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Sound Aboard ‘Snowpiercer ‘

From Perpetual Motion Engine to Class-Distinct Foley, the Track Keeps Moving

The Night Car, in Third Class, modeled after a bohemian, burlesque-type event space in TNT’s Snowpiercer. (PHOTO: Justina Mintz)

The eternal struggle for equality persists into the frozen future of TNT’s apocalyptic Snowpiercer series. The remains of humanity and all life on earth are packed into a perpetual-motion train, 1001 cars long, and divided by social class. Despite the blatant disparities from First Class to the Tail, there’s one ring that binds them all: the sacred engine. If the train stops, everything dies.

The sound of the sacred engine and the train’s continuous motion are ever-present, though more noticeable in some places. It’s like hearing your own heartbeat while standing still in a quiet room versus standing on the street. The train’s hum signifies life; its pulse flows through the cars. 

The need for a variety of engine sounds topped the to-do list of the audio team at Sharpe Sound Studios in Vancouver, B.C., led by supervising sound editor Sandra Portman, lead sound designer James Fonnyadt (responsible for railcar interiors, tech effects and stylized sounds for flashbacks and slow-motion sequences), sound effects editor Gregorio Gomez (engine and track sounds), and re-recording mixers Kelly Cole and Bill Mellow. 

RELATED: Review: ‘Snowpiercer’ on a New Track

An Engine That Never Stops

“The sound of the train itself is the majority of the soundscape, so Snowpiercer required lots of overlapping sound elements shared between the departments,” Portman notes. “It was a huge team effort. James [Fonnyadt] built the cars, with Gregorio [Gomez] focusing more on the engine and track. But they are not mutually exclusive, as they both contributed to the sound of the eternal engine.”

For his part, Gomez researched bullet trains from Japan and China, recorded freight trains, scoured effects libraries, and experimented with plug-ins such as Krotos’ Igniter, BOOM Library’s Turbine and GRM Tools’ Doppler to devise a recipe of four unique elements: a distorted electric hum, a turbine whine, a rhythmic, underlying pulse and a fourth element that adds a sense of motion—that could be individually manipulated to help distinguish the different locations on the train. 

Sound effects editor Gregorio Gomez

“Each car has different tonalities,” Gomez explains. “When you’re in the Tail, the hum and turbine sound more industrial than in First Class. Also, you hear the sound of the track more in the Tail because they’re right on top of it and the cars are metallic with little insulation.”

The sonic differences between train compartments weren’t arbitrary. They were related to the train’s actual structure. The post sound team was given a map of Snowpiercer that showed each car’s location and design so that they could craft the sound accordingly. 

For example, the front of the train is two-tiered, so the luxurious habitable space of First Class is separated from the track by the sub train—an underground, of sorts, used for maintenance access and cargo transport. In contrast, the Tail was meant for storage before it was overrun by non-ticketed passengers as Snowpiercer departed, so the interior isn’t furnished or insulated, and there’s no sub train to shield it from the track noise. 

The Second Class and Third Class locations offer lessening degrees of comfort. The Night Car in Second Class is a two-level bar/lounge that’s outfitted with tufted walls, hardwood floors, chandeliers and studded leather chairs, while The Chains in Third Class is a bohemian blue-collar artists’ community built from old shipping containers. 

“There’s more cushioning and comforts the farther up the train you go, which, of course, act as a sound buffer,” says Portman. “The Tail, which wasn’t meant for passengers, is bare metal, so there’s tons of reverberation and there’s more car movement back there. The Tailies’ belongings are hanging from bunks and the ceiling, so we hear them clanging and banging around.” 

The Sharpe Sound Studios audio team of (from left) re-recording mixer Kelly Cole, supervising sound editor Sandra Portman and re-recording mixer Bill Mellow

Fonnyadt’s design for the Tail uses multiple layers of junk rattling and shaking, which he combined and processed in Native Instruments’ Kontakt. “They have a very busy, loose and clang-y sound to them,” he says. “Adding tighter panning automation to them helped to create a more claustrophobic feel. Bill [Mellow] did an amazing job of this while mixing the effects. I also used pump compression by adding a ghost sidechain trigger hit that’s routed to a Waves C6 compressor sidechain input on my ambient pads, to add movement in intricate ways.”  

Moving up the train, Fonnyadt gradually reduced the shaking and rattling of each car, while at the same time introducing higher-frequency sounds and altering his processing. “I opened up my panning automation so that eventually, when you get to the First Class cars, there is a pristine feel. The open panning gives a feeling of being free. This was the biggest challenge, to sell movement from car to car going up the train,” Fonnyadt says. 

Foley Adds Distinction, Subtlety 

Meanwhile, the Foley team— Foley artist Maureen Murphy and Foley mixer Dave Hibbert at 1010 Audio in Victoria, B.C.—performed a majority of the focused, original sounds for the clanging and clattering layers. 

According to Portman, because Snowpiercer‘s sound is all-encompassing, the backgrounds were not delegated to a backgrounds editor as they would be on a typical series. So, in addition to the carefully tailored interior sound designed by Fonnyadt, Murphy “did wild tracks for environmental sounds to use as Foley BGs to help smooth anything over,” says Portman. That included cloth rustles and chain jingles for the Tail, and dangling glass fixtures and hanging beads for The Chains.

Foley artist Maureen Murphy

Foley footsteps also helped to define the spaces, as well as each character’s social class. Murphy’s go-to surface for First Class was plush, high-pile carpet. For the Tail and other metal-floored locations on the train, she constructed a custom platform with a piece of carpet on the floor, a raised hollow wooden box on top of that, a thin piece of cloth to cover the box, and finally a sheet of metal diamond-plate on top. To create different tones and resonances for different areas of the train, Murphy would add or subtract pieces of metal and metal grates. 

“I might lean a thick steel plate on an angle against the  diamond plate and that would create vibration and resonance,” she says. “Also, Dave, the Foley mixer, added his magic by using a bit of EQ to help distinguish different areas.”

“Each location had its own specific setup, and we took pictures and made notes on what went into each of them so we could go back and re-create those sounds as necessary,” Murphy adds.

Footwear for the Tailies consisted of thin-soled, lightweight shoes, except when boots were visible. The Brakemen, regardless of gender, all wear thick-soled shoes. And the more military-esque Jackboots wear, you guessed it, heavy boots. “For the Jackboots, I wore boots that were five sizes bigger than normal for me, so they sounded really big. I wanted to have that hollowness of the boot, which gives a bit of resonance and mass,” notes Murphy.  

Available technology provides another indicator of class differences on Snowpiercer. Fonnyadt designed sophisticated UI sounds for First Class, but instead of sci-fi, soft-synth tones, he opted for real-world recordings, like microwaves and cross-walk beeps, which he cleaned up using iZotope RX 7 and processed with Decapitator, Crystalizer and Devil-Loc Deluxe by Soundtoys. 

In contrast, tech sounds in the Tail emanate from low-quality devices, so Fonnyadt added distortion or bit-crushed the sounds to give them a grungy feel. “As we go up train, each car would have a clearer and softer and more precise sound to the UIs being used,” he says.

A scene from the Tail, where the Snowpiercer stowaways face more severe hardship and a much louder environment. Tech sounds in the Tail emanate from low-quality devices, so lead sound designer James Fonnyadt added distortion or bit-crushed the sounds to give them a grungy feel. (PHOTO: Justina Mintz)

Mixing All the Moving Parts

On the mix side, re-recording mixers Kelly Cole (dialog/music/Foley) and Bill Mellow (effects) used Avid’s ReVibe and Space, and iZotope/Exponential Audio’s PhoenixVerb to help define each car’s interior. For example, they chose short, tight, metallic reverbs to create a sense of claustrophobia in the Tail. 

“For the most part on the dialog, I kept the reverbs mono,” Mellow says. “Then, as you move into other areas of the train, like The Chains where you immediately see a difference in height and expansiveness, we opened up the reverbs into the surrounds. We even splashed the reverb into the ceiling speakers in the Dolby Atmos mix, to give you a sense of The Chains’ size. Then we dulled down the reverbs in First Class because the soundproofing is better and the wall coverings would impart a more ‘normal’ room sound.” 

Cole and Mellow mixed in the 7.1 format (with downmix to 5.1 and upmix to Dolby Atmos) on Sharpe Sound Studios’ Stage A, on an Avid D-Control surface running Pro Tools 2020.5. 

Keeping the train sound in the foreground required a balancing act. While it was important to hear Snowpiercer’s presence, the dialog always needs to be intelligible. It was especially difficult to find that balance in the sub train. “The first time we go down there, we were told it was supposed to sound really loud,” Portman says. “But sometimes the characters are talking quietly to each other so others nearby can’t hear what they’re saying. It was quite a challenge to balance realistic, intense sound with production dialog.”

Music in Motion

The locomotion of a train, whether steam-based or driven by a perpetual-motion engine, creates its own, inherent rhythmic sound, which in this case can be heard in the low-end-pulse layer of Snowpiecer’s sacred hum. Composer Bear McCreary tapped into the rhythmic pulse of trains as inspiration for his score. Bringing effects and music together harmoniously required collaboration between both departments during the editorial phase, and careful selection on the dub stage. 

Cole says, “We treated the music and sound design as equal partners. For each scene, we had to decide which was going to tell the story stronger. Many times, because we had extensive sound effects from our designers, we would pick and choose which elements we were going to play to juxtapose against Bear’s score.”

Because their main mix was in 7.1, Cole could spread the music stems into the surrounds to make space for the effects that needed to be front and center. “The 7.1 format gives us more panning options and more separation in the surrounds,” he says. “And because Bear delivers a wide music session with nearly everything split out into stems, I could go through and pick the pieces that were complementing the train and complementing the action. For one challenging sequence later in the season, I ended up doing an internal remix of the score. I went through all of Bear’s elements and rebalanced them—while maintaining the intensity of the score—to craft it in such a way that the effects could come through stronger.”

Another important consideration during the mix was pushing the contrast between the cars, so that there would be a dramatic shift from scene to scene. “The contrast was something we had to work on a lot in the beginning,” Portman concludes. “The producers and directors and picture editor were really pushing on that. They wanted to feel the changes in location every time we went to a different environment. We were emphasizing the scale of the train and also the scale of the class discrepancies.” 

With “one thousand and one cars” and as many distinct environments, and with class-defined characters moving in and out, Snowpiercer never slows down—not in the script and not in the soundtrack.