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Inside the Audio of Doctor Who

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UNITED KINGDOM—The classic BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who first appeared in 1963 and was rebooted in 2005, but the most recent season marks the first time the title character has been played by a woman (Jodie Whittaker). The season also marked a change in leadership, with Chris Chibnall serving as lead writer and executive producer.

Sound designer/editor Harry Barnes oversees the audio team and sets the overall aural style of Doctor Who. Barnes joined the show in 2014, replacing original sound effects editor Paul Jefferies, who retired.

"During the handover, Paul showed me all the historic effects for villains such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, and everything he had created since," Barnes says.

With the new season, Barnes says he had the opportunity to put more of his own designs into the show. The most significant of these were the interior sounds for the Doctor's ship, the TARDIS.

"I've done a lot of film work, and I thought the interior sound could be more cinematic," Barnes says.

"It's a lot heftier than it was, but I remembered what Paul said to me—that the TARDIS responds to what is going on inside it. I've kept true to that, but added more guttural elements. When the Doctor first walks into the TARDIS, there is a low-end boom throughout the scene, with treatments of the original effect and treated breathing. I wanted to make it more living, and think of what the TARDIS' role is in each scene."

Barnes uses Avid Pro Tools Ultimate software on a Mac Pro running an HD native card, all linked to a Digidesign (Avid) 192 I/O interface. Monitoring is through five Genelec 8040A loudspeakers—without a sub-woofer—and a Blue Sky Bass Management Controller.

For the new season, the Doctor had three travelling companions, and a larger cast posed some problems for production mixer Deian Humphreys.

From his arrival on Doctor Who in 2012, during the time of the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), Humphreys miked every speaking actor in a scene. "I started with a Sound Devices 788 recorder," he says, "which allowed me to mix eight mics and have ISOs. This season, I saw the biggest change was having three companions. With the people they bump into through the stories, that meant the track count was getting bigger and we needed more ISO tracks."

On shoots, Humphreys has two mic booms, each with a Schoeps SuperCMIT shotgun. These have a two-channel output: a processed Su-perCMIT signal on channel 1 and an unprocessed (CMIT) signal on channel 2. "I record both, which means one mic takes up two ISOs," he explains. "That meant the four main characters took up eight channels before they met anyone else." More capacity has been added by Humphreys using two 788s—one solely for 10 radio mics (Audio Limited TX2040s with Sanken COS-11 capsules), which feeds into the main recorder taking the outputs of two booms, plant mics and any other inputs. Humphreys tries to get all the dialogue from the booms, which are swung by Tam Shoring and Chris Goding, with the radio mics as "safety blankets."

In this way, Humphreys ensures that dialogue editor Darran Clement has as much material as possible from the shoot to work with. Clement started out on Who during tenth Doctor David Tennant's tenure, as did Matthew Cox, who handles ADR and creature sound effects.

Cox says there is a balance between making a voice sound otherworldly and being intelligible: "It's more difficult processing dialogue because you have to understand the words. The script calls for something that can be understood, but it must convincing enough so we know it's some kind of alien." When it comes to monsters that growl or hiss, Cox says he either gets a crowd actor to makes noises or does it himself.

Based at BBC Cardiff, Cox uses a range of plug-in processors to achieve different effects required. "We've probably got more plug-ins than we need, but that gives us a lot of tools to play with," he says. "I'm really liking Krotos Dehumaniser. We also use pitch shifting, vocoders and delays. For robots and computers, I go back to the Waves Doubler, and their MondoMod is good for growling creatures."

Cox comments that the intention is to keep ADR, in terms of replacing lines, to a minimum. "Deian does an amazing job, and maybe 85 percent of the show uses production sound," he says. "But because this is science fiction and sometimes scenes are shot in the center of Cardiff, we have to get rid of any extraneous background noise. The TARDIS can also be quite difficult to record in because it's made of wood. There's also a need for exposition sometimes, so lines are added during scenes when an actor is facing away from the camera."

Most of the audio team has gotten used to creating sounds for things that do not exist in reality. In contrast, this is re-recording mixer Howard Bargroff's debut season of Doctor Who and his first foray into science fiction. Bargroff says Chibnall and co-executive producer, Matt Strevens, took him to dinner to discuss the show. "They said it was getting a new aspect ratio, which is more like feature films but looks amazing on mobile devices. To go with this, the brief was to make the sound as big as humanly possible. Big screen, big sound."

Pre-mixing is at Bargroff's So-norouspost room within Goldcrest's Soho audio facility. This is done in a single Pro Tools HDX2/Mac Pro system, despite there being what Bar-groff describes as a "pretty healthy track count," including approximately 500 voices. "It's close to maxing out the machine," he says. The final mix takes place in Cardiff, also on HDX.

Bargroff's monitoring system is a PMC twenty.22 rig, but he also uses a Samsung TV screen with integral loudspeaker to ensure the mix sounds right for television. Doctor Who has been mixed in 5.1 since the early days of the revived series, although it has not always been transmitted in the format. Surround has featured on DVD releases and cinema screenings of selected episodes. Bargroff says the series is mixed for 5.1 and stereo, plus matrixed Lt-Rt. At this point, there are no plans for further binaural or immersive audio episodes.

Either way, sound is still with the Doctor, even in space.

Avid

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Genelec

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Caption: The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) inside her TARDIS, which is difficult to record in because it's made of wood.

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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Inside the Audio of Doctor Who | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Inside_the_Audio_of_Doctor_Who | work=Pro Sound News | pages=25 | date=January 2019 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 July 2020 }}</ref>
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