Here's the story behind their creative work, sonic approaches and ideas for Stranger Things 2 - and how they cleverly designed the sounds for everything from pollywogs to Demodogs, and that menacing Shadow Monster.
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Netflix and Technicolor. Note: Contains spoilers
The trailer for Stranger Things season 2
Along with all that Halloween candy, I hope you were able to binge on something more satisfying, like Netflix’s Stranger Things 2! If so, then we have a real treat for you. Technicolor Sound’s supervising sound editor Brad North and sound designer Craig Henighan, who won an Emmy award last year for their sound editorial work on Stranger Things, delve into the details of how they created the sound of this new season — from pollywogs to Demodogs, and the menacing Shadow Monster.
You’re back for Season 2. What sounds are you excited for audiences to hear this season?
Craig Henighan (CH): There are at least two main elements that sonically are new to the story. The first one is the Demodogs. I had to come up with sounds for each stage of growth. The main Demodog started out as a tiny pollywog and Dustin [Gaten Matarazzo] befriends it and names it Dart. A challenge for me was coming up with the vocal idea of how it will grow — what stage 1 of that little guy would sound like, then stage 2, and stage 3. Then by stage 4 he’s a fully formed Demodog.
I had to come up with sound that would let the little pollywog interact with Dustin because they communicate a bit. Dart also feels pain and anger and aggression. I ended up using my own voice a fair bit for stage 1, stage 2, and stage 3, and ran it through Dehumaniser by Krotos.
My recording chain was a Shure SM7 into a aux in Pro Tools 12 with Channel Strip EQ into Dehumaniser (using spectral shift, granular and pitching patches) into Waves GTR rack with Octaver, Doubler, Delay, and EQ into Cargo Cult’s Slapper and finishing up with Waves L1 Limiter. Not all of them were turned on all of the time but I would play with different combinations.
I performed to picture. I would do vocalizations, purring, talking, and reactions— sometimes using techniques like covering half of my mouth or using sips of water to augment the vocalizations. I was loop recording and these initial recordings would serve as a rough guide. Afterwards, I’d go back and pull out the performances I liked, put them in better sync and refine the characteristics depending on what Dart was doing, if he was reacting to Dustin, etc.
I would do vocalizations, purring, talking, and reactions— sometimes using techniques like covering half of my mouth or using sips of water to augment the vocalizations
The pollywog started small. As he turned into Dart and got bigger, I did another round of vocals, adjusting pitch to get deeper vocalizations. When Dart became a full on Demodog, I made more guttural sounds and started using vibrato to get some fluctuation. I also started introducing some of the familiar Demogorgan roars and growls from Season 1. I thought, in a way, the Demodogs are cousins of Demogorgan so they should have similar roar/growl combinations.
Brad North (BN): Not only do we want Dart to not sound like a Demogorgan, but we don’t even reveal that he’s a Demogorgan until Episode 204. So he’s a different creature for the first couple of episodes. He’s a mystery. He’s this little pollywog. Craig’s pollywog sound transforms into Dart’s vocals as it grows. We don’t reveal that he’s a big Demogorgan until later in the season. It was a challenge for Craig to make it sound like a totally different creature but then to connect the dots as it grows and becomes a Demodog and then eventually a Demogorgan.
I’m excited for people to hear the Shadow Monster. We haven’t had anything remotely close to this in Stranger Things yet. He’s very cool, and big, and scary. He’s very different from anything the guys have done. He’s this big, nightmarish, stormy monster and I’m excited for people to see, and hear, and experience him. He’s quite scary but super cool at the same time.
What went into making the Shadow Monster sound?
CH: I took existing lightening, thunder, explosions, and large electric zaps/buzzes and used phasing, flanging, and tight delays to make them sound more “Electro Magnetic,” but still maintain a stormy feeling.
When Shadow Monster goes after Will [Noah Schnapp] in Episode 203, these large tornado-looking arms come down and Will is in the center. I made that sound using processed bee swarms, and processed waterfalls with fast tremolo settings to give it flutter. Then, I used Doppler processing to give a sense of smaller, faster motion in the middle of the bigger tornado. Brad’s team also added winds and other elements to further flesh out the size and velocity.
Shadow Monster’s vocals were based on large mammal roars — elephants and things of that nature, plus a few pitched vultures and a warthog for good measure
The sounds were sampled into Native Instruments Kontakt. One processing chain was Kontakt into a Channel Strip EQ into Eventide’s Fission — which is a spectral tool where you can split up the transient effects in transient/tonal effects and have a structural split. There are different variables you can manipulate. From there, I went into Dehumaniser and then played around with the Spectral Shifting and Granular features. Then I went into Waves GTR Octaver, which is an octave divider. I have all these plug-ins built in a chain but I will bypass or use ones I like, to find a sound that I think will work. Then I record and apply that to the Shadow Monster sequences to see what fits.
I remember I did an early sequence when Will first sees the Shadow Monster outside. At that point, I didn’t know how much the Shadow Monster would feature in the story and I had only read four of the scripts up to that point. I knew he was a big presence but the VFX at the time were really rough. I had to use my imagination as to what this monster would be like. As Brad said, the Shadow Monster is no joke. He’s like nothing you’ve seen in Stranger Things before. It’s omnipresent. The name Shadow Monster gives you an idea that he’s this figure that basically takes over the screen. So, we had to make him big and scary.
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Oftentimes, I was working on early versions of VFX, so it was really up to Brad and his team to add, adjust, and refine the sounds during mixing when final the VFX showed up. I just tried to give them good material to work with! They did a really great job of creating the final track with Matt and Ross Duffer, our re-recording mixers Joe Barnett and Adam Jenkins, composers Michael Stein, Kyle Dixon, and music editor David Klotz. It was a team effort all around!!
BN: The cool thing about the Shadow Monster is that he doesn’t have a face. He’s just a big stormy, shadowy presence out there. The vocals sounded so cool because he doesn’t say anything. There’s no mouth that opens up. It’s just this crazy, screamy roar that works well for that because he’s not doing anything other than scaring Will.
Along with the vocal quality, the Shadow Monster had this stormy, windy presence. When we get closer to him, we see particles flying around him and those play a role as well. They sounded like these chittery things that cut through the track.
CH:Those chittery sounds were made from insects and different types of bugs that I cut up and added some tremolo to. I ran it through Waves MondoMod to give it this stutter effect and then layered that and swirled it around. I wanted that to sound almost like a tornado.
BN: We even added some tornado effects in there to blend the presence and the particle sounds together.
CH: We flash into the Upside Down and soon after that the Shadow Monster starts showing up. Everyone in town knew that Will was having these episodes. The interesting thing about Season 2 is that Hopper and Mom and the kids aren’t trying to figure this out. They’re all in on what happens to Will and they talk about it. They’re conscious about what’s happening so when Will has these new episodes, they can try to help him. They didn’t just sweep this occurrence under the rug. They talked about it. They have him in counseling and they’re really trying to help him. I think it’s great that Will’s role in the series this year is bigger.
Like the pollywog and Demodog sounds, does the Shadow Monster’s sound grow throughout the season?
BN: In Episode 202, you really get the full effect of the Shadow Monster during the Trick-or-Treat scene, but the first two times we allude to the Shadow Monster, we just hear the stormy elements and some vocals.
That’s the point in the season where I just couldn’t slap the smile off my face. It’s just awesome
After the Trick-or-Treat scene, it’s on. You get a full dose of the Shadow Monster by the end of Episode 203. That’s the point in the season where I just couldn’t slap the smile off my face. It’s just awesome.
Craig was building and growing the soundscape throughout the season. That’s absolutely true for the Demodogs, and for the Rift and the tunnels.
You spent so much time building the Upside Down last season. How were you able to expand on that sound in Season 2?
BN: This season we introduce a different level of the Upside Down. There are two big episodes where we are in these tunnels. They aren’t defined as tunnels beneath the town of Hawkins or really defined as the Upside Down either. It’s this new area. We sell it more as the Upside Down but it’s not necessarily the Upside Down. It’s a different place. We used some of the same elements but it’s definitely its own new thing.
The tunnels sound alive. There are things living in these tunnels and creating these tunnels. It has the same sonic vocabulary as the Upside Down. You can hear these vines that are moving around. You can see what causes all the spores, all of those floaties, in the Upside Down.
The tunnels sound alive. There are things living in these tunnels and creating these tunnels. It has the same sonic vocabulary as the Upside Down
The atmosphere in the tunnels doesn’t sound like breathing. We tried to keep the breathing to the Rift — the gateway between the Upside Down and Hawkins. The Rift breathes but the tunnels have a movement. Although, the tunnels do have a bit of a heartbeat sound. That was from Craig. It’s this weird heartbeat sound that is just a supporting sound but it helps to make it feel like the tunnel is living. There’s movement, and creaking, and squishing. There is vocalizing.
CH: The undulating sounds that Brad was talking about in the tunnels and the heartbeat idea, that all pays off in the last episode where we have this big showdown between Shadow Monster and Eleven [Millie Bobby Brown] and the Rift. They all come together there so the thinking behind the heartbeat was how to give the tunnels some sound that would translate in the payoff later on. All these tunnels lead somewhere and you find out where in the last couple episodes.
Eleven finds the Rift that the Demogorgan came through last season. Can you talk about the sound on that scene?
BN: Eleven finds the Rift but it’s too small, so she uses her powers to open it up bigger. You hear Eleven’s powers and you hear the Rift getting mad. It’s groaning and growling and you can hear it opening up and crunching. You hear the viney things snapping away and the goop running down. And you hear the wall start to open up as well, all the concrete and rocks.
CH: For Eleven’s powers, I made a bunch of sounds in Season 1 that I didn’t send over to the guys to hear so I had those in my pocket. This season, because Eleven does a few more things where she really goes for it, I was able to use those additional sounds from Season 1 and augment them.
When you have someone like Eleven, you want to hear sound for her power but it’s coming from her mind, as she’s focusing and letting these powers work. So my challenge was to figure out how much of that we hear. Should we hear Eleven’s powers, or the sound of what she’s affecting? The Rift is struggling against Eleven’s powers as she’s trying to open it up bigger. The interesting thing was taking her sounds, which are more synthetic and metallic, and juxtaposing them with the Rift, which is gooey and slimey. You have these vines cracking and the pulsating of the Rift. The challenge was to make it a story point sound-wise, so that the audience knows it’s Eleven using her powers to open the Rift wider.
My challenge was to figure out how much of that we hear. Should we hear Eleven’s powers, or the sound of what she’s affecting?
I used rising sounds — always getting sound to pitch up. Some of the ear-ringing and high-end ringing that I used last year came in handy for showing that Eleven is really pushing against the Rift. She does that a handful of times in Season 2 so it was good to explore those higher end sounds. That allowed us to get out of the way of the music and really show that she’s accomplishing something when she puts her mind to it, when she’s focusing on it — whether that’s opening the Rift or slamming a door or whatever.
To create her power sound, one tool I used was Native Instruments Absynth. I created a whole kit of ideas that I could have at-the-ready and apply and manipulate to fit the sequences.
In Season 1, there were those delicate light bulb sounds that were just amazing. What opportunities did you have to create delicate sounds in Season 2?
CH: I would say the early pollywog sounds were delicate. The Duffer brothers make Dart into a character. So Dart’s sound is delicate. He’s friendly. Those sounds had the sensibility of being a cute creature. The challenge was to make Dart small and delicate and then he turns into this ferocious Demodog. So that arch was interesting to build.
We revisit the light bulb sounds in this season. They were a sound that everyone really liked last season and so I didn’t feel the need to reinvent it. It was the same with the Upside Down. We established those sounds and we didn’t want to go too far away from that because those sounds give you a geography of where and how you are experiencing Stranger Things.
Another delicate sound was for this butterfly sequence that’s part of Eleven’s story. We follow her for an episode and there’s a scene with a butterfly visual effect. We created a nice little, delicate sound for there. I believe I made that through an Absynth patch and then particalized it and chopped it up. I wanted the butterfly to sound magical but I didn’t want to use that classic magical sound like a bell tree or other musical sound.
The score is a big sonic characteristic of Stranger Things. Did you have an opportunity to hear the score while you were designing the sound?
BN: By the time everything comes to me —Craig’s sound and the score, I’m able to wrap Craig’s sound around the music.
CH: I do get temp music, but it’s usually a work in progress. The big sections that I did early-on, I didn’t have any music. There were quite a few needle drops this year that I did end up working against. But for a lot of my sounds, from the pollywog to the Demodog, I didn’t need to riff against what the music was doing all the time. The Shadow Monster especially, I just wanted to make that as big as I could. Then when Brad is on the mix stage, they push and pull the sounds of what they want to feature when and how. The Duffer brothers love music and Michael and Kyle have written some amazing pieces this year. Brad, Joe [Barnett], and Adam [Jenkins], they make it all work on the mix stage.
BN: It’s the classic battle of getting the music and effects to play nice with each other, especially on the scenes with the Shadow Monster, because everything is big. The score is big, and the Shadow Monster sounds big, and you have to pick your moments. You pick what elements to push up when, and you move them around. If the Shadow Monster is really wide in the shot, then you make it sound big and full. That’s where the schedule comes into play.
It’s the classic battle of getting the music and effects to play nice with each other, especially on the scenes with the Shadow Monster, because everything is big. The score is big, and the Shadow Monster sounds big, and you have to pick your moments
The more time we have the better we can make those sequences work. You start weeding sounds out and finding out what plays the best.
It’s always a battle to get big effects to work with big music, but the payoff is pretty incredible, especially for the scene at the end of Episode 203 and of course for the climax of the season in Episode 209 — a 30-minute sequence that definitely took some time to mix. We wanted to make sure that all of Craig’s sounds are playing the correct way with the music.
CH: 25 minutes in the tunnels with the Rift and the Shadow Monster and the Demodogs.
BN: It’s all the characters and all the different places and realms that they’re in. It’s everything all at once. It’s a lot. We did try to do some stuff on the stage, like what would happen if we took out all the music here? Or, what if we went completely silent here? Or, what if we move this hit over a bit to give this bang a bit more breath? The elements were all there, we just had to get it all to play as one cohesive thing.
The trailer for the first season of Stranger Things
Any fun field recordings for this season?
CH: For me, it was coming up with the vocals and recording my own voice for the pollywog and the Demodog. That was the biggest recording challenge. I didn’t want to depend on other sounds I had recorded in the past or other library sounds. I wanted to see if I could do something vocally and manipulate that to make it work. That was fun because once I had the recording chain set up, a new episode would come in and I could just light up a record channel and perform Dart’s vocals, for instance, and then go back and refine that editorially.
The other things that the Demodogs turn into make these howl sounds. Some of those I had recorded years ago while on a trip to Tikal. I recorded a whole set of howler monkeys.
There’s a part when Dart stretches as he’s waking up in the morning. He does a classic stretch and the sound there is my son with his little squeaks in the morning
Everything else came from sounds that I had been collecting over the course of last year. I knew I had Stranger Things coming up and I wanted to record a bunch of sounds to have in my library ready to go. I would label sounds in different folders as possible ideas for the new sounds I’d need to make. It was a lot of mechanical sounds and drone elements that I recorded and then threw into Kontakt to play with.
BN: Craig, you’re missing a big one. You put your son in the soundtrack.
There’s a sequence where we hear a newborn crying and screaming. I have a four month old, and I recorded him screaming and crying and I was going to put him in. Then I saw that Craig had a baby crying file in there named Waylon and I knew Craig had recorded his son crying and screaming. So, he’s in the series.
I did use something from my son. There’s a part when Dart stretches as he’s waking up in the morning. He does a classic stretch and the sound there is my son with his little squeaks in the morning.
We do fun stuff here and there, like get his son or my son or whoever into the show. Matt [Duffer] brought this dog Ziggy to the stage a handful of times. Ziggy likes to make all sorts of weird noises that I was able to capture. I used all the tricks that I learned from Craig and I put Ziggy in for a roaring scream that Will does during one of the Shadow Monster sequences.
We didn’t go out and record any big sounds this season. It was more like grabbing your handheld recorder to capture specific sounds — small, specific sounds. That’s why I carry a recorder on me 24/7, because you never know when you’re going to need that one specific sound.
What breed of dog was Ziggy?
BN: Not sure. Maybe a Maltese-poodle, a Maltipoo? It was a small, fluffy white dog. Ziggy was always in the cutting room while we were spotting.
That little dog was making these ferocious sounds while playing with Matt so I grabbed the recorder. About five minutes later, Ziggy is in the show as this demonic scream
Then, they brought him to the stage where we were listening to a giant, screaming Shadow Monster at 85 dB and here’s this little white, fluffy dog running around.
That little dog was making these ferocious sounds while playing with Matt so I grabbed the recorder. About five minutes later, Ziggy is in the show as this demonic scream.
We also use Ziggy in one of our big stings on the cuts. We had a lot of stings in Season 1 but there are a lot more in Season 2. There are a bunch of those and Ziggy is in one.
Want to know more about the sound for the show? Here are some other great reads:
How the outstanding sound for ‘Stranger Things’ is made – Brad North and Craig Henighan take you behind the scenes on the 1st season
‘Stranger Things’ composers talk intense new soundtrack for season 2: “It’s pretty wild” – an interview by Helen Thomas at NME with Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
‘Stranger Things 2’ Composers Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein on Show’s Supernatural Sounds – the show’s composers speak with Taryn Nobil over at Variety
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Stranger Things 2?
CH: I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of the sonic landscapes that we built in Season 1 and knowing we could build on such a great foundation for Season 2. The sound team did such a great job making Hawkins and the world of Stranger Things come alive.
Going into Season 2, I knew that we had a lot to live up to. So for the Shadow Monster and the pollywog into the Demodogs, and even the stings like Brad mentioned which use the dog sounds, some of that is born out of the desire to be creative and not use conventional sounds. The great thing about this season is that it pushed us to take sounds you’d never associate with Stranger Things and manipulate them in a way so that it becomes part of this sonic landscape.
The great thing about this season is that it pushed us to take sounds you’d never associate with Stranger Things and manipulate them in a way so that it becomes part of this sonic landscape
I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish by building on what we did last year. We definitely push further into new sonic territory. These episodes are like mini-feature films. It’s cool how much sound gets onto the page and into the show. It just proves how much the Duffer brothers love sound and know how much the sound can make a difference in the experience of Stranger Things.
BN: I second all of that. I’d just add that Season 2 doesn’t sound like anything else out there. Not one thing sounds like this show. The Shadow Monster and pollywog and Demodogs, those sounds aren’t in any library. These are brand new sounds. There are brand new soundscapes. The show pushes the envelope in so many ways. Sound is right there. The Duffer brothers give us the material to do it. It started in writing. Then it continued through production and the edit and into the mix. It was all pushed, and it was all different and creative. This show wants to be creative. It wants to be different. There are winks and nods to the 80s but nothing sounds like this show and I’m proud of that. We have a track that is a signature track. The track sounds like Stranger Things.
CH:The Duffer brothers give us a wide berth in their scripts and writing to come up with sounds that don’t exist anywhere else. We have to sit and figure out what it will sound like. I spent a fair amount of time walking around, thinking about what a Shadow Monster should sound like. Before I apply sounds to picture, I just like to make a bunch of sounds by imagining what I’d want it to be just by reading the scripts. It starts in the story; it starts on the pages they write and it continues into how they shoot it and cut it and give space and time for the sound to breathe. It’s really a pleasure to work on a show like this.
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