The Wheel of Time’s first season wrapped in December with an explosive finale in Fal Dara. Rand’s confrontation with Ishamael at the Eye of the World marked a turning point in the youth’s journey from the Two Rivers. Rand and his companions traveled with Moiraine and Lan through the countryside, to the haunting passages of Shadar Logoth, to the quiet hallways of the White Tower. And all along the way, background sounds set the tone and brought depth to the world. The series marks the first significant on-screen adaptation of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy books. The sound design added layers to the locations and to key moments. We talked with supervising sound editor Matt Skelding and sound designers Luke Gentry and Ben Meechan (the group comprises the sound collective SONA) about creating the aural spaces that gave The Wheel of Time a unique sound.
Nerdist: The Wheel of Time, particularly the first book, definitely has some similarities to The Lord of the Rings. How did you approach establishing a different sound atmosphere for this fantasy world?
Matt Skelding: We spoke very early with Rafe Judkins, the showrunner, about the world that he wanted to create. And fantasy is very difficult. Obviously, millions people have read the books, but there’s even more people who haven’t read the books. So, it has to be an accessible world that people can enter. They’re going to be approached with loads of crazy names, these crazy magical things they’ve never come across before. If we made a world that sounded like Star Wars, for instance, as beautiful as that sounds, it would be another barrier for a first time viewer to put them off.
So, you’ll notice, the first episode has quite familiar sounds. We’ve treated them slightly and made them a little bit mysterious and new, but, essentially, there shouldn’t be anything in the backgrounds and the world that is throwing people out. You want to draw people in.
Ben Meechan: We wanted it to feel familiar, but also feel like it was a slightly different time. It’s quite easy just to go quite generic in sound, but we did want it to feel that it was of this Earth. That the creatures you were hearing were familiar, but they were somehow metamorphized into something a bit more futuristic, really. And then we used it as a device to make people feel comfortable when they’re in the Two Rivers. Then as our characters venture off we all had an idea that maybe we could just make it slightly feel a bit more eerie. We tried to introduce sounds in the woods and the distance and things that people were hearing around us really. That was what was quite fun, was trying to create a lot of the atmospheres that supported visually what we were seeing.
Luke Gentry: I would say, with regards to Lord of the Rings, I think that we’re not directly referencing that stuff, ever. But it is so important to the history of sound and what things should sound like, that I think that it will always be in the back of your minds because the bar was set so high. They do scale and size and intrigue so well that it has definitely inspired over the years. You draw from that, but there’s no direct borrowing going on.
The environments are quite distinct. Like you said, the Two Rivers is cozy and familiar but then the White Tower is austere and formal, almost like whispering is too loud. Can you talk about developing the parameters for the White Tower soundscape in particular?
BM: That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because when you say whispers, we almost—although Matt and Luke did a lot of work with taking people’s vocals and almost adding delays and whispers from there as a slight delay to be carried around, especially with the Amyrlin Seat. It was almost like we wanted to feel like she was talking through a PA system. She wasn’t, but it gave a vibe that the tower was alive and it had this religious environment.
LG: It was like a call and response idea, the Amyrlin Seat. We took the sound of her talking and we put it through lots of reverb and almost made an atmosphere out of that. It helped to sell that sense of scale and grandeur. I think that was quite a successful thing in the end.
MS: The atmosphere in the White Tower, around the Amyrlin Seat, would ebb and flow as she got more angry or sort of became more intimate. That was really nice. Plus it had Tar Valon, and that’s our first big city that we’ve entered into—at least in the TV series. So, it’s a huge melting pot of lots of different cultures, and so you’re hearing all these horns and bells and obviously we’re using a lot, we wrote a library for the loop group. All the background voices are referencing all the foods and all the various tradespeople that you’d find there.
We played with the rooms as well. Moiraine’s room is quiet with some very heavy winds in there—that’s the barest room in the tower. Like, she’s very austere and it’s not very lived in, is it? Whereas the Warders, that’s a bit lower down and there’s a bit more life in there. We played with the tone of those rooms to help the story.
In addition to the soundscapes, you have to give things like the One Power an aural component. It’s not necessarily described as having a sound in the books. How did you find that?
BM: It was probably the toughest thing, I think, wasn’t it?
LG: The thing about the channeling, and the magic, and that bit, is that it’s so small and feminine and beautiful and light and delicate, and within the blink of an eye, it’s Armageddon, world-changing, things flying around your head, people being split in two. And so, to create something that sounded like it came from one source and that it was all of the same family, but be able to be two sides of that, those dynamics… Then beyond that, there’s the female side and the male side. It was hugely complicated to try and tell those stories all the time, and I think we were successful in building some core sounds that always feature and then we can sort of extend those as and when [needed].
And those sounds are usually used in the same stuff, so there’s always voices and whispers, but it depends whether they’re male or female whispers. We use some Old Tongue in some places and sometimes it’s almost sing-y and angelic and other times it’s demonic. So, that was allowing us to add these flavors. It’s all voice, but it’s different variations of voice. This layer, upon layer, upon layer of that to help create this expandable and changeable and dynamic thing drawn from the One Power.
BM: Trying to make it turn on and off is quite hard as well. And so, how do we make it just come on? It’s like… We referenced, obviously, the lightsaber. You hear that come on, so how do we make the One Power come on? So, it’s creating those little motives and those moments. And they’re done subtly, but it’s great. There are a lot of different ideas in there, but I think people keyed into them and that’s great.
Our main cast, the Two River youths, are all ta’veren. They affect the Pattern around them. At one point in episode three, on the farm, I think I heard an audio cue kind of indicating Rand was affecting the Pattern. Is that accurate?
MS: We shouldn’t really say more, but yes, when the protagonists affect the world and do something, yes, there are some triggers in there that are reflective of the One Power at times. Shouldn’t really say more about where they are really. And there’s a balance as to how much we hear them. That was one of the tricky things in the mix with Doug Cooper, the mixer, and Chris Barwell, the picture editor, just trying to pick that point because you perhaps want it to be something someone notices on the second listen, as opposed to… You don’t want to lead the audience too early in the story. So, yeah, at certain points there are unexpected, unreal sounds that people may hear.
This is a world with the Dark Ones creatures like the Trollocs and the Fades. The Fades in particular have a particularly eerie screech. How did you blend such a unique sound for them?
BM: We wanted it to feel that it was just really unnerving and natural, and it needed to be a recognizable sound throughout the whole series really. I mean, I can go really geeky…
Go geeky, please!
BM: Yeah! Predominantly, we used like female screams, which I then built around birds of prey screams, which were put into samples and we twisted and twisted as much to just give it that edge that it just felt really uncomfortable without damaging people’s ears. We went back and forth quite a bit on that with with Rafe. We sent him few that he liked. Funny enough, I think the first three that we sent, he was just like, “That’s it. That was great.” But we continued to develop it. We just wanted it to sound… Because you see this thing ride up on quite a creepy horse, and then the mouth opens and just this sound comes out. And it just wanted to be shocking and almost damaging. So, this is our evil person really.
But it was made of screams and bird screeches, owls, vultures… I think, at one stage, we got my young kids. They’re two young boys, but their voices are quite high pitched because they haven’t broken. So, I even tried some of their inhales and exhales on the opening and closes as well just to give it a slightly more weird feeling. That was quite fun.
You talked about using birds of prey sounds, and I love hearing about the everyday kind of sounds that go into the mix. Ben, I read that your dog helped with the Trolloc sounds.
BM: We spent a day in my back garden where I just had a… We got a puppy, he was like probably about 12 weeks I think, a Labrador. And we went and we just tried to get him to bark, so we chased him around the garden and stuff. Because their bark is so high pitched, if we record it at a certain frequency when it slowed down… And Luke was like, “We should record it because that might be great within the Trolloc scene.”
LG: Unfortunately we turned up and he barked like mad and we weren’t recording. Then as soon as we got the mics out and as soon as we put the fluffies on the mics, he literally just stopped dead, didn’t make a single noise. And so, we had to cut it short, put in some kids to come in and play with him. But we got some good stuff and that helped with the Trollocs. Just to help give it that real sort of mouthy, gory, horribleness. And also, with Trollocs as well, my wife had our first daughter and she was making some cool noises and she’s a couple of Trollocs. So, we recorded her screaming and pitched it down and did some weird, wonderful things with it. So, she’s in there, which is quite fun.
BM: We also did some screaming in the stairwell at work. So, when they’re in the woods in episode two, there are some creatures that you can hear and they’re distorted versions of us stood in a stairwell screaming and shouting at each other. So, that sounds quite fun too. I mean, we do take it really seriously.