Creating a great comedy series isn’t all fun and games. It takes careful planning and blocking on set to make sure everyone is in position to get the jokes. By ‘get,’ I mean get the jokes recorded. When it comes to comedy, sometimes the magic happens in ad-libbed lines. So if the joke lands but it didn’t get recorded then that means another take. It’s definitely not easy. But when there’s careful planning and excellent communication on set between all departments, the actors are able to relax and ad-lib lines and the production sound team can be confident that they won’t miss a beat.
Two of HBO’s successful comedy series — Silicon Valley and Barry — have production sound mixer Benjamin Patrick leading the sound team on set. He’s won a CAS Award for sound mixing on Silicon Valley and earned 11 Emmy nominations for his work over the years. This year, Patrick’s Emmy noms include two in the same category for ‘Outstanding Sound Mixing for A Comedy or Drama Series (half-hour) and Animation’ — one each for Silicon Valley and Barry. Here, Patrick talks about the different challenges that each show poses, and his approach to getting the lines every time.
Benjamin Patrick (BP): That was very much unexpected. I did get some ribbing from some of my fellow sound people to leave a few slots open for them next time.
S&P: Let’s look at Barry first. What were some of the challenges you had in capturing the sound of this show?
BP: For a half-hour comedy, we had a surprising amount of action sequences which are always trickier to record because of the technical requirements of the stunts or action.
Plus, when we have scenes with the entire acting class, that was a lot of people with a lot of ad-libbing.
S&P: For the Emmy nominated episode — Season 1, Ep. 7 “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast and Keep Going,” what was the most challenging scene in terms of production sound?
BP: One of the more challenging days was when we had the driving scene leading up to the airplane stunt. We were shooting with a camera car mounted on a Russian arm. So there was a follow vehicle with a crane mounted to the top, which is the Russian arm that held the camera. I was crammed into the back of the car carrying the actors, along with another camera and the camera operator and focus puller. It was an extremely bumpy road and we were driving at very fast speeds. We managed to get what we needed, but that was a very hot day out in the desert as well and I won’t forget that experience.
S&P: What was your setup like in the car?
BP: I was using a Zaxcom Deva 16 multitrack recorder with two or three plant mics, all Schoeps MK 41 capsules, hidden in the visors. The actors also had on body mics, which were Sanken COS-11s paired with Lectrosonics transmitters.
S&P: When you’re not stuffed into a car, what does your kit look like for the rest of the show?
BP: For a long time, I’ve been on the Deva 16 with their mix surface, the Mix-12. My backup recorder is a Zaxcom Nomad 12. All of my wireless are Lectrosonics. I use a combination of Sanken lavalier mics or the Countryman lavs. Our primary boom mics are the Schoeps CMIT 5U and the Sennheiser MKH 50.
S&P: On Barry, who do you have on your sound team with you?
BP: The boom operator was Chris Diamond, who is just fantastic. And my sound utility/second boom operator is Corey Woods.
BP: It is, although Chris was not able to do last year. So we had Kenny Strain as the boom operator for Silicon Valley this past season.
S&P: You’ve been with Silicon Valley since Season 2. How has your approach to the show changed over the years?
BP: It hasn’t changed much. When I came onto the show, I felt like I had a big job to do. I had some big shoes to fill. There were a lot of expectations. Beyond mic’ing everybody and everything, including plant mic’ing, I made myself present while they were setting up the shots with the DP Tim Suhrstedt. I have a lot of respect for him and I’ve learned a lot from him. We would watch the rehearsals and then we would set up the shot. When we got the order of the shots, I would suggest that we do shots in a particular order since we had two cameras and it would be better for sound coverage. All of that seems to work for our showrunners Mike Judge and Alec Berg.
So from day one, I was making the sound department’s needs very clear, and to this day I continue to keep that conversation alive. I really like and respect the people that I’m working with. It’s a very polite and professional crew. We all seem to be able to get what we need to get in a very nice way.
BP: I don’t know if there are any secrets. I’m pretty sure I do what everybody else does. Our jobs are to listen and to evaluate and to make sure we are turning in material that will work, or be best, and it has to serve the story and the show first.
That’s one thing that changes as you go along with a show and you’ve been with it for a while, you know there are certain things that aren’t as important as other things so you don’t need to apply as much influence to achieve them, possibly to the detriment of another element. Having said that, we work hard to get it anyway.
Another important factor to the success of the show’s sound are the re-recording mixers Elmo Ponsdomenech and Todd Beckett. Our communication is so open. We’d never be able to get the kind of sound that we do unless we were all talking to each other and being supportive. I love the way they handle the atmospheres and effects making the spaces really come alive. I am so grateful to be able to work with them.
BP: We had some new sets this year and new sets always pose new challenges. I love the look of the show and I’m always loath to change anything or to ask for any changes that would affect how the show looks. With that said, our production designer has always been incredibly accommodating. If I have a suggestion related to sound — like changing the electrical ballast for a neon light and putting it underneath the stage or moving it a little further away so that it’s not buzzing away right in the room, they have always been so accommodating and quick about accommodating things too. If I ask for a rug in the entryway of this set — just so when someone comes through the front door we won’t hear as many footsteps, sure enough, they will find a rug that they like and one that looks appropriate for the show, and it will be there in a day or two.
It’s nice when you work on a show where everybody is accommodating and considerate. It really makes it much more of a team effort and I think that’s another reason why I love working on the show. Everyone feels like they’re doing their better work.
BP: In this episode, we had a back and forth between Gavin’s house and the manufacturing plant in China. That was a little challenging keeping all of these sets together because we shot them separately, but then we had to reference them while we were shooting on the other set.
The factory, which was shot in Santa Clarita someplace, had very reverberant acoustics. We had to make that work.
This episode was tricky because we were trying to make it easy for the actors to act on the day, so some of that required playback of reference material that we had on the set for them. The actors are really good at working with things like that. Richard Hendricks (played by Thomas Middleditch) is so good at remembering little details to play off of later. And then watching the scene or extra coverage he would take a note from it and adjust his performance. Gavin Belson (played by Matt Ross) and Richard are such a good duo to watch together because they always come up with great energy. I love working on the show because I love watching the show. So, you could say I’m invested in it.
BP: On Silicon Valley, I’m familiar enough with the actors and the ad-libbing, so I don’t need to lean on the body mics as much. Also, the boom operators are more familiar with where the cues are going to come from.
The way that we cover it, the way that we set up shots on Silicon Valley is very different from how we set up shots on Barry. The DP has very different styles. I very much like Paula Huidobro, the DP on Barry. She is always willing to listen if we have a need, and a lot of times she already seems very considerate of what the sound team would need. So we have the wide shots, which are not about the dialogue as much as they are about the action or geography, and then we get our coverage.
The coverage for Barry is very different from Silicon Valley. If we don’t get what we need in terms of coverage for the dialogue, I’ll ask if we can get that part again with a better microphone on it. And we’re able to do that.
One part that is always challenging with Barry is when we have the full theater class together because they all ad-lib and they are peppered around a theater or a space. So it’s not always easy to boom them because we’re not expecting someone who is 20 feet away to all of a sudden have something to say. Sometimes it’s more organic, though if there is an ad lib that works there then they’ll readjust the camera to make sure that ad lib turns into something and that it’s on film.
Barry is a very different animal. It felt much more organic. Not only are there stunts and action but we had a lot of comedy so there was a lot of acting that had to be done. I feel very fortunate to have worked in comedy for a little while now and it always stays challenging because it’s about the timing. If you don’t get the line, then, well…. Sometimes for an actor or actress, the funniest moment will only happen once, or it will happen the very first time, or it will happen the seventh time that they run through a scene. That applies a bit of pressure because you want to get it. You want to make sure that everybody is putting their best foot forward.
BP: As far as I can tell, I feel like my setup is very common. I think radio mics are more common than they were in the past because we have the machines that can multitrack, and it’s not uncommon to have eight or 12 radio mics going to cover the majority of the characters in a scene. It makes it possible to catch an ad-libbed line if you don’t have the boom mic on that actor.
The tricky part about mic’ing the majority of people in a scene is that you have to be responsible for making sure that they all sound good. You have to monitor them all while keeping track of all the other microphones going in the room. I am constantly doing quick pre-fader listens (PFL) to the radio mics to make sure they haven’t fallen or gotten scratchy. When I bring them up for the mix, if I hear scratchiness we will always make time to adjust, to make sure that everyone is sounding as good as they can sound.
We are covering ourselves by radio mic’ing so many people, but at the same time, you really have to figure out strategically how to monitor and quality control all of those microphones. So your job actually gets bigger in that sense. On Barry, we use all 16 tracks, and on Silicon Valley, we do a setup that’s typically less but occasionally it’ll be 16 tracks. Not all of those will be body mics. It might be plant mics on transmitters just because it’s easier to hide. But with the plant microphone, you have to check it to make sure the actor isn’t putting their coffee cup on top of it or it’s not right next to a laptop with a loud fan or someone’s cell phone isn’t too close to it. It all takes a lot of listening and then communication about what you’re hearing. All of that requires a lot of attention.
Images courtesy of HBO