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Good Production Sound Mixer vs. Great


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On an interview today I was asked what the difference between a good production sound mixer and a great production sound mixer was. After a moment of thought I said their personality. Before this question I was asked if I looked up to any sound mixers, and the ones that stood out in my mind were some of the friendliest people I know.

While I think there are a lot of factors that make a great production sound mixer such as experience, ingenuity, and a skilled crew, one of the biggest factors I think is likeability. I think this goes for great boom operators too. We all know that good and especially great sound comes from a collaborate effort from the other departments. To be able to draw out that willingness to help is a skill not everyone possesses.

I thought this was a great question.

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Many of the successful mixers I know are very easy people to like. Mark Ulano is very soft-spoken. In conflict situations, he brings perspective to the situation by mentioning that he still enjoys the love of his wife, the accomplishments of his children and good health. When I was researching the career of Alan Bernard I heard again and again that he managed the difficult task of standing up for his crew and simultaneously maintaining lifelong friendships with adversaries. It's a gift that comes of enjoying the company of others.

 

On the other hand, many of the mixers I've come to respect for their accomplishments have a reputation for being a bit prickly or, at least, unyielding in their determination to get good sound. I hesitate to name names because the stories are often second-hand or fit into a particular context. But there are stories - accounts of sending PAs off on quests to find construction work blocks and blocks away from the filming site. There are accounts of epic practical jokes; one that Jim Osburn tells about Gene Cantamessa involved military smoke bombs, the local fire department and the need to evacuate a stage; another tells of Jack Solomon coaching the extras in the Mexican scene in Great White Hope to chant "more-per-diem, more-per-diem" rather than just "rutabaga-rugabaga." (The per-diem escapade supposedly survived the final mix and is in the track of the picture.)

 

It's hard to say what makes a great mixer but I expect it has a lot to do with enjoying the work and being determined to practice the craft at the highest level possible.

 

David

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I'm not sure that I think greatness at anything can be taught.  The really great production dept. heads I've worked with all seemed to combine a great genius for problem solving, a high degree of personal organization and clear thought; the ability to, like a chess-player, "see" many moves ahead in the shooting process and be ready for the possibilities; great humility and interpersonal skills and a huge love of movies as an art form.  The "great ones" would have been great at anything they tried, and often have amazing skills in other areas besides sound.  As we know, being a great nuts-and-bolts audio engineer isn't necessarily a qualification for being a good production soundie, but great people skills definitely are.  My feelings about this have evolved a great deal in the last 20 years, to the point that I now take a very dim view of any sort of techno show-boating and audiophile posturing as well as the making of a lot of difficult-to-satisfy demands on other parts of the crew without a really really really good reason--explained in detail with alternative suggestions given and a low key manner about it all.

 

philp

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Good question, impossible to answer as it is a subjective opinion. I think "great" is an over used word. I don't think it applies to what we do. More like a scale of Bad, Average, and Good. It takes a lot of work to be average and do what is expected of one on the job. Good probably has to do with likability and years in the game. If there is a great category it should apply to the best resumes of the top dog mixers who are well respected among their peers. That's my POV.

CrewC

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+1 to what Philip has said.

 

"My feelings about this have evolved a great deal in the last 20 years, to the point that I now take a very dim view of any sort of techno show-boating and audiophile posturing as well as the making of a lot of difficult-to-satisfy demands on other parts of the crew without a really really really good reason--explained in detail with alternative suggestions given and a low key manner about it all."

 

This is really good stuff. I will add that I have huge respect and appreciation for Philip's thoughtful and insightful posts here on JWSOUND. Truly one of the great ones.

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I think knowing the current tools available in post and understanding picture editing is critical.

Shorter schedules and multiple cameras demand we have a greater understanding on what we can afford to compromise and what we can't. We must pick our battles wisely or risk being shot down when it really matters.

I think having a boom operator who can communicate on set and be likable and respected is critical, and is often the difference between good and great tracks. It's a team effort. Good cop/bad cop can be a great tool. And has been said many times before, step 1 of any good track is proper mic placement.

A great mixer simply makes fewer mistakes than a good one. And that simply takes experience. I like to believe I am getting good, and hope to some day be great.

Robert

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I now take a very dim view of any sort of techno show-boating and audiophile posturing as well as the making of a lot of difficult-to-satisfy demands on other parts of the crew without a really really really good reason--explained in detail with alternative suggestions given and a low key manner about it all.

philp

I am always suspect of people who techno-showboat as well.

Red flags go up everytime. And it usually never fails, that people usually use that kind of stuff to hide their lack of abilities.

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From a postie's point of view:

 

A good sound mixer will capture everything in a way that's eventually usable, with realistic exceptions for noises or mumbles that might require ADR.

 

A great sound mixer will capture everything. Cleanly. Including the actors sighing or screaming. With appropriate tone or wild lines when they might be needed. And with enough finesse and personality at the shoot that many of the noise sources get negotiated away.

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Sometimes, I think the difference between good sound and great sound is just saying, "can we do one more for sound, please," and standing your ground when other people want to rush. I'd rather we get it right right there on set instead of vexing the sound editor and re-recording mixers with a bunch of bad choices. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Mark.... a brilliant approach to greatness...... it rang true today. I asked for another in an adversarial situation.  It does take courage though.  Courage is a rare commodity in the environment we work in today.  Mark gives a gift of courage for everyone..... greatness for everyone.  Cheers

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+1 to what Philip has said.

 

"My feelings about this have evolved a great deal in the last 20 years, to the point that I now take a very dim view of any sort of techno show-boating and audiophile posturing as well as the making of a lot of difficult-to-satisfy demands on other parts of the crew without a really really really good reason--explained in detail with alternative suggestions given and a low key manner about it all."

 

This is really good stuff. I will add that I have huge respect and appreciation for Philip's thoughtful and insightful posts here on JWSOUND. Truly one of the great ones.

Thanks, Jeff--much appreciated.

 

philp

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In front of any great mixer is a great boom swinger.

+11...

A certain MythBusters episode aside, you can't polish a turd... it doesn't matter how proficient a PSM is if (s)he doesn't have a great team, then "greatness" will constantly (frequently) elude / will be that much more difficult to attain.

Of course, we all know that around here -- what continually surprises me is the percentage of folks above the line who don't get this... who think a Boom Op is just a tall PA who can hold a stick above everyone's head all day, and that a Sound Utility is an unnecessary waste of $. This may speak to the level of "filmmaking" to which I have been accustomed, so please don't take it to mean that I think everyone above the line thinks that way. Obviously, many in those decision-making positions really care about the production sound. I suspect the great Sound Mixers wind up on these productions as a result of their tenacity, grace under pressure, and straight-up karma.

The great Sound Mixers (obviously) love what they do, and see tention and conflict as opportunity. I love Philip's comment about chess -- so true -- (hint:) Let the producer win once in a while. ; )

~tt

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These posts have left me breathless.

 

First, one must aspire.

 

It's your last, Tom, provoked me to write.

 

Early on, I frequently had no great boom operator. I called the best and they said, "No," to my low-budget offers and...

 

I got what I thought to be really great sound anyway. Not without a lot of trouble, many plant mics, and more wires than I'd prefer. Sometimes I had on the team what amounted to a human C-stand and made that work. Still found pleasure in it, too.

 

There's that.

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These posts have left me breathless.

 

First, one must aspire.

 

It's your last, Tom, provoked me to write.

 

Early on, I frequently had no great boom operator. I called the best and they said, "No," to my low-budget offers and...

 

I got what I thought to be really great sound anyway. Not without a lot of trouble, many plant mics, and more wires than I'd prefer. Sometimes I had on the team what amounted to a human C-stand and made that work. Still found pleasure in it, too.

 

There's that.

 

 

Jan,

 

You're absolutely right -- and I should modify my post to include the possibility that even when something eludes a person, tenacity can prove victorious.  Yes, strength in the face of adversity (and human c-stands) is certainly a necessary trait for greatness.  You, Jan, obviously have that greatness -- watching even one episode of Nurse Jackie is telling... though I know you're not short on crediting your crew as well.

 

I'll have to keep this angle in mind -- I admit the last couple of jobs I've done have been under "less-than-desireable" circumstances when it comes to my crew.  It's interesting though -- I found myself simplifying -- using fewer lavs and plants.  I realize this may not be an affordable luxury on a multi-cam TV series, but I get your point completely -- greatness speaks to one's ability to adapt, regardless of the circumstances.

 

~tt

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One more thought as of this morning, which Crew and Jay pointed out- Great according to who? The director? Fellow production sound mixers? The post team that directly deals with what you've recorded?

A production sound mixer might value a great mix track while a post sound supervisor might prefer many tracks for options and consistent levels. A director might favor a great attitude and a calm persona in tough situations.

Can a PSM please everyone? And by doing so does it become labeled greatness? Or as others have said, is the word great being thrown around too loosely?

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