Making Glee Sing on Fox
Technicolor Sound Services Adds Lots of Reverb, Generous LFE
Making The TransitionsGlee has a split personality, says supervising sound editor John Benson, who spots the show at Technicolor Sound Services with co-supervising sound editor Gary Megregian and producer Alexis Martin. “The show is a constant contrast between the fantasy of the musical performances and the reality of a high-school drama,” he explains, emphasizing that the two never overlap. That makes the transitions from reality to fantasy and back as critical to the show’s audio as the music itself.
“The transitions are the most challenging aspects for us as mixers,” says Doug Andham, who mixes SFX and Foley as he shares rerecording mix duties with Joe Earle, who mixes dialog and music. “We play the almost like a music video, but the trick is to keep the audience from noticing that all the [ambient] sound is gone as we move into the music.”
Both the music and production audio are recorded to Pro Tools systems, and that’s where they stay through the mixes, which are done via a Digidesign Icon digital console. Earle and Andham stick with plug-in processing, though they’ve modified some of them for the show. “We’ve discovered how to get inside and program the [Digidesign] ReVibe plug-in rooms to simulate a Lexicon 480L,” Earle says proudly. “We try to keep it all in the box so if we have to move to another studio, or if M&E [music-and-effects] tracks are done, the automation can keep the reverb settings exactly the same,” Andham notes.
A Cappella EffectsEarle is full of praise for both Anders’ music productions and for the cast’s vocal talent, noting that some of the a cappella versions of songs use the vocals from the production audio. “Adam simulates the original productions of the songs, right down to some of the effects, which are printed on other tracks so we can take them out if needed,” he says. “The balances we get on the stage are more manicured to the visual image than to a record-style mix. If the shot moves from the lead vocalist to the chorus, for instance, I’ll raise the level of the chorus in the mix so it better follows the picture. It’s not something you’d do mixing a record, but we’re reaching for what coincides with the visual.”
Anders provides the mixers with stereo stems of vocals, guitars, drums and so on that they can mix or even leave out as they see fit, and while Earle says the final mixes are generally true to the mixes Anders delivers to them – via an FTP server, to keep the show’s complex post process on schedule – there are variations. As an example, he cites wheelchair-bound character Artie’s rendition of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” which Anders produced to reflect the high-energy performance of the original recording. “At the end of the music fantasy, Artie was alone on stage and it just felt right to pull all the music stems back except him and leave his vocal alone up there, too,” he says. “We have a lot of leeway to make decisions, which then are reviewed by Alexis, and it will usually stay that way until the playback is reviewed by the executive team.” Andham says the mixers’ creative latitude isn’t usually that radical, but the potential for nuance is enormous. “[Show co-creator] Ryan Murphy has a vision for the show that audio is a huge part of,” he says. “We have some leeway but we pretty much stick to the roadmap he and his partners have laid out. But we feel we have the freedom to try things out.”
Complex WorkflowWorkflow is an issue on a show as complex as Glee. “We have to mix a 43-minute show in a 10-hour day,” Earle observes. “In that time we have to reach the level of expectation they have for the show and be ready to present on the afternoon of the second day of the mix.” Much depends upon music editor David Klotz prepping the music stems that Anders sends over. After creating a new set of Pro Tools sessions for them, he’ll speed them up 0.1 percent to compensate for that much change in speed during the telecine process, to avoid lip-sync issues, which can be very noticeable in high definition. Klotz will send pared-down stereo mixes of the stems to picture editorial for them to cut to. In some cases, he’ll have to edit the music to fit a change in the picture edit. “If they need to shorten a performance for story purposes, I’ll work with picture editorial to find the best way to make the song work,” he explains. “And there are also occasions where they may have to add a few more frames of picture to match the music. It varies from track to track.”
The mixers say the combination of Pro Tools version 8 and the Icon console help speed things along. Of particular help is the combination of a Digidesign TC Electronic 6000 peak limiter and compressor, as well as the CEDAR DNS 1000, which they use to quickly clean up production audio and dialog artifacts. “The CEDAR plug-in can be automated to suppress the intrusive ambient sounds, leaving the dialogue frequencies relatively untouched,” Earle explains.
Mixing in SurroundHowever, many of the workflow technology choices, like the Focusrite D2 EQ plug-in, have as much to do with keeping it musical as they do with moving it along. It needs to do both since the program, including the music tracks, is mixed in 5.1 surround. “Fox has the best uncompressed 5.1 broadcast audio of all the networks, and we try to keep it that way,” says Earle. The effects and the music tracks are spread widely into the surround channels, with a slight digital delay added to the vocals in the rear channels, which Earle says gives them a bigger-sounding space. The lead vocals are recorded in stereo, which on a conventional music playback would create a “phantom” center for them. But for surround, Earle takes the lead vocal and puts it in the center channel, keeping supporting and chorus vocals in the surrounds, usually with plenty of reverb.
Another unique move is sending all of the music tracks, including the vocals, through the LFE channel. “It adds a lot of warmth to the sound and you’ll hear that in the home viewing experience,” says Earle confidently. Since the LFE rolls off at about 120 Hz, not much of what passes through it can actually be heard, but Earle says the ultimate effect is to beef up and create density in the subwoofer channel. “Compared to the mixes I do for other shows, this LFE is pretty hot,” he says.
Maintaining LoudnessGlee is also pretty loud ‘ something music mixers strive for on records. Earle says he takes full advantage of the extra 5 dB that Fox’s +19-dB peak-limit standard allows over those of other networks. “Our music Vu hovers around +14 to +16 dB, so it’s actually competitive with the commercials,” he says. “You get all the dynamic range possible. You can easily make out the stuff at the top end, like a clave or a side-stick. It sounds very musical.”
As it strives to balance reality and fantasy, in the end, Glee is a disjunctive and enjoyably snarky echo of the more earnest Fame, which also had a great soundtrack. It’s a place where people aspire and despair, win and lose, get hurt and hurt back, and then sing about it. It’s just like real life, only with more reverb.