‘Westworld’: Creating the sounds of HBO’s latest hit

The HBO series “Westworld” has transfixed audiences every Sunday night and dominated water cooler conversation here at iZotope HQ each Monday morning. Behind its sonic storytelling are some of the top names in the world of audio post-production, and a whole lot of RX.

The audio team is lead by supervising sound editor Thomas DeGorter, and includes members from his previous award-winning sound departments for “Lost,” “Alias,” and “Bates Motel.” We got to hear from some key members of the audio team and learn more about how they’ve developed the different sonic landscapes for the park and “underground,” and how they’ve used RX to save as many of the original performances and production dialogue as possible.

Creating the sound of the park

Lead mixer Keith Rogers handles all the dialogue and music mixing. “The timeframe in Westworld is kind of vague and it doesn’t necessarily tell you what timeframe you’re in,” he says. “We definitely go off of our executive producer’s guidance, Jonah Nolan. He definitely loves sound, and he loves to use sound to tell the story.”

“When we are in the park, it is pretty straightforward and gritty; however, when we are in the inner workings of the park (manufacturing, behavior, programming, etc.) that has to feel very sterile. We keep those areas very quiet and tonal,” says DeGorter.

Rogers adds, “There are a lot of subtleties put into the show that help give clues as to what is possibly good and evil, or to help understand the plot of the series. For example, a lot of times Dolores is hearing these voices that say, ‘Remember.’ There are a lot of little things like that in the show. On first watch you just think, ‘Oh ok, she’s hearing the voice,’ but then you realize she keeps hearing [the same] voice.” Viewers have been speculating whether that voice could be coming from the infamous Arnold, but Rogers wouldn’t spill the beans. “It’s a combination of a bunch of voices. If you listen closely, they change over time, and they kind of help give a clue as to what ends up happening at the end of the season.”

The team has also had to consider what devices inside this nebulous future world might sound like. Rogers cites one effect in episode 2: “You see the guests coming in on these high tech trains. We talked about that, saying, ‘Ok, this is not a typical train that’s running on a regular engine. It’s more of an electronic, futuristic train. There are no tracks; it’s more of an Elon Musk tube kind of idea.’ So sound design had to come up with some pretty neat ideas of what that might sound like.”

Setting the scene below Westworld

Sound effects editor Mark R. Allen is part of the powerhouse team creating the aural aesthetic inside of Westworld. “The main challenge of the show is the ‘future’ world and keeping it credible. We wanted to push it forward in time without making it sound like a typical science fiction show, or too cheesy. That took a lot of experimentation to find the right balance and it still goes on. Every scene is always a little bit different. The future sounds very sterile. We have ended up keeping the material very minimal. Occasional feet, tools, and beeps. That sort of thing.”

Fellow sound effects editor Marc Glassman adds, “One of the main concerns with Westworld is that there are two distinct worlds that each have their own soundscape. There’s the western world and the more sci-fi, modern world. Even though it is a futuristic setting, we’re going for a more gritty real-world sound in addition to the sterile environment that takes place below Westworld.”

“We’re trying to stay away from sounds that we’ve heard in other shows. That’s always a challenge and makes the editing process take longer. But I’m not doing this because it’s easy! We really want the show to stand alone, and that requires more attention and hours than some other shows might.”

The sounds of Old Bill

When it came to designing the sounds of the hosts themselves, Allen and team relied on old machines with cleanup by RX.

Allen says, “[The hosts] are extremely advanced and almost never require sound effects. On the other hand, there are older robot models that require extensive use of RX. One example is ‘Old Bill.’ Old Bill is an old, antiquated robot that Dr. Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, created at the beginning of the park.”

“For Old Bill, the show runner Jonah Nolan expressed the idea that he wanted to emphasize Old Bill's primitive technology and old age. This ended up being very difficult. After many attempts we ended up using old adding machines, clocks, and old typewriters synced perfectly to Old Bill’s slightest movements.  These sounds were manipulated with RX’s Deconstruct, primarily to remove artifacts such as the ringing bell element of a clock chiming, leaving us only the whirring sounds of the clock mechanism.”

“As it turns out, this whirring, winding sound of the clock chiming has become a regular occurrence in the show. It is essentially a theme. You see it from the piano player, the old Victrola record player, to the older robots. RX was essential for removing any unwanted sounds.”

Saving the perfect performance

“Production sound on Westworld had it’s challenges due to its beautiful, but difficult locations.” says Fred Paragano, one of the dialogue editors on the crew. “The Westworld park is huge, remote, and should appear devoid of modern technology for the guests that enter the world. Unfortunately, the locations seemed to be continuously located in airplane flight paths. Many times a perfect performance would be obscured by a stray airplane. I was able to use RX to salvage these performances, avoiding the need for finding alternate performances or ADR. Many times a director falls in love with a performance regardless of the fidelity of the production. RX affords us the ability to salvage these performances to keep the filmmaker’s original vision intact.”

Paragano continues, “many scenes were shot in practical locations with authentic costumes for the time period. Cowboy boots on creaky wood floors, dirt, and gravel all were challenges to overcome when trying to bring clarity to the dialogue. Using RX, I was able to selectively reduce, remove, or reposition all these extraneous noises to be able to bring the dialogue forward while retaining the actors’ performances.”

Fellow dialogue editor Brian J. Armstrong expands on his personal RX workflow. “My Pro Tools window consists of the edit window on one screen, and then the other has the picture along with four of the RX AudioSuite plug-ins: De-crackle, De-click, Ambience Match, and RX Connect.”  

“De-crackle and De-click are used a lot for quick, isolated ticks. Ambience Match is nice to have up to fill in small gaps where I need or create air to carry a long PFX (production effects) driven section. Anything surgical or complex, I send off to RX Connect and attack inside the RX Audio Editor. I typically work with the Instant Process option on and go back and forth between two presets I’ve created for myself in the Attenuate mode: one for clicks and ticks, another for tonal noises I want to remove.”

“My basic process goes something like this. First, I go through the entire show and make the mic selects (choosing between the boom and individual lavs). This way I have a grip on what is in store for me, and if there are any line issues, I can report them quickly to the supervisor as a heads up. Then I go scene by scene to edit it together, and use RX sparingly to get the scene into shape. The last step is to go back through with a fine-tooth comb and RX Connect to really get it cleaned up and as pristine as I can.”

Tune into HBO’s Westworld every Sunday at 9PM ET.


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