Talks with Peter: Score mixer Phil McGowan

Phil McGowan is an Emmy-nominated film score mixer who is up for an Emmy (Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Comedy or Drama Series And Animation for Cobra Kai, and Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Nonfiction Or Reality Program for Tina Turner documentary TINA). He’s also a longtime Source-Connect user and a great guy to chat to at 4am.

Peter: Phil! It’s 4:00 AM and I’m really sleepy, so I hope I make sense if I’m rambling.

Phil: No worries. Okay. Haha!

Peter: So the place I usually start with these is to ask people about their recording setup because everyone’s a geek of some kind about gear, and I imagine that in your situation, doing the kind of work you do, it must be pretty unique. What do you use to achieve what you do?

Phil: So my studio here is just a mixing studio. Whenever I do a recording, usually I’m at the scoring stage here in LA or in another studio somewhere else, but I mix in the studio here. Right now I have two Pro Tools rigs that are going into an Avid MRTX, and I’m upgrading my room to Dolby Atmos. I’m surrounded by speakers here, there’s two of them back here that are just sitting there that haven’t been hung yet. There will be eight PMC wafers, that’ll be all around me, and then I use PMC monitors for the front channels that are up there. But everything’s in the box for me. I mean, I have two Lexicon outboard reverbsthat I use that just have that sound. For doing orchestra stuff, the sound of those reverbs are really nice. Everything else is all in the box. I use a ton of different varieties of plugins and things like that. And as far as Source-Connect, I’ve used it quite a bit. I used to assist and work for composer Trevor Morris and we used to do Source Connect sessions with Bratislava and Prague and Budapest and all those places all the time.

Phil: So I’ve used Source-Connects quite a bit, and dealt with setting up all the port forwarding and all the things that are entailed with that. And it is a really amazing tool once you get it up and running. It bizarre how literally you push talkback and it feels like you’re in a control room next door to the orchestra, except the orchestra’s halfway around the world! I’ve been thinking of offering some of my clients to use this room to host a Source-Connect session to listen in. So that might happen in the future.

Peter: I’m always curious about when a project arrives, what form is it in? Like, what do you get and what do you bring to it?

Phil: Primarily, I’m just mixing the musical score, usually for film and television but I do some video game stuff as well. So by the time it comes to me, it’s pretty done as far as the interaction with the director and the producers. Usually everything musical is done with the sync to picture and what the cues are going to do and things like that. So I typically get some sort of an export from the composer sequencer. We usually call it a synth master. I’ll get anywhere from a few stereo pairs up to sometimes hundreds of stereo pairs, depending on what kind of project it is. It will have sampled strings and brass and all the percussion elements, and all the synths are pads. Usually if they recorded any guitars or things like that, that’s usually all in there too. So I get that from them and that’s a good bulk of the cue. And then I’m also receiving assets from any live recordings that were done, stuff that’s either done overseas or outside of LA that is sent to me, or stuff that I recorded for the project. So those multitracks can stack up and that’s how sometimes we get these insane track counts. Sometimes we’ll do band sessions with the guitarist or percussionist or drums and things like that. And then once it gets here, I’m putting it all together.

Phil: So I usually have one big giant Pro Tools session and then I’m mixing it in some sort of surround sound format. Then I have to sum that down to a number of stems that then I hand off to the dub where they’re going to blend it with the dialogue and the sound effects. So most of it, that’s probably primarily what I do. I mean, 95% of my credits are all score mixing. I have done some smaller projects where I’ve been rerecording and mixing, and I’ve dabbled in some sound design as well. I have a sound effects library and where it’s needed sometimes I’ll flesh things out and what have you.

Peter: It must be so liberating in a way to be able to do things like, 5.1 and Atmos knowing that a lot of people have, great setups at home that can deal with this kind of thing. I imagine doing this job, I don’t know, 40 years ago, many of your precesessors in TV were working in mono.

Phil: Yeah. Even back then I mean, movie theaters weren’t even surround sound until Apocalypse Now. They had some other mono surround behind you or various experiments, but I mean, yeah, before the 80s really, most films are just stereo or just mono or maybe LCR in the theater. So it’s exciting now that we have all these surround sound formats to play around with, and I’m a big nerd with all that stuff too, in different formats. And then I’m kind of a home theater nerd too, since I grew up with that stuff.

Phil: But honestly, even a lot of the films I work on, you know, they’ll get a theatrical release and that’s important, but honestly, most people are probably gonna watch it at home. They’re going to be watching on Netflix or Apple TV, so really the home theater environment these days is the most widely consumed format, even with theatrical still happening for certain larger films and things like that. So I do my research: what exactly do do all these different soundbars do? What do these receivers do? How do they unwrap my mix down stereo or LCR for a soundbar versus Atmos in the home and things like that. So I like nerding out on all those different sort of technical lessons.

Peter: Well, I know a lot of music producers who like to go out to the car and listen there to see if the mix holds up like that. But you can’t really do that when everyone’s watching know different kind of device, you know, there must be, it must be very challenging. Like you must be skilled enough to know at this point, you know, all, that’s going to be a bit subtle. It’s not going to raid for everyone, but the people who are going to hear it are going to love it, you know?

Phil: It’s always in my mind, like I don’t want to give a music mix that has an insane amount of low end or something that’s really cloudy that I know, even though they might quote unquote, fix it at the dub: I don’t want them to have to fix anything!

Peter: So I’m looking at some of the stuff you’ve done here and uh, Cobra Kai is a pretty big deal and so is the recent Tina Turner documentary. How does it feel to know that your work is being really heard, in a really popular show?

Phil: It’s exciting. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans who are most known now for Ozark have been my longtime clients for life. I’ve done like 35 to 40 projects with them now and we have a bunch of stuff coming up this year because everything’s picking up in the industry now the COVID is kind of starting to die down in the United States. They’ve really taken off with the projects that they’ve gotten for the whole team, including myself. So that’s a really fun, you become accustomed Emmy attention and things like that. They did the score for Tina, and that film was really special for me because not only did I mix Danny and Saunder score, but I also had the opportunity to mix some Tina Turner concert pieces in surround.

Peter: Whoa. What was that like?

Phil: It just sort of happened! That was really the perfect ‘right place at the right time’ kind of story. The recording mixer, Lawrence – who’s fantastic – got these multitracks from concerts in 1990 and 1988 that were going to be in the film, and he was just like, ‘Eh, I dunno, I’m not a music guy. I don’t really mix drums and guitars.’ And then he asked the producers, ‘Do we have someone else that maybe can mix this stuff down to 5.1 for me? And then I can just sort of finesse it into the dub.’ And they didn’t really know. They’re just like, ‘Oh well why don’t we ask Phil if he wants to do this?’

Phil: So then I just got a random email, like, ‘Hey, so we have these multitracks that need to be mixed with the film. You want to do it?’ And I was like ‘Hell yeah, of course I do. That’d be amazing! So yeah, I had a kind of fun dual role where I mixed live concert songs for the opening and the ending of the film. And then also I mixed Danny and Saunder’s score. So a lot of the music in there is, is stuff that I worked on and there’s tons of archival music stuff that I didn’t touch. They just had a mono or stereo full mix to put in there. That project is really, really special.

Peter: Yeah. And promising young woman, I mean, geez, you must have the coolest, you know, at any bar or whatever, you must be the coolest guy. You just all, yeah, I worked on that. Yeah.

Peter: So do you have a musical background?

Phil: Yeah. So I grew up playing piano as a kid, but both my parents actually were piano and keyboard players, not professionally, but they both played. My mom actually has a music education degree and used to teach piano lessons, so there was always music in the family. And my dad, like, I never really grew up going to sports games with my dad. We went to concerts and listened to albums and things like that. And I remember as a kid being jealous and my sister started taking piano lessons. I was like, ‘No, I want to take them too,’ and then I sort of took off with it. And then when I got into middle school, I wanted to be in the band, but there’s no piano in concert band so I picked up the saxophone and that became my principle instrument throughout middle school through college. And then around the same time I started getting interested in live sound stuff, and the same thing with like the church community; there are sound people there and I started sort of hanging out with them. I think I was 12 when I started dabbling with that kind of stuff. And I still have my dad’s little Mackie mixer that he used for his keyboards. That’s the first mixer I ever learned. I read the whole manual. I learned how all the aux busing worked and how if you muted it, it would send it to another set of buses, and just kind of working out the signal flow… so this little mixer just sort of started all, and then I started reading manuals for bigger consoles. And then I was like, ‘Ooh, what’s a compressor?’ and so on. This was of course before pureMix or Mix With The Masters or any of these kinds of amazing resources that people have now. So in middle school and high school I just started dabbling with that stuff and I think I started with Fruity Loops or something like that, just playing around with software. Then my band director connected me with someone in my hometown who was getting a Pro Tools, HD system, and so he just gave me his Audiomedia 3 card, which was the predecessor to the Mbox. It was a PCI card with RCA in and out and spit it in and out that’s it. And so I started when I was like 15 with pro tools, uh, with that in pro tools five. Um, so yeah, I’ve, I’ve been using ProTools for a while.

Despite my age, I’ve been in the game a little while. Um, and then I decided, uh, eventually that I wanted to do it professionally, um, or wanted to look into doing music professionally. So I came across Berkeley college of music in Boston, which is where I ended up going. I originally was going to do a dual major with film scoring and music production, because at first I wanted to be a composer and play sax on my scores, someone else would record it and then I mix it. I had the pipe dream of ‘I’ll do everything.’ You know, I don’t need anybody else. And then you get in a place like Berkeley where there’s just so much talent all around you and I realized that I may be a great sax player in central Maine, but you get with all these other people from around the country and around the world, it’s like ‘Okay well I’m okay but not nearly as good as these other guys,’ and the same thing with the people that were writing, I just kind of realized it wasn’t my forte. I still write okay. And as I met more people and got deeper into the program, I realized that engineering and production and mixing were really what I was best at.

Peter: Well, thanks so much for your time. It’s been really fun. And you know, like I said, I get to interview so many cool people about like sides of the industry. That I’ve always, I mean, like with, like you mentioned with MTB and figuring out what a skull mixer is like, you know, I’ve always seen these, these jobs and being like, Ooh, you know, you spend your nights Wikipedia in like, you know what all these things are and like being a journalist and getting to pick the brains of people, it’s just like the best. Yeah, not cool. So thank you so much. Absolutely. It’s my pleasure. Cheers. I’ll catch you soon.

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