Have you ever wondered what it takes to craft a compelling sound? What techniques and technologies behind sound have been used for sound professionals to hit the spotlight and be recognized by the industry? Now that The Oscars are around the corner, a lot of conversations start to arise, especially about the nominees.
In this installment, we’re gonna go through the sound of A Star Is Born, as the movie has been nominated for best sound mixing. Steve Morrow, who later offered some behind-the-scenes insights at recording Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, was responsible alongside Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder for this part of the audio post-production process.
In a recent interview, sound mixer Steve Morrow said that both Gaga and Cooper wanted the film to have a particular style of sound: they wanted it to sound as if it was a live concert, which makes sense given Morrow’s experience in shooting at live concert venues like the Glastonbury festival; however, the request really ended up posing a real challenge: “In Glastonbury, we all went in there believing we had almost eight minutes to shoot, but we later found out the festival was actually running late so they only gave us like three minutes,” Morrow said.
The sound mixing crew asserted later on that the idea was to film three songs, but given those circumstances, they decided to play 30 seconds of each of those songs. As for the sound mixing process, Morrow also mentioned that the idea at the very beginning of the process was to capture all sounds live, all the performances, all the singing, etc., which ultimately ended up in a Lady Gaga mini show, as the music wasn’t amplified in the recording room.
Such conditions led Morrow to assert that his role on A Star Is Born differed a bit from a more typical production. On a normal set, it is the production’s responsibility to record lines of dialogue while filming all environmental or sound effects that would be happening at the same time during the filming process. During A Star Is Born, Morrow and the rest of the sound mixing crew had to do all that process whilst also recording the band and the live singing, making sure they had captured all the tracks.
After that, the team would hand those tracks to the editorial and the post-production crew. Sound people would then take all that information, mix it down accordingly, and that’s practically what you hear in the film. Nothing else.
As for the tricky part of the film, filming the live concert, Morrow took a rather uncanny approach to get those tracks. In the movie, the sound crew had to film twice at a real concert: Stagecoach and Glastonbury. The crew had to take advantage of the time between acts, and as soon as Willie Nelson was expecting his curtain call to come on stage, Morrow and the crew make the most out of the eight minutes they initially had to get the tracks.
What they would do, according to the mixing crew, which was ultimately different from all the other recordings they carried out in controlled spaces, is they would approach the monitor guy with some equipment and take a feed from the monitor through the mic Bradley Cooper was supposed to use.
Most of the time, they would do a playback of the band through the wedge —the small speakers a performer standing in front in live presentations. Morrow and the rest of the mixing crew would then put those playback tracks through so that Bradley Cooper could hear them, but the crowd couldn’t as they were standing far enough away from those speakers. So, in a nutshell, what they did to record the live concert scenes was to have Bradley Cooper singing live whilst hearing a playback of the instruments through the wedges.
An additional challenge was making sure not to amplify any of those tracks and performances, as Warner Bros. didn’t want the music to be heard by the crow in order not to risk losing impact. Such demands forced the mixing crew to mute practically everything as much as they could, which was also different from the way film producers film in different and controlled locations.
The fact of having a big crown in front makes the process way more challenging: the whole crew, film, picture, sound, etc., only have a few minutes to shoot, which increases the chances of not getting a lean and clean sound. In controlled scenarios, sound crew normally record up to ten different tracks, whereas in front of a live audience, they would need not only to prevent tracks from being heard but also to record the live audience for the desired effect.