Mark Hensley: Taming Audio Anarchy

Great dialogue starts with the script, but re-recording mixer Mark Hensley is the man who perfects every line. He discusses his post-production work on Sons of Anarchy and Fox's Cosmos

Credit: Prashant Gupta/FXCredit: Prashant Gupta/FXFor Mark Hensley, it’s always been about sound. Raised by American parents living in Holland, where his father worked on the oil pipelines, Hensley started out as a musician, playing guitar and singing with various bands.

I was really into music. That’s what I wanted to do. And then one day I saw this ad for a recording school in San Francisco.” Back then, in the late 1980s, there were no schools like that in Europe, and the idea excited him. So he enrolled and headed for the U.S., where a whole new life and career began.

After graduation, he got an internship at the legendary Bay Area recording studio Record Plant, where he worked his way up to engineer and received a platinum record for his work on 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?

His move from music to film began in Vancouver, where he met re-recording mixer Greg Stewart. “I learned so much just by watching Greg,” Hensley said. “I really would not be half the mixer I am today without having mixed with him.”

Both men worked on the Showtime series The L Word. That credit paved the way for Hensley’s move to the heart of the film world, Los Angeles.

He’s now part of the team at Smart Post Sound, where his credits include Sons of Anarchy and the acclaimed Neil deGrasse Tyson series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Hensley loves the highly technical, intensely focused work of a re-recording mixer. But does he ever fantasize about the path not taken, life as a rock star? Not even a little bit.

Get in Media: Why don’t you start by telling a little about your day-to-day work as a re-recording mixer. 

MH: What I mostly do is dialogue, and that entails going through it all, because no matter where the location is, you always have buzzes and hums and stuff like that. Even though you don’t notice them when you’re on set, they’re there. They just become more apparent once you’re in the studio and it’s in a very clean environment. So, what I do is I clear all that stuff out. I will also EQ [equalize] the dialogue and adjust the levels so it sounds nice. That’s a pretty intensive job, but I like it.

GIM: What’s involved in getting the dialogue to sound the way you want it to.

MH: It’s all about the frequency content of how it’s recorded. I mean when anybody is talking, if you just use the straight recorded sounds without [equalizing] it, some frequencies are missing and others are too present. I like to bring out the warmth of the dialogue, as opposed to having it sound all mid-rangey and annoying.

But there are other things too. You don’t want to strain to hear stuff. That’s a big thing. I have a big problem when I watch some TV shows and you’re like, “What is that person saying?” That to me is unacceptable. As a dialogue mixer, dialogue is king. It’s written for a purpose. It needs to be heard. So, no matter what, I want to make sure that all dialogue is intelligible. And it’s not easy, because when somebody is whispering it could be that they have their mouth covered, and it takes work to actually clear that out and clean it up so people can hear it without it sounding wrong. You can’t just push the fader up and make it louder. It doesn’t work that way. It’s just a constant dance with level and equalization and frequencies.

GIM: You recently worked on Cosmos. What did that involve for you?

MH: Well, Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks very dynamically, which means he will start really loud and then he’ll immediately drop off, and the end of his sentences will drop really low. If I pushed the fader up on that low stuff, the bottom end would become really accentuated. So besides raising that fader, I also have to go back and pull out some of the bottom end so, yes, it gets louder but it doesn’t sound wrong. There is really an art to mixing dialogue well. Again, its one of those things where people will only notice when something’s not right.

But Cosmos, honestly, is amazing. It’s a documentary series, but the production values on this are unbelievable. It looks fantastic and they’ve written it so it really draws you in. And the great thing about Neil deGrasse Tyson is that he actually knows what he’s talking about, he’s not just reading it off a piece of paper. It’s awesome.

GIM: What are some of the more difficult challenges you’ve faced on various jobs? 

MH: One of the shows we mix is Sons of Anarchy, which is actually really challenging because they shoot so much of it on location, with a lot of traffic noise and stuff like that. And people who are talking will tend to talk really quietly. That’s truly challenging, just because you don’t really want to do ADR [automated dialogue replacement].

The problem is that you tend to lose something in the performance when people have to come in for ADR. [During filming] they will run through the scene and rehearse it, and the actor gets into the whole vibe of the scene, and then they’ll pick the best take. When the actors come in to to do ADR, they have to get right back there within 15 seconds. And they have to get the timing exactly right. They have to get the voice pitch right. They have to get the inflections right, the emotion. It’s tough. It’s really tough. So, no matter how bad the noise is, I will always try to clean it up and make it useable. I would rather go with a great performance with dialogue that technically doesn’t sound perfect, than with some ADR that sounds perfect but is flat.

Here’s a good example. In the last episode of the last season of Sons of Anarchy, there is a scene at the end with Jax and Tara. They’re in a park and they’re having this really intimate discussion and the park is right next to a freeway overpass. All you heard was trucks and cars. It was just this din of noise. There are mixers who would just go, “Well you know what, that’s how it is and we can see the truck and that’s the way it should be.” But for me, in a scene like that, because it’s so intimate and close, I don’t want to hear all that traffic. It distracts. Just because it was shot there doesn’t mean it needs to be heard like that. So that was a particularly trying scene. But we didn’t ADR it, and we were able to use the whole performance without it being clobbered by trucks going by.

GIM: When they scout locations, don’t they take the noise factor into consideration?

MH: Not always. There was a very well-known show that a friend of mine was mixing. And the location was really brutal in terms of sound. But the director’s attitude was, “F—k sound, they can fix it in post.” You know what the problem is? Because we have all these really great tools and plug-ins, we really can do some unbelievable cleanup of dialogue. They expect that we can literally fix anything, and we can’t. It’s very frustrating sometimes because it can end up OK, but it will never be great because the source was so bad.

RELATED: Emmy Award-nominated production sound mixer Darryl L. Frank discusses why Breaking Bad’s lack of audio gimmicks is one of its greatest weapons.

GIM: What is it that you love most about the job. What’s the most fun thing about it?

MH: Everything. I tell people this all the time. I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do. I worked real jobs before I got into this industry. I worked in factories. I worked in assembly plants. I worked in warehouses. This for me isn’t a job. I really enjoy mixing dialogue because there is a technical side to it and I’m a technical kind of guy. I really enjoy the challenge of taking something that doesn’t always sound so good and making it, hopefully, sound great. I love what I do.

GIM: Is there a stressful side of the job?

MH: I don’t find it stressful, personally, because I’ve been doing it for so long. But it’s not necessarily the gig for everyone. When we’re mixing we have clients there. We have people sitting behind us all the time, basically watching us, seeing what were doing. And it’s all about pleasing the people sitting behind you. If they’re happy, everybody’s happy. 

GIM: What advice do you have for someone who’d like to get into your profession?

MH: I have people online always asking me, “When I finish school what should I do?” Right away I tell them, “Move to LA.” When it comes to North America, LA is the center of the universe for film and TV. It really is.

But if you come here to enjoy the lifestyle, to go out and party, and then try to get into this industry, good luck. You have to be on your A-game all the time. Maybe you get to screw up once, and then you’re gone. It really is like that. There is a lot of money riding on it. You can screw up one thing and it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I’d also say be humble. Don’t think that you’re the best thing out there. Prove yourself in what you can do. And stick to it. You’ve got to be really dedicated, and it takes a while before you work your way up to making a decent living. It takes years.

GIM: If you were just getting out of school where would you look for your first job? 

MH: I would look at getting an internship if you can afford to. Try to get a machine room job. That’s the guy in the back that will get your drives, get stuff loaded up, transfer stuff. A lot of people here in LA start like that. Being in a facility in the back room, you meet a lot of people, you make contacts, people get to know you, and you just have to stick with it and work your way up.

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