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TV sound designers thinking bigger

Designers bring cinematic sweep to smallscreen

It’s hard to imagine now, in the era of home theater, but less than a generation ago viewers were hearing television broadcasts through one rinky-dink speaker, and it took an electronics buff to hook up a TV set to a hi-fi system.

Things have certainly changed, especially with the boom in the number of HD broadcasts with 5.1 surround sound.

Indeed, the quality of television today more closely mirrors what’s happening on theatrical features than ever before, with more intense sounds spread out across a wider spectrum. And while the audio pros working in television are dealing with tighter deadlines and budgets, most still deliver soundtracks that could work equally on a feature.

That is not lost on the men and women working in audio post-production, building sound effects, creating music scores, cleaning up dialogue tracks and handling the mix. This year’s nominees in the sound categories are doing their best to provide cinematic sound for TV programs.

“We sacrifice nothing on the altar of TV,” remarks “24” supervising ADR editor Catherine M. Speakman. “We dip into the dialogue, Foley and effects just like the show is a feature, and then we mix it like a feature.”

Stefan Henrix, supervising sound editor on the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” about Marines fighting in the early days of the war in Iraq, echoes that thought. “I saw this as more of a documentary than a TV drama,” he says. “A lot of these guys are still alive, and it was their story. We just had to get it right for them — I felt very strongly about that.”

It’s not just action shows that try for a cinematic flair. Rick Ash, nommed for the HBO films “Grey Gardens” and “Taking Chance,” spent many hours ensuring that the ambiances in those programs were authentic to their eras.

At the same time, he realizes that while HBO broadcasts are 5.1 surround-sound-capable, many people who watched each show heard it through plain old stereo.

“My philosophy is that a well-balanced mix on a dramatic film should play well when you put it down to a two-track dub,” he says. “The key is to keep it really simple. The atmospheres in ‘Grey Gardens’ were more about the content than they were about being spread out in 5.1.”

Ash will take time to listen to a mix on a smaller system after he finishes and then adjust tracks accordingly. That’s a fairly common practice.

However, “Battlestar Galactica” supervising sound editor Daniel Colman says his team didn’t pay much attention to that aspect. “We make sure it all plays out, but we go in with the expectation that it’s not going to sound as good. Our goal was to make something that would work for the best listening environment, not necessarily the lowest-common-denominator environment.”

There are ways to get around those limitations with a bit of sonic trickery, admits “24” supervising sound editor William Dotson: “Jack Bauer’s gun, no matter what he’s firing, is the biggest gun in the show. Sometimes we mix his Foley footsteps a little louder to give him weight. I’ll do the same thing with the bad guys to make their evil more obvious both sonically and subconsciously.”

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