The Lone Ranger Rides Again!

Jul 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson

Sound Challenges of a Fun-Filled Western


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Lone Ranger movie still

Making a western in this day and age is a risky proposition. But leave it to Gore Verbinski—director of the mega-popular Pirates of the Caribbean films—to come up with a crowd-pleasing summer epic to give the genre a much-needed shot of adrenalin. The Lone Ranger, starring Armie Hammer in the title role and Johnny Depp as Tonto (his character elevated from sidekick to second lead) is a western for a new generation of moviegoers, a deft blending of imaginative, cleverly staged action sequences, a compelling classic story and doses of humor, both silly and dark. This just might work.

Many of the major players on The Lone Ranger sound team are veterans of multiple past Verbinski films, from production mixer Lee Orloff to supervising sound editors Addison Teague and Shannon Mills and rerecording mixers Chris Boyes (FX) and Paul Massey (dialog, music). Add in longtime picture editor Craig Wood and composer Hans Zimmer and you’ve got a core crew that’s largely in sync with both the discriminating, hands-on director, and with each other.

“In the 17 or so years Gore has been making features, technology has evolved and opened the door to allow him to fold visual effects, music and sound into one simultaneous creative process,” Teague comments. “Gore wanted each of these departments to inform each other, as he put the film together for the first time. Under one picture department roof, he brought together traditional picture editorial with sound design, music and VFX. This core team was at his disposal for months to address any direction he was taking on a given day. It was a really exciting phase. He works on one sequence at a time. Being all together created a conversation about how music and sound could help contribute to what the picture editors were constructing.”

“Gore is very involved in the soundtrack,” Mills adds. “Because of the schedule and demands on Gore’s time, we spent a lot of time early getting a few important scenes worked out and put into the Avid. Gore very much likes to develop sound and picture at the same time, having them both inform each other. On the flip side, when we hit the final mix stage, there are a lot more options and opportunities that arise there, and Gore is not afraid of taking advantage of those. Sometimes a change in the music, or a new line of ADR, can open up opportunities to experiment with sound in ways that weren’t possible previously. So there can also be a fair amount of sound shaping on the final mix.”

Fittingly, most of the film was shot in gorgeous outdoor locales around the West—primarily New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. Production recordist Orloff “did an absolutely amazing job under pretty grueling conditions,” says dialog re-recording mixer Massey, “because they were out there in the desert, climbing mountains and all the rest. He went through a lot of gear, he told me; he had a lot of sand and dirt in his recording equipment. But he always does a fantastic job recording the dialog. It was very rich; sometimes a little noisy because of the environment and because of generators and wind-blowers and all that. Still there was very minimal ADR recorded for technical reasons, which is, of course, a credit to him.” Massey did his dialog premixes at his own studio in Ojai, Calif.

To pull off a big period film like The Lone Ranger, which is mainly set during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad during the 1860s, attention to historic detail, both aurally and visually, was a high priority for Verbinski and the crew. From a sonic perspective, this meant going to great lengths to capture the sound of trains of that era—the biggest set piece in the movie is an elaborate locomotive chase and gunfight—as well as various firearms, authentic interiors (jail, saloon, etc.) and, naturally, horses galore.

Teague says, “Effects recordist Jake Riehle and I traveled to New Mexico, where production had constructed a five-mile loop of jointed rail with real trains for the shoot. These were usually pushed or pulled by modern diesel engines, so our goal on that trip was to collect jointed track and car movement sounds. For two days they let us go anywhere we wanted on these trains while they shot, as long as we were out of the camera’s view. And to capture the sound of the period steam engine, Jake and his recording partner Bob Kellough went on an amazing train recording adventure.”

“The Santa Fe 3751 is a Los Angeles-based steam locomotive currently owned by the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society,” Riehle adds. “Its crew of volunteers maintain the 85-year-old steam engine and take it out at least once a year on a passenger-funded exhibition. Last May, we were fortunate enough to have our mics ride along with the locomotive on its trip from L.A. to the Grand Canyon and back. During its six-day trip, we had a Sound Devices 744T strapped to the train’s tender [coal car] with a Sennheiser 8050 on top of the locomotive about 10 feet behind the stack, a Sennheiser 8040 down by the 80-inch drive wheels, and a Schoeps MS rig above the engineer’s cab pointed at the nose of the train.

“Since we knew the train’s route, we decided to map out spots each day that could be good for pass-by recordings. Obviously we would have to get ahead of the locomotive, set up our mics quickly, wait for it to pass, and hop back in our car to get in front of it again. So we fitted our onboard recording rig with a Spot personal locator, which leaves Google Maps-based digital bread crumbs in real time that we could follow on our iPhones. We were updated every 10 minutes of how close the train was to our recording location, so even if we couldn’t see the train, we knew about where it was.”

When it came to weapons, such as that rare rapid-fire 19th-century marvel known as a Gatling gun, Riehle once again hit the road: “We found an 1874 Colt Gatling gun replica out in East Texas to record. It took the gun owner two days to hand load the 400 .45 caliber black powder rounds we fired on his private shooting range. We surrounded the gun with a Schoeps MS rig, two Sennheiser 8040s feeding into a 744T, and a Sennheiser 8020 recording into a Sound Devices 722. We also put a Sony PCM-D50 downrange to capture a more distant report from the gun.”

Riehle and Mills also made other gun recordings in the hills and canyons at Skywalker Ranch, in Northern California, “to emulate the echo and slapback in many of the locations in the film,” Mills says. Mills even borrowed several historic guns from his father, a huge fan of westerns and a gun collector. Most of the sound design—which early on also included contributions from Gary Rydstrom, who left to work on another film—was done at Skywalker Sound, where the majority of the crew members have been regulars for years and have amassed significant sound libraries covering thousands upon thousands of FX and atmospheres.

The all-important horses were a combination of library recordings and Foley. “In the end, it was probably about 50-50,” says FX mixer Boyes. “The Foley works really well when the horse comes in and stops and moves around. Addison and Shannon made a really wise choice to make sure that the editors who cut the Foley horses also cut the FX horses; that was key. So what that meant is, often times, unless you were actually looking at the horses’ feet, I could use both, because the FX will give you the body and the size and that wide stereo field you want that tells you this horse is riding through the desert, and the Foley will give you the specificity, but also the power and the deep resonant quality that [Foley artist] Dan O’Connell gets on the Foley stage. He’s amazing.” Nia Hansen was the Foley supervisor for what was a very Foley-intensive film from beginning to end.

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