When Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga told sound mixer Steve Morrow they were going to record their performances live in A Star Is Born, he was delighted. Rather than use mimed performances with music and vocals added in later, he used technology to capture every word, every instrument to give you the feeling of actually being on stage with the performer. Morrow explains the technology and the method used to avoid performance leaks. “We’d record the nice clean tracks, if you were in earshot, then you could hear what they were singing, but for the most part, the audience would look confused,” Morrow says.
Read our chat below:
You’re working with Lady Gaga who didn’t want to lip sync and as a true performer wanted everyone to perform live. What was your reaction when she says that because it’s not the traditional way to do it?
The traditional way of doing it is through speakers and then lip syncing. My dream as a sound mixer is you want all the sound in the film to be your product. When I was told that Lady Gaga and Bradley wanted to do everything live, I thought it was going to be great.
The true performance in a song is going to come out when you’re filming a scene, to be able to capture that was such an exciting time. We were going to record it live and then I thought, “Oh crap! How are we going to do it?” because we couldn’t mess it up. If we messed it up there would be unhappy people. Going into it we knew the danger of not getting it right or not doing it right was there, but the technology and ability to do it has come so far to be able to capture these things live on-set. It was definitely the right thing to do in the film because I can’t imagine the moment you watch and it just feels like they’re lip syncing because it throws you out of the film.
Given they shot at Stagecoach and other festivals over a year ago and nothing was leaked was an incredible feat to pull off. Talk about the technology behind that?
The goal of the movie was to record it live and to make it sound as if you’re in the concert. You’re on stage with the performers and how do we accomplish that in all these lives venues and not have the music leaked a year in advance? We had these little ear pieces and we’d play the music through those, they’d sing a capella without it being amplified into the crowd. We’d record the nice clean tracks, if you were in earshot, then you could hear what they were singing, but for the most part, the audience would look confused because Bradley would go out and say, “Hey guys” and that would be amplified into the crowd. They’d cheer, get excited and they couldn’t hear a thing he was doing.
The idea of that was to keep the music safe. How do you accomplish the soundscape you wanted to pull off? We wanted it to sound like this giant concert. Remember the old home stereos where you could make it sound like a church or hall? We’d create our own versions of that at every single place that they performed in. We put it through a technical process. We just mapped the room. Here’s how big it is, here’s how tall it is and here’s how much echo there is. You could put the music through that in post-production and make it sound believable that it was in that space, amplified and loud.
This was not done in your typical 8-track from what you’ve told me.
On a normal film, you would have anywhere from 2 tracks to 8, 9, or 10. In this film, we did 61 tracks of audio which is just a monster amount of time. The mixing boards I use on set only have 32 so I had to have two stacked on top of each other to make sure we had enough input. That was to mic the entire band. There was also the goal to do things live as we saw fit. At the Greek, the night before Ally comes to the first concert, Jackson and his band are tuning and doing a warm up. That was all live so we had to always be prepared to do everything live. We mic’d everything up. All of the guitars were recorded live while they were performing. We wanted to make sure we also got the crowds. We put mics in the audience and at the other end of the arena so we could get the scope of how big things were in that room, but it’s a monster task to do 61 tracks of audio. To be able to pull it off, you look back and think, we could have failed on that.
Was there a particular number that posed a bigger challenge than you expected?
Every song had its challenges. At Stagecoach and Glastonbury, we only had a few minutes between people’s sets to get it done live. At Stagecoach we had eight minutes and that is the opening of the movies. Glastonbury, we only had four minutes. Originally we were scheduled for ten minutes, then we got there and had eight minutes and the show ran a little bit long and right before we went on, we had four minutes. It’s a giant festival and they’re not there for us. The cinematographer, Bradley and I said, “let’s just do what we have to do with each song and we can have all that we wanted.” Bradley decided what parts of the songs that we wanted to do there, he jumped on stage. Sound wise, I gave the board operator a cable and told him to play the song through that speaker, don’t amplify it, I’ll take the sound. It was a mad dash for thirty-seconds. We start filming, we did a song for thirty seconds, switched to the next song and did another thirty seconds and then we ran off stage. Those moments like that were the challenges and then there were technical challenges.
In Shallow, if you listen to her vocal, she goes from a very low volume song and she belts it out. You sit there with the finger on the fader, ready to change the volume so you’re not getting blown out. Every scenario had its own thing and you do the best you can knowing there is leeway, but you stay focused on those performances.
The soundtrack is finally out so people can listen to it, but I’ve been telling everyone to see the film first.
It’s beautiful. I was listening to it last night. There are some great moments in there.
How long did you spend on the film?
I interviewed for the movie the day after Thanksgiving and was hired the Monday. We had four months before filming and in the interview, I knew they wanted to do Lady Gaga live and Bradley may or may not be live. He wasn’t sure. From that point forward, all I did was obsess over it. I needed ear pieces ready and we spent time sussing it out and my crew and I talked about it. We got it all ready and we were on the film until Glastonbury which was the last day of shooting. The prep was to mentally get it ready and product test. There was five months of prep and two and a half months of shooting.