Fixing Audio with RX for New TV Series Mr. Mercedes

Brett Hinton, Dialogue Editor, Mr. Mercedes

One of the most effective ways to build cinematic tension is through silence. New mystery TV series Mr. Mercedes (based on a Stephen King novel and starring Harry Treadaway and  Brendan Gleeson) features very little music, letting dialogue and sound effects sit at the forefront of viewers’ audio experience.

This gives the audio team very little room to “hide” behind the music, meaning each and every audio edit must be intentional.

In this interview, Supervising Sound Editor Brian Armstrong and Dialogue Editor Brett Hinton (who had the help of second dialogue editor Lauren Price) share how they use RX 6 to repair audio for the show, describing in detail how they use each module, and why Dialogue Isolate and De-rustle are a few of their new favorite tools.

"I upgraded to RX 6 during Mr. Mercedes, and fell in love with Dialogue Isolate and De-rustle. Those two modules do the heavy lifting when I’m cleaning dialogue on stage." —Brian Armstrong, Supervising Sound Editor, Mr. Mercedes

What was your process like designing sound and editing dialogue for Mr. Mercedes?

Brian: My process as a supervisor is pretty consistent from series to series, episode to episode. It’s the same bag of tricks, but used differently. iZotope is a permanent part of all Pro Tools Templates I use when I’m supervising, editing dialogue, or cutting ADR. After spotting, the first thing I do is sit down with headphones and evaluate every scene for potential dialogue issues that will require ADR. For technically rough scenes or lines, I’ll do a broad stroke process (usually RX Dialogue Isolate or Voice De-noise) just to see how much better I can make it with a few quick clicks. It gives me a better idea of what can be saved and what might need to be cued for ADR.

Once ADR is cued and shot, I cut it in and will use a few different tools to help align sync and will often use EQ Match to get the ADR to sit a little better in the initial dialogue edit. I don’t like to process things too much before it hits the stage, but anything that gets the mix one tiny step closer is helpful.

What did you learn about sound/dialogue editing from working on this show?

Brett: Two things really stick out to me. One, I had just upgraded from RX 4 to RX 6 for the show. I had heard about Dialogue Isolate and found it had a lot of potential for me. Up until then, I had been using the Spectral De-noise module to deal with tonal or noise issues in targeted frequency bands. I find that I can use Dialogue Isolate in the same way with much less worry about artifacts from over-processing and just get better results in general. With Deconstruct, I found new ways to use it to attenuate noise or more interesting: increase tonal response in speech patterns where the actor under-delivered or—through the clean-up process—took something away. Secondly, I really relied heavily on double-cutting boom and lav like never before. I was able to retain a lot of top-end air and fidelity by cutting both mics together.

Brian: I also upgraded to RX 6 during the run of Mr. Mercedes and really fell in love with Dialogue Isolate and De-rustle. Those two modules do a large amount of the heavy lifting when I’m cleaning dialogue on the stage. It’s always better to err on the side of caution as a dialogue editor, but in TV, it’s rare that the dialogue editor can be on the stage for all the mixes. That’s where I step in and dig out noise a little deeper, and really push the limits on what we can remove before it starts becoming “artifact-y” through the stage speakers.


From left to right: Brian Armstrong (Supervising Sound Editor), Keith Rogers (DX Mixer), Andy King (FX Mixer) and Kyle O’Neal (Recordist)

Mr. Mercedes is a thriller; what sorts of techniques did you use when editing or designing sound to create suspense or dramatize scenes?

Brian: The showrunner, Jack Bender, didn’t want to use any originally composed music for the series. This allowed space for sound design to carry a lot of the suspense and forced the dialogue to be extra pristine since there was rarely music to hide behind. Any off-screen sounds had to be 100% motivated by what we saw on screen, so it really forced us to step up our game on making every production noise intentional and removing anything that wasn’t.

What role does sound play in Mr. Mercedes?

Brian: We really tried to keep the sound as “organic” as possible. In a lot of places where score would be carrying the suspense, we tried to find sounds we could elevate and highlight justified by what the viewer sees on screen. The best example is in the pilot when Mr. Mercedes pulls up to the job fair. We didn’t have any orchestrated tension pads to work with, so Mark Allen, our sound designer, used an extra low element to make the car’s engine sound a little growlier and nastier than a nicely tuned Mercedes engine might actually sound. Turns out there are lot of tonal elements all around us all the time that, when focused in the right way, can be very eerie and unsettling.

What were some of the challenges working on sound/dialogue editing for Mr. Mercedes?

Brett: Actually as far as production sound goes, Mr. Mercedes was one of the better recorded projects I’ve working on. I was spoiled, really. I think the most challenging aspect perhaps was because it was recorded so well that when we hit a rough patch, we worked that much harder to save it so that we could keep that high bar of sound quality in tact. The show has very little ADR, which is a real testament to everyone involved—not just from the sound team but everyone on set that gave us the flexibility to deliver such clean recordings back to them. Keep in mind there is very little music in the show, so hiding our sins behind a bed of music was not always an option.

Challenges though? I better let Brian answer that one because my rosy painting may not match his version of things.

Brian: Brett is right. Overall, the production sound Jeffree Bloomer captured for the show was really well done. Oftentimes, production challenges test the limits of any production mixer’s abilities but we were always provided with lots of coverage for alts, etc. I always debate the tradeoff versus the payoff of ADR, and I usually won’t add any ADR cues for technical reasons unless we are already bringing the actor in for an added or changed line. From what I can remember, I was able to stick to that self-inflicted guideline all season.

How did you use RX on Mr. Mercedes? Were there modules that came in particularly handy? How did you use them?

Brett: When I cut dialogue, I'll use pretty much everything under the sun to get the tracks where I think they need to be. I think one reason why I’m more confident and sometimes aggressive with how I use RX is because I spend a lot of time on the dub stage and know what is going to cause the mixers grief. Without this experience, it can be difficult to know just how challenging that cloth rustle is over a line, or signal to noise ratio or distant or off-mic recordings will be on the stage. That being said, I do try to avoid broadband noise reduction if I can.

As far as workflow, I usually make RX my final pass after I have gone through mic selections, alts, line rebuilding, etc. Not to say I’m not using RX along the way, but for more utilitarian purposes like for Ambience Match, phasing mics, etc. When I’m ready for my RX pass, I usually start with whatever is sticking out the most.

Generally speaking, if there are tonal noises like hums, flyback, high frequency whines, birds, and bugs, I knock those out with Spectral Repair or De-hum. Using Attenuate on it’s highest band setting in vertical, for example, has been a great tool for this. De-hum’s suggest feature can be a nice way to speed up the exact location of a tone. It’s nice to start this way because you can get you broad brush strokes done first before focusing on the minutia. After that, I might move onto targeted noise removal. I try to never select the entire frequency spectrum, but look for build-ups or issues in specific bands and then slicing away at them likes layers of an onion. I like to focus on lower frequencies first because the more I can leave the higher frequencies of speech alone the, less likelihood I’ll break something. That’s where all those alien artifacts seem to live so if I can get something working without touching anything up there, I feel more confident about how it’s going to play on the stage.

The last thing I usually do is scan for clicks and pops or other small surgical sounds. I would say 70 percent of what I use is some form of the Spectral Repair module, then maybe 20 percent Dialogue Isolate and/or Deconstruct. Ten percent De-click, De-crackle or De-hum.

Brian: for me, when cutting ADR, I use EQ Match and sometimes De-reverb. I use De-reverb in reverse. Sometimes when you add a learned reverb to a dry ADR track, it can help sit in the mix. When I have to put on my dialogue editorial hat on the stage to search for requested alts or just to take another whack at a deeper noise removal, as I mentioned before, Dialogue Isolate and De-rustle are my immediate go-to modules. From there I will also sometimes use De-click. A lot of the actors in this series had a lot of mouth tick/clicks in their quieter, more intimate line deliveries. For these, a quick zap of Mouth De-click did the trick.

Outside of RX, VocalSynth got a fair amount of use on the dialogue side of this series. Mark Allen used it quite a bit in conjunction with pitch plug-ins to give Brady’s vocals in his video messages to Hodges a very unique, disturbing quality to them. The discussion about the sound design for the video messages was extensive, and we decided that even though Brady is literally a tech geek, he’s not a great sound designer, so we ended up pitching his voice two or three different ways and playing with the balance between them to emphasize different lines and to help Brady's portrayal of different “characters” in the videos. Even though the audience knows who Mr. Mercedes is, Hodges does not, so Brady’s voice had to be distorted but also, more importantly, had to be understood.

Were there any scenes (or perhaps actors’ tendencies?) from season one that posed particular audio repair challenges? If so, how did you resolve them?

Brett: Early in the season, we hit some scenes that had a very strange sound to them—often on really tight close-ups with shallow depth of field. The first one of these scenes was in Episode One when Brady and his mom have what I’ll classify only as "a very disturbing encounter." Brian actually brought it to my attention that this might be a byproduct of camera equipment used for these shots. We aren’t sure, but maybe an auto-focus device; it had sort of a mechanical whine to it. To me, it was subliminal at first, but as soon as Brian pointed it out to me, it was like being invited to his own personal hell. After that, I heard it everywhere and had to use a lot of the Spectral Repair module to get rid of it. It was really tied up into the dialogue on close-up shots, so we had to be extra ginger around those sections to not take anything away from the actor’s speech.

As far as actors’ performance techniques that proved to be challenging, I think everyone in the show seemed to use lip smacks to dramatic effect. It became a delicate dance deciding what to leave alone, what to attenuate, or remove. Harry Treadaway (Brady Hartsfield) was the most difficult in this department because part of his character was to have this perpetually dry, mouth-breather vibe. I feel like I became his personal spit shaper on the show.

Brian: Just to add to the lip-smackage, once we started getting QC notes about ticks and pops that turned out to be intentional from the actors, we had to take a harder stance on them and remove more than we maybe would have liked to.

Which other TV shows or films influenced your work on Mr. Mercedes? Was there anything non-TV/film related that influenced your work?

Brian: No Country for Old Men came up quite a bit in our discussions about our sound approach to the series, because, like Mr. Mercedes, there isn’t an orchestrated soundtrack. Or at least there isn’t one that you could hear, necessarily. But you certainly felt it.

Our initial intention was to convey tension and suspense as something you could just feel and not necessarily pay attention to. If the hairs on your arm are standing up, and you don’t really know why, we’ve done our job.

Mr. Mercedes is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. To what extent—if at all—did working on an adapted show affect your sound/dialogue editing?

Brian: Stephen King is the master of this genre and so many of his great works have been turned into TV shows and movies. The fact that this show is about the horror inside real humans as opposed to any sort of supernatural presence just reinforced our “organic” approach to sound design.

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