GUEST CONTRIBUTION BY DALE CROWLEY
A few days after this interview with Steve Tibbo, he was nominated for the 6th time for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Mixing for his work on ABC’s “Modern Family”, where he has been the production sound mixer on every episode other than the pilot. The episode that was nominated is called “Connection Lost“. We discuss this episode in detail and talk about this complex undertaking as well as many other topics ranging from his work on Modern Family to the gear he uses to record on set and on location, and we also delve into his work in re-recording mixing, ADR, and sound design for film and TV. This month’s theme is “Favorites” and “Modern Family” is my favorite TV Comedy and sound is my favorite subject.
Check out the full audio interview here on soundcloud:
Here is a partial transcript of the above audio interview:
Dale Crowley (DC): Very rarely in this world do you meet someone who is incredibly successful and also extremely humble. Steve Tibbo is one such individual. When I first met Steve at the Sony Studios Lot last year during a surround sound conference, I was feeling a bit like a fish out of water. He said several encouraging things to me, then invited my wife and I to see him work on set at “Modern Family.” “Modern Family” has been my favorite TV Comedy since it first came out, and having the chance to see Steve, a two time Emmy and three time CAS award winner in his element was a the highlight of my year. Steve was a gracious host on set, he was very focused, and I learned so much watching him work, that I wanted to take this opportunity not only to let everyone else know what a genuinely great guy you are, but also to share some of your knowledge and experience with the Designing Sound community. Steve has been the production sound mixer for 144 episodes of Modern Family, has an IMDB list of credits stretching back to 1988 for TV and Film both as a sought after production sound mixer and as a re-recording mixer. He has just completed re-recording a new film, “Get the Girl” by director Eric England, and is about to start his 7th season at “Modern Family.”
DC: So Steve, tell me what a typical day on the set of Modern Family is like for you.
Steve Tibbo: Typical day is trying to stay ahead of the game. We usually have a 6:30 AM call and then we are shooting by 7:30 or 8 in the morning, so its really about getting ready and getting set up and being ready for anything they throw at me. Part of that is getting the script ahead of time breaking down in knowing what I’m up against early on. For instance, hoping to meet a ton of preparation was the “Connection Lost” episode earlier this season were using Claire on her laptop and she is interacting the entire family over FaceTime.
DC: That was shot entirely with an iPhone 6, right? However behind the scenes it was much more complicated than that from an audio perspective right?
ST: When I first read it, I thought, “Oh this will be easy, we’re going to have at worst two people talking and maybe we’ll have earwigs and somebody off camera talking to the people on camera.” Then I got thrown a curveball. When the producer and our AD Matt Heffernan said, “Steve (ed: Steve Levitan the Executive Producer) wants to try this as a big oner, so we need to be able to do the entire script in one swoop if we can pull that off.” Usually we spend 5 days doing an episode. So they were trying to do an entire episode on one stage on 4 sets in one day.
DC: How many actors were in the episode?
ST: We had 13 actors that day. I had to break it down by location, obviously Claire was by herself in front of a green screen, so I needed one boom operator there. She was going to need earwigs and a feed of everybody else. The next set was Phil, Alex and Haley in the Dunphy house, and they needed to hear Claire and everybody else, but not themselves…
DC: Because of lag right?
ST: Not only lag, because of feedback. When you have an earwig, especially with Phil, he tends to listen to things a bit loud, so when getting a boom over him you’d have feedback. We take that out of the equation and keep it as clean as possible. I needed two boom operators there at least. Everybody was wired on the Dunphy set, and we had some plants in there as well. If you watch the episode you see over Alex’s laptop, Phil on the couch with a ton of headroom and we are seeing him play video games on the TV. So I had to hide mics there to pull that off. When they are together, it became one, but it was a complicated on that set.
And then we went over to the Mitch, Cam and Lily set where it was Mitch’s birthday and they were spread apart a lot too, so I had two boom operators there.
Then we went over to the Jay, Gloria, and Manny set (the Pritchett household) and Luke was visiting and getting a haircut from Gloria. Again, we were in an area near this breakfast nook where there is a lot of stuff hanging over the center island so you end up having to split the island by having one boom on one side and another boom on the other. Then, there were a lot of people walking in so that was the other complication. In all, I had seven boom operators that day!
And then we had to have another person who was covering IFB earwigs. We had to have the 13 earwigs that were in their ears and we had to have several extra when a battery went out just to hand to the actor just to be able to keep on going.
So when I say we had to be prepared, when I started looking that script, I went like, wow, I had to go to the producers and say, “Hey look, beyond the three of us I need another 5 people to pull this off for you!”
I need all of this gear which ended up being 20 or so earwigs, I think. And coordinating all those frequencies to work together was challenging too, but Robert Anzalone over at Location Sound really helped me do that. They set things up and tested things…because we were shooting and I did not have time to go test everything in advance, so they helped me put that together. I had all my frequencies coordinated for my wireless, but for the IFB, there were four frequencies for the earwigs, and then also there was a fifth frequency for everybody else listening off camera – the director, producers, and the script supervisors. The other thing that came up is the script supervisor and the director needed to be able to talk to all the actors at any one time. So I had a little mute group for the director and script supervisor to be able to talk to the actors whenever they wanted to.
DC: That just sounds incredibly complex. And those kind of challenges are what keep you going, right?
ST: Its fascinating! Its fun! Its especially fun when you pull it off. You can’t pull this kind of episode off without the right crew. I’m fortunate to have great boom guys Srdjan “Serge” Popovic and William Munroe are currently my main boom operators. Prior to William I had Dan Lipe working with me for 9 years and Preston Connor. On this episode though we had additional help from Ken Strain, Peter Hansen, Corey Woods, Noel Espinosa, John Hays, Jon Hays, Brian Wittle, and Devendra Cleary helping. As a mixer you are only as good as the boom operators allow you to be. By the way, we didn’t end up finishing up all in one day. We had to come back another day to finish it, but we did the whole episode in two days.
DC: When I was there on set it with you, watching you in action, its amazing what you have to pay attention to in each scene with all those actors. Its almost like recording a Broadway play.
ST: That is exactly what it is like. People often think he’s just tracking everybody. I’m not. I actually mixing it and they use my mix, I’d say, 90% of the time. When they have trouble and maybe I missed a cue or there was an ad lib or something like that they want to use, or there was phasing… I’ll admit to it, sometimes it happens when you are surprised. Then the editors can go and pull up one of the iso tracks and get it clean. You know, our post production team, Penny Herold, Lisa Veretakis, Dean Okrand and Brian Harman do a great job, but they are under the gun and they don’t have a ton of time to post each one of these episodes.
DC: So what you record is pretty much what ends up on the episode?
ST: Most of the time. They do go through and cut and make me look better, make all of us look better.
DC: An analogy would be with the camera: the set and the lighting looks one way when you see it live, but afterwards of course post has enhanced it and done various things…plus the analogy of the lenses and what the lenses are doing – so your microphone choice has a huge impact on the sound quality.
ST: Absolutely! My approach when we were talking about mixing stuff, I tend to try and use the boom as much as humanly possible. I’ll split it up between multiple booms obviously, but that is my first choice. And if someone is coming in from deep in a room or a corner, I might have to take them off a wire. For the most part, the approach is you use the boom as much as possible and then sprinkle in the wires when you are mixing.
DC: So live what are you paying attention to from action to cut? You’ve got a lot of things going on in your mind, you’ve got a lot of things to pay attention to and be aware of. What is going through your mind when the director calls “Action!”?
ST: I try to stay ahead! When I watch a rehearsal, you will see me with my sides and I’m running down 1’s, 2’s and W’s. If we have extra boom operators, that is 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 or however many it is. So I’m basically drawing out a roadmap, and every character has their own color code as well, so I can keep up with the script. When we start mixing and the director calls “Action!”, I’m listening for those lines off of number 1, number 2, number 3…but I am trying to stay a couple of cues ahead so that I don’t get behind. If it becomes reactive, you’re not mixing well.
DC: Interesting, so you’ve read the script, you know what’s coming. Some of the actors speak louder than others. Gloria comes to mind. She will often have lines that require her to be louder than the others, so you have to be aware of that before it happens.
ST: I generally know she is going to be pretty loud. So you kind of know where your bringing your fader up with different people. I know who’s generally quiet and who’s not and who may throw ad libs in. Like, Phil comes to mind because he is always throwing stuff out there. And it’s hilarious, and he’s great at it, so you want to capture it. If it feels like he may about ready to speak…and I’m also looking at the video, because you can tell if somebody is about to speak by their facial expression is.
DC: Wow. I noticed that you were so focused on set. It was so intense.
ST: Well, you’re in the hot seat ’cause if you screw it up everybody knows! Then you have to go again. So you really do have to stay focused. I suppose I’m not putting to words some of the process I go through because it is unconscious…
DC: Muscle memory…
ST: Yeah, alot of it is. Getting the gain to the right position. Or level.
DC: Also there are line changes, when we were watching that Thanksgiving episode, they’ll put in a line change.
ST: Constantly! And hopefully the writers or the director the AD or my guy catch it, or I catch it when they call cut. Most of the time we get the line changes, but sometimes we don’t. That’s the whole reason for wiring everybody all the time. Because if they are interjecting something and I didn’t know about it, then its on an iso and we still got it!
DC: I noticed too, that if there are 10 takes of a particular scene then you are able to make adjustments after each take?
ST: Oh, we’re constantly making adjustments. If there’s phasing between two lines, or if they change their blocking and Phil is now closer to Claire and he should be under the number 1 boom mic then I’m making notes and scribbling to make it better every take.
DC: Besides voice, what other things are you responsible for recording?
ST: Ambience if we can get it, but that’s not always the case. We try to get wallas and so forth.
DC: Besides ambience and wallas, sometimes there’s reverb in the final mix. For example, there’s an episode where Jay’s in the shower with Stella (his dog), and you have to capture the reverb of the shower, or this season’s episode where Phil goes to the abandoned theater. Do you capture those live, or is that done in post?
ST: Well my job as the production recordist is to get the dialogue as clean as possible. I want it to be as dry as possible and if post wants to accentuate that they can. For example, the episode where Phil is in the old movie theater, unless the boom was right here on top of them, you had a ton of reverb. It was super super live. So what I found there is that it was best to use the lavs. I had an ambient mic up to capture reflections and ambience – so that I can hide my fades from the wires behind that. So when you bring the ambience down and lavs up for example, the world doesn’t change. It sounds the same. You are tricking the ear.
DC: Fantastic. Very interesting insight. What are the main components of your recording rig both on set and on location?
ST: They are always evolving. It’s funny because in this hiatus now, we are a little less than month from starting again, I have changed out my recorders. From the beginning I’ve been on a Diva 5, and doing a mix on one, and iso tracks on two through ten. And then backing up to a 788T, where I do a mix on one, and the rest of my isos out on the remaining tracks.
The mixer I use is the Yamaha 01V. That was the most flexible to do this show because I need that many inputs.
DC: It also has a nice form factor.
ST: It’s great! It fits in a rack, and I can pull it out and I can cascade two of the consoles together so I can bring in another 01V. You take the midi in and out and connect those, and then link the ADAT ins and outs so you can connect your left/right mix and your auxes. This way, it acts like a 48 channel recording rig. In terms of physical faders without changing layers you’ve got sixteen on one and sixteen on the other. So that’s been amazing.
Then I run three Lectrosonics Venues so I’ve got 18 wireless ready to go on the cart at all times. And those are sprinkled over different blocks from 19 through 26.
For my guys…they listen off of Lectrosonics IFB’s, and I have a private line so that I can talk to them during the take. For everybody else I have a Comtek BST 216 for producers, directors, and guests. Then there are directional antennas for all the receivers, and a big thing is the sound cart because you want to be able to move quickly and protect your equipment. Another integral part of it is having filtered DC power on the cart so you don’t have humms and buzzes going through all this gear.
DC: On location, how is the cart different?
ST: Most of the time I bring that main cart to many of the locations we do, but in the instance of doing car work, I have a mini-cart. That is comprised of a Deva Fusion 12 with a Mix 8, which is a small form control surface for it, which is basically faders and a gain adjustment. Then there is a ZFR-100 which is a small recorder from Zaxcom as well. And then six channels of a Venue field. That is in a kind of lunch box kind of thing – the top of that comes off and I can put it on the shelf of an insert vehicle and mix away. It’s quick, an easy fast thing to move around.
For example, in the “Dude Ranch” episode we were up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There were some locations that were really hard to get to. I prefer to mix off faders if I can at all help it, especially with this show because there are a lot of changes and knobs will not give you the same result as faders will, in my mind.
DC: It’s like playing an instrument…
ST: Absolutely! I can take that, walk it across a field and get to a location that I couldn’t. It really made a difference on the horseback riding scenes in that episode.
DC: Did you have to follow the horses, or were you stationary?
ST: What we ended up doing was going out into the middle of some field that was hard to get to. I couldn’t bring a regular cart, so I brought the little one. Part of it is like a handtruck dolly and then I hoof the lunchbox piece across the field and then we set up. Its easy for cameras since they throw it over their shoulder and walk to that spot. We just moved around with them as needed. But it was sandy and rough to get across with no easy way to get there. It was the same thing when we were up on the peak. It was a really rough ride into that place and we still had to hoof it across fields. Having something easy to move around but that gave me many channels of wireless and faders to work off of was necessary. Thank God they were wearing hats!
DC: So that brings us to the next question about microphones. Which are your favorite mics to use in the shotguns, the lavs, and so on?
ST: I’d say 99% of the show is recorded on the Blue Schoeps CMIT 5 U’s The Schoeps Shotgun. They sound amazing. On our show we don’t do a master and then go in for coverage. We setup two or three cameras and you go through that scene 10 times and the camera operators and boom operators really need to communicate with one another so that they know where the camera operators are wide and where they are going in to be tight. Part of that is my job and I will tell them, “I saw B camera going in tight there, A camera is really wide.” We can work that out so there is not such a disparity. We do the first two takes wide for both cameras, and then we can get in a bit more on take 3.
DC: Right and there are tall adults and short children in the same shots.
ST: Absolutely! Sometimes the kids are sitting down on a couch and a 6 foot tall actor pacing above them. That is another reason we have wires on them. I have to take the adult off the boom and the kid off the wireless. I then have to boost the kid’s mic to give it more presence with the wire.
DC: So you are about to start a new season of Modern Family, are there any changes to y our rig this year?
ST: Yes, I purchased two Sound Devices 970’s with Dante. I changed out the card on my Yamaha to be a Dante card and set up that network, and it is pretty cool so far. It is nice to have that many tracks on one recorder.
DC: Changing gears a bit, how did you get your start as a production sound mixer? What was it that interested you about sound and how did you get started?
ST: I was taking classes right out of high school at Mt. San Antonio College. It was a basic film and video production class. The instructor had been a production recordist. I befriended a girl in the class, Pat Toma, who asked me to boom for her on a USC student film. I thought it was fun, it was cool, and I loved being on set. I knew I wanted to work in film, I just didn’t know what capacity. Then I got my hands on the Nagra and I thought this was really cool. I like recording, so through that friendship with her, I started getting gigs she couldn’t do, and we both became production sound mixers.
I then started working on low budget horror films while playing hooky from college, where I was studying Anthropology.
Right before I graduated college, in ’90, I put $30K in sound equipment.
DC: So you took a risk?
ST: I said I’m gonna sink or swim here. Even on the lowest of low budget shows, they pay you for your gear. Even if it is a student film, they pay you for your gear. I felt like that was my grad school. It paid off, many many years later – 26 years later…I’ve been doing it a long time.
DC: Was there any particular film or show that was a big break for you?
ST: There were a lot of breaks. That first year I got a film that took me to Poland. It opened up my world and my world view. Each film leads to another and another and after doing a lot of low budget non-union productions, I got a break. I think the biggest break was getting “American Pie 2” because that introduced me to the studio system. But that’s not to say that films before that, even “Bats” which was a Union film in Utah, or the first series I did, “High Tide.” That was a big break for me too – television in San Diego. I had not done a television series before. It was an introduction to steady work. It was low budget television, so the rates were not the same as the studio union system. Doing High Tide helped me get good and very proactive and good at working fast under extreme circumstances – we were on the beach every day.
DC: So you had to battle the wind and the weather…
ST: Yeah, and you had to speak up and learn to have a voice as the production mixer on set, and say, “This is working,” or “This is not working,” and “This is what we need to do to fix it.” That is an important part of being a mixer. You can’t be afriad to speak up. You have to tell them like it is. You don’t want them to find out something is not usable in post production, or you won’t get the job!
DC: You are also an in-demand rerecording mixer for film, can you talk about the differences between production sound and post production sound?
ST: Its funny. It is a very different approach. I would consider production sound a more aggressive style of mixing than rerecording, because rerecording is about subtlety and bring the emotion out of a piece. Whereas production sound you are trying to get it – good clean sound – so the rerecording mixer can finesse it and really bring the emotion out.
DC: So rerecording mixing is a more creative process where you can put your mark on the film?
ST: Yes. And it does hold true in production sound too because your choice of mics ultimately affects some of the subtlety later on. Like a 416 and the Sennheiser 416 are a bit more forward and sharp sounding and reject more backround noise than say a Neumann or a Schoeps. Because they tend to pick up more and are more transparent with the backgrounds.
DC: Does your knowledge of mics and production mixing help with your rerecording mixing?
ST: Rerecording for sure, but where it really, really helps is ADR. Since I know how we do it in the field, I don’t set up a U87 and try to match it to a 416 or an MKH50 or something along those lines. I generally try to find out from the production mixer or through post when I’m doing ADR, “Who was your production mixer, and what did he use?” I know how to match it then. You can look at the shot and go, “Ok, there’s going to be 3 feet of headroom.” So I gotta keep the mic up there.
DC: I never thought about that!
ST: Absolutely, it is very important!
DC: Wow. You have worked in many different genres, comedy, horror, sci-fi, and dramas. What are the differences working with different genres as a production sound mixer and as a rerecording sound mixer?
ST: OK, let’s start with comedy, since I know that best because of my affiliation with “Modern Family.” If you listen to an episode, your dialog is forward, and that is the most important thing. If for a joke you may hear an effect, that is to make it funnier. For example, you may hear a chirp. We did an episode called “Chirp” where Phil was going crazy because he kept on hearing the smoke detector low battery sound. So you play that up for the joke. In terms of backgrounds, it is just enough to feel that your in a place but there is not very much in the surrounds. And each episode is pretty close to non-existent music except for the title sequence. You really don’t have anything to hide behind. Its loud and proud dialog, they want to hear the jokes, and that’s what is most important. Even foley to a large extent – you won’t hear that much is most comedy, because I think it subtracts.
DC: Even footsteps, you don’t hear them…
ST: Well…you hear Gloria and her heels.
ST: Now, horror. Design is important, music is really important, the big scares and clearing our space so it is really quiet before a scare. Contrasts. Maybe the jingling of the keys, maybe the footsteps play heavy and you will be playing with a lot of backgrounds. In both a design way and for ambient of a place. It could be a drone or what have you.
Same thing with Sci-fi. You hear everything in that to create that different metallic world.
DC: You just finished working on “Get the Girl,” a comedy by director Eric England who you also worked with on films like “Madison County”…
ST: Its a genre bender though.
DC: Oh it is?
ST: Its comedy, thriller and action too.
DC: Right – similar to Shane Black’s ( of the “Lethal Weapon” series) “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?”
ST: Absolutely, it is very much like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” in terms of tone. Which is fun, because I worked on that movie too.
DC: So all of those skills, from all the genres, came into play on that job?
ST: Yes, and knowing what Eric likes actually helps speed up our mixing process on that. We had some struggles with some of the dialog, so we did quite a bit of looping. We had some effects stuff going on and four different production sound mixers. A couple of them did a really great job, others had issues possibly because of location. We fixed it with a lot of ADR. Thank God I had foley when we did all the ADR because we really used that. It helps sell that it is production sound.
DC: We are getting close to the end of the interview now and I wanted to ask what advice you have to students who would like to become a production mixer or a rerecording mixer?
ST: The first thing is, don’t give up! It is going to be feast or famine. You’re going to work hard at times, and its gonna be great, but you’re going hit a slow spot here and there, and that is just part of it. So save, budget your time, and when it does slow down, enjoy yourself! Maybe that is the time to learn a new skill in another area of sound. Maybe it means post, or maybe it means going out and recording your own sound effects and ambiences and utilizing that time in a constructive way.
DC: There are a lot of independent sound libraries that are becoming very successful.
ST: Absolutely! I have purchased a lot of them. I have just not had the time to sit down and organize my own sounds to potentially sell, but I enjoy doing it all the time anyway. No matter what, you have to have fun with what you are doing, because it doesn’t seem like a job then.
DC: What is the future? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 or 10 years? What is Steve Tibbo be doing then?
ST: I think I’ll be doing bigger films in the rerecording area. I also want to keep doing production sound, I don’t want to give it all up! It is nice to have the balance of doing both, as long as I am able to.
DC: A lot of times, Hollywood will try to pigeonhole you into one or the other?
ST: Well, its funny. I will go to work in other studios occasionally, and lets just say I’ve heard comments that tried to pigeonhole me as just a production mixer.
DC: Well hopefully this interview will help to demonstrate that you are immensely skilled in both areas! I know your list of credits in IMDB will certainly show that.
ST: Hopefully they will see that and appreciate the work. I certainly enjoy doing it, and that is why I do it.
DC: We we enjoy it, especially all the laughs and fun we have gotten from Modern Family over the years. Thank you so much for your time today, I am so grateful.
ST: Absolutely! Thank you very much.
Stephen A. Tibbo, C.A.S. is the owner operator of Tibbo Sound, Inc. He is an Emmy award winning sound mixer. Stephen started in audio for film and television in 1987 as a boom operator and quickly worked up to mixing. In 1989, Stephen mixed his first film and was hooked.
Dale is a composer and sound designer based in Northern California and he is the founder of Gryphondale Studios where he works with his wife, a voice over actress and singer, mostly on video games.