The Chaos and Uncertainty of War, Depicted By Sound

Sadr City was dubbed “the safest place in Iraq” in early 2004 one year into the Iraq War, but it quickly became Hell on Earth for the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. They had been in town for just a few days and were still setting up their command post at Camp War Eagle when one of their street patrols was ambushed by Mahdi Army militiamen. The troops sought shelter in a nearby building, where they were pinned down for two days awaiting rescue.

That initial conflict, known as “Black Sunday,” is the subject of National Geographic’s biographical miniseries The Long Road Home, based on the book by war reporter Martha Raddatz.

The series was shot at Fort Hood on a purpose-built 12-acre set that included a replicated section of Sadr City where the ambush occurred. The goal was to re-create that location as accurately as possible, from the width of the streets and the size of the doorways to the setups inside the Humvees.

The Long Road Home supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Gregory King, left, and re-recording mixer Jon Greasley at King Soundworks’ Van Nuys, Calif., facility

Supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Gregory King, left, and re-recording mixer Jon Greasley at King Soundworks’ Van Nuys, Calif., facility

To help sell that slice of Texas as the streets of Sadr City, supervising sound editors Gregory King and Gregory Brown at King Soundworks in Van Nuys, Calif., and showrunner/writer Mikko Alanne studied a map of Baghdad and reviewed old news footage of the event, and then used that research while building the environmental sounds. King and Brown pulled from their personal recordings of Middle Eastern streets, bazaars and markets to fill in the backgrounds, and they recorded Arabic-language crowd walla and specific call-outs.

“When we are among the Iraqis on the street level, you see close-ups of people talking back and forth, and so we covered all of that in loop group,” says King.

Sound provided information about how close the rescue teams were to the surviving troops. The closer the action was to the 1st Cavalry Division, the more distinct the gunfire and battle sounds became. Further away from the battle, the city environment sounds were more active and the gunfire was less distinct or non-existent. King says, “We were careful with our choice of recordings—guns that were recorded very close versus guns that were recorded in the distance.”

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Brown adds, “As busy as the show was, just about every sound had to be specific. We couldn’t just lay down gunfire or battle sounds. It changes intensity, and that’s how we give the audience a sense of geography.”

The specificity of the details helped elevate the realism. In terms of combat, the gun sounds matched the caliber and model of the onscreen guns, which in turn matched the weapons actually used in the conflict. “Many of the weapons’ sounds were pulled from our library—we’ve done quite a few battle movies, particularly in that time period. We have a great library of M16s and the big 50-caliber guns that the Americans use, and the AK-47s used by the insurgents,” says King.

As for new recordings, the sound team needed to capture lots of shell casings since that is one sound very particular to this show. In episode 1, “Black Sunday, Part 1,” the U.S. patrol fires the 50-caliber guns mounted on top of their Humvees. Shell casings drop in through the turret hole and bounce off the vehicle’s metal interior.

The Long Road Home was mixed at King Soundworks’ Calvert Stage, on an Avid ICON D-Control surface. The stage is currently being refitted for Dolby Atmos capability.

"The Long Road Home" was mixed at King Soundworks’ Calvert Stage, on an Avid ICON D-Control surface. The stage is currently being refitted for Dolby Atmos capability.

“We recorded and experimented with that great sound of all of those big shell casings,” King says. “We used real shell casings and also tried combinations of objects that were heavier and ones that were lighter. So when you’re in the Humvee, you feel those casings raining down on you, and it’s terrifying.”

During the initial conflict, one Humvee makes a sudden stop and dozens of shell casings are heard rolling off the hood and onto the ground. It keeps the audience connected to the chaos of the conflict even though the gunfire had come to a momentary halt. “It’s so specific and you don’t necessarily notice it, but when you do hear it, it’s the right sound,” Brown says. “That kind of thing happened throughout all of the episodes. We had to create definite starts and stops for the action rather than just laying down a general battle scene.”

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The shell casings are a prime example of the thought that King Soundworks put into The Long Road Home. Their sound work on episode 1 has already earned two 2018 MPSE nominations for sound editing, and is likely to be recognized at the Emmy Awards this fall.

Even the hectic command center at Camp War Eagle is built with specific details in both the backgrounds and diegetic effects. The command team is busy setting up the post. People are constantly moving around the room, coming and going. There’s an overall feeling of preparation as they try to get organized. Then suddenly the ambush happens and the command team is caught off-guard. There is a steady stream of radio transmissions between the squads in the field and the command team.

According to Brown, many of the lines heard through the comms and radios were written by Alanne, then recorded with loop group. “The crosstalk that is coming back into that war room had to be accurate to those particular servicemen who were out there on that day. We didn’t just have generic chatter,” he says.

Co-supervising sound editor and supervising ADR editor Gregory Brown, The Long Road Home

Co-supervising sound editor and supervising ADR editor Gregory Brown

The radio squelches and static sounds were recorded using real radios in a live environment “so that it has that nice, natural feel as though it’s in that space, like inside the Humvee,” notes King. Then the dry loop group recordings were processed to sound as though they were coming from the radios. King, who was also the show’s re-recording mixer on dialogue and music, achieved the right sound using a combination of EQ, compression and futzing via McDSP’s Futzbox. “I’ll compress the lines to the point that they are almost breaking up,” he says. “I’ll overload the compressor to get that natural distortion like you would over a radio.”

But the processing wasn’t consistent. King had to change it from scene to scene. “When the troops are just talking on the radio in the Humvee and there’s not much action, I can get away with a more intensive futz because it’s quiet and you can understand the voice coming through the radio better,” he explains. “But when there is a lot of action, I have to back it off because now that voice that is carrying information is competing with gunfire and explosions. So I was tweaking the processing all the time.”

On set, production sound mixer Ben Lowry had the challenge of miking actors who were swathed in tactical gear like helmets and Kevlar vests, and crammed into tight Humvees or buildings, or running evasively through the streets of the stand-in Sadr City. Boom-miking an actor while he’s running is challenging, but keeping the boom on an actor while he’s running in a zigzag pattern is impossible. Given those circumstances, King says Lowry’s production track was fantastic. “He managed to get us a track that we were able to work with. If he didn’t do such a great job, we would have been dead in the water,” says King.

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Brown adds, “We were able to switch from microphone to microphone, from the lav mics to the boom and back and forth. Then Greg [King] did his magic to blend it all together.”

Brown and dialogue editor Jeffrey Dyal used iZotope RX 6 to remove as much of the on-set gunshots from the dialogue tracks as possible. “The set gunfire wasn’t as loud as a normal gun, but it was all over the production dialogue and it had to come out,” Brown explains. “RX’s Dialogue Isolate feature was a savior in that because we didn’t want to loop lines unnecessarily.”

Nevertheless, the sound team still needed to record ADR. On average, they recorded 70 lines of principal dialogue per episode. Even though the actors were scattered from Texas to California, coordinating those ADR sessions wasn’t the biggest challenge; the hardest job was to re-voice one of the secondary actors who claimed he could speak Arabic. Turns out, he couldn’t.

“It’s difficult for an actor to re-voice a different person because of their different speech patterns, but this was even more difficult because the initial actor was speaking gibberish!” Brown says. “We had to find a way to re-voice the actor using the proper words and make it fit the moving mouth on screen. I pushed our re-voice actor as far as I could because I knew that when it got to the dub stage, it had to look good. In the end, it worked out.”

King adds, “It just goes to show some of the pitfalls you can run into on a production this big. You have so many moving parts and sometimes this happens.”

The scope of the production was massive, but the post sound schedule was definitely not. Each episode was treated like a mini-movie, but the King Soundworks team had roughly five days for editorial and two days to mix each one. By mid-season, the schedule was compressed even further. “It was the equivalent of doing five combat movies in the span of eight weeks,” says King.

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Still, King and Brown wanted to keep a small team on the show, which included sound effects editor/re-recording mixer Jon Greasley and sound designer Yann Delpuech. “Most of the team members here at King Soundworks are sound designers, dialogue editors and mixers; they can do all three,” King says. “So as the tracks are being built, they’re also being leveled and essentially premixed. When it all gets to the stage, we already have a leg up. That kind of efficiency in the editorial—having the sound designers wear a mixing cap, too—really helped. This wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

The team maximized efficiency by keeping their work inside Pro Tools, from sound editorial to final mix. “We are all in-the-box, and so all the valuable noise reduction work and all the automation carries forward,” says King. He and Greasley final mixed via Avid Icon D-Control surfaces on Stage 1 at the Calvert Street location in Van Nuys, Calif.

Stage 1 is currently being upgraded to Dolby Atmos. And King Soundworks is building two new stages: one at the Santa Clarita Studio location and another as a co-venture with Fuzzy Door, operated by Jason Clark and Seth McFarlane. The first two projects slated for the dub stage at the Fuzzy Door facility will be the Fox series The Orville and the next season of Fox’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

On The Long Road Home, no matter how much pressure the post sound schedule created, the sound team always remained sensitive to the program content; it’s a biographical series depicting a real conflict in which real soldiers lost their lives.

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“At the end of the day, this is a true story,” King says. “There are survivors of these events watching this, and there are family members of those who served but didn’t survive who are watching this. We had very long discussions about how far to push each scene, how real to make the battles sound, how realistic it should be, and how and when we can depart from that. At times, we’d have to be careful not to get too real because realism can be scarier than something that is embellished. We would experiment with each scene until it fit that pocket where we were getting the point across and not detracting from how violent and crazy this was, yet not making it horrifying for the survivors who are watching.”