Tag Archives: Hobo Audio Post

Hobo’s Chris Stangroom on providing Quest doc’s sonic treatment

Following a successful film fest run that included winning a 2018 Independent Spirit Award, and being named a 2017 official selection at Sundance, the documentary Quest is having its broadcast premiere on PBS this month as part of their POV series.

Chris Stangroom

Filmed with vérité intimacy for nearly a decade, Quest follows the Rainey family who live in North Philadelphia. The story begins at the start of the Obama presidency with Christopher “Quest” Rainey, and his wife Christine (“Ma Quest”) raising a family, while also nurturing a community of hip-hop artists in their home music studio. It’s a safe space where all are welcome, but as the doc shows, this creative sanctuary can’t always shield them from the strife that grips their neighborhood.

New York-based audio post house Hobo, which is no stranger to indie documentary work (Weiner, Amanda Knox, Voyeur), lent its sonic skills to the film, including the entire sound edit (dialogue, effects and music), sound design, 5.1 theatrical and broadcast mixes.

We spoke with Hobo’s Chris Stangroom, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer on the project about the challenges he and the Hobo team faced in their quest on this film.

Broadly speaking what did you and Hobo do on this project? How did you get involved?
We handled every aspect of the audio post on Quest for its Sundance Premiere, theatrical run and broadcast release of the film on POV.

This was my first time working with director Jonathan Olshefski and I loved every minute of it, The entire team on Quest was focused on making this film better with every decision, and he had to be the final voice on everything. We were connected through my friend producer Sabrina Gordon, who I had previously worked with on the film Undocumented. It was a pretty quick turn of events, as I think I got the first call about the film Thanksgiving weekend of 2016. We started working on the film the day after Christmas that year and were finished mix two weeks later with the entire sound edit and mix for the 2017 Sundance film festival.

How important is the audio mix/sound design in the overall cinematic experience of Quest? What was most important to Olshefski?
The sound of a film is half of the experience. I know it sounds cliché, but after years of working with clients on improving their films, the importance of a good sound mix and edit can’t be understated. I have seen films come to life by simply adding Foley to a few intimate moments in a scene. It seems like such a small detail in the grand scheme of a film’s soundtrack, but feeling that intimacy with a character connects us to them in a visceral way.

Since Quest was a film not only about the Rainey family but also their neighborhood of North Philly, I spent a lot of time researching the sounds of Philadelphia. I gathered a lot of great references and insight from friends who had grown up in Philly, like the sounds of “ghetto birds” (helicopters), the motorbikes that are driven around constantly and the SEPTA buses. As Jon and I spoke about the film’s soundtrack, those kinds of sounds and ideas were exactly what he was looking for when we were out on the streets of North Philly. It created an energy to the film that made it vivid and alive.

The film was shot over a 10-year period. How did that prolonged production affect the audio post? Were there format issues or other technical issues you needed to overcome?
It presented some challenges, but luckily Jon always recorded with a lav or a boom on his camera for the interviews, so matching their sound qualities was easier than if he had just been using a camera mic. There are probably half a dozen “narrated” scenes in Quest that are built from interview sound bites, so bouncing around from interviews 10 years apart was tricky and required a lot of attention to detail.

In addition, Quest‘s phenomenal editor Lindsay Utz was cutting scenes up until the last day of our sound mix. So even once we got an entire scene sounding clean and balanced, it would then change and we’d have to add a new line from some other interview during that decade-long period. She definitely kept me on my toes, but it was all to make the film better.

Music is a big part of the family’s lives. Did the fact that they run a recording studio out of their home affect your work?
Yes. The first thing I did once we started on the film was to go down to Quest’s studio in Philly and record “impulse responses” (IRs) of the space, essentially recording the “sound” of a room or space. I wanted to bring that feeling of the natural reverbs in his studio and home to the film. I captured the live room where the artists would be recording, his control room in the studio and even the hallway leading to the studio with doors opened and closed, because sound changes and becomes more muffled as more doors are shut between the microphone and the sound source. The IRs helped me add incredible depth and the feeling that you were there with them when I was mixing the freestyle rap sessions and any scenes that took place in the home and studio.

Jon and I also grabbed dozens of tracks that Quest had produced over the years, so that we could add them into the film in subtle ways, like when a car drives by or from someone’s headphones. It’s those kinds of little details that I love adding, like Easter eggs that only a handful of us know about. They make me smile whenever I watch a film.

Any particular scene or section or aspect of Quest that you found most challenging or interesting to work on?
The scenes involving Quest’s daughter PJ’s injury through her stay in the hospital and her return back home had a lot of challenges that came along with them. We used sound design and the score from the amazing composer T. Griffin to create the emotional arc that something dangerous and life-changing was about to happen.

Once we were in the hospital, we wanted the sound of everything to be very, very quiet. There is a scene in which Quest is whispering to PJ while she is in pain and trying to recover. The actual audio from that moment had a few nurses and women in the background having a loud conversation and occasionally laughing. It took the viewer immediately away from the emotions that we were trying to connect with, so we ended up scrapping that entire audio track and recreated the scene from scratch. Jon actually ended up getting in the sound booth and did some very low and quiet whispering of the kinds of phrases Quest said to his daughter. It took a couple hours to finesse that scene.

Lastly, the scene when PJ gets out of the hospital and is returning back into a world that didn’t stop while she was recovering. We spent a lot of time shifting back and forth between the reality of what happened, and the emotional journey PJ was going through trying to regain normalcy in her life. There was a lot of attention to detail in the mix on that scene because it had to be delivered correctly in order to not break the momentum that had been created.

What was the key technology you used on the project?
Avid Pro Tools, Izotope RX 5 Advanced, Audio Ease Altiverb, Zoom H4N; and a matched stereo pair of sE Electronics sE1a condenser mics.

Who else at Hobo was involved in Quest?
The entire Hobo team really stepped up on this project — namely our sound effects editors Stephen Davies, Diego Jimenez and Julian Angel; Foley artist Oscar Convers; and dialogue editor Jesse Peterson.

Hobo Audio’s Chris Stangroom discusses Jonestown doc

New York-based audio post house Hobo provided audio post and sound design for A&E’s two-hour doc Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre. The film focuses on the four women in Jim Jones’ inner circle who helped plan the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, one of the largest murder-suicide events in modern history.

Hobo is no stranger to the documentaries in the true crime genre, having recently worked on the acclaimed Netflix docs Voyeur and Amanda Knox, as well as multiple series on the Investigation Discovery channel, including Evil Lives Here and My Dirty Little Secret.

Senior engineer Chris Stangroom, who handled the project’s complex audio mix, says that true crime documentaries, an incredibly popular genre in film and TV currently, uniquely challenges sound designers and audio engineers to think about sound differently.

Let’s find out more from Stangroom about this project.

What did you and Hobo contribute to the film overall?
We were quite involved early on. Hobo producer Mary Valentino and I first met with execs at production company Every Hill Films and discussed the project in length. They wanted to include some form of recreation footage in the series, so Mary worked with them to cast both the voiceover and on-camera talent for those segments.

We then brought the voice talent into our studios and did some voice comparisons to the original recordings of the actual women of Jonestown. The talent did a phenomenal job being truthful and accurate to the powerful women of Jonestown, which gave Every Hill a lot to work with to complete the edit and lock the cut.

Once the locked cut was delivered to us we began the full audio post process. Our senior sound designer Diego Jimenez went through the entire two-hour show and layered in sound design to give the re-creation and archival footage a more dramatic texture. He listened closely to the music that the producers had chosen and added in layered drones and synth sounds that made everything a bit more tension-filled. That elevated the entire soundtrack to a deeper and darker place in anticipation of the fateful ending.

I focused on the mix and finessed all of the music, archival dialogue, interviews, sound design and recreation recordings so that the arc of the show was always moving and always keeping the viewer interested in what was being told. There was a significant amount of audio restoration required for the archival, but in the end everything turned out crystal clear.

Was there a specific scene or part of the film that you found most challenging or creatively interesting?
We spent a couple rounds on the recreation voiceovers. We tried keeping the voices full frequency to give them more of a voiceover feeling, but in the end we felt that a slight “futzing” was necessary to make the voiceovers sound like they were coming from a different sound source like a telephone, old speaker or radio. For each character I did something a little different. I even took one of the main voiceovers and recorded it down to an old, used cassette tape. That gave it a nice saturation to the voice and gives a style of compression on the audio that you don’t always get from emulation plugins like Audio Ease’s Speakerphone and ones like it.

The goal was to make the voices feel like they were possibly the actual recordings of these Jonestown women telling their most intimate thoughts. In reality, I believe no recordings of these actually exist but were based on written journal entries from the women at the time.

Speaking broadly, is there something unique about the true crime genre of filmmaking and audio/sound design? Does this genre need something specific 

from audio that you see or hear less of in other genres like comedy or drama?The true crime genre is fascinating to me because it challenges us sound designers and audio engineers to realize that sometimes removing sounds is just as powerful as adding them. These stories, especially ones like Jonestown, that are based on a real event, can be dark to their core. Simply hearing someone tell you about it can impact viewers deeply. Adding dramatic hits and heavy drones under the most chilling moments can actually take away from those moments.

In the Jonestown special, one of those moments occurs when the actual people involved with Jim James and his movement are talking about how the parents were asked to send their children to drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid first. I can’t even imagine that feeling, so I felt it needed to stand almost on its own without any audio flourishes. The words alone hit you like nothing else could. Less is very much more in that scene.

What technology did you rely on for this project?
Avid Pro Tools 12 HD, Soundminer, Izotope RX6 Advanced, some custom tools created at Hobo for the darker drones and sounds, Audio Ease’s Speakerphone and my timeless old boom-box.

Hobo, Gigantic talk about their audio post work for ‘Weiner’

The country watched in amazement as popular New York congressman Anthony Weiner sexted and lied his way out of office. When he came back, this time making a run for mayor of New York City, we were mesmerized once more at the true drama — and proverbial train wreck — that was enfolding in front of us. This story is the focus of the new documentary, Weiner.

As is the case with most documentaries, audio post can be a huge challenge. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the Sundance-winning Weiner, currently in theaters, VOD and airing on Showtime in October, was definitely no exception.

As they have several times in the past, New York-based audio post studios Gigantic Post (audio mix) and Hobo (sound and dialogue editing) teamed to handle the complex audio project.

postPerspective caught up with mixer Tom Paul of Gigantic Post and the Hobo team, which included Chris Stangroom, Stephen Davies and Julian Angel, to talk about their work on the film.

Creatively, what were some of the key challenges you faced with the Weiner project?
Chris Stangroom: As with most documentaries, the vérité style of the film and the varied audio sources used proved especially challenging. A lot of the audio sources we were dealing with came from old news footage, cell phone cameras and the filmmakers themselves shooting in a guerilla-style.

We needed to clean all that up — the harsh drones, crackles and blaring sounds of city life. More so than other film genres, nobody pays attention to the audio in docs unless something sounds wrong. Making sure all of the source audio was as clean as possible was paramount.

Tom Paul: I approach docs and narrative films in basically the same way. They are both stories being told with sound and picture. The biggest difference is that in some docs, the production sound is quite noisy and usually can’t be replaced, so the sonic space available for subtlety in the sound design is sometimes more limited.

What was your and the filmmakers’ “big picture” thinking about the film’s audio mix?
Paul: We tried to infuse the film with the sound of a high-energy campaign in the middle of New York City, and to contrast that with the intimacy of the Weiner’s personal and home life that the film was privileged to have access to.

Anthony Weiner was on a whirlwind ride through the campaign and media onslaught, and we wanted to bring the audience on that ride with him. We also played with subjectivity, reflecting the dramatic events that took place, sometimes from Anthony Weiner’s perspective.

Any particular scene or sequence that proved the most interesting creatively or difficult for you?
Paul: The Caribbean parade sequence was a big challenge, and a big, fun party, but we had the most fun doing the scene near the end, when “Pineapple” (Weiner’s campaign staffs’ code name for the for the woman Weiner was caught “sexting” with) was trying to crash their campaign-closing party.

Creating the feeling of tension as the Weiner crew approached the scene in their SUV, contrasting that with the stakeout awaiting them, and the ensuing pursuit through a McDonald’s and into the bowels of the back hallways and staircases on their way to their own party, was a blast. It feels like an action movie for a minute.

Julian Angel: For me, the Caribbean parade scene was particularly complex because of the extreme noise level. Weiner is yelling into the megaphone, the crowds are almost louder than he is and booming music from the floats is everywhere, yet somehow we had to clear out all of that noise and focus viewers on what Weiner was actually saying and, more importantly, what the scene represents in the context of the film.

Stephen, you and Julian are credited as sound editors. What did that entail?
Stephen Davies: Julian and I concentrated primarily on finding the right city ambiences to use, and layering them so they sounded natural and believable. The challenge sonically was to make it all feel like one cohesive world.

What tools did you guys use on this film?
On Hobo’s side, we were using Avid Pro Tools|12 HD across the board. We use Soundminer for all of our sound effects organization and design work. I also used Izotope’s RX 5 Pro a lot for the dialogue (Spectral Repair and De-reverb mostly.Occasionally, EQ Match and Ambience Match come in handy as well). And of course that Hobo love… couldn’t do it without the camaraderie.

Tom also uses Pro Tools HD and works on an Avid ICON D-Control console for the final mix.  We are all huge fans of Altiverb for reverbs, as well as Speakerphone and Revibe on occasion.

Tom, you’ve worked with Hobo several times prior to Weiner. What did they bring to the project and how would you describe the working relationship between the two companies?
Paul: I love Hobo. Howard Bowler, Hobo’s founder/president, and his team have been strong allies over the years on many projects. I know for certain that when I bring them onto a film I am doing, they will deliver not only impeccably crafted work, but also work done with their passion for storytelling.

Quick Chat: Hobo’s Howard Bowler talks about his pot reform campaign

By Randi Altman

The president of audio post house Hobo in New York City has a passion project, and it involves legalizing marijuana — you know, weed, pot, grass, Mary Jane, kush, bud. That stuff. The “End Prohibition Now” PSA campaign, which was funded, produced and posted by Hobo, supports reform in marijuana enforcement policies.

The campaign is made up of TV, radio and Internet ads targeting states that will be voting to legalize marijuana. Hobo (@hoboaudio) has made these spots available for free to broadcast outlets and organizations interested in spreading the word about this issue. All of the spots can be customized for different regions. Check out the video spot here, and the radio spot here.

Let’s find out why this is such an important topic to Hobo and Bowler, and how they went about conceiving, producing and posting the campaign.

You funded this campaign yourself?
Yes. The more I learned about the origin of prohibition, the more I realized these laws have a complex political history that is not based on science or health, and yet their social impact is huge. Last year alone 700,000 people were arrested on Marijuana related charges. Think about that. That’s more than for all violent crimes combined. It makes no sense.

So I could see that there was a lot to this issue and that the current efforts of organizations like MPP (Marijuana Policy Project), NORML, LEAP, and DPA (Drug Policy Alliance) could benefit from professional creative marketing support.

Why is this such an important message for you to spread?
Two members of my family were arrested, and although the charges were eventually dropped it was costly to get them out of the system. The whole experience made me wonder why marijuana was illegal in the first place. What I found out about the history of prohibition got me angry, and then it got me thinking.

You acted as creative director on these. How did you come up with the concept, etc.?
I’m very interested in history, politics, science, culture and the arts, and all of these subjects intersect with marijuana. Take for example this line from one of the radio spots, where a voiceover actor portraying President Richard Nixon says, “Everyone of those bastards out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.” That’s a direct quote from a secret White House recording made during a discussion on whether marijuana should be legalized. I didn’t make it up. It’s the most fertile creative soil I’ve seen in a long time. There is so much material.

How did you work with the animator/editor on this? The animation was new, but given a vintage look?
We worked with editor Matt Hartman on the visuals. He had to get very creative since we had very little money to work with, so the public domain footage was actually vintage. A Google search turned up the usable footage we needed. He edited with an Avid Media Composer and did the motion graphics in Adobe After Effects. Everyone who has seen the spot tells me it was eye opening. I thank Matt for the excellent job highlighting those pesky facts.

Are there more spots to come? 
There are a lot more in the works. Many at Hobo have been contributing to the creative effort. Chris Stangroom (VP at Hobo) has written several of the spots. Julian Angel and LoudPack Zack have contributed music. All the guys have helped with the mixes.  It’s a team effort.

Can you talk about the mix and what gear was used?
Pro Tools|HD, various plug-ins, VO recorded with a Neumann U87 mic. The music was recorded with Pro Tools.

GP PSA 1 Five Classes

Anything else we should know?
We learned throughout this process that when one is passionate about a subject that passion can turn into power. We even wrote a song about it that we plan to release at a later date with the line, “Guided by the light of justice, with a gospel ever strong, we welcome you to freedom with a liberation song.” When it comes to ending prohibition that sums up everything we’re doing.