Sound Mixer Simon Hayes on Les Misérables

Simon Hayes gets more in depth about the intricacies of mixing the sound of the famed “Live Singing” of Les Misérables.

The buzz around town reported by some press has been that the singing in Les Misérables was unique because it was recorded live, something that had never been done before in a movie musical. Production sound mixer Simon Hayes wants to set the record straight. “That’s not what we’re claiming, and we never did claim it was the first time,” said Hayes. “Where Les Mis the movie is unique, and I think is groundbreaking and we are indeed the first, isn’t just the live singing element. What was really exciting about director Tom Hooper’s vision was that he didn’t want to tie the actor’s performances to a prerecorded track.”

Instead of the usual prerecorded orchestrations that the actors would follow, the music was played by a live pianist, who knew the score intimately, located in a sound proof room on set, watching the performance on a monitor. The pianist had explicit instructions to follow the actor. This allowed the acting to take precedence. The actor – listening to the music through hidden earplugs – could speed up or slow down any passage, or even pause to emphasize a moment (just like a fermata). Although it was very time-consuming to get the vocal right on set, this method created a visceral raw effect and a much more emotive performance. 

Another benefit came from recording live while using the actors’ performances as the basis for the rhythm. When an actor is following a pre-recorded track, the lip sync slips. This method of live vocal recording made it possible for the camera to go in really tight and hold on a shot because the sync was real. Even imperfections in the voice from the live recording served to add to the power of the performances.

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