Almost every season of the Emmy-nominated variety show RuPaul's Drag Race features challenges on the main stage that return every year but with a twist. One of those challenges that never fails to deliver catchy songs, looks, and choreography is the musical episode, or Rusicals (for the fans).
This year, the sound team behind Season 15, Episode 12 of RuPaul's Drag Race, Wigloose: The Rusical! was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Reality Program (Single or Mult-Camera). The team includes re-recording mixers Erik Valenzuela and Sal Ojeda, production mixer David Nolte, and music mixer Gabe Lopez.
Based loosely on Footloose, Wigloose tells the story of rebellion in a small town where the art of drag has been outlawed. David and the team worked to create one of the biggest musical productions of the seasons. From recorded contestants' vocals to choreography to judges' and contestants' reactions during the performance, it would be an understatement to say David and the team had a lot to balance to make Wigloose as stunning, entertaining, and masterfully balanced for audiences to watch at home.
The sound team behind RuPaul's Drag Race, Wigloose: The Rusical! chatted with NFS via email about how they came together to deliver this Emmy-worthy hour of television.
Wigloose: The Rusical 🤠👢 RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 15youtu.be
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: How did you stay true to the '80s setting of Wigloose?
Gabe Lopez: When producing and mixing the music for Wigloose, I used a lot of ‘80s synth sounds like the Juno, the Jupiter, and the Prophet, as well as drum machine, sounds like the 808, Linn, and Fairlight. When mixing the songs, I used effects on the instruments reminiscent of the '80s, like gated reverb, reverb plates, certain slap delays, and flange. These effects were also used when mixing the vocals. I aimed to have a very analog feel when mixing the music while keeping the clarity of pop music mixes today. I tried to have the ‘80s warmth come through in the mix with the EQ and compression used on the voices and instruments.
NFS: How do you balance so many different sounds while ensuring the vocal performances shine through all those layers?
Lopez: I try to keep in mind the order of importance of what needs to be heard for each song. With “A Little More Drag,” there were three singers who performed the song, and each one of them needed to be a lead vocal volume essentially. The melody needed to be on top, but the two supporting harmonies needed to be almost equal in volume.
I kept the lead vocal in the center of the mix and then panned one harmony slightly left and one slightly right. I matched the harmony panning to the characters on screen. That helped to give space for the vocals in the audio spectrum. I felt the next most present instruments needed to be the ‘80s drums and synth bass. The drums are loud and punchy, but I carved out some of the frequencies to give room to the vocals. The synth bass was very important to the ‘80s aesthetic of the song, so this needed to be present but not overwhelm the vocals. I boosted the synth bass’ low frequencies but cut some upper-midrange frequencies to give space to the vocals. The keyboards and sound effects were like sprinkles on a cupcake--some nice details that added to the overall flavor of “A Little More Drag.”
For the finale song, “Wigloose,” there are about 30 vocal tracks, with seven of them being lead vocal parts. Many of those vocals happen at the same time or cross over. The vocal mixing formula was the same as “A Little More Drag” - lead vocals sitting on top - but definitely more detailed with panning, EQ, compression, and blending harmonies. The chorus vocals consisted of nine singers layering about 24 stacks of vocals. The next key instruments were the drums and horns. I wanted the horns to be present and almost blaring. I tried to tuck them just under the vocals. The next layers of focus were the bass, piano, organ, and electric guitar. They kind of trade-off being in the spotlight.
'RuPaul's Drag Race, Wigloose: The Rusical! '
NFS: You were involved with every step of production. What did every phase look like?
David Nolte: We began with the queens hearing the songs for the first time. We then provide wireless in-ear playback and record their reactions. We follow them through choreography rehearsals and performance preparations.
NFS: What sort of equipment did you use?
Nolte: We use Shure Axient wireless on all talent and a Comtek system for in-ear playback.
NFS: What was your collaboration with the show’s composer like?
Nolte: In this episode, we provided playback of the tracks from the first listen through the final performance.
NFS: How did you blend the audio elements of the mix into the contestant’s tone?
Sal Ojeda: We always try to make the dialogue as clear as possible so the queens can get their message across. Sometimes it gets tricky with all the layers of clothing they have to wear, but we carve out the frequencies that we don’t want with EQ, and then it’s like a balancing act between dialog, music, and effects. At the end of the day, dialogue is king, so we protect that.
NFS: How did you ensure that the emotional elements of the show translated to the audience, even with the music and sound effects?
Erik Valenzuela: Since people tend to speak in a soft low tone in those moments, I need to ensure that they can be heard. A whisper still needs to sound like a whisper, though. Otherwise, the scene may lose some authenticity.
To ensure the emotional elements translated to the audience, I brought up the level of the conversation. At the same time, using noise-reduction plugins, I removed some background noise and ambiance that might be distracting to the audience. Now I can bring up the low voices to a nice audible level and still keep the low tone of the conversation. I also kept the music and SFX low in those moments, so the tone of the conversation drove those scenes.
NFS: What was your approach in making the music the driving force of the show?
Ojeda: After mixing many seasons of the show, we know what sections of each episode have to pop to keep the energy of the episode up and when to bring the music a bit lower so it supports the more emotional parts, like when the queens get ready for the runway, and they open up or when Ru gives them advice as they prepare for the main challenge.
Valenzuela: A lot is going on in every episode, and the flow of the show is moving pretty quickly. Music is used to give the episode the pace needed--whether it be to keep a scene moving or to slow it down. The real stars of the show are RuPaul and the queens. So our focus is on them, making sure the story is being told with music and SFX sprinkled in for fun.
'RuPaul's Drag Race, Wigloose: The Rusical!'
NFS: How is working in the sound department different for scripted projects than unscripted ones?
Nolte: For production sound, the pace of the script is much slower and more deliberate. Unscripted projects tend to roll all day.
Ojeda: In unscripted projects, we don’t really have the option of recording ADR or doing another take, so we have to make the production sound work no matter what.
Lopez: With music mixing, there is usually an end-vision from the get-go while producing and recording scripted projects. That makes it easier to know where the mix should land to support the scene. Whenever there is an unscripted project, the focus of the scene can change on a whim and sometimes not linearly. After filming, we really find out how and when the music can support the scene.
Valenzuela: Scripted shows are taped in a controlled environment/sound stage, so they can do retakes of a line or a scene if there’s an equipment malfunction or they want a different read. In unscripted/reality shows, there are rarely any retakes. So if something malfunctions, we need to do our best to clean up and use the audio available. It’s difficult to recreate a spontaneous moment, so if the audio is salvageable, we use it. Thankfully that rarely happens; our production sound team is great.