Audio for reality TV: audio pros are finding these programs challenging on multiple levels

Audio for reality TV: audio pros are finding these programs challenging on multiple levels

Christine Bunish

the reality TV trend has not diminished. In fact, a growing number of broadcast and cable shows are keeping mixers and composers busy from coast to coast. Los Angeles-based Russ Landau ( was a composer for television dramas prior to writing “Ancient Voices,” the theme for the long-running Survivor series. Music for reality TV was “undiscovered territory then,” he recalls. “I created my score for most of the first season of Survivor, combining orchestral music with ethnic elements. Once it became a hit, I suddenly became thought of as a reality composer. Everyone wanted to hire me for their reality show.”

In addition to all the Survivor installments, Landau has penned music for every season of Fear Factor and Average Joe, plus MTV’s The Assistant, NBC’s The Restaurant and USA’s Eco Challenge.

Each season, Landau revises “Ancient Voices,” which includes elements of a 1,000 year-old Russian chant, to reflect the changing geography of Survivor. “I look for the ancient voice of that location and blend it in,” he says. “I may collect the music in person, with a crew, or fly people from that location to my studio.” For Survivor: Africa, Landau visited 17 villages in Kenya, He took his kids along to collect sources for Survivor: Amazon. Pacific-island natives of Vanuatu visited Landau for the season that just aired. He recorded them into one of his three Digidesign Pro Tools systems with an Emagic/Apple Logic Pro front end.

“Each field collection is slightly different,” he notes. “I record with Earthworks mics direct to hard disc with my PowerBook G4 and run a back-up session to HHB mini disc with two sets of stereo pairs. I’m looking for ancient songs passed from generation to generation. I walk the delicate line of: Do I want to teach them to sing? Or, do I work with what they’ve sung and craft it into my pieces?”

The tenth instalment of Survivor, whose music Landau is now working on, will take place in Palau, another South Pacific locale. “With similar cultures like Vanuatu and Palau, it’s harder to bring an autonomy to each place,” Landau points out. “That’s where my poetic license comes in.” The composer will call upon history to lend a distinctive sound to the Palau series: One of the biggest naval battles in World War II took place in its waters. “I’ll combine the musical elements of the ancient voice of Palau and the poignancy of those ghosts of World War II,” he says.

For each season of Survivor, Landau creates “a body of work ahead of time so the editors have something to cut to. It helps make the pictures pop. Then we often re-score to fit the scene. Each challenge is usually scored fresh–that’s six to nine continuous minutes of music.” Landau enjoyed working on The Assistant last year, which “spoofed other reality shows, including the ones I do. I got to spoof myself and other reality theme songs.”

While he still scores dramas and films, Landau says the reality programming he does tends to be more “wall-to-wall music. My music budgets are higher than most of the other reality shows so there’s a lot of good live-music recording going on. I think people feel that depth in the music; it’s richer than shows that load up with a lot of library music. Custom music helps identify a show and gives it a personal signature.”


Rick Norman, re-recording mixer at Todd-AO Burbank (, calls Unscripted, the new, 10-episode HBO reality series from George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Grant Heslov, a “hybrid.” Chronicling the lives of a group of real-life aspiring actors in Los Angeles, the scenes are shot preconceived but the dialogue is all ad-libbed. “All the actors are miked with lavaliers, so I’m dealing with radio mic interference problems, rustling noises and sound-quality issues while I’m sorting through tracks of six or more people talking at once in order to focus on the specific dialogue that follows the story line when they all get together socially and at classes,” Norman points out.

Norman, an Emmy Award-winning mixer whose recent reality credits include Casino on Fox, Scare Tactics on SciFi channel and $25 Million Hoax on NBC, is encountering the usual sound issues of reality shows with Unscripted–“uncontrolled locations, noisy street traffic, no possibility for ADR”–as well as one that seems unique to the new series. “Most reality shows are wall-to-wall music,” he says. “That makes it easy to hide poor-sounding dialogue and rough edits, and you don’t have to worry as much about matching ambiances cut-to-cut. But Unscripted has no music at all. I have to match ambiance character-to-character in a scene, and I’m constantly scouring production sound rolls for ambiance fill to glue everything together.”

Due to the smaller track count on Unscripted, Norman works on only one of his stage’s four Pro Tools|HD rigs with Control 24 surfaces. He also uses an external Cedar processor and occasionally a Urei 565 notch filter and Dolby’s CAT 430 noise suppression, re-recording back into Pro Tools “to keep everything virtual.”

One particularly unusual challenge for Norman was an episode in which one of the young actors sees her actor grandfather on TV in an old movie. “We were not able to license the music in the old film clip so I had to rebuild the soundtrack to the movie within the show,” he says. “I cut the production dialogue really tight to eliminate as much extraneous television sound as I could, then I added clean fill between the lines of dialogue and laid in a public-domain music library cue along with crowd noise, reaction and Foley footsteps.”

He also found himself doing sound design in a scene that needed “an auditory moment.” One of the actors is stressed out at the end of his day and really feeling the pressures of the world around him. “I had to create the cacophony of LA city noise outside his apartment–neighbors yelling, dogs barking, a car going by with a bass beat–without viewers seeing any of this,” Norman reports. He tapped the Soundelux sound-effects server database comprised of “over a Terabyte of custom-recorded sound effects from many of the Todd-AO/Soundelux feature films.”

Norman delivers a Dolby-encoded LTRT mix to HBO. But the cable network also requires international deliverables. “After I mix for domestic. I totally recreate a foreign music and effects version,” he says, “I cue the whole show for Foley, cut backgrounds and all hard effects to create an M & E for foreign dubbing, all of which is not often required in reality television.”


Sometimes reality is immediate and sometimes it’s not. Bill Cavanaugh, senior audio engineer at New York’s Tonic (, has dealt with the former in three seasons of audio post for MTV’s quirky pranks series Boiling Points and the latter in two seasons of History Detectives, the critically-acclaimed PBS series from Lion Television. The one-hour episodes of History Detectives reveal the historical significance of artifacts, buildings and legends from cities and towns across America as a team of four academics and appraisers/auctioneers play modern-day gumshoes.

“The production environment for History Detectives is far more controlled than Boiling Points but there’s still a lot of location audio on the show,” Cavanaugh notes. “They’ll cut to someone in a library whispering with the air conditioning blowing loudly. If you bring their voice level up, you get a horrendous noise floor. Or, we’ll have two people with lavaliers talking on the side of a highway where Bonnie and Clyde died with the rain pouring down on their umbrellas.”

He finds Waves’ Restoration bundle of plug-ins, designed to solve archival audio problems, to be “one of the best tools” in his arsenal. “They all work really well for things they weren’t originally designed for,” Cavanaugh reports. He used Decrackle to take the hard edges off raindrop pings on umbrellas so they were less distracting; it’s also helpful in removing wireless mic FM interference and dealing with too-loud mics. X Noise, used sparingly, can remove steady-state noise like air conditioning hum. Declick and Dehum also prove useful on episodes.

Cavanaugh taps the noise gate on his Euphonix System 5 console as well as noise gate plug-ins, too. “On the Bonnie and Clyde rain sequence I used Decrackle, then X Noise to bring the general ambiance down a bit, then a very light amount of noise gate to lower background ambiance between sentences, and finished with moving faders between the two people,” he explains. Cavanaugh is a fan of the Euphonix board, which he calls “a superior console whose control surface has every single position available right in front of you.”

Sometimes “old-fashioned analog tools” work better in certain situations. “You have to go with what best solves the problem,” he says. “You shouldn’t think about using only high-end tools. Dolby’s CAT 43 film noise reducer is pretty crude compared to a plug-in, but sometimes it treats the content better than a plug-in. For example, it’s wonderful for getting rid of room tone in a gentle way.”

In addition to outputting a stereo mix of History Detectives, Cavanaugh also sends split masters of the narration, dialogue, stereo effects and parallel time-coded DAT with the music on it. “When you isolate the tracks you hear what’s not necessarily audible in the mix,” he says. “The monitoring section of the Euphonix allows me to monitor the stems individually and make any changes needed on the spot in Pro Tools.”


Jamie Ledner, audio mixer at Post Logic in Hollywood (, is a reality TV maven. His credits include Who Wants to Marry My Dad? and Meet My Folks for NBC, Outback Jack for TNT, and The Player for the WB. He’s currently posting Totally Outrageous Behavior for Fox and Dinner For Five for the IFC channel.

Totally Outrageous Behavior differs from the pack in being a clip show. According to Ledner, “the actual audio from the clips is at best poor and at worst unusable. Where there’s a newscast blooper or a clip from a silly European show then the audio is slightly better.”

If the audio quality of the production track is not usable, Ledner may scrap it and replace it with sound effects from his instantly-accessible online library. “I always avoid any cartoony effects, but sometimes I’ll go with enhanced reality, maybe a little over the top for dramatic purposes,” he says. “Sometimes there’s dialogue attached to the clip which needs cleaning up, mostly through equalization. Hum can be easily removed through a notch filter. And if it’s really difficult to understand the dialogue I may suggest using a lower-third which you see in a lot of reality shows.”

Ledner works primarily in Avid Audio Vision. “There are a lot of things I like about it that have taken Pro Tools a long time to introduce,” he notes, citing integrated clip-based EQ with four parametric bands or notches, “For the speed of editing, you can’t beat it,” he adds. Ledner occasionally employs Wave’s No Noise Pro Tools plug-in for a particularly problematic piece of dialogue.

Dinner For Five offers celebrity noshers in the controlled environment of a restaurant where they are the sole customers. “People are miked to separate tracks of DA-88, and the production mixer performs a live mix used for editorial,” Ledner explains. “We go back to the isolated elements and do our own mix.”

Ledner goes through the whole show and opens “the right mics at the right time” to avoid the muddle of people talking over each other and the “roomy” sound that happens from having too many mics open at the same time. “After I load in two hours of DA-88 and edit it to match what the video editor has done, I then select the mics and set the levels.

“Each sub-genre of reality programming presents its own set of problems and requires specific techniques to deal with them,” he notes. Reality dating shows like Outback Jack often use the production audio mix in the final show, he says. “Rebuilding a show like that from isolated mics would be time consuming and beyond the scope of the show’s budget. A lot of what we do is deciding how good something can be in the amount of time you have. I could certainly spend more time on any show for a slight improvement in quality, but you have to decide if you have the time and is it worth it–would that improvement be noticeable to your client and the audience?”


Groove Addicts, with offices in LA and Chicago (, has scored big with credits for two feel-good reality hits, Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, both on ABC.

The LA office of the music and sound house got the pilot for the home overhaul show and a request from the creators for a theme that was “upbeat, fun, positive and hip with a 1-2-3 count off at the beginning,” recalls creative director Dain Blair.” 1-2-3 Unbelievable!” became the hook line, reflecting how unbelievable the home transformations–completed in just seven days–truly are. “It was easy to lock onto the key word,” says Blair. High-energy acoustic bass drums and guitar are the heart of the theme by Blair and Tony Philips, with Philips on lead vocals of the hook line.

Groove Addicts was also asked to score the first season of the series. “There’s hardly ever a sequence where there isn’t any music to keep the pace going,” Blair notes. “We created a very diverse library for them of 56-58 cues and derivative bumpers. They cover all sorts of emotions from very heart-felt, when the finished house is revealed to the homeowners, to more electronica textures to help build suspense during the renovation process.”

Groove Addicts has expanded the tool kit for the current season, adding geographical diversity to the mix. “The show is moving out of southern California to different locales, like a New York apartment, so we’ve added more urban and street sounds,” Blair explains. Custom cues are written upon an editor’s request. The composers primarily use Studio A, outfitted with Pro Tools|HD and a Yamaha DM2000 board, for their work.

Having heard what Groove Addicts did for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the producers of the Extreme Makeover plastic-surgery show called the composers for a new orchestral theme and music score. “We submitted half-dozen ideas for the theme–all fully orchestrated–that were dramatic, emotional and memorable–something the audience would bond to,” says Blair. The producers chose a theme by Ron Bolton which was recorded with the Prague Symphony via a CCTV/audio hook up. “We could see the musicians and conductor and speak to them as if we were in a control room there,” Blair recalls. “We recorded the live rhythm section first in Studio A then recorded the Symphony on top of that using hard drives from the Pro Tools session in Prague.”

Groove Addicts also recorded this season’s musical tool kit, composed primarily by Brad Chiet, with the 50-piece orchestra. “The previous season, which was scored by another company, sounded very electronic and thin. The producers felt the cues needed to be more natural and warm” to better reflect the participants’ gamut of emotions from anxious to euphoric, Blair reports.

Pre-scoring a show with a tool kit means “you have to see the future and anticipate needs,” Chiet explains. To give the Extreme Makeover editors maximum flexibility, he wrote charts for the Prague Symphony that offered variations on the same themes: a fully-orchestrated cue might also be available in piano-only, strings-only or acoustic guitar-only versions. Chiet also took care to make the arrangements modular and to let fade outs go long, for example, to give the editors more control. “The composer needs to think about what the editor needs and give him the tools that make it easy for him,” he says.

“Acoustic and live instruments really bring out the emotion in these shows and take them to the next level,” Chiet concludes. “They capture all the drama of making dreams come true.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Sony Music Studios reshapes Hey

NEW YORK — Sony Music Studios ( is recreating the hit Japanese game show, Hey: Spring of Trivia for cable’s Spike TV, re-editing, re-voicing and reshaping 26 half-hours for an American audience. A high-speed procession of fascinating trivia and outrageous information, the program features video demo segments–when an eraser is suddenly frozen it explodes, no matter how far an ant falls it won’t die, the Frisbee’s inventor requested that his ashes be pressed into a usable disk–which a panel of judges awards “Hey” points by slapping a Hey button. The more interesting the trivia, the more “Heys” it gets.

“The Japanese producers are into the minutiae and the science of the trivia,” says Andy Kadison, executive producer of the show and head of Automatic Productions, a division of Sony BMG Music Entertainment. “The trivia demos are shot around the world to prove the trivia’s validity. The unique challenge for Sony Music Studios is to recreate the voiceover (which can be heard underneath the American track).”

“It’s like mixing three shows at once,” notes Sony Music Studios senior sound designer and recording engineer Mike Fisher. “We have to remix the Japanese show from split elements, do the English-language show mix and blend them together.”

Fisher records the new announcer in a comic monotone, which plays off the spirit of the show, and tries to get the American cast to sound as spontaneous as possible with their re-voicing. He records into a Pro Tools HD system through a Grace mic pre; Neumann TLM 170s or 103s are the mics of choice. “The performances have to remain funny and on point, and match into the lip sync,” Fisher continues. “The cast has become very adept at this, telling a joke or throwing in a one-liner.” Sony Music Studios’ mixers also replace the show’s extensive sound design.

The “Hey” button press itself is a crucial part of the show. “We acquired a ‘Hey’ from the original show,” says Fisher, “but incorporated a lot of other elements.”

Music is either re-cleared or replaced with tracks that strike the same chord. “The music and effects are very lush,” says Kadison. “They underscore all the comedy and science.”

After a show is re-cut on an Avid Media Composer and color corrected in Avid Symphony at Sony Music Studios, the audio is exported via OMF 2.0 to a Pro Tools mixing suite.

Automatic Productions also has an order from Spike TV to produce a completely new, all-American version of Hey: Spring of Trivia. Thirteen half-hours plus specials will begin airing in August.


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