By Patrick Birk
I was late in discovering David Fincher’s gripping series on serial killers, Mindhunter. But last summer, I noticed the Netflix original lurking in my suggested titles and decided to give it a whirl. I burned through both seasons within a week. The show is both thrilling and chilling, but the majority of these moments are not achieved through blazing guns, jump scares and pyrotechnics. It instead focuses on the inner lives of multiple murderers and the FBI agents whose job it is to understand them through subtle but detail-rich conversation.
Sound plays a crucial role in setting the tone of the series and heightening tension through each narrative arc. I recently spoke to rerecording mixers Scott Lewis and Stephen Urata as well as supervising sound editor Jeremy Molod — all from Skywalker Sound — about their process creating a haunting and detail-laden soundtrack. Let’s start with Lewis and Urata and then work our way to Molod.
How is working with David Fincher? Does he have any directorial preferences when it comes to sound? I know he’s been big on loud backgrounds in crowded spaces since The Social Network.
Scott Lewis: David is extremely detail-oriented and knowledgeable about sound. So he would give us very indepth notes about the mix… down to the decibel.
Stephen Urata: That level of attention to detail is one of the more challenging parts of working on a show like Mindhunter.
Working with a director who is so involved in the audio, does that limit your freedom at all?
Lewis: No. It doesn’t curtail your freedom, because when a director has a really clear vision, it’s more about crafting the track to be what he’s looking for. Ultimately, it’s the director’s show, and he has a way of bringing the best work out of people. I’m sure you heard about how he does hundreds of takes with actors to get many options. He takes a similar approach with sound in that we might give him multiple options for a certain scene or give him many different flavors of something to choose from. And he’ll push us to deliver the goods. For example, you might deliver a technically perfect mix but he’ll dig in until it’s exactly what he wants it to be.
Urata: Exactly. It’s not that he’s curtailing or handcuffing us from doing something creative. This project has been one of my favorites because it was just the editorial team and sound design, and then it would come to the mix stage. That’s where it would be just Scott and me in a mix room just the two of us and we’d get a shot at our own aesthetic and our own choice. It was really a lot of fun trying to nail down what our favorite version of the mix would be, and David really gave us that opportunity. If he wanted something else he would have just said, “I want it like this and only do it like this.”
But at the same time, we would do something maybe completely different than he was expecting, and if he liked it, he would say, “I wasn’t thinking that, but if you’re going to go that direction, try this also.” So he wasn’t handcuffing us, he was pushing us.
Do you have an example of something that you guys brought to the table that Fincher wasn’t expecting and asked you to go with it?
Urata: The first thing we did was the train scene. It was the scene in an empty parking garage and there is the sound of an incoming train from two miles away. That was actually the first thing that we did. It was the middle of Episode 2 or something, and that’s where we started.
Where they’re talking to the BTK survivor, Kevin?
Urata: He’s fidgeting and really uncomfortable telling his story, and David wanted to see if that scene would work at all, because it really relied heavily on sound. So we got our shot at it. He said, “This is the kind of the direction I want you guys to go in.” Scott and I played off of each other for a good amount of time that first day, trying to figure out what the best version would be and we presented it to him. I don’t remember him having that many notes on that first one, which is rare.
It really paid off. Among the mixes you showed Fincher, did you notice a trend in terms of his preferences?
Lewis: When I say we gave him options it might be down to something like with Son of Sam. Throughout that scene we used a slight pitching to slowly lower his voice over the length of the scene so that by the time he reveals that he actually isn’t crazy and he’s playing everybody, his voice drops a register. So when we present him options, it’s things like how much we’re pitching him down over time or things like that. It’s a constant review process.
The show takes place in the mid ‘70s and early ’80s. Were there any period-specific sounds or mixing tricks you used when it came to diegetic music and things like that?
Lewis: Oh yeah. Ren Klyce is the supervising sound designer on the show, and he’s fantastic. He’s the sound designer on all of David’s films. He is really good about making sure that we stay to the period. So with regard to mixing, panning is something that he’s really focused on because it’s the ‘70s. He’d tell us not to go nuts on the panning, the surrounds, that kind of thing; just keep it kind of down the middle. Also, futzes are a big thing in that show; music futzes, phone futzes … we did a ton of work on making sure that everything was period-specific and sounded right.
Are you using things like impulse responses and Altiverb or worldizing?
Lewis: I used a lot of Speakerphone by Audio Ease as well as EQ and reverb.
What mixing choices did you make to immerse the viewer in Holden’s reality, i.e. the PTSD he experiences?
Lewis: When he’s experiencing anxiety, it’s really important to make sure that we’re telling the story that we’re setting out to tell. Through mixing, you can focus the viewers’ attention on what you want them to track. So that could be dialogue in the background of a scene, like the end of Episode 1, when he’s having a panic attack, and in the distance, his boss and Tench are talking. It was very important that you make out the dialogue there, even though you’re focusing on Holden having a panic attack. So it’s moments like that when it’s making sure that the viewer is feeling that claustrophobia but also picking up on the story point that we want you to follow.
Lewis: Also, Stephen did something really great there — there are sprinklers in the background and you don’t even notice, but the tension is building through them.
There’s a very intense moment when Holden’s trying to figure out who let their boss know about a missing segment of tape in an interview, and he accuses Greg, who leans back in his chair, and there’s a squeal in there that kind of ramps up the tension.
Urata: David’s really, really honed in on Foley in general — chair squeaks, the type of shoes somebody’s wearing, the squeak of the old wooden floor under their feet. All those things have to play with David. Like when Wendy’s creeping over to the stairwell to listen to her girlfriend and her ex-husband talking. David said, “I want to hear the wooden floor squeaking while she’s sneaking over.”
It’s not just the music crescendo-ing and making you feel really nervous or scared. It’s also Foley work that’s happening in the scene, I want to hear more of that or less of that. Or more backgrounds to just add to the sound pressure to build to the climax of the scene. David uses all those tools to accomplish the storytelling in the scene with sound.
How much ambience do you have built into the raw Foley tracks that you get, and how much is reverb added after the fact? Things like car door slams have so much body to them.
Urata: Some of those, like door slams, were recorded by Ren Klyce. Instead of just recording a door slam with a mic right next to the door and then adding reverb later on, he actually goes into a huge mansion and slams a huge door from 40 feet away and records that to make it sound really realistic. Sometimes we add it ourselves. I think the most challenging part about all of that is marrying and making all the sounds work together for the specific aesthetic of the soundtrack.
Do you have a go-to digital solution for that? Is it always something different or do you find yourself going to the same place?
Urata: It definitely varies. There’s a classic reverb, a digital version of it: the Lexicon 480. We use that a good amount. It has a really great natural film sound that people are familiar with and it sounds natural. There are other ones but it’s really just another tool to make it. If it doesn’t work, we just have to use something else.
Were there any super memorable ADR moments?
Lewis: I can just tell you that there’s a lot of ADR. Some whole scenes are ADR. Any Fincher show that I’ve mixed dialogue on, where I also mixed the ADR, I am 10 times better than I was before I started. Because David’s so focused on storytelling, if there’s a subtle inflection that he’s looking for that he didn’t get on set, he will loop the line to make sure that he gets that nuance.
Did you coordinate with the composer? How do you like to mix the score so that it has a really complementary relationship to the rest of the elements?
Lewis: As re-recording mixers, they don’t involve us in the composition part of it; it just comes to us after they’ve spotted the score.
Jason Hill was the composer, and his score is great. It’s so spooky and eerie. It complements the sound design and sound effects layers really well so that a lot of it will kind of will sit in there. The score is great and it’s not traditional. He’s not working with big strings and horns all over the place. He’s got a lot of synth and guitars and stuff. He would use a lot of analog gear as well. So when it comes to mix sometimes you get kind of anomalies that you don’t commonly get, whether it’s hiss or whatever, elements he’s adding to add kind of an analog sound to it.
Lewis: And a lot of times we would keep that in because it’s part of his score.
Now let’s jump in with sound editor Jeremy Molod
As a sound editor, what was it like working with David Fincher?
Jeremy Molod: David and I have done abot seven or eight films together, so by the time we started on Season Two of Mindhunter, we pretty much knew each other’s styles. I’m a huge fan of David’s movies. It’s a privilege to work with him because he’s such a good director, and the stuff he creates is so entertaining and beautifully done. I really admire his organization and how detailed he is. He really gets in there and gives us detail that no other director has ever given us.
You worked with him on The Social Network. In college, my sound professors would always cite the famous bar scene, where Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend had to shout at each other over the backgrounds.
Molod: I remember that moment well. When we were mixing that scene, because the music was so loud and so pulsating, David said, “I don’t want this to sound like we’re watching a movie about a club; I want this to be like we’re in the club watching this.” To make it realistic, when you’re in the club, you’re straining to hear sounds and people’s voices. He said that’s what it should be like. Our mixer, David Parker, kept pushing the music up louder and louder, so you can barely make out those words.
I feel like I’m seeing iterations of that in Mindhunter as well.
Molod: Absolutely. That makes it more stressful and like you said, gives it a lot more tension.
Scott said that David’s down to the decibel in terms of how he likes his sound mixed. I’m assuming he’s that specific when it comes to the editorial as well?
Molod: That is correct. It’s actually even more to that quarter decibel. He literally does that all the time. He gets really, really in there.
He does the same thing with editorial, and what I love about his process is he doesn’t just say, “I want this character to sound old and scared,” he gives real detail. He’ll say, “This guy’s very scared and he’s dirty and his shoelaces are untied and he’s got a rag and a piece of snot rag hanging out of his pocket. And you can hear the lint and the Swiss army knife with the toothpick part missing.” He gets into painting a picture, he wants us literally to translate the sound, but he wants us to make it sound like the picture he’s painting.
So he wanted to make Kevin sound really nervous in the truck scene. Kevin’s in the back and you don’t really see him too much. He’s blurred out. David really wanted to sell his fear by using sound, so we had him tapping the leg nervously, scratching the side of the car, kind of slapping his leg and obviously breathing really heavy and sniffing a lot, and it was those bounds that really helped sell that scene.
So while he does have the acumen and vocabulary within sound to talk to you on a technical level, he’ll give you direction in a similar way to how he would an actor.
Molod: Absolutely, and that’s always how I’ve looked at it. When he’s giving us direction, it’s actually the same way as he’s giving an actor direction to be a character. He’s giving the sound team direction to help those characters and help paint those characters and the scenes.
With that in mind, what was the dialogue editing process like? I’ve heard that his attention to detail really comes into play with inflection of lines. Were you organizing and pre-syncing the alternate takes as closely as you could with the picture selection?
Molod: We did that all the time. The inclination and the intonation and the cadence of the voices of the characters is really important to him, and he’s really good about figuring out which words of which takes he can stitch together to do it. So there might be two sentences that one actor says at one time and those sentences are actually made up of five different takes. And he does so many takes that we have a wealth of material to choose from.
We’d probably send about five or six versions to David to listen to and then he would make his notes. That would happen almost every day and we would start honing in on the performances he liked. Eventually he might say, “I don’t like any of them. You’ve got to loop this guy on the ADR stage.” He likes us to stitch up the best little parts and loop together like a puzzle.
What is the ADR stage like at Skywalker?
Molod: We actually did all of our ADR at Disney Studios in LA because David was down there, as were the actors. We did a fair amount of ADR in Mindhunter, there’s lots of it in there.
We usually have three or four microphones running during an ADR session, one of which will be a radio mic. The other three would be booms set in different locations, the same microphones that they use in production. We also throw in an extra [Sennheiser MKH 50] just to have it with the track of sound that we could choose from.
The process went great, we went through it, we’d come back and give him about five or six choices and then he would start making notes and we had to pin it down to the way he liked it. So by the time we got to the mix stage, the decision was done.
There was a scene where people are walking around talking after a murder had been committed, and what David really wanted was to kind of be talking a little softly about this murder. So we had to go in and loop that whole scene again with them performing it at a more quiet, sustained volume. We couldn’t just turn it down. They had to perform it as if they were not quite whispering but trying to speak a little lower so no one could hear.
To what extent did loop groups play a part in the soundtrack? With the prominence of backgrounds in the show it seems like customization would be helpful, to have time-specific little bits of dialogue that might pop out.
Molod: We’ve used a group called the Loop Squad for all the features, House of Cards shows and the Mindhunters. We would send a list of all of our cues, get on the phone and explain what the reasoning was, what the storylines were. All their actors would on their own, go and research everything that was happening at the time, so if they were just standing by a movie theater, they had something to talk about that was relevant at the time.
When it came to production sound on the show, which track did you normally find yourself working from?
Molod: In most scenes, they would have a couple of radio mics attached to the actors and they’d have several booms. Normally, there were maybe eight different microphones set up. You would have one general boom over the whole thing, you’d have the boom that was close to each character.
We almost always went with one of the booms, unless we were having trouble making out what they were saying. And then it depended just on which actor was standing closest to the boom. One of the tricks our editors did in order to make it sound better is they would phase the two. So if the boom wasn’t quite working on its own and the radio either, one of our tricks would be to make those two play together in a way, and accomplish what we wanted where you could hear it but also give the space in the room.
Were there any moments that you remember from the production tracks for effects?
Molod: Whenever we could use production effects, we always tried to get those in, because they always sound the most realistic and most pertinent to that scene and that location. If we can maintain any footsteps in the production, we always do because those always sound great.
Any kind of subtle things like creaks, bed creaks, the floor creaking, we always try to salvage those and those help a lot too. Fincher is very, very, very into Foley. We have Foley covering the whole thing, end to end. He gives us notes on everybody’s footsteps and we do tests of each character with different types of shoes on and different strides of walking, and we send it to him.
So much of the show’s drama plays out in characters’ internal worlds. In a lot of the prison interview scenes, I notice door slams here and there that I think serve to heighten the tension. Did you develop a kind of a logical language when it came to that, or did you find it was more intuitive?
Molod: No, we did have our language to it and that was based on Fincher’s direction, and when it was really crazy he wanted to hear the door slams and buzzers and keys jingling and tons of prisoners yelling offsite. We spent days recording loop-group prisoners and they would be sprinkled throughout the scene. And when something about the conversation had an upsetting subject matter, we might ramp up the voices in the back.
Pat Birk is a musician, sound engineer and post pro at Silver Sound, a boutique sound house based in New York City.