When I made plans for a lunch with Emmy Award-winning sound mixer Frank Morrone, I was in for quite a surprise with where the afternoon would take us. Our lunch in Hollywood quickly led to a tour of his sound stage in Burbank and a private sneak peek into the place of TV commercial legend: The Disney Vault.
Talking about audio over lunch, I asked Frank to give me a background on his musical tastes, specifically what sparked his love interest with sound. He explained that audio wasn't what drew him into his line of work, but rather his love for recording, with a TEAC 3340 four track serving as his first object of infatuation.
"I was working at a music store and one week the owner couldn't pay me—I took the 4-track and we called things even. I still have it to this day."
Frank has come a long way from that four track recorder, having worked with directors the likes of Ron Howard, Tim Burton, John Singleton, Janusz Kaminski, and Lasse Hallstrom on projects like Ransom, Sleepy Hollow, Shaft, Lost Souls, Cider House Rules, and When We Were Kings. Frank also recently signed on as re-recording mixer for yet another project with J.J. Abrams, the new FOX TV drama Alcatraz. In typical JJ Abrams fashion, the first season was shot on location at the actual jail, with special attention to detail in capturing the eeriness of the space. Frank wanted to make sure the sound team did exactly the same: "We went there at night and recorded everything: the jail doors, the ambiance of the space, the reverb of the solitary cell, the exterior of the jail on the water... We got it all."
Translating those recordings into goose bumps for the viewers is definitely not an easy task, especially when JJ Abrams only gives you three days to do it. Once the material is delivered, Frank and his mixing partner are expected to churn out a movie-quality mix for printing within 72 hours. There's dialogue to clean up, reverb to add, fan noise to remove and that's just the beginning. Frank's go-to tool to get the job done: iZotope RX. Frank has been using RX for years on many successful projects like LOST to make sure the soundscape is just right.
"RX is an invaluable tool that I use on every single session I do. If a studio doesn't have it, I make sure it gets installed before the session starts. It is one of those plug-ins that has become a standard in post-production."
Whether he's working on the mini-series The Kennedys, or Kelsey Grammer's new TV show Boss, Frank has favorite modules in RX that he works with most often. When cleaning up audio, his go-to module is the Denoiser, followed by Spectral Repair, Declipper and Declicker. For example, Frank has found that he can actually eliminate ADR and save the production sound on scenes because of Spectral Repair. On Boss, the lav mics picked up a lot of static, but the De-clicker and De-crackle worked really well to clean them up.
As we made the short trip to his soundstage in Burbank, we were soon surrounded by some impressive sound toys. With the number of tracks that each episode requires, Frank keeps each element of the soundtrack separate. Of the seven Pro Tools systems he uses, six are for playback of Dialogue, ADR (automated dialogue replacement), Music, Hard Effects, Backgrounds and Foley, respectively. The seventh system is used as a stem recorder. The two main Pro Tools playback systems are HD5's, while the other five are HD3's . He uses a Soundmaster ION for PEC/Direct monitoring and to sync all seven systems, as well as a two position ICON with 36 faders on one side and 16 on the other. Finally, for screening the video, he uses Virtual VTR for HD picture.
As we were walking through the entryway to get to the studio, a vintage photo of a sound effects artist climbing a ladder happened to catch my eye. He was perched upside a wall with tons of tiny boxes, each labeled with different objects: a saw, metal sticks, marbles, etc. Mentioning the changes in sound editing technologies since that photo to Frank, he remarked:
"Nowadays, we have better tools, but the better the tools get, the shorter the schedules get and the smaller the budgets get. Workflow is everything."
It was clear that everything in Frank's studio has a purpose, and a good one at that, for being there. If something isn't up to snuff, it gets replaced quickly with a better alternative. Having RX be such an integral part of Frank's workflow is a proud milestone for us. Having RX stay in Frank's workflow makes us even prouder.
As we finished up at the studio, Frank mentioned that the "Disney Archives" were right around the corner, but my ears immediately heard the "Disney Vault." A vault it was: rows upon stacks of film canisters and the faint smell of acetate rushed out as the door opened. Everything from Steamboat Willie to Snow White to Dumbo... it was all there and in its original form. As we walked out of the vault and back to my car, Frank pointed out another vintage photo picturing a two sound guys in front of a "board" during a movie screening. He noted:
"This one is my favorite. These guys are working sound at a screening and each of them only has one knob. Those were the days."