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‘Chicago Fire’: the sound of drama

By Jennifer Walden

Whether it’s a raging high-rise fire, a horrific car accident or another life-threatening event, the firefighters, rescue squad and paramedics of Chicago Firehouse 51 on NBC’s Chicago Fire are always in the center of some sort of dramatic adventure. And sometimes that drama spills into the personal lives of these imperfect heroes.

To help enhance the feeling of action and drama throughout each episode, the audio post team at BluWave Audio, a division of Universal Studios Sound that handles TV mixing, audio restoration/preservation and digital mastering, fills in the backgrounds with off-screen sounds such as fire radios, equipment being moved around, phones ringing, voices and other more typical sounds.

“The fire house they’re stationed at is a hub for many different activities for the fire department,” explains re-recording mixer Todd Morrissey, who handles sound effects, Foley and backgrounds on the show. “There are always people who don’t have anything to do with the [scene] walking around in the background to make it feel alive at all times. The biggest challenge on the mix is keeping the excitement level up always. ”

Chicago Fire - Season 2

Part of the audio post team’s job is to get rid of the sounds of the gas used to create on-set fires.

Morrissey typically has 300 tracks of just sound effects and backgrounds for each episode. To wrangle all those into the 5.1 mix, he uses an iPad with the V-Control app made by Neyrinck in conjunction with Digidesign’s D-Command control surface for a Pro Tools HDX2 system running Pro Tools 10.

According to Neyrinck, The V-Control app is a multi-touch control surface that connects to a DAW via WiFi. Users can remotely control the sends, automation, groups, auditioning, plug-ins, jog/scrub/shuttle, I/O assignment, and other controls within a DAW. In addition, V-Control can be used simultaneous with Ethernet controllers used by Pro Tools, such as the D-Command used by Morrissey. “I use V-Control exclusively for panning,” he says. “It makes it a lot easier to pan all these effects that were dealing with.”

Another challenge is dealing with the dialogue during the fire scenes. It’s plagued by the sound of gas that is used to create the fires on set. The actors are wearing masks. There are impacts and other banging sounds as they move through the burning structure. Peter Reale, re-recording mixer who handles dialogue, music and group ADR, says, “The dialogue is recorded really well, but you can’t get rid of the gas sounds as the fires are bursting all around the actors. So, all the fire scenes are 100 percent ADR.” Reale handles the group ADR at BluWave Audio and the principal ADR is recorded at BAM Studios in Chicago, co-supervised by owner Brian Reed.

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L-R: Todd Morrissey and Peter Reale.

When it comes to removing clanks and other noises recorded onto the dialogue tracks during non-fire scenes, Reale often turns to production alternates in place of ADR. He also does noise reduction passes using the Cedar DNS One plug-in, as well as the Decrackle module in iZotope’s RX3 plug-in, in a Pro Tools HDX system with version 10.

Reale and Morrissey spend three to four days on the mix, not including sound editorial. They mix Chicago Fire on Stage G at BluWave Audio using a Digidesign Dual D-Command setup. “It’s a very big show, a busy show, that routinely has 300 tracks for just sound effects,” notes Reale. “That would be pretty hard to wrangle in two days.”

Chicago Fire - Season 2

Reale, who has been in the audio post biz for 30 years, says that he and Morrissey love working on the show. “I’ve never been happier than I’ve been mixing for this client. Also, the network does a really great job of broadcasting for the show. The mix sounds great. We love what we’re hearing on-air.”

Chicago Fire can be binge watched at www.nbc.com/chicago-fire. New episodes begin airing in September.

Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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