LOS ANGELES, CA—Introducing one of the final panels at the recent AES Convention, Brian McCarty, chair of the AES technical committee for sound for digital cinema and television, commented that the largest group of working audio engineers in the world is doing sound for picture. “Superstars of Production Sound Recording” focused on two members of that group, Jim Tanenbaum and Mark Ulano.
Tanenbaum has been in the business nearly 50 years, Ulano for 40 years—together with advice on everything from building relationships with other filmmaking crafts to what hardware can best capture on-set and location audio. “I would describe it as laying the bed; we capture those original performances,” said Ulano of his work. “Our primary function is dealing with the talent in close quarters every day.”
Tanenbaum, whose lengthy credits include Avatar, Live from Baghdad (for which he won an Emmy) and From the Earth to the Moon, reported, “When I started, you actually had to wind up the recorder. The crank on the side wound up a spring motor that drove the tape.”
He quickly moved from the Nagra III to the Nagra IV recorder, he said, “which is what I did most of my recording with when it was on tape. I could mix three mics down to one—because you only had one track on this machine.”
He continued, “Eventually I got a sound cart—a Sears & Roebuck folding teacart. I had two Nagras, so now I could mix six mics down to one track. Eventually I got a four-channel mixer,” and four channels of RF microphones.
“DAT came out; it had a lot of shortcomings, but it had 90 dB of usable dynamic range instead of the 60 on the Nagra. I immediately took to it,” he said, pairing it with an eight-channel Cooper mixer.
Zaxcom’s Deva 5 replaced the DAT. “This was a hard drive recorder that burned DVD-RAMs to be turned in. The machine I’m currently using is the Deva Fusion 12. It records on CF cards,” he said.
The pace of technolog ical change is increasing: “The Nagra lasted 30 years, the DAT lasted 10, the hard drive machine five, the optical disc machine three. Now we’re recording on flash cards. I have no idea what we’ll be recording on next year.”
“I think our tools are beyond adequate to do the work,” said Ulano, who won Academy and CAS Awards for Titanic and worked on numerous Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez productions. “I think the work is less about the tools than about understanding. If the director doesn’t understand that he takes 10 days to put a porch scene of intimate quiet dialog at the core of his movie under the flight path of an airport, all the conversations that you’re having about the rest of that stuff becomes irrelevant, because you’re not in a reality-based conversation.”
“Ninety percent of good sound is the right mic in the right place, nine percent is controlling extraneous noises, one percent is me twiddling the sliders,” offered Tanenbaum. “I happen to like Sennheiser condenser mics, mainly because they don’t pop in high humidity like Schoeps do. I use the older Sennheisers, the 406 [cardioid].” He added, “Neumann makes really great mics.”
As for lavaliere mics, “The Countryman B6 is currently the smallest microphone; it’s not the best sounding. The Sanken COS-11D, which is more resistant to noise from digital stuff, is bigger and sounds better. I think DPAs have even got the edge on that,” said Tenenbaum.
“However, one of the things that experience teaches you is what you can get away with. If I’m recording dialog, I know it’s going to go through a dialog EQ, it’s going to get buried by the music and sound effects, so now the subtle differences between, say, the Sanken and the DPA may be completely covered up.”
“I’ve been on a lifelong journey, from Schoeps to Neumanns,” said Ulano. “I use Sanken shotguns heavily now, CS-3e’s. Have a broad palette available while you’re working so that you’re not trying to compromise. You want to play to the strengths of the microphone.”
Asked for advice for anyone starting in the craft, Ulano said, “Go to the mix. Learn what your stuff sounds like in the mix facility. Know how it survives through the chain of custody.”