Crew Talk: Sound Mixer

Sound Mixer - Zack Allen

By Blake Barnett

| Interview, Video Tips


Crew Talk Interview with a Sound Mixer – Zack Allen

Justin (Host): Hey, I’m Justin McAleece back again with Crew Talk. That’s what I’m calling it this time and it’s my good buddy Zack Allen, world renowned sound mixer. And yeah, does photography as well but today we’re going to be talking about sound. What’s your role on set, what do they call it?

Zack: I kind of prefer the title of the sound mixer.

Justin (Host): Okay, why is it important to have good sound on a production?

Zack: Actually, it’s not important at all.

Justin (Host): Oh it’s not?

Zack: No, you can make a sound.

Justin (Host): Well, then I’ll just interview someone else.

Zack: You could or I could just say nothing.

Justin (Host): Okay.

Zack: And that’s the point.

Justin (Host): That’s a good point. If we didn’t hear you right now, it would be pretty obvious why sound is important. 70%-

Zack: I like to say it’s 51%-

Justin (Host): 51%.

Zack: Make it at radio show if the picture sucks, it’s half the battle. If you have people complaining about it sounds awful, then your film’s ruined.

Justin (Host): Totally.

Zack: I don’t think it’s as a subjective of an art, as it is with picture, because it’s got too many technical issues that when something goes wrong, it makes people hurt.

Justin (Host): No one’s ever heard bad sound and then like, “Oh, that was just a choice.”

Zack: Mm-hmm, yeah.

Justin (Host): They can see an image is really dark or really brighter sort of out of focus or old lenses or just have like any of these other sort of aberrations and that was intentional. Has anyone ever said that?

Zack: Or maybe it wasn’t, but there’s a, “Yeah…”

Justin (Host): But they believe it, right?

Zack: Yeah.

Justin (Host): Sound doesn’t work that way.

Zack: No.

Crew Talk: Sound Mixer - On Location Audio Recording

Justin (Host): Like if it’s echoey or scratchy, or you can’t hear the actors like, “It’s bad.”

Zack: It’s easy for a viewer to interpret it being an issue or not. Obviously, there’s instances where it was purposely done to make it sound abnormal, but it matches or it fits or it works well with the scene and that would be what sound designers do. For example, almost everybody has been at a theater watching a movie they are excited about and something in the theater goes wrong, that is like, “click”, all of a sudden on a speaker, or there’s a “squeak”, some weird noise-

Justin (Host): Totally.

Zack: … in the theater, people playing with the wrappers you know, those little noise like that they realize that’s not what the movie was supposed to do and there’s a problem-

Justin (Host): Totally.

Zack: … and it instantly, it hits them as this is not right. And it takes another moment, takes another story, and they lose focus. So that is the product of why sound needs to be good.

Justin (Host): Totally, and from that level of cinema in the theater all the way down to a small production for talking head videos, what can you bring? What can an experienced sound mixer bring to the table that is a little bit different than just some dude showing up?

Zack: Beyond the gear and the experience of how to manipulate things and get to work the right way, it also does justice to have a good personality. You got to get along with people or know how to when you don’t want to. Kind of deal with… It’s got to be a people person because you’re up in people’s face especially after mic’ing a lot of people up. There’s always going to be someone that you might not get along with outside of set but you learn to be a professional. You learn to be courteous and meld with good with crew as well because you had to pull a lot of fears from G&E (grip and electric if we haven’t discussed it.) Camera Ops, the DPs, producers, talent, hair and makeup, all these people as a sound mixer you have to interact with because you’re going to need something from them at some point.

Justin (Host): So it’s a team effort?

Zack: Of course.

Justin (Host): I mean, you guys are all building towards the same thing but you’re all interacting in a way that you’re helping them and they’re helping you and you guys are helping someone else?

Zack: Yeah, and if you can’t be… So this is why I put this as the top of the list of what you need as professional. Anything, not just sound mixer. Is better get along because if you can’t achieve those things, you’re not going to be doing a good job.

Justin (Host): Sure.

Zack: And then, once you’re able to deal with that, or be good at being a crew member, then you get your technical aspects of your art. Like as far as sound goes, it’s a lot more technical than it is artistic.

Justin (Host): Sure.

Zack: You can be a little artistic in the way you do your technical job. You mastered that as you… Hopefully, you have it mastered for a while before you show up. But-

Justin (Host): But you get better over time. I mean, your first week you were doing… I would hope you weren’t as good as you are now.

Zack: I hope not.

Justin (Host): Yeah.

Zack: Yeah. But didn’t change at all, there’s something wrong.

Justin (Host): It’s important that you make it look easy. And I think someone who has as much experience as you do, you’re on set and it’s simple to look from the outside and be like, “Why did we even hire that guy? He didn’t even do much today.”

Zack: … that kind of goes of what I was going to say. My philosophy is to be transparent, as if I was never there. Like a ghost all of a sudden they have a product with a really good sound. How did that happen? Well, I don’t know. I never even saw the sound guy. But he did his job perfectly. That to me is like the perfect lap.

Justin (Host): The perfect outcome, exactly.

Zack: You do your job without having to be in anybody’s way. Without affecting anybody, especially when you have to deal with talent. Like if you’re on a-

Justin (Host): These are-

Zack: … high priority like-

Justin (Host): … you get something.

Zack: Yeah, and someone could be hard to work with or very temperamental, very touching. You got to get up and then rip their clothes and all the stuff and get all personally in their face all the time-

Justin (Host): Totally.

Zack: … and-

Justin (Host): It’s sort of intimate. I mean, you’re on their bra strap or you’re on their ankle or you’re putting something right up-

Zack: … literally down their pants.

Justin (Host): … yeah, down the pants. And you have a lot of tricks for that, that-

Siri: I don’t understand, I mean your bra strap or your [crosstalk 00:27:05]-

Justin (Host): … she knows.

Siri: … or something right up.

Zack: But she doesn’t understand.

Justin (Host): So the interesting thing about that is that you’re working very closely with people and you have a different role than other people would. And I think what happens sometimes with what’s hard is say I’m directing or whatever, I don’t really want to go over there and put a mic, like a strap around their leg and do this whole thing. Like, I kind of want to have someone else do that so that I can maintain my same relationship with that person as I’m asking them questions.

Zack: And focus on what you need to focus on.

Justin (Host): Totally.

Zack: Everybody’s got their thing they want to focus on, their job and stay tunnel vision to it in a sense, but yeah. So as the actor, let’s say you’re doing a feature and they’re in their trailer or something and you had to get in there and get him mic’ed up for the scene, you don’t want to break their concentrations, they’re probably a lot… Many times they’re in there in character already. And you got to figure out how to interact with them not being in character, with them being in character. And if you don’t have patience as a person, of your own, if you don’t have patience and willing to just… Whatever they say to you take with a grain of salt kind of thing. Because sometimes it’ll happen.

Justin (Host): Do they vent to you sometimes?

Zack: Oh, yeah. I’ve had people vent… Or you could read their body language. Was that in the script or, like… But you got to take like a grain of salt, get the job done, and get out, get back to what you’re good at, and do the mix.

Justin (Host): Yeah, that’s the important thing about being a team member on a set I think is allowing everyone the time to do their jobs. And I think a lot of times, what I’ve noticed is with sort of new people, they want to make sure that they’re doing everything and so they end up getting in other people’s ways. And I think some of you bring really good to the table is you get in, you get out, you’re a ninja, things are taken care of and like you said, you’re transparent. It just happens and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool. Sounds great.”

Zack: Nobody will remember who it was.

Justin (Host): Yeah, I know a-

Zack: Not too transparent but just get your credit in there at least.

Justin (Host): That’s good. What do you like about the teamwork aspect of all that? Like what’s a good team to you?

Zack: Well, I’ve always been a multiplayer type guy. Yeah, I like… This is why I like doing features more I think is not just because it’s a longer job that you’re able to meld with crew and talent, everybody and understand the picture more through its entirety and as a script, but it’s the interaction with multiple departments that you get to and it’s kind of fun after a while, it’s like you mess around with the guys on set in between the setups, joking and each other in a way, it makes it fun. It’s a little different than setting up for an interview for a 12 hour day and you’re sitting there doing like a, four hour interviews at a time for some detective show.

Justin (Host): Sure.

Zack: It’s a different… It’s just a different job.

Justin (Host): And it gets grueling, and that comes down to your level of professionalism as well. If you hire someone, I think, if you don’t have a sound person, you just have someone there monitoring and they’re on the phone and they’re not paying attention to it or they don’t know what to listen to. It’s like personal story, like my girlfriend knows when the cat makes certain sounds, that to solve a problem, like immediately and it’s stuff I don’t even notice and like you have a new baby, a new kid. You notice the sounds you didn’t notice before. A good sound person notices things immediately that someone who’s not, doesn’t have that experience they just be like, “Oh, yeah, we’re fine. Yeah, we’re fine, yeah, we’re fine.” And you’re like, “No, that’s the problem. That’s the thing I need to fix.”

Zack: Yeah. It’s kind of a catch 22 because as a sound mixer when you develop these skills, you start realizing you’re not paying attention to content, and go a whole day or two. And at the end you be like, “Who the hell does this interview? What were they talking about?” I have no idea what they were talking about. But as soon as I-

Justin (Host): Yeah, you’re Neo, ones and zeros.

Zack: … right, but as soon as a mouse farted in the room, you’re like, “Hold on, we got to… Hold on, there’s something wrong here.”

Justin (Host): Yeah, right.

Zack: It’s just you’re listening to different things-

Justin (Host): And that’s your job.

Zack: … yeah. You’re hearing but you’re not listening. Or you’re listening or you’re not hearing.

Justin (Host): Whatever it happens to be. There’s a difference there. Right?

Zack: Mm-hmm.

Justin (Host): That’s very interesting. Yeah, I never-

Zack: You just focused on different things is…

Justin (Host): Totally. And that’s a trained ear. That’s the thing you develop over time that really helps you to identify that stuff immediately. And I think what’s great about someone like you and what you bring to the set specifically is you’re solving problems before they happen. I think that’s super important.

Zack: Yeah, that’s part of the transparency part. Especially when you’re in a location, and you are not in a controlled environment, there’s a lot of things that can go wacky on you, and some things you don’t even realize even when you’re trying to pay attention until you’re in the middle of shooting, that you start realizing, like ticking clocks in a room or something or a fridge you forgot. Something about the coffee maker on, someone’s flushing the toilet in the house nearby, dog barks and the classic leaf blower, table saw in the middle of nowhere kind of thing. All these little things are always happening all the time and you have to remember to check these things before they’re gone. Even when you do check them, still they get missed sometimes. And that’s just the job.

Justin (Host): Well, and people put a lot of trust into you to say they’re like, “We hear that, how bad is it going to be on the track?”

Zack: Yeah.

Justin (Host): And you’re like, “It’ll be fixed in this or are you putting music on it?”

Zack: Yeah.

Justin (Host): How is this thing going to be displayed? Like, what are people going to be hearing? Is this just the person talking then yeah, maybe we got a problem but-

Zack: As the department head if you’re doing a feature like a production sound mixer or sound mixer in general, that is something that you should be aware of, or you should have asked a question or should have been told that ahead of time is, what’s the final outcome going to look like?

Justin (Host): Okay.

Zack: And that’s one thing I appreciate with when I started… I started in post sound, working features and stuff in LA before I came back here in Fresno before I started doing production sound. I got to see from finished product back to the start, which is I think the best way to do all these kind of things. Is know what your final product needs to be. And then you work back to figure out what the process is to achieve that goal. And so-

Justin (Host): You can tell when a director’s never edited.

Zack: Yeah.

Justin (Host): You know-

Zack: Or they don’t know how to shoot at it, type of thing. They’re just shooting to grab whatever they can which is those long days that you wonder “why am I still here?”

Justin (Host): … yeah, right.

Zack: But yeah, so starting with posts and I know what qualifies is doable, to the point where that threshold is where it’s like okay, this is not going to work. This is going to cause more problems than it would if we just stop and started over, so yeah.

Justin (Host): That’s good. They’re putting a lot of trust in you to be able to not only solve the problems before they happen but identify like this is not enough of a problem to actually stop us right now, we’ll be able to deal with it later. Or like no, we absolutely have to stop.

Zack: Or it is yeah.

Justin (Host): Yeah, that’s a fine line. Sometimes and also like-

Zack: And that goes into location scouts to.

Justin (Host): Totally.

Zack: Always have your sound guy follow you to location scouts if you want to do a scout site, please-

Justin (Host): Very important. Yeah, totally. So finish it up. What would you tell Zack 15, 20 years ago about your job-

Zack: Has it been-

Justin (Host): positive thing? So how would 10 years ago, whatever it’s been?

Zack: I think it’s been like 13 years. I would say you’re on the right track. Don’t get discouraged. It’s tough, but it’s worth it. You will enjoy it.

Justin (Host): Cool.

Zack: Yeah, there’s peaks and valleys.

Justin (Host): There you go.

Zack: And you will enjoy it.

Justin (Host): Yeah. And if there’s like a niche, right, I mean, it’s like you got to find stuff you like.

Zack: Oh, it was a, jeez right pass right through me. It was a niche thing. It was, you grip the grunt thing because no one wants to do it kind of thing. Well, going to the niche, how I started doing what I did is, I saw a niche in this immediate area. It seemed like sound was the grunt work. No one wanted to do it.

Justin (Host): Totally.

Zack: And assumed everybody hated it.

Justin (Host): Yeah. I don’t mind doing it, if I’m doing only that. If I have to be a DP and dude, I hate it. It can be the worst thing because it’s not the right, yeah, it’s tough, it’s a finicky. One thing goes wrong am like, “I don’t want to deal with that.” I’m worried about the light, I’m worried about the look, we need to go for the light. And that’s the worst for me personally, that’s the worst feeling when I have to do like one or two levels above my comfort level of sound. And that’s rough. So yeah, I mean, yeah, that’s that. You fill that niche even on a two man shoot, like that’s super vital.

Zack: I mean, news crews, like a bigger market still run with a sound guy without their DP, maybe not so much around here. I think they used to maybe every once in a while I get on a shoot with a local news, every once in a blue moon, and the DP is like, “Oh my God, the camera up.” And he’s like, “This is great. I’m so glad you’re here.” Because it’s like having ice cream for them and-

Justin (Host): Yeah, and it makes everyone on set happier that they’re like, well, that’s taken care of. Like I don’t need to worry about that part, which is really my favorite. I mean, just having that like your four man crew or four person crew for a specific thing like, no, we don’t have to do makeup. We don’t have to do sound. I get a grip on a DP or grip a gaffer on a DP or whatever, we’re solid. Yeah, it’s always cool to me. So, any parting thoughts?

Justin (Host): So we got Doug over here. Doug Morris has been drawing the whole time so there’s going to be something cool with you on it over there.

Zack: I’m curious to see.

Justin (Host): There’s a story behind every person on set and why they’re there and how useful they are and how specific their knowledge is. I mean, there’s… I’m sure you could fill a book with stuff, you know that I don’t even… I’m not aware of and I’ve studied sound a bunch. Yeah.

Zack: Yeah, I’m sure everybody can say that to their fellow colleague. I think it’s good to hear the other side of someone else’s crew experiences, especially if it’s one that you’ve worked with a lot. Because it’s a topic that isn’t really discussed. We show up, we know what we’re supposed to do, that guy and I could trust and he’ll do his thing. And I’ll see him at the end, “Hey, it’s wrapping. See you next time.” But you don’t really get together sometimes and talk about the act of that day, at times or would you go through with that predicament that happened-

Justin (Host): Everyone’s focused on their role and what they have to do and how hard their job is a lot of times-

Zack: … and never take for granted anybody else’s position that’s is for sure.

Justin (Host): Sure.

Zack: Like Alan was saying, the grunt work of production I was like, “Yeah, but you know what? The grunts get it done.”

Justin (Host): Yeah.

Zack: I’ve seen 12x’s almost fly away like a boat in a wind with 15 guys on it. And it’s like, even with sandbags, it’s like, those guys are working hard to make the shot stay good.

Justin (Host): And being safe for something that no one even notices and later, you’re just like, “What? The light wasn’t like that.” That’s the tough thing.

Zack: Yeah. And-

Justin (Host): The sound wasn’t perfect. I just assume people talk loud, and you hear them all the time and everything’s great all the time. And you’re like, dude, we had to fix so much stuff to make that work. Yeah. Good. Awesome. Good talking to you Zack.

Zack: Yeah, you too. Thanks for having me.

Justin (Host): Yeah, absolutely. So Zack Allen here and it’s great to talk to him about sound and being a sound mixer. We got Doug Morris over there, he is finishing up maybe, you actually signing your name Doug?

Doug Morris: Not yet.

Justin (Host): Okay, anyways finishing it up there on the picture and yeah, that’s it. Thank you.

Zack: “Sounds good.”

Justin (Host): Don’t. Don’t do that.

Zack: (laughs)


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