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Crafting Sound on Walk the Line


“The movie brings with it its own soundtrack,” says Mike McCusker, editor on James Mangold’s Walk the Line. And of course he’s right, since the film is the biopic of legendary country singer Johnny Cash, his roots, his (hell) raising, and his multi-decade romance with June Carter.That romance itself produced its own songs: Cash’s titular “Walk the Line,” and Carter’s later “Ring of Fire.” So McCusker—who had worked with director Mangold previously on the thriller Identity—moved up from the associate cutter’s chair for the screen biography of two cultural icons who made music that has since entered the American canon, in “the first movie I ever cut as sole editor.”The question for McCusker, in piecing the movie together, was “how do we make [Cash’s] music play not only as performance,” but with the required emotional resonances of a man who suffers a childhood tragedy, falls in love with Carter while married to someone else, and battles addiction throughout his rise to fame in the 1960s?The music was overseen by composer/producer T-Bone Burnett, who, along with Mangold and stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, “spent weeks in the studio developing master tracks,” recreating performances—solo and duet—sometimes with Cash’s original sessionmen.Those produced a master track for each performance, as well as for playback on the set, where Cash’s original recording sessions, early Sun Records concerts (in the company of labelmates Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis), live Vegas shows, and his eventual epochal concert at Folsom Prison, were all recreated with meticulous attention to detail.According to Mangold, it began with gear: “(Production sound mixer) Peter Kurland recorded with a lot of vintage mics. When we were doing the music on the film, we were adding reverb and echo to the music with period boxes and tape delays. (Kurland) was [also] recording real audience reactions. One of the things that became clear to us, was you felt the audiences were out there. This wasn’t a canned audio track.”Not only not canned, but perhaps its antithesis. And not only period microphones, but as Kurland notes, “working period microphones that sounded good.”There was “a huge box of microphones” on the set, he says, some provided by the prop department and some serendipitous “finds”—like at the Masonic Lodge in Nashville, used to record some of the concert scenes, which had a slew of mics and an ancient PA system, with “a guy who serviced them” and kept the gear in pristine shape.What often happens is that vintage-looking mics are modified with modern components, but, says Kurland, there were too many to modify all of them.Besides, “a lot were borrowed,” he says, and couldn’t be gutted.But Kurland had an additional mission: “to take the tracks that were to be recorded live [and] be able to feed the music tracks into the actors’ ears,” so they could sing over and along with tracks laid down in the studio.This involved not vintage equipment but its opposite: Kurland often found himself on set manning a laptop mixing tracks on the fly with Digidesign’s ProTools software. This because while “Jim really liked the idea of capturing the feel of a live concert,” he also wanted to pace the music to match the drama unfolding between the two leads.So Mangold’s sense of “liveness” was amended to include asking for changes to prerecorded tracks during playback to suit the tempo of a scene as it played out—holding a bar of music a couple of beats longer, or bringing in instruments sooner, for example.“Joaquin might play harmonica in the studio,” but on set, it might be decided the harmonica wasn’t needed,” says playback operator Matt Andrews.But to be sure, in the concert sequences, “we were putting on a show,” he adds. There were “hundreds of extras” giving the scenes “the energy of a concert, too.”But not just a concert. Andrews describes the “gigantic force and mass” on a film set, resulting in a “different kind of pressure” than what he was used to in recording studios. Andrews ordinarily works as a chief sound engineer in Nashville’s legendary Sound Emporium Studios, where he’d previously assisted Burnett on other projects, including recording music for O Brother, Where Art Thou?This was his first foray onto a film set. The main difference he found was that “there is always a moderate amount of activity (going on) in a recording studio,” whereas on a film set there was, at first, “nothing,” followed by “an incredible amount of activity.”For him, that activity included working the ProTools mixer with Kurland, where the playback—on reaction shots from the crowd—had to be brought up “to concert level. The playback was for the room as well. The live scenes,” he adds, “were legitimately exciting.”The film “was a bit of a unique experience, being such a hybrid of playback, semi-playback and semi-live,” says Andrews.That hybridization often resulted in creative wiring, especially with the aforementioned historically accurate microphones. In one instance, a durable, all-purpose Electro-Voice 666 (kind of a reliable Chevrolet of ’60s-era sound equipment) was “taped to another mike, because they were recording and PAing”—laying down tracks, and reproducing “authentic” concert sound in the hall, for the gyrational ecstasy of those extras.The sense of authenticity stretched back into the recording studio, where the song masters were “recorded on 2-inch (analog) tape,” just like in Cash’s day.Phoenix even took to rehearsing his band in the basement of the Memphis house he lived in during production. All this attention to detail paid off in that combination of precision and serendipity that is hallmark of good filmmaking. As Kurland tells it, by the time the “Folsom Prison” scenes were being filmed, recreating the live recording session for Cash’s famed LP, there were “huge amounts of crowd noise and shouting” as the scene got going. Even “Joaquin would shout things,” regardless of how the tracks had been worked out in studio.Wires and gear were everywhere, and during one song, “when we looked over, our big speaker was totally engulfed in flames.” The authentic, tube-based equipment doesn’t necessarily run cool. “Phoenix was totally excited,” Kurland continues. “He’d been involved in this classic rock ’n’ roll moment.”As had the whole sound crew, really, of Walk the Line. “Plus,” Kurland adds, “it was fun.”And what could be more rock ’n’ roll than that?

Written by Mark London Williams

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