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Mixing and Miking the Muppets

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA—Do Muppets have feet? That was the question facing re-recording mixers Kevin O’Connell and Beau Borders, who recently mixed Disney’s The Muppets, a reboot of the classic puppet show from director James Bobin, at Universal Studio Sound.

Re-recording mixers Beau Borders (left) and Kevin O’Connell at Universal Sound Studios
handled roughly 250 separate music tracks on the final mix of Disney’s The Muppets.
UNIVERSAL CITY, CA—Do Muppets have feet? That was the question facing re-recording mixers Kevin O’Connell and Beau Borders, who recently mixed Disney’s The Muppets, a reboot of the classic puppet show from director James Bobin, at Universal Studio Sound. “That was a big creative question,” confirms Borders, whose credits include Unstoppable and Secretariat. “And if they do have feet, do we need to hear them?”

The answer lain in Bobin’s insistence that The Muppets look and sound just like the original TV show did in its heyday, through the late 1970s and into the early ’80s. “We decided to keep it as organic as possible, so when our human stars are walking down a hallway with the Muppets, the human movement sounds and the Muppet movements sound identical,” explains Borders.

To create that perspective, he says, “Dan O’Connell and the guys at One Step Up, who did our Foley, miked everything at a distance and did it like a feature film rather than a kid’s cartoon.”

The Muppets pitter-pattered on tiny feet into a strong second place at the box office just behind the Twilight vampires when it opened over Thanksgiving weekend.

But the big star of the movie is the soundtrack, specifically the songs, according to O’Connell, a veteran mixer with 20 Oscar nominations to his credit: “These songs are going to be around for a long time; they’re very clever and a lot of fun.”

Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame was the music supervisor and wrote and produced three original songs. The film also includes such Muppet classics as “Rainbow Connection.” Joseph Magee, Mickey Petralia (who worked on all the music for HBO’s Conchords) and Ed Mitchell recorded the vocals. Christophe Beck composed the new original score, which was mixed by Casey Stone.

According to O’Connell, the vocal and instrument tracks were kept separate all the way to the mix stage. “There were about 250 music tracks that we had to keep separate for the mix. At times, there were up to 50 or 60 Muppet vocal tracks. You never knew how many Muppets were going to be singing in a scene at one time, and they wanted to keep them all separate so that we could pan them around the room and in and out of the songs.”

O’Connell started with minimal panning, he reports, but soon began to spread things out. “I’d pan a few [Muppet voices] to extreme left and right, and after a while I’d get used that. Then we’d pan a little more, and pretty soon we were panning them all over the place. Even a few humans got panned a little bit, because once we got started, it was hard to stop!”

He and Borders created both 7.1 and 5.1 mixes for theatrical release and home theater adjusting some of the pans to suit the various formats.

With so many characters onscreen, perspective was also important, he notes. “There’s a lot of depth perception in it, so the foreground Muppets sound a little more forward than the background Muppets.”

O’Connell admits that he initially had no idea that the puppeteers performed as actors in the scenes, doing the voices along with the actions. “The production mixer, Steve Canamesa, who always does great work, did a great job of getting all the dialog really well,” he says.

“Even though there was no camera pointing at them, they would still hold their hand up and work it as if they were working a puppet while they did the voice,” shares Borders.

Although dialog, music and effects are typically kept separate on a film mix, there was overlap on this movie, says Borders. “Because the real world integrated with the Muppet musical world so much, there were times where we would take our Foley footsteps and give them to the music editor, Snacky [Pierce], and he would edit them to be more in time with the music and the percussion. And they would record musical dialog and hand it to the dialog editor, Erin Sanchez, so she could incorporate it in her ADR, so it would all sound like it flows in and out of the real world.”

“The Muppets are fun” says O’Connell, “and we all had a good time with it. It’s so great to work on a movie in this day and age that is truly as pure as the Muppets.”

Universal Studios Sound

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