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The Art of On-Set Sound Capture

L-R: Tod A. Maitland, Terence McCormack Maitland, and Jerry Yuen on the set of Tick, Tick…Boom.

For Tod A. Maitland, production sound is a family business. His father, Dennis Maitland, spent his early career handling sound on the Jackie Gleason Show—mixing skits, live musical acts and Gleason’s orchestra all with the limited sound tech of the time—before jumping into film sound and mixing over 70 titles. Tod’s sister, Kim Maitland, is a sound mixer on CBS’ Blue Bloods. And his nephew, Terence Maitland, is a boom operator who last year handled sound utility for Tod on the set of The Irishman and West Side Story. Terence also had two brothers, Dennis and Dean, who worked in sound before they passed away.

During college summer breaks, Tod Maitland worked as a boom operator for his father Dennis on a few films, including Paul Mazursky’s The Tempest in Greece. “That was pretty great for a 20-year-old,” he says.

His father’s lessons from those formative years continue to influence Maitland’s career: You live and die by dallies because that’s where your mix track is judged; half is what you know and half is how you play the game; and microphone placement is 80 percent of sound. “Then he kicked me out to start booming for someone else and to learn other ways that different mixers worked,” he recalls.

Maitland boomed a dozen films (including Tootsie, which cemented his love for film sound) before getting his big break into sound mixing via his friend, producer Alex Kitman Ho, in 1985 on a film called Off Beat. “The first movie you do is just a disaster. You’re all over the place; there’s a lot to figure out,” Maitland admits.

But a few years later, Ho phoned again, this time for Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio.

Trial By Fire
Talk Radio was really complex,” Maitland explains. “The set was built like half of a glass box around the talk show host Barry [Eric Bogosian]. There were four rooms connected by glass walls—two green rooms, the engineer’s room and the producer’s room—so in one shot you’d see five rooms, all with action going on inside. Adding to that, we made a booth for phone callers calling into the show, and we had music cues that they wanted to hear throughout. Up to this point, I had only mixed four movies, and now I’m jumping in with Oliver Stone, who is known to have a strong personality.”

With just four days to figure out a system and wire it up, Maitland was feeling the pressure. “It was 1987 and I was using two stereo Nagras linked together, two Cooper Mixers and a 16-track, 1/2-inch reel-to-reel recorder for the other rooms,” he says. “I had microphones everywhere. And, again, I was mixing for dailies so I had to have that one mix track with the talk show host, the caller he’s talking to, sounds from the other four rooms, and the music cues. On top of that, I had to build a custom headset/mic for Barry. At that time, there was nothing that sounded as full and rich as I wanted, so we used parts from different systems and custom-built two headsets [one for backup] based around a Sony ECM 50 mic, which is one I really liked. For a newbie in the mixing world, that was pretty crazy. My brain almost blew up on that movie.”

Success on Talk Radio led to another complex Stone production, The Doors. This music biopic required Maitland to design a massive sound system for playback to an audience of 10,000 extras. Plus, Val Kilmer, as Jim Morrison, sang live vocals for a good portion of the film. Maitland says, “Because Jim Morrison’s voice is just so rugged, we could only do about eight close-up takes of Val Kilmer singing live and then we’d pull back and go to playback. Even still, the pre-records for playback were a mixture of Jim Morrison and Val Kilmer’s voices. This is the film that got me into the music world.”

Maitland has become a musical man. In addition to The Doors, he handled production sound on The Producers, Enchanted, Across the Universe, Begin Again, Annie, The Greatest Showman, and the upcoming West Side Story, to name a few. Plus, he’s currently mixing another musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut Tick, Tick…Boom.

Much of Maitland’s approach to musicals was formed on Across the Universe. Because director Julie Taymor was adamant about capturing live vocals for everything except the big dance scenes, Maitland developed techniques to make the process more efficient and ultimately more successful.

“My biggest issue with a musical is the sound change when going from the dialog on-set to singing, and having it sound like they’ve gone into the recording studio. It’s those moments that take you out of the experience,” he explains.

Maitland placing the wireless lavalier mic on Robert DeNiro for a scene in A Bronx Tale. Photo courtesy of Tod A. Maitland

To fix that issue, Maitland began bringing the lavalier and boom mics he uses on set into the studio for the vocal pre-record sessions. He sets them up approximately as they would be on-set—with the lav mic attached to a stand aimed upward toward the actor and the boom mic placed 18 inches overhead angled in toward the actor. He says, “This way, in post when they make that transition to the pre-recorded singing, they can go from production to my mic in the studio and then to the large-diaphragm studio mic, so the transition is less jarring.”


Another issue on-set is playback for dance scenes and lip-sync. The dancers and actors need to hear the music in order to deliver an energetic performance. But by using speakers for playback, the sound mixer is unable to capture any usable dialog recordings, movement sounds, vocalizations or props.

“On Across the Universe, after we were done filming a scene with lip sync, I would give the actors and dancers headphones or ear pieces and have them perform the entire scene again, but with no singing,” he explains. “I wanted to capture the sound of the dancing, so I’d have four boom mics moving around with them. That gave the post sound team an in-sync Foley/ambience track to lay in right under the music, and it was all synced to timecode.”

The sound package on Across The Universe, top, in contrast to the five sound carts needed on the set of The Producers.

A Wireless World
All microphones sound different and bring out different vocal qualities, so Maitland began doing lavalier microphone tests during vocal rehearsals. Today he tapes six lav mics—a Sanken COS-11, a Shure TwinPlex, a Sennheiser MKE-1, a DPA 4060, a DPA 6060, and a prototype Sony lav—to a grip stand that can be adjusted to each actor’s height, and then sets up his Sennheiser 416 boom mic overhead. He records each actor reading a section of their lines and singing a bit of their music. Later, he does an A/B comparison to hear which lavalier best matches the sound of the boom for each actor. Then he assigns that lavalier to that actor.

Maitland says, “When they come through to get wired before a shoot, I know which one to go with. I’ve had to develop a plan for systematically getting the actors/dancers wired. With 20 or 30 people to wire up, like we had on West Side Story, you need a system to get that done efficiently.”

Instead of tracking down the actors on-set, Maitland asked the ADs to send them to his cart, where three members of his team were waiting to wire them up. “Every day it was like a conveyor belt; an actor would come through, we’d drop the transmitter down to the ankle, wrap a special bandage around it, put it under their sock and I’d be up top placing the mic. Then we’d send them out and bring in the next,” says Maitland.

Although he has a small team wiring up the actors, he still likes to place the mic himself. “I’m the one mixing, and I like to know exactly where the mic is on the actor so I know what I’m dealing with,” he says. “Even a plant mic on a table, I want to know exactly where the mic is so I know about what level to expect. There are a lot of different things to think about with microphones, and it’s helpful for me to know exactly where each one is; I can mix the tracks much better that way.”

For Maitland, the best place, the most ideal place for a microphone to be is on a boom pole as close as possible to the actor. But that scenario is happening less frequently due in part to the prevalence of multi-camera setups that make it difficult to get a boom on the actor without getting in the way of a shot. Now, he says, “Producers want you to wire everybody. Actors have pretty much come to expect being wired most of the time. We live in a wireless world.”

“Back in the old days, the Nagra was the primary piece of equipment, but now it’s your wireless system,” he adds. “My booms are wireless. All the actors wear wireless mics that have a wireless transmission to the director and production team. And on musicals, we have wireless transmission to multiple battery-powered speakers for playback. Also, I give out two wireless frequencies for the music team so they can hear the pre-recorded vocals in one ear and live vocals direct from the actor’s wireless in the other. This way they can hear when the actor is going out of sync.”

But wireless tech isn’t bullet-proof. Maitland explains that, in terms of sound, small lavaliers physically have a smaller diaphragm and therefore can never have the richness of a boom or studio mic. In addition, there’s clothing rustle, wind noise and, in Maitland’s domain of New York City, “the worst problem, the one that bothers me the most, is the RF interference. New York is a really tough environment because it’s so jammed with radio frequencies.”

West Side Story © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

West Side Story
When Maitland read Tony Kushner’s script for the upcoming West Side Story (slated for release this December by Walt Disney Studios), he realized he needed to completely overhaul his existing Audio Limited/Lectrosonics wireless systems, and build an entirely new cart around it.

Maitland’s current sound cart, built for West Side Story around a Shure Axient Digital wireless system; “Everything I need on one cart,” Maitland says. Photo courtesy of Tod A. Maitland

“It was a huge script with 22 people singing, dancing and talking all in the same scene—and not just one scene, but multiple scenes,” he explains. “This wasn’t to be filmed in the studio; it was all on the streets of New York and other practical locations in the heat of the summer. My old system just wasn’t going to work. I only had 12 tracks and I wasn’t happy with my wireless system. Plus, the frequencies were just taken over by T-Mobile.”

He reached out to Peter Schneider at Gotham Sound and they arranged a series of wireless demonstrations with six of the biggest wireless companies, including Shure, Sony, Sennheiser, Wisycom and Zaxcom. Maitland had nine criteria his new system needed to meet for West Side Story. The wireless needed to: sound great; pick out frequencies in overcrowded New York City RF zones and switch seamlessly between their assigned frequency and backup frequency; have an excellent range; be capable of handling really low-volume and high-volume without adjustment; be waterproof/sweat proof; be light yet durable; have transmitters that could communicate with his sound console; sound transparent; and be fast and easy to set up, as he had to wire up more than 20 actors.

“We did extensive tests,” he says. “At the end of each company’s demonstration, I did an ear test where I plugged a Sanken lav mic directly into a mixer on one channel, and then I sent another Sanken through their transmitter going into another channel. I could then do a direct comparison to discern if the two mics sounded exactly the same, which is what you want.”

In the end, Maitland chose the Shure Axient Digital system. “I have to say it’s the biggest advancement I’ve seen in production sound, and this just happened before my last movie. West Side Story was the first film I mixed with my new Axient system and it saved me. I was able to keep up with Spielberg, to have everything ready to go when he was, and it sounded great. That was huge.”

Collaboration With Post
An earlier career-changing advancement was the multi-track digital recorder. Those extra tracks not only allow Maitland to record isolated dialog, they give him the ability to capture location ambience and wild sounds.

On West Side Story, Maitland set out ambient plant mics to capture on-camera and off-camera sounds, like era-appropriate cars driving by and kids playing in the background. He recorded the period steam shovels and pushcarts and other specific props on-set. “Now, with Dolby Atmos, the post sound team can use these extra ambient tracks as another way to break down the surround space. My boom operator, Jerry Yuen, was a master of putting mics everywhere.”

Maitland, seated, with his longtime boom operator Jerry Yuen at the portable, weatherproof sound cart put together for After Earth.

This also worked well on Joker. While recording the scene in which Arthur [Joaquin Phoenix] is attacked by the kids in the alleyway as he’s trying to recover his sign, Maitland put a microphone on a water drip that was happening just behind them. “In my mix, I had the drip a little hot because it sounded so good and the director loved it. In the final mix, they came in strong with that drip. So I’m always trying to capture all of these different things, as many as possible, and it’s something the post sound team is happy to get,” shares Maitland.

Collaboration between the production sound and post sound teams is something Maitland would like to see more often. But about 60 percent of the films Maitland works on don’t have an established post-production team during filming, so unfortunately there’s no collaboration. Since the production track is the first thing that is recorded on a movie, it’s essentially the foundation for all the other tracks that follow. Greater collaboration could greatly improve the final soundtrack. Maitland’s last two films were an exception.

On Joker, he did a week of 4-track ambisonic effects and ambience recordings after production wrapped. And on West Side Story, he had a lot of collaboration beforehand with sound designer Gary Rydstrom and re-recording mixer Andy Nelson.

Maitland concludes: “We talked about production sound and all of the live sounds that we could capture, like dancing, live vocals, callouts, period sounds, ambiences, effects and so on. You can reproduce the sounds in post, but it’s never as good as the sound that was recorded on-set. When you hear a film, the goal is to make it feel real, and that starts with the production sound.”