'The industry is smaller than you think' Grey's Anatomy re-recording mixer shares thoughts on sound
TV and feature film re-recording mixer Karol Urban has worked on four seasons of hit medical drama Grey's Anatomy, boasts a string of amazing TV and film credits as well as being Golden Reel-nominated for her work on Nicolas Cage movie USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.
Karol, tell us who you are and what you do?
I am a re-recording mixer. I started on the east coast in Washington, DC, mixing television, documentaries and indie films as a single mixer for a little over a decade. Seven years ago I moved to Los Angeles, where I mix mostly two-person mixes specialising in dialogue and music.
What does re-recording and dialogue editing entail?
The process of dialogue editorial begins once picture editorial has delivered their first cut. An assembly is created where all the available production tracks from the sound rolls are conformed against the picture cut as delivered via AAF. This allows a dialogue editor to weed through every mic and find the very best choices for every syllable. Even alternative takes are found within the dailies to find other instances of words or phases he/she may use to patch and help cover unwanted noises or performance flubs.
It involves a great deal of focus and creative problem solving to find the right piece of noise floor with a touch of movement but low noise to occupy the space under ADR or to create the perfect cross between the mic covered in generator noise to the mic picking up birds from outside a window. It also involves hours of detailed listening to a large amount of material and is an incredibly crucial stage of the sound editorial process that is paramount to the success of the final mix.
Re-recording mixing is a process of taking all the final elements as delivered by sound editorial and combining it into the final soundscape, this includes production dialogue, ADR, group, foley, ambiences, hard effects, abstract sound design, and music. This is not only a technical process e.g. matching ADR to production quality, cleaning out broadband noise, whines, hums, dropouts, ticks, hisses, but it is also the creative and highly subjective process of mixing elements against each other.
It requires combining elements in a manner where they balance and seem natural to the world of the project while heightening the effect of the narrative. In many ways a sound mix is considered to be done well when it is not detected as a source of its effect but yet is still unmistakably felt by the audience.
How did you get your first job and your subsequent ones?
I am not sure what my first audio job was. I went to an audition-based public arts high school called The Governor’s Magnet School for the Arts in Norfolk, VA. It was kind of like my local “Fame” school with kids in all kinds of performing arts-focused programs. I started working as a stagehand assisting with sound as well as for local productions while studying and recording my own compositions in a recording studio. Many of those gigs were paid from time to time. That could be considered the beginning.
My grandfather taught me to find the thing that your inner animal wants to do, then find a way to make money doing it. While I cannot say that I don’t worry about monetary success or working on a big recognisable project, I truthfully try not to let those aspects lead my way. I could always see what I wanted and I could always see myself doing it successfully. I knew I needed to work for it and be open to all there is to learn along the way. But I never give up and I know I will find my way to my end goal.
I just find opportunities wherever I can. I unabashedly go for them and I try to make myself indispensable. I work really hard. I may not always be the smartest or the most talented, but I have never been second place for hustle or dedication. I try to study and seek out new tools and techniques whenever possible. I listen to the generation that came before me and those coming up behind me. I listen to my clients and picture editors. I listen to the world. I do a lot of listening.
I try to honour the vision of the creatives on my projects, and I try to offer value to others in my community through industry volunteer work and educational programs. My mother used to say that “one cannot receive while holding a fist.” Meaning you must be generous to the universe for the universe to offer you generosity. I try to pay the gift of working as a mixer forward. Being chosen to paint the sonic narrative for a filmmaker or producer is an honour. And having your work widely available for people to experience is a gift.
I aim to improve myself with each opportunity and to show gratitude and loyalty to the clients, co-workers and mentors. The rest tends to work itself out and more opportunities continue to appear. It is a constant hustle. You are never really completely off work, but my work is my passion so I don’t mind at all. My best days are a good dub day with happy clients. Nothing makes me happier or prouder.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
There are really two things that challenge me equally: making everyone happy on stage (there are often differences of artistic opinion among the clients themselves) and making myself happy (I often am met with an ADR performance or production quality that challenges my personal level of excellence while meeting budgetary and time restrictions).
What was one of the most difficult scenarios you ended up in that you overcame?
I once had an episode of television where we were almost 100% in open space (not on a set) switching between a beach and an open field simulating a war zone and the production was quite noisy. The show runner’s artistic vision was to create a very intimate bubble around the characters so that their dialogue was surrealistically dominant over exterior sounds such as ocean waves, helicopter takeoffs and traffic. This approach creatively lets the world kind of buzz around the characters denoting time and space but makes their problems seem more poignant and almost separate from the action surrounding them. It served to make us feel a bit more in the head of the emotional turmoil or joy the characters were experiencing versus in the world they were experiencing there emotions. It is a very effective sound convention.
However, as much of this unwanted noise element resided in the production audio, this was a challenge for myself and my SFX re-recording mixer to develop and balance similar ambiences while adding verb that helped to smooth and flatten the natural unwanted characteristics of the noise in production that I could not remove. I employed everything I could in the way of noise reduction in a non-uniform way in order to eliminate and/or cloak any identifiable aliasing. The production was very dirty.
It is also important to note that the majority of this show played without music so atmospheric characteristics in the production had the innate danger of becoming forefront to the viewer's experience.
What has been your most satisfying job so far and the most satisfying part of your job?
Honestly, every job from the smallest indie short to a national film release or hit TV series can be pretty epically satisfying. I work for the moment that the director, producer, show creator, writer, etc. feels that the vision they imagined has not only been birthed into reality but moved from a spark into a rich flame. When you see the look of realisation in the eyes of your clients upon review and you feel the reality of our mix has exceeded the concept, everything else about the gig (hours, time crunches, difficult production, late music, whatever) become insignificant. To me, that is success.
And a few times in my life I have overheard someone at the gym or at a cocktail party talking to someone and using a moment from a TV show or film I have mixed to illustrate or relate a feeling. That is really cool. That is super rewarding because I can hear – as a fly on the wall – how something I poured my heart into made them feel and how it effected them. It stayed with them. That is a definite feeling of success.
What’s your mixing setup? What kit do you use?
I have mixed on a number of stages and continue to jump around town to fit my client’s needs. So it does change. But I currently mix frequently on a dub stage that uses satellite technology to sync 5 ProTools systems together, one each for DX/MX, SFX/BG/Foley, Music editorial, picture, and stem recorder systems.
Most often my mix console is an Avid ICON but I have also mixed on an S6, a Neve, SSL, etc. The more stages I explore the more I have found that the setup/equipment is often less important than the story that compels you and the creative energy between yourself, your team, and your director/producer.
Unless you are dealing with a particular noise profile that lends itself to a particular technology as a solution… most decent sounding sound stages with various types of setups can render a fantastic product.
For those starting out, what are the most important things to know about a.) the industry and b.) the skills you need for your job?
Just because you think you know how to do something does not mean you know how to do something. You simply can’t know what you don’t know.
Unfortunately there is no real studio system apprenticeship or clear path to the mixing chair today. You have to find mentors, find master classes, sit in on sessions, find opportunities to learn, find projects to grow on and be willing to watch and stay engaged in a lot of what may seem repetitive on the surface but really is not.
Knowing the signal flow or the use of the plugins or the buttons on a board does not teach you how to deal with two conflicting creative directions on the dub stage, or with explaining a technical limitation based on sound quality. It does not show you how to deal with a stressed client, or how to manipulate the sound at hand from sad to happy or to nail the perfect comic timing for a joke to really sell. All those things that make you more than just proficient are learned through observation and experience.
And you can never know it all. Sound changes. It has technology, trends, conventions, capabilities, and fads that are all moving targets. You must always remain a student.
Finally, know this: the industry is smaller than you think. Always respect and give the benefit of the doubt to your editors, production mixers, support staff, scheduling… everyone. A film or TV show is like a child in that "it takes a village". Be grateful to the efforts made around you and gracious in the face of small human errors. We all make them.
A re-recording mixer is the end of the line for your sound department, you want everyone who leaves your room to feel validated, satisfied, and honoured. You want the client to love what you are doing to help them achieve their goals and you want the people who work with you on your team to feel that way too. Be part of a team and always be looking to meet new people in the community. They may be your next team or teacher.
What exciting or annoying changes have you seen with technology over the years?
I went to school when ProTools was still a toy to the industry. It operated on NUBUS and did not yet have the ability to make a stereo track. So, when I first started working in the real world, I had to quickly learn the AMS Neve Logic 3, the SSL Scenario, and then later various flavours of ProTools and their controllers as well as Logic on a Euphonix System MC5.
It is necessary to have professional tools and more and more I see some really clever products such as ADR matching tools, time matching tools for ADR sync, random particle verbs for immersive ambiences, auto-adjusting broadband noise reduction, etc. But I also realise the more I work that the best and most essential tools are your ears and your heart. If you mix with these two things always fully engaged you will always have a decent chance of making something great.Tags: