Getting professional quality sound design with what you’ve got – a post-mortem for Robert Glickert’s DR0NE
DR0NE is a high-concept, sci-fi web series that is exclusive to YOMYOMFnetwork, a new professional YouTube channel. The series is executive produced by Justin Lin (Fast and Furious, Fast Five) and directed by Robert Glickert. DR0NE stars Lance Reddick (The Wire, Lost and Fringe) and Kenneth Choi (Captain America). Set in the near future, 2023…
“War drone technology has advanced and a new weapon has been unleashed – a humanoid drone that is stronger and faster than any soldier. But in the aftermath of a mysterious incident, a damaged battle drone is forced to go on the run with its programmer to try and take down their corrupt commander.”
While the production value of DR0NE appears to have cost millions, in actuality its budget was more in line with that of a small indie project, leaning heavily upon good faith between the producers and vendors. For the crew at Empty Sea Audio Services in Los Angeles, this hurdle provided unique limitations and challenges to our approach for post sound on the four episode serial. The ability of this piece to shine, sonically hinged upon how we managed these limitations. Not just technical limitations, but also budgetary limitations, time crunch and crew size. Embracing limitations such as these can transform them from a deterrent into a strength.
The biggest limitation of all is that Empty Sea does not have a proper, theatrical dub stage. This commitment to low overhead is great for keeping our costs in line with clients’ budgets, however it can be troublesome with the “sky’s-the-limit” type of creativity required on something like DR0NE. For larger projects, we normally four-wall mix space at local turnkey facilities, on-demand. For smaller projects, we keep it in-house. Considering that DR0NE was intended for YouTube, the final exhibition of which would be primarily on mobile phones and laptops, we decided (along with director Robert Glickert) that a stereo mix in Empty Sea’s own office would be sufficient. Not to mention, the budget had no room for four-walling. ProTools 7.4 LE with DV Toolkit 2 served as our DAW, along with Waves Mercury V6 Native as our main plugin package and finally an 8 channel Behringer BCF2000 fader controller (yes the noisy one) gave us tactile control of the mix. DR0NE was mixed in a session with only 48 tracks total, 8 of which were taken up by re-record channels for mix, dialog, music, and effects stems. So really we only had 40 channels to work with. On top of that, we were limited by ProTools LE’s 16 stereo busses.
PROPER PRIOR PLANNING PREVENTS PISS POOR PERFORMANCE
Normally, one does not immediately think of pre-production planning as a part of the post-production process, but in this instance it was invaluable. 48 mono tracks and 16 stereo busses do not go very far when one is dealing with robots, explosions, vehicles, weapons and etc. A singular mix template for the series was not beneficial because of the track limitations and the dynamic nature of the content between the episodes. Some episodes were more dialog heavy and some were more effects heavy. To combat this hitch, each episode’s track layout was put to paper first. This served as a guide for our work. We didn’t always stick to it exactly, but it helped our organization to know exactly where things would be going.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
Like most sound designers, we would always prefer to record original material for every project. But, budgets and schedule do not always allow for this luxury. Sometimes you will not have enough time, other times you will not have enough money. In this case, we had neither. To make up for that, one usually leans heavily on library material. Our internal sound library is big, but it is not extensive enough to provide everything we need, all of the time. We used a three pronged approach to filling this void. In our opinion, the best way to take a project to the next level is not through expensive equipment but through Foley and high quality source material that is blended to create new and original sounds. We prioritized where original sounds would have the most impact and where library material would be more efficient. If you spend extra time and money anywhere on your project, spend it on increasing the palette of sounds you have to chose from. Or as president Lincoln is credited with saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
DR0NE utilized a balanced attack of sound libraries we have purchased, as well as Foley, and original sounds we recorded or created for the series. We were incredibly honored to be able to work with the stunning Foley crew at Todd AO Studios’ Lantana facility. Their track record of consistently choosing the right sound for the right surface was invaluable to the success of DR0NE. Their work really brought the story to life and increased value to the production design of the piece. Additionally, before we even had a signed contract for the series, we began researching and purchasing source material that would give us the edge we needed and save us valuable time. Deciding upon a sonic style up front gave us direction on where to look. We found some great deals on soundpacks through extensive research and networking. You would be amazed what kind of a deal you can get if you just ask!
Finally, an example of original material for the series would be the base servos for therobot’s joints. We spent a lot of time recording items that contained small motors that are pretty ordinary. Multiple drills, a remote controlled car, wind up toys, and an electric screwdriver were used heavily among other things. We recorded these to picture like one would with Foley, but instead we did it in our own studio. Then we meticulously edited and combined them. Later these sounds were processed using pitch shifting, ring modulation, distortion and other various plugins to create a unique sound for the joints. A well thought out plan to our source material hurdle allowed us to clear the obstacle in one piece. It also has left us with more great stuff to use on future projects! Another example of original material would be the soldiers’ reactions. The budget did not allow for walla or voice actors, so we just voiced the reactions ourselves. It’s always fun to act it up a bit and it really added value to the project!
In conclusion, DR0NE was an opportunity for Empty Sea to do some great work. However, the challenges we were presented with did not make success automatic. We had to provide professional quality sound on a shoestring budget. We identified the hurdles we would need to clear before beginning work. We made concessions where necessary and embraced the the limitations that arose out of these concessions. In the end, we were forced to be much more organized than usual because of our track count limitations. This organization allowed our mix days to run more efficiently. Our preparation allowed us to spend more time creating and less time making things fit within our mix sessions. We were able to present a mix that was detailed, focused, emotional and rich. A mix that no one would ever guess was executed on a DAW with only 48 tracks. With the proper balance of organization, high-quality source sounds, and a well thought out plan for creativity, and finances, anyone can make sound sound good on a tight budget!