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The ‘Revolution’ Will Be Televised

Life is full of noise, most of it produced by all things electric. But what does a world without electricity sound like? Fans of NBC’s Revolution hear it every week—though they have to use their electric televisions to find out.

Life is full of noise, most of it produced by all things electric. But what does a world without electricity sound like? Fans of NBC’s Revolution hear it every week—though they have to use their electric televisions to find out. Created by Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and produced by Warner Bros. Television and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, the show takes place 15 years in the future, following an unusual—and apparently permanent—worldwide blackout, in which all forms of electricity cease to exist. No lights, computers or telephones; no cars, trains or planes, regardless of whether they were moving when the blackout occurred, as seen in the show’s apocalyptic pilot episode (and in flashbacks throughout the series).

The show is mixed at Todd-AO Burbank Stage E by veteran re-recording mixers Yuri Reese and Bill Smith. Editorial and sound design are done by Atomic Sound Post Production Services, under the guidance of supervising sound editor and president Tom deGorter, and co-supervising sound editor Brett Hinton.

So what does a sparkless world sound like? “We spent a lot of time with Eric and Jon Favreau, who directed the pilot, really honing in on some broad strokes to use throughout the show,” Hinton recalls. “There’s no humming of cars and planes and electronics throughout the air. Strip those things away, and you’re left with a really interesting sonic landscape.”

The usual ambience heard throughout our daily lives—and on every other television show—isn’t there. “We had to break it down,” notes deGorter, “’Okay, what elements are not there?’ Of course, no electronics. No humming or buzzing. Nothing other than natural ambiences: winds, birds, crickets, nature.”

Those sounds, though, aren’t heard the way we would hear them out in the woods today, notes series associate producer Geoff Garrett. “We’re in a world that’s been 15 years without power, so nature is taking back the planet, and it’s more accentuated. The human population would have been decimated by the blackout, so there are fewer people. The natural world is more pronounced, maybe even a little over-exaggerated. Birds and cicadas are heard more frequently because you have more of them.”

Following a weekly spotting session, at which specific sounds are identified, as well as ADR, backgrounds and other effects, Atomic’s lead sound designer, Mark Allen, and sound effects editor Patrick O’Sullivan begin creating the more unique sounds for each episode. These often include more subjective elements, meant to invoke a particular emotion for the viewer, without being obvious about it. “I know these guys can do the old ‘see a car, cue a car,’” Garrett explains. “But if there’s a moment where something’s supposed to be subjective or unusual, that gets addressed first.”

The end of the 10th episode, for example, begins with an odd whoomp whoomp whoomp. “We don’t reveal right away that it’s a helicopter, which would be a shock to our audience. We want the characters to be going, ‘What is that?’ and make it confusing. So in spotting, we note that it will require more of a sound design approach.” Those elements are layered together from Allen’s vast existing sound library, as well as new sounds created in the studio.

Also in the pilot, when the power stops, jet aircraft engines also stop, leaving planes simply falling out of the sky. “Since the engines aren’t running, the traditional sound of the whine of the deceleration of the jet doesn’t happen; there’s no power to run them,” deGorter explains. “There’s no rumble, none of the sounds you expect to hear. We’re constantly riding a fine line between realism and sounds that convey the emotional charge.”

After seeing footage of the plane cartwheeling on screen to its destruction, Hinton got the idea for more of a whoosh air-type sound. “I duct taped a bunch of long ribbed plastic tubing to a giant fan and put a microphone at the other end,” he recalls. “It made a high-frequency whistle-y sound coupled with a rush of air, creating a weird Doppler effect. It’s chilling, in the same way as the image we’re seeing.”

The show has plenty of swashbuckling, old-fashioned brutal fight scenes as well, represented by an interesting collection of weaponry, including swords, muskets and the like. “It’s really like a period piece,” Smith says. Adds deGorter, “They’re all weapons that you don’t use in the typical cop show of today.”

deGorter says that Allen, however, has a talent for finding the right swords. “These aren’t your typical pirate swords,” he says. “They’re shorter, so they’re not going to sound as big and shingly. And Mark builds the sounds of the swords out of multiple sounds, layered on. And they can vary depending how bad the bad guy is and who’s more powerful.”

“When a sword slashes somebody here, it’s more than just the shirt being ripped,” adds Garrett. “It’s the spray of the blood afterwards. We’re playing for the reality of, ‘This is a real world, and it’s a dangerous world.’”

While many sounds are added, some modern sounds have to be removed from the production track in order to maintain the “no power” illusion. “They’re shooting in the real world,” Reese says. “If dialog’s got a car in it or some kind of buzz or hum, you can’t have that.” Reese will either attempt surgical repair using a Spectral Repair plug-in or, worst case, the line can be re-recorded in ADR. Conversely, if Reese receives a production track from dialog editor Jay Levine that contains a good sound effect from the set, he says, “I’ll pull that and pipe it over to Bill to use as a proper sound effect.”

Yuri Reese

Smith’s style of mixing sound effects typically involves a lot less EQ adjustments than most mixers. “I’m not a mixer that relies on EQ first, unless of course the sounds are happening behind a door or in the next room,” he explains. “Mark, for instance, cuts really great sounds, built out of a lot of elements. I’ve got beef and top end and clarity if I need it. I prefer to layer the elements he provides to get the desired effect, rather than turning an EQ knob.”

Music is sent to music editor Brian Bulman in two parts. Composer Christopher Lennertz will deliver eight sets of quad stems, while four sets of quad stems of other live instruments will arrive from the Warner Bros. scoring stage. “It’s left, right, and left-surround, right-surround,” Smith explains. “The music stays out of the center for the dialog, guns and action stuff, so it sounds nice and wide.”

Editorial source material is uploaded from Atomic to the Todd-AO server via Aspera high-speed file transfer software, then downloaded to local computers, from which Smith and Reese will build their sessions.

Bill Smith

The duo mix on an Avid D-Control, with a two-way JBL array and Bag End subs behind the screen. Reese will mix dialog, music and ADR/group, first concentrating on dialog. “It can’t be too low or too high,” he states. “In television, you hear a line once, and it’s important that you hear every line. You’re not in a theater; everybody’s house is different. Even if the TV is low, you need to hear the dialog and not miss a thing. So that needs to be set before I add music and before Bill does his sound effects magic.”

The two engineers—who have mixed together for 13 years, since the second season of CSI—have to carefully balance the action with the drama. “It’s a delicate weave between Bill and me,” Reese says. “There’ll be rip-roaring sounds on an episode with a train, and then suddenly a character will come in and deliver a line, really quietly. So we have to dip everything out so we can understand the line.”

“But we don’t want you to know we did that,” Smith adds.