Shawn Allen

Sound Devices spoke with location sound mixer Shawn Allen about his current setup, history in the industry and trends he sees coming in the world of production sound. 

S.D.: How did you get into location sound?

I went to Temple University in Philadelphia for film theory, but I didn’t do much sound work in school. A couple years later my friend Phil Rosati was doing some low budget movies and asked me to boom for him. I liked it and I seemed to do well at it. Soon I was mixing shorts and various other video pieces. 

I’m currently three months into my third season of FBI for NBC/CBS. Seasons one and two were mixed on 688’s with CL-12’s.

What is your gear setup?

I’ve used Sound Devices since I started. From the 302, 442, 702, 744, 788 and eventually spending a few years on the 688. Currently I have a Scorpio and CL-16 with a MixPre-10 as my backup recorder. I’m not using Dante yet, but I went with the Scorpio knowing I could utilize it later on. I built an 8020 vertical cart with Lectrosonics wireless and some other useful tools. There is an RF Explorer, Lectrosonics antenna distribution, and Wisycom antennas. I have a variety of manufacturers in my set up. Sound Devices recorders sound great. They have great preamps. When my next season of FBI came up they told me I needed to be able to wire up to ten actors in addition to my two booms and so on. I chose to upgrade from the 688 and now I have plenty of channels to work with. The display on the CL-16 is great for keeping track of settings on each channel, as well as helping my aging eyes! It was also a pleasant change to create various buses for different needs. It helps being able to quickly route almost anything where I need to.

What has been your most challenging shoot? 

I worked on The Knick for Cinemax. I was the boom operator and wired the actors. Between the period clothing and set design I was put to the test. Those two seasons taught me more than the previous few years. My time spent working with the director Steven Soderberg and sound mixer Dennis Towns really shaped how I approach the work, and now how I mix. 

What has changed since you’ve started working in location sound? 

Dependency on wireless has become the norm. Wire everyone and go. It’s something I’ve gotten used to now. Post can do more to clean tracks up too. Directors and producers know this. Patience to quiet a set down has been lost on the modern set, at least in the world of network episodics.

What trends do you see coming in the field?  

Dante will be a fixture on carts. The possibilities it opens up are great. We’re also all striving to clean up the “spaghetti” on the backs and insides of our carts. Noise reduction will get better and become used more on location. I can see that technology really taking off.

What’s the biggest misconception about sound on set? 

This might be the grumpy sound guy talking but the biggest misconception may be that anyone else is as invested in the quality of what you’re recording as you are. Yes we all want it to be good, but only you want it to be great. You should always want it to be great and the challenge is doing the job as well as you can despite the time constraint.  

What advice would you offer to someone beginning their location sound career or considering the field?

You can be technically educated but still fail. So much of what we do depends on two things. Understanding what other departments do and how they do it, and our ability to dialogue succinctly with everyone. We don’t have a lot of time. What we do always involves other departments. Learn how to communicate efficiently and learn what other departments do. Really understanding what they do can help you accomplish what you need.

What are the challenges on FBI? Any way you overcome them? 

New York City is the challenge. It’s an RF nightmare at times. It’s loud 24-7. We also move quickly a lot of the time. We really need to think ahead and be prepared. Some of our directors will keep rolling and try different things. It’s a good test of how well I see the big picture. Network tv doesn’t often have sound representatives on location scouts. I do my best to use the photos and scouting information. 

Is location sound more of a science or an art? 

It’s a really cool mix of the two. You need the technical know-how but there’s an art to mic placement that only comes with practice. You learn how mics will work in different spaces and fine tune your preferences for how mics are placed on people. These things get better for you the more you try, like an artist or musicians perfecting their talents. It can always get better so keep trying.