Re-recording mixer Brian Bracken and supervising sound editor Benny Mouthon
By Jennifer Walden
CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is an award-winning travel series about food and politics. Or is it a food series about travel and politics? Perhaps it’s best described as a three-course mind-meal of food, travel and regional political/economic commentary with a dash of history. Whatever it is, it’s addicting, and Bourdain’s candor is refreshing. And if even some of the dishes that Bourdain consumes seem less than appetizing, the show itself is totally binge-worthy. Now on Netflix, all nine season are available for mass consumption.
From its inception, String & Can in New York City has handled the post sound on Parts Unknown. Sound designers/re-recording mixers Benny Mouthon and Brian Bracken have amassed a total of nine Emmy nominations for their sound work on the show. This year Mouthon is nominated for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Nonfiction Program on Season 8, Episode 1 “Hanoi,” and Bracken is nominated for Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Nonfiction Program on Season 8’s finale, Episode 9 “Rome.”
Even though their nominations are specifically for sound editing and sound mixing, Mouthon and Bracken handle all the audio post needs for each episode they work on, from dialogue editing and sound design to final mix. It’s a substantial amount of work per episode considering Bourdain generally doesn’t use a production sound mixer. Sound-wise, it’s often just a case of catch what you can on the busy streets and crowded eateries.
Here, Mouthon and Bracken share details about what went into their Emmy-nominated episodes.
You’re nine seasons into Parts Unknown and the show just gets better and better. Sound-wise, how has the show grown? What’s changed over the years?
Benny Mouthon: We usually don’t have a location sound mixer on the show, but I feel that the camera crew has been paying more attention to mic placements. Also, the converters on the cameras have gotten better as the cameras have evolved. They can record much better quality sound than a few years ago, though still not as good as a high-end field sound recorder.
The bulk of the dialogue that we get is a lavaliere on Tony Bourdain and his guest or guests. Then they have Sanken shotgun mics on the cameras. As they move around the subjects in the frame, the shotguns tend to not be very usable so we rely on the lav mics a lot. Since the producers are the only ones that spend time both in the field and in the mix, we have had many discussions after the screenings over the years as to what works, what doesn’t and how things can be done better next time. Thanks to this dialogue I can definitely say that the quality of the audio has gotten better with time.
On the post side, we have more powerful tools than we did when the series first started. With the iZotope RX tools we’ve been able to clean up tracks that would have been unusable before. We often have to deal with distortion, or clothing rustle, or wind noise, and now all of those issues are easier to deal with.
Editors will often send us problematic audio scenes during the edit to see if they can be salvaged. In the past we used to turn down many, but in the last couple of years our “success rate” has gotten much better.
Brian Bracken: The cinematic landscape lends itself to us being able to enhance the show more by using the production audio. For instance, in the “Rome” episode, there’s a highway scene with fast “car-bys.” Those were very well recorded, and the cars sound very powerful when they pass by. That wasn’t really how it was delivered to us back in the earlier seasons. Like Benny said, with the equipment getting better the recordings get better and the attention to detail in terms of sound has really paid off.
Mouthon: As the show evolves, the cameramen get to play with nicer toys, and they’re also recording more b-roll. They started to use the Canon D5 early on for this, with better lenses — lenses that gave the show a much more filmic look. Tony also likes to pay homage to films quite a lot, Brian’s “Rome” episode is just one great example.
As this “cinema-style” became more the norm, I think they realized that the edits can be limited if they don’t have very specific sounds that were recorded while they were in a particular place. So they have grown more aware of what will make for a better edit and therefore a better soundscape afterwards for us.
Talking about soundscapes, let’s look at the “Hanoi” episode. You start with a rural soundscape of wind in grass, chickens and bugs, and then it changes to urban sounds like motorbikes and horns. How much sound was taken from production?
Mouthon: A fair amount was taken from production, and I have to give a big credit to Hunter Gross, the picture editor on that episode. He’s very good at laying out a lot of the B-roll and complementing that with sound effects so that I have a great starting point. The huge advantage I had was that I was in Hanoi about 10 years ago on a personal holiday and I had a little Zoom recorder with me. I was able to use a lot of my own recordings of Hanoi, which included a lot of great stereo street sounds.
The downside to not having a location sound mixer is that the camera crew gets everything they can but it’s in mono. They don’t have the time to go back to a location with a stereo recorder or an X/Y mic configuration on a camera to record that way. There’s just no time. So I was able to use a lot of my own recordings to complement what they had gotten in mono, along with my memory of how absolutely insane traffic is in Hanoi.
It’s busy even on the smaller side streets. I remember just standing on the curb on my first day and not knowing how to cross the street. It is just completely flooded with scooters everywhere. There was an old lady standing next to me who looked at me pitifully and she just walked right out into the street, staring straight ahead to where she was going. I decided to just follow her and miraculously the scooters just avoid you and you just trust that you won’t be hit.
Sound-wise, I remember that everyone honks, and they go pretty fast. So I was given a lot of B-roll from Hunter to complement the scenes. I really like to pan the sound and follow an individual scooter from left to right. I also put in a lot of my stereo recordings to complement their sound a bit better and I was able to add a lot of Italian scooter sounds, as well as some Honda bikes. I try to stay as true as possible to what I am seeing but the idea was to make the sound feel a little bit claustrophobic.
What sounds would you say are characteristic of Hanoi’s soundscape? What sounds make that city sound like that city?
Mouthon: The two-stroke engine. There are a lot of scooters, very whiney and mid-ranged. The sound of motorbikes is relentless, and it’s coming from everywhere — left, right, up, down — you are constantly making sure that you’re not getting in the way of someone who is driving very fast.
The scooter sounds were useful in another way. We could take you out of one scene and bring you into a completely different situation, one that is much more present. It can be loud, fill the space and give your senses a shock.
For the first half of the episode, Bourdain is eating outside on the street and there’s traffic and crowds. Tell me about the principle dialog for those locations. It seems like it would have been quite a challenge to clean and edit the dialog there.
Mouthon: There was a lot of street noise, but that’s kind of the charm — having Bourdain sitting on a plastic stool on the pavement, eating a bowl of soup. Thankfully, the camera work is such that they do pan over into the street and you see a bunch of scooters going back and forth.
As a viewer, it’s easier to accept the sound of the scooters and the noise when you get to see how dense the traffic is. But it was still tricky. There were a lot of scooter sounds and traffic noises that had to be finessed out of sentences because the noise sounded cut off. Often I had to grab B-roll sound to help match that sentence into the upcoming sentence that they decided to use.
In general, the rain was more problematic than the traffic noise. There is a scene where he is outside late in the evening and it’s pouring rain. That was harder to deal with. I used a little bit of EQ and compression to control it a little but the sound overall is pretty true to what it sounded like there.
President Obama shows up in Hanoi. How cool is that? Sound-wise, was there anything to note about that sequence?
Mouthon: The scene was shot in a restaurant and they asked people not to speak too loudly but, as is often the case in those smaller restaurants, the walls are very straight and parallel, and the floor is made of tile and the sound just echoes. There isn’t much in there to absorb the sound, so it was a little bit echoey, a little live, but not unmanageable.
I did add a little bit of stereo rain as former President Obama was coming out of the limousine because he was holding an umbrella. I also added in a little bit of crowd sounds just to enhance it a bit overall. At the end of act four, we see Tony walking through the rain and I complemented that with stereo ambience of growling thunder.
The “Hanoi” episode wraps up on an emotional note. The music does a lot to carry the emotion. Did you do anything sound-wise to help support that?
Mouthon: Hunter and the producer Tom Vitale often like to end on an emotional note. They like it to be a little poetic, and I agree with that. There were just a couple little hints of B-roll sound there, but I kept it very low because it’s the music that’s supposed to take the show out. Also, ending on music was a great way to tie it back to the beginning.
For “Rome,” the mood is very tongue-in-cheek. The episode opens with a street performer singing a spirited song, and the lyrics are about killing her lover. From a mix standpoint Brian, were you able to enhance the playfulness of this episode?
Bracken: Hunter did this episode as well. He was the one who really sold that tongue-in-cheek aspect of the episode, and I just tried to enhance it. I was there to support that performance in the mix. During that scene you have two performers in the market, and the market sounds were getting in the way of their guitars, and it wasn’t an easy task to make it sound as clean as it did.
In terms of the mix, what were some creative opportunities you had on the “Rome” episode?
Bracken: There were some cool things during the Mussolini section where they showed archival footage. Recreating the sound for that, making it feel as real as possible was fun. I like doing all of that marching stuff, with the very militant crowds. That was fun to do.
I also really liked doing that car scene — where the cars are whizzing by on the highway. It starts out far back and you hear this gentle rumble, then all of a sudden when that first car passes it’s like a punch in the face. The power continues throughout that whole little section until it is over-the-top loud. It’s almost like you’re standing on the side of the road. I was able to take their production audio and enhance that with other car-bys to really give it that sweeping stereo image. When a car goes by it just doesn’t cut away — you hear it decay a lot longer as the next car comes by.
The boxing scene was fun too because there were those hits. When they punch each other, I basically wanted it to sound the way Bourdain describes it: as a slap of leather against wet skin. When you hear him say that you have this picture in your head of what it should sound like and hopefully it matches everybody’s expectations when they hear those punches being thrown and landing.
What was the most challenging scene for you to mix in this episode, and how did you handle it?
Bracken: There’s a scene where Bourdain is talking with a group of people and they are in a café right on the side of the road. There are cars driving by, but I didn’t have that camera pan-over to show that there was traffic. I had to cut out all the stuff in between but not have gaps in the ambience. That’s a challenge you face all the time with any restaurant scene. So I cut out what I didn’t like.
I cut out the sound between words and layered in a nice crowd bed in mono. Then I did a separate bed in stereo. I find that when I only do the bed in stereo it sounds too wide. So I need something to marry the wide aspect of the scene and the narrow aspect of the voices. So between the mono bed, the dialogue, and the stereo bed I can do fader movements to make it sound smooth.
Of all the episodes in Season 8, why did you choose the mix on “Rome” for Emmy consideration?
Bracken: The episode really had great production audio. I had a lot to work with. They did a great job out there in the field.
Also, the episode is very cinematic. I love how Hunter and Tom end on a low note. They do that for this episode as well. I love the echoey footsteps that are leading you through the Palazzo Del Congressi. To me, the “Rome” episode sounded the best, and it was the most artistic one that I worked on this season.
Benny, of all the episodes in Season 8, why did you choose the sound editing on “Hanoi” for Emmy consideration?
Mouthon: For me, it was a mixture of having enjoyed playing around with all of the sounds of the scooters and knowing that they were almost a secondary character in the episode. But it was also a very nostalgic episode for me since it reminded me of the week I spent there and so maybe it was a bit more present in my head than the other episodes. No offense to the other episodes of course!
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.