Recording The Queen’s Gambit: "we wanted to record as much of this on set as possible"

Who could have predicted that a TV show focusing on a woman playing chess for seven episodes would go on to become Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries, whilst single handedly rekindling worldwide interest in the board game?

The Queen’s Gambit surprised us all, serving up an unexpectedly riveting portrayal of the life of Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy on her rise to the top of the chess world while struggling with drug and alcohol dependency.

The show has been praised for its rich cinematography, fabulous costumes, top-class acting and excellent soundtrack – but let’s not forget about the all important sound, which was mostly captured on set thanks to Berlin-based sound mixer, Roland Winke, and his arsenal of Lectrosonics gear.

Prior to this, he has worked on 2016’s A Hologram for the King starring Tom Hanks, the 2011 spy thriller Hanna with Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan, the sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, and even the 2004 historical drama Downfall, which spawned the well-known ‘Hitler Reacts’ parodies on YouTube.

When it came to The Queen’s Gambit, even Winke admits that he had his doubts about how gripping a show could be focusing so closely on chess games:

“Six, seven hours about chess?” he laughs. “But then if you read the script, there's much more to it. It's about the story of the people behind the chess board.”

To capture the globe-trotting matches in breathtaking venues, Winke relied on his Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless rig, comprised of SMB and SMDB transmitters and HMa plug-on transmitters for boom mics, plus UCR411a receivers and a Venue2 modular field receiver.

“I like to capture as much sound as I can from as many places as I can,” he says. “The chess clock, the pieces on the board, the ambience of the room, the sound of Beth’s shoes as she walks into a hotel or chess match for the first time. To make the viewing experience immersive, we wanted to record as much of this on set as possible as the basis for the post production.”

For this, he used a Decca tree miking technique with three omnidirectional mics and the HMa transmitters.

“This show was one of the first where I used the Decca tree system for room ambience,” he shares. “I tried to get as much sound as possible from the Decca tree for a scene where some children were in the house, and we have a lot of room ambience.”

Winke says that the actors like working with Lectrosonics too, particularly the compact SMB and SSM transmitters:

“They are so small and light, you go in in the morning, and bam! Then maybe you’ll change the battery after five hours. One of the important things is in between takes when they go to the green room or something like that, they can put the transmitter in sleep mode, and they can do what they want. They can speak, and nobody can hear it, then when they come back to set, they take it off sleep mode. That's perfect.”

To make the viewing experience immersive, we wanted to record as much of this on set as possible.

Recording as much sound on set as possible is a key method of Winke’s:

“Maybe that's my philosophy,” he smiles. “I'm a sound-catcher – the dialogue is the main thing. You can use Lectrosonics to capture the sound of the chess clock by having it very close. The main thing is to record the sound on location.”

On The Queen’s Gambit, Lectrosonics’ channel isolation and tracking filters allowed Winke to set up discrete systems for actors’ dialog and ambient sounds:

“The actors have lav mics and either SMB or SMDB transmitters, received by my Venue system. In addition to the Decca trees, there were always two or three booms, fitted with Sennheiser MKH mics. All these mics used the HMa, paired with the UCR411a. There was absolutely no overlap or crosstalk between the two systems.”

In spite of seldom changing frequencies, Winke reports almost never hearing any sort of interference.

“I often settle on frequency blocks 24, 25 and 26, which are equivalent to European TV channels and on the Lectrosonics schedule,” he says. “It is very rare that I have to change a transmitter’s settings; for 10 years, I basically show up at the location and it works. I should knock on wood!”