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‘Les Miserables:’ The Audio Mastery in Mixing A ‘Live’ Musical Feature

Director Tom Hooper came up with an audacious idea for the film version of the smash hit musical Les Misérables. “In my first meeting with Tom, he said, ‘I don’t think we can make this movie unless we record the actors singing live,’” recounts production sound mixer Simon Hayes. “He made it very clear that he wanted the movie sung completely through from start to finish because he felt it would be very difficult for the audience to connect with mimed performances for two and a half hours.

Russell Crowe as Javert

“Not only did he want the cast to sing live, he didn’t want them tied to a pre-recorded music track,” Hayes continues. “He wanted the actors to be able to take pauses, to reflect on certain emotions within their performances, to basically set their tempo with their own thought processes as they were acting rather than having the tempo set by a pre-recorded music track. So we had two fantastically experienced Les Mis musicians sitting in a soundproof box off the set, playing a Yamaha electric piano, and we piped that into the actors’ earwigs so the piano wouldn’t pollute the live singing that we were recording. We gave the piano players a monitor of each camera—we generally shot with three: tight, mid and wide—and Tom expressed to the piano players that he didn’t want them to ever lead the actors; he wanted the actors’ performances to lead them. Then, later, the piano was replaced with orchestrations that were based around the vocal performances. The challenge for me was, first, recording clean live singing, and second, making sure the actors could always hear the piano in their earwigs.”

Those in-ear monitors were artfully painted out by the visual effects department in post, as were visible lavalier radio mics. (Hayes chose DPA 4071s “because their frequency response and the SPLs they can handle are very well suited to singing.”) In addition to an abundance of radio mics, Hayes and his crew used up to three booms—two Schoeps SuperCMIT shotguns to capture the solo performances as closely as possible, and a Neumann RSM 191 for “width and texture on the chorus numbers”—recorded to two Zaxcom Deva recorders routed through a pair of Audio Developments AD 149 12-channel mixers.

Music and dialogue mixer Andy Nelson—an 18-time Oscar nominee and a winner for this film and Saving Private Ryan—concedes that Hayes “was really the star on Les Mis for the recording; it’s the live singing that really carries the film. I did Les Mis right after Lincoln and used the same process: Let me go through every single microphone and clean it up and present it to the screen exactly how I want it to sound, and then add the music.

Sound mixers Simon Hayes, Mark Paterson and Andy Nelson (L-R) received the Academy Award for Sound Mixing for their work on

Les Misérables

.     Photo by ABC/Rick Rowell

“The real task, after I’d done all that, was the music levels—because you’ve got a long film where the music is constant along with the singing. I actually did a couple of passes of the film with Tom, [producer] Cameron Mackintosh and [composer] Claude-Michel Schönberg all in the room with me. [The film was mixed at Halo Studios in London.] We’d go through and try different approaches—you had to let this thing play for half an hour or an hour to really get the effect of how it was working with the orchestrations. ‘How strong does it need to be around the vocals here?’ If the music was too strong, you’d overpower the singers, but the point was that the actors were so dominating in the way they performed and the way they were filmed. You always wanted to feel that everyone was supporting them and not trying to overtake them. So it took a little while to sort that out and really settle on the way the language of it and the performances would tell the story.”

Effects mixer Mark Paterson and supervising sound editor Lee Walpole “prepared the effects and Foley so they were fully covered as if we were doing a regular movie,” Nelson says. Then it was just a question of deciding how much of that to apply to the final. “I felt, ‘As long as we’re going for live singing, let’s create the atmosphere around them, because it makes it more like a movie in that sense.’ The danger, of course, is there’s a point you can’t go beyond, because then you start to intrude too much on the singing. But I think we found the happy medium and it all works together well.”