A Royal Revival: Behind the Oscar-winning sound of Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody is a truly electrifying celebration of Queen, their music and of course their lead singer Freddie Mercury, which follows the astronomical rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. The film, which was nominated in the best sound categories at the BAFTA Awards, and most recently took home Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing at the Oscars, brought together a roster of audio specialists from a range of disciplines, a team tasked with crafting a perfect musical formula that faithfully honours the band’s legacy.

The entirety of the film’s music is made up of existing stems from Queen’s original studio and live recordings, mixed in with a batch of carefully recorded new material. When supervising sound and music editor John Warhurst began work on the film in 2014, his first port of call was Queen’s audio-visual archives, Queen Productions.

“John was pleasantly surprised that we were able to provide 99 per cent of what was required in not just multi-track form but in pre-mixed stems too,” says senior engineer and producer at Queen Productions Justin Shirley-Smith, who also works full time at Brian May’s studio.

The ‘needle-drop’ songs – which are all studio tracks – meant that the team had to recreate the original mixes made by Freddie, John, Brian, Roger and their original co-producers. The screenplay would describe a scene with the band playing a certain song in a certain venue in a certain year, and while it was often very unlikely that they had access to the original recordings, they were required to track down a suitable live recording from the nearest or most fitting period. One they did have access to however was from Live Aid in 1985, the film’s spine-tingling finale.

“It would be inappropriate to go into too much detail about how we go about revealing the maximum power and beauty in these live recordings, but it was policy from day one that the Live Aid performance should have the absolute least amount of enhancement,” Shirley-Smith tells AMI. “The very fact that we have a multi-track recording of Live Aid at all is a miracle in itself because, as I understand it, Jeff Griffin (the BBC Radio producer at the event) was instructed by Bob Geldof – in no uncertain terms – NOT to roll multi-track tape. Happily for us, Jeff felt that he couldn’t not record it!”

Early on in the process, the team created a showreel using Freddie Mercury’s vocal, Rami Malek’s vocal, and a soundalike, weaving the three voices into one to create the vocal heard during the Live Aid performance. From a cinematic aspect, reproducing the ebbing and flowing sound of the crowd during this scene was always going to be a task in itself, as Warhurst explains: “On one of the shoots, a 595- person crowd turned up so they could do all the Live Aid aerial shots. I recorded the crowd singing in between camera setups so we could start building a library. What we wanted to do was create a hyperreal version of being at Live Aid, so when the camera settles into the crowd, you can feel the presence of the people around you, the perspective of the band and the music would change depending on the shots.”

Supervising dialogue and ADR editor, Nina Hartstone, adds: “We could use the archive crowd recordings as very big beds. John’s recordings of the crowd in between shoots for Live Aid acted as the second layer, and the next layer was the bed that I would provide, which was recordings of smaller groups of about 40 people, in groups of eight or less.”

After a carousel of changing directors and actors, the movie got back on track in 2016 with a new screenplay and the team had all the required stems finished by spring 2017. Upon convening at Twickenham Studios during the final mix stage in July 2018, it transpired that the film’s music and re-recording mixer Paul Massey wanted to mix directly from the stems as well as having a dry vocal option, so the team set about producing these stems on one of their on-site Avid Pro Tools rigs, as Shirley-Smith reveals: “Mixing from the stems gave everybody the best of both worlds; total flexibility to re-balance, pan, EQ, compress and add effects as required in the movie theatre context, but also not having to redo a lot of mix and processing work that had already been done.”

Massey had an idea to play out the pre-mixed stems of the Queen live material through a PA in a concert venue, and record the resulting ambience for use in the final mix-down. “It just so happened that Queen and Adam Lambert were about to play two nights at the London O2 Arena and, because the shows were being filmed, we were able to place a really good array of ambient mics throughout the arena,” says Joshua J Macrae, audio engineer and co-producer at Queen Productions, who nowadays works out of Roger Taylor’s studio. “We went back to the stem sessions and reprinted them all with their reverbs and delays muted, so we had dry stems to play out through the PA.”

Because Massey was mixing for theatrical Dolby Atmos 7.1 and 5.1 as well as home theatre Atmos and Imax, it was important that the acoustic panning and environment decisions worked in all formats: “For the larger stadium scenes, we were able to utilise some PA environments from the 02 Arena recordings,” he tells AMI. “I assigned these recordings to “Objects” in Dolby Atmos to give the audience the illusion of height and space in the final mix.”

Massey’s favoured console is the Harrison MPC5, which he used along with the Neve DFC exclusively for the mix on Bohemian Rhapsody, adding: “I prefer the sound and flexibility these consoles provide, and I’m looking forward to the new Harrison MPC Console Strip for the Pro Tools | S6 console.”

For each title, the teams spent a lot of time investigating where and on what consoles they were originally mixed, and what outboard gear those studios had at the time. “Then we’d find plug-in emulations of those consoles and the outboard gear to use in Pro Tools in the stems mixing process,” says Macrae. “I must say that Universal Audio’s plug-ins have had a lot of use in this regard. This really does provide a good starting point for the mix because the stems creation workflow is pretty intense. Queen mixes have so much amazing detail and subtlety – constant “A/B-ing” with focused listening to a few bars at a time throughout each title is a must. Time consuming stuff!”

In fact, all of the film’s recordings, MIDI and playback on set was done on four Pro Tools systems using satellite, while all the layered up sound effects were all mixed internally on an S6 console.

“In terms of new recording, I guess the main pieces were the Smile reunion track Doing All Right (…Revisited) and the 20th Century Fox Fanfare,” music co-producer Kris Fredriksson reveals. “We also recorded Brian playing an alternative take of the Bohemian Rhapsody guitar solo; the film called for the take you hear to be one before the master take, so with Brian’s memories of the original session, we were able to set things up to sound exactly like they did in 1975. For that sequence we even comped together Freddie’s out-take vocals so that he can be heard ‘rehearsing’ the song prior to the scene where they record in the studio.”

When Brian May first came in and suggested doing the Fox Fanfare, it was clear to all that it was going to be a great addition to the whole experience; a genuine seal of approval from the band: “Brian blasted out about 66 or so guitar takes and Roger added his percussion in a short space of time, so we ended up with a piece of music that gives the flavour of things like God Save The Queen, The Wedding March and Procession from previous Queen albums; it really added a nice dimension to kick off the soundtrack album as well as the film itself,” adds Fredriksson.

The Queen studio recordings themselves were still in pretty good shape from previous projects where all of the original master tapes has been transferred and the mixes reverse-engineered in Pro Tools. From the start, Brian May and Roger Taylor were focused on making sure that the music was presented in the best possible way.

“They both have strong instincts as to what will (and won’t) work and it’s constantly fascinating to see what they come up with,” observes Fredriksson. “They are both quite hands-on, and they were even involved in editing the music to fit on to the end credits; nothing was left to chance.

“As far as the personalities involved, that side of it couldn’t have been easier. We’ve all stayed in touch and, as I keep saying, I look forward to working with them all on the (surely inevitable?) sequel!”

— Bohemian Rhapsody supervising dialogue and ADR editor Nina Hartstone is confirmed as a headline speaker at BVE 2019 this week, where she will discuss her Oscar winning work on the celebrated Queen biopic, that helped bring the band’s story to life.