Multi-Oscar Winning Sound Designer Lon Bender on Tarzan, Pro Tools, and a Collaborative Sound-Editing Workflow

After more than three decades in the film sound business, many people would be looking at retirement homes, not major professional epiphanies. But multi-Oscar winning supervising sound editor and sound designer Lon Bender [IMDb resume] took a side road onto the Great White Way that changed the way Broadway looks at sound. In the process, Bender, who is finishing work on director Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond, found that it was changing the way he approaches sound for picture, as well.
Bender became chief creative officer at Ascent Media’s Soundelux division last January, a move that didn’t exactly presage his involvement with the Broadway version of Tarzan. But Bender had worked on film projects with Tom Schumacher, the head of Disney’s Broadway division and its former chief of animation operations, who tapped him to create a soundscape for the show. The assignment dovetailed nicely with Bender’s just-completed stint supervising sound editing on The Producers – perhaps the ultimate comic take on a Broadway play.

“We have the world’s largest sound effects library at Soundelux ‘ 300,000 sound bites – and I used a lot of them on Tarzan,” he says. Bender’s sound designs were assembled into cues that would be activated by the live sound mixer at each performance. “Unlike in film, nothing is in sync in the theater,” he explains. “The mixer hits ‘go’ and the piece [a kind of macro made up of various sound elements] plays and it has to have a manual stop point, because you never know exactly how long something will run on stage. It’s different every night.”

Instead of synced sound sources, Bender learned to work with the main sound engine of Broadway production, Level Control System’s LCS matrix controller. “Instead of panning across an LCRS array, we were assigning sounds to any of 39 speakers in the theater,” he says. “It wasn’t so much surround sound as it was highly localized, fast-moving sounds within the larger soundscape that brought surround to the balconies.” Bender built the sound designs at Steiner Studios in Manhattan, where he had another epiphany ‘ his first time using Pro Tools.

Bender spent two more months working 12 hours a day assembling the soundscape inside the Richard Rodgers Theater, working alongside choreographers blocking moves, costumers sewing garments, and Phil Collins – who was there teaching his songs to the actors. “That was an amazing experience,” says Bender. “Working with all of the crafts as a team, and also getting to immediately see how your work impacts the performances of the actors on a nightly basis.”

And that would change the workflow on Blood Diamond. One of the first things Bender did as sound designer and supervising sound editor on the project was to link all of the sound editors via Apple’s iChat video/audio network with webcams mounted atop each workstation screen. “What I got out of working on Tarzan was a sense of community, and I believe that is what made the show so good,” he says. “I wanted that same sense of community working as we did the sound for the film. Using iChat, we have been able to speak face-to-face while reviewing specific sessions in Pro Tools. This has allowed the editor and I to see the session and each other at the same time. We feel very connected, and it shows in the work and the workflow. Everyone had more of a shared sense of commitment to the film and to each other."

This sense of community was especially useful because the film’s diverse array of effects was being generated on a category basis ‘ one editor handled gunshots, another car sounds, and so on. It helped them maintain sonic continuity as well as simply manage the sheer number of effects being created. Two Soundelux locations, in Hollywood and West Los Angeles, were used simultaneously along with the 20th Century Fox mixing stage. And Bender was striving to re-capture that uncommon vitality he discovered on the New York stage. “The Broadway experience really showed me the impact that the sounds had on their visceral experience,” he recalls. “I don't usually get that type of feedback in the dubbing environment, so the effect has really been to my sense of adventure in trying surprising sounds to evoke emotion.”

The redoubled efforts, both creatively and in terms of workflow, were noticed by director Zwick, who Bender says was “surprised” by Blood Diamond‘s vivid, lifelike sound effects. “You can give the close interaction of the creative staff credit for that,” he says. “I would also say that it really makes communication effective when it comes to logistics as much as anything.”

Moving the mix out of Soundelux to Fox necessitated going outside of Soundelux’s high-GB server network. A remote server was set up that could send any request for edits or additional sound elements from the mix stage back to the appropriate editor at Soundelux, up to and including accessing additional ADR or Foley work. Any changes would be done within Soundelux’s secure network, and then sent back to Fox's machine room.

That Blood Mountain would represent Bender’s Pro Tools debut might seem unlikely given that most of the industry embraced the tool 15 years ago, but Bender says his supervisory roles on films and executive positions at Ascent Media over the last decade never necessitated his learning it. It took Tarzan to get him hands-on.

“I was a supervisor and an executive during the transition to digital,” he explains. “I was in a design-review mode, not really an edit one. And on Tarzan I was literally the only audio guy other than the live sound mixer. I had to learn Pro Tools for that. I was on my own. So what I did for Blood Diamond was to assemble all of the sound elements, about 120 tracks, into a single ‘super session’ on Pro Tools. That allowed me to have a good overview of the tracks as they came together and let me level them as we went along, too.”

However, Bender still cherishes the traditional mix. “Another reason I never had gotten to Pro Tools myself was that my job on the mix stage is to listen – to the sound, to the director,” he says. “At some point in that process, I become an audience for the film. I can’t achieve that if I’m on a computer.”

Bender says Blood Diamond is the most complicated soundtrack he’s ever worked on, both because of the number and complexity of elements – a recordist spent weeks in Sierra Leone tracking Krio and Mede dialects to create authentic walla tracks – and because of his newfound perspective from Tarzan and even The Producers. “[The Producers director] Susan Strohman is a dancer and a choreographer, and that translated into the sound for that movie,” Bender comments. “Things always had to land exactly on the beat. I’ve never heard sound so precisely synced before. But it has affected my sense of timing for the better from now on. Imagine that ‘ 30 years in the business and I’m still learning something new every day.”