Howard Bargroff earned his ninth Emmy nomination for his sound work on Alex Garland’s FX miniseries, Devs. In an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Bargroff explains how he and the sound team collaborated to create dazzling and utterly unique sound sequences for the sci-fi epic.
Devs is a difficult show to summarize. In part a corporate thriller and murder mystery, the FX miniseries is, ultimately, a case study in ambition and what happens when power, money, and influence go unchecked —when ego and genius collide. As I said: Devs difficult to summarize. But it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from the mind of Alex Garland, the sci-fi master behind Ex Machina and Annihilation. Like his previous work, Devs is about testing the limits of what we think possible, and the human need to push those very limits as far as they’ll go.
The scientific playground here is the Devs laboratory where a team, spearheaded by billionaire tech tycoon Nick Offerman, is working with a quantum computer experimenting with time. This Devs supercomputer is a character in of itself, central to the evolution of the story, growing stronger as the episodes contihnue. In many ways, the story of Devs rests on the believability of this supercomputer, creating the ultimate challenge for Howard Bargroff and the rest of the Devs sound team—what does a quantum computer sound like and how do you make that convincing for audiences? How do you create sound sequences that are literally unlike anything that came before? I’m still not sure I quite know the answer, but I can tell you that Bargroff succeeded—Devs’ sound design is nothing short of a sonic masterpiece.
Read our interview with Devs re-recording mixer, and nine-time Emmy nominee, Howard Bargroff below:
Awards Daily: Howard, let me start by congratulating you on your ninth Emmy nomination. Absolutely incredible.
Howard Bargroff: Thank you very much. This show was a real labor of love. Working with Alex was such a collaborative, lovely process — almost from the get-go, everyone seemed to click. It’s a job I did with [fellow Emmy-nominee] Glenn Freemantle and Sound 24.
It was one of those jobs that just seemed easier and more creative than you would think for a job of this scale. So, to get the nod for such a labor of love was great. I think we put a lot of care and attention into it. We put a lot of ourselves into it. Hopefully, that came through in the sound work.
AD: Sound is such a big part of Devs, the world-building, and also the tension and suspense. I wanted to start by asking you about the Devs lab specifically because when a character enters that world, the sound is so unique. It’s almost like you can feel the sound. It’s unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
HB: Yeah. There were a lot of talks initially because the feeling with the lab was that it was this cut-off world. The lift goes across a magnetic field, it has to float across. It’s like this completely isolated world built around a quantum computer. We don’t know what quantum computers sound like. I’ve never seen a real-life quantum computer. [Laughs].
We did look at the mechanics of it. It’s all about cooling and getting material into super states. Glenn and his team really talked through it with Alex about how the sound of the machine should work. And then the direction we got for the mix was trying to make each of the spaces feel very unique and have their own, I suppose, almost womb-like sound inside.
You really were cut off from the outside world. It had to have this unique machine sound. Almost like an organic machine because it’s a different kind of computing. We talked a lot about how to set the size of the space and the feel.
We also put a lot of attention into outside the cube being one of the big spaces. You get those lovely establishing shots outside the cube and there’s a big, fantastic atmosphere that rumbles to give you the sense of scale— inside you feel cut off, but part of the big machine
So, I’m glad that came across because we spent a long time trying to sort that out.
AD: Absolutely. Were there any overarching themes that you were working with in terms of what you wanted certain sequences to sound like?
HB: Yeah. One of the tenants was setting the space out, keeping the isolation, keeping the real world real, and to try to make the forest on the campus feel very melancholic and very natural as a kind of juxtaposition to the isolated machine sound from the inside. I played around with that a lot. That was very prevalent—really trying to accentuate the spaces so you could really feel the locations.
The other overarching thing that went through was this machine getting better and better at learning. And being able to look back in time and being able to construct the history so exactly that it could then look into the future and predict the future. That was also something that we had to play around with over the episodes— changing the sound of the machine slowly as the algorithm taught itself and got better and better.
AD: I think to me, Devs was almost a case study in grief and the different ways that grief manifests itself. Did that idea play into the development of sound?
HB: Yes. I mean, obviously even from the end of episode one, Lily [Sonoya Mizuno]’s working through the entire plot in grief, really. It’s such a kind of weird world, isn’t it? The Devs world. It’s such a removed space on its own.
But I think that was something that was feeding into this isolation where you do have this very disparate group of people working in total isolation — all of them geniuses and pushing this software to the edge of human knowledge and beyond. They were so lawless, from episode one onwards. It’s their own little kingdom where its own rules applied—that fed into [the sound] as well.
AD: Are there any other sequences that really stand out to you as being particularly challenging?
HB: Yeah, the beginning of episode three, which we likened to a kind of art installation. That Devs noise at the beginning of that is two minutes or three minutes long. It goes on for a long time. The sound was an amazing, evolving bit of CGI. That was something that we had some elements for, which came from sound editorial and sound design. It was very much a collaborative process, as we didn’t know what that sequence was going to be about until we started mixing it.
And as we started mixing, we were just figuring our way through. It was a really unique piece of art. You know, moving pictures, changing images, and changing and distorting sounds.
I think that direction was almost like you’re trying to tune a radio in. So Devs was tuning into bits of history and bits of the time stream and different parallel universes. We were trying to establish that with the sound and the pictures so that you kind of feel it going from static into a sudden focus. And that had to have its own kind of rhythm and dynamics.
I mean, I’ve never been on a process like that where we were just in the room, all of us —Alex, Glenn, me, Ben [Barker], everyone involved in the job, throwing ideas in. It was almost like a live performance piece at times. I’ve never worked on anything quite as extreme as that and as unique as that. So that stands out to me. It’s probably something I’ll remember to the point of retiring.
AD: When you’re in the process of creating something completely new. What textures and preexisting pieces were you working with?
HB: Yeah. Well, there was brilliant sound design from Sound 24. We had a lot of brilliant sounds to play with, but then also within the mixing confines, what falls to me is things like the screen distortions and the distorting voices. And we talked about that a lot. I talked a lot with Glenn and Alex about how we should approach that.
With the distortions, you’re trying to make something sound like a real phone or TV—you’re trying to make something that’s set in reality. And this is a computer that, apart from a very small, select number of people, nobody really understands quantum computing. I did try and read up about it beforehand and got about 5 pages into a book on it. And I had to stop. And I tried it again subsequently and still don’t quite understand. So, we had to imagine what the distortion would be like. I was trying to make an audio treatment were things were not a hundred percent right. [The computer] is trying to look back in the past as it’s trying to get through history and time streams — and not sound like any kind of distortion that’s gone before and hopefully had a completely unique sound. I leaned on loads of plugins and various other kinds of things —stuff I probably wouldn’t normally use to try and give it a unique vibe. The kind of feeling [we were] going for is similar to the way they treat the picture where you see the pixels dissipating off—we were going for something similar to that with the sound. It’s very hard to put into words, but you try to make something unique. You want it to be distorted, but in a way that’s never been heard before.
It’s quite a big brief —make up a completely new sound that nobody’s ever heard before. I think we got there.
We had a big palette and we played with it on every episode to kind of shape it. And eventually, you get to present time, and [the computer] is predicting perfectly. There’s that brilliant feedback loop where they start seeing themselves a few seconds in the future and freaking themselves out. That sound is completely clear, it has to sound like reality because the computer is totally tuned in at that point. It is so massive. It can predict everything at that point. And that’s what we tried to convey.
AD: There are those sequences where the computer goes briefly back in time and we hear Jesus on the cross at one point and Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. I have to ask what that was like from your perspective. Did you ever think you’d get to work on something like that?
HB: No, no, but I thought it was brilliant. As I saw the outlines, I thought it was really clever. Because the bits of history that chosen, they’re not like totally obvious things. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe —It’s a really clever one that you’ve got to know a little bit of history to know about.
But, that’s why we talked a lot because you realize that’s quite a big thing that we’re going to be shaping the sound on. We were trying to do Is this arc where as the computer gets better there are new kinds of distortions and new sounds being tuned in from the past. I hope that came across.
AD: I do have to ask you about working with Alex Garland. He’s one of the most brilliant Sci-Fi minds we have in our culture today. Tell me about that.
HB: I mean, Alex was just brilliant because he totally knows what the project is all about and knows where he wants it to go. But then will also leave you to do your bit and present a very, very precise brief of where you’re trying to get to. And then there’ll be a collaborative process where you will fine-tune it and you will get to the right destination. He was an absolute dream to work with.
Glenn has worked with him for nearly all of his projects and Glenn was telling me beforehand, ‘He’s brilliant to work with. You’ll get great direction and it will be brilliantly, positively creative.’ And he was absolutely right.
For a job of such scale, it was such a relaxed, creative environment to work in. It was truly a dream job and I hope that has come through. It was a real labor of love.
Howard Bargroff is Emmy-nominated in the Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or TV Movie category. Devs is available to stream on Hulu.