The aggressive TV production schedule for the Oprah Winfrey Network would make most sound mixers flinch. Fortunately, J.R. Chappell and the audio wizards at Harpo Studios are up to the challenge, serving up broadcast-ready audio in a matter of hours.
Oprah's in-house team utilizes fluid teamwork, extensive experience, and the latest technology to accomplish rapid turnarounds in their mix studios. As J.R. explains, "We pretty much get a show the night before it ships. Different shows have different schedules, but the more high profile shows tend to push up to the last second before they give material to us." Tight deadlines and midnight-hour mix sessions are not uncommon in the entertainment industry, but the Harpo team works at a whole different pace. "Generally, we'll get it at 6 o’clock the night before it's due to ship. We’ll mix until 10 or 11 o'clock at night, and then we'll come in early in the morning to mix until about noon. From there we hand our mix to the producers, they screen it, we patch anything they want to patch, and it ships that same day."
The original Oprah Show, one of the most popular daytime talk shows in TV history, was broadcast in more than 145 countries. With such a wide audience and long-lasting legacy, the pressure is on to deliver a great mix in the new incarnation, even with an incredibly short turnaround. "In the Oprah days we did a lot of our shows live, so whatever you did, that's the way it was. And back in the heyday, it was 20 million people in America watching it, so there was a lot of stress.” For today’s shows, freedom from mixing live doesn’t mean the stress level has relented. Instead the audio team continues to strive for best possible audio quality, even with fast timelines. "Nowadays, with the Oprah Winfrey Network, we watch it and wish we had another 10 hours to work on it. But, we know the limits of what we have time to do, and we’ve become pretty good at fixing the thing that really needs to be fixed."
J.R. first got involved in audio young, and unlike most, he knew it was exactly what he wanted to do from a very early age. "I knew when I was about 12. I started out, actually, as a little child actor, and got a job with Ron Floethe from Gordon-Kerckhoff Productions. Eventually I started helping set up, and by the time I was 12, I was actually doing sound for him." After working with Gordon-Kerckhoff through high school, J.R. moved on to Universal Recording in Chicago, the studio that would eventually pick up the contract for Oprah.
Over 20 years later, J.R. and some of the original Oprah crew are still at Harpo Studios. “Tim Reisig, Gerry Formicola, and I worked really closely together on The Oprah Show. Even though we are doing mostly post-production now [for the Oprah Winfrey Network], all those years of mixing The Oprah Show together makes it so that when we’re each working on our own acts of the same show, they tend to end up sounding very similar." Like a baseball team that’s taken the the field together for years, the Harpo Team has become a fluid unit of mixing finesse. "The three of us mix in separate rooms, but we know each other so well and have the same idea of what it should sound like...We work pretty naturally together to make the whole show sound like one person is mixing it."
"The Declick works really well on the clanking of the necklaces, cutlery, and bracelets..."
During the mix process, J.R. and the Harpo Studios team perform general mix functions - EQ, dynamics, volume rides - as well as some pretty surgical noise reduction. iZotope's RX 3 is a staple for him. "We’ll go in either using the Declick or the Decrackle or the Spectral Repair, it depends on what the noise is. And then, for all the air-conditioning noise or whatever is going on the background, the Denoiser works great. Oftentimes we'll be working on an interview with a huge, noisy LED wall behind the interviewers - the Denoiser is great for that." For some scenes, J.R. has to go above and beyond to solve noise issues. "Once, Oprah was shooting outside in New York and there was construction going on next door.” Power saws and jackhammers were recorded right on top of the audio he was working with. “Oprah even mentioned at the beginning of the scene how noisy it was. There would be a saw with all the harmonics going across an edit. I was able to minimize all the saws and jackhammers with RX and the producers couldn't believe it. They were just amazed."
Cleaning up various background noises is one challenge, but it’s even further complicated when audio cuts are made before the material hits his desk. "We have scenes where there’s a lot of noise in the background, and then there are lots of inconsistencies with the background noise. The crew will shoot for about an hour and a half or two hours, but then edit down to 42 minutes.” J.R. will have worked out perfectly how to clean up the sound of an airplane flying through the scene, only to find that in the very next cut, the airplane sound is gone. “There are a lot of times where the content will jump from one minute to ten minutes later, and they'll have edited right on a word, and the background noise profile will have totally shifted." It's then J.R.'s task, with the help of RX, to automate the noise reduction to match the ever-changing noise profiles in the audio.
Sometimes the challenge isn’t about the environment, but about the accessories. "On the Iyanla Show, for example, sometimes the guests on the show wear jewelry that can make all this noise in the mics. Necklaces and bracelets can clutter up the scenes with important dialogue." RX provides go-to options for J.R. in these situations to remove the unwanted sounds. "We will go in either using the Declick or the Decrackle or Spectral Repair. It depends on what the noise is but in a lot of the dinnertime scenes, the Declick works really well on the clanking of the necklaces, cutlery, and bracelets, especially if a necklace rubs across the microphone."
"I wish we had RX 3 when Oprah interviewed Lance Armstrong," J.R. explains. "His mic rubbed against his shirt the whole time! That is one where we actually only had about four hours to mix the whole show and it aired immediately after. So really, it’s all about the speed for us." J.R. has stories of some less savory situations in which RX 3 has come in handy. "Decrackle works so well when we hide microphones under people’s shirts. But occasionally, you’ll get a man with a hairy chest, and there is no sound like it when the mic drags across the hair as they move. Decrackle also does an amazing job of making that less horrible, too."