Production sound mixer, Jeff Deeth, survives extreme production locales for Discovery's Naked and Afraid series with his trusted, robust "tiny little mixer" — the Sound Devices 633.
Minneapolis, MN – Production sound mixer, Jeff Deeth’s unique journey into the audio entertainment industry began simply with a love of music. An accomplished musician and saxophonist, his first steps into the world of sound recording were taken as a teenager in Onalaska, Wisconsin.
“Pretty early on…I’d done some jingle-type production work in my hometown,” Deeth says. “There was a studio there (in La Crosse) actually, being run in part by one of Prince’s old band members, Dez Dickerson. I had the opportunity to do some things in that recording studio when I was a teenager, but it wouldn’t be until many years later that I spent some time working with Prince himself, once I had moved to Minneapolis.” Chuckling, he adds, “That’s a whole other story, at a different point in my career.”
He went to college as a musician, but quickly became “that guy”—the one producing the records and engineering the recordings. Upon moving to Chicago, he remained well-established in the music world as both musician and sound engineer. Over the years, his resume would include having worked with such entertainers like Prince, Adele, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson to name a few.
“I have found that the most truly gifted people are often some of the most thoughtful people,” he says. “So, obviously, anytime you get to work with someone who’s really good at what they do…and you want to do well, you better yourself. You learn something.”
A chance encounter with someone making a TV show opened the door for Deeth to delve into other production environments where his audio experience proved vital. “I really didn’t know much about production sound for film and television—how it worked, technically—I mean I could record good sounds, so I was like, ‘Of course, no problem. I can do that.’” He laughs, adding, “And I don’t remember what that first job was, but I do remember showing up with equipment that wasn’t really what was used to do that type of work. (Somehow) I made it happen.”
Before his next film project, however, Deeth queried other industry professionals about their kits and was introduced to Sound Devices.
“It wasn’t too much later that I acquired my first 442,” Deeth says. “My first experience with any Sound Devices gear was immediately, ‘This thing sounds good. It sounds really good. I can work with this.’” His deep background in music helped him determine what tools he needed for the various production demands he faced. “I have owned lots and lots of gear, and when it comes to production audio, field mixers and recorders—I’ve tried everything, I’ve used everything at some point, because sometimes I’ve not always used my own kits on a production—but I’ve pretty much never left being a Sound Devices user after I started. I’ve worked in so many different areas of audio…and Sound Devices gear may be some of, if not the most, reliable pieces of audio equipment that I count on.
“I know that in my recording studio, when I plug a bass guitar into my old Ampeg B-15 flip-top amp, it just sounds great. I’m no tube amp expert, but when a good tech comes over and biases the tubes, it sounds even better. That’s a piece of gear that’s never leaving my studio, and it’s similar with my Sound Devices stuff,” Deeth says. “In my recording studio right now, my 442 is still on top of one of my racks of gear, within reach. It lives in my recording studio.”
In addition to Deeth’s 442, his kits now include other Sound Devices equipment, such as 788T recorders and a couple of the newer, compact 633 mixer/recorders.
“(The) 633, it’s one of my most favorite little pieces of gear that I’ve ever owned. It’s small, obviously, but it does everything that I need a mixer or recorder to do in a small package.”
Deeth’s portfolio includes such productions as Shark Tank, the Daily Show with John Stewart, Peter Jackson’s “West of Memphis” documentary on the West Memphis Three, and Davis Guggenheim’s “From the Sky Down” with the iconic band U2.
“For a while I was working on a show called Border Wars (for National Geographic), which was following the border patrol agents on the Mexican border with the U.S. so I’ve done some of that physically challenging stuff, as well.”
As a professional sound mixer, Deeth’s work has taken him from the demanding corporate world in big cities to extremely remote natural environments. It’s the latter that’s seen him traveling farthest from his Midwestern roots. “I kind of became somewhat known for that type of work, so I’ve been all around the world quite a bit in a lot of demanding environments, from deserts to jungles to mountains, extreme cold, extreme heat, all that kind of stuff. The Sound Devices gear that I bring has always worked.”
The 633 accompanied Deeth when he went to work on season 2 of a popular and challenging television series produced for Discovery. “When I first came on the show, (the crew) were using Sound Devices of course, but they were running around with 788s, and at that time, I think, the 633 had just come out, and I had bought one of the first units. When I saw that product announced I thought, ‘That’s what I want. That’s a great little box.’ So, I brought that out for the very first episode of the show that I worked on, and almost immediately all of the teams shooting Naked and Afraid converted to 633.”
As the show’s name implies, the two cast members—selected for having some level of expertise in survival skills—are nude except for a small burlap sack slung over a shoulder, around the neck. The “Afraid” part comes into play because the pair of strangers are placed together in a harsh, remote setting and given one dangerous challenge: Survive for the next 21 days.
“It’s just a very interesting program to film because of numerous elements, from what the cast goes through to what the crew goes through in these less than ideal conditions,” Deeth explains. “Cast members usually come in extremely confident; you’d have to be to take on that kind of a challenge. Pretty quickly, each cast member is plunged into their own personal journey that’s about more than just getting bit by bugs and trying to find something to eat. Being stripped of everything, having few tools at hand, and no protection from the elements because they’re naked, it quickly becomes very real…. It’s unique and an interesting and intimate experience.”
Both cast and crew have had to deal with natural extremes, from heat to cold, even hunkering down in a shelter to ride out a hurricane just one day before shooting was slated to begin. One might think a hurricane is the worst danger faced during production, but no.
“The very next day, the storm is over, the jungle is a bit disturbed, and we’re hiking in our cast members to begin their challenge,” Deeth says. “They’re wading in a small stream, and there’s a fallen tree all the way across the stream. We come walking up and meet face-to-face with a Fer de Lance on the log. That’s an extremely venomous snake in Central America. Of course the cast members were probably thinking, ‘Oh, there’s dinner.’”
Deeth says, “Working on a show like this, of course you are responsible for all elements of the production. Your director of photography has to get the shots. Your sound mixer has to collect the audio appropriately, but at the same time, you’re in a very real situation. When you have a 16-foot boom pole hanging out over a cast member, while you’re forging across a river over rocks, it’s an out-of-control environment. There may be a scene occurring that’s important to capture, but you still have to make sure you’re not stepping on a snake. It takes a certain kind of person to work on a show like that, someone who’s self-reliant and capable, who’s also watching out for everyone around them for those same reasons.”
It’s also important to have “the most rugged and most reliable” gear one can count on to work. For Deeth, who’s worked on Naked and Afraid (now in its 8th season) as well as the spin-off series Naked and Afraid XL, that means, “In the last few years, a lot of the filming I’ve done has been carrying a sound bag with (my) 633, a backpack on my back, boom in one hand, and I’m crossing a river or hacking through the jungle.”
About the 633, Deeth admits, “Yeah, there’s a limitation on the number of channels, but you have 6 input channels on a tiny little mixer that is robust and rugged. I mean, I abuse the gear! I’ll be honest. I’m not nice to the gear, especially considering some of the production environments I end up going into.”
“The equipment on (Naked & Afraid) takes a beating. There’s no way around it. You need stuff that’s going to work. My last location was extremely arid, windy, hot and dry, and I was there for two months, doing two episodes, and we did not see one drop of rain. So lots of dry, dusty crud all over everything, and in the field, I have a continuous roll going for 10 hours or more because of the nature of the challenge and the nature of what’s happening to these people. You don’t know what’s going to occur. You keep a roll going all the time, so those machines get a workout.”
Paired with his 633, Deeth uses Sennheiser MKH 416s on boom poles, Lectrosonics wireless and DPA or Countryman lavs. “The cast members on Naked and Afraid have a necklace on, and we’re mostly using DPA or Countryman microphones inside those necklaces—the necklace is a microphone. And I have a transmitter that lives inside the classic Naked and Afraid burlap sack that’s carried around all of the time. So that is a key piece to a lot of our audio. Now, granted, there’s times when that equipment can’t get submerged in water. If the cast is going hunting, fishing, or swimming, that all comes off and is replaced with non-electronic versions of the necklaces and sacks, and a lot of boom mic comes into play then.”
At night, plant mics are used as part of an IR camera system. “We have a customized Pelican Case system that has something like eight large Dionic batteries that power (the system) constantly for 12 hours or more. There’s actually two (Video Devices) PIX 240i decks inside of a case, two cameras, and plant mics on set, all to get that nighttime footage of what’s going to happen in the middle of the night while the crew is sometimes not there.”
Twenty-one days of twenty-four-hour recordings is a lot of footage. With all of those files, Deeth uses the free Sound Devices Wave Agent software program to write notes about the audio. “Now that’s a perfect sound report for post-production and editors…. It’s something that I’m trying to implement to make things easier in post so some of that great sound we’re able to get out in the field actually can be used. Particularly when it comes to nat sounds and ambience—things that are recorded separate from camera rolls—those things now have a way to be found and used.”
His advice for those just starting out in the highly competitive industry is, “Remain calm under duress,” and, “Use quality gear. There’s going to be enough challenges in any type of production environment that you don’t want to start by not having the proper tools at hand. That’s kind of a given, but worth restating.
“The skill set of recording audio, it’s not really rocket science… It’s really a pretty simple process, the technical process of recording sound. What’s not as simple is having awareness of your surroundings and what’s happening around you, and how your sensitivity to that can bring something to the recordings and the overall production.”
Looking back on all of the work he’s done—from music and concerts to film, documentaries to reality TV—and all of the places he’s been to, one thing stands out. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with quite a few people who are really good at what they do, and I think that those people have all the knowledge and technical facility to operate a camera and manage a production, to make a movie or play an instrument, but the people that are really good transcend those production-based skill sets, and they bring something bigger (to the production).
“I feel like… I hope that’s the attitude that I’ve always taken in all of my production work…. If you’re not fully engaged, you’re not giving yourself the full experience, and it’s an opportunity.”
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For more information on the series Naked and Afraid visit Discovery's website at: Discovery.com.