Interview with Supervising Sound Editor Ethan Beigel

I was fortunate enough to have recently spoken with Ethan Beigel, Supervising Sound Editor for Minx, Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars, and more, about his career, technology, and working in the industry during COVID.
 
Ian Vargo: Could talk about what got you interested in sound and what your first job in the industry was?
 
Ethan Beigel:
Well, I was always a music person. So I was a band nerd in high school… I was the band president actually. That somehow elevates my nerd status. But I always wanted to go to film school—Movies were my passion. So I went to NYU, and while I was there I experimented with different fields and tried to find my own path. I was initially on a path to producing. I was producing short films and I began researching how to do sound because I didn't know, and I didn't know how to direct my filmmakers towards what they were going to need for sound. So I took the sound classes that were available at NYU and I loved it. I think combining my musical background with my passion for film, this all made sense to me, there was something I really loved about sitting in a movie theater all day. That's kind of what I always wanted to do. I loved being on set but not as much as I loved watching movies. I feel like being a sound person allows me to just sit and watch movies all day as I make them.
 
IV: It seems a lot of sound engineers start as musicians and migrate over.
 
EB:
Yeah, there's definitely a lot of sound engineers who were music people, and as the music industry sort of accordions in on itself job-wise, you know, there are so few music recording studios that are regularly working anymore… The accessibility of home recording has become so prevalent that a lot of music people have moved into sound work because they have the technological and creative knowhow. And you just have to sort of migrate your creative brain into storytelling.
 
My first job in the industry was actually in distribution. I tried to get a sound job when I graduated from college. I had an internship at a company in New York called C Five which was really big time editorial sound editing company. They were doing ‘O Brother, Where Are Thou?’ and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. I think they had just started doing ‘Shaft’, also. So, they were working with a lot of big New York filmmakers. They did all the Spike Lee movies. They did all the Cohen Brothers movies. I was interning there and I ran out of money to live on, so I took the first job that I could get, which was a distribution job as an executive assistant in a company called Adam Films that did short film distribution.
 
So I was working that job, but I saved my money and I bought myself a Pro Tools system so that I could continue to work on the side. And that job was actually kind of great because I was meeting all these short filmmakers and short films were, and are, a great way to cut your teeth, creatively speaking. So I was meeting all these short filmmakers. I was trying to hustle up some work because it was a .com that eventually went out of business… And I got laid off on my birthday. (Laugh) It's a story my bosses and I still love to laugh about today, how they fired me on my birthday and it's like the meanest thing they've ever had to do.

A couple weeks later I was doing odd jobs. Whatever I could get my hands on for, you know, a hundred bucks here or there and I was going home and there was a saxophone player playing on the subway on the platform. I went over because I was a saxophone player in high school. As it turns out he was Jason Kaler, my sound design teacher at NYU. I told him I bought a Pro Tools system and I was looking to really push towards sound and asked if he had any filmmakers at NYU who needed sound, which I assumed there were going to be lots because at the time the school didn't really focus on finishing the sound work.
 
So there was a real demand for sound people. As it turned out the facility that he worked for had a recent job opening, so he gave my name to his boss and I went and interviewed two days after seeing Jason on the subway. I got hired that day and I started cutting my first feature the next Monday, and I've been doing it ever since.
 
IV:
Wow. That's serendipitous.
 
EB:
Yeah, there's so many moments like that in my career. You have amazing timing that you just walked in the door right now type of things. My move to LA was one of those serendipitous moments. I knew I wanted to move to LA with my then girlfriend, now wife. She is from LA so we had been talking about it. We were going to come out during her spring break. She's a teacher. And I was like, ‘all right, well, let me make some phone calls and then we'll start, I'll see if I can get some interviews.’ I got one of those guidebooks, I think LA 411
 
IV:
Yes, it was like Variety 411 for awhile. And then LA 411.
 
EB:
Yeah, and I just went through the post production sound companies and I was calling everyone that I could identify as companies that were doing major TV shows or movies. And there was one company called Nova Star that I called and I got the story that you get from every one of 'em… ‘We don't have any jobs open right now, but send it to your resume. We'll put it in the file. If anything comes up, we'll call you.’ I faxed them my resume and I kid you not within five minutes of the fax going through, I got a phone call from them saying ‘so are you gonna be in LA next week?’ 
 
Well, it turned out that they had just started doing some major TV shows. They they were primarily an audio restoration facility but they had started mixing. They had a really big, nice mix stage. They had a couple really good mixers that were ‘four walling’ which means basically renting the stage. And they were struggling with staffing doing all of their normal work and meeting the demands of a major weekly network television show. I guess there was a very animated conversation happening as I had called and as my fax was coming through this animated conversation about how we needed more people, people were gonna quit if they didn't hire more help and whatever, it was kind of a mess. And it just so happened that my fax was coming through and the receptionist who could hear the conversation was just like, ‘How about you try this guy?’ And that's why they called me so fast. I got hired and I went back to New York, I gave my two weeks notice, I packed a suitcase and I flew back to LA while my wife packed up all the rest of our stuff and moved out that summer.
 
IV:
It's a big risk, but a lot of people take that risk to be close to the industry, and luck favors the prepared, as they say.
 
EB:
Yeah. And I think that's a thing that I think I've always been willing to do. Especially early on I very rarely said ‘no.’ I should say there's one instance that stands out where I did say no and I do regret it. But yeah, I, I never said ‘no.’ So as a result, whatever opportunity presented itself, I was able to come through. I've had a lot of good fortune and a lot support from family. When I moved to LA, I lived with my brother for a month. Fortunately he was out here and had a guest room and was willing to put me up until I made enough money to get an apartment. Certainly, without the support, it would've been a lot harder to take some of those risks. 

IV:
Great. So let's talk about Minx here. It takes place in the 1970s. Were there any ways that you and your team worked to make sure the sound was authentic to that decade?
 

EB:
Yeah, of course. You have to pay attention, especially when you're pulling sounds from libraries to make sure that you don’t let any modern technology slip in. That's the big difference between now and then, is the sort of ancillary technology that exists. They didn't have electric cars, they didn't have cell phones, they didn't have digital phones. Nobody was typing on computers. So when you do searches to find office environments, you have to make sure that you listen to everything all the way down so that you don't accidentally have a digital phone ring creep in, or you don’t accidentally hear some computer keyboards clacking. When searching for traffic, you don’t want the sound of one of these nice natural gas buses from LA that drives through. So it's a little bit tricky because you want recordings that are captured on better technology.
 
So the material sounds better, but you have to then work around all of these things. Fortunately, we have a lot of gas guzzling automobiles out on the road, so for the most part, you can get away with it. We had some pretty good recordings of office environments manual typewriters so we were able to build these layers of depth in those environments that we needed to. For the most part the environments that we recreate in that show are actually having to do with crowds—It's the people and the activity. As you go through the show, the difference between the Minx offices, for example, and the New Yorker office, which we see in an episode, is more about the difference in the way people interact with each other.
 
We recorded a lot of custom voice acted backgrounds in Minx. We made it more casual, more fun—energetic people shouting out to each other, more people laughing. We wanted the bottom dollar offices to really be a good time—everybody is here doing their thing. Then when we would go to some other offices, we would record the interactions to be a little bit stuffier… a little bit more business-like, so that's really where we put our focus. 
 
We also put a lot of focus on gender roles at the time. Say if we were in the New York Magazine office, you didn't have women calling out orders or something. If it was shot today, you wouldn't ever notice if you had a woman as a manager there, but back then it was like, ‘Okay, we need to make sure that we keep the women more as receptionist/secretary, and the men more as as employer/manager style.’ 
 

IV:
Interesting… it takes on some important topics without ever feeling too heavy.  Of course, Minx is super funny. How is working with comedy different than working with something that's more action-oriented or dramatic?
 

EB:
I feel like you can kind of polarize how you do the sound for a comedy—you could go very broad where everything is very heightened. If somebody gets slapped, it's a big, loud, funnier hit. That's how you create the comedy, by overdoing it. Minx isn't really like that, though. The comedy in Minx is a little more subtle. It's more in the characters’ facial expressions, the way they deliver lines, the way there are gaps are in between punch lines and reactions, and how we fill those gaps. With Minx, we didn't want to play it broad and over the top.
 
What we really wanted to do was allow the pacing and the timing of the scene play the comedy. Sound wise, we kind of stayed out of the way. There's a great moment where Doug realizes that he's been played and he's just sitting there and you watch his face go from this moment of being like, ‘Yeah, I totally just won this thing’ to realizing that he got completely bamboozled. You watch his face just drop and it's a brilliant performance. Well, there's nothing for us to do there, sound-wise. We just needed to make sure that we keep everything natural in such a way that we sit with him as he has these moments. And that's what a lot of the comedy is with very few exceptions. There are a couple sequences where we get to be a little bit sillier, but for the most part, we put these characters into an environment and let them stew in it. In that way, it's not unlike a horror or suspense movie, let the environment envelop these people and have them find their way out of it. The way it's played and timed and everything else ends up being really funny.

IV:
So the hope is to be more naturalistic, less slapstick.
 

EB:
Yeah. It’s a lot of what the main characters say, how they react, and the way people react around them. There's a talk show episode, for example. So we have how the crowds react to them which helps sell the comedy and discomfort and whatever mood we're supposed to have. There are other scenes on college campuses where you have all these different kinds of crowds that we're letting poke through here and there, and how they're interacting with the characters, and how we’re crafting those reactions is what helps the comedy.
 

IV:
Are you working closely with the loop group? Are you providing direction or is that somebody else?
 

EB:
I am the primary director of the loop group. Before we get started on any episode, we have conversations with the show runner, Ellen Rappaport, and the picture editor of the episode. We sit down and make sure that we understand what kinds of crowd sounds they want. It's very easy to make a mistake… For example the talk show episode, it's the Dick Cavett show, so you can go in a bunch of different directions. A Jerry Springer audience is very different from a Johnny Carson audience, which is very different than a Dick Cavett audience. So we had a lot of conversations about how these crowds should be reacting to the guests on stage. Because Minx is a feminist magazine, we paid a lot of attention to what lines of dialogue would the women react to and how would they react and what lines would the men react to and how would they react. Keeping in mind, these are women and men in the audience of a certain status, and therefore, they should react a certain way. 
 
So yeah, we have those conversations ahead of time. Then I go in with the loop group and the loop group leader, and we get to work on recording them, directing them, rerecording them, trying different kinds of textures. We ended up with a lot of layers and they had a lot of options to play within in the mix. So if there was a particular laugh or reaction that they were just like, ‘Ah, this one should be more women heavy. Can we do that?’ We wanted to have other layers of women to work with.
 

IV:
Great. You're setting yourself up for success in post by having conversations and making decisions early on.
 

EB:
Yeah. You have to have these conversations about the subtext and how sound is enhancement. It's not often direct storytelling, it's enhancing the story that's already there and it's enhancing the mood… How we want the audience to feel is very much related to sound. It's a visceral art form. You shouldn't ever notice what it's doing to you. You should feel what it's doing to you. 
 

IV:
Great. Good segue. In your opinion, how has the rise of streaming changed the consumer experience?
 

EB:
I'm a little of two minds about it… Because on the one hand, the streamers are putting a ton of money into what has been classically considered television. So you're getting content that is a much more feature theatrical style. As a sound person, that's amazing. You're getting more time, you're getting more crew, you're getting a lot of flexibility to customize things in a way that you might not, if it were a procedural on network TV. And it’s not just about the expansion of content in general but the kinds of content—we’re no longer only doing ‘villain of the week’ or medical/cop dramas anymore. We're doing eight episodes… serialized feature films in a way. In a way the industry has kind of become this oddly non-competitive family of creative people like exchanging ideas and doing all this stuff because there's all of this work happening all at once.  We're all really getting to like spread our wings a lot. 
 
However, with the expansion of all that we're seeing the mobility of viewership, which is probably the biggest issue for sound specifically. Picture people will probably argue the same thing, too, so I shouldn't really say this is just a sound problem, but listening to all this work on your phone is problematic. You're going to miss all the detailed work that we put into it. Watching my show on the subway where there's a lot of ambient noise is going to be be problematic. I go to a poker room and people are watching my show while they're playing cards. And it kills me. (Laugh) It's like, ‘I really wish you'd be sitting at home.’ I love that they're watching, I want you to be watching and listening in a better environment, and that’s a problem we have now.
 
It’s not like it hasn't always been an issue, though. Television has always been that way because your TV speakers are generally garbage and you know, the dishwashers running and the kids are yelling and the dog next door is barking. There are all these ambient distractions. Anyway, whenever you're watching TV which is partially why the TV format was always a certain way. But we've veered away from that, that standard TV format of TV storytelling into a much a much denser much more detail oriented style, but we're still presenting these shows on devices that don't really accentuate all that work. So there are arguments about who do we design our work for? We always played to audiences— Feature people knew their audiences were going to sit in a movie theater, and TV people knew their audiences were going to sit on their couch and you can make decisions based on that. Now, I have no idea where my audience is watching my show.
 

IV: Do you still mix like it's going to be listened to in a theatre?

EB:
Yeah, but ultimately you don't mix it full on as if it's going to be in a theater because you can't get the dynamic range that you get in that environment. And because we know that, even with the streaming premium content, somebody's still watching it on their TV, on their couch. You have to limit the dynamic range, meaning the louds can't be as loud and the quiets can't be as quiet. You have to make them a little bit closer together so that people aren't riding the volume on their TV sets while they're trying to watch their show. But yeah, we still mix it so that it sounds good to us. Earlier in my career, a show runner I worked for was arguing about whether or not we should watch on the big surround sound speakers on the mixing stage or on stereo smaller stereo speakers that we had to simulate TV sound. And he was just like, ‘I’m only ever gonna get to see this show sound good once. So put it up on the bigs.’ (Laugh)
 
So we do still mix for the best possible sounding environment. And we will tweak some things where we have to, for a lesser sounding environment.

IV:
How has technology changed your job? Is there any software or hardware that you can't imagine working with them?
 

EB:
Well, I learned how to do this in analog, but I never worked professionally in analog. And I could say with a hundred percent certainty, if I had to work professionally in analog, I would be doing something else. So digital audio on its own is paramount to me. I couldn't go back to splicing film, so Pro Tools, which is the software that's ubiquitous in town—I couldn't see myself living without that. Although, if it died and some other software came out, I would just learn how to use it and go with that. As a mixer, I love working on the Avid/Pro Tools consoles. I like having all of my automation contained within my Pro Tools session. I know there are a lot of mixers that will be mad at me because the traditional consoles where sound actually goes through it do typically sound better.
 
As an editor, I couldn't live without iZotope, which is our noise reduction software that we use. The amount of dialogue and recordings that I'm able to rescue and not have to rerecord as a result of that software is amazing. 10 years ago I'd be recording 15, 20, 25 lines of ADR for each actor. Today, if I record 10, that's a lot, because it's become so easy for me to fix and replace syllables and get rid of things and de-noise it. That's an absolute lifesaver. Now because of COVID, and it's even gonna be a thing post COVID, is the software that we use to do remote listening and recording. I never have to leave my house, you know, which is great. My commute's amazing. (Laugh)


IV:
Has COVID changed your your workflow?
 

EB:
Yeah. My actors on Riverdale are all in Vancouver. On Pretty Little Liars they're all in New York. We have software that allows me to hear high fidelity recordings of them in sync to picture from my home studio. So that has been great. And meanwhile, the, the mix stages are able to stream the mixes to me live so I can sit here and listen on my big speakers in my studio. I can give them notes if I need to, and I can watch the show as they're mixing it without having to go there. 
 

IV:
Wow.
 

EB:
I mean, I miss some of it… I miss being in the room and the interaction with people, but in terms of my productivity, it's gone way up since we've been fully remote.
 

IV:
Is that Source Connect or Source Elements?
 

EB:
Yeah. Source Connect is what I'm using primarily. The studios themselves have proprietary software that allows them to stream the mixes to me, encrypted, secure, however they do it. I don't even know. I just log on and go. 
 

IV:
Interesting. So do you think that's going to remain the case for you and other Supervisors where you work almost strictly remotely?
 

EB:
Yeah. I think it's gonna be client by client and show by show. There are some shows that I know are such high security, that they want everybody on a studio lot, where nobody can take anything home. 


I know more than one Supervising Sound Editor who moved out of state completely and they're going to continue working remotely. We’ve worked through the pandemic, so we already have our workflow down for working remotely. But that's a conversation that's going to have to get broached with each new client. The ones I have right now certainly don't mind because they know I'm getting a lot of work done not being there. It's 2 hours a day just in commuting time. That is me getting stuff done time. If more work gets done, then what's the incentive to return, right? 
 
So all the work is getting done. It's still getting done to the same quality that it always has been… You just don't have to put up with me.
 

IV:
Yeah. (laughs)
 

EB:
For better and for worse, right?
 

IV: 
Exactly. Another good segue: A bit of a technical question here. What levels are you typically listening at when you're working?
 

EB:
On my headphones I don't have a level when I'm cutting dialogue… just somewhere comfortable that doesn't exhaust and so can still hear everything on the mix stage. When I was mixing, it depended from show to show. A movie theater was always calibrated to 85 SPL. For TV we always had to record our dialogue a little bit louder than what you can get away with in the movies. We would bounce between 82 SPL and 79 SPL and it kind of depends on the show. Of course every network has a different specification of where the dialogue needs to be, the Mix Tech will then run it and be like ‘Hey, you're two DB quiet out of spec,’ and then they'll make adjustments from there.
 
So that typically once you get past the first two or three episodes, you have a pretty good idea of what the show sounds like and where you need to be when you're mixing.

IV: So the Mix Tech is keeping everybody within guidelines?

EB: The Mix Tech and then there's a Layback Tech who also double checks it. There’s a big binder full of specifications before any show starts. The producers always send us the network specifications so that we make sure that delivering everything properly.
 

IV: I know it's nerd stuff, but I like it.
 

EB:
I kind of hate it but I like knowing about it. It's important to appreciate it, I think. Because if for no other reason than if you do it wrong, you have to redo it.
 

IV:
Yeah.
 

EB:
But yeah, it's good to understand, and it's also good whenever I get asked the question at parties ‘Why do you guys always mix the dialogue so low and the effects so loud?’ And then I can go into the whole nerd conversation ‘Well, actually they required different things.’ I have noticed big discrepancies between the different streaming services.
There are big discrepancies even before the streamers. There's discrepancies on your local delivery method…The difference between your cable system if you're on Spectrum versus DirecTV versus Verizon, and whether you're on Fiber or DSL, it completely changes how these things come through. So every person is watching a TV show that sounds different than the person who lives next door to them.
 

IV:
Yeah. And that's even before we bring up the discrepancies between the home listening environments
 

EB:
Right. And that's prior to talking about how good is your TV? So there's so much that happens downstream of us that we don't have any control over. So, you know, the answer to that conversation is always kind of the snarky part of me is like, if you came to my office and listened to it, you would think it sounded great. You'd have no problems. That's the unfortunate reality of what we do, is nobody gets to listen to it the way we listen to it, and we try to adjust in broad strokes as best we can without compromising the integrity of the show. But there's a lot of things past us that we don't have any control over. I can't control you listening on your phone on the subway, and I can't simulate that to mix a version for phones on subways. 
 

IV:
Not yet. We’ve got to get iZotope working on that. Can you explain the importance of collaboration in your role as Supervising Sound Editor?
 

EB:
It's the most important thing there is. I don't know everything, I don't pretend to know everything, and I'm not amazing at everything. And so without everybody working with me, the work isn't as good as it possibly could be. So within my own team, I act as liaison between the creatives and the sound crew, and I get final say over what gets delivered to the mix stage. This is my role as a Supervising Sound Editor and I will give them my notes and I will say, ‘Okay, this is kind of the thing that I'm going for.’ But I hire people that I can trust to accomplish those notes without me having to point at the screen and say, ‘No, move that here, no, do that differently, etc.’ So the trust in your collaborators is, I think, is paramount. I don't have to keep fixing the work that my crew sends me. There might be an occasional thing where I think we may have missed the mark on or I had in my head something different, but we're usually well within the ballpark that if I do need to fix something, I can then fix it myself, probably with the elements that they gave me.
 
So that is hugely important to me because I don't want to do everything. I can sound design and I can dialogue edit and I can go record foley, but it's not going to be as good as me having the sound designer I work with primarily. On a lot of my shows I work with Dave Barnaby. I've worked with him for over 20 years. He's been cutting sound effects for me. He and I have a working relationship that I don't ever have to worry about what I'm going to get because we've spent 20 years fighting about what's good and what's not. And we've gotten to the place where we both agree. 
 
In terms of the filmmakers themselves, the collaboration is, of course, paramount. Also, because I work in service to them, I am here to help them get whatever's in their head onto the screen and out of the speakers. And my ability to collaborate with them is really the difference between me getting hired and staying hired and me not being working on the show anymore.
 
When people ask me how I choose the projects that I choose, I don’t really have to in some ways because the projects come to me through people that I work with, or are people that are recommended to me, or I'm recommended to them by people who I like working with. And there's this weird kind of dating game matchmaker thing that happens in town. I have been very fortunate that I generally enjoy working with all the people that I've gotten to work with. If there's one where I don't, then maybe we finish that show or that movie, and then we don't work together again. And that's fine too. The sustainability of one's career, I think, is entirely dependent on their ability to work well with others.
 

IV:
Great quote. Great general life advice. Is there anything that makes you most proud when working on a project?
 

EB:
Yeah, that's another question I get asked a bunch, and the answer is kind of the same. It's always whatever I just finished. I just watched all of Minx with my wife, and getting to finally sit down and just immerse myself in the show is the greatest treat I could ever ask for. I get to just watch the show, and the show plays like a television show that I can sit and enjoy it for what it is. And while I still come out of every episode and I might have some notes for myself, for the most part, it's just like, ‘Wow, that's a real TV show that's up on the screen right now.’ And you can't ever forget that. To me, that's great. Even the shows or movies that don't go over great with audiences, it's so hard to make a movie, it's so hard to make a TV show. There's a reason that the credits on these movies are so long. 
 

IV: 
Last question. Do you have any advice for anybody aspiring to enter the sound industry?
 

EB:
I know that everybody I know would say ‘Don’t’ but they're wrong. The stereotypically under-appreciated craft in film and TV is sound. And I think if you go in understanding that, then you go into it with pure motivations. What I mean by that is I think a lot of people get into Hollywood expecting some sort of fame and glory and all the Oscars and all the Emmys, and that can happen, but you should get into it because you love working with the audio experience and you want to tell stories using sound and you want to collaborate with people.

Also, to be successful at it, you need to do it as often as you possibly can. Don't say no unless you're being abused in which case you can say no. But I say as a young sound person, get yourself a sound rig in whatever capacity you possibly can, and go out and get any and every possible project that you can do sound on. I don't care if it's the worst piece of garbage imaginable that nobody's ever going to see, just do it in practice. Because the difference between the best in the business and the not best in the business, it's not magic. They do it every day, and I mean literally every day. They're doing it 10 to 12 hours a day, and if they're not, they're thinking about it on the weekends, they're going on vacation, and they're listening to wherever it is they are, and they're thinking about things that they can record. Maybe their partners are yelling at them that they shouldn't pull out the sound recorder right now while they're standing at Niagara Falls, but they want to do that. They're thinking about it. It just requires just an incredible amount of practice. And the more people that you work with and the more practice that you get, the greater the chance that a door will open that you'll be able to run through.