US-based production sound mixer Adam Sanchez talks about his career, how he got there, and what his CantarX-3 brings to him in his work
- Interview by Mel Noonan, StylusMC
2013 on the set of ‘Birdman’. I was very proud of the work that Tom Varga, Brendan O’Brien and I did on this one, and the way Tom Varga mixed that picture strongly influences the way I work today.
- photo credit Alison Rosa
Adam, re your growing up years, were there any influences that may have led you to your later sound career?
Growing up, I was always either out and about, exploring and collecting things, or in a garage taking things apart and putting them back together. It’s still one of the things I like the most about being a location sound mixer, going to new and exciting places, collecting experiences, gathering sound, and, occasionally, taking something apart and putting it back together.
Where do you live now?
I live in Sparkill, New York, which is a small one-light town about an hour outside of New York City. I like it there mainly because it’s a little bit more quiet and sleepy than New York City.
Are you a family guy?
I am married, with one kid. My son is 9 years old, and name is Ulysses. He is the most important thing I’ve ever done.
Booming for Michael Barosky on a movie called ‘Run All Night’ - it was very cold and wet!
- photo credit Myles Aronowitz
Have you moved around a lot in your career?
Yes, but not for production sound. I’ve always held a job on the side since I was 14, and I have changed career paths quite a bit. I was born in Miami (half Cuban/half German-American), grew up in the exurbs of Philadelphia, and went to college and got a Bachelor’s of Liberal arts (focus in Philosophy and Biology) in Indiana. From there I moved around. When I left college, I unsuccessfully tried to get a foot in the door at music studios in Portland, Oregon. While I was there, unemployment hit 13% and so I worked as a theater projectionist. I really became a cinephile, because I was able to watch films without the matte frame, and could see all this ‘stuff’ that wasn’t intended to be in the film.
I eventually decided that wasn’t the life for me, and I moved back to Philadelphia. I worked my way up to running and fixing PA systems to live mixing for bands, and had a few jobs here and there for touring acts and a bit of studio time recording hip-hop. I moved to New York after a friend of mine offered me a job as a boom operator, and I fell in love with the work. From there, I just hustled my way through ENG/News work, to documentaries, and eventually settled into narrative work, which was where I wanted to be. During that time, I moved back to Philadelphia, then North Carolina, and even took a hiatus in Hong Kong, but I’ve always worked in the film business in the New York region.
At what stage did you realise that sound recording was what you wanted to do for a career?
As I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, I took some extra classes in electronic recording and instrumentation. I would often ‘borrow’ audio equipment from the A/V lab and run around recording noises and then mixing them into experimental sorts of sound sculptures. It was really rewarding and relaxing, and a fun sort of puzzle to put together - how to make a sound you’re imagining out of thin air. After that, I decided that I wanted to move to Portland, Oregon, and work in a music studio. So i took my 1/4” reel to reel machine and mixer and a bunch of contact microphones and moved there. I made lots of projects on my own, but I was unable to figure out how to network my way into the music business. Unemployment was high and nobody was hiring tape ops in the middle of a recession.
Now I have everything I need on one aluminum plate, and I can quickly pull this system off my cart and go to a process trailer, something that I really appreciate with my CantarX-3.
What were your first paid jobs, if any, for recording in those early years?
I really didn’t start getting paid for sound work until I was a bit older, and back in Philadelphia - I had already made a really unsuccessful go at getting myself a job as a tape op in music studios. I wanted to work as a sound mixer, but I didn’t have any contacts or a resume, so I walked over to a nearby music venue and handed them a fake resume. Back then, there wasn’t really any way of verifying the information, short of looking up the places in a phone book and calling them. From then on, I would procure a copy of every manual on every piece of equipment I was using, and I’d hide it somewhere, and read them all on my off time. In a few years’ time, I was working at 4 or 5 different venues, and eventually working part time in a music studio. I really did fake it till I made it. It’s not the prettiest story out there, but it's the truth. And to be honest, it’s that mercenary sort of spirit that I enjoy the most about filmmaking - we’re all just sort of faking it, tricking the viewer into believing the stories we create.
My first few jobs as a boom operator came about when a good friend of mine called me up from New York. He was mixing a short commercial spot and found himself without an operator. At that point, i knew how to stereo mic concert orchestras, and I knew how to mix and mic 10-15 piece soul bands, so I figured that I could try my hand at swinging a mic on a stick. And I loved it. Besides, compared to a lot of other places, they paid on time!
After that first taste, I basically invested my time heavily into working my way through/into the film business. I took on a lot of indie film work, a lot of documentaries, and I filled out my schedule with work for foreign news agencies. The best thing that happened to me was getting my union card and having access to larger budget narrative work. At the time I felt like I had worked so hard to get there, that I was in the middle of my career, but the truth was that I was only just beginning to understand how to do this work.
On the set of ‘Dexter: New Blood’. This system served me well in temperatures ranging from -20F (with snow up to my knees), to 100F (on hot august days). It has been so reliable, and I was very grateful to not have to think about my gear while I recorded this show.
- photo credit Cameron Morton
What gear were you using back then?
When I was working in live sound, the transition to digital mixing was underway, and it was an interesting time - in the small punk rock and neo-soul venues, we were still using 16-24 channel 4 bus analog consoles, but the big touring acts had just started adapting digital mixing boards where you could take snapshots. RF really didn’t need to be managed, and IEMs were sort of plug-and-play. I had to keep my brain on both sides of the analog/digital divide. When I got into boom operating, it felt like technologically, the whole thing was a big step backwards - we were working with little four channel field mixers, and either a Nagra or a DAT machine, and maybe 3 wireless microphones. In the film world, compared to other places to work in sound, it’s less about technology, and more about good microphone placement, good set politics, and clever ways of keeping the set quiet. I became less concerned with patch bays, compressor settings, snapshots and routing, noise gates, etc., and more concerned with the details of quieting down props, the art of hiding lavalier mics, and the politics of working alongside other craftspeople. To a large extent, I’m still in that frame of mind. Working now with an AatonX-3 and 15 channels of digital wireless in the current RF environment feels like a return to where I started.
This was my very first show with the CantarX-3, which I purchased in 2016 and pressed it into service on a picture called ‘Summertime’ - I needed something small and powerful, and self-contained for shooting on the beach in the summer. It was the perfect environment for me to learn the machine and become really adept with it.
What about the experience of your training in sound? How did it all go? What were the high points you remember?
Because I was never formally trained, a lot of my ‘high points’ involve getting through to the other side of a challenging scenario with the resources I had at-hand. I’ve always enjoyed getting in over my head and then figuring it out. It’s never been particularly easy, but it’s always been rewarding. As a live sound mixer in small to medium sized venues, I was constantly plunged into situations where I would have to construct a sound reinforcement mix out of thin air with no sound check; I did a lot of live neo-soul events with multiple vocalists, four part horn sections, and creative percussion. It really made me quick on my feet, and that translated well to my early jobs as a small indie film/documentary sound mixer.
Doing indie films and documentary sound was another really fun time for me. I learned how to load a camera, how to light a set, I had my first taste of negotiations with clients, and I had some really nice little successes. Most importantly, I had a few disasters from which I had to recover - failure is a great teacher!
As a boom operator and utility, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of great sound mixers, boom operators, and utility people along the way, and that has been invaluable. I’ve learned from each and every person I’ve worked for and with, and I owe the way I work to them all. I can think of instances where I learned from the other technicians I’ve worked alongside simply by being there. A lot of what we do in production sound involves seamlessly flowing with the other departments as they work, and so I’m especially grateful to have worked with some of the best, or when I get to see a really top notch craftsperson do their job. I’m especially grateful for camera operators like Bruce McCallum, who passed away in 2017, and who taught me a lot about the craft of filmmaking, just by being there, being kind and patient.
When I was working on ‘High Fidelity’, we were shooting in a basement bar with very limited access and a very limited footprint. Rather than running hundreds of feet of rf cable and/or placing my wireless receivers remotely, I prefer to go small and work close to camera - this system snaps off my cart and can be operated from a lighting stand.
What were your first jobs as a production sound mixer? How was the experience?
I had a lot of little jobs as a production sound mixer on small indie pictures and documentaries, and they were all very fun, and quite thrilling. Setting up mics, crossing your fingers and pressing record still gives me a twinge of excitement. My first job on a large television show as a boom operator was equally exciting, as was my first big movie. When I transitioned from boom operating to production sound mixer full time, it was a really exciting time. My son was very young, and I had taken out a sizable loan from family members to finance the equipment, with the promise of paying them back on a very tight schedule. My budget was tight, and I was using exactly the amount of equipment I needed to do the job, no more no less. I didn’t have a comfortable buffer of additional microphones, backup recorders, etc. At the time, the stakes felt very high. Looking back on it, I rather enjoyed the pressure, and, I am proud to have thrived under those circumstances.
Do you remember the first kit you owned as a production sound mixer? How was the experience of using it?
Before I bought anything, I operated other people’s equipment and rented gear as needed. I remember learning how to operate a Nagra 4 and a Sennheiser MKH816 mic owned by a documentary filmmaker I worked for. It was definitely a much nicer machine than the old Wollensak I used in college! In retrospect, it was a beautiful machine, and bomb proof, but heavy, and so were the metal boom poles! When I did news, Betacams were the thing to use, and we had a little Shure mixer and an MKH416 mic tethered to a camera.
The very first kit I purchased myself as a sound mixer was a small four-channel mixer, a dat machine, and a set of AKG microphones. I would rent or borrow wireless as needed. I was proud of my kit, and I kept it in good condition, but it was very limited. It was stolen out of my car within the first four years I owned it. The bulk of the work I did back then was on DAT, which seemed to combine the worst aspects of both tape and non linear digital workflows.
My first fully fledged sound cart had a beautiful 8 channel Sonosax board which I loved to death, even though it constantly needed repair, and lacked talkback or anything more than a stereo bus. It was tethered to a really clunky early digital recorder with a dreadful menu and strict limitations on media, the kind of machine that makes me very grateful for my CantarX-3. :-)
When I had transitioned to mixing full time, my needs were much less romantic, and I had become less attached to my equipment. I was using a Cooper 106+1 and a 788t, which at the time were the two most bomb-proof pieces of equipment I could purchase; I liked them because they were workhorses that I could drop down a flight of stairs and trust them to turn on and turn over. I had needed no more than six channels of wireless, and the routing was limited, but capable. It’s a far cry from where I am now - I’m currently operating 15 channels of wireless, and I’m looking into expanding to more!
This is an early version of my cart that I used on ‘Godfather of Harlem’ and ‘High Fidelity’ - The idea was to be as light and portable as possible, and to seamlessly transition from tight locations to driving shots, and back to more conventional shooting situations.
When did you first become aware of Aaton recorders?
I had been aware of Aaton film cameras early on but when they started making audio devices like the CantarX-1 I was really tuned in. They felt like these gorgeous, unattainable works of art that only really top-notch foreign technicians had in their kit. As a boom operator and a sound utility I had the benefit of working for a few sound mixers who used the Aaton CantarX-1 and X-2, and I admired the workmanship to be sure. When I had the opportunity to buy the X-3, I jumped in early, and ended up buying two.
What led you to the decision to buy your first Aaton X-3?
My decision to buy the X-3 was born out of a desire to transition to a completely digital workflow. I had recently had a series of challenges on a job where I was using Dante and a large digital console, and I had thoroughly overrun the capabilities of my then current recorder. I wanted to run a completely digital wireless system, going from AES3 to a recorder, and to mix on a control surface in the smallest, most rugged platform I could put together. I wanted Dante i/o and the CantarX-3 fit the bill. The ability to live mirror in poly wav to SD card, the flexibility in file naming and metadata input, and the ability to quickly batch-edit metadata is the reason I’m not letting mine go anytime soon!
Did you just jump in and start using it for real, or did you spend some time first getting to know it?
I spent a little bit of time getting to know it, because I was building the new kit while using my old kit on another television show. But, truthfully, I found the machine to be relatively intuitive, and after a week or so of prep, I jumped in with both feet. At the time I had secured a small movie that was shot mainly in tough-to-access beach locations. The X-3 was the perfect tool for the job, and performed flawlessly.
Another version of my system on a rolling stand. This was built to allow me to quickly deploy from the back of a van, and to be in and out in five minutes. Its still my favorite version of my kit, and really served me well when we were in the woods on ‘Dexter: New Blood’.
What are the features of the X-3 that you now really appreciate in your work?
The X-3 is a lovely piece of equipment, and I’m grateful to be using it every day.This machine has been my constant companion for the last five years. It’s the most purpose-driven piece of location equipment I own, and it feels like an extension of my hands at this point. I find the architecture to be well thought out, and the menus and functions are flexible and intuitive. The file Management capabilities of the X3 give me all the flexibility I need with our post production workflows, and the input/output matrix make me confident that I can handle any challenge presented to me without the need for additional hardware. The preamplifiers are so very impressive, both in sonic character and headroom. The limiters have a nice clean characteristic, and the headphone amplifiers are clean. The X3 really gives you the feeling that you’re in good hands - there’s plenty of available dynamic range.
But I think the best thing I can say about the X-3 is that generally I don’t think about it at all. I don’t like equipment that makes wild demands on my time and attention. I’d prefer to focus on my relationship with my team and my relationship with other craftspeople, good microphone placement and quiet sets. Now that I have it set up the way I like it, I rarely think about it unless I am asked to do something a little bit complicated, and even then, it’s so versatile that I can quickly make it do what it is asked to do.
I’d say that the data management capabilities of the X-3 outperform any other recorder on the market. Getting information in and out of it, organized, ameliorated, and moved is easy and there’s no guesswork involved.
I also appreciate the complexity and refinement of output bussing and matrixing. A lot of what the job entails these days is communication-oriented, and I rest easy knowing that I can generate multiple sub-mixes and route them anywhere. I can make any knob or slider control anything I want. It’s a Swiss army knife.
And here’s the last thing, and I truly hope that Aaton continues this with the X3- I know that inside that cute black box on my cart is more processing power than is needed for the task at hand. I have never run the machine to its outer limits of processing, and I hope I never do. It just plain works.
It used to be that you purchased a machine that was purpose-built to perform a single task, and did so mechanically or electrically. Perhaps you kept a relationship with a good repair person, but that experience was usually limited. Now we buy a black box with a ton of versatility, and in doing so, buy into a relationship with a team of developers. I am very happy with the relationship I have with Aaton. Aaton’s support team is very good, and the service I have encountered has been very personalized and prompt. They care about their product, and it shows.
You have obviously worked hard and built up a good body of work. Looking back over it all, which are the highlights that stand out in your career so far, and why? If it was movies, was it because of the script, the crew, the location, whatever?
The highlights for me have been moments on projects where the production design and costume design, acting, and cinematography is pitch perfect, and the project has been completely immersive and challenging in an interesting way, and you lose yourself. I love those moments when you look around and realize that the entire world you are living in is thoroughly make-believe, and that you’ve been watching through that lens for so long, you nearly feel like you’re in it… I got lost in the set design and the chaos of ‘Birdman’, and I was really mesmerized by the taut performances on ‘The Americans’… Most recently, ‘Dexter: New Blood’ was one of those projects - Michael C. Hall is a really talented actor, and the direction, cinematography, production design, and costumes on that project all conspired to take me someplace else. It was a privilege to be there to document those moments with the best possible fidelity. I look forward to more moments like that.
Another use of my detachable recording package on the set of ‘Flight Attendant’ - we worked for two days on a moving train in Long Island. What would otherwise have been a complicated setup was made very easy - I was able to deploy 12 channels of wireless and be set up in a matter of minutes. It really freed me up to do the more interesting work of properly mic-ing and mixing the scenes.
Considering all your experiences along the way, what advice would you offer to those starting out or in the early part of their sound careers?
I think that I would advise people starting out in their sound careers to take the time to know the people they are working alongside, to be willing to compromise, and to be willing to ask for help. It’s a lesson I’m still learning in this business. The more flexible I am, the less demanding and rigid, and absolute my thinking, the better my results, and the better time I have at the job. You don’t want to think about the gear too much - they’re tools, so surround yourself with good ones. And don’t be afraid to get yourself in over your head.
Do you want to thank anyone for the help that was extended to you in your career along the way?
I am grateful to the mixers who I’ve worked under who have lead by example, mixers like Tom Varga, Michael Barosky, and Danny Michael. I am especially grateful for Tom Varga, who supported me when I transitioned to mixing full time, and who I consider a colleague and a good friend.
And I’m grateful to my family, who puts up with all the crazy hours I work.
Where do you go from here?
I look forward to more exciting locations, more travel, bigger challenges… Above all, I relish those opportunities I get when I work with truly great craftspeople who through their labors take to some new and exciting imaginary world. Our technology increasingly removes obstructions to filmmaking and creates new challenges. I look forward to seeing what happens next.
On the set of ‘The Affair’ with an earlier version of my cart - 6 wireless and 8 channels of recording with an analog console - Its a far cry from the flexibility I’m working with today!
One of the last shows I boomed - ‘Mozart In the Jungle’ - I really am grateful for having spent as much time as a boom operator and utility as I have, and I am just as proud of my work under the pole as I am in front of the mixing board.
My portable package in the woods on the set of ‘Dexter: New Blood’ - being able to quickly bop off the cart and deploy 12 channels of wireless and 24 tracks, all on battery power is such a pleasure.
Mixing ‘City on A Hill’. I can’t say enough good things about the X-3 and Cantarem2 combination, how easy it is to route and mix in such a small footprint.
On the set of Showtime’s ‘City On A Hill’, the show I’m currently working on. Having so much recording power in such a small footprint has been critical to my department’s success on this show - the locations are very tight, and the story is very much driven by the dialogue. We often shoot without rehearsing, and having a system with so much available dynamic range has proven indispensable. The location here was Bayley Seton Hospital in Staten Island, a very spooky and haunted (now defunct) hospital.
- photo credit Francisco Roman
Showtime’s ‘City On A Hill’ again, here located at the New York City Bar Association, which we used as a set for our courtroom scenes. Doing all the heavy lifting in the background is the extremely talented boom operator Paul Koronkiewicz, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for his hard work in tight spaces.
- photo credit Francisco Roman
On a process trailer on ‘City on A Hill’ in 2021.
My son Ulysses and I on the set of the ‘The Affair’ when he was very young. He’s nine years old now, and he can’t visit me on set anymore because of Covid concerns. I miss his set visits.