Crafting sound is so difficult. Doubly so when a project uses sound design to reflect the mental state of its lead character, which is certainly the case of Netflix's Ripley, a sexy noir adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's work starring Andrew Scott.

Here, sound is at the forefront before anything else is seen on screen in the opening seconds of episode one. A ticking clock—then lots of them—then the ominous toll of a church bell. Before long, we're thrust into Tom Ripley's world, and to some it might be auditorily unnerving. Everything is crisp, heightened, on edge, much like the character.

The talented sound team elevated this adaptation in a way that no other recent television project has done, and their process is fascinating. We were able to speak with Michael Feuser, supervising sound editor, Michael Barry, re-recording mixer, and production sound mixer Maurizio Argentieri to learn about their unique gear (tube microphones), their collaboration with Steven Zaillian, why they used wired booms, and more.


Ripley | Official Trailer |

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I want to start with the way the show starts itself. It opens with sound, this heavy focus on the environment. What was your process to establish the tone of Ripley?

Michael Feuser:Larry Zipf, the other supervisor and the sound designer on this show, he was the main person who created the atmospheric sound in addition to Maurizio's beautiful production sound.

It was important for Steve to have somebody around pretty early on. Larry worked roundabouts for 16 months on this show. He started doing a couple of key scenes and then quite quickly moved his sound design room to the cutting rooms, which was quite essential for Steven because he could walk between the cutting rooms and to Larry's room, and then they could develop together certain scenes. Like the boat scene for example, in episode three, or in episode five, when you see the elevator, Ripley trying to get rid of Freddie's body, that whole sequence.

And so Steve was super involved in all aspects of the show, and especially in sound too. So it was beneficial for him to have Larry around. They developed that kind sound at the cutting room.

Michael Barry: Enough can't be said for the integrity of Steve Zaillian to get exactly what he wants from the film. He is so hands-on, it's indescribable, really. And as Mich was saying, it started 16 months ago, but right up until the very last day of mixing, we changed stuff, and Larry had to redo stuff, all based on what Steve's vision was. And it's such a pleasure to work with someone like that. All praise to Steve Zaillian.

Maurizio Argentieri: I think that I was the first one who put the first stone on this project. I had to make some crucial decisions that, at the beginning, I shared with Steven. At the beginning of the show, he was inside a lot of other things. You have to choose location, you have to choose a lot of things. I was the only person around taking care of sound.

At the very beginning, I met Steven during the location scout, and only after one week of scouting, I had the chance to talk personally with him and introduce myself. He was so pleased to meet me, and we started talking, in a very simple way. I understood that he was someone that really cared about sound. I found myself [making] crucial decisions, because I really wanted to give this show a unique characteristic in terms of sound because it was period, and it was black and white.

We didn't know if it was black and white or color [until] the very end. Even after we finished shooting, we didn't know if it was black and white or color. So I imagined—because on set, we had both kinds of monitors—and from the very beginning, I understood that this show cannot be other than black and white. So I got inspired, and I [made] some crucial decisions. I recorded the sound in a very specific way, so the guys after me couldn't interpret it too much. ... It wasn't something that went against the work, the beautiful work that Mich and Michael and Larry did on the show.

Andrew Scott in RipleyRipleyCourtesy of Netflix

Michael Barry: Maurizio, can you speak a little about the technology you used?

Maurizio Argentieri: When I was talking about about the decisions that I made to give this show a unique sound, it was based, first of all, on choosing a specific way to pre-amplify, for example, to create the sound. The first generation for us audio engineers was to choose the right pre-amplifier to pre-amplify the sound of the microphones.

So I used original tube microphones and pre-amplifiers, because I love that kind of sound. The sound that was produced by the tubes—I think you noticed that there was something different.

Michael Barry: Absolutely.

Maurizio Argentieri: It matched perfectly with the noir style of the show and with the black and white. I wasn't happy only with this. I didn't use any wireless boom connections. I wired physically, because I didn't want to lose any bits of this, any tiny element of the sound, from the microphone to the very end of the recorder.

I used only large diaphragm microphones. It was very heavy. I talked with my boom operators to take care of that and to join this decision to be creative, just to give the shot the right sound.

I decided during the recording process to apply a light amount of compression to the sound coming from the boom just to enrich it a little more, because even the compressor was a tube compressor. So [this was] to enrich with a little harmonic distortion that is beautiful the voices of all the actors, and to create a contrast necessary from those very warm voices with a very hard characteristic.

For the spaces, I used a special rig that was custom-designed by me, but all the spatial audio was recorded with the most top-class level digital immersive sound technology. I created this contrast between all the ambient sound recorded. And then all these other guys here, they created such an amazing soundscape to give them just the first note to get tuned on these elements, to have this contrast between the actors and the space.

NFS: I love to ask sound teams what their favorite sequence to work on in a project was.

Michael Feuser: Good question. To pick up on Maurizio, he basically set the tone. I would maybe focus in on the long dialogue scenes. I think what struck me when I got the tracks, and what Steven wanted us to do, he was very focused on craftsmanship. It was about using the right technology but not go too far in terms of plugins and all that kind of stuff, what we can use nowadays.

It was really a brilliant recording going straight through to the editor's hands just to line it up and to the tracks for the mixer and then it goes straight through. And then I think that makes the sound of Ripley so special because it's very clear and modulated and not too much dealt with or changed.

And I think this came out in the dialogue scenes for me especially. And then what we just did was we just carved out breaths and these kinds of things to make reactions to lines more present and help the tension in the scene with that. But there was a lot of fun for me to deal with these scenes.

Dakota Fanning in RipleyRipleyCourtesy of Netflix

Michael Barry: What technology did you use, Mich?

Michael Feuser: It was just old-fashioned editing, for the most part. ... We did a little bit of noise reduction on some of the exterior scenes, but very, very carefully without compromising the dialogue itself. We were very careful not to go too far with these scenes. Otherwise, it was just good old-fashioned editing that we needed to do just to have the best mics at any time present and ready for Michael to balance them and to mix them.

Michael Barry: I don't have a favorite. I like them all. I wish we had more to do. I was sad to see it end.

NFS: A very valid answer!

Maurizio Argentieri: I have the same answer as Michael because, for me, it was just a blast to work with such an incredible director.

I don't know if you remember all the telephone scenes, even those telephone scenes, the guy on the other side was real. We modified for real the practical telephones. We created under Steve's request an interface so they could interact with each other.

My first day of work was the telephone call that Tom did in New York. This was my very first day of work. I had a lot of anxiety because on set, all these things, it never works, never. We stayed for one entire day on the line with an actor on the other side of the world, and we shot on the stage in Rome, and it worked like a charm. And that was my first day of work.

I'm remembering the attention that Steve had during the production. He was excited to hear, for example, all the tiny sounds of footsteps, of the crackling, little stones.

And to obtain that, I really had to pay attention to every detail during preparation. For example, Tom's apartment in Rome, it was on a stage. During the construction of this apartment, I was there bitching at the construction department. Because, for me, the floor needs to be perfect. I gave them a project to uncouple the wood floor from the structure that elevated from the main floor of the stage to avoid any drum effect while they walking.

In general, I try to put a magnifying glass on those kinds of elements because normally all these things are background. In this case, I treated them as another lead character who was acting with the main actor.

And then these guys here took so much care about those details that I tried to give them in the best way I could. They transformed those sounds into another character that tells the audience what, for example, Tom was thinking in his head. Those kinds of elements come through the sound that, during the show, is managed in a beautiful way. Those tiny elements tell exactly what he felt inside.

Michael Barry: That's one of the many things I love about Steve's direction in this show is so much of it happens in Tom's head. He doesn't plan it in advance in many situations. He has to react to what happened in front of him. And so you can sense that thought process, which is very unusual these days. I loved it. So it's done with sound like you said.

Andrew Scott in RipleyRipleyCourtesy of Lorenzo Sisti/Netflix

NFS: In your vast experience, is there one key bit of advice that you would give a new person in each of your positions?

Michael Feuser: Well, I would say hire Maurizio, that would be the first one. A lot of people don't appreciate how important that first step actually is. He set the tone, and it made my life very easy because it's always a pleasure to work with beautiful tracks. And so if you want to shoot something, get a good sound recordist.

Michael Barry: There's very little ADR in the show, and most of it's off-camera anyway. It's amazing.

Maurizio Argentieri: And of course, I can suggest having a post-production team like you guys. I had this vision, because I'm a sound designer too. I work in Italy as a sound designer ... [some of] my colleagues, they think that their job is just go on set, record the dialogue, and that's it. And for me, it's totally different. It's not like this.

At some point, I put myself in the game because all the time that I was going to movies—and at the first projection of a movie that I did as a production mixer—I always had frustration because I said, "No, this is not the right way. I was thinking that the sound had to be managed."

I said, "Okay," I think that I have to go and put my hands in post-production to get a sense, a total sense of the sound project from the beginning to the end. And in this case, I put the first stone in the road, but then these guys did exactly what it was in my mind.

Another thing that I can say is try always to tell a story with sound. Always. Sound has so much power. Especially nowadays with these immersive techniques, and Netflix, they transport immersive sound formats, and it's absolutely beautiful. There's such a huge amount of expressivity that can be used.

Michael Barry: I would just say to be very patient and learn from others as much as possible, as slowly as possible. Don't rush things. But the most important thing, as Maurizio alluded to, is the story and the intention of the director to tell the story in a certain way.

They should be experts in their technology, but most people can learn the technology. What you can't really learn, at least not quickly, is how to tell the story. How to use sound, in our case, to help tell the story the director wants to tell. And that's something you can't teach per se, but students should learn how to pick up on that and focus on that as they go forward in their careers.