Apple TV+'s Masters of Air's WWII Sound Revolution: Chat with the Experts Behind the Sonic Drama

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In the upcoming WWII mini-series, Apple TV+'s Masters of the Air, starring Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan, the work of Supervising Sound Editor, Jack Whittaker, and Re-Recording Mixers, Michael Minkler & Duncan McRae, promises to deliver a groundbreaking auditory experience as it unfolds the incredible true story of the American Eighth Air Force during World War II.

In Masters of the Air, Whittaker's expertise as a Supervising Sound Editor ensures that every auditory detail, from the roar of engines to the subtle nuances of dialogue, contributes to the immersive storytelling experience. Collaborating with Re-Recording Mixers Minkler & McRae, whose mastery lies in blending and enhancing different audio elements, the sound team meticulously crafts a sonic landscape that transports viewers into the heart of World War II aviation.

PH: The auditory experience in "Masters of the Air" is crucial for immersing viewers in the world of World War II aviation. Can you walk us through the process of creating such an immersive soundscape, from initial concept to final execution?

Jack Whittaker: The immersive experience on this show started by building out the world and bringing to life the, in many cases, completely mute footage that we first saw.  As all the in-air sequences were CGI, we were able to have total control over exactly what we heard.  Using a library of sounds recorded for the production, I designed the plane's sound by enhancing those authentic sounds with additional design elements to amplify the emotional beats on screen.  This sonic palette underwent continuous refinement and expansion in tandem with the evolving visuals.  Once we had got a solid pass on the show, we took it to the mix to start carving away at the material even more.  Mixing is a reductive art, as in, you begin the process with a lot of sounds — Dialogue, Music, FX — and then carve out moments, one scene at a time, into this new thing that is, hopefully, perfectly in balance, and a seamless new creation. 

Michael Minkler: The Mix is a collective and collaborative process. All the teams of editors, Picture, Dialogue, Sound Effects and Music bring their ideas to the mix.

The immersive aspect of Masters can be felt with the Music, Sound Effects and even the Dialogue tracks. Three dimensional space is fun to play with but we must never lose sight of the emotional and descriptive storytelling that sound can invoke.

PH: Given the historical setting of the series, what research or references did you draw upon to ensure accuracy in the sound design?

JW & MM: Our journey into researching the show began with a thorough exploration of Donald Miller's book, "Masters of the Air." This book served as an invaluable well of knowledge, becoming a crucial reference point throughout the entire process. In addition to this, we collaborated closely with Kirk Saduski, the Executive Producer on the show, and the military advisors involved in the project. This collaboration provided a wealth of information, covering everything from the proper use of radios on the plane and the nuances of alarms and sirens to ensuring authenticity in the sounds heard in the briefing room and control tower. Maintaining an ongoing dialogue with Kirk and the team throughout the entire mixing process was vital. We all strove to be as accurate as possible, as this project deserved it.

Duncan McRae: Reading through my grandfather-in-law’s handwritten accounts of his 33 bombing missions during the war was a surreal guide to what were some of the horrifying experiences that really stayed with these crews. Recounts of how flak ripping through the plane, and the long time away from home, all influenced the range of emotion we wanted to recreate in the mix.

PH: "Masters of the Air" promises to depict the harrowing experiences of the American Eighth Air Force with authenticity. How did you balance the need for realism in sound design with the narrative demands of the series? 

Jack Whittaker: With a project like this, realism was a must.  The viewer must believe that what they’re hearing at any given moment is real.  If they don’t, we’ve not done our jobs correctly.  The narrative demands of the series actually dictated what we wanted to hear.  It felt pretty intuitive as the picture and storytelling really leapt off the screen.

Michael Minkler: I take the approach that sound should be descriptive and emotional at all times. It’s all planning and execution. Communication between  the dialogue, sound effects and music teams. We move forward as one.

PH: World War II aviation presents unique challenges in sound design, from capturing the thunderous roar of engines to the cacophony of combat. Can you share any specific techniques or technologies you employed to recreate these sounds?

Jack Whittaker: Our approach to this project centered on prioritizing sound in service of the narrative before any design, cutting, or mixing occurred.  Talking through ideas with Mike & Duncan about perspective, emotion, and energy proved invaluable—one notable technique involved designing the soundscape of the onboard B-17s into a three-dimensional experience.  We wanted the viewer to feel each location within the plane as a unique point of view.  We did this by spatially mapping out the engine sounds within the mix room in relation to those positions.  Duncan artfully manipulated the material to place the viewer in the various positions within each aircraft, be that the back, the nose, or the top turret of the plane.  Both Duncan and Mike leveraged the spatial aspects offered by Atmos to the best of what the format can offer.

Duncan McRae: The foundation of everything began with authentic recordings. Jack, Charlie Campagna, and their crew, spent many days recording multiple B17s, guns, artillery, and everything in between. Jack and his crew came to the mix with carefully constructed ideas and well balanced material, which also allowed great flexibility as everything was evolving through the mix. As the narrative unfolds in each scene, we were able to shift the soundscape between all the layers of recordings and pitched and straining design - as sometimes the planes struggle, and other times they triumph. Separation of elements through a range of height layers provided clarity and definition in scenes where chaos was the experience for the crews on board. 

PH: Collaboration seems integral to the success of any sound production. How did the dynamic between the supervising sound editor and re-recording mixers influence the final auditory experience in "Masters of the Air”?

Duncan McRae: Inclusion of all of us early in the process was key to the collaborative process. We would meet early during editorial construction to talk about ideas, and what we felt could be really unique and moving for the audience. It’s important for any team to be unified with a creative vision before reaching the final mix. Typically this is something that often presents a hurdle, but was avoided by taking material to the mix stage early before our final mix to test ideas, and see what felt right, and what was most effective.

Michael Minkler: The relationship that I have with Playtone required me to act as Supervisor on the project. I am credited as both Supervising Sound Editor along with Jack, and Re-Recording Mixer along with Duncan. But more influential is the fact that I share Sound Design credit with Jack Whittaker because together we are responsible for the ultimate Mix through collaboration.

This project would require intense focus on the part of all teams, Picture, Music, Dialogue and Sound Effects. We always worked together as a single unit to keep up with the constant creative input by all involved.

With advancements in technology, sound design has evolved significantly over the years. Were there any innovative approaches or tools that you employed in "Masters of the Air" to push the boundaries of auditory storytelling?

Duncan McRae: We embraced the many ways audiences currently watch film and television. By setting up rooms at our Formosa Group location with different monitoring capabilities, we were in constant rotation within the group listing to Home Atmos, 5.1, and Stereo on Sonos soundbars, along with Dolby Atmos for headphones, and Apple Spatial Audio, all in sync with each other. This helped to inform how our mix would translate to a wider audience, and we could make changes in real-time to test it.

Michael Minkler: ATMOS is the sound format of today both theatrically and in the delivery of your streaming service at home. However, sonically, the two worlds don’t coexist very well. So the challenge was how to “fit” a large scale theatrical ATMOS mix onto a streaming platform that would eventually be listened to through TV speakers or better, a TV with a Soundbar or Home Theater Sound System. We started the mix in a Theatrical ATMOS mixing environment… 60 big powerful speakers with a huge subwoofer system.

After months of getting the basic mix right in Theatrical ATMOS, we scaled down to a Home Theater ATMOS environment. From that point on, all subsequent mixes were in  HT ATMOS. But the transformation was not clear or easy. A lot of testing took place for months while we were updating the mixes due to creative changes. The result was that there are two versions of the final mix that are extremely  similar but play very differently in the two sonic worlds.

PH: As professionals in the industry, what do you hope audiences will take away from the auditory experience of "Masters of the Air”?

Jack Whittaker: We hope the audience takes away the feeling of what it was like to fly on a B-17, to be in the middle of those horrific bloody battles with the screaming German planes passing by at 500mph.  The scenes are meant to be experienced viscerally and I hope we achieve that.

Duncan McRae: Some of the biggest take-aways from this series for me was not up in the air battles. The pain of the war for our air crew, and civilians of countries all across Europe, was portrayed in ways which gave us an opportunity to create deeply sad and horrifying moments in the sound mix. 

Michael Minkler: I wish that people all over the world who view this series gain immense respect for the men who woke up every morning with a sense of duty knowing that there was a 70% chance that they would not come home. Yet they did their job in order to defeat an enemy that threatened the entire world.

PH: Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to share? 

Duncan McRae: I’m excited to take the next project to extraordinary and meaningful heights like we just flew with masters of the Air!

Jack Whittaker: I’m always excited to work on the next project.  Let’s see what’s on the horizon.

Michael Minkler: GREYHOUND 2.  Another Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman WWII epic film from Playtone and Apple+, depicting the heroism of our Navy in the Atlantic and Pacific. “Let’s set ‘em up and knock ‘em down”

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