Meet Re-Recording Mixer Karol Urban, CAS

Interview by Wendy Woodhall

One of LAPPG’s big supporters is this impressive woman, Karol Urban, CAS. Karol understands the importance of providing an opportunity for people in the industry to meet monthly and recommends LAPPG to many people as a great place to network and find work. Karol’s career and her work as President of Cinema Audio Society as well as her dedication to giving back to the community is inspiring indeed. Meet Karol Urban, CAS!

Los Angeles Post Production Group: As an in house re-recording mixer/sound designer at Discovery Channel in DC many years ago, what made you want to move to Los Angeles and what were your professional goals? 

Karol Urban: I was in my mid-thirties and felt I was running out of new challenges in D.C. D.C. is mainly a documentary and edutainment market.  I had worked for Discovery for almost a decade and I knew the brand extremely well. My husband, Steve Urban, did a lot of work for National Geographic in the same capacity. We were both in need of new adventures.

We wanted that type of creative battle within yourself that forces you to grow. We were both hungry to learn new ways of working and find new creative ways to tell stories with sound. But we loved D.C. and there are many things we still miss. For starters, giving up a full-time position with exceptional benefits for a freelance life in the LA market is definitely more stressful!

I credit much of our success in LA as a result of the combination of tasks one is expected to perform in D.C. as an audio post mixer or sound designer, the two more common professional titles. In D.C., I did every aspect of audio post from editorial to tape layback for almost every project I touched. It was not unusual to have to be a dialog editor, ADR/narration mixer, sound effects editor, sound designer, music editor, an occasional Foley artist and mixer, and re-recording mixer (while usually acting as your own mix tech/recordist). This gave me a great foundation of skills and a broad perspective of the challenges the entire sound team faces. I’m grateful for it because it still makes me very handy, resourceful, and respectful of my sound teams today. 

LAPPG: Can you detail the type of work that you do in post production audio?

Karol tweaking the sound on a project.

KU: My specialty is re-recording mixing and my general career focus is dialogue and music. I occasionally mix single mixer projects and I occasionally mix sfx with some very talented re-recording mixers.  I still cut the occasional reel of dialogue, or supervise a film project or pilot, but having a focus that takes up a good 90% of my time has creatively freed me to expand my storytelling tools and techniques….to hone better and better skills. Now, working as part of a fully complimented sound crew, I am continually grateful to the other sound team members on my projects, who bestow their knowledge and perspective on me daily. There is a seemingly endless array of types of work, workflows, and creative approaches. 

LAPPG: Woody and I knew of you before you left the east coast for the warmer weather of the west coast because you did an impressive job of getting the word out that you were coming to town and then you followed up with coming to an LAPPG networking meeting. Can you share advice for those who are relocating and how they can best prepare for a big move professionally?

KU: Ironically, I wasn’t even sure I was going to move to LA until 2 weeks before I did. I knew I wanted to learn from masters and I sought my masters pretty aggressively, even across the country. While still in D.C., I began posting about the work I was doing and the work I wanted to do and adored.  I asked questions and shared mixing experiences online on audio blogs, social media, and forums.  I joined AES, MPSE, and CAS, and began volunteering as a writer for the CAS Quarterly publication. This allowed me the ability to interview or chat with talented people and introduce myself in a way where I was sincerely just looking to get to know them.  Soon, I had made friends. 

I wrote fan mail to mixers who were killing it on a particular film or TV show that I would fall in love with. I can’t believe now I have actually had the honor of working with many of these masters. Amazing!

My husband and I also spent our vacation every year visiting LA for the CAS and MPSE Awards. Before I even knew I was going to move to LA, I was already visiting friends and touring studios. When I ultimately moved here, I attended the LA Sound Group, LAPPG, and started volunteering more heavily in CAS and MPSE.

Breaking in is scary and hard, and I still have many hurdles to climb and goals to reach.  On every project, no matter how small or big or seemingly straight forward, I try to give something extra of myself and look for ways to grow.  Between every project, I study, I listen, and I learn.   

LAPPG: How long have you lived in LA now? In that time what was the trajectory to get to where you are now, working on popular network shows including Grey’s Anatomy, Kingdom and New Girl?

Karol mixing Station 19.

I moved here in September of 2011. I remember being really lost and concerned that I had made a jump I could not survive. I was fortunate to begin working right away as I had a short contract with a small studio called Gray Martin Studios next to Lantana in Santa Monica that I landed ahead of my move to Los Angeles.  There I worked on Discovery shows, reality shows for Viacom, commercials, and the occasional scripted non-union shows like FX’s The League.   After fulfilling that contract, I started freelancing for Wildwoods and Levels and many of the non-union houses around town. 

People are understandably hesitant to put a person they don’t know in a room with clients. It takes time to show people your demeanor and commitment. So in an effort to expand my client list and demonstrate my professionalism to facilities, I began selling post-sound packages to producers and directors myself through Urban Audio Post. We began four walling dub stages at places I wanted to hire me as a re-recording mixer.  This gave me more scripted and film experience along with valuable exposure within the LA area. There was very little money in it at first.  But we were determined.  At one point I was working 2-3 days a week at Levels on The Bachelor franchise, was editing and pre-dubbing Dance Mom’s on the weekend for another mixer, working on indie films for Juniper Post, working 2 union days a week at Fox on promos for the FX network, all while Steven supervised our own clients and prepared them for the dub stage where he mixed FX and I mixed dialog and music.  I knew something was going to break open, I just needed to stay focused and steady. 

All the while, any random day that I happened to not be booked, week day or weekend, I tried to expand my network. On my “days off” my calendar was filled with anywhere between one to three appointments to meet somebody new.

After two solid years of burning the candle at both ends, fate stepped in. Through a random online contact and some thorough cross-referencing of people they had worked with that I knew personally, I was given the opportunity to audition for Grey’s Anatomy. Through that audition I landed the FX chair, and that began the next chapter of my career.

LAPPG: Audio is a notoriously male dominated field, were there special challenges as a female or did it actually offer you opportunities?

KU: Just in the last couple of years, I do think being female has occasionally been considered in my favor. In the past it was generally a source of disqualification and discomfort.

Sadly, bias and gender stereotyping do exist. It is not an easy nor fair world. But, I don’t give that “noise” too much power over me. I want to be “so good they can’t ignore me”. This is my singular goal.  I want to be chosen for my merits and what I bring to the table. So, I focus on bringing that thunder. As more and more people who embody diversity continue to succeed based on their talents and take their power, I believe this type of thing will naturally diminish. 

Personally, I am truly counting the days until we have reached a level of empathy and understanding across gender lines where we can simply be considered for what we can offer a project.  That is the goal. It pains me to think that anyone, male, female, or otherwise, would be overlooked for a position based on anything that is not related to the task at hand.

LAPPG: Have you seen women’s roles in the audio industry change in the last 10 years you’ve been in Hollywood? What do you see happening in the future? 

KU: Early in my career, my girlfriends were never other mixers.  I was more than a decade into my career before I met another woman mixer.  Now, there is some serious female competition. Perhaps that is due to my new location, but yes, I do see the stereotypes of my position changing.

Ideally, in the future, your mixer could be anyone to such a degree that you have no picture in your mind of who that person is before you meet them. We are creatives and diversity on any team breeds an expanded perspective.  I would love for the future to bring an age where we can just be whoever we are and be evaluated for what we can do as sound professionals to elevate a particular project. 

LAPPG: What projects have been the most rewarding for you creatively and professionally?

KU: Usually I find the most creatively and professionally rewarding projects are ones that come to me on the heels of something very different.  For instance, I was really creatively stimulated when I went from a season of Grey’s Anatomy, Station 19, and Single Parents to horror films for Hulu’s Into The Dark horror film anthology series.

Karol mixing “Grey’s Anatomy”

When a big contrast like this hits my schedule I begin to really notice trends and differences in storytelling. For instance, I was able to observe the consistent imperative importance of timing, which is crucial in both drama, comedy and horror. But, in general, the techniques differ.  For instance, horror generally works by building anticipation to a moment and then misdirecting the delivery of the action. A jump scare doesn’t work if you expect it.  But comedy generally has an “on” rhythm where the timing lets you know that there is a punch line or commentary occurring… a moment to laugh. The switch from one to the other has been very stimulating. Occasionally, I get to offer very valuable solutions to enhancing the narrative by applying the tools from one genre in another. Soon, I will go from dramedy to historical period sci-fi. I can’t wait!!!

LAPPG: You were elected President of Cinema Audio Society (CAS) last year. Congratulations! What part of CAS’s mission appealed to you most and lead you to want to take on such a huge position?

CAS President Karol Urban and husband, Steve Urban MPSE.

KU: I was inspired to run by our encouraging and generous members as well as past leaders of the organization.  What fellow mixers have done for me in regard to education, encouragement, and opportunity is nothing less than incredible. Fostering that behavior within our society and paying it forward to future members of our community is the right thing to do. The CAS was founded on the concept that through community we are stronger and can achieve a higher level of excellence in our craft than we can alone.  We can lift each other up.  This is how I see my mission as President.  I want to bring people together, facilitate opportunity, and create fraternity. 

It really is an amazing opportunity to be able to serve in this capacity.  This is one of the greatest honors I will have in my lifetime. The faith and confidence the members of the CAS have entrusted in me is very precious.

LAPPG: What experience and credentials do LAPPG members or audio professionals in general need to join this prestigious organization and what are some of the benefits and resources CAS provides for its members?

Benefits of membership include:
-Voting privileges in the CAS Awards (Active only)
-Use of letters “CAS” after Screen Credits (Active only)
-Mail distribution of our CAS Quarterly magazine
-A myriad of discounts, screening invites, FYC event invitations, panels, screeners, etc.
-Exclusive invitations to CAS social events, membership meetings, CAS education events, and CAS member screenings.
-Access to the membership directory.
-Community outreach and volunteer opportunities including judging the Student Recognition Awards and interviewing award-winning mixers for the CAS Quarterly.

But most of all, you are made part of a group that is dedicated to elevating sound mixing for film and television within the entertainment industry and the professional community.  

The CAS has a number of classifications of membership for which you can apply.  

We offer:
1. Active

2. Associate

3. Student

Active members are active sound mixers who have a minimum of 5 years of verifiable, credited mixing experience in motion pictures or television, have been sponsored by 2 active members, have completed and submitted a complete signed application, received approval by 2/3 of our board of directors, and have had their names published in the CAS Quarterly for 30 days. 

Associate members are individuals involved in cinematic sound, or a closely related field, who do not qualify for active membership.

Student members are individuals actively enrolled in a recognized educational program with an interest in the Art of Cinematic Sound.

LAPPG: How do you maintain balance between your work as a re-recording mixer and your equally time consuming job as President of CAS, the prestigious industry association.

KU: Balance? What’s that?

Sincerely, I live what I do. That is my personality.  I am a bit fanatical about it.  While I do enjoy a couple hours here or there to play the piano, take a kickboxing class, or escape town with my hubby, I really find a lot of joy in this wonderful, fascinating, mind-controlling, invisible animal called sound. I never get sick of it and I can’t be away from it too long. And I am blessed, my husband is a fanatic too. He even serves on the board for the Motion Picture Sound Editors and devotes huge amounts of time assisting this sister organization.

That being said, I am a big list maker and love to check things off.  I block out time every day to respond to emails and phone calls for the organization and for my career. I still spend my “days off” planning initiatives, meeting with members or folks new to town, or reaching out to potential resources to enrich the CAS membership experience. Once a month, the CAS has a board meeting and there are other activities we throw. All of which I make a priority, right behind paying work. 

It is a crazy game to balance and at times a bit overwhelming.  But it never ceases to be an honor and a privilege.

LAPPG:  Can you offer any advice to those coming to LA to pursue a career in post production?

KU: Get out there!! Get involved.  If you hear of something and you can’t do it, make it your mission to pass on that opportunity on to someone who can truly use it and will treat that opportunity well.  Be the advocate for someone else that you seek for yourself. 

When starting on a new job or on a new team, always do things “their” way first. Until you master “their” way, you have no business offering changes. There may be a reason for their methodology that you have not discovered and conforming before innovating will show respect and ensure you are truly offering a better solution. You can’t know what you don’t know, ya know?