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Removing the Audio Layers for ‘Revolution:’ Sound Design for the Show’s Postapocalyptic Setting

Life is full of noise, most of it produced by the electrical devices in motion all around us. So what does a world without electricity sound like? Fans of NBC’s Revolution hear it every week, though they have to use their electric television sets to do so.

Elizabeth Mitchell as Rachel Matheson. Photo by Brownie Harris/NBC

Created by Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and produced by Warner Bros. Television and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, the show takes place 15 years in the future, following a worldwide blackout in which all forms of electricity cease to exist. No lights, computers or telephones; no cars, trains or planes. Everything that was in motion suddenly stopped in the show’s apocalyptic pilot episode (and in flashbacks throughout the series).

Revolution is mixed at Todd-AO Burbank Stage E by veteran re-recording mixers Yuri Reese and Bill Smith. Editorial and sound design are handled by Atomic Sound Post Production Services, under the guidance of supervising sound editor and president Tom deGorter and co-supervising sound editor Brett Hinton.

What does a sparkless world sound like? “We spent a lot of time with Eric and Jon Favreau, who directed the pilot, [identifying] some broad strokes to use throughout the show,” Hinton recalls. “There’s no humming of cars and planes and electronics. Strip those things away and you’re left with a really interesting sonic landscape.”

Zak Orth as Aaron, Daniella Alonso as Nora. Photo by Brownie Harris/NBC

The usual aural ambience of our daily lives—and of every other television show—isn’t there. “We had to break it down,” notes deGorter. “‘Okay, what elements are not there?’ Of course no electronics. No humming or buzzing. Nothing other than natural ambiences: winds, birds, crickets, nature.”

Those sounds aren’t presented as we would hear them out in the woods today, notes series associate producer Geoff Garrett. “We’re in a world that’s been 15 years without power, so nature is taking back the planet. The natural world is more pronounced, maybe even a little over-exaggerated.”

Following a weekly spotting session at which specific sounds are identified, Atomic’s lead sound designer, Mark Allen, and sound effects editor Patrick O’Sullivan begin creating the sounds for each episode—often subjective elements meant to invoke particular emotions for viewers. “I know these guys can do the old ‘see a car, cue a car,’” Garrett explains. “But if there’s a moment where something’s supposed to be subjective or unusual, that gets addressed first.”

Re-recording mixer Bill Smith

Re-recording mixer Yuri Reese

There’s a sound in the 10th episode, for example, an odd whoomp whoomp whoomp. “We don’t reveal right away that it’s a helicopter, which would be a shock to our audience. We want the characters to be going, What is that? In spotting, we note that it will require more of a sound design approach.” Those elements are layered together from Allen’s vast sound library, as well as new sounds created in the studio.

When the power goes out in the pilot episode, jet aircraft engines also stop, leaving planes simply falling out of the sky. “Since the engines aren’t running, the traditional sound of the whine of the deceleration of the jet doesn’t happen; there’s no power to run them,” deGorter explains. “There’s no rumble, none of the sounds you expect to hear. We’re constantly riding a fine line between realism and sounds that convey the emotional charge.”

(L-R) Tracy Spiridakos as Charlie Matheson, Zak Orth as Aaron, Elizabeth Mitchell as Rachel Matheson. Photo by Brownie Harris/NBC

After seeing footage of the plane tumbling to its destruction, Hinton got the idea for a “whoosh air” type sound. “I duct taped a bunch of long ribbed plastic tubing to a giant fan and put a microphone at the other end,” he recalls. “It made a high-frequency whistle-y sound coupled with a rush of air, creating a weird Doppler effect. It’s chilling, in the same way as the image we’re seeing.”

The show has plenty of swashbuckling, old-fashioned fight scenes as well, represented by an interesting collection of weaponry, including swords, muskets and the like. “It’s really like a period piece,” Smith says. Adds deGorter, “They’re all weapons that you don’t use in the typical cop show of today.”

deGorter says that Allen has a talent for finding the right swords. “These aren’t your typical pirate swords,” he says. “They’re shorter, so they’re not going to sound as big and shing-y. And Mark builds the sounds of the swords out of multiple sounds, layered on. They can vary depending how bad the bad guy is and who’s more powerful.”

Miles Matheson (Billy Burke) is pursued by General Monroe’s army. Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

“When a sword slashes somebody here, it’s more than just the shirt being ripped,” adds Garrett. “It’s the spray of the blood afterwards. We’re playing for the reality of, ‘This is a real world, and it’s a dangerous world.’”

While many sounds are added, some modern sounds have to be removed from the production track in order to maintain the “no power” illusion. “They’re shooting in the real world,” Reese says. “If dialogue’s got a car in it or some kind of buzz or hum, you can’t have that.”

Reese will either attempt surgical repair using an iZotope Spectral Repair plug-in, or worst case, the line can be re-recorded in ADR. Conversely, if Reese receives a production track from dialogue editor Jay Levine that contains a good sound effect from the set, he says, “I’ll pull that and pipe it over to Bill to use as a proper sound effect.”

Smith’s style of mixing sound effects typically involves fewer EQ adjustments than most mixers. “I’m not a mixer who relies on EQ first—unless, of course, the sounds are happening behind a door or in the next room,” he explains. “Mark cuts really great sounds built out of a lot of elements. I’ve got beef and top end and clarity if I need it. I prefer to layer the elements he provides to get the desired effect rather than turning an EQ knob.”

Music is sent to music editor Brian Bulman in two parts. Composer Christopher Lennertz will deliver eight sets of quad stems, while four sets of quad stems of other live instruments will arrive from the Warner Bros. scoring stage. “It’s left, right, and left-surround, right-surround,” Smith says. “The music stays out of the center for the dialogue, guns and action stuff so it sounds nice and wide.”

Photo by Bob Mahoney/NBC

Editorial source material is uploaded from Atomic to the Todd-AO server via Aspera high-speed file transfer software, then downloaded to local computers, where Smith and Reese will build their sessions.

The duo mix on an Avid D-Control, with a two-way JBL array and Bag End subs behind the screen. Reese will mix dialogue, music and ADR/group, first concentrating on dialogue. “It can’t be too low or too high,” he states. “In television, you hear a line once, and it’s important that you hear every line. You’re not in a theater; everybody’s house is different. Even if the TV is low, you need to hear the dialogue and not miss a thing. So that needs to be set before I add music and before Bill does his sound effects magic.”

The two engineers—who have mixed together for 13 years, since the second season of CSI—have to carefully balance the action with the drama. “It’s a delicate weave between Bill and me,” Reese says. “There’ll be rip-roaring sounds on an episode with a train, and then suddenly a character will come in and deliver a line really quietly. So we have to dip everything out so we can understand the line.”

“But we don’t want you to know we did that,” Smith adds.