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Mackie 1604-VLZ Pro Helps Production Sound Mixer David Lee Win Oscar for Hollywood Blockbuster

David Lee relaxing in the field with some future Mackie users after a hard day''s work.

Production Sound Mixer David Lee recently received the highest honor in film by taking home an Oscar® for his work with the blockbuster film Chicago - and not without help from his Mackie 1604-VLZ Pro Compact Mixer.

Even though his work on Chicago gave him his first ever Oscar award, Lee has worked on many successful films, including the Denzel Washington vehicle John Q, X-MEN, Shanghai Noon, and Searching for Bobby Fischer.

"People sometimes misunderstand the true role of the production sound mixer," says Lee. "In a film you''ve only got two senses to work with sight and sound. But you''re trying to convey a whole emotional experience to an audience. The production sound mixer tries to make up for the absence of the other three senses by giving as much detail as possible."

Lee says the most important part of his job is mental. "I start by framing my mind correctly. The actor has to drive everything. You can''t squeeze a performer by telling him or her to speak louder, or face a certain direction. Some actors are very quiet. I have to think about this ahead of time. I might, for example, go into a day''s shoot knowing that I have to work on the ambience to bring it down. I''ve got to bring the real live signal to noise ratio into a usable range.

"I think of myself as recording the lead vocals on a movie. It would be kind of strange if an engineer went into a recording studio, recorded the lead vocal and left it to someone else to record the backing tracks, but that''s essentially what I do. The final film mix will be richer if I''ve done my job. Just like a record, if I''ve gotten a solid level to tape the rest of the elements can be pushed up behind it."

All film work is difficult, but Chicago was in a league of its own, says Lee. "Most of the film was performed in a theater ambience. That set might have looked like a turn of the century theater, but the actual lights were up to today''s rock ‘n roll standard, which means loud! When you''ve got a rock band playing full throttle and a screaming audience, you don''t have to worry much about the sound coming from the lights.

"But a film is entirely different, as you might imagine. Ideally, you''d like to mike very closely. In some scenes we were able to get within a foot of the performers, but other times we had to back off to about 20 feet. The decision was made early to loop a number of scenes. It saved a lot of time trying to wire people up, especially given the fact many of the performers were wearing very skimpy outfits, which are very hard to mike."

One of Lee''s most essential tools was a trio of inexpensive Mackie 1604-VLZ Pro consoles. "It''s an amazing console, despite its low cost. We had some special music needs, based on the fact that this is a musical with lots of dancing. Pre-recorded music tracks, often completed the night before a scheduled shoot, came to us as Pro Tools sessions that we split into eight sub-mixes. Our primary goal was to separate as many of the rhythm elements as possible, so that the dancers could have whatever they needed to help them stay in time.

Where the magic happens  

"For example, you''d have a couple of actors sitting at a table, with choristers singing behind them. If we were shooting dialogue, we''d have a musical number going in full force, and then the music would be muted. This was the signal for the actors to speak. But the chorus all had small earpieces. We were feeding them a separate mix from a 1604 that never stopped. The result was that they kept on lip-synching but the dialog we were shooting was in the open.

"I know this might be a little hard to follow, forgive me, I just flew in from Spain and am heading off for another shoot in a few days, but there really was a lot going on, and those three little Mackies handled it all! We fed the rhythm tracks into a Meyer subwoofer, which boomed out at 40Hz, to hold dancers in time while still allowing us to record dialog.

"Mackie 1604s have been used on all of the live dialogue shooting I''ve done for the last three to five years. They''re better than the $25,000 boards that are commonly used in this area of the business. The Mackie specs out better than the other film consoles. Their only limitation is the lack of a dedicated talkback. We got around that by reverse wiring and re-soldering the mute switch to turn it into a talkback."

"The 1604 is very flexible. You can generate up to six separate aux mixes, and we made liberal use of this functionality. The producer got a separate mix, as did the director. As I mentioned, the dancers had the rhythm tracks boosted in their headpieces, and so on. All coming from an inexpensive Mackie 1604!

"We tracked directly into Pro Tools, using all of the eight sends that the Mackie provides. The pre-mixed music played on a separate Pro Tools rig, which had its own dedicated 1604.

"The Mackies are also extremely road worthy. I just finished work on a film that we shot out in a sandstorm out in the Spanish desert. There was grit in the faders, literally, but the board never stopped working! In our business you never know what weather conditions you''ll be working in. I''ve had those boards out in the pouring rain, in snowstorms, you name it. You do your best to keep everything dry, and you hope that the gear can withstand the conditions. The Mackie boards have never gone down on me. I carry a spare one - at its price, why not? But I''ve never had to use it."

In addition to his Oscar win for his work on Chicago, two-time Emmy winner David Lee has also been nominated for a CAS (Cinema Audio Society) award for sound on Chicago. He was also recognized for his work on Chicago, receiving a British Oscar (BAFTA).


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