By Jennifer Walden
HBO wrapped up its seventh and final season of Veep back in May, so sadly, we had to say goodbye to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ morally flexible and potty-mouthed Selina Meyer. And while Selina’s political career was a bit rocky at times, the series was rock-solid — as evidenced by its 17 Emmy wins and 68 nominations over show’s seven-year run.
For re-recording mixers William Freesh and John W. Cook II, this is their third Emmy nomination for Sound Mixing on Veep. This year, they entered the series finale — Season 7, Episode 7 “Veep” — for award consideration.
Veep post sound editing and mixing was handled at NBCUniversal Studio Post in Los Angeles. In the midst of Emmy fever, we caught up with re-recording mixer Cook (who won a past Emmy for the mix on Scrubs) and Veep supervising sound editor Sue Cahill (winner of two past Emmys for her work on Black Sails).
Here, Cook and Cahill talk about how Veep’s sound has grown over the years, how they made the rapid-fire jokes crystal clear, and the challenges they faced in crafting the series’ final episode — like building the responsive convention crowds, mixing the transitions to and from the TV broadcasts, and cutting that epic three-way argument between Selina, Uncle Jeff and Jonah.
You’ve been with Veep since 2016? How has your approach to the show changed over the years?
John W. Cook II: Yes, we started when the series came to the states (having previously been posted in England with series creator Armando Iannucci).
Sue Cahill: Dave Mandel became the showrunner, starting with Season 5, and that’s when we started.
Cook: When we started mixing the show, production sound mixer Bill MacPherson and I talked a lot about how together we might improve the sound of the show. He made some tweaks, like trying out different body mics and negotiating with our producers to allow for more boom miking. Notwithstanding all the great work Bill did before Season 5, my job got consistently easier over Seasons 5 through 7 because of his well-recorded tracks.
Also, some of our tools have changed in the last three years. We installed the Avid S6 console. This, along with a handful of new plugins, has helped us work a little faster.
Cahill: In the dialogue editing process this season, we started using a tool called Auto-Align Post from Sound Radix. It’s a great tool that allowed us to cut both the boom and the ISO mics for every clip throughout the show and put them in perfect phase. This allowed John the flexibility to mix both together to give it a warmer, richer sound throughout. We lean heavily on the ISO mics, but being able to mix in the boom more helped the overall sound.
Cook: You get a bit more depth. Body mics tend to be more flat, so you have to add a little bit of reverb and a lot of EQing to get it to sound as bright and punchy as the boom mic. When you can mix them together, you get a natural reverb on the sound that gives the dialogue more depth. It makes it feel like it’s in the space more. And it requires a little less EQing on the ISO mic because you’re not relying on it 100%. When the Auto-Align Post technology came out, I was able to use both mics together more often. Before Auto-Align, I would shy away from doing that if it was too much work to make them sound in-phase. The plugin makes it easier to use both, and I find myself using the boom and ISO mics together more often.
The dialogue on the show has always been rapid-fire, and you really want to hear every joke. Any tools or techniques you use to help the dialogue cut through?
Cook: In my chain, I’m using FabFilter Pro-Q 2 a lot, EQing pretty much every single line in the show. FabFilter’s built-in spectrum analyzer helps get at that target EQ that I’m going for, for every single line in the show.
In terms of compression, I’m doing a lot of gain staging. I have five different points in the chain where I use compression. I’m never trying to slam it too much, just trying to tap it at different stages. It’s a music technique that helps the dialogue to never sound squashed. Gain staging allows me to get a little more punch and a little more volume after each stage of compression.
Cahill: On the editing side, it starts with digging through the production mic tracks to find the cleanest sound. The dialogue assembly on this show is huge. It’s 13 tracks wide for each clip, and there are literally thousands of clips. The show is very cutty, and there are tons of overlaps. Weeding through all the material to find the best lav mics, in addition to the boom, really takes time. It’s not necessarily the character’s lav mic that’s the best for a line. They might be speaking more clearly into the mic of the person that is right across from them. So, listening to every mic choice and finding the best lav mics requires a couple days of work before we even start editing.
Also, we do a lot of iZotope RX work in editing before the dialogue reaches John’s hands. That helps to improve intelligibility and clear up the tracks before John works his magic on it.
Is it hard to find alternate production takes due to the amount of ad-libbing on the show? Do you find you do a lot of ADR?
Cahill: Exactly, it’s really hard to find production alts in the show because there is so much improv. So, yeah, it takes extra time to find the cleanest version of the desired lines. There is a significant amount of ADR in the show. In this episode in particular, we had 144 lines of principal ADR. And, we had 250 cues of group. It’s pretty massive.
There must’ve been so much loop group in the “Veep” episode. Every time they’re in the convention center, it’s packed with people!
Cook: There was the larger convention floor to consider, and the people that were 10 to 15 feet away from whatever character was talking on camera. We tried to balance that big space with the immediate space around the characters.
This particular Veep episode has a chaotic vibe. The main location is the nomination convention. There are huge crowds, TV interviews (both in the convention hall and also playing on Selina’s TV in her skybox suite and hotel room) and a big celebration at the end. Editorially, how did you approach the design of this hectic atmosphere?
Cahill: Our sound effects editor Jonathan Golodner had a lot of recordings from prior national conventions. So those recordings are used throughout this episode. It really gives the convention center that authenticity. It gave us the feeling of those enormous crowds. It really helped to sell the space, both when they are on the convention floor and from the skyboxes.
The loop group we talked about was a huge part of the sound design. There were layers and layers of crafted walla. We listened to a lot of footage from past conventions and found that there is always a speaker on the floor giving a speech to ignite the crowd, so we tried to recreate that in loop group. We did some speeches that we played in the background so we would have these swells of the crowd and crowd reactions that gave the crowd some movement so that it didn’t sound static. I felt like it gave it a lot more life.
We recreated chanting in loop group. There was a chant for Tom James (Hugh Laurie), which was part of production. They were saying, “Run Tom Run!” We augmented that with group. We changed the start of that chant from where it was in production. We used the loop group to start that chant sooner.
Cook: The Tom James chant was one instance where we did have production crowd. But most of the time, Sue was building the crowds with the loop group.
Cahill: I used casting director Barbara Harris for loop group, and throughout the season we had so many different crowds and rallies — both interior and exterior — that we built with loop group because there wasn’t enough from production. We had to hit on all the points that they are talking about in the story. Jonah (Timothy Simons) had some fun rallies this season.
Cook: Those moments of Jonah’s were always more of a “call-and-response”-type treatment.
The convention location offered plenty of opportunity for creative mixing. For example, the episode starts with Congressman Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) addressing the crowd from the podium. The shot cuts to a CBSN TV broadcast of him addressing the crowd. Next the shot cuts to Selina’s skybox, where they’re watching him on TV. Then it’s quickly back to Furlong in the convention hall, then back to the TV broadcast, and back to Selina’s room — all in the span of seconds. Can you tell me about your mix on that sequence?
Cook: It was about deciding on the right reverb for the convention center and the right reverbs for all the loop group and the crowds and how wide to be (how much of the surrounds we used) in the convention space. Cutting to the skybox, all of that sound was mixed to mono, for the most part, and EQ’d a little bit. The producers didn’t want to futz it too much. They wanted to keep the energy, so mixing it to mono was the primary way of dealing with it.
Whenever there was a graphic on the lower third, we talked about treating that sound like it was news footage. But we decided we liked the energy of it being full fidelity for all of those moments we’re on the convention floor.
Another interesting thing was the way that Bill Freesh and I worked together. Bill was handling all of the big cut crowds, and I was handling the loop group on my side. We were trying to walk the line between a general crowd din on the convention floor, where you always felt like it was busy and crowded and huge, along with specific reactions from the loop group reacting to something that Furlong would say, or later in the show, reacting to Selina’s acceptance speech. We always wanted to play reactions to the specifics, but on the convention floor it never seems to get quiet. There was a lot of discussion about that.
Even though we cut from the convention center into the skybox, those considerations about crowd were still in play — whether we were on the convention floor or watching the convention through a TV monitor.
You did an amazing job on all those transitions — from the podium to the TV broadcast to the skybox. It felt very real, very natural.
Cook: Thank you! That was important to us, and certainly important to the producers. All the while, we tried to maintain as much energy as we could. Once we got the sound of it right, we made sure that the volume was kept up enough so that you always felt that energy.
It feels like the backgrounds never stop when they’re in the convention hall. In Selina’s skybox, when someone opens the door to the hallway, you hear the crowd as though the sound is traveling down the hallway. Such a great detail.
Cook and Cahill: Thank you!
For the background TV broadcasts feeding Selina info about the race — like Buddy Calhoun (Matt Oberg) talking about the transgender bathrooms — what was your approach to mixing those in this episode? How did you decide when to really push them forward in the mix and when to pull back?
Cook: We thought about panning. For the most part, our main storyline is in the center. When you have a TV running in the background, you can pan it off to the side a bit. It’s amazing how you can keep the volume up a little more without it getting in the way and masking the primary characters’ dialogue.
It’s also about finding the right EQ so that the TV broadcast isn’t sharing the same EQ bandwidth as the characters in the room.
Compression plays a role too, whether that’s via a plugin or me riding the fader. I can manually do what a side-chained compressor can do by just riding the fader and pulling the sound down when necessary or boosting it when there’s a space between dialogue lines from the main characters. The challenge is that there is constant talking on this show.
Going back to what has changed over the last three years, one of the things that has changed is that we have more time per episode to mix the show. We got more and more time from the first mix to the last mix. We have twice as much time to mix the show.
Even with all the backgrounds happening in Veep, you never miss the dialogue lines. Except, there’s a great argument that happens when Selina tells Jonah he’s going to be vice president. His Uncle Jeff (Peter MacNicol) starts yelling at him, and then Selina joins in. And Jonah is yelling back at them. It’s a great cacophony of insults. Can you tell me about that scene?
Cahill: Those 15 seconds of screen time took us several hours of work in editorial. Dave (Mandel) said he couldn’t understand Selina clearly enough, but he didn’t want to loop the whole argument. Of course, all three characters are overlapped — you can hear all of them on each other’s mics — so how do you just loop Selina?
We started with an extensive production alt search that went back and forth through the cutting room a few times. We decided that we did need to ADR Selina. So we ended up using a combination of mostly ADR for Selina’s side with a little bit of production.
For the other two characters, we wanted to save their production lines, so our dialogue editor Jane Boegel (she’s the best!) did an amazing job using iZotope RX’s De-bleed feature to clear Selina’s voice out of their mics, so we could preserve their performances.
We didn’t loop any of Uncle Jeff, and it was all because of Jane’s work cleaning out Selina. We were able to save all of Uncle Jeff. It’s mostly production for Jonah, but we did have to loop a few words for him. So it was ADR for Selina, all of Uncle Jeff and nearly all of Jonah from set. Then, it was up to John to make it match.
Cook: For me, in moments like those, it’s about trying to get equal volumes for all the characters involved. I tried to make Selina’s yelling and Uncle Jeff’s yelling at the exact same level so the listener’s ear can decide what it wants to focus on rather than my mix telling you what to focus on.
Another great mix sequence was Selina’s nomination for president. There’s a promo video of her talking about horses that’s playing back in the convention hall. There are multiple layers of processing happening — the TV filter, the PA distortion and the convention hall reverb. Can you tell me about the processing on that scene?
Cook: Oftentimes, when I do that PA sound, it’s a little bit of futzing, like rolling off the lows and highs, almost like you would do for a small TV. But then you put a big reverb on it, with some pre-delay on it as well, so you hear it bouncing off the walls. Once you find the right reverb, you’re also hearing it reflecting off the walls a little bit. Sometimes I’ll add a little bit of distortion as well, as if it’s coming out of the PA.
When Selina is backstage talking with Gary (Tony Hale), I rolled off a lot more of the highs on the reverb return on the promo video. Then, in the same way I’d approach levels with a TV in the room, I was riding the level on the promo video to fit around the main characters’ dialogue. I tried to push it in between little breaks in the conversation, pulling it down lower when we needed to focus on the main characters.
What was the most challenging scene for you to mix?
Cook: I would say the Tom James chanting was challenging because we wanted to hear the chant from inside the skybox to the balcony of the skybox and then down on the convention floor. There was a lot of conversation about the microphones from Mike McLintock’s (Matt Walsh) interview. The producers decided that since there was a little bit of bleed in the production already, they wanted Mike’s microphone to be going out to the PA speakers in the convention hall. You hear a big reverb on Tom James as well. Then, the level of all the loop group specifics and chanting — from the ramp up of the chanting from zero to full volume — we negotiated with the producers. That was one of the more challenging scenes.
The acceptance speech was challenging too, because of all of the cutaways. There is that moment with Gary getting arrested by the FBI; we had to decide how much of that we wanted to hear.
There was the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that played over all the characters’ banter following Selina’s acceptance speech. We had to balance the dialogue with the desire to crank up that track as much as we could.
There were so many great moments this season. How did you decide on the series finale episode, “Veep,” for Emmy consideration for Sound Mixing?
Cook: It was mostly about story. This is the end of a seven-year run (a three-year run for Sue and I), but the fact that every character gets a moment — a wrap-up on their character — makes me nostalgic about this episode in that way.
It also had some great sound challenges that came together nicely, like all the different crowds and the use of loop group. We’ve been using a lot of loop group on the show for the past three years, but this episode had a particularly massive amount of loop group.
The producers were also huge fans of this episode. When I talked to Dave Mandel about which episode we should put up, he recommended this one as well.
Any other thoughts you’d like to add on the sound of Veep?
Cook: I’m going to miss Veep a lot. The people on it, like Dave Mandel, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Morgan Sackett … everyone behind the credenza. They were always working to create an even better show. It was a thrill to be a team member. They always treated us like we were in it together to make something great. It was a pleasure to work with people that recognize and appreciate the time and the heart that we contribute. I’ll miss working with them.
Cahill: I agree with John. On that last playback, no one wanted to leave the stage. Dave brought champagne, and Julia brought chocolates. It was really hard to say goodbye.