The podcast version of “Archive 81” had to sculpt an entire world out of dialogue, music, sound effects and the occasional eerie silence, but the Netflix series adaptation uses its sound design as one many tools with which to create your universe. The sounds of the TV adaptation have the luxury of hiding beneath the bizarre happenings of the Visser Apartments in the 1990s, captured first by graduate student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), then decades later by the archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), as he restores his tapes. . Supervising sound editor Mark Relyea spoke to IndieWire about “Archive 81” and its soundscape – including spoilers for the end of the show’s first season.
The first of the sound layers of the show is, of course, all that we do see on screen, and Reylea said the goal was to be as authentic as possible, especially in the much grittier New York of the 1990s.”[Showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine] was very adamant that everything was exactly the [actual] sounds, so we went out and recorded a lot of the sounds you hear in the show. These are real recordings of the actual props, tapes, things like that,” Relyea said. But beyond creating a sense of physical space that can be dialed in or receded, depending on the intensity of the moment, Reylea and the sound team crafted a larger sense of the forces that lurk just inside. Beyond the frame, those Melody (and later, in parallel, Dan) grow.
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“For the Visser, I tried to keep it empty,” Reylea said. “We used air tones that were very dry and almost dead. And then we also had no voices from people inside the apartments. So we can sometimes hear like a small television in the background, but very faintly, almost ghostly. You won’t hear people talking in their room or anything. The interior of the building sucks your soul. The goal was to kind of give you that feeling.
Reylea amped up the terror in the current timeline by layering buzzing tones that make the unsettling empty spaces in the compound where Dan do his restoration feel like something is there, even if Dan can’t. still see it. The sound editing and mixing team were able to align the tone of these drones to the musical score and their placement with the rhythm of the cuts by the show’s editing team, an unusual collaboration that a production schedule generally grueling television does not help.
“We usually work on six-day schedules, so we have to do half a feature film in a week,” Reylea said. “[But on “Archive 81″] we were able to have the time to make the sound design what it really deserved to be. We worked very closely with the publishers, with whom we became friends. This is unheard of. Usually we don’t have time, but in this case we actually got some feedback from them…it was really like a group of friends all working together on a project.
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As the sound and editing teams tweaked the quality of the show’s soundscape, they began to introduce key, in more ways than one. The tuning forks are the in-universe key to opening a portal to the Otherworld, an alternate dimension where Melody has been trapped after digging too deeply into the Visser’s ties to a cult. They ended up being the sonic key to making the portal to the Otherworld sing, albeit in a slightly demonic way.
“We just couldn’t figure out the portal. It was signed and nobody really had too many notes on it, but when it came on stage we were all like, ‘Something is missing,’ and we couldn’t figure it out,” Reylea said. “So we proposed to use tritones and have them open the portal [and putting] some aspects of the tuning forks in the portal sound, in addition to a sort of ethereal chime. And once we got that in place, it gave the portal a completely different personality. The portal isn’t the only thing that rings with the power of tuning forks. Reylea was also able to incorporate them subtly throughout the series so that the construction of the portal itself felt like a terrible homecoming.
“Sometimes we had [add the sound of a tuning fork] in the drones in the background, very subtly. Then when they finally got bigger, it was almost like we were working with the music to make that part of the giant landscape when things get really crazy in the back half,” Reylea said. “By the time we get to the end, the music and sound effects all work together to give that feeling of awe, wonder and awe, maybe, depending on how you feel about the show.”
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