Mixing great TV drama is more than just pushing faders and keeping the levels at the relevant broadcast spec. Will Strauss talks to three leading dubbing mixers in this TV drama dubbing masterclass.
Howard Bargroff, Sonorous Post
Selected TV drama credits:Sherlock, Luther, Broadchurch, Ripper Street, Law and Order: UK
Kit: Pro Tools
To be an exceptional TV drama dubbing mixer, argues Bafta Craft award winner and Emmy nominee Howard Bargroff, you need to be patient, diplomatic, and have a good sense of story. Oh, and you need to know how to read minds.
“People ask for things and you kind of know what they mean but they don’t ask you directly,” he says, slightly tongue-in-cheek. “Now, through experience, quite often, I will know what [a director is] going to say before he or she says it.”
It’s a skill that also comes in handy when attempting to interpret people’s ideas, and sometimes the solution can be something simple. “I’ve had a 10-minute long explanation about a sound and about how it should transform a scene,” he says. “And I’ve just turned it up by 2dB and they say ‘yes, you’ve nailed it!’”
Like most dubbing mixers, Bargroff is generally the last link in the drama production chain but that has started to change.
“With [ITV drama] Broadchurch, before they’d even locked the first episode, we sat down and we had a big tone meeting with everyone to decide which bits of the guide track we liked,” he reveals.
“Ideally I like to get involved as a show is being edited, at the point at which they’re deciding on the tone of it. That way I can get involved and can start talking about making broad [sound] brush strokes.”
At whatever stage he gets on board, Bargroff describes himself as a very instinctive mixer.
“On Sherlock, all of the weird sequences with all the funny graphics and noises, they’re all track-laid, but none of them have a plan or a concept. If you presented me with a new episode I couldn’t tell you what I would do with every section. I would just start mixing it and I would know if it does or doesn’t feel right.”
A big fan of technology, Bargroff likes to be ready for all eventualities ahead of the final mix, pulling together a soundscape that is not complete but works from start to finish.
“If I haven’t been given guidance up front I’d rather just turn up with my interpretation,” he says. “Everything is live but at any point I can press play and it should just run as a proper cohesive whole – but with flexibility built in everywhere. Any take of ADR, any treatment, any music can be changed. This offers complete flexibility for the client.”
Experienced in both TV and film, does his style change depending on the medium? Other than “minor technical considerations in level”, no. “What I change is story,” he says. “Telling the story is our entire job.”
Scott Jones, Molinare
Selected TV drama credits:The Bible, Yonderland, The Wrong Mans, Silent Witness
Kit: Pro Tools
As far as Molinare’s Scott Jones is concerned, doing a great drama mix requires technical know-how and high levels of diplomacy.
“You’ve got to have a good knowledge of the tools you’re working with, an understanding of what a soundwave is, and an awareness of all the ingredients that make up sound,” he says. “If you can get that then you’ve got a good chance of twisting and turning sounds into whatever it is you want to make.”
“You also need to be adaptable with clients,” he adds. “They’ve probably been working on the project for a long time so you need to adjust to their wavelength and suggest things that they may not have thought of. You also have to be cool under pressure, especially when there are a lot of clients in the room.”
Jones acknowledges the importance of teamwork, of being involved in a project as early as possible, and of making the most of what you’ve got.
After that it’s all about dynamics. “I’ll spend a day dialogue pre-mixing, cleaning up the dialogue, mixing in the ADR, and then a day on the FX pre-mixing. Then I’ll add the music with the Foley. Every time you add something, the dynamics change in the sound. Then I’ll look at what holes we’ve got and what else we can put in the scene to make us feel like we’re in the story.”
His biggest recent challenge was on The Bible, a History Channel mini series for which the sound was Emmy nominated. Jones says that the signature scene where Moses parts the sea was particularly tricky: “It had people chasing people, horses, carts, thousands of extras, the parting of the waves, screaming, shouting, dialogue, and driving music. The energy was fast, it’s cut big, it’s epic. That one four-minute scene took nearly two days.”
The key to making it work was finding ways of dropping bits of sound to make other bits heard and ensuring that the scene maintained its intensity but wasn’t just a “wall of mush”. To do this, Jones made sure he filled up the full spectrum of sound.
He says: “You’ve got levels that are high continuously so what you do is find frequencies that aren’t being used and fill them up with something else, finding or making pockets for the dialogue to sit in, EQ out the waves or the sea, and push it through. But without anyone hearing the fades or the mix. It should be smooth. That is the whole trick of being a great mixer.”
Nigel Heath, Hackenbacker
Selected TV drama credits:Downton Abbey, Whitechapel, Spooks, The Musketeers
Kit: AMS Neve MMC and Pro Tools
“[A great mixer will] bring something worthwhile to the production, rather than just being the bloke who blends it all together soundwise,” argues Hackenbacker’s double Bafta Craft award winner, Nigel Heath. “By dropping sounds on certain scenes or playing something mute that would normally have a sound you can increase the sense of drama.”
And to do that successfully, you really need to be a team player: “An awful lot of hard work and consulting goes on with the exec, the director, and the composer beforehand,” he says. “If they say it’s really important that a moment is really quiet, I’ll make the scene before it sound super frenetic so that when we get to that quiet moment it seems super quiet. It’s about collaboration.”
Once a tone is agreed, his modus operandi is a simple but effective one. “I work very quickly,” he says. “I do that because if I mess around with [the mix] too much I think I’ll spoil it. I love seeing people’s reactions in the studio when you do something a bit mad or unorthodox. And we’ll lock it off there and then because it might be useful. You have to tap into your gut reactions. And they’re normally the good ones. If you over refine you can spoil interesting and original ideas.”
Getting clear dialogue is key and Heath ensures they get it absolutely right.
“On shows like Downtown Abbey, the dialogue is king. It is beautifully written and is delivered by fantastic actors. That is what we need to get across.
“With the editors who supply dialogue tracks to me I am quite a hard task master,” he continues. “We seldom get clarity notes during exec reviews because we tend to get all that stuff done at the pre-mix stage. The first time I hear a scene if I don’t understand a word or two I will send a note up to the editors and they may find a clearer reading or take and we’ll drop a word or two into the tracks. This avoids you having to push the level to make something clearer. When the director comes in you sound them out about it. If they’re not cool with it, we’ll go back to what they’ve shot but we explain we’re doing it for the clarity of the programme.”
In Heath’s experience, one of the biggest challenges for a dubbing mixer working on a TV drama is creating an illusion of size. “I’m doing a show at the moment for the BBC with lots of horses stampeding and swords fights and thunder,” he says, referring to his latest project, The Musketeers. “My challenge is to make the sound the right scale for television so that it’s clear but you still get the dynamism of the story while forcing those guns and those hooves through the screen.”
These constraints might be a barrier to some but to Heath, it is one of the beauties of mixing a TV drama.
“In telly you cannot do what you like,” he concludes. “It’s a challenge to generate a big explosion for the producer and the exec but still hit PPM 6, if still appropriate, and get the excitement through.”