My Decade with Modern Family

by Stephen A. Tibbo CAS

It’s hard to believe that I have been so fortunate to have mixed Modern Family for ten years. It’s been a great ride and I’m very humbled by the three Emmys from nine nominations and similarly, five CAS Awards among eight nominations. Of course, I couldn’t do it without my crew and it’s a long list; Preston Connor was the main Boom Op for the first three seasons. “Serge” Popovic took over and is still with me. Second Boom/Utility was Dan Lipe for the first five seasons, and then William Munroe took over. We regularly have an additional Boom, so thanks to Dan Lipe (who came out of retirement the last two years), Peter Hansen, Jacques Pienaar, Richard Geerts, Corey Woods, Ken Strain, Noel Espinosa, Craig Dollinger, Brian Wittle, John Hays, Danny Greenwald, John Sheridan, and Mark van Kool. My regular Pro Tools Playback Operator is Mark Agostino.

Modern Family is a two- to three-camera show where we approach every scene as a oner. It certainly presents challenges when you’re trying to capture good dialog because one camera is going to do a wide, another a single, and the third, maybe a two-shot. We developed communication with all of the operators to understand how each scene is going to be shot. “We’re wide for the first two lines, then we’re in tighter, and then on a specific line, we’re going to pop wide again. But here are the wides and you guys should be able to boom everything.”

When I began the series, I realized that there was at least one scene in an episode with as many as twelve to fourteen actors! I started with a Deva and a SD 788, and a Yamaha 01V96. Initially, I broke the ISO’s out on two recorders. The first nine ISO’s were on the Deva, and the remainder of the ISO’s on the 788. I recently upgraded to the O1V96i and record to two Sound Devices 970’s with Dante and it’s just made my life easier.

I have the two 970’s next to each other and my monitor out of the recorders is fed into an A/B box. On Recorder A, I have it set to listen to a solo of the mix. Recorder B is also in solo mode and I can quickly switch over to the B machine and hear any ISO. I can track down problems. I got used to doing it on the Deva where I just put my finger on the screen and solo a track, and it’s almost as fast.

Last month on “Can’t Elope,” I recorded twenty-five tracks for several days. I had four boom operators, nineteen actors, and a playback track. I brought my other O1V96i and cascaded both consoles using ADAT and midi.

I wire everybody all the time, just so I don’t miss any comedy, and then we boom everything. I spent time early on really trying to get the wires to match the boom, and I have EQ settings for each actor. I have a mixture of Countryman B6’s and Sennheiser MKE 1’s. I use B6’s just because they don’t give me clothing rustle and I can place them through a buttonhole when we’re on stage. When I’m outside or when a character will be yelling I use the Sennheiser MKE 1’s.

There are three Lectrosonics Venues on the cart; my boom operators get UM400s and a Denecke power supply. I have HM plug on transmitters for plants or some hard-to-reach places. We have a mixture of UM’s, SM’s, SMQ’s, MM’s, and SSM’s for the actors. I have so many different transmitters because I have collected the gear over so many years, I wanted to maximize your investment.

Our job always starts with reading the script and I always attend the production meetings. At the meetings, I listen and create a budget for what’s needed for the following week. I consider whether I need an additional boom operator, help to rig a car, or if we need a playback operator. Next, I figure out the additional gear I will need for the episode. Typically I need additional boom mics, an extra Venue, wires, earwigs with a base station, and Pro Tools playback. I submit my list before production locks the budget.

Our primary boom microphone is the Schoeps CMIT 5U and for small reverberant sets, the Schoeps CMC and even the Sennheiser MKH 50. We also use the Sennheiser 8060’s when there is lots of fan noise like a practical restaurant kitchen set.

Ninety-nine percent of the time we are using two booms and then anytime we have a big scene, I get a third boom operator. I usually bring Dan Lipe in three days a week. We’ll watch the scene and then I write ones, twos, threes, and ‘W’—that’s my road map for the scene. The boom operators usually have to play zones and for those areas a boom can’t reach, we will use a wire.

In the “Connection Lost” episode, everyone was face timing. The producers and director wanted to shoot the whole thing live on the stage at the same time and on all the sets. I needed seven boom operators and an IFB person for that day. I set up in the middle of the stage with four separate channels of earwigs so that each actor could hear the other actors on the different sets but not themselves. I used eleven earwigs in all and had an additional ten as backups. We also set up the director and script supervisor with handheld mics to talk to the cast over the earwigs. 

Julie Bowen was in front of a green screen, stuck at the airport. Phil, Alex, and Haley were in the Dunphy house, where I had two boom operators. Then at Mitch and Cam’s house, I had two boom operators. In the Pritchett household, we had Jay, Gloria, Manny, and Luke and two more boom operators in there. I’m very happy that it all worked out!

Most of the driving shots you see on the show are on an insert car. Fortunately, the majority of the time, the windows are up because we’re shooting through the front windows. I’m able to use the Schoeps BLM03’s. If the windows are down, I’ll switch to a Schoeps 41 on a Collette or a Sennheiser MKE 1, which ends up being quite nice. However, I’ll also try out the BLM’s to see what they sound like. I like to put in more mics than I need and then see what works. If the director changes something, I’m ready for it. It may have taken a bit more time to rig the additional mics but it works.

Chindha (RIP) built my minicart years ago. It was actually created for our Dude Ranch episode. I wanted the cart to hold a Zaxcom Mix-8, a Deva 5, and a Lectrosonics Field Venue. It became kind of a ‘lunch box’ that can come off the cart and go into an insert car. Its has power distribution, two monitors, and it fits on the trays of all of the insert cars. It’s my fast mini-rig that I can pop off, walk across a field, go in a four-wheel drive, or up stairs allowing me to have faders anywhere I go.

I adapt the gear based on the episode and what we’re doing. When we did our episode in Australia, I had to send everything out early but I needed my studio cart in Los Angeles because we were doing a big episode. In Australia, I used my medium cart, a Deva Fusion, a Nomad, a Zaxcom Mix-12, and a Mix-8. I rented another Venue there to augment what I sent. Frequency coordination was a problem since Blocks 25-29 worked well in Australia, but were no longer available here.

I don’t like the Sound Department being the center of attention. I just like production noticing, “wow, it sounds good.” But if I need to speak up, I speak up. I try to address an issue by asking a question. For example, “I’m not hearing this line or not understanding it. What is she trying to say?” Or, “Is there music going on, is there a Walla, how do you intend to play it?” or “Do you want them speaking up over this stuff?” Many times I’ll ask for a wild line.

If there is ADR needed, we’ll do it on the stage. We’ll play back the scene that needs to be looped on the set that we actually recorded the scene on.

We try to keep the actors from spending extra time commuting to the ADR stage. The show is mixed over at Smart Post in Burbank and we are on Stage 5 on the Fox Lot. I also have to say, the post team is stellar and it is great to have open lines of communication with them. The Supervising Sound Editor is Penny Harold and Dialog Editor is Lisa Varetakis. Dean Okrand CAS and Brian R. Harman CAS are the Re-recording Mixers.

Does it ever get stale? No, and we are going on to our eleventh season! I really enjoy doing the show and it has become really fun. We still have moments where I think, “how are we going to pull this off.” But when we do, it feels amazing!