'Sex and the City'

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By David Weiss

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TV can be a sensual experience, and very few shows appeal to the eyes — and ears — more than HBO's Sex and the City. Although the alluring leading ladies, sharp story lines and racy title get most of the credit for the show's multiple Emmy Awards and a huge following, superior production values are key to making Sex and the City such an attractive package. Supplementing the show's rich visual style is a crystalline, punchy and enveloping audio experience that's among the very best on television today, created since season one at New York's Soundtrack Film & Television by a tight-working sound editing team that is overseen by mixer Bob Chefalas.

KEEPING THE AUDIO REALISTIC

“We take a lot of pride in the fact that the same production and sound mixing crew have been on the show from the start,” Chefalas says. “What we do that's different from a lot of TV shows is we treat each mix as if it's a reel of film. Everything's covered, in that we give it a full sound, whereas other TV shows don't get the time to do that. Plus, we don't have a laugh track: Everything is dialog, music and effects.”

Supervising sound editor Chic Ciccolini agrees that the Soundtrack crew has something special going for Sex. “What makes our show great,” he says, “besides the writing, is that we put everything we do into the screen. Nothing comes at you unrealistically, unless it's designed to do so, but, otherwise, everything is blended and mixed so well. We don't want you to think, ‘Here's a car horn,’ or ‘Here's a bus-by.’ We're not saying, ‘Okay, audience, here it is!’”

While Chefalas is the mastermind behind the mix, as he's been since the show's first season, he has plenty of sonic support from veterans like supervising sound editors Ciccolini (sound effects), Louis Bertini (dialog) and Dan Lieberstein (music). Making things even better is their brand-new facility in New York City's fashionable Chelsea neighborhood. The studio boasts two mix stages and an ADR/Foley stage, which provides the team with the perfect environment to craft the show's sound.

VOICE-OVER CHALLENGES

Working with a Pro Tools front end and a Euphonix System 5 digital audio console in his spacious, Jeff Cooper-designed stage, Chefalas has the process of mixing Sex down to a science. His multiple TV and film credits include features such as Apollo 13, Ransom, EDtv and Dude, Where's My Car? under his belt, so Chefalas knows dialog and, naturally, it gets top priority. “Whether it's a TV show or feature film, the first thing I want to do is a dialog mix,” says Chefalas. “Sex and the City has a lot of voice-over, and I mix it in the whole show in its entirety, going to each spot where there's a VO and mixing and EQ'ing it at the normal VO level from beginning to end. I found that if something came in later, I wasn't always consistent, so [now] I go right from beginning to end and record dialog at the same time. I also get VOs that were recorded in more than one location: You may have a VO split in half, a pickup line and a new location from a different studio, different room, different mic and levels, so you've got to treat it so that it sounds the same.”

Careful handling of the voice-overs of Sarah Jessica Parker, playing the part of sex columnist and narrator Carrie Bradshaw, is a crucial task that calls for restraint, good taste and precise handling of compression. “We don't treat [voice-overs] like on radio, where sometimes you might want to take a VO, put it over the top and make it really big,” he says. “I try to make the VO a part of the show, not above it, almost like production dialog. It's just a processing thing: You don't want to overprocess it or add a lot of bottom to it. You want to hear it loud and clear. Sarah has got a very sweet, nice, smooth voice, and you don't really want to do a lot to it. It mostly comes down to compressing and containing it, but you don't want to overcompress it. It has to pop through TV speakers, so you find the frequencies that are little delicacies, reach for it, and that's what brings the VO to life.”

Chefalas is willing to share his secret weapons for getting a clean sound: “The Waves L2 UltraMaximizer is a secret in this industry,” he says. “In mastering, you can feed music through it, contain it and still make it sound loud. I use that on my dialog to give it extra punch, but it won't go past what they'll allow. The compressors on-air won't start compressing my dialog, so I can limit my dynamic range and not make it overly loud. I use a combination of that and the Neve 33609 as a soft compressor, which, with a 2:1 ratio, is smoothing out the dialog and not overly compressing it. Then the L2 will hit and contain any of the peaks.”

MAINTAINING CLARITY IN PRODUCTION DIALOG

On the first day of a four-day mix, Chefalas turns his attention to the production dialog. Capturing that on New York's bustling streets brings its own set of hurdles. Although the multiple location shots provide plenty of challenges with their varied camera angles and mic setups, that's not the toughest aspect of this phase. “You've got to smooth out the traffic,” notes Chefalas. “The most work you will do is on exterior scenes in Manhattan, because you can't stop the traffic and you've got to get the dialog out.

“Then there's scenes shot on sets, but we don't want it to sound like a set, so you add a little room to it with reverb, primarily the TC Electronic 6000. It's also taking out noises, because in a supermarket or restaurant, you'll end up with AC noise and fluorescent light hums and you have to notch that out.”

When Chefalas comes in and fires up the system the next day, it's time to attack the ADR and loop group, adding backgrounds of people talking and forks clinking, all done with unusual attention to detail. “There are a lot of phone calls, for instance, and you've got to treat each phone differently,” he says. “I've tried boxes that can make it sound like a phone, but I've found those make every phone sound the same. I'll bring it through the System 5, use a highpass/lowpass filter, find out if it's a cell phone, answering machine, etc…, and then compress and squeeze it down a lot. I have presets to start off with, but each phone is a little different, even though it takes a little longer than plugging in a box.

“It's the same thing when we go to restaurants. Every show has a diner scene, but we don't just copy and paste a diner background: Each one gets treated like new, with new ADR, new loop group, new backgrounds. For one diner scene, we may have six tracks of loop group: the dialog, dish clinks, silverware clinks, background traffic noise and Foleys for all of the movement going on. The diner's activity comes out of the emotion of the dialog. If it's a very upbeat, fast-paced dialog back and forth, you'll find a very lively background, but if it's a very serious piece of dialog, we'll treat it accordingly. You don't want all these happy people in the background for a sad scene.”

ADDING EFFECTS, FINALIZING THE MIX

The next two days are spent finalizing the music, sound effects and dialog mix, with Foley coming in last. Then it's time to play back for the editors and producer Antonia Ellis, get their notes, tweak and do a final playback for executive producers Michael Patrick King, Cindy Chupack, John Melfi and Jenny Bicks. During the playbacks, Ciccolini and Bertini work at Pro Tools stations that flank the System 5 for up-to-the-second changes and easy collaboration. A 5.1 mix is generated with minimal fuss from the stereo mix via Dolby surround algorithms.

With almost 100 inputs to fuse together in a typical show, Chefalas depends on a surprisingly tight gear list to do his job. Supplementing the previously mentioned compressors and effects, for noise reduction he uses Cedar DNS1000 and Dolby 430 Background Noise Suppressor. An SPL De-Esser, dbx compressors, Avalon Vt737sp and Eventide Harmonizer Orville are also at work. Monitoring comes through Auratone monitors and his new fave-rave, the HHB Circle 3. “I found that my EQ curve is matched closer to my film speakers, which are JBL theater speakers. They're a couple of notches better than the Auratones, but not overpowering to have on the console; small, but with a really big sound.”

Now in his second season with the Euphonix System 5, Chefalas finds it gives him a lot of what he needs for both film and TV work. “I like the sound of the console, as well as the visual feedback,” he says. “For example, when you go to EQ, you get a curve on the bridge that tells you where it is, so you can go down the board and see what the EQ is doing, and you don't have to read the knobs. It's the same for dynamics: As you start doing the threshold, you can see the knees and where it'll start to hit it.”

Chefalas finds that he works at the same pace whether his console is digital or analog: “Reaching for an EQ and finding it takes the same amount of time on analog or digital. The beauty of the Euphonix is it will back up and automate any busing, EQs and dynamics and remember your moves, so when you go back to make changes, it's all there for you.”

Although Sex and the City is now in its final season, Chefalas and crew don't have to wonder what they're going to do next. The mixing stage at Soundtrack F/T is already booked with feature-film work through January 2004, meaning that Chefalas will continue to have his hands full with faders and cue sheets. For a mix engineer with sharp ears, that's as sexy as it gets.


David Weiss, founder of www.dwords.com, writes and records as much as humanly possible in New York City.






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