By Jennifer Walden
In Fargo, North Dakota, in the dead of winter, there’s been a murder. You might think you’ve heard this story before, but Noah Hawley keeps coming up with a fresh, new version of it for each season of his Fargo series on FX. Sure, his inspiration was the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo film, but with Season 3 now underway it’s obvious that Hawley’s series isn’t simply a spin-off.
Every season of the Emmy-winning Fargo series follows a different story, with its own distinct cast of characters, set in its own specified point in time. Even the location isn’t always the same — Season 3 takes place in Minnesota. What does link the seasons together is Hawley’s distinct black humor, which oozes from these disparate small-town homicides. He’s a writer and director on the series, in addition to being the showrunner and an executive producer. “Noah is very hands-on,” confirms re-recording mixer Martin Lee at Tattersall Sound & Picture in Toronto, part of the SIM Group family of companies, who has been mixing the show with re-recording mixer Kirk Lynds since Season 2.
“Fargo has a very distinct look, feel and sound that you have to maintain,” explains Lee. “The editors, producers and Noah put a lot of work into the sound design and sound ideas while they are cutting the picture. The music is very heavily worked while they are editing the show. By the time the soundtrack gets to us there is a pretty clear path as to what they are looking for. It’s up to us to take that and flesh it out, to make it fill the 5.1 environment. That’s one of the most unique parts of the process for us.”
Season 3 follows rival brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor). Their feud over a rare postage stamp leads to a botched robbery attempt that ultimately ends in murder (don’t worry, neither Ewan character meets his demise…yet??).
One of the most challenging episodes to mix this season, so far, was Episode 3, “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” The story plays out across four different settings, each with unique soundscapes: Minnesota, Los Angeles in 2010, Los Angeles in 1975 and an animated sci-fi realm. As police officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) unravels the homicide in Eden Valley, Minnesota, her journey leads her to Los Angeles. There the story dives into the past, to 1975, to reveal the life story of science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann). The episode side-trips into animation land when Gloria reads Mobley’s book titled The Planet Wyh.
One sonic distinction between Los Angeles in 2010 and Los Angeles of 1975 was the density of traffic. Lee, who mixed the dialogue and music, says, “All of the scenes that were taking place in 2010 were very thick with traffic and cars. That was a technical challenge, because the recordings were very heavy with traffic.”
Another distinction is the pervasiveness of technology in social situations, like the bar scene where Gloria meets up with a local Los Angeles cop to talk about her stolen luggage. The patrons are all glued to their cell phones. As the camera pans down the bar, you hear different sounds of texting playing over a contemporary, techno dance track. “They wanted to have those sounds playing, but not become intrusive. They wanted to establish with sound that people are always tapping away on their phones. It was important to get those sounds to play through subtly,” explains Lynds.
In the animated sequences, Gloria’s voice narrates the story of a small android named MNSKY whose spaceman companion dies just before they reach Earth. The robot carries on the mission and records an eon’s worth of data on Earth. The robot is eventually reunited with members of The Federation of United Planets, who cull the android’s data and then order it to shut down. “Because it was this animated sci-fi story, we wanted to really fill the room with the environment much more so than we can when we are dealing with production sound,” says Lee. “As this little robotic character is moving through time on Earth, you see something like the history of man. There’s voiceover, sound effects and music through all of it. It required a lot of finesse to maintain all of those elements with the right kind of energy.”
The animation begins with a spaceship crashing into the moon. MNSKY wakes and approaches the injured spaceman who tells the android he’s going to die. Lee needed to create a vocal process for the spaceman, to make it sound as though his voice is coming through his helmet. With Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Lee tweaked the settings on a “long plastic tube” convolution reverb. Then he layered that processed vocal with the clean vocal. “It was just enough to create that sense of a helmet,” he says.
At the end, when MNSKY rejoins the members of the Federation on their spaceship it’s a very different environment from Earth. The large, ethereal space is awash in long, warm reverbs which Lynds applied using plug-ins like PhoenixVerb 5.1 and Altiverb. Lee also applied a long reverb treatment to the dialogue. “The reverbs have quite a significant pre-delay, so you almost have that sense of a repeat of the voice afterwards. This gives it a very distinctive, environmental feel.”
Lynds and Lee spend two days premixing their material on separate dub stages. For the premix, Lynds typically has all the necessary tracks from supervising sound editor Nick Forshager while Lee’s dialogue and music tracks come in more piecemeal. “I get about half the production dialogue on day one and then I get the other half on day two,” says Lee. “ADR dribbles in the whole time, including well into the mixing process. ADR comes in even after we have had several playbacks already.”
Fortunately, the show doesn’t rely heavily on ADR. Lee notes that they put a lot of effort into preserving the production. “We use a combination of techniques. The editors find the cleanest lines and takes (while still keeping the performance), then I spent a lot of time cleaning that up,” he says.
This season Lee relies more on Cedar’s DNS One plug-in for noise reduction and less on the iZotope RX5 (Connect version). “I’m finding with Fargo that the showrunners are uniquely sensitive to the effects of the iZotope processing. This year it took more work to find the right sound. It ends up being a combination of both the Cedar and the RX5,” reports Lee.
After premixing, Lee and Lynds bring their tracks together on Tattersall’s Stage 1. They have three days for the 5.1 final mix. They spend one (very) long day building the episode in 5.1 and then send their mix to Los Angeles for Forshager and co-producer Gregg Tilson to review. Then Lee and Lynds address the first round of notes the next morning and send the mix back to Los Angeles for another playback. Each consecutive playback is played for more people. The last playback is for Hawley on the third day.
“One of the big challenges with the workflow is mixing an episode in one day. It’s a long mix day. At least the different time zones help. We send them a mix to listen to typically around 6-7pm PST, so it’s not super late for them. We start at 8am EST the next morning, which is three hours ahead of their time. By the time they’re in the studio and ready to listen, it is 10am their time and we’ve already spent three or four hours handling the revisions. That really works to our advantage,” says Lee.
Sound in the Fargo series is not an afterthought. It’s used to build tension, like a desk bell that rings for an uncomfortably long time, or to set the mood of a space, like an overly noisy fish tank in a cheap apartment. By the time the tracks have made it to the mixers, there’s been “a lot of time and effort spent thinking about what the show was going to sound like,” says Lynds. “From that sense, the entire mix for us is a creative opportunity. It’s our chance to re-create that in a 5.1 environment, and to make that bigger and better.”
You can catch new episodes of Fargo on FX Networks, Wednesdays at 10pm EST.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.