Mixing with Magic

30th August 2011
It’s official – you can’t do magic without great sound. ‘What establishes the mood even more than the imagery is the fantastic audio… a fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat that is slow, morose and haunting… easily the finest score composed for the series. Credit must also be given to the fantastic sound team that knows the power of sucking out sound from a scene can make it even more chilling and tense to watch.’

That’s how the movie review site Cinema Sights saw (or heard) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, the eighth and final film in the Harry Potter saga. It’s also the way the director, David Yates, saw things.

‘David’s take on sound is that it’s integral – he thought that sound is 85% of the film,’ says supervising sound editor, James Mather. ‘I was like, “Yeah, I wanna work with this guy.”’

Great sound doesn’t just happen by magic, though. There was a huge pre-production job involved in recording the sound effects. To get them right, the sound crew dropped caravans loaded with crockery from a crane, piled furniture into a great stack and captured the sound as it was pulled down, and recorded flame throwers indoors and outside for the dragon and other fire scenes.

And then it all had to be put together with dialogue, atmospheres and, of course, the score. The score itself – with composer Alexandre Desplat conducting the London Symphony Orchestra – had been recorded at Abbey Road Studio One, with Peter Cobbin engineering on the Neve 88RS console.

There was a little magic involved, of course. Abbey Road’s 88RS doesn’t just guarantee unbeatable analogue sound quality but comes with its own bit of wizardry in the shape of the flexible routing and stem-making facilities of the SP2 scoring panel. Cobbin, assisted by Sam Okell, then transferred the stems of Desplat’s score to the AMS Neve DFC in Abbey Road’s Penthouse for mixing before delivery to De Lane Lea for post production.

Although practically identical teams worked on both Part 1 and Part 2, they all – from sound design to scoring to final mix – had to produce a sound which, though it might have leant on themes from other Harry Potter movies, was both original and suitably climactic.

It helped, of course, that the films were not post-produced together. ‘It was always the plan to mix the two films separately – obviously because of the scheduling and that’s the fundamental reason,’ explains re-recording mixer Stuart Hilliker, who, together with Mike Dowson and Adam Scrivener, handled the final mix on the 1,000 signal path DFC Gemini. ‘But they are very different films. They have a similar title but they’re not the same thing by any means. All the way through mixing the first one we were warned the second one is different – it’s bigger, it’s noisier, it’s more complex.’

That the mix was complex is in no doubt, taking place over a six week period in De Lane Lea Studios 1, 2 and 3 (all of them DFC rooms – and it’s doubtful whether the soundtrack could have had the same magic but for the DFC’s massive input capacity and unrivalled sound).

What is in no doubt is the result – a blockbuster that has smashed earnings records and taken more than $1.25bn at the box office – and the vital part that the soundtrack played in it.

 ‘It’s wonderful to work on a film like this that actually wants sound,’ says Hilliker. ‘It doesn’t just have to have sound, it needs it, it wants it – it lives because of it.’