Westworld music and sound design Asbjoern Andersen


HBO's Westworld has always been a music-driven feast for the ears. Last year, the sound editing and mixing teams and composer Djawadi earned Emmy noms for their work on the show. Could this be the year they take home the win? Here, music editor Chris Kaller, supervising sound editor Susan Cahill, and sound designer/re-recording mixer Ben Cook discuss the details of Season 3's Emmy-contending soundtrack.
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of HBO/WarnerMediaGroup
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Music is a dominant feature of HBO’s Westworld and for Season 3 the direction took a definite turn in the synthy direction. But that fits the feel of this season, set more in the future-tech based reality than in the gritty past of Westworld. The sleek, clean synth sound of the score is mirrored by the restrained and curated sound of the world. Cities aren’t noisy places filled with combustion engines and bustling crowds. The sound is more subdued, refined, with quiet electric-powered transportation and the soothing voice of Incite (like our reality’s Siri) there to guide and direct the occupants.

Here, music editor Chris Kaller, who’s been working with composer Ramin Djawadi on Westworld from the start, and supervising sound editor Susan Cahill and sound designer/re-recording mixer Ben Cook — both newcomers to the show — talk about their process of designing the ‘reality’ outside the park, creating the voice of Incite, and marrying the sound and music together to create a refined and dynamic soundtrack for Westworld.

 

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Westworld | Season 3 | Incite Anthem | HBO

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Music Editor Chris Kaller

Chris, this is your third season on Westworld. What’s changed in your creative approach or workflow on the show?

Chris Kaller(CK): The sound of the score in general has changed. There is much less live, organic instruments and a lot more synth-heavy music. So that was tricky when finding temp music. There are a lot of synth-based scores or hybrid scores but a lot of the synth scores don’t have the dynamic range and movement that a score on Westworld normally has. So, trying to find a map for composer Ramin Djawadi on how to incorporate the synth sounds but still have the dips and turns of a regular score was a challenge on Season 3 that was different from the previous seasons.

 

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Can you tell me about your collaboration with Ramin? When you get together to start on a season, what are some of the preliminary things that you work out before sharing music for review with the showrunners?

CK: Ramin and I have an idea of what musically works for the showrunners. Back on Season 1, he wrote score suites to start getting themes early on in the show and establishing those before episodes locked, and before we even spotted, so that we had a lot of that foundation.

Similarly on Season 3, he started working earlier, especially on the first episode, to establish what the new sounds should be and work out the kinks. This made it easier to figure out for the later episodes.

 

CK: For some of the old themes, I was able to take some of the synth elements and build off of those. Ramin synthesized the Dolores theme and also continued to progress her theme. So there were a lot of synthesized versions of the old themes in this season.

Bernard’s theme kept a more organic feel because he’s like the heart of the show. But Dolores definitely got a re-synthed, pumped up version of her theme.

 

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Composer Ramin Djawadi talks about his work on ‘Westworld’


 

Ben and Sue, this is your first season on Westworld. What were the showrunners’ expectations for sound editing? How did they want to use sound to help tell the story this season?

Ben Cook (BC): Certainly their expectations were high. The show has always relied heavily on sound to help tell the story. This season was nothing different. It was especially important to sell the difference now that we’re moving into reality. We had to set a different tone and ambience to this world that we’ve never seen before.

The schedule was pretty tight too, so that had its own issues. It’s a very VFX heavy show and that’s always a component we have to deal with.

But, their expectations were super high for sure. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy had a lot of ideas on how the world should sound. They didn’t want a dark, noisy city with advertisements coming at you like Blade Runner or something like that. They wanted a precise, clean ambience track. It’s not like they wanted it stark or devoid of sound either.

Jonah [Nolan] had this idea right from the start to have a sonic coherence in the world. He called it a ‘euphonic consonance.’

Jonah [Nolan] had this idea right from the start to have a sonic coherence in the world. He called it a ‘euphonic consonance.’ He used words like ‘mellifluous’ and ‘curated,’ like the noise canceling technology had advanced so far and applied to all aspects of life that things make a soft, non-abrasive sound. It’s very peaceful. It’s a dystopian future that is idyllic — rich with sound and very pleasing. That was the overarching directive for the whole show. That applied to all the sounds, from the vehicles to the UI sounds to the voices of the world.

There were new things to design for the show, like different robots and vehicles, the UI voice treatments, the airpods, new weapons, and a ton of things we’ve never seen before.

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Supervising Sound Editor Susan Cahill

Susan Cahill (SC): One new thing was finding the voice for Incite. This is the voice of the future. It’s essential and Jonah wanted it to be a pleasing but clearly identifiable as a computer voice. Not so much robot as it is AI.

The voice of Incite is a very important character in the show. Her voice is everywhere.

The search took months. We tried numerous text-to-speech options like Amazon Polly, Microsoft, and Google but those weren’t working so we had extensive loop group auditions. We finally found the right voice in loop group, who was Daisy Torme. That was a really important component of this season. The voice of Incite is a very important character in the show. Her voice is everywhere.

Another new voice was Dolores’s virtual assistant. There was a lot of discussion there too. Should it be the same as Incite or different? Should it be male or female? Electronic or loop group? That was another long casting process and we found a male voice in loop group. His name is Roy Samuelson.

BC: The voice of Incite is everywhere. We even tried to sneak it in the background. You’d hear a chime sound, which was the Incite chime, and then you’d hear a voice stating something like, “Incite: the path to the future.” Or, “Find your path.” There were slogans that we placed subtly in the world to help set the tone. We tried to sneak them in when we could.

The idea is that the Incite voice was like Siri. It’s the voice of one company that is basically controlling the world.

 
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What about the other UI sounds for when the characters interact with phones and other interfaces. How did you create those polished tones and beeps?

BC: Some of that was pulled from libraries. I was looking for sounds that were very glassy and soft. Some were created in synth programs. It was a combination of sources. It was a feeling I was going for with those things versus specific sounds.

The big contrast to those were the sounds of the RICO app, which has specific sounds that Jonah was looking for.

 

 

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The tone of the UI even carries over to the vehicles like the motorbike and the airpod…

BC: For those, we recorded a bunch of things. Like, for the bike, there’s this high-performance, electric motorcycle called Energica EVA. We recorded that. I have a Kia Soul EV, and we recorded that also. We also did a tires session of a Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf.

Beyond that, it was just acquiring as many recordings of electric vehicles as I could like Teslas, golf carts, and an electric Harley. Those were the basic components.

I would create the blade thwaps and engine whine sounds and then use processing to create the movement from those static sounds.

I used this program called Turbine from BOOM Library and Native Instruments’ Kontakt sampling software to create a lot of the engine sounds. I used Traveler by Tonsturm and Doppler + Air by Sound Particles to give the sounds movement to match the picture.

It was a similar process for the drones and airpods. I would create the blade thwaps and engine whine sounds and then use processing to create the movement from those static sounds.

More on the sound for Westworld season 3:

Soundworks Collection and The Dolby Institute has also just published a great interview with Susan Cahill & Ben Cook + Re-recording Mixer Keith Rogers – check it out here:

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Aside from the electric-based vehicles, there are regular cars and engines, like when Bernard gets on that boat to visit Westworld…

BC: There were remnants of the old world. Like in Ep. 7 and Ep. 8 they find that car that is abandoned. And that was a regular combustion engine. Also, at one point in Ep. 1 there was the car that Caleb gets from the underground parking garage, this Land Rover-type vehicle, and there was a discussion about that being a combustion engine. That’s why the guy says, “You know how to drive one of those?”

…we cut two versions and it wasn’t until we got to the dub stage that they decided which we were going to use.

In the end, they decided to go with an electric engine. But we cut two versions and it wasn’t until we got to the dub stage that they decided which we were going to use.

So, there are remnants of the old world out there but the idea was that there really weren’t combustion engines. You don’t hear planes flying overhead.

 

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Without combustion-engine cars and planes flying over, what did you fill up the cityscapes with? They’re not busy, Blade Runner-esk cities where you’re inundated with sound. There are barely any birds and bugs, either…

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Sound Designer/Re-recording mixer Ben Cook

BC: In general, it was taking the idea of Jonah’s ‘euphonic consonance’ and creating pleasing tones and drones that would be our air beds. They felt like traffic almost. We did some recordings of California’s 5 Freeway. I’m pretty far back from the highway and so you get more of the air and tires then you do of the engines. I processed those to get a nice ethereal tonality and those were used to fill up the airs and traffics.

As for the people, we didn’t do a lot of details in the backgrounds. The group recordings were more specific in terms of people.

SC: We were going for this cityscape that had an overall pleasant and harmonious sound. There was no noise pollution or raised voices. So, the tone of the loop group was generally pleasant and calm because in this world, people are not stressed. Their lives have been made better by Incite. So there is a pleasant tone for the voices, at least for the first half of the season.

The first part of the process for creating this pleasant sound was cleaning up all the noise in production.

We were going for this cityscape that had an overall pleasant and harmonious sound. There was no noise pollution or raised voices.

We faced a lot of difficult locations this season so the production sound was pretty challenging. The producers didn’t like using ADR so it was a lot of spending extra time on noise reduction to clean up the production sound as much as possible without compromising the quality of the voices.

They shot in downtown LA. They also shot in Singapore. There are a lot of exterior shots so that came with noise. There was one scene they shot near a freeway but it was supposed to be out in a field in the middle of nowhere. So there was a lot of extra noise we had to get rid of that we didn’t want to hear.
 

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Escape from Westworld – Behind the Scenes of Season 3

Let’s go back to the RICO app, which sounds very different from the Incite tech. What went into creating that?

BC: Jonah gave the direction that this was like the dark web. That behind the scenes there was this whole other layer that people were accessing. But we find out that Incite is actually running that as well, and using those crimes to further their goals of the company. Jonah wanted the app to feel “punk rock.” The picture editor picked a cash register sound for ‘payment received’ and that was the beginning of the motif that carried through.

Jonah wanted the app to feel “punk rock.”

That took a while to come up with. It’s a major player that was refined over several episodes. We mixed the season out of order so that helped with that. There were a number of visual effects in Ep. 1 so we actually mixed Ep. 4 first. Then we went to Ep. 2 and Ep. 3. Our mix schedule was based around the number of visual effects that were in an episode. There was some air date consideration that came into play, also.

 
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The sounds of the droids aren’t big and mechanical, not even the really large Riot Control bot. That was a massive robot but the sounds weren’t clunky with big servos. What was your approach to that?

BC: The first two robots, which are George and Harriet, I did a process similar to Lost in Space with that robot. I used Foley sounds for the body movement and processed that. It’s heavily compressed. Then I used Avid’s ProHarmonic, which does harmonic distortion. I used that to boost the low-end. The harmonic distortion is off the rails and that gives it this weight and mass we were looking for without having to use servos and big clunks.

The harmonic distortion is off the rails and that gives it this weight and mass we were looking for without having to use servos and big clunks.

Then, to avoid using servos, I recorded a lot of sliding objects and fly wheels. That helps with the arm movement and head turns and things of that nature.

The guardian mech on the other hand was kind of over the top, like a Transformer. There were bigger, heavier sounds in him. But again, I tried to avoid using too many servos because in the future they’d probably be beyond that technology.

What really gave that mech his voice was his power-up sound. It’s this big, slightly distorted three-tone chime. For that, I totally took a page right from War of the Worlds or Oblivion. They have these Oberheim-esk tones that are punchy and scary horn-like sounds.

What really gave that mech his voice was his power-up sound. It’s this big, slightly distorted three-tone chime.

George’s power-up is that same sequence of tones just pitched up and processed to sound like a small speaker, so it sounds like it’s coming from his body. At one point, we talked about George having a voice. During production, Jonah had heard a small, remote crane that they were using while shooting in Singapore and when it powered up it had these certain sounds that he really liked. He played that sound for me as reference and asked me to make George sound like that.

In the end we lost all the voice elements.

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There’s a lot of music in this series. What were some standout moments for you this season?

CK: In Ep.1, there was the Pulp song, “Common People,” which Jonah had scripted into the show. That was a big, featured song moment.

For me, the biggest and most challenging episode was Ep. 5 “Genre.” Caleb is injected with this drug that makes him experience different film genres. In the script, it was written that certain music was going to play in his head. That kind of music was going to guide it but we had to figure out what exactly that music would be.

In the script, it was written that certain music was going to play in his head.

I went through every iconic piece of music and tried it in all the different scenes until we figured out which ones worked best. Some of those we licensed the music and some things Ramin did. Like for the noire, Ramin used Caleb’s Westworld theme but he made an old-time noire version of it. Then, we licensed the Iggy Pop song “Nightclubbing” from Trainspotting and the Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Apocalypse Now . Ramin also redid classic pieces like the theme from Love Story and The Shining‘s main title theme music. That episode was definitely a puzzle to crack.

 

I miss the player piano from the first two seasons of Westworld

CK: Yeah, we wanted to keep that concept of using covers of songs that first started on the player piano. In the first episode this season, we had a Massive Attack cover when Dolores arrives at the Incite party. Ramin did a cover of Massive Attack’s “Dissolved Girl.” Then in Ep. 3, Ramin did a cover of Moses Sumney’s “Doomed.” In Ep. 4, there’s the string quartet playing “Wicked Games” by The Weeknd. In the finale, we had Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage.”

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‘Wicked Games’ from Westworld Season 3 by The Weeknd/Ramin Djawadi

That was a lot of fun in season one, the whole player piano thing. That was a whole process. Then, in Season 2, we only had one player piano song, which was Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Then Shogun World had cover songs but done on Japanese instruments to mirror the Westworld player piano.

 

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     “As compression is probably the most critical task in the mixing process, the development of smart:comp has been a fascinating challenge. Together with our engineering team, we wanted to take the next step in the evolution of audio compression – and now we can proudly say: We have taken it!”

    smart:comp – key features

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Ben and Sue, did you know the score was going to be such a strong element in the soundtrack? How did that impact your approach to the sound design and effects?

BC: Yes, we did know.

SC: We’ve seen the show before.

BC: It’s always been scored very heavily so we knew that was going to be the case this season. The big difference in the score this season is that it’s very heavily synth-based versus more orchestrated. It gives the show a whole different vibe. I worked with music editor Chris Kaller right from the get-go. He gave me temp music and versions of the score. That helped us weave in and out with the effects; it helps in the trade-off between music and effects.

He gave me temp music and versions of the score. That helped us weave in and out with the effects; it helps in the trade-off between music and effects.

I also started early on in the process, sending sounds to the picture editors so they could get that into their cuts. We were able to refine some sounds early on and that helped. We approached the show more like a traditional film. In TV, you don’t have previews where you can try things out and see if the audience gets certain story points. So, me getting sounds to the picture department early on enabled them to kind of do that through their cutting process, going from the director and the producer cuts through the studio noting and all that. That helped out tremendously when we got to the mix stage.

More about the sound for Westworld:

Want to know more about the sound for the series? Check out this interview with Emmy-winning supervising sound editor Thomas deGorter on how the futuristic, gritty sound of ‘Westworld’ season 1 was made.

And, to be honest, I just got lucky. It seems like myself and composer Ramin Djawadi and Chris [Kaller] were all on the same page. We used a very similar sonic pallet. The sounds themselves were harmonious and complementary with the music so the elements didn’t fight each other. Ramin’s score is so great and Chris does such a fantastic job with the music cuts we wanted to make sure they shined.

I was also able to reference the two previous seasons, which established the norm for how and when they played music versus effects.

I was also able to reference the two previous seasons, which established the norm for how and when they played music versus effects. For me, as a re-recording mixer, that gave me a great heads-up as to how this show played in the past and I was able to follow that road map.

 

Westworld_sound-9

Chris, before you send the music to the stage, what do you do to prepare the tracks?

CK: First, Ramin sends his cues and we review them with the showrunners. They give their notes and we have some back and forth before it’s ready for the stage. Ramin continues to have music tweaks up through the final mix.
 

Westworld_sound-4
You were still working on the show when the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders came down? How did that impact your workflow?

SC: It was a unique challenge we had this season. About the last month we were fully working remotely from home. We were in the middle of finishing Ep. 6. We still had a lot of ADR to record for Episodes 7 and 8 and we had to do it all remotely, which was difficult because every actor had a different recording environment in their home.

We still had a lot of ADR to record for Episodes 7 and 8 and we had to do it all remotely, which was difficult because every actor had a different recording environment in their home.

We also had to record the last episode of loop group remotely which was a massive episode for group with over 400 cues. This all had to be synched up manually. It’s kind of a miracle that we were able to pull it off. The process was much slower, and the playbacks took much longer. But all the producers were so supportive. Our editors and mixers were awesome. Shaughnessy Hare (sound effects editor) and Jane Boegel (dialogue editor) did an amazing job all season. I couldn’t ask for a better team.

BC: At first they started limiting the number of people who could be on the mix stage. Then it went to just the mixers being allowed on the stage with us doing remote playbacks for them. Then for the last two episodes, I was mixing from home for playbacks and fixes. It certainly slowed down the process but Universal did an excellent job with remote playbacks via Clearview.

Then for the last two episodes, I was mixing from home for playbacks and fixes.

CK: For the last two-and-a-half episodes I was working remotely. Usually, I’m always on the stage or in a room next to the stage so I can be editing the later episodes while they are mixing the earlier episodes. I’m always in the room for playbacks and tweaks.

We started working remotely and that was a bit more challenging because when they gave music notes or had little tweaks, I couldn’t do them on the fly. I have to do them off-line and then upload it back to them via Aspera. They were doing a Clearview playback so everyone was streaming the playback. The notes would come in and I would make the edits at my home studio.

Sometimes, I would recut the music at home and then post to PIX for the showrunners to see before it went to the stage. So I could do some back-and-forth with them and then send the approved version back to the stage. It was like having reviews within reviews because they’re trying to be efficient with their time because everyone isn’t in the same room and that slowed down the process. But, we still got it all done.

I redo all the music edits as it goes from the editor’s assembly to the director’s cut to the producer cut to the studio cut. I’m in-house with them following along…

In previous seasons, I would work in the building with the picture editors. I’m on Pro Tools and Media Composer. So from the first assembly the picture editors do, I’m following along with that, tracking music into the show as they are cutting it. I redo all the music edits as it goes from the editor’s assembly to the director’s cut to the producer cut to the studio cut. I’m in-house with them following along with all that. And that was the same for this season, too, except at the very end during the final mix; the last two episodes I was working at home.  
 

For you, what makes the sound of Westworld unique? What makes it stand apart from other shows?

SC: I think it’s a very complex and detailed soundtrack. Every time you watch an episode you’ll pick up on more nuances that you didn’t hear the first time, much like the story itself.
BC: It’s a very rich, detailed track. Very dense. I think the idea of a “sonic coherence” is something unique that I’ve never seen (heard) before.
CK: All the intricacies of the storytelling require sound to help guide the audience. Music can help with that as recurring themes help ground the audience and connect different aspects of the plot, steering them through the maze of the show.
 

A big thanks to Chris Kaller, Susan Cahill, and Ben Cook for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Westwold and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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