The sounds of Brooklyn play lead role in HBO’s High Maintenance

By Jennifer Walden

New Yorkers are jaded, and one of the many reasons is that just about anything they want can be delivered right to their door: Chinese food, prescriptions, craft beer, dry cleaning and weed. Yes, weed. This particular item is delivered by “The Guy,” the protagonist of HBO’s new series, High Maintenance.

The Guy (played by series co-creator Ben Sinclair) bikes around Brooklyn delivering pot to a cast of quintessentially quirky New York characters. Series creators Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld string together vignettes — using The Guy as the common thread — to paint a realistic picture of Brooklynites.

andrew-guastella

Nutmeg’s Andrew Guastella. Photo credit: Carl Vasile

“The Guy delivers weed to people, often going into their homes and becoming part of their lives,” explains sound editor/re-recording mixer Andrew Guastella at Nutmeg, a creative marketing and post studio based in New York. “I think that what a lot of viewers like about the show is how quickly you come to know complete strangers in a sort of intimate way.”

Blichfeld and Sinclair find inspiration for their stories from their own experiences, says Guastella, who follows suit in terms of sound. “We focus on the realism of the sound, and that’s what makes this show unique.” The sound of New York City is ever-present, just as it is in real life. “Audio post was essential for texturizing our universe,” says Sinclair. “There’s a loud and vibrant city outside of those apartment walls. It was important to us to feel the presence of a city where people live on top of each other.”

Big City Sounds
That edict for realism drives all sound-related decisions on High Maintenance. On a typical series, Guastella would strive to clean up every noise on the production dialogue, but for High Maintenance, the sound of sirens, horns, traffic, even car alarms are left in the tracks, as long as they’re not drowning out the dialogue. “It’s okay to leave sounds in that aren’t obtrusive and that sell the fact that they are in New York City,” he says.

For example, a car alarm went off during a take. It wasn’t in the way of the dialogue but it did drop out on a cut, making it stand out. “Instead of trying to remove the alarm from the dialogue, I decided to let it roll and I added a chirp from a car alarm, as if the owner turned off the alarm [or locked the car], to help incorporate it into the track. A car alarm is a sound you hear all the time in New York.”

Exterior scenes are acceptably lively, and if an interior scene is feeling too quiet, Guastella can raise a neighborly ruckus. “In New York, there’s always that noisy neighbor. Some show creators might be a little hesitant to use that because it could be distracting, but for this show, as long as it’s real, Ben and Katja are cool with it,” he says. During a particularly quiet interior scene, he tried adding the sounds of cars pulling away and other light traffic to fill up the space, but it wasn’t enough, so Guastella asked the creators, “’How do you feel about the neighbors next door arguing?’ And they said, ‘That’s real. That’s New York. Let’s try it out.’”

Guastella crafted a commotion based on his own experience of living in an apartment in Queens. Every night he and his wife would hear the downstairs neighbors fighting. “One night they were yelling and then all we heard was this loud, enormous slam. Hopefully, it was a door,” jokes Guastella. “Ben and Katja are always pulling from their own experiences, so I tried to do that myself with the soundtrack.”

Despite the skill of production sound mixer Dimitri Kouri, and a high tolerance for the ever-present sound of New York City, Guastella still finds himself cleaning dialogue tracks using iZotope’s RX 5 Advanced. One of his favorite features is RX Connect. With this plug-in feature, he can select a region of dialogue in his Avid Pro Tools session and send that region directly to iZotope’s standalone RX application where he can edit, clean and process the dialogue. Once he’s satisfied, he can return that cleaned up dialogue right back in sync on the timeline of his Pro Tools session where he originally sent it from.

“I no longer have to deal with exporting and importing audio files, which was not an efficient way to work,” he says. “And for me, it’s important that I work within the standalone application. There are plug-in versions of some RX tools, but for me, the standalone version offers more flexibility and the opportunity to use the highly detailed visual feedback of its audio-spectrum analyzer. The spectrogram makes using tools like Spectral Repair and De-click that much more effective and efficient. There are more ways to use and combine the tools in general.”

Guastella has been with the series since 2012, during its webisode days on Vimeo. Back then, it was a passion-project, something he’d work on at home on his own time. From the beginning, he’s handled everything audio: the dialogue cleaning and editing, the ambience builds and Foley and the final mix. “Andrew [Guastella] brought his professional ear and was always such a pleasure to work with. He always delivered and was always on time,” says Blichfeld.

The only aspect that Guastella doesn’t handle is the music. “That’s a combination of licensed music (secured by music supervisor Liz Fulton) and original composition by Chris Bear. The music is well-established by the time the episode gets to me,” he says.

On the Vimeo webisodes, Guastella would work an episode’s soundtrack into shape, and then send it to Blichfeld and Sinclair for notes. “They would email me or we would talk over the phone. The collaborative process wasn’t immediate,” he says. Now that HBO has picked up the series and renewed it for Season 2, Guastella is able to work on High Maintenance in his studio at Nutmeg, where he has access to all the amenities of a full-service post facility, such as sound effects libraries, an ADR booth, a 5.1 surround system and room to accommodate the series creators who like to hang around and work on the sound with Guastella. “They are very particular about sound and very specific. It’s great to have instant access to them. They were here more than I would’ve expected them to be and it was great spending all that time with them personally and professionally.”

In addition to being a series co-creator, co-writer and co-director with Blichfeld, Sinclair is also one of show’s two editors. This meant they were being pulled in several directions, which eventually prevented them from spending so much time in the studio with Guastella. “By the last three episodes of this season, I had absorbed all of their creative intentions. I was able to get an episode to the point of a full mix and they would come in just for a few hours to review and make tweaks.”

With a bigger budget from HBO, Guastella is also able to record ADR when necessary, record loop group and perform Foley for the show at Nutmeg. “Now that we have a budget and the space to record actual Foley, we’re faced with the question of how much Foley do we want to do? When you Foley sound for every movement and footstep, it doesn’t always sound realistic, and the creators are very aware of that,” says Guastella.

5.1 Surround Mix
In addition to a minimalist approach, another way he keeps the Foley sounding real is by recording it in the real world. In Episode 3, the story is told from a dog’s POV. Using a TASCAM DR 680 digital recorder and a Sennheiser 416 shotgun mic, Guastella recorded an “enormous amount of Foley at home with my Beagle, Bailey, and my father-in-law’s Yorkie and Doberman. I did a lot of Foley recording at the dog park, too, to capture Foley for the dog outside.”

Another difference between the Vimeo episodes and the HBO series is the final mix format. “HBO requires a surround sound 5.1 mix and that’s something that demands the infrastructure of a professional studio, not my living room,” says Guastella. He takes advantage of the surround field by working with ambiences, creating a richer environment during exterior shots which he can then contrast with a closer, confined sound for the interior shots.

“This is a very dialogue-driven show so I’m not putting too much information in the surrounds. But there is so much sound in New York City, and you are really able to play with perspective of the interior and exterior sounds,” he explains. For example, the opening of Episode 3, “Grandpa,” follows Gatsby the dog as he enters the front of his house and eventually exits out of the back. Guastella says he was “able to bring the exterior surrounds in with the characters, then gradually pan them from surround to a heavier LCR once he began approaching the back door and the backyard was in front of him.”

The series may have made the jump from Vimeo to HBO but the soul of the show has changed very little, and that’s by design. “Ben, Katja, and Russell Gregory [the third executive producer] are just so loyal to the people who helped get this series off the ground with them. On top of that, they wanted to keep the show feeling how it did on the web, even though it’s now on HBO. They didn’t want to disappoint any fans that were wondering if the series was going to turn into something else… something that it wasn’t. It was really important to the show creators that the series stayed the same, for their fans and for them. Part of that was keeping on a lot of the people who helped make it what it was,” concludes Guastella.

Check out High Maintenance on HBO, Fridays at 11pm.


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

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