By Michael S. Palmer
As part of High-Def Digest's ongoing coverage of Dolby's partnership with Paramount Home Entertainment for the August 17 'Dexter Season 4' Blu-ray release, we sat down with the show's own Elmo Ponsdomenech, a five-time Emmy and Cinema Audio Society nominee, and Kevin Roache, a first-time Emmy nominee and Cinema Audio Society nominee. As Sound Re-Recording Mixers for some of television's more cinematic and/or sound intensive shows, Elmo and Kevin's credits include not only 'Dexter', but also 'True Blood,' 'How to Make It in America,' 'Ugly Betty,' 'Monk,' 'Eastbound & Down,' 'Swingtown,' and 'Sleeper Cell,' among many others.
Elmo and Kevin are honored to be nominated for an Emmy; 'Dexter' has been very good to them (this is Elmo's second series nomination), providing a chance to do feature-quality work in a television environment, thanks to broadcast and home entertainment surround sound capabilities. But first and foremost, these two humble craftsmen wanted to shine the light on the entire 'Dexter' audio team, lead by Sound Supervisor Fred Judkins. It seems in the evolutionary chain of a television soundtrack, Re-Recording Mixers Elmo and Kevin are the last stop on the factory line made up of an army of sound artisans.
So how does it work, how does a soundtrack develop from actors in a film studio to a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 immersive experience? For those outside of Los Angeles, Elmo and Kevin were gracious enough to share a simplified outline of the process, and then what it is they do to finish it up:
First, on set and/or location craftsman like the Production Sound Mixer and Boom operators (who hold the actual microphones) record the actors live. Next, as the editors, directors, and producers cut together the episode, choosing specific shots from many takes, the Dialogue Editor separates every line of dialogue from those takes -- the idea being that if every line of dialogue, piece of music, or sound effect is a separate entity, it gives the audio team more control to create a unique or subjective environment. Think of subjective sound as a way to get into a character's mind, or like a knife PLUNGING into Dexter's plastic-wrapped victims. The truth is we don't hear these sounds at significant volume in the real world, but in a cinematic environment, they create an emotional response, which serves the story.
While the dialogue is getting chopped, a Sound Effects Editor arranges for Foley and ADR sessions. Foley is a process where sounds are recorded to a live playback of the entire show; it is done for anything a human body touches. ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) is a process where an actor re-records his or her dialogue, trying to mimic the on set performance. This is done in order to overcome production sound challenges, which can include any unwanted noise, from a plane overhead to the film camera itself.
With each separate sound effect or piece of dialogue sweetened using technology such as Dolby's Noise Reduction, it's now time for Re-Recording Mixers like Elmo and Kevin. In a Pro Tools digital environment, Elmo and Kevin typically oversee 8 Foley tracks, 40 sound effects tracks (these are pre-recorded libraries covering both "hard effects" like gun shots or tires squealing, and "background effects" which are your general environment noises), 24 dialogue tracks, and 16 music tracks. All together, nearly 90 separate tracks – nearly 90 separate recordings -- running together, orchestrated or "mixed" at various volumes to bring you your surround sound experience.
What Kevin and Elmo then do is share these final mixing duties, with Kevin handling sound effects, and Elmo taking on music and dialogue before bringing every element together. These are the guys that decide when your subwoofer shakes your house, when music swirls and envelopes, or when bullets fly out of the back right of your living room and zoom across into the far left front channel.
This final mix, this sound environment creation, involves a process called "masking." Television shows or feature films feel most real when the actual on set sounds are replaced -- masked -- by something wholly fictitious. While the aforementioned Production Mixers are very good, and get very tight sound, there are issues with things like "room tone." Take Dexter's apartment for example. It has fairly small rooms, and is filled with furniture. We all have experience with these environments; we know how they sound. Only 'Dexter' is not filmed in a real apartment, but rather the large open-air space of a Hollywood stage, which sounds completely different. Enter "masking," where Kevin builds the world of Dexter's apartment from many source: its small-room "tone" or resonance, a computer whirring, a refrigerator, seagulls and tourists outside, the nearby ocean, and some air, all combined at subtle levels to accent a more natural feeling and hide the off-sounding original recordings.
These elements combine not only to create realistic environments, but most important of all, to service the story being told. And the stunning part is they only have two days to do it (on Dexter; for the more sound-intensive 'True Blood', Elmo and Kevin have four short days).
Time is their antagonist, their constant challenge, but Kevin and Elmo love what they do, their best days ending with the delivery of a cinema quality soundscape for the small screen. One that meets not only the producers' creative wishes, but also Elmo and Kevin's own self-imposed high standards. After finishing, they deliver both a six channel mix (which is later encoded into 5.1 Dolby Digital for broadcast, and 5.1 Dolby TrueHD for Blu-ray) as well as a Dolby LTRT (Dolby ProLogic II) stereo version. The goal is to give audiences with different home speaker configurations (TV speakers, sound bar, satellites, floor standing, book shelf, 2.0, 2.1, 5.1, etc) a very similar experience, a complete experience. Yet, similar does not mean equal as Elmo said, "the only thing that separates the home audience from the full effect of the studio experience is how good your equipment is. It's all there for listeners now."
Sure, we know what the PR campaigns advertise (with 100 percent lossless encoding, Dolby TrueHD is "bit-for-bit identical to the studio master"), but here's your testimony not from some random reviewer on a blog or even a print journalist, but from the actual guys who made said studio master. And when they go home at the end of the day, Elmo and Kevin are proud to pop in a Blu-ray of their own shows, and hear or share their work with no degradation. And to that I say, huzzah for ear candy!
But we must remember one important thing, fellow high-def junkies: Kevin and Elmo may work in a fancy Hollywood recording studio, they may know how to economically and emotionally combine upwards of 90 digital sound elements to deliver a television show in six discrete channels , but they're consumer-enthusiasts just like you and me. They're fans, fans who also have families and budgets, which is why at home they run gear anyone can buy, and coincidentally near identical setups thanks to going to the store at the same time: a Samsung DLP 50" HDTVs, 5.1 Infinity Speakers (Elmo says 7.1 isn't necessary for most home environments), an Onkyo receiver, and a Sony Blu-ray player (Elmo's is dedicated, Kevin's is a PS3).
It's a fandom they bring to their work every day; one where they are more than happy to provide ear-tickling aggressive or active mixes for clients. In the case of 'True Blood', Elmo said Kevin is great at flying stuff around the speakers. He also likes to add Easter egg type elements (something they know they'll enjoy as fans) such a surprise surround sound pan, or what they together called a "house shaker" (heavy on the LFE) because it gets him excited as an artist, and as a consumer. They also like to stay very true to camera perspectives and angles, supporting the action on screen, as long as they support the dramatics. It doesn't matter how many gadgets they have or surround mixing capabilities, if a choice goes against story, it detracts from the whole experience. And Elmo and Kevin's job -- in stunning surround -- is always to enhance what you hear and sometimes, what you don't.