'Learn to use the basic tools of audio' Emmy-winning mixer Preston Edmondson on TV, music and awards

Preston Edmondson is an Emmy-winning audio post mixer who has worked on hit shows Grey's Anatomy, American Idol and America's Most Wanted.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

11th December 2017
/ By Andrew Wooding

Re-recording mixer Preston Edmondson PRESTONEDMONDSON

Preston – from Scotland, UK – won his Emmy for live mixing the 81st Academy Awards and has worked on hundreds of music titles for clients including YepRock and Capitol Records.

Here he talks to Mandy News about his audio post set-up, his favourite parts of the job and bagging that Emmy.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from and when you decided you wanted to go into sound in particular.
I was born in Paisley, Scotland. My family moved to America when I was eight years old and I’ve lived here ever since. I got into sound when I was about 18 and started recording bands on cassette recorders.

I’ve been doing it ever since then. I got into post production when I was 23 or 24, and I’ve been doing television things since then.

How did you get into audio post? Did you study it?
Not really. I bought my first Pro Tools system in 1993, a version 3 Pro Tools. My hope back then was to do music projects, so I started off by doing CD mastering for some local studios in the Washington DC area. I was referred to somebody who worked at a company who produced training videos and that sort of thing.

They had something like 150 training videos for which they needed the audio levelled out. It was synchronised with video. They were desperate to find somebody who knew how to do that so I said yes even though I didn’t really know how to do it. I thought that was the only was to get into anything, to just say yes. So I hired a Beta SP machine— at the time, they cost about $30,000 (£22.5k) – I taught myself how to synchronise that with protos and did the job.

They continued to hire me for another couple of years and also told me about a job in the city where they were looking for a TV mixer. Again, I said yes, not really knowing how to do it.

That was in 1997, when I really started doing proper TV mixing. That led to one job and another, and ultimately led me to the Discovery Channel, where I spent eight years, until I finally decided I wanted to come to LA.

For those who aren’t in the know, what is an audio post mixer and what does it involve? What are the tiers above or under you?
I always struggle with trying to explain it in an interesting way. I usually just say, “If I do my job properly, you won’t notice.” That’s how I put it. If you’ve ever watched a YouTube video that somebody shot on their phone, that’s an example of something that wasn’t mixed. You can’t hear certain bits of dialogue and other things.

My job is to make it so that you can hear everything, especially the dialogue. If you’ve ever watched a program where you’re leaning your ear in towards the TV set trying to work out what they’re saying, that’s an example of something that I try to avoid.

We can’t go through your entire career because it’s so vast and interesting, but tell us a little bit about the most exciting and different ones? One notable one is the Academy Awards, which you live mixed and won an Emmy for…
Yes, that was rather accidental. Just after I moved to LA, I was looking for freelance work. I was hired on a team to do sound packages, or something that they call roll-ins, which are the bits of tape that they roll in during the Oscar awards, clips of different films for nominations with sound effects and all that.

I was hired on that, and I think I only worked on that project for a week and a half or something like that.

A few months later, I was walking to a coffee shop, had completely forgotten about the job and I got a text from a pal who said, “Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.” I texted him back: “Piss off.” He said he was dead serious, that I had been nominated for an Emmy. So I got to the coffee shop and googled it, and sure enough, we’d been nominated for an Emmy.

That was one of the strangest things to have ever happened in my career.

Did that change much for you in terms of work?
For the first several years I sort of felt it worked against me. It was a weird time. It was around 2010 and the economy was just terrible. The real estate bubble had popped and all of the post houses were letting people go. I had only moved to LA a year and a half before that, so I was having a terrible time trying to find work. The only work that I was finding was dialogue editing and stuff like that. Things which were somewhat beneath my job description, technically.

So I’d apply for these jobs and they would say, “Why would somebody with an Emmy want to do dialogue editing?” I heard that quite a lot for two or three years. I did think that maybe I should just hide that fact.

More recently, things have turned around. Now it probably looks good on my CV. For a couple of years I was feeling regretful. I was worried I was never going to get a job.

Wow! Tell us a little bit about the differences you find between doing documentaries and doing something like re-recording for Grey’s Anatomy.
The challenges with documentaries are quite different. I started doing documentaries in the late 1990s, when it was still what you’d call the old-fashioned definition of a documentary. It was rather more stale: “Here you see the Swallow.” Long pause. “Now the Swallow is in heat and trying to find a mate,” and so on.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the demand in television was changing, so it sort of transformed itself into what we now call reality television, blurring the line of what it is documentary and what is reality TV.

I suppose it’s because the thing I like doing the most, the thing that resonates with me the most, is the polishing and the clean up. Taking a rather poorly recorded noisy recording and trying to clean it up and getting it to sound better. There’s a lot of that in reality TV and documentaries.

Also, in documentaries, something you see quite a lot is an interview that was recorded from five different sources, which you have to put together. The challenge in that is making it sound like one interview, matching clips and stuff like that.

I really enjoy EQ. I think it’s probably my favourite aspect of it.

What kind of advice could you give to somebody looking to one day do what you’re doing? What are the realities of doing that as a job?
The first thing I would say right now is learn how to use the basic tools of audio. You have to understand EQ and compression. A good audio mixer could do the job with only those two tools; a decent equaliser and a decent compressor. Learn how to do those on your own.

Every year, there is a new release of plug-ins which do all those things for you, but I would say never rely on those. I personally never use them and I don’t really hold it against anybody who does use them, but I would say you should only use those if you already know how to do it.

I would never rely on some automatic make-it-sound-better plug-ins. You really have to learn how to listen. It’s all about your ears and not relying on machines to do it for you. There’s one plug-in that a friend of mine recommended to me a month ago that is supposed to automatically level your dialogue. I played around with it for a little while and it was just terrible compared to how it would sound if a person did it, so I quickly abandoned it.

A robot isn’t an artist.
Exactly. I would just say to anybody coming up now, just learn the old fashioned tools, learn signal flow and how to use an equaliser really well. Really learn EQ and compression.

Tell us a bit about what you’ve got coming up. You’re working on this Hollyweed show with Kevin Smith at the moment?
I think he’s trying to get sponsorship for that and I don’t know where he is right now, but it’s a really funny show.

I’ve got a couple of documentaries planned and finishing a show for National Geographic. I really like the way National Geographic takes a rather scientific concept and makes it interesting for the masses. I rather like the way they do that, it’s a pretty fun show.

I’m finishing a record for a band that I also play with and I’m mixing that with a different platform. It’s a new audio platform I’ve been using that is a sort of emulation of an analog console. It’s like Pro Tools but instead of a perfect clean signal path, it’s kind of analog. It’s hard to describe, but it sounds infinitely smoother to me than Pro Tools. I’m pretty excited to start working in that platform.

I think that’s where I’m going to be working from now, for my music projects. It sounds so vastly superior for music projects. I’ll probably always use Pro Tools for television work, but for music stuff there’s some pretty exciting things happening with these DAW platforms. These smaller companies are building alternatives to Pro Tools which are more focused on sound quality. It’s quite exciting.

What are the differences between working on music and for TV/film, in terms of the turnaround time of the project as well as craft?
With music projects, I guess the fundamental difference is that the clients don’t have money. In post, you get three or four days to do something and you get paid, then you move on. With music, you tend to be sort of married to the project until it’s done and you find yourself making all sorts of concessions and exceptions to normal business work flow to get the project done. That can also be quite a lot more work.

But for me, the music side of it is where I really learn new concepts. I can really push myself to do better and better.

In post, especially with reality TV, it’s very much “that’s good enough, time to move on.” With music, you can spend four days on the guitar solo, if you like, and really try to do the best you can with it.

In music, all these tools are so easily accessible nowadays. Anybody with an iPad can slap together a drum beat and bass on top of it and build a tune, almost like with Lego blocks. What people are forgetting is that music is all about tone; finding a snare drum that is really unique and different and expresses the feeling of that one tune, finding a bass sound, is really interesting.

Going back to what I would say to somebody getting into the business, I would say that at the end of the day, it’s still all about tone. That’s the joy in music, it’s really trying to craft something different every time.