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.
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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.