The Secrets of the Sound of The Wire

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 6 2013 1:33 PM

The Secrets of the Sound of The Wire

Omar Little in The Wire
“All the pieces matter.”

Photo still courtesy HBO

When sound editing is done right, that usually means the viewer will never notice it. This is especially true of shows that value realism, like The Wire.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to notice. In a recent thread on Reddit, Jennifer Ralston, who served as the supervising sound editor for most of The Wire’s five-season run, broke down some of the easy-to-miss emotional cues and subtextual motifs that she and her team incorporated into the soundscape of show.

David Simon didn’t want to manipulate the audience with a score, she explained. “He’s the guy who, if he did write a sit-com, would not allow a studio audience or laugh track,” she wrote. So Ralston’s job was to work mood and meaning into the show’s background noise and atmospherics, in a way almost no one would consciously notice. She gave several examples of how she and her team slipped in these hidden touches, which we’re presenting alongside clips of the scenes below.

When a character is in a crowded situation he is not comfortable with, listen for background laughter.
When McNulty is drunk and on the prowl, listen for dogs barking (because he’s a dog—my own private commentary on his character).
There was a whole world of work that went in to creating the sound of Hamsterdam and building it from an empty to thriving enterprise.
And dozens of layers went in to the simple scene where [mild spoiler] Bubbles is sitting in the park, clean and sober for the first time in years and experiencing the world without his usual filters.
Advertisement

These weren’t the only cues and motifs on the show’s palette. They also used sirens “to remind you that no one is safe” and the whirring of helicopters “to remind you that someone is watching.” Another important one was the sound of trains. These were used “when things were set in motion. Or conversely, when someone was not where they wanted to be (as in ‘missed the train,’ or Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’).”

You can hear an example of the train motif in the scene in which (major spoiler) Stringer Bell is shot by Omar and Brother Mouzone.

As with the show’s visual style, the show’s sound design is further proof that just because a movie or a series’ style is naturalistic, that doesn’t mean it’s not there, or not important. As Ralston put it, quoting Lester Freamon, “All the pieces matter.”

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.