools and distribution platforms depending on which technology you want to use.

Field of view

Focus
Focus is what the Facebook Spatial Workstation calls this technology, but it is a tricky one to name. As you may know, ambisonics represents a full sphere of audio around the listener. Players like YouTube and Facebook (which uses ambisonics inside its own proprietary .tbe format) can dynamically rotate this sphere so the relative positions of the audio elements are accurate to the direction the audience is looking at. But the sounds don’t change noticeably in level depending on where you are looking.

If we take a step back and think about “surround sound” in the real world, it actually makes perfect sense. A hair clipper isn’t particularly louder when it’s in front of our eyes as opposed to when its trimming the back of our head. Nor can we ignore the annoying person who is loudly talking on their phone on the bus by simply looking away.

But for narrative construction, it can be very effective to emphasize what your audience is looking at. That opens up possibilities, such as presenting the viewer with simultaneous yet completely unrelated situations and letting them choose which one to pay attention to simply by looking in the direction of the chosen event. Keep in mind that in this case, all events are happening simultaneously and will carry on even if the viewer never looks at them.

This technology is not currently supported by YouTube, but it is possible in the Facebook Spatial Workstation with the use of high Focus Values.

Gaze Activation
When we talk about focus, the key thing to keep in mind is that all the events happen regardless of the viewer looking at them or not. If instead you want a certain sound to only happen when the viewer looks at a certain prop, regardless of the time, then you are looking for Gaze Activation.

This concept is much more akin to game audio then to film sound because of the interactivity element it presents. Essentially, you are using the direction of the gaze and potentially the length of the gaze (if you want your viewer to look in a direction for x amount of seconds before something happens) as a trigger for a sound/video playback.

This is very useful if you want to make impossible for your audience to miss something because they were looking in the “wrong” direction. Think of a jump scare in a horror experience. It’s not very scary if you’re looking in the opposite direction, is it?

This is currently only supported if you build your experience in a game engine or as an independent app with tools such as InstaVR.

Both concepts are very closely related and I expect many implementations will make use of both. We should all keep an eye on the VR content distribution platforms to see how these tools will be supported and make the best use of them in order to make 360 videos even more immersive.


Claudio Santos is a sound editor and spatial audio mixer at Silver Sound. Slightly too interested in technology and workflow hacks, he spends most of his waking hours tweaking, fiddling and tinkering away on his computer.

Dell 6.15

FX’s Fargo features sounds as distinctive as its characters

By Jennifer Walden

In Fargo, North Dakota, in the dead of winter, there’s been a murder. You might think you’ve heard this story before, but Noah Hawley keeps coming up with a fresh, new version of it for each season of his Fargo series on FX. Sure, his inspiration was the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo film, but with Season 3 now underway it’s obvious that Hawley’s series isn’t simply a spin-off.

Martin Lee and Kirk Lynds.

Every season of the Emmy-winning Fargo series follows a different story, with its own distinct cast of characters, set in its own specified point in time. Even the location isn’t always the same — Season 3 takes place in Minnesota. What does link the seasons together is Hawley’s distinct black humor, which oozes from these disparate small-town homicides. He’s a writer and director on the series, in addition to being the showrunner and an executive producer. “Noah is very hands-on,” confirms re-recording mixer Martin Lee at Tattersall Sound & Picture in Toronto, part of the SIM Group family of companies, who has been mixing the show with re-recording mixer Kirk Lynds since Season 2.

Fargo has a very distinct look, feel and sound that you have to maintain,” explains Lee. “The editors, producers and Noah put a lot of work into the sound design and sound ideas while they are cutting the picture. The music is very heavily worked while they are editing the show. By the time the soundtrack gets to us there is a pretty clear path as to what they are looking for. It’s up to us to take that and flesh it out, to make it fill the 5.1 environment. That’s one of the most unique parts of the process for us.”

Season 3 follows rival brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor). Their feud over a rare postage stamp leads to a botched robbery attempt that ultimately ends in murder (don’t worry, neither Ewan character meets his demise…yet??).

One of the most challenging episodes to mix this season, so far, was Episode 3, “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” The story plays out across four different settings, each with unique soundscapes: Minnesota, Los Angeles in 2010, Los Angeles in 1975 and an animated sci-fi realm. As police officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) unravels the homicide in Eden Valley, Minnesota, her journey leads her to Los Angeles. There the story dives into the past, to 1975, to reveal the life story of science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann). The episode side-trips into animation land when Gloria reads Mobley’s book titled The Planet Wyh.

One sonic distinction between Los Angeles in 2010 and Los Angeles of 1975 was the density of traffic. Lee, who mixed the dialogue and music, says, “All of the scenes that were taking place in 2010 were very thick with traffic and cars. That was a technical challenge, because the recordings were very heavy with traffic.”

Another distinction is the pervasiveness of technology in social situations, like the bar scene where Gloria meets up with a local Los Angeles cop to talk about her stolen luggage. The patrons are all glued to their cell phones. As the camera pans down the bar, you hear different sounds of texting playing over a contemporary, techno dance track. “They wanted to have those sounds playing, but not become intrusive. They wanted to establish with sound that people are always tapping away on their phones. It was important to get those sounds to play through subtly,” explains Lynds.

In the animated sequences, Gloria’s voice narrates the story of a small android named MNSKY whose spaceman companion dies just before they reach Earth. The robot carries on the mission and records an eon’s worth of data on Earth. The robot is eventually reunited with members of The Federation of United Planets, who cull the android’s data and then order it to shut down. “Because it was this animated sci-fi story, we wanted to really fill the room with the environment much more so than we can when we are dealing with production sound,” says Lee. “As this little robotic character is moving through time on Earth, you see something like the history of man. There’s voiceover, sound effects and music through all of it. It required a lot of finesse to maintain all of those elements with the right kind of energy.”

The animation begins with a spaceship crashing into the moon. MNSKY wakes and approaches the injured spaceman who tells the android he’s going to die. Lee needed to create a vocal process for the spaceman, to make it sound as though his voice is coming through his helmet. With Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Lee tweaked the settings on a “long plastic tube” convolution reverb. Then he layered that processed vocal with the clean vocal. “It was just enough to create that sense of a helmet,” he says.

At the end, when MNSKY rejoins the members of the Federation on their spaceship it’s a very different environment from Earth. The large, ethereal space is awash in long, warm reverbs which Lynds applied using plug-ins like PhoenixVerb 5.1 and Altiverb. Lee also applied a long reverb treatment to the dialogue. “The reverbs have quite a significant pre-delay, so you almost have that sense of a repeat of the voice afterwards. This gives it a very distinctive, environmental feel.”

Lynds and Lee spend two days premixing their material on separate dub stages. For the premix, Lynds typically has all the necessary tracks from supervising sound editor Nick Forshager while Lee’s dialogue and music tracks come in more piecemeal. “I get about half the production dialogue on day one and then I get the other half on day two,” says Lee. “ADR dribbles in the whole time, including well into the mixing process. ADR comes in even after we have had several playbacks already.”

Fortunately, the show doesn’t rely heavily on ADR. Lee notes that they put a lot of effort into preserving the production. “We use a combination of techniques. The editors find the cleanest lines and takes (while still keeping the performance), then I spent a lot of time cleaning that up,” he says.

This season Lee relies more on Cedar’s DNS One plug-in for noise reduction and less on the iZotope RX5 (Connect version). “I’m finding with Fargo that the showrunners are uniquely sensitive to the effects of the iZotope processing. This year it took more work to find the right sound. It ends up being a combination of both the Cedar and the RX5,” reports Lee.

After premixing, Lee and Lynds bring their tracks together on Tattersall’s Stage 1. They have three days for the 5.1 final mix. They spend one (very) long day building the episode in 5.1 and then send their mix to Los Angeles for Forshager and co-producer Gregg Tilson to review. Then Lee and Lynds address the first round of notes the next morning and send the mix back to Los Angeles for another playback. Each consecutive playback is played for more people. The last playback is for Hawley on the third day.

“One of the big challenges with the workflow is mixing an episode in one day. It’s a long mix day. At least the different time zones help. We send them a mix to listen to typically around 6-7pm PST, so it’s not super late for them. We start at 8am EST the next morning, which is three hours ahead of their time. By the time they’re in the studio and ready to listen, it is 10am their time and we’ve already spent three or four hours handling the revisions. That really works to our advantage,” says Lee.

Sound in the Fargo series is not an afterthought. It’s used to build tension, like a desk bell that rings for an uncomfortably long time, or to set the mood of a space, like an overly noisy fish tank in a cheap apartment. By the time the tracks have made it to the mixers, there’s been “a lot of time and effort spent thinking about what the show was going to sound like,” says Lynds. “From that sense, the entire mix for us is a creative opportunity. It’s our chance to re-create that in a 5.1 environment, and to make that bigger and better.”

You can catch new episodes of Fargo on FX Networks, Wednesdays at 10pm EST.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.


Post developments at the AES Berlin Convention

By Mel Lambert

The AES Convention returned to Berlin after a three-year absence, and once again demonstrated that the Audio Engineering Society can organize a series of well-attended paper programs, seminars and workshops, in addition to an exhibition of familiar brands, for the European tech-savvy post community. 

Held at the Maritim Hotel in the creative heart of Berlin in late May, the 142nd AES Convention was co-chaired by Sascha Spors from University of Rostock in Germany and Nadja Wallaszkovits from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. According to AES executive director Bob Moses, attendance was 1,800 — a figure at least 10% higher than last year’s gathering in Paris — with post professional from several overseas countries, including China and Australia.

During the opening ceremonies, current AES president Alex Case stated that, “AES conventions represent an ideal interactive meeting place,” whereas “social media lacks the one-on-one contact that enhances our communications bandwidth with colleagues and co-workers.” Keynote speaker Dr. Alex Arteaga, whose research integrates aesthetic and philosophical practices, addressed the thorny subject of “Auditory Architecture: Bringing Phenomenology, Aesthtic Practices and Engineering Together,” arguing that when considering the differences between audio soundscapes, “our experience depends upon the listening environment.” His underlying message was that a full appreciation of the various ways in which we hear immersive sounds requires a deeper understanding of how listeners interact with that space.

As part of his Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture, Prof. Dr. Jorg Sennheiser outlined “A Historic Journey in Audio-Reality: From Mono to AMBEO,” during which he reviewed the basis of audio perception and the interdependence of hearing with other senses. “Our enjoyment and appreciation of audio quality is reflected in the continuous development from single- to multi-channel reproduction systems that are benchmarked against sonic reality,” he offered. “Augmented and virtual reality call for immersive audio, with multiple stakeholders working together to design the future of audio.”

Post-Focused Technical Papers
There were several interesting technical papers that covered the changing requirements of the post community, particularly in the field of immersive playback formats for TV and cinema. With the new ATSC 3.0 digital television format scheduled to come online soon, including object-based immersive sound, there is increasing interest in techniques for capturing surround material and then delivering the same to consumer audiences.

In a paper titled “The Median-Plane Summing Localization in Ambisonics Reproduction,” Bosun Xie from the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou explained that, while one aim of Ambisonics playback is to recreate the perception of a virtual source in arbitrary directions, practical techniques are unable to recreate correct high-frequency spectra in binaural pressures that are referred to as front-back and vertical localization cues. Current research shows that changes of interaural time difference/ITD that result from head-turning for Ambisonics playback match with those of a real source, and hence provide dynamic cue for vertical localization, especially in the median plane. In addition, the LF virtual source direction can be approximately evaluated by using a set of panning laws.

“Exploring the Perceptual Sweet Area in Ambisonics,” presented by Matthias Frank from University of Music in Graz, Austria, described how the sweet-spot area does not match the large area needed in the real world. A method was described to experimentally determine the perceptual sweet spot, which is not limited to assessing the localization of both dry and reverberant sound using different Ambisonic encoding orders.

Another paper, “Perceptual Evaluation of Synthetic Early Binaural Room Impulse Responses Based on a Parametric Model,” presented by Philipp Stade from the Technical University of Berlin, described how an acoustical environment can be modeled using sound-field analysis plus spherical head-related impulse response/HRIRs — and the results compared with measured counterparts. Apparently, the selected listening experiment showed comparable performance and, in the main, was independent from room and test signals. (Perhaps surprisingly, the synthesis of direct sound and diffuse reverberation yielded almost the same results as for the parametric model.)

“Influence of Head Tracking on the Externalization of Auditory Events at Divergence between Synthesized and Listening Room Using a Binaural Headphone System,” presented by Stephan Werner from the Technical University of Ilmenau, Germany, reported on a study using a binaural headphone system that considered the influence of head tracking on the localization of auditory events. Recordings were conducted of impulse responses from a five-channel loudspeaker set-up in two different acoustic rooms. Results revealed that head tracking increased sound externalization, but that it did not overcome the room-divergence effect.

Heiko Purnhagen from Dolby Sweden, in a paper called “Parametric Joint Channel Coding of Immersive Audio,” described a coding scheme that can deliver channel-based immersive audio content in such formats as 7.1.4, 5.1.4, or 5.1.2 at very low bit rates. Based on a generalized approach for parametric spatial coding of groups of two, three or more channels using a single downmix channel, together with a compact parametrization that guarantees full covariance re-instatement in the decoder, the coding scheme is implemented using Dolby AC-4’s A-JCC standardized tool.

Hardware Choices for Post Users
Several manufacturers demonstrated compact near-field audio monitors targeted at editorial suites and pre-dub stages. Adam Audio focused on their new near/mid-fieldS Series, which uses the firm’s ART (Accelerating Ribbon Technology) ribbon tweeter. The five models, which are comprised of the S2V, S3H, S3V, S5V and S5H for horizontal or vertical orientation. The firm’s newly innovated LF and mid-range drivers with custom-designed waveguides for the tweeter — and MF driver on the larger, multiway models — are powered by a new DSP engine that “provides crossover optimization, voicing options and expansion potential,” according to the firm’s head of marketing, Andre Zeugner.

The Eve Audio SC203 near-field monitor features a three-inch LF/MF driver plus a AMT ribbon tweeter, and is supplied with a v-shaped rubberized pad that allows the user to decouple the loudspeaker from its base and reduce unwanted resonances while angling it flat or at a 7.5- or 15-degree angle. An adapter enables mounting directly on any microphone or speaker stand with a 3/8-inch thread. Integral DSP and a passive radiator located at the rear are said to reinforce LF reproduction to provide a response to 62Hz (-3dB).

Genelec showcased The Ones, a series of point-source monitors that are comprised of the current three-way Model 8351 plus the new two-way Model 8331 and three-way Model 8341. All three units include a co-axial MF/HF driver plus two acoustically concealed LF drivers for vertical and horizontal operation. A new Minimum Diffraction Enclosure/MDE is featured together with the firm’s loudspeaker management and alignment software via a dedicated Cat5 network port.

The Neumann KH-80 DSP near-field monitor is designed to offer automatic system alignment using the firm’s control software that is said to “mathematically model dispersion to deliver excellent detail in any surroundings.” The two-way active system features a four-inch LF/MF driver and one-inch HF tweeter with an elliptical, custom-designed waveguide. The design is described as offering a wide horizontal dispersion to ensure a wide sweet spot for the editor/mixer, and a narrow vertical dispersion to reduce sound reflections off the mix console.

To handle multiple monitoring sources and loudspeaker arrays, the Trinnov D-Mon Series controllers enable stereo to 7.1-channel monitoring from both analog and digital I/Os using Ethernet- and/or MIDI-based communication protocols and a fast-switching matrix. An internal mixer creates various combinations of stems, main or aux mixes from discrete inputs. An Optimizer processor offers tuning of the loudspeaker array to match studio acoustics.

Unveiled at last year’s AES Convention in Paris, the Eventide H9000 multichannel/multi-element processing system has been under constant development during the past 12 months with new functions targeted at film and TV post, including EQ, dynamics and reverb effects. DSP elements can be run in parallel or in a series to create multiple, fully-programmable channel strips per engine. Control plug-ins for Avid Pro Tools and other DAWs are being finalized, together with Audinate Dante, Thunderbolt, Ravenna/AES67 and AVB networking.

Filmton, the German association for film sound professionals, explained to AES visitors its objective “to reinforce the importance of sound at an elemental level for the film community.” The association promotes the appreciation of film sound, together with the local film industry and its policy toward the public, while providing “an expert platform for technical, creative and legal issues.”

Philipp Sehling

Lawo demonstrated the new mc²96 Grand Audio production console, an IP-based networkable design for video post production, available with up to 200 on-surface faders. Innovative features include automatic gain control across multiple channels and miniature TFT color screens above each fader that display LiveView thumbnails of the incoming channel sources.

Stage Tec showed new processing features for its Crescendo Platinum TV post console, courtesy of v4.3 software, including an automixer based on gain sharing that can be used on every input channel, loudness metering to EBU R128 for sum and group channels, a de-esser on every channel path, and scene automation with individual user-adjustable blend curves and times for each channel.

Avid demonstrated native support for the new 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos channel-bed format — basically the familiar 9.1-channel bed with two height channels — for editorial suites and consumer remastering, plus several upgrades for Pro Tools, including new panning software for object-based audio and the ability to switch between automatable object and buss outputs. Pro Tools HD is said to be the only DAW natively supporting in-the-box Atmos mixing for this 10-channel 7.1.2 format. Full integration for Atmos workflows is now offered for control surfaces such as the Avid S6.

Jon Schorah

There was a new update to Nugen Audio’s popular Halo Upmix plug-in for Pro Tools — in addition to stereo to 5.1, 7.1 or 9.1 conversion it is now capable of delivering 7.1.2-channel mixes for Dolby Atmos soundtracks.

A dedicated Dante Pavilion featured several manufacturers that offer network-capable products, including Solid State Logic, whose Tempest multi-path processing engine and router is now fully Audinate Dante-capable for T Series control surfaces with unique arbitration and ownership functions; Bosch RTS intercom systems featuring Dante connectivity with OCA system control; HEDD/Heinz Electrodynamic Designs, whose Series One monitor speakers feature both Dante and AES67/Ravenna ports; Focusrite, whose RedNet series of modular pre-amps and converters offer “enhanced reliability, security and selectivity” via Dante, according to product specialist for EMEA/Germany, Dankmar Klein; and NTP Technology’s DAD Series DX32R and RV32 Dante/MADI router bridges and control room monitor controllers, which are fully compatible with Dante-capable consoles and outboard systems, according to the firm’s business development manager Jan Lykke.

What’s Next For AES
The next European AES convention will be held in Milan during the spring of 2018. “The society also is planning a new format for the fall convention in New York,” said Moses, as the AES is now aligning with the National Association of Broadcasters. “Next January we will be holding a new type of event in Anaheim, California, to be titled AES @ NAMM.” Further details will be unveiled next month. He also explained there will be no West Coast AES Convention next year. Instead the AES will return to New York in the autumn of 2018 with another joint AES/NAB gathering at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.


Mel Lambert is an LA-based writer and photographer. He can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. Follow him on Twitter @MelLambertLA.


Creating sounds of science for Bill Nye: Science Guy

By Jennifer Walden

Bill Nye, the science hero of a generation of school children, has expanded his role in the science community over the years. His transformation from TV scientist to CEO of The Planetary Society (the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy group) is the subject of Bill Nye: Science Guy — a documentary directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg.

The doc premiered in the US at the SXSW Film Festival and had its international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

Peter Albrechtsen – Credit: Povl Thomsen

Supervising sound editor/sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, MPSE, started working with directors Alvarado and Sussberg in 2013 on their first feature-length documentary The Immortalists. When they began shooting the Bill Nye documentary in 2015, Albrechtsen was able to see the rough cuts and started collecting sounds and ambiences for the film. “I love being part of projects very early on. I got to discuss some sonic and musical ideas with David and Jason. On documentaries, the actual sound design schedule isn’t typically very long. It’s great knowing the vibe of the film as early as I can so I can then be more focused during the sound editing process. I know what the movie needs and how I should prioritize my work. That was invaluable on a complicated, complex and multilayered movie like this one.”

Before diving in, Albrechtsen, dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen, sound effects editor Morten Groth Brandt and sound effects recordist/assistant sound designer Mikkel Nielsen met up for a jam session — as Albrechtsen calls it — to share the directors’ notes for sound and discuss their own ideas. “It’s a great way of getting us all on the same page and to really use everyone’s talents,” he says.

Albrechtsen and his Danish sound crew had less than seven weeks for sound editorial at Offscreen in Copenhagen. They divided their time evenly between dialogue editing and sound effects editing. During that time, Foley artist Heikki Kossi spent three days on Foley at H5 Film Sound in Kokkola, Finland.

Foley artist Heikki Kossi. Credit: Clas-Olav Slotte

Bill Nye: Science Guy mixes many different media sources — clips from Bill Nye’s TV shows from the ‘90s, YouTube videos, home videos on 8mm film, TV broadcasts from different eras, as well as the filmmakers’ own footage. It’s a potentially headache-inducing combination. “Some of the archival material was in quite bad shape, but my dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen is a magician with iZotope RX and he did a lot of healthy cleaning up of all the rough pieces and low-res stuff,” says Albrechtsen. “The 8mm videos actually didn’t have any sound, so Heikki Kossi did some Foley that helped it to come alive when we needed it to.”

Sound Design
Albrechtsen’s sound edit was also helped by the directors’ dedication to sound. They were able to acquire the original sound effects library from Bill Nye’s ‘90s TV show, making it easy for the post sound team to build out the show’s soundscape from stereo to surround, and also to make it funnier. “A lot of humor in the old TV show came from the imaginative soundtrack that was often quite cartoonish, exaggerated and hilariously funny,” he explains. “I’ve done sound for quite a few documentaries now and I’ve never tried adding so many cartoonish sound effects to a track. It made me laugh.”

The directors’ dedication goes even deeper, with director Sussberg handling the production sound himself when they’re out shooting. He records dialogue with both a boom mic and radio mics, and also records wild tracks of room tones and ambience. He even captures special sound signatures for specific locations when applicable.

For example, Nye visits the creationist theme park called Noah’s Ark, built by Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham. The indoor park features life-size dioramas and animatronics to explain creationism. There are lots of sound effects and demonstrations playing from multiple speaker setups. Sussberg recorded all of them, providing Albrechtsen with the means of creating an authentic sound collage.

“People might think we added lots of sounds for these sequences, but actually we just orchestrated what was already there,” says Albrechtsen. “At moments, it’s like a cacophony of noises, with corny dinosaur screams, savage human screams and violent war noises. When I heard the sounds from the theme park that David and Jason had recorded, I didn’t believe my own ears. It’s so extreme.”

Albrechtsen approaches his sound design with texture in mind. Not every sound needs to be clean. Adding texture, like crackling or hiss, can change the emotional impact of a sound. For example, while creating the sound design for the archival footage of several rocket launches, Albrechtsen pulled clean effects of rocket launches and explosions from Tonsturm’s “Massive Explosions” sound effects library and transferred those recordings to old NAGRA tape. “The special, warm, analogue distortion that this created fit perfectly with the old, dusty images.”

In one of Albrechtsen’s favorite sequences in the film, there’s a failure during launch and the rocket explodes. The camera falls over and the video glitches. He used different explosions panned around the room, and he panned several low-pitched booms directly to the subwoofer, using Waves LoAir plug-in for added punch. “When the camera falls over, I panned explosions into the surrounds and as the glitches appear I used different distorted textures to enhance the images,” he says. “Pete Horner did an amazing job on mixing that sequence.”

For the emotional sequences, particularly those exploring Nye’s family history, and the genetic disorder passed down from Nye’s father to his two siblings, Albrechtsen chose to reduce the background sounds and let the Foley pull the audience in closer to Nye. “It’s amazing what just a small cloth rustle can do to get a feeling of being close to a person. Foley artist Heikki Kossi is a master at making these small sounds significant and precise, which is actually much more difficult than one would think.”

For example, during a scene in which Nye and his siblings visit a clinic Albrechtsen deliberately chose harsh, atonal backgrounds that create an uncomfortable atmosphere. Then, as Nye shares his worries about the disease, Albrechtsen slowly takes the backgrounds out so that only the delicate Foley for Nye plays. “I love creating multilayered background ambiences and they really enhanced many moments in the film. When we removed these backgrounds for some of the more personal, subjective moments the effect was almost spellbinding. Sound is amazing, but silence is even better.”

Bill Nye: Science Guy has layers of material taking place in both the past and present, in outer space and in Nye’s private space, Albrechtsen notes. “I was thinking about how to make them merge more. I tried making many elements of the soundtrack fit more with each other.”

For instance, Nye’s brother has a huge model train railway set up. It’s a legacy from their childhood. So when Nye visits his childhood home, Albrechtsen plays the sound of a distant train. In the 8mm home movies, the Nye family is at the beach. Albrechtsen’s sound design includes echoes of seagulls and waves. Later in the film, when Nye visits his sister’s home, he puts in distant seagulls and waves. “The movie is constantly jumping through different locations and time periods. This was a way of making the emotional storyline clearer and strengthening the overall flow. The sound makes the images more connected.”

One significant story point is Nye’s growing involvement with The Planetary Society. Before Carl Sagan’s death, Sagan conceptualized a solar sail — a sail for use in space that could harness the sun’s energy and use it as a means of propulsion. The Planetary Society worked hard to actualize Sagan’s solar sail idea. Albrechtsen needed to give the solar sail a sound in the film. “How does something like that sound? Well, in the production sound you couldn’t really hear the solar sail and when it actually appeared it just sounded like boring, noisy cloth rustle. The light sail really needed an extraordinary, unique sound to make you understand the magnitude of it.”

So they recorded different kinds of materials, in particular a Mylar blanket, which has a glittery and reflective surface. Then Albrechtsen tried different pitches and panning of those recordings to create a sense of its extraordinary size.

While they handled post sound editorial in Denmark, the directors were busy cutting the film stateside with picture editor Annu Lilja. When working over long distances, Albrechtsen likes to send lots of QuickTimes with stereo downmixes so the directors can hear what’s happening. “For this film, I sent a handful of sound sketches to David and Jason while they were busy finishing the picture editing,” he explains. “Since we’ve done several projects together we know each other very well. David and Jason totally trust me and I know that they like their soundtracks to be very detailed, dynamic and playful. They want the sound to be an integral part of the storytelling and are open to any input. For this movie, they even did a few picture recuts because of some sound ideas I had.”

The Mix
For the two-week final mix, Albrechtsen joined re-recording mixer Pete Horner at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California. Horner started mixing on the John Waters stage — a small mix room featuring a 5.1 setup of Meyer Sound’s Acheron speakers and an Avid ICON D-Command control surface, while Albrechtsen finished the sound design and premixed the effects against William Ryan Fritch’s score in a separate editing suite. Then Albrechtsen sat with Horner for another week, as Horner crafted the final 5.1 mix.

One of Horner’s mix challenges was to keep the dialogue paramount while still pushing the layered soundscapes that help tell the story. Horner says, “Peter [Albrechtsen] provided a wealth of sounds to work with, which in the spirit of the original Bill Nye show were very playful. But this, of course, presented a challenge because there were so many sounds competing for attention. I would say this is a problem that most documentaries would be envious of, and I certainly appreciated it.”

Once they had the effects playing along with the dialogue and music, Horner and Albrechtsen worked together to decide which sounds were contributing the most and which were distracting from the story. “The result is a wonderfully rich, sometimes manic track,” says Horner.

Albrechtsen adds, “On a busy movie like this, it’s really in the mix where everything comes together. Pete [Horner] is a truly brilliant mixer and has the same musical approach to sound as me. He is an amazing listener. The whole soundtrack — both sound and score — should really be like one piece of music, with ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys.”

Horner explains their musical approach to mixing as “the understanding that the entire palette of sound coming through the faders can be shaped in a way that elicits an emotional response in the audience. Music is obviously musical, but sound effects are also very musical since they are made up of pitches and rhythmic sounds as well. I’ve come to feel that dialogue is also musical — the person speaking is embedding their own emotions into the way they speak using both pitch (inflection or emphasis) and rhythm (pace and pauses).”

“I’ll go even further to say that the way the images are cut by the picture editor is inherently musical. The pace of the cuts suggests rhythm and tempo, and a ‘hard cut’ can feel like a strong downbeat, as emotionally rich as any orchestral stab. So I think a musical approach to mixing is simply internalizing the ‘music’ that is already being communicated by the composer, the sound designer, the picture editor and the characters on the screen, and with the guidance of the director shaping the palette of available sounds to communicate the appropriate complexity of emotion,” says Horner.

In the mix, Horner embraces the documentary’s intention of expressing the duality of Nye’s life: his celebrity versus his private life. He gives the example of the film’s opening, which starts with sounds of a crowd gathering to see Nye. Then it cuts to Nye backstage as he’s preparing for his performance by quietly tying his bowtie in a mirror. “Here the exceptional Foley work of Heikki Kossi creates the sense of a private, intimate moment, contrasting with the voice of the announcer, which I treated as if it’s happening through the wall in a distant auditorium.”

Next it cuts to that announcer, and his voice is clearly amplified and echoing all around the auditorium of excited fans. There’s an interview with a fan and his friends who are waiting to take their seats. The fan describes his experience of watching Nye’s TV show in the classroom as a kid and how they’d all chant “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the TV cart rolled in. Underneath, plays the sound of the auditorium crowd chanting “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the picture cuts to Nye waiting in wings.

Horner says, “Again, the Foley here keeps us close to Bill while the crowd chants are in deep echo. Then the TV show theme kicks on, blasting through the PA. I embraced the distorted nature of the production recording and augmented it with hall echo and a liberal use of the subwoofer. The energy in this moment is at a peak as Bill takes the stage exclaiming, “I love you guys!” and the title card comes on. This is a great example of how the scene was already cut to communicate the dichotomy within Bill, between his private life and his public persona. By recognizing that intention, the sound team was able to express that paradox more viscerally.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. 


Recording live musicians in 360

By Luke Allen

I’ve had the opportunity to record live musicians in a couple of different in-the-field scenarios for 360 video content. In some situations — such as the ubiquitous 360 rock concert video — simply having access to the board feed is all one needs to create a pretty decent spatial mix (although the finer points of that type of mix would probably fill up a whole different article).

But what if you’re shooting in an acoustically interesting space where intimacy and immersion are the goal? What if you’re in the field in the middle of a rainstorm without access to AC power? It’s clear that in most cases, some combination of ambisonic capture and close micing is the right approach.

What I’ve found is that in all but a few elaborate set-ups, a mobile ambisonic recording rig (in my case, built around the Zaxcom Nomad and Soundfield SPS-200) — in addition to three to four omni-directional lavs for close micing — is more than sufficient to achieve excellent results. Last year, I had the pleasure of recording a four-piece country ensemble in a few different locations around Ireland.

Micing a Pub
For this particular job, I had the SPS and four lavs. For most of the day I had planted one Sanken COS-11 on the guitar, one on the mandolin, one on the lead singer and a DPA 4061 inside the upright bass (which sounded great!). Then, for the final song, the band wanted to add a fiddle to the mix — yet I was out of mics to cover everything. We had moved into the partially enclosed porch area of a pub with the musicians perched in a corner about six feet from the camera. I decided to roll the dice and trust the SPS to pick up the fiddle, which I figured would be loud enough in the small space that a lav wouldn’t be used much in the mix anyways. In post, the gamble paid off.

I was glad to have kept the quieter instruments mic’d up (especially the singer and the bass) while the fiddle lead parts sounded fantastic on the ambisonic recordings alone. This is one huge reason why it’s worth it to use higher-end Ambisonic mics, as you can trust them to provide fidelity for more than just ambient recordings.

An Orchestra
In another recent job, I was mixing for a 360 video of an orchestra. During production we moved the camera/sound rig around to different locations in a large rehearsal stage in London. Luckily, on this job we were able to also run small condensers into a board for each orchestra section, providing flexibility in the mix. Still, in post, the director wanted the spatial effect to be very perceptible and dynamic as we jump around the room during the lively performance. The SPS came in handy once again; not only does it offer good first-order spatial fidelity but a wide enough dynamic range and frequency response to be relied on heavily in the mix in situations where the close-mic recordings sounded flat. It was amazing opening up those recordings and listening to the SPS alone through a decent HRTF — it definitely exceeded my expectations.

It’s always good to be as prepared as possible when going into the field, but you don’t always have the budget or space for tons of equipment. In my experience, one high-quality and reliable ambisonic mic, along with some auxiliary lavs and maybe a long shotgun, are a good starting point for any field recording project for 360 video involving musicians.


Sound designer and composer Luke Allen is a veteran spatial audio designer and engineer, and a principal at SilVR in New York City. He can be reached at luke@silversound.us.


Jason Moss composes music for ABC’s The Toy Box

By Jennifer Walden

Children may not be the best source for deciding when bedtime should be, or deciding what’s for dinner (chicken nuggets again?), but who better to decide what toys kids want to play with? A large part of the Tom Hanks film Big was based on this premise.

ABC’s new inventor-centric series, The Toy Box, which premiered in April, features four young judges who are presented with new toy inventions. They then get to decide which toy prototypes would be popular with others in their demographic. Toy inventors competing on the show first meet with a set of “expert mentors,” a small group of adults who delve into the specifics of the toy and offer advice.

Jason Moss

If the toy makes it past that panel, it gets put into the “toy box.” The toy is then presented to the four young judges, who get to play with it, ask questions and give their critique to the toy inventor. The four young judges deliberate and make a final decision on which toy will advance to the next round. At the end of the season, the judges will chose one winning toy to be made by Mattel and sold exclusively at Toys ‘R’ Us.

The Toy Box needed a soundtrack that could both embody the essence of juvenile joviality and portray the pseudo-seriousness its pre-teen decision makers. It’s not a job for your average reality show composer. It required askew musical sensibilities. “The music is fun and super-pop sounding with cool analog synths and video game sounds. It’s really energetic and puts a smile on your face,” says the series composer/music supervisor Jason Moss at Super Sonic Noise in Los Angeles. “Then for the decision-making cues, as the kids decide whether they like a toy and what they’re going to do, it had to be something other than what you’d expect. It couldn’t sound too dark. It still had to be quirky.”

Moss knows quirky. He was the composer on IFC’s Gigi Does It, starring David Krumholtz as an eccentric Jewish grandmother living in Florida. Moss also composed the theme music for the Seeso original series Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, a partially improvised comedy series that pokes fun at real estate reality shows.

Moss covered all of The Toy Box’s musical needs — from high-energy pop and indie rock tracks when the kids are playing with the toys to comedic cues infused with ukulele and kitschy strings, and tension tracks for moments of decision. He wrote original music as well as curated selections from the Bulletproof Bear music catalog. Bulletproof Bear offers a wide variety of licensable tracks written by Moss, plus other music catalogs they represent. “It’s a big collection with over 33,000 tracks. We can really compete with bigger music license companies because we have a huge amount of diverse music that can cover the whole production from head to toe,” he says.

The Gear
Moss composes in Apple’s Logic Pro X. He performed live guitars, bass and ukulele (using the Kala U-Bass bass ukulele). For mics, he chose Miktek Audio’s CV4 large diaphragm condense tube and their C5 small diaphragm pencil condenser, each paired with Empirical Labs Mike-E pre-amps.

Moss combined the live sounds with virtual instruments, particularly those from Spectrasonics. XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums were his go-to for classic and modern drum sounds. For synths, he used reFX’s Nexus, libraries from Native Instrument’s Kontakt, Arturia’s Analog Lab and their VOX Continental V. He also called on the ROLI Equator sound engine via the ROLI Rise 25 key MIDI controller, which features soft squishy silicone keys much different from a traditional keyboard controller. The Akai MPK88 weighted key controller is Moss’ choice in that department. For processing and effects, he chose plug-ins by Soundtoys and PSP Audioware. He also incorporated various toy and video game sounds into the tracks.

The Score
The show’s two-minute opener combines three separate segments — the host (Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet), the expert mentor introductions and the judges introductions. Each has its own musical vibe. The host and the expert mentors have original music that Moss wrote specifically for the show. The judges have a dramatic pulsing-string track that is licensed from Bulletproof Bear’s catalog. In addition, a five-second tag for The Toy Box logo is licensed from the Bulletproof Bear catalog. That tag was composed by Jon LaCroix, who is one of Moss’ business partners. In regards to the dramatic strings on the kids’ entrance, Moss, who happened to write that cue, says, “The way they filmed the kids… it’s like they are little mini adults. So the theme has some seriousness to it. In context, it’s really cute.”

For the decision-making cues, Moss wanted to stay away from traditional tension strings. To give the track a more playful feel that would counterbalance the tension, he used video game sounds and 808 analog drum sounds. “I also wanted to use organic sounds that were arpeggiated and warm. They are decision-making tick-tock tracks, but I wanted to make it more fun and interesting,” says Moss.

“We were able to service the show on the underscore side with Bulletproof Bear’s music catalog in conjunction with my original music. It was a great opportunity for us to keep all the music within our company and give the client a one-stop shop, keeping the music process organized and easy,” he explains. “It was all about finding the right sound, or the right cue, for each of those segments. At the end of the day, I want to make sure that everybody is happy, acknowledge the showrunners’ musical vision and strive to capture that. It was a super-fun experience, and hopefully it will come back for a second, third and tenth season! It’s one of those shows you can watch with your kids. The kid judges are adorable and brutally honest, and with the myriad of adult programming out there, it’s refreshing to see a show like The Toy Box get green-lit.”

FMPX8.14

Nutmeg and Nickelodeon team up to remix classic SpongeBob songs

New York creative studio Nutmeg Creative was called on by Nickelodeon to create trippy music-video-style remixes of some classic SpongeBob SquarePants songs for the kids network’s YouTube channel. Catchy, sing-along kids’ songs have been an integral part of SpongeBob since its debut in 1999.

Though there are dozens of unofficial fan remixes on YouTube, Nickelodeon frequently turns to Nutmeg for official remixes: vastly reimagined versions accompanied by trippy, trance-inducing visuals that inevitably go viral. It all starts with the music, and the music is inspired by the show.

Infused with the manic energy of classic Warner Bros. Looney Toons, SpongeBob is simultaneously slapstick and surreal with an upbeat vibe that has attracted a cult-like following from the get-go. Now in its 10th season, SpongeBob attracts fans that span two generations: kids who grew up watching SpongeBob now have kids of their own.

The show’s sensibility and multi-generational audience informs the approach of Nutmeg sound designer, mixer and composer JD McMillin, whose remixes of three popular and vintage SpongeBob songs have become viral hits: Krusty Krab Pizza and Ripped My Pants from 1999, and The Campfire Song Song (yes, that’s correct) from 2004. With musical styles ranging from reggae, hip-hop and trap/EDM to stadium rock, drum and bass and even Brazilian dance, McMillin’s remixes expand the appeal of the originals with ear candy for whole new audiences. That’s why, when Nickelodeon provides a song to Nutmeg, McMillin is given free rein to remix it.

“No one from Nick is sitting in my studio babysitting,” he says. “They could, but they don’t. They know that if they let me do my thing they will get something great.”

“Nickelodeon gives us a lot of creative freedom,” says executive producer Mike Greaney. “The creative briefs are, in a word, brief. There are some parameters, of course, but, ultimately, they give us a track and ask us to make something new and cool out of it.”

All three remixes have collectively racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, with The Campfire Song Song remix generating 655K views in less than 24 hours on the SpongeBob Facebook page.

McMillin credits the success to the fact that Nutmeg serves as a creative collaborative force: what he delivers is more reinvention than remix.

“We’re not just mixing stuff,” he says. “We’re making stuff.”

Once Nick signs off on the audio, that approach continues with the editorial. Editors Liz Burton, Brian Donnelly and Drew Hankins each bring their own unique style and sensibility, with graphic Effects designer Stephen C. Walsh adding the finishing touches.

But Greaney isn’t always content with cut, shaken and stirred clips from the show, going the extra mile to deliver something unexpected. Case in point: he recently donned a pair of red track pants and high-kicked in front of a greenscreen to add a suitably outrageous element to the Ripped My Pants remix.

In terms of tools used for audio work, Nutmeg used Ableton Live, Native Instruments Maschine and Avid Pro Tools. For editorial they called on Avid Media Composer, Sapphire and Boris FX. Graphics were created in Adobe After Effects, and Mocha Pro.


Hobo’s Howard Bowler and Jon Mackey on embracing full-service VR

By Randi Altman

New York-based audio post house Hobo, which offers sound design, original music composition and audio mixing, recently embraced virtual reality by launching a 360 VR division. Wanting to offer clients a full-service solution, they partnered with New York production/post production studios East Coast Digital and Hidden Content, allowing them to provide concepting through production, post, music and final audio mix in an immersive 360 format.

The studio is already working on some VR projects, using their “object-oriented audio mix” skills to enhance the 360 viewing experience.

We touched base with Hobo’s founder/president, Howard Bowler, and post production producer Jon Mackey to get more info on their foray into VR.

Why was now the right time to embrace 360 VR?
Bowler: We saw the opportunity stemming from the advancement of the technology not only in the headsets but also in the tools necessary to mix and sound design in a 360-degree environment. The great thing about VR is that we have many innovative companies trying to establish what the workflow norm will be in the years to come. We want to be on the cusp of those discoveries to test and deploy these tools as the ecosystem of VR expands.

As an audio shop you could have just offered audio-for-VR services only, but instead aligned with two other companies to provide a full-service experience. Why was that important?
Bowler: This partnership provides our clients with added security when venturing out into VR production. Since the medium is relatively new in the advertising and film world, partnering with experienced production companies gives us the opportunity to better understand the nuances of filming in VR.

How does that relationship work? Will you be collaborating remotely? Same location?
Bowler: Thankfully, we are all based in West Midtown, so the collaboration will be seamless.

Can you talk a bit about object-based audio mixing and its challenges?
Mackey: The challenge of object-based mixing is not only mixing based in a 360-degree environment or converting traditional audio into something that moves with the viewer but determining which objects will lead the viewer, with its sound cue, into another part of the environment.

Bowler: It’s the creative challenge that inspires us in our sound design. With traditional 2D film, the editor controls what you see with their cuts. With VR, the partnership between sight and sound becomes much more important.

Howard Bowler pictured embracing VR.

How different is your workflow — traditional broadcast or spot work versus VR/360?
Mackey: The VR/360 workflow isn’t much different than traditional spot work. It’s the testing and review that is a game changer. Things generally can’t be reviewed live unless you have a custom rig that runs its own headset. It’s a lot of trial and error in checking the mixes, sound design, and spacial mixes. You also have to take into account the extra time and instruction for your clients to review a project.

What has surprised you the most about working in this new realm?
Bowler: The great thing about the VR/360 space is the amount of opportunity there is. What surprised us the most is the passion of all the companies that are venturing into this area. It’s different than talking about conventional film or advertising; there’s a new spark and its fueling the rise of the industry and allowing larger companies to connect with smaller ones to create an atmosphere where passion is the only thing that counts.

What tools are you using for this type of work?
Mackey: The audio tools we use are the ones that best fit into our Avid ProTools workflow. This includes plug-ins from G-Audio and others that we are experimenting with.

Can you talk about some recent projects?
Bowler: We’ve completed projects for Samsung with East Coast Digital, and there are more on the way.

Main Image: Howard Bowler and Jon Mackey

Creating a sonic world for The Zookeeper’s Wife

By Jennifer Walden

Warsaw, Poland, 1939. The end of summer brings the beginning of war as 140 German planes, Junkers Ju-87 Stukas, dive-bomb the city. At the Warsaw Zoo, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) watch as their peaceful sanctuary crumbles: their zoo, their home and their lives are invaded by the Nazis. Powerless to fight back openly, the zookeeper and his wife join the Polish resistance. They transform the zoo from an animal sanctuary into a place of sanctuary for the people they rescue from the Warsaw Ghetto.

L-R: Anna Behlmer, Terry_Porter and Becky Sullivan.

Director Niki Caro’s film The Zookeeper’s Wife — based on Antonina Żabińska’s true account written by Diane Ackerman — presents a tale of horror and humanity. It’s a study of contrasts, and the soundtrack matches that, never losing the thread of emotion among the jarring sounds of bombs and planes.

Supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, at the Technicolor at Paramount sound facility in Los Angeles, worked closely with re-recording mixers Anna Behlmer and Terry Porter to create immersive soundscapes of war and love. “You have this contrast between a love story of the zookeeper and his wife and their love for their own people and this horrific war that is happening outside,” explains Porter. “It was a real challenge in the mix to keep the war alive and frightening and then settle down into this love story of a couple who want to save the people in the ghettos. You have to play the contrast between the fear of war and the love of the people.”

According to Behlmer, the film’s aerial assault on Warsaw was entirely fabricated in post sound. “We never see those planes, but we hear those planes. We created the environment of this war sonically. There are no battle sequence visual effects in the movie.”

“You are listening to the German army overtake the city even though you don’t really see it happening,” adds Sullivan. “The feeling of fear for the zookeeper and his wife, and those they’re trying to protect, is heightened just by the sound that we are adding.”

Sullivan, who earned an Oscar nom for sound editing director Angelina Jolie’s WWII film Unbroken, had captured recordings of actual German Stukas and B24 bomber planes, as well as 70mm and 50mm guns. She found library recordings of the Stuka’s signature Jericho siren. “It’s a siren that Germans put on these planes so that when they dive-bombed, the siren would go off and add to the terror of those below,” explains Sullivan. Pulling from her own collection of WWII plane recordings, and using library effects, she was able to design a convincing off-screen war.

One example of how Caro used sound and clever camera work to effectively create an unseen war was during the bombing of the train station. Behlmer explains that the train station is packed with people crying and sobbing. There’s an abundance of activity as they hustle to get on the arriving trains. The silhouette of a plane darkens the station. Everyone there is looking up. Then there’s a massive explosion. “These actors are amazing because there is fear on their faces and they lurch or fall over as if some huge concussive bomb has gone off just outside the building. The people’s reactions are how we spotted explosions and how we knew where the sound should be coming from because this is all happening offstage. Those were our cues, what we were mixing to.”

“Kudos to Niki for the way she shot it, and the way she coordinated these crowd reactions,” adds Porter. “Once we got the soundscape in there, you really believe what is happening on-screen.”

The film was mixed in 5.1 surround on Stage 2 at Technicolor Paramount lot. Behlmer (who mixed effects/Foley/backgrounds) used the Lexicon 960 reverb during the train station scene to put the plane sounds into that space. Using the LFE channel, she gave the explosions an appropriate impact — punchy, but not overly rumbly. “We have a lot of music as well, so I tried really hard to keep the sound tight, to be as accurate as possible with that,” she says.

ADR
Another feature of the train station’s soundscape is the amassed crowd. Since the scene wasn’t filmed in Poland, the crowd’s verbalizations weren’t in Polish. Caro wanted the sound to feel authentic to the time and place, so Sullivan recorded group ADR in both Polish and German to use throughout the film. For the train station scene, Sullivan built a base of ambient crowd sounds and layered in the Polish loop group recordings for specificity. She was also able to use non-verbal elements from the production tracks, such as gasps and groans.

Additionally, the group ADR played a big part in the scenes at the zookeeper’s house. The Nazis have taken over the zoo and are using it for their own purposes. Each day their trucks arrive early in the morning. German soldiers shout to one another. Sullivan had the German ADR group perform with a lot of authority in their voices, to add to the feeling of fear. During the mix, Porter (who handled the dialogue and music) fit the clean ADR into the scenes. “When we’re outside, the German group ADR plays upfront, as though it’s really their recorded voices,” he explains. “Then it cuts to the house, and there is a secondary perspective where we use a bit of processing to create a sense of distance and delay. Then when it cuts to downstairs in the basement, it’s a totally different perspective on the voices, which sounds more muffled and delayed and slightly reverberant.”

One challenge of the mix and design was to make sure the audience knew the location of a sound by the texture of it. For example, the off-stage German group ADR used to create a commotion outside each morning had a distinct sonic treatment. Porter used EQ on the Euphonix System 5 console, and reverb and delay processing via Avid’s ReVibe and Digidesign’s TL Space plug-ins to give the sounds an appropriate quality. He used panning to articulate a sound’s position off-screen. “If we are in the basement, and the music and dialogue is happening above, I gave the sounds a certain texture. I could sweep sounds around in the theater so that the audience was positive of the sound’s location. They knew where the sound is coming from. Everything we did helped the picture show location.”

Porter’s treatment also applied to diegetic music. In the film, the zookeeper’s wife Antonina would play the piano as a cue to those below that it was safe to come upstairs, or as a warning to make no sound at all. “When we’re below, the piano sounds like it’s coming through the floor, but when we cut to the piano it had to be live.”

Sound Design
On the design side, Sullivan helped to establish the basement location by adding specific floor creaks, footsteps on woods, door slams and other sounds to tell the story of what’s happening overhead. She layered her effects with Foley provided by artist Geordy Sincavage at Sinc Productions in Los Angeles. “We gave the lead German commander Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) a specific heavy boot on wood floor sound. His authority is present in his heavy footsteps. During one scene he bursts in, and he’s angry. You can feel it in every footstep he takes. He’s throwing doors open and we have a little sound of a glass falling off of the shelf. These little tiny touches put you in the scene,” says Sullivan.

While the film often feels realistic, there were stylized, emotional moments. Picture editor David Coulson and director Caro juxtapose images of horror and humanity in a sequence that shows the Warsaw Ghetto burning while those lodged at the zookeeper’s house hold a Seder. Edits between the two locations are laced together with sounds of the Seder chanting and singing. “The editing sounds silky smooth. When we transition out of the chanting on-camera, then that goes across the cut with reverb and dissolves into the effects of the ghetto burning. It sounds continuous and flowing,” says Porter. The result is hypnotic, agrees Behlmer and Sullivan.

The film isn’t always full of tension and destruction. There is beauty too. In the film’s opening, the audience meets the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, and has time to form an attachment. Caro filmed real animals, and there’s a bond between them and actress Chastain. Sullivan reveals that while they did capture a few animal sounds in production, she pulled many of the animal sounds from her own vast collection of recordings. She chose sounds that had personality, but weren’t cartoony. She also recorded a baby camel, sea lions and several elephants at an elephant sanctuary in northern California.

In the film, a female elephant is having trouble giving birth. The male elephant is close by, trumpeting with emotion. Sullivan says, “The birth of the baby elephant was very tricky to get correct sonically. It was challenging for sound effects. I recorded a baby sea lion in San Francisco that had a cough and it wasn’t feeling well the day we recorded. That sick sea lion sound worked out well for the baby elephant, who is struggling to breathe after it’s born.”

From the effects and Foley to the music and dialogue, Porter feels that nothing in the film sounds heavy-handed. The sounds aren’t competing for space. There are moments of near silence. “You don’t feel the hand of the filmmaker. Everything is extremely specific. Anna and I worked very closely together to define a scene as a music moment — featuring the beautiful storytelling of Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, or a sound effects moment, or a blend between the two. There is no clutter in the soundtrack and I’m very proud of that.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.