A tormented Sonny Corinthos laments his wife’s betrayal at the same time as he imagines her enticing figure on their staircase, accompanied by the strains of Sarah McLachlan’s haunting “Ice.” Cut to the underbelly of General Hospital, where a menacing-sounding score dramatizes a shot of a villain who has been frozen in ice, awaiting his “re-birth” for 20 years. Later, Maureen McGovern’s “Where Do You Start” underscores a bittersweet scene as Luke and Laura — the couple whose union enthralled America’s TV viewers in the ’70s — anticipate the signing of their divorce papers.
Those are just a few musical examples from between 25 and 35 scenes that are shot each day for the ABC-TV soap opera General Hospital — five days a week. Layered within each scene is an immense amount of dialog and numerous sound effects, including anything from birds singing, telephones ringing, and wind and rain, to gunshots and fiery explosions. The number of sound cues in each hour-long episode of GH is comparable to what you’d find in an hour-long show for a primetime drama series, each episode of which may take a week to film. Although some parts of the process for GH is similar to what’s done for a nighttime show, the amount of work required to pull off a daily show is considerably greater, and that goes for every participant — from actors to hair and make-up artists, to those responsible for the sound. In general, the pay is less than in the nighttime world, but there is consistent work all year long for those willing to dive into the demanding schedule of a daytime series.
Aside from a week off at Christmas, General Hospital is bustling all year, and all of the audio is done live on the set. At least for now. There has been talk of going to post scoring, which is how many of the other soap operas are already working, but there are, naturally, pros and cons to both methods. Elyse Pecora, GH mixer for the past three years, notes that, although there is something to be said for everyone hearing the sound cues live as the show is shot, the process can be very stressful.
“Generally, audio is sweetened when it goes to post, but this show is not,” Pecora explains. “So whatever I give them goes to air. Sweetening usually balances out the levels and corrects mistakes if need be, but I have to give them the best performance I can while we’re taping. From time to time, they’ll change music or sound effects, but not on a regular basis, and any dialog I give them is what you hear on air. If I make a mistake, the production is not going to wait for me.”
Sitting in a sound room behind the control room, Pecora is in charge of the dialog first, then mixing the total sound from the stage, and establishing the overall relationship between dialog, sound effects and music.
“I get in at 7:30 in the morning,” Pecora says. “My maintenance engineer has put tone online for me. It is a 1kHz tone that’s generated so that videotape knows I am sending them a consistent level of audio.” Pecora sends four channels — one for dialog, one for sound effects and two for music, stereo left and right. “I separate each channel and make sure that what they’re seeing as channel 1 is what I’m sending as channel 1. After they’ve recorded it, they play it back for me, and I listen to the tone and make sure it’s laid down on videotape the way I’ve sent it. If it hasn’t been, when they go to edit the show, something will be wrong with the audio. There’s usually no problem with that. Then I load my program for the show and we get going. We rehearse and then tape each scene, and I have a list that tells me where in the script what we’re doing, and what set it’s in, and what actors are in it, and I can go out there and see what configuration I need.”
There are three booms onstage and two to three boom operators. “I also have fishpole RF mics, which are wireless if I need to hide them in a small set that won’t fit a boom,” adds Pecora.
However, when a director has blocked a scene with too many people walking in too many different directions, picking up sound can be a problem. “I either have to bring a third boom in or ask the director to change the blocking a little, or perhaps bring the wireless microphones in to put on under their clothes so we can get their voices on tape,” says Pecora. “For the most part, the directors know if they’re going to have a lot of people walking through a scene. They have to make one person walk past the next person who is going to talk, so the boom can follow the flow of who is talking next.”
Pecora adds that she often has to “direct” the boom operators, who must work without a script. “Other shows have a script stand for boom operators so they can see what dialog is coming up next. Instead, I have to cue them,” she says. Pecora communicates with the stage via the P.A. and a footpedal, allowing her to talk directly to the director and assistant director in the booth.
This year, the GH production purchased a new StageTec Cantus digital mixing board, the first in the United States, according to Pecora. “It’s fiber-optic, in and out,” Pecora explains. “We took a chance because it seemed to be more advanced than any of the other digital boards available to us. This board is so crisp, I can hear everything onstage, like the air conditioning and background noise. Now I can take that out. The average viewer might not notice the difference, but it’s a much cleaner, crisper sound. It was a leap of faith because nobody else had it, but it’s been nothing but fabulous for us.
“In the old analog world, I had patches, so I had to patch my sources together so I could send certain microphones to certain places. Everything is internal on this board — my equalization, all the processing. I have filters called telephone filters, so, if there is a two-way phone call, I can make it sound like the person on the other end is actually talking through the phone, and all of that is internal.” Pecora also uses a Yamaha REV5 to add reverb, “the only thing that is not internal on this board,” she notes. Pecora also praises the new console’s equalization facilities and an associated visual display that allows her to “see” what she’s doing to the signal. Other recent purchases include a Junger de-esser and a Roland FN-550 digital noise eliminator.
The occasional prerecording session is done in a small room called the announce booth. “I open the mic, and it sends it straight to the audio vault. Say someone is reading a book onscreen and we’re hearing what they’re reading in their head,” she explains. “We’d prerecord that sound byte into the audio vault and then edit it however we needed to, then send it right back with a little echo on it so it sounds like we’re hearing it in their head. We can do it all off the floor if we can get the floor quiet enough, but generally we do it in the announce booth so they can be blocking other scenes while we do that.”
While Pecora is mixing, Sandra Masone is taking care of the sound effects — anything an actor isn’t seen doing. Typical sound effects might include the sounds of dishes and glasses softly clinking at the Port Charles Grille, the daily hospital hubbub (which might include phones ringing, elevator rings and doctors’ pages in the background). Of course, everything must be timed perfectly: The elevator ding must be heard just before the elevator doors open, while the doctors’ pages must not get in the way of dialog.
Then there are the special assignments. “Once we had an operation where they were drilling into a person’s head, so I had props buy me a watermelon, a coconut and a cantaloupe, and I went to the maintenance department and got a drill,” says Masone, who has been with the show for 23 years, the first 15 as a boom operator. “I came in early one day — I have a microphone in my room — and I turned my record machine on and drilled into all three and listened back to them. I realized the coconut sounded closest, so I had to slow the drill down a little, and I did it about three or four times until I got it how I wanted it.”
Typically, Masone reads the script the day before shooting a scene and marks it up for the next day. “Most days are basic, but, for example, today I had somebody sitting outside in the rain,” she recalls. “I like to mix my stuff so it sounds real. So instead of just giving them rain, I’ll give them a few cars passing in the rain, then I’ll put in two different types of rain [sounds].”
Masone also runs the audio vault, which contains a multitude of carts that were once used on the show. The effects stored on the carts have been transferred to digital files that are accessible via computer. Masone also has access to hundreds of sound effects CDs. To manipulate effects, Masone uses a 360 Systems short-cut personal audio editor and the Yamaha REV5 for editing.
Addressing the issue of live vs. post-production, Masone says, “A lot of the producers like it live, because they can hear exactly what the show is going to sound like, and if they don’t like it, they’ll change it right there.
“Management would love to do it in post-production, because they think they’re going to save money. But once you take the sound effects out of the booth and put them in post, they still have to have a sound effects engineer go down there and put them in. That can be double the work, rather than the producer hearing the effects or music while it’s happening, then maybe putting in one sound effect when they edit the show. Dialog and sound effects used to be on one track; now, they’re totally separate, which makes it easier.”
RC Cates has been the supervising music director for General Hospital for 11 years and its sister show, Port Charles, since its inception a couple of years ago. Cates is also a freelance composer and recently won a Daytime Emmy for his composition on As the World Turns. He says he anticipates that the GH production will eventually move to a Pro Tools system, and will mix sound effects and music in post-production, his own stated preference.
“The greatest pro to doing it live is the immediate feedback from the producers, and the ability to creatively see how the music is helping,” notes Cates. “The greatest advantage to doing it in post is you can completely cut the music absolutely to picture. The difficulty of how we do things now is we have to make a decision on the spot, and if it doesn’t work, we have to make a new decision on the spot for producers. We’re doing a show a day, so on any given day, we have to be ready to roll music into anywhere between 18 and 30 scenes. You don’t have all day to look at a scene to see what works.”
In addition to being the liaison between the show’s composers and the producers, Cates is also responsible for selecting outside material, such as the popular songs often featured behind “love montages.” “We read the scripts ahead of time and make our decisions about where we’re going to put music and what it’s going to be,” he explains. Most of the music for the show is prerecorded and resides in an Avair digital audio multideck playback system connected directly to a custom-built AMX18 8-channel mixing board from Pacific Research Engineering. The PC-based system holds as many as 15 30-Gigabyte hard drives for a total of close to eight hours of music. “It’s all categorized by characters or emotion,” adds Cates. “I can do a search and type in ‘danger’ and get every single cue in our library, which might include 300 pieces of music.”
Cates explains the process: “A lot of shows do audition music for the producers as the show is being taped, but it’s not intended to go into the show as it’s being played. It’s just a reference for the producers to see what kinds of choices are being made. Then the music directors follow those shows into post, and completely post-score them and cut all the music exactly to picture.”
Paul F. Antonelli, currently the music director for Passions, is another advocate of working in post-production. Antonelli, who has worked on GH at various times, as well as on Santa Barbara, All My Children and Sunset Beach, says he not only finds the process more rewarding, but also appreciates the difference in scheduling. “We’re not at the mercy of the production schedule, so we’re not affected if they are having technical problems and are down for two hours,” Antonelli notes. “Also, if I want to, I can pull a late day today so tomorrow isn’t so heavy. I can also come in at 3:00 a.m. if I have insomnia, since it’s not about the 8:30 a.m. start tape day.”
Antonelli’s first experience working in post was on All My Children. “I was working under executive producer Francesca James, who had also come from General Hospital, so, initially, we were saying, ‘Let’s bring it back to the booth,’” Antonelli recalls. “Then we discovered we could actually finesse and tailor every cue and edit in the post process working with Pro Tools. I can’t see doing it any other way at this point. I get to sit here, I have my 5,000-plus cues in my hard drive, and I get the final-edited version of the show — not mixed — and I can play with every scene. I can do all kinds of layering and be with it and not have to be rushed.
“Layering means using any more than one particular cue,” he says. “Say you have a cue you’re using, and all of a sudden another character walks into frame and you want to bring in a layer — it could be a low string, a low cello or whatever instrumentation is fitting. I like to have a library full of strings in every key and different accents — mallet rolls, cymbal crashes, bells, chimes and percussive accents that can be hit with a visual cue. If, all of a sudden, there’s a cut to someone’s reaction and you don’t want to change the cue itself, but you want to accent that twinkle of an eye or the reveal of a razor blade, you can do that. When you’re doing it live, you don’t have that luxury.”
Antonelli typically gets the show after the editing process has been completed, about two weeks prior to airdate. He further explains how his process works — how things might work if GH switches to a post-production-oriented system. “I have a G4 Macintosh and my database is on FileMaker Pro. We have a great engineer named Dan Bosworth who does the sound effects, and Walter New is the main mixer and music editor. [New] mixes the show on Pro Tools as well as doing the music editing, and when I get the tape, I have my template set up on FileMaker Pro. I go through and make the timecode notes of where I want the cues to go, how I want them backtimed, how far I want them to tail over, where the fades start and where all the layering goes. While I’m doing this in one room, Walter is in the next room doing his music mix. At the end of the day, Dan has the graveyard shift and effects the show. Then Walter and I will do the final mix. We’re the last ones to see it with the producer.”
Peter Fillmore, post-production editor at GH, says the addition of Pro Tools rooms could be an improvement, even though it could take some jobs away.
“We’re looking for changes to speed up the process, not eliminate jobs,” he explains. “If we can speed up the process, more quality content can go into the show. We saw that happen when we went from linear to nonlinear . We lost all that mechanical clunkiness and got more into the creative content, which I think would happen with post scoring also.
“Currently, once the shows leave the Avid room, they’re virtually done. I get the tapes and the script and the AD and I rough-assemble the show — all the audio — in the Avid. We combine all the isos and do what is called group clipping, and we edit that into a rough show. Then we go through the show and edit it, modify levels if the dialog is too low or the effects are too hot, or if they’re not the right effects, we strip them and put new ones in, and we work our way through the show. All the audio is done in the offline process with the exception of about four shows a year that are done in post scoring. Ninety-five percent of the time, when it leaves the offline room, it’s done. All the audition mixing and sweetening is done in the Avid,” says Fillmore, adding that he uses the JL Cooper Box, a MIDI-controlled fader box for eight channels. “It hooks up to the Avid, and I kick it into automation record, and I listen to music, and I can ramp it up and ramp it down, and it records my motions. If I’m ramping up a song and fading it out, it key frames every move I make, and when I play it back, it follows that. It’s a very handy tool.
“Hopefully, at the end of this year, we’re looking to go to an Avid Unity server system, thereby going to a three-to-one resolution and, hopefully, eliminating the online room altogether. The process would start digitizing while they’re taping the shows — actually digitizing the line copy to the server — and then if any isos are needed, they will be done in the evening,” continues Fillmore, explaining that with the current system, there are two shifts that digitize the two shows, a day shift that usually works on General Hospital and a night shift that does Port Charles.
“I don’t think Avid Media Composer replaces post scoring,” concludes Fillmore. “I think we try to use it to keep it going, but in post scoring, you have more detail and more control and the ability to refine the sound. By having it done as they’re taping the music and sound effects, we’re able to get it done more effectively, but if they introduce post scoring as a full-time thing, we’ll design it to make it work for us.”
Robyn Flans is a Southern California-based freelance writer.