STUDIO CITY, CA—The Netflix original series Stranger Things, a throwback to some of the classic sci-fi and horror films of the eighties, was the must binge-watch hit of summer 2016. A joint meeting of the AES L.A. and SMPTE Hollywood sections at the end of January 2017 presented the sound team behind the show’s 5.1 soundtrack on a panel moderated by Mel Lambert.
The show is heavily redolent of the Eighties; when the creators/directors/bothers Matt and Ross Duffer edited a sizzle reel to pitch their idea, it included clips of E.T., Close Encounters, The Goonies and other period classics. “They had a very clear vision of what they wanted,” according to dialogue/music re-recording mixer Joe Barnett.
Sound designer Craig Henigan revealed that he was brought on-board two or three months prior to the rest of the sound crew hiring-on full-time. He made some early choices that set the tone and feel of the soundtrack from the beginning of episode one. For instance, the sounds in the hallway during the opening scene, he said, “are all sounds used later on in the show.”
He continued, “You start making palettes of sound and happy accidents happen.” Voicing the monster, for instance, “There were a lot of failed experiments initially. I was going to use no animal sounds, no human sounds. That was more of a challenge, setting rules for myself.”
Henigan’s eureka moment came when he tried some samples from sound designer Tim Prebble’s Hiss and a Roar library featuring seals. “I pitched it a little bit and it was the greatest thing. Once I found that hook, it was easier to figure out what the rest of it was going to be.” That included manipulated bird sounds and human screams, for example, when the monster appears in later episodes, he said.
“We hit a lot of good notes on the first try,” agreed supervising sound editor Brad North. “In that hallway scene, we had probably 10 times more stuff than you hear; it was weeded out.”
Sound effects editor Jordan Wilby commented that he became more involved once the picture was locked: “My part was basically a supporting role, doing the backgrounds, vehicles, bikes; things like that. It allowed me to really focus.”
The young actors fooled around on set, North commented, so alternate takes were at a premium during dialog editing and mixing. But ADR was a challenge for one actor: “[Gaten Matarazzo’s character] Dustin’s voice changed; every once in a while, we pitched it and it was OK. But by the end, we couldn’t make it work.” For one key scene, “We used a production alt into ADR, because it matched better.”
The soundtrack delivered to the mix stage was relatively dense. According to Barnett, who worked on the show alongside music re-recording mixer Adam Jenkins (not present for the panel) on a two-man Avid S6 at Technicolor in Hollywood, “It was a very, very large build. It was around 500, 600 tracks of effects and about 150 to 200 on the dialogue and music side.”
The mix team’s principle job was to manage dynamics, said Barnett: “You can make the loudest sound in the world, but if the sound right before it is just as loud, it’s not going to have any impact at all.”
Conversely, the vintage synthesizer score delivered by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Texas-based band Survive was extremely sparse. “The music was one stereo track,” laughed Barnett.
“Sometimes we would have a couple of stems, a pad, an arpeggiated thing,” reported music editor David Klotz. “I don’t think we ever got wider than four or five stereo tracks.”
Barnett used various methods to position the music in the 5.1 mix. A discrete path enabled him to pan tracks wherever he wished. “I also had an upmix path, using the Nugen Halo. That’s my favorite upmixer. It’s crazy tweakable; you can really establish how narrow or wide you want it to be, or set divergence; it’s a really good plug. It takes stuff in stereo and makes it feel like it was mixed in 5.1.”
Occasionally the sound design and music became indistinguishable from each other. Where that created conflicts, the fact that the composers’ vintage synths had no MIDI or patch memory capabilities was a challenge, Klotz reported. “It ended up being a nightmare. They’d find these great sounds, but when they got notes [from the directors], they sometimes wouldn’t be able to find that sound again and version two or three would be slightly different.”
In one scene, the composers merged two elements that had previously been separate, continued Klotz. “They gave me a similar sounding patch and I had to use EQ, compression and reverb to try and fake it.”
Although Barnett typically favors a more traditional approach to panning, “We were very aggressive with panning of things like sound effects and even group voices. Sometimes I would think we were going a little too far and the Duffer brothers would say, ‘More, more, more.’ It got crazy.”
The primary consideration was the 5.1 experience, said Barnett. “[The Duffer brothers] wanted it to be a cinematic experience: big, dynamic, rich, full. And they wanted to scare the pants off people.”