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Cleaning, creating and mixing sounds for ‘The Americans’

Sync Sound digs into its third season of audio post for this FX series

By Jennifer Walden

The concept of FX’s The Americans, now in its third season, is incredibly compelling — two Cold War-era Soviet spies, who look and sound as American as the proverbial apple pie. They have two kids, a house in the D.C. suburbs and a very dangerous double life dedicated to gathering intel for the Motherland. The couple, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), struggles to balance family values with espionage.

To learn the secrets of The Americans sound, I infiltrated the inner circle at New York-based audio post house Sync Sound, which has handled the audio post on all three seasons. Thankfully, I didn’t have to torture dialogue/music re-recording mixer Ken Hahn too much before he coughed up all the inside post sound info.

After three seasons on the show working with the same Sync Sound team  — dialogue editor Dan Korintus, sound effects editor Philip “Des” Desloovere, sound effects mixer/Foley mixer James Redding, co-sound supervisor Neil Cedar and ADR editor John Bowen — Hahn says there are certain things they don’t need to discuss anymore, such as atmospheres for the FBI office, the Soviet’s embassy (called the Rezidentura) or the Jennings’ home.

The American. Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The Americans. Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The groundwork they built in Season 1 and refined in Season 2, now only needs a wee bit of tweaking. “Everybody now agrees what the kitchen sounds like, what the office sounds like, what the basement sounds like,” explains Hahn. “We’ve established those environments and can work with what we built as a base, making it less busy, or busier, and change it as needed.”

For a series that doesn’t use many establishing shots, Hahn notes the sound of the environments are a key part of telling the viewers where they are. “We have to establish if it’s day or night, if it’s a funky neighborhood, if they’re in an apartment that’s high up or close to the street. That’s all now water under the bridge. All the notes from the past two years are paying off big dividends for us in Season 3.” Now, they can devote their attention to perfecting all the other sound details.

Clean Up
The series is shot on location around New York City and at Eastern Effects Studios in Brooklyn. Despite some tricky locations, including inside moving cars, the show uses roughly 90 percent production dialogue, and it’s up to Hahn to make it work. “The producers would much rather use production dialogue whenever possible because they are choosing performances. After working on the show for three seasons, we know what’s going to work on the air. There are some scenes that, quite frankly, we just can’t use… if we’re on a really busy street or in a really busy environment, right out of the gate we know we have to loop those.”

Hahn uses the iZotope RX 3 and RX 4 Advanced to quickly remove hum, pops, clicks and extraneous noises from the production tracks. “Time is the enemy of post production,” he explains. “The expectations are high, the demand for quality is very high and the budgets are tight, which means there is less time so we have to be really efficient. The tools you have at your disposal can really make you efficient if you know how to use them.”

The Americans. Photo Credit: CR: Michael Parmelee/FX

The Americans. Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/FX

Using Declick in RX 4 Advanced, Hahn says he’s been able to remove Keri Russell’s high-heels from the dialogue track, for example. “Her character is always dressed up and wearing heels, so you hear click-click-click-click all over the dialogue track. With Declick, you can remove as much as you want, and it really leaves the dialogue in a condition that’s more than acceptable. It’s quite amazing.”

Hahn’s other favorite RX 4 Advanced features include Spectral Repair, Denoise, Dereverb and Insight, which, according to Hahn, is an extremely accurate loudness meter. “The iZotope people are really onto something pretty special. Their interface and display are quite user-friendly. You see what you hear; you don’t need to interpret what you see.”

One thing that keeps Hahn busy during his dialogue premix is notching out tones, buzzes and whistles from the cameras and lights on-set. “There is tremendous amounts of filtering — 6, 8, even 10 notches sometimes,” says Hahn, who likes the FabFilter Pro-Q for notch EQs and the FabFilter Pro-DS for de-essing. “A lot of tools I like give you visual feedback of what you’re hearing. It’s reinforcement that you’re doing the right thing. It’s another way to speed things up.”

Sync Sound’s Ken Hahn 

The Mix
On the dub stage, Hahn and his mix partner James Redding use two separate Avid Pro Tools 10 systems, controlled via an Avid ICON and ProControl, to mix the series in 5.1. After three seasons of mixing The Americans, Hahn and Redding are becoming more proficient in understanding the producers’ directions, which often include the mood of a scene as opposed to specific instructions like raising the Foley, dipping the music or brightening up the dialogue.

“Their direction is more like, ‘This character is in a situation, and I want to heighten that situation.’ We prefer those types of notes. We get to interpret them and adjust the mix accordingly. The producers hold the reins loosely. It’s like riding a horse — it’s better to guide it in the direction you want to go, but it doesn’t help to try to completely control it,” explains Hahn, who reports that co-producer David Woods is always on hand to help guide the post sound edit and mix from the spotting session through to the final playback.

To create tension, The Americans’ sound design incorporates subtle elements, like low-frequency, heart-beat type pulses and indeterminable rumbles. For example, during a scene in a Moscow prison, the audience sees a prison hallway, and they hear a door open and then close as someone is being put into a cell. Hahn notes that in defining the sound of that space, they had a big discussion about what could be heard. They know it’s the ‘80s and it’s Moscow, but is there traffic? No, it’s a big isolated prison. So what else is going on in the prison?

The Americans: CR: Ali Goldstein/FX

The Americans: Photo Credi: Ali Goldstein/FX

“What we ended up with is a sound that puts you on edge. There is this rumbling tension underneath, and I used some claustrophobic, tight reverb that puts you in that box.” says Hahn, who often uses the Waves Renaissance Reverb to help define the show’s environments. The characters are always meeting secretively in garages, basements, an abandoned indoor swimming pool, etc. Hahn notes they use perspective cuts on dialogue and fun reverbs to really help define those spaces. In addition, he uses the Waves RVerb in combination with the Audio Ease Speakerphone plug-in to put the many radios, TVs and phones into the spaces on screen.

No matter what he’s cleaning, creating or mixing Hahn is always aware of the time it takes to complete the task. Hahn says they have to get things right on the first or second try. “One of the challenges of the show is that you have to get it right quickly. But for The Americans, it works. Ten years ago we wouldn’t be able to deliver the quality that we can for a show on such a tight schedule. Time is our enemy in a big way, but part of the fun is having to work in that timeframe. You have to make good decisions right away. I don’t mind that.”

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

Main Image Credit: James Minchin/FX

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