Mixing Live and Pre-taped Beatles Renditions for a Sprawling Psychedelic Romance

Director Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe could be the first western film to follow the Bollywood formula ‘ it’s a drama/musical/warflick/love story that compresses the sixties – anti-war protests, civil rights, the Detroit riots, Vietnam and psychedelia – into two hours surrounded (literally) by a 5.1 soundtrack of Beatles songs, including the title track. That's nearly as complex as what faced the mixing team when they headed into Sound One in New York this summer to assemble the flick’s audio. The sound stage’s 80-fader AMS Neve DFC had 384 inputs and needed most of them to handle 128 channels of music and several dozen channels each of dialog (there are scores of speaking parts; the film’s IMDB entry spills off the page), sound design and SFX, pulling audio in from four Digidesign Pro Tools HD (v.7.3.1) workstations.
“Wo do the temp mixes, just so we could start getting a handle on it,” says Lee Dichter, who mixed the film along with Rob Fernandez. When the final mix was ready to begin, it was preceded by six days of dialog premixing and a full week of music premixes.
Focus on Vocals
Universe is, at its core, a musical, and as such, says Dichter, the overarching requirement is to make the vocals believable. The songs were recorded in a Los Angeles music studio under the guidance of music producer T-Bone Burnett (who won a Grammy for his music work on the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but the cast also sang their parts on location (recorded by Todd Maitland) and both sets of vocals were used in the mix.

The music tracks for “Universe” actually began production in the summer of 2005, with music producers Burnett, Elliot Goldenthal and Teese Gohl working with recording engineers Joel Iwataki and Burnett’s longtime technical collaborator Mike Piersante. At that time, Taymor was beginning rehearsals with the cast at Manhattan Center Studios in New York, where each actor’s vocals could be recorded, as well, against the equivalent of a demo track played by just two musicians in an iso booth. But they didn’t skimp on the microphones; Iwataki used high-end Neumann U-67 and Telefunken U-47 tube condenser microphones, and took the additional step of rerecording each vocal using lavalier and shotgun microphones of the type used for location sound. They recorded 31 songs in two days that way, a marathon that Iwataki says resulted in several performances prized more for sincerity than perfection, and that eventually made their way into the film because of that.

The vocals would be married, via time code, to music tracks being built by the producers at Manhattan Center and at The Village Studios in Los Angeles, one of Burnett’s favorite locations for film music. The prime directive was to keep the track as close to the spirit of the Beatles as possible. To that end, Iwataki and Piersante chose analog technology, including 24-track, two-inch tapes decks and processors such as Fairchild comp/limiters, Neve 1073 and 1081 mic-pre’s, and a Chandler Ltd. TG1 limiter, a replica of the original EMI Studios TG12413 compressor used on several Beatles’ records and never commercially available outside Abbey Road Studios. “In L.A., they had Jim Keltner, who played drums with all of the Beatles individually at some point, play on some of the tracks,” says Iwataki. “The pursuit of authenticity went pretty far.”

The basic tracks were then transferred to a Pro Tools HD system for overdubs, editing and premixes. That process was truly transcontinental, with hard drives being expressed between Manhattan Center and The Village and smaller vocal and overdub files being sent via FTP or Digidesign’s DigiDelivery service. Music Editor Curtis Roush kept track of the traffic, which increased as several songs had to be completely rearranged to match the evolving picture and choreography.

Live or Memorex?
“The music producers made most of the decisions in terms of which vocals ‘ production or pre-recorded ‘ to use at each point in each song,” says Dichter. “But the challenge in any musical is to have the dialog and the vocals transition seamlessly.”

For starters, Dichter made a point of not filtering or processing any of the dialog tracks in the predub stage; instead, processing was laid over the comped vocals, mostly a small room or plate reverb effect from a TC Electronic TC6000 multichannel processor, which could let the processing follow the vocal across the LCR array of the 5.1 mix. “The vocals matched up very well between production and prerecords because the singers were wearing earwigs during shooting, so they could hear their own vocals that they cut in the studio earlier,” Dichter explains. “Sometimes were would switch between production and prerecorded vocals several times within the same song during the mix.”

Audio Follows Picture
The George Harrison song “Something” is an example. When Jude (Jim Sturgess) sings the song to Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), the vocal initially is from the production audio. “There’s a tight shot on screen,” says Dichter. “Halfway through the song the picture goes to a long shot and we switch at that same moment to the [studio] track, then back to the production audio for the end of the song. A combination of reverb and the layering of the music tracks makes the vocal transitions seamless.” Ultimately, about half of the final vocals used in the mix were those taken from the production audio tracks.

The music arrived at Sound One as unity-gain stems, with the elements within each stem also available as individual tracks. “The mixes were about eighty percent done when they reached us,” says Dichter. “What we had to do was fine-tune the levels to fit the action on the screen.” Dichter, a Beatles fan, says he used the original recordings as a reference and that he was a little overwhelmed by the film’s music tracks ability to elicit the feel of the originals. “The arrangements were different in some cases, but they used the same instruments the Beatles used on their recordings and they recorded all of it to analog multitrack tape,” he says. “The original feeling of the records is very present in those tracks.”

Rob Fernandez worked closely with sound FX designer Blake Leyh as the film’s sound progressed, so he knew what was coming at the mix. Still, a musical requires special tricks to keep everything in line to support the narrative. When certain sound effects were called for to occur during a song, they would need to be tuned ‘ literally pitched to the key of the song, using the pitch shift function of Pro Tools. “It might be a car door or phone ringing, and by pitching it to the same key as the music, you can keep the effect very much present but without it being distracting,” he explains.

A lengthy and complex mix achieved what Dichter says is crucial to all musicals: supporting the narrative. “The Beatles songs are great, and it was a thrill to work with them,” he says. “But in the end, it’s always all about the story.”