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Sorting sound for a Sort of Homecoming

With a hard TX deadline of St Patrick's Day looming, the sound editing and mixing team at Levels Audio had only a few weeks to complete their work on Disney Plus' new documentary about U2 co-founders Bono and The Edge, writes David Davies

Even by U2’s successful standards, 2023 bears all the hallmarks of being a milestone year for the legendary Irish band. In addition to Bono’s memoir, Surrender, and a series of concerts in New York, there has been an album of stripped-back re-recordings, entitled Songs of Surrender. Later this year, the band will make history by launching an immersive new Las Vegas concert venue MSG Sphere with a residency based around a spectacular presentation of its landmark 1991 album, Achtung Baby.

So it seems only appropriate that a retrospectively-themed year should also yield a new documentary, Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, With Dave Letterman. Directed for Disney Plus by Morgan Neville, the movie captures former late night talk show host Letterman – on his first visit to Dublin – spending time with U2’s vocalist and lead guitarist in their hometown. Along the way they explore the personal and political history of the city, and perform an acoustic-led set with string players and choir in the historic Ambassador Theatre.

Bono & the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming. (Disney)

Described as ‘part concert movie, part travel adventure’, the film debuted on 17th March – St. Patrick’s Day. That detail acquires additional significance when you find out how much of the work was done in the few months leading up to the release date, as Brian Riordan – founder, CEO and re-recording mixer at Levels Audio, the Hollywood-based company engaged to work on the sound editing and mixing of the film – tells TVBEurope.

“We became aware of the project towards the tail-end of last year when we had a conversation with Morgan,” he recalls. “The plan was for Bono, The Edge and Letterman to fly to Dublin and do some filming there, although I don’t think they were 100 per cent clear on what they would get! [Ultimately] it was kept pretty loose in terms of doing a deep-dive into Ireland’s history as well as the band’s origins, with these raw, stripped-down versions of classic U2 songs weaving through the film.”

While the actual filming might have been relatively unhurried, the subsequent post production could hardly be described in similar terms. Riordan recalls that the footage was turned over to his team – which also included fellow re-recording mixer Phil DeTolve, sound designer Josh Reinhardt and sound editor Louie Recinos – at the end of February. “The whole thing happened in record time – concept, shoot, edit, mix and then on air by St. Patrick’s Day,” says Riordan.

Best source for each scene

Given this rapid turnaround, it’s fortuitous that the editing and mixing processes did not yield any major challenges. The initial stages saw the team concentrate on “finding the best audio source for each scene,” recalls DeSolve, “which included plenty of ‘run and gun’ stuff with Dave at locations including Dublin Airport and the Forty Foot.”

Brian Riordan

The latter location was particularly notable as it prompted the only post-shoot pick-up for the film. A promontory at the southern tip of Dublin Bay, Forty Foot has been a popular year-round swimming area for several centuries. However, it was for many years an exclusively male bathing area, and it wasn’t until 2014 that restrictions on women, including use of the clubhouse and changing rooms, were completely lifted.

During the initial filming, Letterman himself did not – perhaps understandably! – choose to get into the extremely cold body of water. “But having got back to the States, he realised he did need to get into the water, so flew back to Dublin with a pair of board shorts on a 24-hour turnaround and filmed [an extra sequence]…!” recalls Riordan.

The performance segments, notes DeTolve, did not generate many issues: “They were really well mic’d and recorded.” Instead, the challenge resided more in how to “maintain the tonality of the performances into and from each section” as the songs punctuate Letterman, Bono and The Edge’s perambulations around Dublin. “It all needed to have the same kind of energy, feel and liveliness,” says DeTolve.

Phil DeTolve

Pro Tools underpinned all of Levels Audio’s work on the film. Noise reduction plug-ins from Clarity and CEDAR Audio were among those used to “clean up production audio and optimise dialogue”, whilst there was no ADR at all. For the performance segments in the theatre, “primarily we just let it be as they had been recorded really well. There was a little bit of EQ and compression here and there, but that was about it.”

Intimate and dynamic

With a hard TX approaching, it must have been cheering that there were only minor late-stage changes to the mix, which was delivered in 5.1 and stereo. Although Levels Audio has delivered Dolby Atmos mixes for previous Disney Plus projects, that wasn’t on the agenda this time. “I think that for the nature of the film, 5.1 is very suitable,” says Riordan, adding that “intimate and dynamic” were watchwords for the audio production from start to finish.

The project comes during a busy year for the company, which seems to have adjusted impressively to the challenges of the pandemic era. Riordan recalls that as the world shut down in 2020, the Levels Audio team was able to shift to home-working in a matter of days: “By the following Monday morning we were pretty much up and running.” This approach – underpinned by “very strong existing communication within the team” – has now matured into a “semi-permanent hybrid” operational model that has helped the company to remain responsive and stay busy, with everything from “episodic TV music production” to award shows and arts documentaries filling its schedules in recent times.

Riordan’s team has also previously worked on prepping video content for performers in Las Vegas, so one has to ask: what about that eagerly-awaited U2 residency? “Well, we aren’t involved so far, but we would love to be!”

Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, With Dave Letterman is available now on Disney Plus