By Jennifer Walden
Warner Bros. Pictures’ remake of A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a famous musician with a serious drinking hobby who stumbles onto singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) at a drag bar where she’s giving a performance. Jackson is taken by her raw talent and their chance meeting turns into something more. With Jackson’s help, Ally becomes a star but her fame is ultimately bittersweet.
Aside from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay), the other big star of this film is the music. Songwriting started over two years ago. Cooper and Gaga collaborated with several other songwriters along the way, like Lukas Nelson (son of Willie Nelson), Mark Ronson, Hillary Lindsey and DJ White Shadow.
According to supervising music editor/re-recording mixer Jason Ruder from 2 Pop Music — who was involved with the film from pre-production through post — the lyrics, tempo and key signatures were even changing right up to the day of the shoot. “The songwriting went to the 11th hour. Gaga sort of works in that fashion,” says Ruder, who witnessed her process first-hand during a sound check at Coachella. (2 Pop Music is located on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.)
Before each shoot, Ruder would split out the pre-recorded instrumental tracks, reference vocals and have them ready for playback, but there were days when he would get a call from Gaga’s manager as he was driving to the set. “I was told that she had gone into the studio in the middle of the night and made changes, so there were all new pre-records for the day. I guess she could be called a bit of a perfectionist, always trying to make it better.
“On the final number, for instance, it was only a couple hours before the shoot and I got a message from her saying that the song wasn’t final yet and that she wanted to try it in three different keys and three different tempos just to make sure,” continues Ruder. “So there were a lot of moving parts going into each day. Everyone that she works with has to be able to adapt very quickly.”
Since the music is so important to the story, here’s what Cooper and Gaga didn’t want — they start singing and the music suddenly switches over to a slick, studio-produced track. That concern was the driving force behind the production and post teams’ approach to the on-camera performances.
Recording Live Vocals
All the vocals in A Star is Born were recorded live on-set for all the performances. Those live vocals are the ones used in the film’s final mix. To pull this off, Ruder and the production sound team did a stage test at Warner Bros. to see if this was possible. They had a pre-recorded track of the band, which they played back on the stage. First, Cooper and Gaga did live vocals. Then they tried the song again, with Cooper and Gaga miming along to pre-recorded vocals. Ruder took the material back to his cutting room and built a quick version of both. The comparison solidified their decision. “Once we got through that test, everyone was more confident about doing the live vocals. We felt good about it,” he says.
Their first shoot for the film was at Coachella, on a weekday since there were no performances. They were shooting a big, important concert scene for the film and only had one day to get it done. “We knew that it all had to go right,” says Ruder. It was their first shot at live vocals on-set.
Neither the music nor the vocals were amplified through the stage’s speaker system since song security was a concern — they didn’t want the songs leaked before the film’s release. So everything was done through headphone mixes. This way, even those in the crowd closest to the stage couldn’t hear the melodies or lyrics. Gaga is a seasoned concert performer, comfortable with performing at concert volume. She wasn’t used to having the band muted and the vocals live (though not amplified), so some adjustments needed to be made. “We ended up bringing her in-ear monitor mixer in to help consult,” explains Ruder. “We had to bring some of her touring people into our world to help get her perfectly comfortable so she could focus on acting and singing. It worked really well, especially later for Arizona Sky, where she had to play the piano and sing. Getting the right balance in her ear was important.”
As for Jackson Maine’s band on-screen, those were all real musicians and not actors — it was Lukas Nelson’s band. “They’re used to touring together. They’re very tight and they’re seasoned musicians,” says Ruder. “Everyone was playing and we were recording their direct feeds. So we had all the material that the musicians were playing. For the drums, those had to be muted because we didn’t want them bleeding into the live vocals. We were on-set making sure we were getting clean vocals on every take.”
Real Venues, Real Reverbs
Since the goal from the beginning was to create realistic-sounding concerts, Ruder decided to capture impulse responses at every performance location — from big stages like Coachella to much smaller venues — and use those to create reverbs in Audio Ease’s Altiverb.
The challenge wasn’t capturing the IRs, but rather, trying to convince the assistant director on-set that they needed to be captured. “We needed to quiet the whole set for five or 10 minutes so we could put up some mics and shoot these tones through the spaces. This all had to be done on the production clock, and they’re just not used to that. They didn’t understand what it was for and why it was important — it’s not cheap to do that during production,” explains Ruder.
Those IRs were like gold during post. They allowed the team to recreate spaces like the main stage at Coachella, the Greek Theatre and the Shrine Auditorium. “We were able to manufacture our own reverbs that were pretty much exactly what you would hear if you were standing there. For Coachella, because it’s so massive, we weren’t sure if they were going to come out, but it worked. All the reverbs you hear in the film are completely authentic to the space.”
Oscar-winning supervising sound editor Alan Murray at Warner Bros. Sound was also capturing sound at the concert performances, but his attention was away from the stage and into the crowd. “We had about 300 to 500 people at the concerts, and I was able to get clean reactions from them since I wasn’t picking up any music. So that approach of not amplifying the music worked for the crowd sounds too,” he says.
Production sound mixer Steven Morrow had set up mics in and around the crowd and recorded those to a multitrack recorder while Murray had his own mic and recorder that he could walk around with, even capturing the crowds from backstage. They did multiple recordings for the crowds and then layered those in Avid Pro Tools in post.
“For Coachella and Glastonbury, we ended up enhancing those with stadium crowds just to get the appropriate size and excitement we needed,” explains Murray. They also got crowd recordings from one of Gaga’s concerts. “There was a point in the Arizona Sky scene where we needed the crowd to yell, ‘Ally!’ Gaga was performing at Fenway Park in Boston and so Bradley’s assistant called there and asked Gaga’s people to have the crowd do an ‘Ally’ chant for us.”
Ruder adds, “That’s not something you can get on an ADR stage. It needed to have that stadium feel to it. So we were lucky to get that from Boston that night and we were able to incorporate it into the mix.”
According to Ruder, they wanted to make sure the right building blocks were in place when they went into post. Those blocks — the custom recorded impulse responses, the custom crowds, the live vocals, the band’s on-set performances, and the band’s unprocessed studio tracks that were recorded at The Village — gave Ruder and the re-recording mixers ultimate flexibility during the edit and mix to craft on-scene performances that felt like big, live concerts or intimate songwriting sessions.
Even with all those bases covered, Ruder was still worried about it working. “I’ve seen it go wrong before. You get tracks that just aren’t usable, vocals that are distorted or noisy. Or you get shots that don’t work with the music. There were those guitar playing shots…”
A few weeks after filming, while Ruder was piecing all the music together in post, he realized that they got it all. “Fortunately, it all worked. We had a great DP on the film and it was clear that he was capturing the right shots. Once we got to that point in post, once we knew we had the right pieces, it was a huge relief.”
Relief gave way to excitement when Ruder reached the dub stage — Warner Bros. Stage 10. “It was amazing to walk into the final mix knowing that we had the material and the flexibility to pull this off,” he says.
In addition to using Altiverb for the reverbs, Ruder used Waves plug-ins, such as the Waves API Collection, to give the vocals and instrumental tracks a live concert sound. “I tend to use plug-ins that emulate more of a tube sound to get punchier drums and that sort of thing. We used different 5.1 spreaders to put the music in a 5.1 environment. We changed the sound to match the picture, so we dried up the vocals on close-ups so they felt more intimate. We had tons and tons of flexibility because we had clean vocals and raw guitars and drum tracks.”
All the hard work paid off. In the film, Ally joins Jackson Maine on stage to sing a song she wrote called “Shallow.” For Murray and Ruder, this scene portrays everything they wanted to achieve for the performances in A Star is Born. The scene begins outside the concert, as Ally and her friend get out of the car and head toward the stage. The distant crowd and music reverberate through the stairwell as they’re led up to the backstage area. As they get closer, the sound subtly changes to match their proximity to the band. On stage, the music and crowd are deafening. Jackson begins to play guitar and sing solo before Ally finds the courage to join in. They sing “Shallow” together and the crowd goes crazy.
“The whole sequence was timed out perfectly, and the emotion we got out of them was great. The mix there was great. You felt like you were there with them. From a mix perspective, that was probably the most successful moment in the film,” concludes Ruder.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney