Production sound mixer Michael Barosky knows his way around New York City. He’s captured location sound for films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Man on a Ledge, and Winter’s Tale, and for series like HBO’s Crashing, USA’s Suits, and Netflix’s Master of None.
With all of that experience, Barosky has learned to keep his sound cart light. New York City is notorious for walk-up apartments, rooftop hangouts, and cramped interiors. Staying mobile is one key to his success. Knowing how to deal with noise is another.
Here Barosky shares details on his approach to capturing Master of None, from choosing the right mics to scouting out locations before the shoot to minimize noise issues. He also recounts his experience of recording John Legend live on location.
S&P: Who was on your sound team for Master of None?
Michael Barosky (MB): I have a very talented boom operator named Frank Graziedei. Frank has been with me for a while now. He is very experienced and has done lots of movies and television series, mainly movies. We have had several utility people on the show and, often times when there is music, there is a playback operator as well. Although we had a few different people, John D’Aquino was our main playback operator.
S&P: What is your setup like for this series? What’s on your cart and what does your car rig look like?
MB: My cart is very light because in New York you have to be pretty mobile. Very often you are going up flights of stairs and onto rooftops. A lot of places we go into are a bit tight. So I have designed a sound cart that is pretty small and minimalist. My main mixer is a Swiss mixer called a Sonosax. That is the heart of the system. Then I use several Zaxcom recorders: the Deva, the Nomad, and a Maxx.
Oftentimes in New York we have to come off the cart and go over the shoulder because of the nature of the work that we are doing. A certain amount of what we do on Master of None is almost documentary style.
For the car work, many times we’re on a trailer and so I’m able to stay on my small cart. I can put the whole cart on the insert car that is pulling the trailer on which the on-camera car is mounted. There are times when we’re not on a process trailer and I have to go mobile for that application.
For mics, I use Schoeps microphones exclusively. I use their shotgun mics for exteriors and their hyper cardioid mics for interiors. Essentially, all of their mics have the same sound, the same quality; it’s just the pickup patterns that are different. You choose a different pickup pattern depending on the situation, whether you are indoors or outdoors.
S&P: What do you feel is unique about Master of None?
MB: We use very few body mics and I think that is atypical of a lot of television shows. The series creator Aziz Ansari, like most actors, looks at body mics as a necessary evil.
But I think it goes beyond that. He and the series co-creator Alan Yang understand the value of the quality of an open boom mic in the hands of a skilled boom operator. In my opinion, and I think they have come to understand this as well, an open boom mic will always give you superior sound.
S&P: For the Clash of the Cupcakes scenes, when Dev is on the soundstage, how do you mic those scenes?
MB: Being on the soundstage you do have the advantage of working with pretty good acoustics, so the mic can be quite a distance away. Because of the nature of the show — it’s a comedy and you need to hear the jokes, we don’t really have mumbling actors. We have actors that will project.
Also, on those particular scenes we were using lavaliere microphones on the outside. The lavaliere wasn’t hidden, just affixed to the outside of the wardrobe as you would typically see on a TV show like that. So we gave post-production a choice of using what I consider the better option of an open boom mic, or if they wanted it to sound more like a TV show, they can use the lavaliere.
S&P: What were some of the challenges and opportunities that stood out for you in terms of production sound on Master of None?
MB: I would say a challenge and an opportunity was the episode that we did with John Legend (Episode 5, “The Dinner Party”). Given John Legend’s schedule he was not able to pre-record his performance in the studio, which is typically what you would do in these situations. Then, we would play back the song on set and he would lip sync to it. But, because of his schedule, we had to record him live at the practical location — we were not on a soundstage for that scene. We were in a big, open loft and that presented a challenge because there were hard walls and floors, so the sound was a bit boomy and reverberant. We put down a lot of sound blankets and baffling and we rolled in some carpet and did whatever we could to try and clean it up acoustically.
It turned out quite well and John was pleased. We did about three or four takes and he chose a take that he liked, and that is what we used for playback during the shoot.
That was challenging, but it was a nice opportunity to record live music because that is always fun.
S&P: You recorded the piano and the vocals? What was your mic setup like?
MB: In that situation, we had multiple mics set up. We had a stereo pair on the piano as well as some additional mics to get a different perspective of it. So, in other words, we had a stereo pair inside the piano, and then several other mics set up further away so that we could feel a little bit of the room. We didn’t want it to sound too dry. Then we had a vocal mic on him.
We recorded just his performance there live, without the cameras rolling, to get a good take of the music. Then, when we were filming it, he was lip syncing and miming the piano to the playback track that he liked best. We played back the take we recorded so that there were no mics involved in the scene.
S&P: Were there any other challenging episodes you’d like to mention?
MB: In one episode, Dev and Francesca [Alessandra Mastronardi] go for a helicopter ride (Episode 9, “Amarsi Un Po”). He essentially pours his heart out to her in the helicopter. That’s always a challenge because of the noise level in helicopters. What you need to do in that situation is get the microphone as close as possible to the actors. Since they were wearing headsets — which you typically do when you are in a helicopter so you can talk to each other and talk to the pilot, the headsets have an attached mic. So we hid our mics in that headset, and at the same time, I recorded the communications channel directly from the helicopter (that was the practical microphone for the headset). The problem with the headset mic is that it sounds very thin because all of the dynamic range is taken away, so that the clarity of the voice can be better. They’re looking for clarity and not quality of the voice.
I’m not sure which tracks they chose in post, but, I know the joke of that scene was that the pilot informs them that he can hear their entire conversation and asks if they would like him to put them on a private channel. It’s very possible that they chose the communications feed in post because it sounds authentic.
The biggest challenge in those situations is always the noise level and trying to get the microphone as close to their mouths as possible, and hoping that the actors will speak up in those scenes.
S&P: Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard talked about using wide shots often for the show. Knowing that Aziz doesn’t like body mics, was that a challenge for your boom op?
MB: Aziz doesn’t like to wear a body mic but he will when he has to. I think that most actors prefer not to wear one if they don’t have to because it is a physical encumbrance. It’s a foreign object on your body. Occasionally on those wide shots we will use the body mic to get the sound.
Our cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard is extremely helpful in allowing us to get a good sound that we need to get. He is always willing to work with us in terms of the lights, or the angles, or the shots so that we get good sound. He understands that everybody is looking for the best quality product that we can get.
I also want to mention our producer Igor Srubshchik. He always has me go out on the scouting trips to look for any problems ahead of time that the different locations may present, so that we can try to solve those problems — whether it be noisy refrigerator units in a restaurant or a background noise from a construction site — that we would need to get control of. I want to give him props for bringing me out on the scouts and giving us a chance to get a heads-up on what the challenges are and how we can solve them ahead of time.
S&P: Another interesting location was the Brooklyn Art Museum…
MB: Shooting in there was a lot of fun and of course we had to be really careful of all the artwork involved. The nice thing about that location was that it was very quiet. We were able to record without any background noise. The acoustics were pretty good in there.
S&P: Did you have a favorite scene to record?
MB: There were several this season; the reason is the style that Aziz and Alan chose to shoot in this season. They are big fans of foreign films, as am I. So rather than do a lot of conventional coverage, very often they have scenes play as oners — without intercutting or coverage. I always liked that because it allows us to get perspective on the sound. I feel like a lot of times in TV the sound is almost like radio with pictures. The sound is always so close and there is a lack of perspective.
I recall one scene in particular where Francesca and her boyfriend Pino [Riccardo Scamarcio] are in the loft they’re staying in while in New York. It was a wide open space. We pretty much did that scene with a single camera, a moving camera, which told the story quite well. We went from wide shots to close-ups, all continuous. I felt that gave us a chance to really get a perspective in terms of sound, to get a sense of the room and pay homage to those great foreign films like the French New Wave where they would do everything in a single shot. They do a whole scene and tell the story in a single shot with a moving camera.
S&P: Did you practice those particular shots a lot?
MB: Yes, with shots like that they are well choreographed. You have to spend a lot of time setting them up and rehearsing them. I remember reading that the French directors like Truffaut and Rohmer would spend the better part of the day just setting up and choreographing the shot before ever rolling film. Then at the end of the day, they would get this one shot but it would encompass the whole scene and tell the whole story. So we followed suit with that. We did the same thing, set it up and choreographed it and rehearsed it.
The actors were great because they never lost their energy and they always had a great attitude, no matter how many times we had to do it over and over again. It was fun. And I think those kinds of shots really pay off because they’re not your standard design where you have your wide shot, medium shot, close-up coverage, and all of this cutting. You really have to figure out the pace that you want ahead of time and know the rhythm. You have to know what you want to say with the scene. Hopefully our sound conveys part of that as well.
S&P: In addition to the dialogue, did you capture any separate ambience tracks? For instance, in Episode 3, “Religion,” Dev and his cousin go to a BBQ festival. Did you have time to capture ambience from there?
MB: We did. The challenge with TV is always time. You often don’t have the luxury of time, but one of the things that I like to do is walk around with my little portable digital recorder, a Zoom H6, and record the location or the set, to get a lot of ambience for post-production. Whether they use it or not, I like to give it to them. I think it adds a certain texture and interest to the scene.
The Zoom is pretty inconspicuous. You can lose yourself in the crowd and people don’t even know that you are recording them.
S&P: Any final thoughts you’d like to share on the sound of the show?
MB: I would like to mention one really nice aspect about the show, and that is a lot of us have worked together on different productions, especially because of our producer Igor Srubshchik. Everybody has the same mindset, to get the best quality product that they can come up with. Consequently, everyone is very cooperative, from our wardrobe department who helps us when we do have to mic the actors, to the props department people who will do whatever they can to quiet down any noisy props, like using ‘silent bags’ (bags made with special quiet material) or reinforcing clattery furniture.
Also, the DP is extremely helpful and we have really good camera operators who are very communicative to us in terms of what the shots are, so that we know where we can be with our microphones. Grip and electric are always very helpful. The electric department always makes sure that the generator isn’t too close so that it isn’t making noise. The grips are always helpful in terms of quieting down noisy, squeaky floors by laying down plywood or homasote. There is no problem there. The whole crew is really helpful and I think they are in no small part the secret to our success of getting good clean dialogue.
Images courtesy of Netflix