Interview by Jennifer Walden
The trailer for ‘American Gods’
Author Neil Gaiman has a thing for Old Gods, from Viking Myths to African folktales, a fascination that has twisted itself through his stories, particularly his award-winning novels American Gods and Anansi Boys. In American Gods, the Old Gods that used to dominate people’s lives square off against the New Gods of technology and digital accessibility that now consumes civilization’s attention. The story follows ex-con Shadow Moon who teams up with the leader of the Old Gods Mr. Wednesday (aka Odin). Together they recruit a wide array of nearly forgotten Gods to fight an epic battle against their digital-realm adversaries. Gaiman’s page-turning tale is now a stunningly gory series on Starz — new episodes airing Sundays 9pm EST.
Technicolor Sound’s supervising sound editor Brad North, sound designer David Werntz, and re-recording mixer Joe DeAngelis, who mixed the series in 7.1 at Technicolor at Paramount in Hollywood, CA discuss just what it took to flesh out the otherworldly sound on the American Gods series.
What was the direction for sound from show runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green?
Brad North (BN): We let music take the lead on just about everything throughout the show. It set the tone. We just followed whatever composer Brian Reitzell’s music was doing. That was the basic direction.
Another thing was that nothing was ever grounded in reality. Any regular sound effect was usually treated in a different way. Everything was either dreamy or from a different world. Very little of the sound is actually grounded in reality. That was the overall direction. That was the main plan going through the whole series.
We wanted to cocoon the audience as much as we could with the sound, either the music or the effects, or a combination of both.
Joe DeAngelis (JD): As far as the mixing was concerned, it was a matter of wrapping all of the sounds around us. The show runners were very into hearing everything come out of every speaker. There was no rule that it had to be a certain way. It was using sound however it might lend itself to the scene. Sometimes we ended up with more sound in the surrounds than we did in the front because it just felt weirder that way. We wanted to cocoon the audience as much as we could with the sound, either the music or the effects, or a combination of both. The show is mixed in 7.1 and we were all speakers all the time.
David Werntz (DW): Just adding to what Brad said, about the sound not being grounded in reality, there were lots of times that we would be in a place that doesn’t look otherworldly but the sounds that we are putting in there are definitely not for what you are seeing. In particular, there is a scene where Shadow (played by Ricky Whittle) is talking to one of the sisters, named Zorya Polunochnaya (played by Erika Kaar) on top of a building in downtown Chicago, but it doesn’t sound like that. It sounds like a mystical forest up there instead.
If you are taking the lead from the music, how early on did you get the music? Was that something the composer created first and you built off of it? Or, did it all happen at the very last second?
JD: We were always playing catch-up.
BN: For the very first episode (which from my point of view was the best sounding one) the music was built a long time before we started mixing. David [Werntz] was able to go over to composer Reitzell’s studio and talk to him about what he was going to deliver music-wise, and what we were going to add on top of that sound design-wise.
The show has a profuse amount of blood and violence. It’s so overly violent that it’s actually funny at times (for example, in Ep. 1, there’s the Viking who becomes a human pincushion of arrows). How do you add to that from a sound perspective?
BN: For the arrow scene, that was very specific. During the first spotting session, David and I were both there, and we discussed the Vikings walking up and all these arrows coming out of nowhere and they shoot the one guy down. There was always this plan to have one last arrow being shot into his foot. For sound on that, we wanted to do a classic Monty Python sort of boing as that last arrow went into his foot.
JD: The music makes comments on that too. There are little violent hits and little rubs in there that accent the effects. So that gives it a certain feel as well.
BN: As far as the other blood and gore situations, we did cut some big, gushy, gory sounds for those and David put some accents and design elements on top of that, but that really sat underneath while there was some sort of music sting or accent to play those moments.
There’s also that scene where Czernobog (played by Peter Stormare) uses his huge hammer to whack that cow in the head. That was pretty gory too. There is so much blood and gore. Are you pulling those elements from libraries? Did you go out and smash any fruit, or cattle??
DW: Blood splats are plentiful in sound libraries and so we didn’t have to go out and record anything for that.
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When you work on a scene, you have to watch it over and over again. Were there any scenes that made you cringe no matter how many times you watched it? Did adding sound make it harder to watch?
DW: There is one scene that comes to mind, but it had the opposite effect. It’s a bathroom humor scene and once I started adding in the bodily function sounds, I was literally in my room crying in tears just laughing and having so much fun working on that scene. As I started adding the sounds in there, it just became funnier. You try to hit the timing of little things. Even the timing of a fart can be really funny. So that scene for me was one that the more I worked on it the more entertaining it got. The sound really helped to tell the story of what was happening in that scene.
Once I started adding in the bodily function sounds, I was literally in my room crying in tears just laughing and having so much fun working on that scene.
As far as something being disturbing — I hate to say it but we are so desensitized to violence now that those scenes are just part of the job.
JD: The violence in this show is so over the top. When the blood flies it really flies in buckets. So that detaches you from the reality of what is going on.
The show is ultimately a battle between the Old Gods and the New Gods. Are there any sonic distinctions between the two?
JD: There are definitely vocal treatments on the Gods’ tracks. Brad did some vocal treatments so that at certain times you hear their voices get heavier and meatier.
BN: With the Old Gods we didn’t tweak it out too much. Early on we tried to do lots of different things but Brian and Michael didn’t really like doing too much pitch shifting or processing. So we’ve come up with some new ways of doing that stuff. For the Old Gods, we added some low-end harmonics and we also had a gate that was hitting certain frequencies, and it would hit the reverb a little differently. It filled it out and gave it a low-end presence.
Brian and Michael didn’t really like doing too much pitch shifting or processing. So we’ve come up with some new ways of doing that stuff
That’s what I did for most of the Old Gods, but Bilquis (played by Yetide Badaki) was different. They wanted her to have this high-end breathy sound. For her treatment, we brought her in to perform some breaths. And so we edited all of these breaths in for her, and Joe [DeAngelis] was swirling those around the room. We hit her esses and verbed those out a little more.
With the New Gods, we went to town on that. For Technical Boy (played by Bruce Langley) we did all sorts of crazy stuff, and for also Mr. World (played by Crispin Glover). Later on in the season, when Mr. World moves and hits himself little pieces of him come off and orbit around. So we did some randomizing and stuttering so that it matched what you saw.
So basically the Old Gods have a bigger low-end, natural sort of sound where some of the newer Gods have more of a processed feel.
Can you share some examples of the processing you used for Technical Boy?
BN: I did a couple of tricks. I used the Eventide H3000. I tried a bit of processing with Dehumaniser (by Krotos, Ltd). And I used some processing from Ina-GRM Tools. They have this plug-in called Freeze, and also Shuffler. I did a lot of different things, and we used a little piece here and a little piece there depending on what we needed.
It took awhile to find that. I basically gave Joe 10 layers of different processing and he and I went through and chose different spots to play the different processing.
JD: Yeah, Brad would give me stereo tracks of processing, and then we also had the dry track. We would play around with it until we found the right feel for the character.
Even though the sound overall isn’t based in reality, there are times when the scene is clearly happening in another dream world, for instance, Shadow’s journey into the Bone Orchard. What were your guidelines for those dream world scenes?
JD: Usually in the dream sequences the music would take the lead. From top to tail for the show, that’s how it was. The show runners would say, “Here’s the score. Mix it as you will. Take it in or take it out as you will.” Definitely in those dream sequences the music would take the lead. Then we’d build in the effects, which Brad and David pointed out earlier, are always treated and head-spacey. We used those effects to fill in the rest of the mix. But those dream sequences were definitely led by the music.
BN: For the Bone Orchard, David had done some design work which he can tell you about. During spotting, Michael and Brian wanted to hear Shadow’s breaths. So again we brought Shadow in and he did some breathing and I treated those and Joe put them all around the room. David, what were your tracks for the Bone Orchard?
What our effects mixer Ken Kobett did was to put that in a weird space so that whenever you hear that earthquake, you hear these crazy delays in the surrounds
DW: There was some waterphone material that we used for spaces like that. For me — since the music took care of setting the vibe and space, it was more about making sure the specifics were cutting through the music. For example, when the tree expands and the branches come down and scratch Shadow, I had some gory sounds for the branches coming down to grab him as opposed to using more traditional wood creaks. That made the branches feel a little more fleshy and alive.
JD: When we put everything together and the music is playing, we’re selective of the effects we’re playing. You hear the buffalo come in, and you hear those big earthquake hooves that come down; they are huge. What our effects mixer Ken Kobett did was to put that in a weird space so that whenever you hear that earthquake, you hear these crazy delays in the surrounds. So the effects, and how they were played, were helping out the entire space.
There’s a scene in Ep. 2, when Shadow meets Media (played by Gillian Anderson) and she takes over all of the TVs in the store. Can you tell me about the design and mix for that scene?
BN: The treatments there were all vocal. David covered the flashing and glitchy sounds for the TVs. As more TVs turn on, we added more voices. It was all her voice. We just time compressed or expanded it, or offset it a little bit. It was a fairly simple scene to do. If the voice flanged or phased, that was ok. It was actually cool if it did that. Then Joe placed all of these things throughout the room and that is what really gave it the space.
JD: We had tracks for each television and those were offset a little bit from one another. We didn’t use delay processing to create that. Brad had actually cut those out and put them on their own tracks. Then I panned those around the room. When the camera pulls back, the sound goes wide in the room. When we cut into her on the TV, then the sound was a little tighter and more futzed. It was a matter of following the picture and putting those tracks in the different speakers around the room.
DW: For the backgrounds, as the TVs come on and they go into another world, the sound of the store pitches down, like a power down effect. That plays really low under the scene. Then, when the TVs return to normal, the backgrounds sound like someone hit play on a record player. They ramp back up to normal pitch, so it sounds like reality again.
Were you using different EQ or other processing on all the different voice tracks for Media?
JD: Yes, there was different EQ and different futzing. I use Audio Ease’s Futzbox for my TV futzing. At times it would sound a little more pinched then at other times, but Brian and Michael really liked having a fuller voice. They didn’t want it to sound too pinched off because they wanted to fill the room and make that feel big. If you go too futzed, then that is difficult to do. We tended to stay towards more of a full voice when we cut to inside the TV; we treated that as full range vocal.
It was a feel-it-out type of scenario. It was all about getting the feel right. We did quite a bit of panning. One the wide shots I could put the voice in the speakers around us. Michael and Brian like to be enveloped in the sound so I always played sounds in multiple speakers.
An introduction to the characters in American Gods
Did you get to do any field recordings for the show?
The show is filled with sounds that have come from my personal library that is not available to anyone else. I’m pretty proud of that.
DW: I didn’t record anything specifically for the show but I have been recording sounds for 20 years now. The show is filled with sounds that have come from my personal library that is not available to anyone else. I’m pretty proud of that. The schedule was so fast on the show that we were focused on getting each episode done. But, I have a pretty extensive personal library that continues to grow and I used as much of those sounds as possible for this series. Every episode has dozens of sounds of mine.
BN: Not only does Dave have a good library, but he knows how to use it. This show required a totally different sound. It’s a totally different show with a totally different track that doesn’t sound like anything else out there. Going out and recording specific cars or specific elements, this just wasn’t the show for that.
DW: It would’ve been tough to figure out what to record because there’s so much happening. The first episode in particular is probably one of the most extensive 60 minutes of material that I’ve ever had to cut in my life. I probably cut more sound effects for the first episode of American Gods then I have done for any other 60 minutes of material.
JD: We mixed that first episode for 12 days. It was very important to get the feel and tone right, to get the series off on the right foot. Michael and Brian are not ones to skimp. If it is not right then we are not going to finish until it is right. That first episode was very important to establish the sound of the series.
Now that you have a few episodes under your belt, are they getting easier?
There is always an instrument or some element coming to the forefront and then going back. … So that in itself is very time-consuming. But the rewards really show when you watch the series. It’s very dynamic.
JD: The last mix was 11 days so we did it better by one day. Each episode has its own challenges and we need different ways of going about it. There’s a lot of experimentation and trial and error. That is time-consuming. The mix of the music is very important, especially to Brian. He doesn’t like the music to sit in the pocket. There is always an instrument or some element coming to the forefront and then going back. We have to keep the dynamics and keep the motion of the score going. He doesn’t like the music to ever sit there like a spackle. The music is always doing something. So that in itself is very time-consuming. But the rewards really show when you watch the series. It’s very dynamic.
What stage are you mixing this on at Technicolor?
BN: We’re on Stage 9 at Technicolor at Paramount Lot.
JD: This season is mixed in 7.1 and next season will be in Dolby Atmos. We use a 64-Fader AVID S6 console, and three Pro Tools HDX rigs.
Are you looking forward to the Atmos mix next season?
JD: I’m ready. I think that Atmos would really lend itself to the show. I can’t think of a better show to mix in Atmos than American Gods, because of the way the show runners like to experience it. Funny enough, our premiere was in the Cinerama Dome and we got to go and tweak out the theater. The mix really translated well to that space. It was awesome to hear it in a theater. Brian and Michael were happy. I think Atmos will be a good thing for the show.
Did you have a favorite single sound or favorite scene to design?
DW: I think my favorite sound came from episode one. It was toward the end of the episode when Shadow finally meets Technical Boy, and the whole sequence before it of him walking down the street and the lights go out and he sees what they called a ‘face-hugger’ — that headgear device on the ground, and there are those little digital fireflies. All of that was fun to work on. But when that face-hugger finally grabs Shadow, we go through this warping process which ends with him sitting in the limousine. During that warp there are these weird visual effects coming at you. That was a lot of fun to design. I took a lot of weird sounds and then ran them through Avid’s Lo-Fi plug-in to make them sound like 8-bit digital sounds. As those visual effects start to wrap around you the sounds become higher fidelity. So the sounds start out in low fidelity and as they wrap around you they become full on. That was my favorite sequence.
BN: That was one of my favorite sonic moments throughout, too. Either that or the Bone Orchard with the buffalo. David absolutely killed it right there.
DW: I paid them to say that. But really, the music there is really cool. There are some really spacey sounds. Once you get into the limo, you’re not sure what is a sound effect and what is music.
There are moments where I am putting in sound effects that, when you hear them, you probably thought it came from the composer
JD: The composer did all those little sounds of the droids building. There are these weird picky sounds that fly around the room. Often with this show the effects and music are hard to differentiate between because everything smears itself together.
DW: There are moments where I am putting in sound effects that, when you hear them, you probably thought it came from the composer. For example, when we walk into Bilquis’s room for the first time there is a sound that is playing really loud. You think that it is music but it’s effects. It’s a waterphone from our library that I’ve pitched down. There were some monks chanting too.
JD: The funny thing is that when Brian heard the monks, he asked me to turn them up. So I’m reaching for the music but I didn’t have that track. Sure enough, the effects mixer Ken Kobett had it.
BN: We had another one of those moments for the gravesite scene with Shadow and Audrey (played by Betty Gilpin). There is some score there that is actually sound design. It was this glassy bell track.
JD: Then there was a Xerox machine scene at the end of episode three. The music took care of much of the sound design in that scene.
DW: Shadow and Wednesday (played by Ian McShane) are in a copy place, and Shadow is dreaming of snow. So he actually creates snow and while he is doing that we zoom in on a copy machine and it turns into ice.
BN: A lot of times you don’t know if it’s effects and design or music. That’s the key to this soundtrack.
Did you have any favorite audio tools for this show and can you share some specific examples of how you use them?
DW: The Waves L1 Ultramaximizer, for anytime I needed to get a loud impact through the music. Audio Ease’s Altiverb, and Serato’s Pitch n’ Time. Pitch n’ Time is my best friend quite often. That allows you to take a sound and speed it up or slow it down, like you’re playing a record player. That’s how I did the backgrounds during the scene with Shadow and Media.
JD: I live and die with iZotope RX Advanced. Dealing with production dialogue, I use the Denoise and Spectral Repair. I use that extensively to clean up the dialogue and to get the lines to match. I also like Slapper by The Cargo Cult. That’s a multiband delay plug-in. That’s great for multi-speaker delays. I use PhoenixVerb for a lot of my dialogue treatments for the heady spaces, and I use Altiverb for my reverbs set in reality, for room treatments, and things like that.
BN: I really like the Ina-GRM Tools. I really like using Freeze and Shuffler. That processing for the New Gods vocal treatments allowed me to draw out the performance. It’s pretty random. That’s almost what the tool is, a randomizer. But if you draw it out you can change the frequency of the loops or the pitch of the loops or how quickly it is looping back and feeding back. It takes a little bit of time to perform what you see and what Freeze and Shuffler are doing. But those were my two favorite tools for the dialogue treatments on American Gods.
In terms of sound, what are you most proud of on American Gods?
JD: I really liked the scene in the store where Media is playing Lucy. That was a great scene. Then the Technical Boy scenes too. Those are a few of my favorites.
I would say that every episode had its own challenges. The show is basically a road show so we never really stayed in one environment very long. There were also a lot of scenes where reality would transition into headspace and vise versa. We would experiment with ways of making that happen as transparently as possible.
BN: The Technical Boy scene, where Shadow is walking down the street and the lights turn off and he sees the fireflies. Then he finds the face-hugger and it grabs him and we go through this warp scene into a virtual space with Technical Boy. That whole sequence is awesome.
There are some cool things happening in the finale with Mr. World. There are some really cool dialogue treatments and the way things came out in that scene I was really happy with.
DW: For me, Episode 1 as a whole is what I am most proud of, not just out of the series but for anything I’ve ever worked on. In addition to that, this entire sound crew is something that I’m very proud to be a part of. Joe and Ken have done a spectacular job mixing a very challenging show. And I can’t say enough about Brad. He’s the glue that holds it all together, often working hours that completely dismay me. It’s been so impressive to watch him throughout this process and I’m extremely lucky to be a part of it.
JD: I would also like to note the contributions of effects re-recording mixer Ken Kobett and dialogue editor Tiffany Griffith.
A big thanks to Brad North, David Werntz, and Joe DeAngelis for talking about the sound in American Gods – and to Jennifer Walden for conducting the interview!
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