This Is Why ‘In the Heights’ Sounds So Great

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Photo Source: Macall Polay

Sound editor and re-recording artist Lewis Goldstein had his work cut out for him on “In the Heights,” the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical. The adaptation from Jon M. Chu will at long last be released on HBO Max and in theaters on June 10 after last summer’s scheduled release was pushed back thanks to the pandemic. Also, thanks to “this COVID thing,” Goldstein was in for even more challenges than he could have anticipated, due to the fact that as many people will watch the movie for the first time on their phones or TVs as in theaters. 

“It wasn’t always about a word or a line being perfect from any of the environments; it was perfect for the emotion and what was playing in the scene.”

You had two roles on “In the Heights.” Starting with sound editing, can you explain what this job entails? 
Well, for the most part, a sound editor—or sound editors; on that film there were quite a few—really is prepping the material. You have sound effects editors who are creating specific details, items: doors, cars, and creating backgrounds and ambiances that are filling out the world. Typically, when a film is shot, the thing that they are trying to record specifically is all the dialogue, and everything else is secondary. And most of the time, the microphones are so specific that you’re just picking up the individual actors talking. And even then, a lot of the time, that gets damaged or ruined for some reason, and a sound or an environmental thing ruins a line of dialogue, so a lot of times we actually have to replace that. So everything else but what is literally shot of people talking on location has to be added in after the fact. The sound editors build and create all of those added elements. Even in things like party scenes: Very typically, in party scenes, nobody’s clapping, there’s no music playing, and the only thing that’s making any noise in a party are our main characters. Everything else needs to be added in afterward, so sound editors build, design, and create all of those extraneous elements. 

And then what about working as a re-recording artist? What does that role entail? 
I really fall into both categories. A re-recording mixer basically takes all of those elements—working with the director and picture editor and producers—and decides what is being played when. When is music the main character in a scene, soundwise? When do backgrounds take over? How loud do backgrounds start? The re-recording mixer really focuses the sound of the film to help tell the story with the director. And it really is, in a lot of ways, managing focus, helping certain things within a story and within the film have their highlight. “In the Heights”—the majority of that is music, but at the same time, they really wanted [it] to sound real. They didn’t want it to sound like a music video. So, it was really figuring out where the battles were, when to make the focus of songs sound like the vocals of a song or vocals of somebody singing in real life. All the added sounds around the singing and around the music helped create the illusion that this was taking place in real time in a real environment.

Tell me about capturing the actual vocals. Was the majority of the singing done live on set? 
The movie has a very large percentage of singing from set, as well as pre-recorded music vocals and studio-recorded vocals. And it was very specific, between the sound editors who were cutting the music, the music editors, Jon, the director, the composers Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, and Lin-Manuel, of course, really going through all the vocals to get the performances and emotion that they wanted. It wasn’t always about a word or a line being perfect from any of the environments; it was perfect for the emotion and what was playing in the scene. There’s one song in particular called “Champagne” that is 100% vocals that were recorded on set, and the two actors sang every single note in that song while they were acting. So, as a re-recording mixer, for me, the challenge was to take all of these performances by these actors, all of them great in their own right but really done either at different times or in different settings, and be able to give it a continuity as far as the sound of the movie. And that was a very big thing: to give all this material the ability to be a part of the movie, even though they were possibly from different recordings—which was a challenge, to say the least. 

“[We] didn’t want it to sound like a music video. So it was really figuring out where the battles were, when to make the focus of songs sound like the vocals of a song or vocals of somebody singing in real life.”

How did you actually achieve that? Because there is complete aural continuity throughout the movie. 
A lot of it is just going in and working with these vocal tracks. You have each individual character and that actor’s vocals, which, most of the time, is two or three people singing simultaneously or with each other. Then you have all the background vocals: the ensemble, which was made up of another 40 individual recordings that had to be worked around the primary actors. And then it was just a lot of finessing, of level, of EQ—equalization, environment—like reverb, which actually puts them in the space. The real challenge was to not have them be disembodied. The music editors did a lot of work in keeping things in sync with picture, especially since we were going from different recordings at times. But it was really just a matter of time and finesse to be able to blend the components together. It was really trying to make this so much part of the story and part of the movie that you would lose the impression that you’re looking at recorded material, you know? And the vocals and lyrics in these songs are such a big part of the story; like, you can’t cut these songs down, because you would actually lose story points. I’ve worked on a bunch of musicals, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked on something where the lyrics and songs were the story and what was going on with these characters. You can follow this movie and become incredibly emotional at this movie because of the lyrics and the songs and the story that is being told throughout. 

Do you work directly with actors at any point in the production? 
Oh, yeah, quite a bit. Some of the vocals and other stuff that was recorded on set might be… You know, they can be talking and a truck can go by and it ruins the recording. So a lot of the time, we’ll bring the actors back in to record very specific components. There was one line in a song that we needed to re-record because of some mechanical [issue]. But it was in the time of COVID, so we actually had to record an actor singing remotely—I think it was from Mexico. So, yes, we get involved very much with the actors, both in just the acting, speaking parts—which is called ADR—and sometimes the singing, because so much of the talking turns into singing that, at times, we would need to fix some of the singing that connects to talking and do it all in one fell swoop. So, yeah, we have interactions with almost every single actor in the film, for a varied amount of reasons. That’s why it takes so much time doing these things. 

How do you feel about the fact that many people will experience the film for the first time on a TV or device as opposed to in a movie theater? 
That’s another big thing about right now. That movie was mixed in a tremendous theater in Dolby Atmos in L.A. At the same time, in all of the time I’ve worked with the film since then, I’ve had to try to listen to it in a varied amount of environments. Because the world we’re in right now, people are listening on their phones, on their laptops, on earbuds—good earbuds, bad earbuds. So I really spent some time [thinking about that]. And there are different mixes for different environments, and, again, this COVID thing—I’ve had to imagine what people are going to be listening to it on. You can’t go too far in any one of the directions. That’s hard, and that’s why I ask, “What’d you listen to this on? How did it sound? Was it a Samsung TV? Was it an LG TV? Were the speakers facing the bottom? Were they facing the back? Were they facing the front?” All of those things make a difference in how the movie sounds. Especially this film, which is just so dependent on lyrics and hearing the vocals, but also hearing instrumentation and finding that balance across all these mediums. It’s just a pain in the ass! 

How did you initially get into sound work? 
I’ve been doing it since the beginning of time. I’ve been doing it since I was 21 years old, and I got into it through, really, the mire of the technological side of it: I was lucky enough to get involved with a company that made one of the first practical digital audio devices. I started just working with it through a company that I was an assistant at at the time—an audio assistant. And I discovered I had an aptitude to use this machine, and that took me to L.A. I wound up finding a company in L.A. that had purchased a bunch of those machines, which was incredibly rare just because of the cost, and wound up getting a job there. And I consider this place the birthplace of audio for film and television. Everybody who worked there at this time with this technology and what we were trying to do with it went on to be incredibly successful. I just happened to be in a place working with a technology that really was the beginning of digital audio for film and television. Going from the technological side, I slowly evolved into using the machine creatively, and I became more of a creative with the technology. 

What sort of advice would you give someone who wants to excel in doing sound for film and TV? 
Experience. Just figure out how to get as much experience as possible. There are educations for it. This is such an experience-based industry that the more you do, the better you get and the more opportunities that you’re able to get involved with. I’m sure you could say that with almost any industry, but for some reason, with this industry, it’s literally just the more you do—big, small, medium, whatever it is—the opportunities just start to come. And it’s hard; it’s not an easy industry to make a living at and support yourself, but you just have to muscle through it and keep doing it. And then, eventually, like I said, the opportunities start to come. That’s why it’s taken me 35 years.

This story originally appeared in the June 10 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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