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The Modern Sound of ‘Modern Family’

The audio team behind Modern Family was nominated for a primetime Emmy Award every year of the show’s 11-year run. In the wake of the series’ finale, they look back at their journey.

The sound team behind Modern Family
The sound team behind Modern Family was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award every year for the show’s entire 11-year run. Making that happen were (l-r): Peter Bawiec; Brian Harman; Dean Okrand; Steve Tibbo; and Srdjan Popovic. IRINA LOGRA

Los Angeles, CA (September 29, 2020)—Mockumentary family sitcom Modern Family took its final bow in April at the end of an 11-season run that saw the sound team behind the show nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for 11 straight years. “Right out of the gate, we tried to come up with a signature sound for the show, from the pilot on,” says re-recording mixer Brian Harman.

The show—which explored complex parenting issues with humor— was something new to television, says Harman, and took off like a rocket with critics and viewers. “It’s one of those shows you wish you could get on every year for your career,” he says.

“We hope the audience and voters appreciate that there is something to be said about the legacy of Modern Family’s sound,” says re-recording mixer Peter Bawiec, who worked on “Finale Part 1” and “Finale Part 2,” the latter nominated for this year’s Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy or Drama Series (Half-Hour) and Animation. “A lot of other genre shows reference the way this show is mixed. It has its own language that’s very distinctive.”

The show has always been mixed at Smart Post Sound’s Burbank facility on Hollywood Way, says Harman. “The first five years were done on a smaller stage, where the pilot was done. I want to say year six we moved over to the bigger stage where Dean [Okrand] and I were already working on Sons of Anarchy and other shows, so for the final five years, we were on Stage 4.”

On the mixing stage, says Bawiec, “We’re running the [Avid] D-Command as well as the [Avid] S6. In terms of speakers, it’s interesting because we start off mixing in 5.1 on JBLs, which is pretty standard for cinema. And then we do playbacks on nearfields because we want to make sure that it folds down nicely onto stereo. And the print master is done on a TV. So we’re going all the way down to make sure that it plays in your average living room scenario.”

CAS to Honor Sound Mixer William B. Kaplan

This being a weekly episodic show, turnaround is brisk. “We’re basically doing an episode in a day,” says Harman. “We start at 9 a.m. and go to playback at 2 or 3 p.m. and we print master by 5 or 6 p.m. Those are quick turnarounds, so we have to be efficient. It has to be predictable and controllable.”

What is not predictable is the show itself, says Bawiec, which can throw the team an occasional curveball. “Every episode is going to be different, and we don’t know what the episode is until we get on the stage to mix it and we play it down. The season finale was like that—there were so many different locations, including an ice rink. You’re trying to do so much in that one day; that’s the one limitation we deal with all the time. You’ve got to hit that 2 or 3 p.m. playback.”

Since dialogue is the focus, “it’s one of those shows where all of the writing, everything that’s said, all the jokes, have to land,” says Bawiec. “It’s one of the most important things, to make sure that people catch all of that. We can’t do that if the production sound doesn’t kick ass, and Steve Tibbo and Srdjan Popovic kick ass, delivering those production tracks, which are clean and crisp, so we can, in turn, mix that into the show.”

Sound effects, Foley and ADR for each episode are completed over the course of a few days, but it turns out that little ADR is done post-shoot for the principal characters. “A lot of ADR is done by Tibbo on set in the same room. If they need to grab someone, they do it between takes and shoot ADR on set,” says Harman. “Steve Tibbo is one amazing production mixer.”

Bawiec adds, “Because we’re mixing as they’re shooting other episodes, there’s not much work to match the ADR we get, because it’s recorded on the sets where the scenes take place. You basically can’t tell when we have ADR—because we can’t tell either.”

Shooting ADR on set is efficient, too, since the actors have no need to drive across town to the studio to pick up their lines. “Of course, when COVID-19 hit at the tail end of the show, things got slightly different because they weren’t shooting anymore. We had a bit of iPhone material instead of regular ADR,” notes Bawiec.

Recently Bawiec also had to record ADR remotely on a movie that he’s mixing. “Fifteen hours of ADR over iPhones is the new reality. You have to make that quality work.”

“I think everybody is surprised by how bad Apple AirPods sound!” laughs Harman.

“We’re used to FaceTime sounding decent, but it turns out the Air- Pods microphones are pretty bad,” Bawiec agrees.

Loop group—walla—for Modern Family is a different matter. Since it involves six to eight actors, it became a little more complicated with the arrival of the coronavirus. “We had them split between multiple rooms,” says Bawiec. “With new technology like RedNet and Dante, you can run three or four rooms at the same time without any issues, and have multiple people see the same picture and hear each other over the cans.”

As Bawiec discovered on a subsequent project, “You don’t even need a RedNet box because you can have Dante Virtual Soundcard, which turns any laptop into a Dante device. That is just a mind-blowing thing. We did a VPN-based Dante and had two facilities running simultaneously. Those are tricky things, but like everyone in the industry, we’ve managed to overcome most of those issues.”

COVID-19 has also affected who can now be on the stage during a dub, Bawiec says. “The new reality for everyone is either we mix on big stages, where everyone is socially distant and it’s a very limited crew, like a producer and a director, or else it’s entirely remote. A lot of the TV shows that we’re going to be doing this fall are going to be entirely remote. It will be just the two of us with maybe the supervisor on the mix stage, and everyone watching at home on their home cinema setups.”

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