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True Detective’s quiet, tense Emmy-nominated sound

By Jennifer Walden

When there’s nothing around, there’s no place to hide. That’s why quiet soundtracks can be the most challenging to create. Every flaw in the dialogue — every hiss, every off-mic head turn, every cloth rustle against the body mic — stands out. Every incidental ambient sound — bugs, birds, cars, airplanes — stands out. Even the noise-reduction processing to remove those flaws can stand out, particularly when there’s a minimalist approach to sound effects and score.

That is the reason why the sound editing and mixing on Season 3 of HBO’s True Detective has been recognized with Emmy nominations. The sound team put together a quiet, tense soundtrack that perfectly matched the tone of the show.

L to R: Micah Loken, Tateum Kohut, Mandell Winter, David Esparza and Greg Orloff.

We reached out to the team at Sony Pictures Post Production Services to talk about the work — supervising sound editor Mandell Winter; sound designer David Esparza, MPSE; dialogue editor Micah Loken; as well as re-recording mixers Tateum Kohut and Greg Orloff (who mixed the show in 5.1 surround on an Avid S6 console at Deluxe Hollywood Stage 5.)

Of all the episodes in Season 3 of True Detective, why did you choose “The Great War and Modern Memory” for award consideration for sound editing?
Mandell Winter: This episode had a little bit of everything. We felt it represented the season pretty well.

David Esparza: It also sets the overall tone of the season.

Why this episode for sound mixing?
Tateum Kohut: The episode had very creative transitions, and it set up the emotion of our main characters. It establishes the three timelines that the season takes place in. Even though it didn’t have the most sound or the most dynamic sound, we chose it because, overall, we were pleased with the soundtrack, as was HBO. We were all pleased with the outcome.

Greg Orloff: We looked at Episode 5 too, “If You Have Ghosts,” which had a great seven-minute set piece with great action and cool transitions. But overall, Episode 1 was more interesting sonically. As an episode, it had great transitions and tension all throughout, right from the beginning.

Let’s talk about the amazing dialogue on this show. How did you get it so clean while still retaining all the quality and character?
Winter: Geoffrey Patterson was our production sound mixer, and he did a great job capturing the tracks. We didn’t do a ton of ADR because our dialogue editor, Micah Loken, was able to do quite a bit with the dialogue edit.

Micah Loken: Both the recordings and acting were great. That’s one of the most crucial steps to a good dialogue edit. The lead actors — Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff — had beautiful and engaging performances and excellent resonance to their voices. Even at a low-level whisper, the character and quality of the voice was always there; it was never too thin. By using the boom, the lav, or a special combination of both, I was able to dig out the timbre while minimizing noise in the recordings.

What helped me most was Mandell and I had the opportunity to watch the first two episodes before we started really digging in, which provided a macro view into the content. Immediately, some things stood out, like the fact that it was wall-to-wall dialogue on each episode, and that became our focus. I noticed that on-set it was hot; the exterior shots were full of bugs and the actors would get dry mouths, which caused them to smack their lips — which is commonly over-accentuated in recordings. It was important to minimize anything that wasn’t dialogue while being mindful to maintain the quality and level of the voice. Plus, the story was so well-written that it became a personal endeavor to bring my A game to the team. After completion, I would hand off the episode to Mandell and our dialogue mixer, Tateum.

Kohut: I agree. Geoffrey Patterson did an amazing job. I know he was faced with some challenges and environmental issues there in northwest Arkansas, especially on the exteriors, but his tracks were superbly recorded.

Mandell and Micah did an awesome job with the prep, so it made my job very pleasurable. Like Micah said, the deep booming voices of our two main actors were just amazing. We didn’t want to go too far with noise reduction in order to preserve that quality, and it did stand out. I did do more d-essing and d-ticking using iZotope RX 7 and FabFilter Pro-Q 2 to knock down some syllables and consonants that were too sharp, just because we had so much close-up, full-frame face dialogue that we didn’t want to distract from the story and the great performances that they were giving. But very little noise reduction was needed due to the well-recorded tracks. So my job was an absolute pleasure on the dialogue side.

Their editing work gave me more time to focus on the creative mixing, like weaving in the music just the way that series creator Nic Pizzolatto and composer T Bone Burnett wanted, and working with Greg Orloff on all these cool transitions.

We’re all very happy with the dialogue on the show and very proud of our work on it.

Loken: One thing that I wanted to remain cognizant of throughout the dialogue edit was making sure that Tateum had a smooth transition from line to line on each of the tracks in Pro Tools. Some lines might have had more intrinsic bug sounds or unwanted ambience but, in general, during the moments of pause, I knew the background ambience of the show was probably going to be fairly mild and sparse.

Mandell, how does your approach to the dialogue on True Detective compare to Deadwood: The Movie, which also earned Emmy nominations this year for sound editing and mixing?
Winter: Amazingly enough, we had the same production sound mixer on both — Geoffrey Patterson. That helps a lot.

We had more time on True Detective than on Deadwood. Deadwood was just “go.” We did the whole film in about five or six weeks. For True Detective, we had 10 days of prep time before we hit a five-day mix. We also had less material to get through on an episode of True Detective within that time frame.

Going back to the mix on the dialogue, how did you get the whispering to sound so clear?
Kohut: It all boils down to how well the dialogue was recorded. We were able to preserve that whispering and get a great balance around it. We didn’t have to force anything through. So, it was well-recorded, well-prepped and it just fit right in.

Let’s talk about the space around the dialogue. What was your approach to world building for “The Great War And Modern Memory?” You’re dealing with three different timelines from three different eras: 1980, 1990, and 2015. What went into the sound of each timeline?
Orloff: It was tough in a way because the different timelines overlapped sometimes. We’d have a transition happening, but with the same dialogue. So the challenge became how to change the environments on each of those cuts. One thing that we did was to make the show as sparse as possible, particularly after the discovery of the body of the young boy Will Purcell (Phoenix Elkin). After that, everything in the town becomes quiet. We tried to take out as many birds and bugs as possible, as though the town had died along with the boy. From that point on, anytime we were in that town in the original timeline, it was dead-quiet. As we went on later, we were able to play different sounds for that location, as though the town is recovering.

The use of sound on True Detective is very restrained. Were the decisions on where to have sound and how much sound happening during editorial? Or were those decisions mostly made on the dub stage when all the elements were together? What were some factors that helped you determine what should play?
Esparza: Editorially, the material was definitely prepared with a minimalistic aesthetic in mind. I’m sure it got paired down even more once it got to the mix stage. The aesthetic of the True Detective series in general tends to be fairly minimalistic and atmospheric, and we continued with that in this third season.

Orloff: That’s purposeful, from the filmmakers on down. It’s all about creating tension. Sometimes the silence helps more to create tension than having a sound would. Between music and sound effects, this show is all about tension. From the very beginning, from the first frame, it starts and it never really lets up. That was our mission all along, to keep that tension. I hope that we achieved that.

That first episode — “The Great War And Modern Memory” — was intense even the first time we played it back, and I’ve seen it numerous times since, and it still elicits the same feeling. That’s the mark of great filmmaking and storytelling and hopefully we helped to support that. The tension starts there and stays throughout the season.

What was the most challenging scene for sound editorial in “The Great War And Modern Memory?” Why?
Winter: I would say it was the opening sequence with the kids riding the bikes.

Esparza: It was a challenge to get the bike spokes ticking and deciding what was going to play and what wasn’t going to play and how it was going to be presented. That scene went through a lot of work on the mix stage, but editorially, that scene took the most time to get right.

What was the most challenging scene to mix in that episode? Why?
Orloff: For the effects side of the mix, the most challenging part was the opening scene. We worked on that longer than any other scene in that episode. That first scene is really setting the tone for the whole season. It was about getting that right.

We had brilliant sound design for the bike spokes ticking that transitions into a watch ticking that transitions into a clock ticking. Even though there’s dialogue that breaks it up, you’re continuing with different transitions of the ticking. We worked on that both editorially and on the mix stage for a long time. And it’s a scene I’m proud of.

Kohut: That first scene sets up the whole season — the flashback, the memories. It was important to the filmmakers that we got that right. It turned out great, and I think it really sets up the rest of the season and the intensity that our actors have.

What are you most proud of in terms of sound this season on True Detective?
Winter: I’m most proud of the team. The entire team elevated each other and brought their A-game all the way around. It all came together this season.

Orloff: I agree. I think this season was something we could all be proud of. I can’t be complimentary enough about the work of Mandell, David and their whole crew. Everyone on the crew was fantastic and we had a great time. It couldn’t have been a better experience.

Esparza: I agree. And I’m very thankful to HBO for giving us the time to do it right and spend the time, like Mandell said. It really was an intense emotional project, and I think that extra time really paid off. We’re all very happy.

Winter: One thing we haven’t talked about was T Bone and his music. It really brought a whole other level to this show. It brought a haunting mood, and he always brings such unique tracks to the stage. When Tateum would mix them in, the whole scene would take on a different mood. The music at times danced that thin line, where you weren’t sure if it was sound design or music. It was very cool.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.


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