We want to introduce you to an accomplished re-recording mixer, Tara Paul, CAS. Having worked 10 seasons on a little show known as “The Simpsons”, Tara shares insights into how episodes of this show were mixed, as well as her work on the Board of Directors of the Cinema Audio Society, and what she finds is the most challenging aspect of mixing.
Los Angeles Post Production Group: Can you talk about how you worked your way up the ladder from night receptionist to being a re-recording mixer at Sony? What was your path and what do you think you did right along the way?
Tara Paul: Oh wow. What a crazy trip. I did work really hard and I am inherently a persistent person, but I was also incredibly blessed with the people I was surrounded by and the circumstances in which I found myself. It was also a bit of a different world back then.
I was trying to go to college and work retail–which I hated–and I knew I wanted to be a mixer. (When I was a teenager my Dad had observed my proclivity for sound, and I loved messing around with any new audio stuff he got. One day he suggested I become a recording engineer. I didn’t even know what that was. He introduced me to a neighbor on our street who was a mixer, and he gave me some broad pointers on how to break in. It basically started with making coffee.) I had gone to a local vocational school to study sound engineering. Interestingly, what I remember most is on the very first day the instructor asked the class, “What do you do when the sound is too loud?” Of course we were all looking at console signal flow charts that looked like Greek so no one was brave enough to answer. The instructor supplied, “Turn it down.” That stuck. It’s amazing to me how many people seem to forget that one basic rule.
Based on the advice from the neighbor I grabbed the Yellow Pages–the actual book–and sent out fancy paper resumes with cover letters detailing my retail experience and desire to get into sound. (I weighed heavily on my experience in customer service. To this day that is still one of the most valuable skills I have gained.) I think I got two responses. I ended up taking the night-reception gig at a Burbank post facility. I knew nothing about post. I made some good friends there..people that really supported my desire to learn and gave me opportunities to assist in a whole bunch of different ways. From time to time I run into a Dolby engineer who taught me how to stripe 1” digital back in the day. I did overnight ADR cueing, assisted in recording sessions, learned how to coil cables and place mics…and made a lot of coffee. When I left there I worked as a runner for the Village Recorder for a bit, and then got a job at a little music studio in Hollywood as a receptionist/ops manager/scheduler. That was a great place–the people there were really supportive and I was able to learn quite a bit after hours. I would take any gig that was thrown my way–and if I didn’t know the gear I stayed up all night reading the manual! I taught myself Sonic Solutions and started taking small editing assignments. I never said no to a job no matter how terrified I was of falling on my face. And I made a lot of coffee. I left there to join some old coworkers at their boutique post house in Burbank. We did absolutely everything there–dialogue editing, sound design, foley walking, ADR recording, and mixing. The complete package. There were only a few of us so we also handled IT, client services, scheduling, building maintenance, and engineering. And made a lot of coffee. The thread that runs through all of these instances is the people that I met and who grew to trust me. I would not have gotten anywhere without people that believed in me and were willing to give me a chance or recommend me for a job. I have lost touch with a lot of people over the years but I am still eternally grateful to everyone who took a chance on me.
LAPPG: I know you have experience in music mixing and mastering. How does that inform your work as a re-recording mixer for film and television?
TP: I’ve found that having some background in music is incredibly beneficial to the role of a post audio mixer. The ear and brain have already been trained to hear a combination of elements both individually and as a blend. It’s a difficult thing to teach–how various sounds play with and against one another and how they can be manipulated to achieve an emotional response. When I am working with hopeful new editors or mixers I often find that the people with some sort of musical background have the most success. They already have “the ear.” The technical stuff can be taught.
Music mixing, and to some degree mastering, is an extension of the music-creation process. For me there is very little difference between mixing musical elements and mixing sound effects and dialogue.
LAPPG: Being part of the mix team for 10 seasons on The Simpsons sounds like an incredible experience and by now the team must be a well-oiled machine! Can you break down the process mixing an episode, how the team is positioned and how you fit into the process including what you are responsible for?
TP: I started mixing The Simpsons in 2010. I took over for the previous FX mixer, the late Alan Decker, who had been my mentor for years. I am still honored that he trusted me enough to hand me his show. My mix partner, Mark Linden, handles dialogue, ADR, and music while I mix FX, Foley, and backgrounds. At this point, the mix on that show really is like the proverbial well-oiled machine. Some episodes can still be pretty challenging. The style relies a lot on dynamic sound effects and music, but the dialogue still has to be forward–and all the while we have to stay within a -6 peak spec. There are days where the limiters have to limp home.
LAPPG: How is mixing different for you when you approach a live action project vs. an animation project? Is the workflow different in terms of mixing SFX?
TP: I learned an incredible amount working on The Simpsons. The show has a very counterintuitive sound style for any mixer coming in from live-action style mixing. We make sound choices that we could never, ever, get away with on a live-action show. When I started, Al Jean, one of the showrunners, and Matt Groening (pronounced GRAY-NING) would ask for things that made absolutely no sense to me. I’d execute the move and would repeatedly be blown away by how it changed the comedic timing of the moment. I learned how to use a lack of sound to accentuate impact moments. There are techniques that I picked up mixing The Simpsons that I have also applied to live-action comedy and it translates well.
LAPPG: What are the most challenging aspects of working as a re-recording mixer? And what might people not know about that you do?
TP: The most challenging aspect of mixing, for me at least, has to be the process of making decisions for hours on end. For years I couldn’t figure out why I always felt sort of numb and drained when I got home at the end of a long day–and then I realized that the whole process of mixing is one of decision-making on an epic scale: each level adjustment, figuring out whether something can be improved with some sort of treatment, whether something is working with the music or dialogue, positioning, whether to even play something or not…it’s stream-of-conscious decision making. On top of this you could arguably add the multi-tasking necessary to (politely) interface with the clients. It’s a lot of brain work.
LAPPG: What was one of the craziest things you had to mix SFX for?
TP: I remember mixing the first season of Preacher with Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg. I loved mixing that show. They are such creative people–they would brainstorm the most outrageous concepts and then let us loose. The crew used to joke about how much of that series actually happened off camera.
Sam Catlin in particular has a very unique way of describing what he is hoping to achieve with sound. I remember a scene in which the camera is panning across the office of an evil stockyard owner. Sam wanted to hear the cows offstage, but he didn’t want the viewer to register them as cows right away. He went on to describe how it should sound like souls in hell and as the camera continued panning the sounds would become clearer and more discernible as cows–”like cows in hell”, until it was established that it was a stockyard. The sound designer was sending me tons of adds and we spent hours trying to achieve the sound of cows in hell.
LAPPG: I understand you sit on the board of Cinema Audio Society. What led you to become involved with organization? What sorts of things do you do for CAS in this leadership capacity and why is the organization so vital to this industry?
TP: I’ve been a member of CAS since 2007 but I only started serving on the Board of Directors last year. An old friend who has been on the Board for a long time reached out to me to ask if I would be interested in joining and I was really honored by the invitation! I know post production can be very insular so an organization like CAS can be crucial in providing connection for people–especially in an industry where that can be really difficult because of intense and irregular schedules.
As a non-profit, CAS also offers a way to give something back to the craft–we are able to encourage people who are trying to get into the business and also offer acknowledgment to those who have done outstanding work. I was fortunate enough to win a CAS Award in 2006 and it is still so incredibly meaningful to me. The fact that it was my peers who selected my work was, and still is, so humbling.
Serving on the board truly is that–serving. The people on the Board of Directors work so hard to keep the organization running. I head the committee which handles new membership applications. It’s actually fun but there are times when it can get a little intense!
LAPPG: What advice do you have for those starting out in this industry who may want to become a mixer some day?
TP: I have been asked many times by young people how to get into the business. The question I think I get most often is “should I go to school for it?’ I usually encourage students to get a traditional degree, maybe with some focus on sound or film. Pinning career hopes so precisely on sound can end up being limiting in the long run. I really encourage people to get a more well-rounded education. If someday they decide they want to do something that doesn’t involve ProTools they will have a greater knowledge base from which to draw.
The other advice I can offer is: don’t take yourself too seriously. Nobody is too good to make coffee or go find some notepads for the clients. A successful mixer is one who makes the people around them feel heard and valued.
LAPPG: I’ve read that you’ve said that mixing is 20% technical expertise and 80% psychology. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
TP: Mixers work with a lot of different personalities and most of the people that we work with are creative in their own right. I have found that having satisfied clients relies just as much on having the ability to achieve what they want as well as making them feel heard, understood and respected. I have a couple of incredibly talented, creative clients–true artists– for whom communicating what is in their head can be difficult and frustrating for them. I really have to be patient and respectful as they attempt to convey their vision. One thing that I always have to keep in mind is that my clients have been living and breathing this project for a long time. When they make decisions that I wouldn’t necessarily make, or that I may even find distasteful or distracting, I have to remember that the project is their baby. I only have it for a short period of time. I am there to help them put the finishing touches on their art, not force my opinion on them. I have several clients about whom I had been warned that they were difficult or mean. 99% of the time those clients turn out to be my favorite ones–they are usually the hardest workers in the room and simply have a low tolerance for ego or obstinacy. That is where psychology comes in. So much of what I do is trying to connect with my client. They are always people first to me, and then filmmakers.
LAPPG: Is there any type or kind of show would you like to work on that you haven’t yet done? Or directors you’d like to work with?
TP: I honestly can’t think of a genre that I haven’t had a chance to dabble in! These days I tend to enjoy the shows with the best crews over any particular opportunity to play with sound. We work hard, long hours–and when we are in the trenches with the clients it’s always best when everyone gets along well. I love being able to do shows like Preacher or Future Man, where sound is such an important player. I have been fortunate enough to have had clients who allow us to really explore. Though I also have a lot of shows that are character and dialogue driven–and those are actually harder to mix from an FX perspective. When the client doesn’t want anything to distract from onscreen conversation, how do I build a sonic world that will subtly support and enhance the action, that will give the dialogue somewhere to sit and breathe, and allow the music to lead the emotion? It’s really challenging mixing the seemingly room-tone-only scenes.
LAPPG: After a long day of mixing or after a very stressful project, what things do you do to bring balance to your life? Are there stress busters or hobbies that help keep you stay centered?
TP: My family is my anchor. A weekend surfing with my daughter, or an evening just folding laundry with my wife help me keep some perspective through stressful times. And on really tough weeks I do extreme gardening.