Sound Out: Boom Pole Masterclass

Soundsters head to Europe to share the art with Euro's sound community

LA to Munich

With a quick fist bump Don Hale, CAS and Chris Howland, CAS boarded the A380 Lufthansa and headed for Munich. They'd recently organized a hand full of events for the LA Sound Mixers in the US that were so successful K-Tek's Tino Liberatore decided to test the uncharted territory of sound master classes across the Atlantic. Coinciding with a new K-Tek boom pole introduction, he conceived of the masterclass trip. "People in Europe were asking to come to them with the classes so, we gathered a great group of people in every field of sound recording, and planned the Europe Tour to share our knowledge and learn about European field recording."

In 10 hours Hale and Howland arrived in Munich and their travel mastermind and chauffeur Tino met them at the airport along with Boom Operator Kevin Cerchiai.

Tino, who hovers between Germany and California had been in town awhile and was in his typical good spirits. Because the new arrivals had the full day to stay-awake and cut through the jet lag, there were a few easy visits on the schedule. They paid a call on Ambient who showed them their underwater microphones and the new Lockit Modular Timecode System including its LED display, Slate, Hub and Transmitter.

Later Mark Ulano, CAS arrived. Masterclass instructor Ken Strain and his brother videographer Greg, who would chronicle the classes, would arrive the next day. The group managed to stay awake late enough to feast at a typical German eatery before calling it a night.

Saturday morning they all visited the set of the Die Rosenheim Cops comedy/drama at nearby Bavaria Filmstudios. A popular German staple, the show has run since 2002. The stage was steeped with history, having housed the iconic film production Das Boot, thirty years earlier.

The crew cordially welcomed them and the guests quickly took in the similarities of the German set. An ARRI Alexa captured the action. The Boom Op, Klaus Hobby appeared with his own K-Tek Klassic pole and compared notes with Don, Chris and Ken. Mark Ulano chatted with the show's sound mixer, Michael Vetter. After a bit more fun, the Cops" arrested Don Hale and his co-conspirators ribbed him as he was carted off to the slammer. Later that evening the Michael Vetter, Klaus Hobby and a few other members of the show's crew joined the travelers for a traditional German dinner at the Ratskeller in the old Munich old City Hall. The group chatted and clanked mugs in the basement venue that had been a bomb shelter 75 years earlier.

Cast of Characters

  • Tino Liberatore head wrangler, K-Tek
  • Ken Strain Boom Op & Master class teacher
  • Don Hale, CAS The Mixer Extreme
  • Chris Howland, CAS Boom Op Gang leader & Panel Discussion Moderator
  • Mark Ulano Mixer extraordinaire
  • Kevin Cerchiai The Boom Op with reach
  • Greg Strain The videographer

Locations

  • Munich
  • Karlsruhe
  • Paris
  • London
  • Bavaria Musik Studios
  • Oktoberfest
  • Cinela Factory/Home
  • Rental van interior
  • The Cinema Museum–London

Iconic Venue

It was just as well because they still had to set-up across town for the Master Class scheduled for the next morning. The venue was Bavaria Musikstudios, originally built in 1942. The place echoed its 20th Century audio past glories. "It was like Frank Sinatra could walk through the door at any time, and who knows he probably did," explained Chris Howland. The lobby walls were covered with one-sheets from the plethora of iconic films and other projects scored there. The basketball court size studio has high ceilings left over from the original church architecture it was originally designed for before the War got in the way.

"Even today it is artistically sound", explained Howland. "The build out was really amazing. They had panels that were movable, that would either make the room a little more alive or make it 'more dead'. It was very well treated. You could tell it was from that era of ribbon microphones. The acoustic treatment in the room still stands up today."

Saturday morning they all visited the set of the Die Rosenheim Cops comedy/drama at nearby Bavaria Filmstudios

Munich Masterclass

Respected Boom Operator Ken Strain was in charge of the Boom Op Master class. He had worked with K-Tek and the LA Sound Mixers to produce previous successful courses in Los Angeles and New York. Everything and everyone was ready the next morning when the 60 attendees arrived. A quick show of hands, just before the panel discussion revealed that, with the exception of two students, everyone in the audience was a working sound professional. They came from both Munich's local film sound community as well as other parts of Europe.

Strain delved into the three-hour lesson, first covering equipment needed for the job—soup to nuts—what you need and why—including the attributes of various pole makes and models. He also covered on-set communications, from the technology to the protocol, including the subtle on-set hierarchy. He ran through the physical techniques of operation and even the practical tricks of the trade from mentally staying one step ahead of the action to tips on how to physically endure long takes and retakes.

The audience soaked up Ken's training and then participated in the lively panel discussion that ensued after the break. With Chris Howland moderating, the panel consisted of noteworthy Production Sound Mixer, Don Hale (Step Into Liquid, Dust To Glory, 60 Minutes, National Geographic, Nova, 48 Hours, etc) and Kevin Cerchiai (Walking Dead, Transformers, Entourage, Iron Man 3). Academy-award-winning Production Sound Mixer, Mark Ulano (Titanic, Inglorious Bastards, Ad Astra, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Former President of Hollywood's Cinema Audio Society, added his perspective. The lively interchange between panelists and audience went on for over an hour as the participants openly compared techniques, styles and workflows from different regions and different genres of filmmaking.

The lively interchange between panelists and audience went on for over an hour as the participants openly compared techniques, styles and workflows from different regions.

Sharing Insights

While learning this craft is traditionally a solitary effort with each professional working alone to come up with solutions, this event provided a rare platform for colleagues to compare notes and clarify with others, their approach to the job. They discussed different regional policies and practices. For example crewing for episodics was handled differently in Germany as compared to the US. Howland notes, It was interesting that on a typical episodic show we talked about, they actually have two completely separate crews—one that does nothing but location work and another one that's permanently onstage. There is no loading or unloading of trucks and going back and forth like we are accustomed to doing in the U.S." Would the Americans like that? As a Mixer," explains Howland, I like being onstage for a few days. I can let my hair down, I can clean some stuff, and then we'll have two or three days in the field that I know are coming up next week, we'll go do it, and it'll be fun to negotiate the new environment. The perfect 8-day show for me would be three or four days on location and three or four days on stage."

When it comes to workload, I think they have the same amount of dedication and passion as we do and their hours are probably a little better." Hale adds, Yes, they have shorter hours due to their labor laws which cap hours per day." How does this effect performance? Positively I think, he adds, They have a more definite shooting schedule and that means more family time and vacations."

Friends were made. Bonds were formed. An international coalition was budding. I looked around," explained Don Hale, and five hours into it, not one person had left".

It was fantastic," adds Howland, There was a very good vibe in the room."

Oktoberfest

The travelers were just in time to catch the second day of the annual Oktoberfest celebration before leaving Munich. And they did it right, stopping first to buy Lederhosen for all. The room was incredible, recalls Hale, The tent we were in had ten or twelve thousand people in it. And when we remarked to locals, they told us it was just one of 12 tents. They partied hearty, generously toasting their day, and planning the next leg of their journey west, which they embarked on the next morning.

Schoeps Mikrofone Factory

The entourage drove to Durlach (Karlsruhe), anxious to see the factory where the revered Schoeps microphones are made. Every one in the sound crew owned some of the precision devices. We got there after 5:00pm, and they opened up the doors for us, Howland began. It was a guided tour, given by two of the top managers and some staff members who kindly stayed for us after the rest of the staff had gone home for the day. The fascinating building used to be a hotel and it dates back a long time, maybe 500 years." The site consists of 3 large buildings that interconnect, forming a horseshoe."

They learned that everything is done right there: R&D, machining, parts, assembly, Q.C. Their guide explained that Schoeps' goal is to consistently maintain the quality of their products. Let others grow. For them 50 employees is the perfect size and the cohesive team takes pride in working at the family-owned business. Hale was impressed to hear that while it is very important to them to improve their existing products, they are always thinking of backend usability, and continue to support their legacy products. No product goes obsolete even in the face of modern refinement. For the past 30 years, their mics have not just been the gold standard for professional sound persons, but have also brought voice to the U.N. and other global organizations and countless musicians. In their lobby hangs a photo of the master himself pouring into their Pavarotti Night Stand.

Hale, who proudly owns 5 Schoeps, was particularly impressed by their machining tolerances. They hollow out solid brass and make the capsule all in one piece. If their housings aren't within their very tight tolerances, they discard the brass and recycle it."

Where's a McDonalds when you need one?

Back on the road the group drove for another hour and a half toward the town of Trier where they would spend the night. However, Mark Ulano, who had mixed the film, Ad Astra, had promised the Italian Space Agency (ASI) that he would be interviewed in front of a live audience moments after their film screening ended. The Skype technicalities had been worked out in advance, but there was a hitch. A bit delayed by their previous exploits, the traveling sound pros drove through the night—madly searching for a McDonald's, Germany's beacon of good WiFi. But the clock ran out and they had to make do. Ulano's phone rang and by pure luck the signal came through.

Tino drove on and Ulano rode shotgun while Howland and Cerchiai were in the backseats. As, Howland recalls, We were all trying to stay quiet so we could hear them speaking in Italian. And then they introduced Mark. What Mark didn't expect to see was the actual wide shot of the 500-member audience, a full stage and a cinema screen. On his iPhone he saw himself live, 25 feet tall on the huge screen in front of the audience. At the last second, we realized that Mark didn't have enough light. So Kevin pulled his phone out and added a little light, and I pulled my phone out and followed suit. It was hilarious." He adds, Mark was as eloquent as always. We were all quiet in the car as they asked Mark questions and he responded. The back and forth lasted 5 or 6 minutes, until we heard Mark's, ‘OK, great, thank you.' Click. Then all of us started screaming! Just then Tino spotted the McDonalds in Ramstein and pulled into the parking lot."

On his iPhone Mark Ulanop saw himself live, 25 feet tall on the huge screen in front of the Italin Space Agency audience — as they drove towards Paris.

A visit to Cinela in Paris

Their first stop in France was at the Cinela factory where their microphone suspension and shock mounts are designed and manufactured. They were warmly met by the owners, Philip and Nettie, who showed them around the big old brownstone, which houses the factory and above it on the 3rd floor is the where the couple lives. An acoustician, Philip designs, manufactures and QCs his precision devices under his own roof. Nettie was a boom pole operator before they started the business. Another trusted audio tool of the travelers, they talked shop for a bit as the couple prepared a meal for the guests and Cinela employees in their own kitchen. It was fresh, delicious and homey right down to the clusters of grapes Philip picked from their back garden.

K-Tek Reveals their Newest Pole

The next day they took in the Paris atmosphere and headed over to another landmark near the Eiffel Tower. At the impressive Radio France headquarters, the country's premiere broadcast facility, they met with K-Tek's local distributor, AREITEC for a small gathering. About 20 production sound folks chatted congenially over cocktails, comparing the local sound scene. Tino brought along one of K-Tek's new Klassic Pro Poles and several guests immediately saw the re-cabling benefits of the new removable head, while others checked out its unique feel and balance.

London Calling

With Paris in their rearview mirror, they drove to Calais and took the Channel train the next morning. London was the next stop for another Master class. After a short spin on the wrong side of the road, they arrived at their hotel along the River Thames. The next morning the party drove to Pinknoise, picked up AV gear and headed to The Cinema Museum where the class would take place. Howland describes the venue as kitschy but very cool", explaining, There was all this old film gear around, old cameras–it was amazing." The 100-seat theatre was a perfect venue complete with stage, projector, and everything they needed to put on a successful event.

The Americans were unsure of how the day would go because they had heard that England has a less transient sound hierarchy than in the US where a boom operator might do narrative one day and reality or news the next. And their master class structure was set up American-style, blurred lines and all. But the day proved that when it comes down to the craft everyone wants to know how others work.

Ken Strain got down to business with his Boom Op Master class that's always a big success. Three hours spun by before the group took a short break for lunch and then the special feature was the rollicking panel discussion. The stand-out panel was moderated by Chris Howland who is known for his extensive resume of mixing narrative projects and founder of LA Sound Mixers Facebook group. Mark Ulano, who had to duck out, reached out to revered Sound Engineer Stuart Wilson who has 6 Oscar nominations to his credit, for the films War Horse in 2012, Skyfall in 2013, Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2016, Rogue One in 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2018, and finally the Sam Mendes war epic, 1917. Not to mention 7 BAFTA nominations as well as many other prestigious nods. Busy Boom Operators Ken Strain and Kevin Cerchiai helmed the other chairs.

The crowd was different than at the other venues, explains Chris Howland, Many were working professionals, but definitely a younger generation. And Stewart honed in on that, giving them insight into career progression, including relationships and skillsets." Don Hale was quick to point out that there were plenty of accomplished, seasoned Mixers in the crowd. Plus there were folks who worked as the First Assistant Sound, known as the Boom Operator in the US, and the Second Assistant Sound, known as the Sound Utility in the States.

Many attendees brought their rigs with them, because they had gigs after the event. And that's why the subject of portability came up. London", explained Howland reminds me a lot of New York. Many Mixers and Boom Ops don't own cars simply because of the lack of parking and there are a ton of ENG mixers in London. Most of them are acclimated to traveling on the Tube. So they carry or use rolling bags but they try to use bags that are more inconspicuous. They don't want every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry' knowing they are carrying $30000 bucks worth of stuff." Especially" added Don Hale, when they start adding wireless gear, everything gets expensive. And if you are young starting out in London proper, you are probably not living in the best neighborhoods."

The Q&A turned into a reciprocal exchange of ideas that kept the crowd energized well beyond the anticipated 5 hours. What questions were they interested in? Moderator Howland said, They had great questions but I think a lot of it was seeking clarity because most people want to know that the decisions they've made in the years they have invested in this craft are somewhat on track with what other mixers do in other places." Howland went on to explain that whenever you get a bunch of sound people in a room there's always curiosity as to how others approach the same job. That's because there's only one of us on set at any given time."

Folks just didn't want to leave. So those who were not working met at a nearby pub and continued the festivities through the afternoon.

The next morning the road trippers enjoyed a quiet breakfast. They agreed that the trip was more successful than they had even hoped for. Tino concluded, I can safely say, we hit and over reached our goal." They had made many new friends and all felt that the worldwide sound community had grown a little bit closer. Then they took in their final remaining sights. Tino Liberatore stood back as Greg Strain documented his last shot and captured Ken Strain, Don Hale, Chris Howland, and Kevin Cerchiai, on the famous Abbey Road crosswalk.

…most people want to know that the decisions they've made in the years they have invested in this craft are somewhat on track with what other mixers do in other places." Chris Howland, CAS

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