Cinnafilm 6.6.19

Hulu’s PEN15: Helping middle school sound funny

By Jennifer Walden

Being 13 years old once was hard enough, but the creators of the Hulu series PEN15 have relived that uncomfortable age — braces and all — a second time for the sake of comedy.

James Parnell

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle might be in their 30s, but they convincingly play two 13-year-old BFFs journeying through the perils of 7th grade. And although they’re acting alongside actual teenagers, it’s not Strangers With Candy grown-up-interfacing-with-kids kind of weird — not even during the “first kiss” scene. The awkwardness comes from just being 13 and having those first-time experiences of drinking, boyfriends, awkward school dances and even masturbation (the topic of focus in Episode 3). Erskine, Konkle and co-showrunner Sam Zvibleman hilariously capture all of that cringe-worthy coming-of-age content in their writing on PEN15.

The show is set in the early 2000s, a time when dial-up Internet and the Sony Discman were prevailing technology. The location is a non-descript American suburb that is relatable in many ways to many people, and that is one way the show transports the audience back to their early teenage years.

At Monkeyland Audio in Glendale, California, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer James Parnell and his team worked hard to capture that almost indescribable nostalgic essence that the showrunners were seeking. Monkeyland was responsible for all post sound editorial, including Foley, ADR, final 5.1 surround mixing and stereo fold-downs for each episode. Let’s find out more from Parnell.

I happened to watch Episode 3, “Ojichan,” with my mom, and it was completely awkward. It epitomized the growing pains of the teenage years, which is what this series captures so well.
Well, that was an awkward one to mix as well. Maya (Erskine) and Anna (Konkle) were in the room with me while I was mixing that scene! Obviously, the show is an adult comedy that targets adults. We all ended up joking about it during the mix — especially about the added Foley sound that was recorded.

The beauty of this show is that it has the power to take something that might otherwise be thought of as, perhaps, inappropriate for some, and humanize it. All of us went through that period in our lives and I would agree that the show captures that awkwardness in a perfect and humorous way.

The writers/showrunners also star. I’m sure they were equally involved with post as well as other aspects of the show. How were they planning to use sound to help tell their story?
Parnell: In terms of the post schedule, I was brought on very early. We were doing spotting sessions to pre-locked picture, for Episode 1 and Episode 3. From the get-go, they were very specific about how they wanted the show to sound. I got the vibe that they were going for that Degrassi/Afterschool Special feeling but kept in the year 2000 — not the original Degrassi of the early ‘90s.

For example, they had a very specific goal for what they wanted the school to sound like. The first episode takes place on the first day of 7th grade and they asked if we could pitch down the school bell so it sounds clunky and have the hallways sound sparse. When class lets out, the hallway should sound almost like a relief.

Their direction was more complex than “see a school hallway, hear a school hallway.” They were really specific about what the school should sound like and specific about what the girls’ neighborhoods should sound like — Anna’s family in the show is a bit better off than Maya’s family so the neighborhood ambiences reflect that.

What were some specific sounds you used to capture the feel of middle school?
The show is set in 2000, and they had some great visual cues as throwbacks. In Episode 4 “Solo,” Maya is getting ready for the school band recital and she and her dad (a musician who’s on tour) are sending faxes back and forth about it. So we have the sound of the fax machine.

We tried to support the amazing recordings captured by the production sound team on-set by adding in sounds that lent a non-specific feeling to the school. This doesn’t feel like a California middle school; it could be anywhere in America. The same goes for the ambiences. We weren’t using California-specific birds. We wanted it to sound like Any Town, USA so the audience could connect with the location and the story. Our backgrounds editor G.W. Pope did a great job of crafting those.

For Episode 7, “AIM,” the whole thing revolves around Maya and Anna’s AOL instant messenger experience. The creatives on the show were dreading that episode because all they were working with was temp sound. They had sourced recordings of the AOL sound pack to drop into the video edit. The concern was how some of the Hulu execs would take it because the episode mostly takes place in front of a computer, while they’re on AOL chatting with boys and with each other. Adding that final layer of sound and then processing on the mix stage helped what might otherwise feel like a slow edit and a lagging episode.

The dial-up sounds, AOL sign-on sounds and instant messenger sounds we pulled from library. This series had a limited budget, so we didn’t do any field recordings. I’ve done custom recordings for higher-budget shows, but on this one we were supplementing the production sound. Our sound designer on PEN15 was Xiang Li, and she did a great job of building these scenes. We had discussions with the showrunners about how exactly the fax and dial-up should sound. This sound design is a mixture of Xiang Li’s sound effects editorial with composer Leo Birenberg’s score. The song is a needle drop called “Computer Dunk.” Pretty cool, eh?

For Episode 4, “Solo,” was the middle school band captured on-set? Or was that recorded in the studio?
There was production sound recorded but, ultimately, the music was recorded by the composer Leo Birenberg. In the production recording, the middle school kids were actually playing their parts but it was poorer than you’d expect. The song wasn’t rehearsed so it was like they were playing random notes. That sounded a bit too bad. We had to hit that right level of “bad” to sell the scene. So Leo played individual instruments to make it sound like a class orchestra.

In terms of sound design, that was one of the more challenging episodes. I got a day to mix the show before the execs came in for playback. When I mixed it initially, I mixed in all of Leo’s stems — the brass, percussion, woodwinds, etc.

Anna pointed out that the band needed to sound worse than how Leo played it, more detuned and discordant. We ended up stripping out instruments and pitching down parts, like the flute part, so that it was in the wrong key. It made the whole scene feel much more like an awkward band recital.

During the performance, Maya improvises a timpani solo. In real life, Maya’s father is a professional percussionist here in LA, and he hooked us up with a timpani player who re-recorded that part note-for-note what she played on-screen. It sounded really good, but we ended up sticking with production sound because it was Maya’s unique performance that made that scene work. So even though we went to the extremes of hiring a professional percussionist to re-perform the part, we ultimately decided to stick with production sound.

What were some of the unique challenges you had in terms of sound on PEN15?
On Episode 3, “Ojichan,” Maya is going through this process of “self-discovery” and she’s disconnecting her friendship from Anna. There’s a scene where they’re watching a video in class and Anna asks Maya why she missed the carpool that morning. That scene was like mixing a movie inside a show. I had to mix the movie, then futz that, and then mix that into the scene. On the close-ups of the 4:3 old-school television the movie would be less futzed and more like you’re in the movie, and then we’d cut back to the girls and I’d have to futz it. Leo composed 20 different stems of music for that wild life video. Mixing that scene was challenging.

Then there was the Wild Things film in Episode 8, “Wild Things.” A group of kids go over to Anna’s boyfriend’s house to watch Wild Things on VHS. That movie was risqué, so if you had an older brother or older cousin, then you might have watched it in middle school. That was a challenging scene because everyone had a different idea of how the den should sound, how futzed the movie dialogue should be, how much of the actual film sound we could use, etc. There was a specific feel to the “movie night” that the producers were looking for. The key was mixing the movie into the background and bringing the awkward flirting/conversation between the kids forward.

Did you have a favorite scene for sound?
The season finale is one of the bigger episodes. There’s a middle school dance and so there’s a huge amount of needle-drop songs. Mixing the music was a lot of fun because it was a throwback to my youth.

Also, the “AIM” episode was fun because it ended up being fun to work on — even though everyone was initially worried about it. I think the sound really brought that episode to life. From a general standpoint, I feel like sound lent itself more so than any other aspect to that episode.

The first episode was fun too. It was the first day of school and we see the girls getting ready at their own houses, getting into the carpool and then taking their first step, literally, together toward the school. There we dropped out all the sound and just played the Lit song “My Own Worst Enemy,” which gets cut off abruptly when someone on rollerblades hops in front of the girls. Then they talk about one of their classmates who grew boobs over the summer, and we have a big sound design moment when that girl turns around and then there’s another needle-drop track “Get the Job Done.” It’s all specifically choreographed with sound.

The series music supervisor Tiffany Anders did an amazing job of picking out the big needle-drops. We have a Nelly song for the middle school dance, we have songs from The Cranberries, and Lit and a whole bunch more that fit the era and age group. Tiffany did fantastic work and was great to work with.

What were some helpful sound tools that you used on PEN15?
Our dialogue editor’s a huge fan of iZotope’s RX 7, as am I. Here at Monkeyland, we’re on the beta-testing team for iZotope. The products they make are amazing. It’s kind of like voodoo. You can take a noisy recording and with a click of a button pretty much erase the issues and save the dialogue. Within that tool palette, there are lot of ways to fix a whole host of problems.

I’m a huge fan of Audio Ease’s Altiverb, which came in handy on the season finale. In order to create the feeling of being in a middle school gymnasium, I ran the needle-drop songs through Altiverb. There are some amazing reverb settings that allow you to reverse the levels that are going to the surround speakers specifically. You can literally EQ the reverb, take out 200Hz, which would make the music sound more boomy than desired.

The lobby at Monkeyland is a large cinder-block room with super-high ceilings. It has acoustics similar to a middle school gymnasium. So, we captured a few impulse responses (IR), and I used those in Altiverb on a few lines of dialogue during the school dance in the season finale. I used that on a few of the songs as well. Like, when Anna’s boyfriend walks into the gym, there was supposed to be a Limp Bizkit needle-drop but that ended up getting scrapped at the last minute. So, instead there’s a heavy-metal song and the IR of our lobby really lent itself to that song.

The show was a simple single-card Pro Tools HD mix — 256 tracks max. I’m a huge fan of Avid and the new Pro Tools 2018. My dialogue chain features Avid’s Channel Strip; McDSP SA-2; Waves De-Esser (typically bypassed unless being used); McDSP 6030 Leveling Amplifier, which does a great job at handling extremely loud dialogue and preventing it from distorting, as well as Waves WNS.

On staff, we have a fabulous ADR mixer named Jacob Ortiz. The showrunners were really hesitant to record ADR, and whenever we could salvage the production dialogue we did. But when we needed ADR, Jacob did a great job of cueing that, and he uses the Sound In Sync toolkit, including EdiCue, EdiLoad and EdiMarker.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share on PEN15?
Yes! Watch the show. I think it’s awesome, but again, I’m biased. It’s unique and really funny. The showrunners Maya, Anna and Sam Zvibleman — who also directed four episodes — are three incredibly talented people. I was honored to be able to work with them and hope to be a part of anything they work on next.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney


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