City on a Hill’s James David Redding III on how sound makes TV crime dramas tick

James David Redding III. Image courtesy Impact24 PR
James David Redding III. Image courtesy Impact24 PR /

Sound can completely change our favorite TV crime dramas. It’s sound design that creates suspense, or alternatively ruins it, as James David Redding III knows very well and explained to Precinct TV in our interview with the City on a Hill sound effects editor.

James is currently working on Showtime‘s Boston-set crime drama, but his other credits include hit shows like The Americans and The Queen’s Gambit. He’s also filled plenty of roles on TV shows and films, from sound effects editor to re-recording mixer to sound designer.

Oh, and he teaches, too, so he knows everything you could need to know about what sound means to your favorite show. Get the inside scoop in our interview below!

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Precinct TV: You’ve held many different roles in the sound world. Can you explain the differences between the various job descriptions?

James David Redding III: My job as a sound designer is to create sounds that people don’t realize emotionally connect them to the picture. They don’t realize that with sound, we can change their emotions about what they’re seeing. We can make something either extra funny, extra sad, or extra scary.

As a sound effects editor, I put in the sounds that you expect to hear, but [that] aren’t recorded when they’re filming. When they’re shooting the film, they are trying to just capture the actors’ dialogue as best as possible, and everything else is trying to be taken away. Then we put it all back in to create the world that the film or television show is taking place in.

And when I’m doing a re-recording mixer job, I am taking all the different parts—the dialogue, the sound effects, the sound design and the music and score—and making it seamless so that you don’t even realize that these things are happening. You just accept the film as it is and the world that the film is taking place in as real, because hopefully the job was done so seamlessly that you just get absorbed into it.

The main thing with sound is that the audience is not supposed to be knowing that we’re doing what we’re doing.

PTV: You’ve worked on multiple projects involving some of the same people, such as you were on The Americans as well as Keri Russell’s previous series Running Wilde. Do you carry things sound-wise with you when you’re working with the same people?

JDR: Not so much with the actors. With showrunners and producers, yes. I’m currently working on City on a Hill, which Tom Fontana is the showrunner for, for Showtime. I’ve worked with Tom for almost 20 years now, since the end of Oz, and I just know his sensibility for sound, so I happen to always carry that with me.

Sometimes it’s fine because you’re like oh, I know he’s going to like this type of sound. And other times, like when I did Borgia for him, because it was such a different world, all my old bag of tricks from previous shows I’m like, oh, I can’t use that sound, it’s too modern sounding for 15th-century Rome.

PTV: City on a Hill takes place in the 90’s, and you’ve done other period pieces like The Americans and Borgia. How much does that affect your work?

JDR: I like a challenge. I don’t like to be bored. So giving myself some sort of challenge, like say [with] Borgia, you have to make sure you don’t have any extraneous traffic in the background. You have to be sure you don’t have planes in the background. I’m constantly going out and recording ambiances and stuff like that; I have these great winds, and then I’m like, oh wait, in the distance I hear a prop plane, can’t use this part.

It’s almost like a history lesson, too, because I have to go back and research. When I did Carol—with Todd Haynes, Leslie Shatz was the supervising sound editor—doing the cars was like wow, okay. I have to do the straight eight and I have to do a Packard. What’s a Packard sound like? You go and find one recording and then you have to equate it to other things. It’s really cool because you dive into more of how those things were made and worked so that you could replicate a sound that might not have been recorded.

You challenge yourself that way, so it’s kind of fun to do the period stuff. Not to say that I don’t like modern stuff, because sometimes it’s nice to not have to think like oh, is there a random car going through this? City on a Hill is modern enough; it’s taking place in 1993. As long as I stay away from putting an electric car sound in, I’m pretty safe.

City on a Hill
James David Redding III. Image courtesy Impact24 PR /

PTV: Other than City on a Hill and the projects we know you for, are there shows or films you’ve loved that haven’t gotten the same exposure?

JDR: One of my favorites is a film called Aardvark. It had Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate and Jon Hamm in it, and it was a first time director, Brian Shoaf. When I first screened it, it was just nice. You know how sometimes you watch things and you’re like, I feel good after watching this? It has these weird twists in it, but it was just nice. It was just such a collaborative effort. We’d started it here in New York and then we got to finish it at Skywalker [Sound], which was awesome. For a sound person that’s the Mecca, right? It was really great to go out to Skywalker and finish this film. It was just a fun, collaborative piece and it’s a really good film.

I liked The Philanthropist, which was a short lived TV show I worked on. And then Brigsby Bear, which is sort of known. It was by the guys from Saturday Night Live. It’s quirky; you watch it and at first you’re like, I don’t get it. But you get pulled into this world and just flow with it. And all of a sudden at the end you just feel good.

PTV: What is it that makes you so passionate about sound as a whole?

JDR: I love being able to make new sounds. Even on City on a Hill I’m creating sounds to drive emotion. I’ll sit here with my synths and stuff like that and come up with new stuff. I love working with other creative people. My first mentor was Dane Davis; I interned with him on The Matrix. He was great to work with.

Everybody at Skywalker, that whole campus, is just awesome to be on, and just a creative hive. And then I’ve had so many great people that I’ve worked with over the years. Tony Pipitone, who’s mixed 30 Rock and I worked with him on all the Tom Fontana stuff. Ken Hahn was my first boss in New York City that I just did MLK/FBI with. I haven’t met anybody in the sound community who doesn’t want to make something better, but I love when you meet other passionate people and you can have a feedback loop of that type.

I think so many people don’t understand sound…I’m finding even with my students, a lot of them don’t realize hey, this is a team effort. And we need more people on our team that can do all their parts right. Sound is one of those parts that is really a deciding factor. I tell my students the thing that differentiates a student film from a professional film right off the bat is the sound. You can develop a really good story as a student, you might have a great idea, and nowadays you can get great cameras and you can find a great cinematographer. And there’s all sorts of training and everything else that goes into it. But every time I watch an amateur film, I know it’s amateur because of the sound.

I make noise that you don’t realize that if it’s bad, you won’t like your favorite show. If my colleagues and I do our job wrong and you actually notice what we’re doing, then you won’t actually enjoy it. You’ll be taken out of the story if you can tell what we’re doing. When we do it right, it’s amazing…with City on a Hill, I love it because it’s like, how can I twist this for you? How can I take this character that you’re supposed to love to hate to love sort of thing, and make you that much more tied to them? Of course [with] Kevin Bacon, it’s not that hard. And Aldis [Hodge] is great. I don’t have much heavy lifting to do there, they do a lot of it.

Same with The Americans. We were taking The Cold War bad guys and making you care about them…When they shot Nina, we did a big emotional gunshot there to help the audience. Same with Agent Gaad. When we did these things with these characters, we tried to respect them with sound, but also just make it that much more impactful. And people don’t realize that we can do that.

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City on a Hill airs Sundays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.