But just how is the sound done on a show set in the middle of the freezing Bering Sea, with vessels, equipment and crew being battered by brutal winds, ice and 40-foot waves – and where the danger is very real and ever-present?
To find out, I had a talk with Bob Bronow, award-winning sound designer & re-recording mixer on the show since the very first season.
In this exclusive A Sound Effect interview, he shares his favorite sound moments, how he strikes a balance between realism and drama – and, ultimately, how he and the team tell stories with sound.
UPDATE: Bob has been nominated for a 2014 Emmy award for Outstanding Sound Mixing For Nonfiction Programming, for his work on Deadliest Catch
How did you get started doing sound for television – and how did you land the job doing sound on ‘Deadliest Catch’?
Like a lot of folks who work in sound, I started as a musician. My first recording session was at age sixteen. I began mixing live shows when I was 20. After college I produced radio commercials and later went into sound for picture.
I came onboard at Original Productions just after Discovery picked up their show, ‘Monster Garage’ and they needed a mixer. I had worked with the show runner in the past so he gave me a call. Landing ‘Deadliest Catch’ was wonderfully understated. I was walking down the narrow hallway at our little post building in Glendale when the show’s creator, Thom Beers, passed by and asked, “You mixing that crab show?” Knowing that more work is always better than less work I replied, “Sure”.
What’s your role on the sound team, and what’s the workflow typically like on an episode?
After an episode is locked and prepped by the video assist an AAF is made and put on our internal audio server. An audio assist will start going through the elements. As there are no sound mixers on the boats all of the sound is captured via camera mic and lavalier microphones. The first pass is to select the the most usable audio and bleep the considerable amount of profanity. Then, they move on to cutting backgrounds. While that is being done, I go through the show and work on all of the areas that require special sound design.
Unfortunately dialog recorded on a crab boat is usually filled with wind, waves, engine hum, clipping, noise, hydraulics… you get the idea! So I do everything I can to make sure that all of it is as intelligible as I can make it. To this end I always start the mix with a noise-reduction pass. Dialog is the show’s anchor and all of the other elements wrap around that.
My first mix step is a dialog pre-dub. This gives me a second chance to evaluate the dialog and make sure that it meets Discovery’s loudness requirements. Then the music and effects are mixed in to support the elements of the story. The process usually takes three to four days.
How do you source sounds for the show?
On a show like ‘Deadliest Catch’ (where there are no sound mixers) everything is recorded on camera mics and lavaliers whose primary job is to record dialog. There are also a number of deck cameras which don’t record audio at all. When a rogue wave sideswipes a boat or an 800 lb. crab pot crashes to the deck we may or may not have captured the corresponding audio.
I make every attempt to use actual sounds that were recorded on the boats
To convey the enormity of these experiences, it’s important that the audio be built to those images. I make every attempt to use actual sounds that were recorded on the boats.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have cameramen catch many of these big events. Those recordings are the basis for what I build. I want to use audio to portray the tension and danger of the scene and I want it to be authentic.
I’ve yet to find a library with the sound of an 800lb crab pot launched into an ice-covered Bering Sea.
How much creative freedom do you get in shaping the sound of the show?
This is one of the best parts of my job. I was hired to create the sonic signature of the show and Original Productions lets me do just that.
If there are particular things in an episode that need special attention, a story producer or editor will come to me and we’ll have a discussion about their needs. I’ll then create what they’re looking for to use in their edit.
By the time I’m mixing an episode the producers and editors of that episode are already working on another so they pretty much leave the soundtrack decisions to me. The layback is where they get their first good listen. After the layback we go through notes, I make the fixes and the show is sent out for QC.
How do you strike a balance between realism and drama in the soundscape? Are there any restrictions in how much you can beef up sounds to dramatize things?
I try to keep the soundtrack as authentic as possible. Luckily forty foot waves, hulls crashing through ice and large machinery failures sound huge!
My approach to mixing ‘Deadliest Catch’ has always been to convey the emotion and magnitude of what these people are doing. For me, sound has always been a very emotional thing and I enjoy using it to tell these stories. So I judge the soundtrack by how it makes me feel.
This show has always made me feel a little nervous because the danger is real and it’s always present.
If I’m taken out of the story because an effect is too big, I’ve gone too far. This show has always made me feel a little nervous because the danger is real and it’s always present. My goal is that the viewers feel they’ve experienced what it’s like to be on a crab boat in the middle of the Bering Sea.
The soundtrack shouldn’t draw attention to itself. If I do my job well, the viewer should never know I was there.
Do you have a favorite episode or snippet where you felt the sound worked particularly well?
One of my favorite sound scenes is from the first episode of season 9 (‘Mutiny on the Bering Sea’); Andy Hillstrand (F/V Time Bandit) had gotten his finger crushed while working in the engine room. Blood was building behind his fingernail and the pressure had to be released. With no doctors on board and in the middle of the Bering Sea, deckhand Mike Fourtner volunteered to perform the procedure. Take a sewing needle, heat it with a portable torch until it was red hot and stick it through Andy’s nail. Multiple times.
That would be bad enough in a doctor’s office. But the Time Bandit happened to be in the middle of huge seas so the boat was rolling heavily. That, and the fact that this was all taking place in one of the noisiest parts of the ship (the galley) added to the challenge.
I focused on the sound that the needle would make as it pierced the nail and the sound of the blood being released from behind the nail
The environment outside was creating a difficult environment inside as Mike was attempting to lance Andy’s nail with the needle. I focused on the sound of the waves hitting the Time Bandit’s hull in the boat-to-boat shots. That conveyed the magnitude of the weather on the outside. On the inside, things were creaking and rattling as the boat was tossed around. All the while, Mike is trying to position the needle over Andy’s fingernail. The intensity and pain that Andy was feeling was juxtaposed with the rest of the crew’s laughing at his discomfort. To highlight that, I focused on the sound that the needle would make as it pierced the nail and the sound of the blood being released from behind the nail.
It was a difficult sound to listen to followed by laughing and cheers. Anxiety, pain, release, repeat.
The tension of the scene was finally resolved when Andy says,” He had to hurt me to help me” and Mike mouths to the camera, “Love it!”
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Are there any fun moments that stand out doing the sound on ‘Deadliest Catch?’
Fun moments? Pretty much any time you get the captains together there are fun moments. Unfortunately, I can’t repeat any of them! Season 9 was the first season that we had cameramen shooting the boats from the bottom of Dutch Harbor. Given that there was no usable production sound, I had the opportunity to design those sounds.
You’ve worked as a sound designer for 20 years. What trends are you noticing in television sound?
I think that many television soundtracks are moving closer to the depth of theatrical soundtracks. It’s not uncommon for a large action show to have hundreds of tracks of effects delivered to the stage.
An episode of Deadliest Catch will have anywhere from 60 to 80 tracks.
There have been amazing advances in recording and processing software.
Mixers today have access to noise reduction technology that fifteen years ago would have been indistinguishable from magic. I can only imagine the things we’ll be able to do in five years!
Can you share anything about projects you’re currently working on?
I mixed a film in 2008 called The Wrecking Crew. It tells the story of an elite group of studio session musicians in Los Angeles in the 1960’s who played on hits for the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Mamas and Papas, 5th Dimension, Tijuana Brass, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Rivers and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound just to name a few! (that description came from the Wrecking Crew website)
While the film was very successful on the festival circuit it was never released due to the amount of money needed to pay the musicians and writers for the use of their music. The money was recently raised and I was able to do a full theatrical mix on this incredible story.
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