Sound recordist for the Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip looks back on his own professional sound career and what role Sound Devices played in his success.
San Francisco – David Silberberg is the sound recordist nominated for a 2017 Cinema Audio Society Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for his work on Amazon's Long Strange Trip, a critically acclaimed documentary about the 30-year career of the Grateful Dead.
Silberberg’s own “long strange trip” into a career in production sound began back in the late 80s at the University of California - Santa Cruz. He was majoring in Theatre Arts and studying filmmaking when he got recruited to do sound on other students’ projects.
“At the time they would issue us these big clunky Sony cassette recorders and some kind of shotgun microphone... I didn’t know about microphones even though I’d done these (projects). I was more focused on doing little art projects and films.” Chuckling, he recalls, “That all happened because a teacher looked at our projects in the film making class and said, ‘David did a really good job on the sound. You should get him to do your sound.’”
That hands-on education helped land him a chance to work on Wild Wheels, an independent documentary by fellow UCSC graduate, Harrod Blank, the son of filmmaker Les Blank. It was a low-budget project about unusual “art cars” that later aired nationwide on PBS. For equipment, Silberberg took a Sony Walkman TC-D5 Pro analog cassette recorder and an RE-50 dynamic microphone.
“So, here we go, heading off on the road to record this great documentary with a Walkman,” he laughs, adding, “The first thing that happened is it was a complete and utter failure to be able to record anything once we got outside. Very quickly, we figured out that this wasn’t going to work.” To finish the project, Silberberg says he got a quick tutorial on a borrowed Nagra 3 recorder and paired it with a Sennheiser MK804 shotgun mic and foam windscreen. “Once you get up into professional gear, it gets a lot easier to do good work,” he says. “All of those experiences were foundational to understanding how to go about working on a film.”
In the 90s, Silberberg got a unique opportunity to be at the mic instead of recording when he and Harrod Blank were contacted about a voice looping session in a San Francisco recording studio, but there was just one catch. When Silberberg got the call, he was asked, “Are you a Grateful Dead fan?” His response was, “Well, I’ve heard of them. My sister has one of their records.” That was when he was told, “Jerry Garcia is going to be there, so we don’t want to have any weird band-worshipping-type stuff.” When Silberberg and Blank showed up, Jerry Garcia was indeed there, watching alongside the director of the film. After Silberberg lent his voice for a scene, his friend Blank was chosen to be one voice in a crowd of guys for a wedding scene. Silberberg says that’s when, “Jerry Garcia stands up, goes over to the microphone and says, ‘I want to be part of this.’ They start plotting out what they’re going to say, and suddenly they are like two 9-year-old boys. It was the strangest thing. I think Jerry must’ve picked up on the fact that Harrod had no idea who he was, because it was really kind of cool.”
It was also an experience Silberberg would remember fondly years later when asked to work on Long Strange Trip. By then, he’d had decades of work as a boom operator, sound recordist, and sound mixer on a variety of projects using an array of audio gear.
Silberberg got his first introduction to Sound Devices when he rented a MixPre to use with an HHB-DAT recorder that he says, “had terrible preamps. I mean, you couldn’t use them… You had to have some kind of mixer in front of it.” After the turn of the millennium, he bought a portable Cooper mixer, but instead of pairing it with his HHB-DAT, he found himself more often recording directly to the cameras. “It worked, but I wish I had known at that time about the 744T. I think it had just come out. If I could go back in time, I would’ve bought that thing; even if I didn’t have the money, I would’ve found the money somehow.”
Eventually, Silberberg was ready to do things differently. “I started thinking I really need to get a better machine, and then in 2008 I read something about the 788T, and in 2009 I bought it…. At the time, I said, ‘Okay, this is the last machine I’m ever gonna need to buy. This is it, man! I’m set for life,’” he laughs. “It was a really big step forward because of its size, its very powerful features, and the fact that you had eight inputs on it. So I got that and really do love it and trust it.”
Because of difficulties with past recorders, however, he was skeptical at first about the 788T. “I ganged it up with the Cooper, and of course I ended up with this really heavy bag that just about killed me,” he said, adding, “But it sounded great, and after a while...I was like, hmm, it doesn’t need a mixer with it. It’s great! The preamps are really clean…. You didn’t need to worry about it.”
Since then, he’s owned and operated other Sound Devices gear like the 552 mixer, and even jokes that he “would have done a backflip for a MixPre-10T” on some of his projects back then. (The MixPre-10T wasn’t released until 2017.) While he still owns his reliable 788T, he did upgrade his bag in recent years with a 633 compact field mixer/recorder. “I researched it, and waited, and saved up some money, and then bought the 633, and that’s been my go-to machine ever since. The 788T is kind of in the background… It’s not as up-to-date as some of the multitrack recorders (Sound Devices) has now, but it’s still a really great machine for doing an indie feature film.”
When asked what keeps him coming back to Sound Devices, he laughingly quips, “I guess I should ask, ‘How did you guys hook me?’” He then reveals that when shopping for his new mixer/recorder, he first checked with a few other sound professionals using gear from another manufacturer. Silberberg says, “(they) didn’t have really great customer support feedback from what I was hearing, so that was a big part of it.” About Sound Devices, he says the company has, “an amazing customer service reputation. Anytime I’ve sent a machine in, it’s been really good….You can’t underestimate the value of that. The (equipment) has got to be reliable. Just the fact of the customer service being so good, it instills a lot of confidence in the machines.”
For Long Strange Trip, Silberberg used his trusted 788T once or twice, but relied more heavily on his 633 for the interviews. “I’m real hands-on when in the middle of it. I don’t like to get lost in menus. The 633 has the advantages of a digital mixer- like auto-mixing- but it’s got an analogue feel- the faders , the pan and trim knobs are right from the analogue mixer days. I love using it.” He adds, “It’s got returns on it, it’s lightweight, and the audio performance is fantastic. Every once in a while I might need another preamp, but it’s a compromise when you have a machine this small. You’re going to give up something, but I’ve been able to live with that.”
With his 633, he used Lectrosonics lavalier mics and a Schoeps CMH 641 U supercardioid microphone. Silberberg says having professional quality gear makes his job easier, and that is key in helping him stay focused on what’s really important. “In a documentary film, the producer/director is developing a relationship with the subject, and that relationship is really the most important thing. You can’t endanger that relationship by being too technical or being too demanding.”
That was especially true for the documentary Long Strange Trip when Silberberg found himself recording interviews with band members in their own homes. “We really had to do very good work, and that meant getting the background quiet. So, here we are at Bob Weir’s house, and I’ve got to ask his wife if it’s okay to turn the fridge off, and the only way you could do it was just be yourself, and remember they’re just people. It’s not a big deal.” He adds, “Bob Weir was very easy to work with, a very relaxed guy. I’m sure he’s been interviewed countless times.”
In Hawaii, during the interview with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Silberberg faced other obstacles to getting a clean soundtrack. “There was a lot of noise from palm fronds rubbing against each other. Imagine that, in the spring or summertime when all the trees are in bloom, if you go outside on a windy day, you can hear all that white noise. That’s exactly what it was,” he explains. “We’re in Kreutzmann’s home, and we had to be very respectful and careful of all the lighting gear. It wasn’t like I could go around closing any windows. That wasn’t going to work. The place would’ve heated up, especially with the lights. He would’ve had sweat in his eyes. It’s not a good idea.”
Silberberg hooked up a Sennheiser shotgun MKH-70 with his 633—a mic he admits is not typically used indoors, “but I used it. That worked out pretty good…. It was fine.” Ultimately, when troubleshooting issues on location, he says, “You develop your game face, act in a professional manner, and stick to your business. Don’t get in the way. Don’t stop things up. But if there’s a problem, and you’re not getting good broadcast quality sound, at that point, you must stop and fix it. Because there’s no going back. It’s not going to happen. That’s the big thing about documentaries. They’re trusting you, and you’ve got to deliver.”