John Frost, Supervising Sound Mixer, SonicPool, Hollywood, CA
By Jerry Vigil
No, not that John Frost. There’s yet another John Frost on the West Coast making his living behind a DAW. John, and partner Patrick Bird, are co-founders of SonicPool, a Hollywood-based post production house for audio and video finishing. The company offers such services as online video and color-correction, duplication, offline and online editing suite rental, production office space rental and more, including radio production. Recently, the company has been providing mixing and sound design services for all of the radio spots promoting ABC Daytime Television’s programming. These include spots for “One Life to Live,” “The View,” “All My Children” and “General Hospital.” Mixing TV promos is a job John and company know well. This month’s RAP Interview takes a peek at this fast growing post-production house, and we get some tips from John on how he goes about mixing the audio for those “wall of sound” promos we see on TV and hear on the radio. Be sure to check out this month’s RAP CD for a sampler from SonicPool.
JV: Tell us how you got started in the business.
John: I got started interning at a music studio, where I was introduced to Session 8, which was a junior program of Pro Tools at the time. The owner of the studio let me work in the back on this in my free time, as I did everything else in the daytime. Then I jumped over to a little studio called GM Studios, which was really a dub house trying to be a sound facility. We had three or four rooms, and that’s where I learned Pro Tools. We did a lot of overdubbing in Portuguese and Spanish, for television and film.
From there, I went to a company called Studio City, which is the largest television promo company in the country for broadcast promos. I was there for five years, and I mixed promos until I could mix no more promos.
JV: Wow, five years of nothing but mixing promos for television. That must have been an experience.
John: Yes. Mixing promos for television can be very difficult because you have all the elements thrown in there in a 30-second spot. I like to call it the wall of sound, meaning you’ve got your laugh track, you’ve got your dialogue, you’ve got your music pounding, you’ve got your voice over, you’ve got sound effects. You got everything thrown in there. The trick is to make it jump out at the listener while letting them also hear everything. So the trick is to make it dynamic enough while still being in your face.
JV: We’ll definitely get more into this, but first, tell us how SonicPool came to be.
John: Well, at GM Studios and at Studio City, I worked with my present coworker, Patrick Bird, and together we decided to go out on our own. That was in 2001. It was just before 9/11.
JV: Ouch. That was probably a worrisome time, right after the economy took its post 9/11 hit.
John: Well, it was several things. There was a writers’ strike, I believe it was, at the same time too. So there was nothing going on, basically, in September, October, November, and December, and we had just started up our one little room in April or May of that same year. We were moonlighting, so it didn’t really matter to us. We had our couple of little clients that we had to start with in our own little room, and we just took it as it went. I think it actually turned out to be a blessing because a lot of other post houses went out of business at that time. I think we eventually reaped the benefits of that. We’ve had slow, steady growth ever since.
JV: In a recent interview, someone made a comment about how Pro Tools students are coming out of the woodwork, out of the Pro Tools schools, and they were commenting on how cheap it is to get these people. Has this flood of Pro Tools users created a lot of Pro Tools studios in your area, little shops than can easily underprice you?
John: Perhaps. I know that there are a lot of people who are now doing it in their garage, for example, and they can make a living doing that for little jobs. But for the most part, I don’t see that. I think you’re always going to have those people that are going to do it from their house and do a few little things, but they really can’t handle anything more than just a close personal relationship with one or two clients. Most clients are corporate, and they want to call and schedule something when they need it.
JV: Well you guys have certainly gone to the other side of the spectrum from the garage studio. Tell us a bit about your facility. I know you’ve got a pool table in the lobby.
John: Yeah, we do. We have a 20,000 square foot building, most of which we inhabit, some of it we sublet. One part of it that we sublet is to Current TV, which is a cable network. The rest of it is pretty much ours. We have four mixing stages, three booths, and one Foley stage. We have 12 editorial suites, Avid or FinalCut Pro, that we rent out — which are all booked, as I happily grin. There are 2 online finishing rooms, 1 HD finishing room, and a machine room that’s connected to everything. We have a lobby and a kitchen too, and we try to make that friendly and homey so that people, when they’re waiting for their mix or waiting for their duplication orders, can lounge around, play pool, video games and so forth.
We’ve set it up so that a television show can come in house and start day one. They have a place for their production assistants, for example, with desks that are set up in wider hallways or pocket corners of the building. We have production offices set up with phones and Internet, of course, and furnished so they can walk in day one and get to work. Across the hall, they have three or four editors doing their project.
We offer services like digitizing their footage the day before they come in to make that easier so that they can hit the ground running — the idea being that a television show or a film or any kind of content producer can come in, hit the ground running, and then hopefully they would finish with us, meaning we would do their online and their color and their final mastering of their videos as well as the final audio and lay back to their masters as well. It’s geared to make it easy for content producers to come in, get their job done, and work fast and efficiently.
JV: It sounds like a beautiful, large facility. Would SonicPool be one of the larger post houses in Hollywood?
John: No. We’re independently owned, so I think we’re probably at that cusp where, perception-wise, people think of us as a big company or a mom-and-pop shop. We started with one room, mind you, and over the six years, now we have a good 14- or 15,000 square feet.
JV: What’s been key in your success? I would guess the contacts you made prior to SonicPool probably played a large part.
John: Yeah, my partner and I worked for the biggest promo company, so all those editors kind of splintered off and did their own things and went their own directions, and through those initial relationships, we were able to grow the company slowly and steadily, because not everybody needed work right away, and some people took several years to find their direction and their place. For example, one of the editors from that same company we’ve always stayed in touch with. We just finished a Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles thing for a recent DVD release with him. It’s all relationship based.
JV: What makes SonicPool unique from the other production houses out there on the West Coast?
John: Our little logo on our website and on our cards, it says, “SonicPool,” and then it says, “We love what we do.” I think that makes the difference. We’re not a big corporate place. We’re not just hiring a bunch of people to do jobs. It’s more like we’re hiring people who care about what they’re doing and want to grow and get better.
JV: Our Q It Up question this month is asking readers about how they mix their projects. What are some basic rules you follow when mixing radio promos and commercials? Where do you start in a mix? What’s the approach you take?
John: Well, for me, it’s all about the message. Without the message we have nothing, and usually the message is found in the dialogue. So I always start with the dialogue, get my levels set for my dialogue and get all those as tight as possible, as far as the levels and the editing of it as well. Then I put in my music because I want to create energy, and I try to get that as hot as possible without interfering with the message. I like to do little music spikes as small as two, three, four frames — I had a boss in the past who could take a nap in a frame; we were always drilled to take advantage of everything. So I’ll do little music spikes between words for example. Not between every word, but at the right times, at key moments, maybe to emphasize a word. Then I like to salt and pepper everything with sound effects, typically, and that adds the little spice for me.
JV: When you’re finding these places to spike the music a little, would you move the music bed so that a beat would land right on that special spot, and then you could just spike that beat, or perhaps move the VO track? Is that kind of how you’re finding these little points to emphasize?
John: Absolutely. Yes.
JV: In the mix, where does EQ come in? What are some basic rules regarding EQ that you like to follow?
John: On the radio, I too often hear voices being squeezed too much. And so most important for me is not to overuse that so much. And when I say “squeezed”, I’m talking about narrowing the frequency spectrum. You squeeze all the good stuff out of it.
JV: The old filter effect, we like to call it.
John: Yes, telephone. AM radio.
JV: Yes, that is definitely a popular effect, but I think everybody’s goal is simply to try and get the audio to punch out, to stand out from the other audio around it.
John: Yeah. Or they’re using it because they think they should. It goes back to the thing that you said about the schools. There are a lot of engineers being popped out of these schools, and they’re more excited about the toys and the tools of the trade rather than the actual trade.
JV: So you don’t like to squeeze the audio. How do you use the EQ in your mixes?
John: I think it’s pretty basic what I do, nothing terribly fancy or nothing terribly tricky. I just try to find a nice place for the voice to sit within the music so that the voice is dominating a certain frequency spectrum more so than the music.
JV: So you’ll adjust the EQ on the voice to make it sit in a different area of the spectrum?
John: That’s right.
JV: Is there a typical range that your tweaking seems to fall in – 3K, 4K?
John: It depends on the music. If the music has a lot of high-end stuff, I’ll dip the music in that area. When I say high-end stuff, I’m talking about where the voice sits. If the voice is sitting at 2K, and I have a lot of 2K in my music, then I’ll dip that area of the music a little bit. I won’t necessarily even have to use an EQ on the voice if it’s already heavy in the 2K area, for example. I like to use EQ subtractively rather than adding to the audio, because when you add EQ – especially with these digital EQs — when you add stuff, it always adds other artifacts in the other areas of the spectrum. And subtractively, I have a little more control over the end product. I think EQ sounds better when you subtract rather than add.
JV: Speaking of digital EQs, what are some of your favorite plugs?
John: The d2 from Focusrite. And I like the new Pro Tools EQ3. I mean, I have my problems with both of them, but those are my go to ones there.
JV: What problems do you have with these plugs?
John: Well, it’s not so much about the sound as it is about the interface. For example, the new Pro Tools EQ3, when working in surround, you can only see two of the meters. It doesn’t show you all five — just little nuance things that sort of make me go, “Why’d they do that?”
JV: You’re not one of these guys that has some analog rack equipment that you can’t let go of, are you?
John: No, I’m not. I don’t want to be excluded from that group; however, I’m definitely not cut from that mold. I’m a realist. I never have a client say to me, “My god, I just can’t hear the blue in that.”
JV: Well, you’re pretty young anyway. Were you even in the business back in the analog days?
John: No. I’ve never mixed on a board professionally, on a mixing board. We don’t have mixing boards in our rooms. Everything’s done with the keyboard and a mouse.
JV: When and how do you like to use compression?
John: I like to use it all over the place, really — lightly on my VO and lightly on my sound bites. Then I like to put more of a limiter or a heavy compressor on the master, never compressing more than about 6dBs. It’s really a compressor, but it’s acting more like a limiter. I’m setting the threshold kind of low and the ratio kind of high. So when I hit it, I’m compressing a little bit harder without limiting. This way I can also compress the music without actually compressing it initially, and get that music popping out.
JV: When producing a spot with a lot of different music clips, like a concert spot, sometimes I’ll put all the music clips on one track, and put a compressor on that track to get fast control of the levels, rather than adjusting individual levels of the clips or using a volume envelope. Is that an approach that you would use for a project like that?
John: Yes, certainly, but most of the time, I’m doing it manually with volume automation on those music tracks, rather than putting a compressor across them. I’m actually going in and raising or lowering a section of the music or dipping a higher section of the music with volume automation.
JV: What kind of monitors are you using?
John: We have three near fields. One is sort of like a mid field set, which is the JBL LSR series. And then I have two sets of near fields. One set is the JBL LSR 1s, the small ones, and then the Genelec 1030s. And then I monitor in mono from a TV on the side. We use a MultiMAX master section, and we sum it down in mono there and play it out of the TV.
JV: So you bounce the mix between several monitors before you decide you’re through.
John: Yeah, listening at different levels. I always like to listen really low before I finish something.
JV: When you are going through all the monitors and at different levels, do you find yourself making a lot of adjustments?
John: No, they’re more broad scoping changes. For example, maybe I’ll raise the VO a half a dB because it’s not as big on the mono monitor as it was on my near fields because I lost some base or vice versa. Or maybe I can pump that music up just a little bit more based on my different monitors.
JV: What are your microphones of choice, and what’s in the mike chain?
John: The Sennheiser 416 and an Audio-Technica 4047. The chain is pretty clean. It’s pretty simple. We just use a channel strip mike pre, which is called Eureka, and the predecessor to it was called the VXP, by PreSonus. And then we have a JoeMeek VC2 two-channel in another room.
JV: Let’s say you’re doing a promo for a television show that will air both on TV and on radio. Will you produce and mix the audio differently for the promo that airs on TV than you will for the one that will run on radio?
John: I might, but it’s more of an editorial thing than it is a sound thing, because for the radio spot, you may not have quite as many open spaces for visual jokes or visual graphics that pop up or something. So it’s more of an editorial change than it is a modification to the mix, because we have that “wall of sound” already for the TV promo, which is a lot like a radio mix.
JV: When you listen to radio, do you find yourself critiquing the quality of the commercials and promos that you hear?
John: Yeah. And more than the actual sound – other than a few squeezed dialogue lines that I always say I would have done differently — it’s the editorial, because I come from that squeeze everything into every frame world, and the wall of sound is also taking advantage of every frame. So I always hear dead spaces. I don’t quite fall asleep in a frame, but I always notice the dead spaces.
JV: Your “wall of sound” technique sounds like that might be SonicPool’s signature on a mix. Would you say that’s correct?
John: Yeah, it is. It can only be used for certain things though. Obviously you can’t use that in a television show. You can’t use that in a film. You can’t use that in a lot of commercials, per se. But you use it in promos and other things that have a lot of stuff packed in there.
JV: That’s something that goes back several decades in radio production and even back to the early ‘60s with Phil Spector and his hit records produced with that signature “wall of sound.” They filled every little hole.
John: Yeah. And the biggest trick is to make that wall of sound dynamic. So even though you have this wall of sound coming at you, this constant barrage of decibels, you still hear the kicks, you still hear the punches, and you still hear where you’re supposed to get more excited than the other place.
JV: Once you get all the audio up on the tracks, and all that’s left is just building this wall of sound, let’s say, on a 30 second promo, how long will you spend on something like this, just tweaking the mix?
John: Two to three hours. And the thing with a promo is, you spend two or three hours on the 30-second spot, but then you have a series of cut downs. You’ve got two different versions of the 15, perhaps. You’ve got a ten. You’ve got a five. You’ve got different versions of the 5. And so it’s worth putting the time in the 30 because all that stuff is going to be copied down into all of the cut downs. So it sort of evens out a little bit.
JV: Your website has links for production music and sound effects, but it looks like that area is still under construction. Are these things that you’re going to be offering soon?
John: Yes. We’d like to have offered them sooner, but it’s just something that’s been in the kettle. We’ve been working on developing a music library as well as sound effects for license or sale, and we’re continuing to work on that.
JV: Any parting tips for radio producers in their studios trying to create that big-time Hollywood sound?
John: I don’t have much advice other than to say it’s experience. You gotta play, you gotta fill, and you gotta have the desire.
JV: What’s down the road for you guys?
John: We’re going to keep this growing. We’d like to bring a few more television shows in house. Our goal is to get a primetime television show in house, so they would do their offline here as well as their finishing for their video and their audio. We’d like to have that happen maybe this year or next year. Definitely, we’re going to keep it going.