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DAVID WEST: The Sound Of The X Files

Interview | Music Production By Paul White
Published February 1997

West Productions' innovative work on the audio post‑production of cult TV series The X‑Files netted the company two Emmy awards in 1996. Paul White talks to company founder David West about the sound element of major TV programmes, including X‑Files creator Chris Carter's new series, Millennium.

West Productions was founded by David West over a decade ago. The company's first premises were West's own garage: now they occupy 15,000 square feet of prime real‑estate in Burbank, California. With 13 Timeline Studioframe workstations, digital ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement), Foley stages [where sound effects such as footsteps on different surfaces are re‑recorded for dubbing] and three Dolby SR‑equipped re‑recording stages, this Emmy award‑winning post‑production company has worked on a huge number of major TV shows, including Hill Street Blues, The Wonder Years, LA Law, and currently, Chris Carter's X‑Files and Millennium for Fox TV

As viewer expectations increase and the year 2000 approaches, the soundtrack has become a major part of the 'multimedia experience' that is television. I was keen to know how much creative freedom a company such as West Productions is allowed when working on today's major television sound productions. David West:

"My concept is that you bring your project here because you think my opinion is important and valid. As a mixer and editor, I take it as part of my job to add to a picture as I see fit, in order to offer the client and the director what I perceive their vision to be and beyond. Rather than just going in to provide a mix, I feel it's my responsibility to produce something more than just the obvious. The music is at the executive's/producer's discretion. I've been on the stage and fought to keep the music in, or sometimes I've fought to keep the music out, if it's right for the picture, because we are the last stop, and everybody else's job is over when the picture comes to my company. The control always rests with the guys paying the bills, but we do offer a lot of creative input. Every sound guy goes to the spotting session [for the placement of spot effects in sync with the picture], where he sits with the director or the producer, who says what he wants, but if you can satisfy that, and then deliver a bonus on top, that's what makes the difference.

"There are tricks that people have been using for years in features, adding this sound to that sound. You can layer up stuff — we've got cowboys and indians going in one scene but you'd never know. In every show there are lots of creative decisions — there were a couple of flashback scenes in The X‑Files and we didn't know exactly how to play them. The producer had just visualised it with a voice‑over, but by giving it a little bit of reverb, a little bit of the old tube sound, it works! I follow no rules: I'm just true to the movie."

Join The Q

I understand that you're a keen proponent of QSound. How do you use it?

"I use it on everything! We have a nice manual Neotek mixer with a lot of inputs, and QSound gives me automated panning. It delivers a big bang for the buck — you can take a static track and give it some kind of movement. I put stuff on rotating panners all the time; I'll often use lots and lots of layers — 12 or so loop groups — but where can you pan them? I put them all on different rotating panners in different directions — and now I've got everything going around the room. It's one of those random acts of creativity that makes things work.

"We do the same thing with effects: take a couple of mono wind tracks, put them on rotating panners, take another track, put it on the surround channel, and those three mono tracks can sound like 10! At times, what QSound does may alter the quality and some engineer may say he hears some phasey, flangey stuff, but who cares? So long as the person listening to the TV can feel something happen, have their attention grabbed and focus on my work — it's OK."

Is there any technical conflict when using QSound with Dolby surround?

"We work in Dolby surround all the time, and I haven't had any real problems. If we have a slight mono compatibility problem, I say — buy a new TV! The people who pay my bills want it big, butch and awesome. The only way I can satisfy them is to do anything I can to get more volume within the level standards specified by the network. We're used to all of this dynamic range now, but with TV sound, you can't use it as effectively as you can in film. Now we're flat from 50Hz to 20Hz, and it's all dynamic, and it's real hard work giving the client the excitement and beef and providing the network with a track they can broadcast. QSound gets things moving around for me, it gives me the ability to take a few tracks and layer them so they've got spatial action.

"On a recent show, I had some old Martin Luther King dialogue, and I went through and did as much noise work on it as I could; I put it through the [Aphex] Compeller, then I put it into my reverbs. There are three main reverbs I use — Lexicon 300, PMC70 (which includes some of the useful effects not found in the PCM80), and PMC80, plus an Eventide DSE 3500, which has a lot of programs in it that we've created here. I put the dialogue into one of the Lexicons so that I could use some of the spatial processing to work up some low end and put some warmth back into it, then took the output from the Lexicon and put it into QSound so that I could localize the source. QSound works better than conventional quad panning a lot of times for me, but I have to be careful of the compromises it makes with the bottom end.

"I learned from my dad, a film guy, and basically he had to deal with 80Hz to 8kHz. He sat around the console all day messing with the tone of the dialogue by adjusting at 1kHz and 2.2kHz — there were less options then. I concentrate on trying to produce a warm, smooth, round consistent dialogue track. Give it some bottom, some beef and some localisation and perspective. Every sound guy has problems and they all have their own way of solving them, but we have to find a way to work with what they bring us. We've tried re‑dubbing dialogue, but for The X‑Files we want to use the original dialogue with its performance life and punch. We've had to work with very difficult sounds — but when we've finished with it, the network's approved it and the show is a major success. In many cases, it's better to live with the quality of the original sound rather than try too hard to fix it. It's a case of having the script and performances stand up."

The Magic Touch

"I've worked with the best people in this business. These guys can walk on the soundstage and they don't care so much about the technical noise — they'll say, 'That music cue is 30 seconds out of sync.' And the composer says 'What are you talking about? I wrote this!' And when you move the cue, a whole new movie appears and everybody goes, 'How did he do that?' They're not worried about the crickets in the background or all the bullshit we've been working on all day — they see the movie, the emotion, the big picture!

"We've had some big names in here, and when you get four or five big egos in the same room, it's not about mixing any more — it's about keeping people happy. In a lot of cases, you have to be able to let go of your own ego and buy into the vision of the people you're working with. Not only do you get the show done, you also get the respect of the people you work for."


I hear you're working on a new show called Millennium, which comes from the same stable as The X‑Files. What special challenges does this show present?

"Millennium is a really exciting turn — Chris Carter wrote it and David Nutter directed it. I'm hoping that the pilot for Millennium will be our Emmy next year. We explored the entire realm of creative sonic recording, and I think the pilot soundtracks are the best we've done. Yet nobody's heard it right! The network ran the first eight minutes in mono, the LA theatre we ran it in had tremendous problems with double‑decoding a Dolby A print — it has yet to be heard outside a dubbing stage the way it is. Even so, it stood up on TV and Lance's [Lance Henrikson, lead character in the new show] voice is brilliant — he's got this wonderful voice with a thick, round, raspy flavour.

"Millennium is darker than The X‑Files, and it has more of a focus, although I've only seen three shows, and who knows what Chris will come up with? Every aspect of it has been different and fresh — I don't know how Chris is able to keep creating so much genius on two shows with so little time.

"At our end, we're doing the same things — we're using QSound, but we've got different supervisors and we're taking care to look at it in a different way. All in all, every hit show comes down to the script — no music or sound effects can make a script work. It's the same as with recording music: can you put enough reverb on my voice to make me sound like I can sing?"

Problem Solving

What kind of technology do you use for flying in effects — do you rely on samplers or hard disk recorders?

"The process I have for solving any problem is first to discover what the real problem is. I might have a guy who, for whatever reason, has thought of something he wants to do right now. He wants to throw in a new line, and I don't want to send him down to the ADR stage to do it, then come back up to my stage, because the moment is lost. Our task is to do the job in the fastest way — to get the sound into our system and put it in the right place in the mix ASAP. My head engineer came up with a method from many years ago — we run a half‑inch, timecoded tape along with the mix, it has a dedicated buss, and we can bang sounds into there and get instant access. We don't have to open files, we don't have to crash our systems. We're putting so much information through our systems that we don't want to talk to them — we just want to change the reels and let it be. For me, any solution for a film, be it on 35mm, audio in cassette, 4‑track, Pro Tools or a sampler, is the right solution, as long as you're really clear what you're trying to accomplish. The digital medium should be used as a tool in making successful films, not as a complete solution."


As the company grows, do you find enough time to keep doing work you want to do?

"As long as I don't sleep I'm OK! Work is my passion. However, I'm not getting enough time to explore other avenues for my company. I'm mixing 60 hours a week most of the time, and I live a long way from here. I have an excellent team, including our president Dave Rawlinson. We've got around 55 people at the moment, all of whom are given a great deal of responsibility. Delegation, communication and co‑ordination are the key to making this work, and as I expand, I'm going to need more good people. We need people who love what they do. There are so few people who really know what they want to do and who are willing to put in the effort to get there.

"I love to expose and train new people in this business. I started with the kids from Hugh's Market who were stocking shelves. It was a new job, an exciting job, and they loved it. As a team we succeeded. My future relies on new blood, anxious to be the best or make the most of an exciting opportunity."

What do you look for when you take somebody in?

"I look for life and zest — people who look me in the eye. I want people who are on the same page! Desire followed by consistent action — I can show up, I listen, I learn, I grow, I explore, I get my job done and save your ass. That's all it takes — everything you have and just a little more.

"People should be prepared to work endless hours — I'm here endlessly, I'm signing the cheques, I've been in the business for 20 years, and I'm here. I sleep on the floor trying to get stuff done. I'm working till two o'clock in the morning all the time. People have to sign up for the fact that it's going to take their life. We are prostitutes to this business; clients will pay us any amount of money to work all night, with or without food, until we drop. That's what the business is about — unless you're on the screen, you're disposable. If you sign up for that, you can become the greatest thing there ever was — for a little while."

Sound Effects

How do you come up with original sound effects?

"Record, record, record. File recordings always benefit a picture, often even by mistake — you never know what you'll get. I've had some crazy things happen to me when I've gone out to record. I've been attacked by turkeys, chased by police... And in the end they all turn out to be absolute gems — accidentally. Plus, new movie, new sound effects always made sense to me.

"You have to look for things that aren't obvious. Anybody can go out and record a gun shot — people tell you what they want, and theoretically you can figure it out. It's when they say they want a new spaceship sound that you have to be creative. Or you go out to get a better gunshot sound by mixing something in with it, like a backwards lion growl or firecrackers. In a lot of places, doing nothing makes something different — there are places when we've used just the reverb return on gunshots, or used a close‑up shot of the barrel and just had the sound of the bullet going through the rifling. Anything that's not expected can be right. We don't do much with synthesized sounds. I leave that to our composer, synthesizer assistant or sound designer."