The Utility Sound Technician
written by Mark Ulano
from his Pro Audio Review column


During the process of working on the 2 part Zen Boom feature (8/99&9/99), I realized that within the same theme of the sound crew's invisibility lay the almost unknown work of the Utility Sound Technician (UST).

What are the responsibilities of the UST and why is his job so misunderstood?

You will often see his credit in the film crawl as "cable person", although common, it is a significant misnomer because his work is so deeply integrated into the sound crew's operations and not bound to the task of "cabling". In fact, there is no official union designation for cable. Utility Sound Technician is the correct phrase.

Maybe the mystery lies in this misnomer?

The UST is the essential 3rd corner of the Production Sound Crew triangle along with the Mixer and Boom Operator.

This person is responsible for handling a lot of the minutia that flows in a steady stream, at a high rate of speed, into the sound department. The UST must have a complete working knowledge of all the equipment used in sound work and of all the permutations that this equipment may be set up with. During the daily shot to shot work, the UST is the housekeeper of the sound department, a kind of First Mate. He is the engineer's 2nd, supervising many operations. Among them are: Equipment placement and set up, perimeter and noise control, equipment maintenance, music playback including cue aid and induction loop setup, maintenance of the supply inventory, liaison with the production office, transportation and other departments, walkie talkie distribution and maintainance, frequent 2nd boom operation, video monitor lines to the sound mixer, rigger of wireless mic's and mic planting.

The UST's relationship to the mixer is much like the music engineer's 2nd in command. He comes in, sets up, roughs in all the beginning-of-the-day ritual activities. As the day progresses, the UST will handle all the spontaneous logistics that may arise from setting up each shot. If the extras (background artists) that are crossing in the frame are too noisy, the UST may lay carpet runners on the floor or attach foot foam to the "shoe offenders", furthermore he will verbally coax them into quieter movement. If the actors are moving dynamically through several rooms in the shot or if there is a large spatial split between foreground and background dialogue, the UST will be put into service as the second boom operator. Who knows, maybe on take 6 of a 5 page master scene, the director re-blocks the dialogue to be delivered in a totally new spot, unreachable by the Boom Operator. Without hesitation, the UST jumps into position like the sound commando that he is, often without even the courtesy of a rehearsal.

In recent years, producers of limited experience have misunderstood this person's multifaceted work and misinterpreted the UST's job as a trainee position or worse an unnecessary job!

Sound mixers, fearful for their employment, bite their lip and attempt to work with the 2 man sound crew, seriously impairing the capabilities of the sound crew to respond fully to the demands of production film sound work and more importantly serving the director's needs.

A dialogue must begin to better communicate the critical service this hardworking crew member contributes to sound department and to the larger the film making process.

ONE MAN'S VIEW Ross Levy, Utility Sound Technician for Fox Networks show Time of Your Life, starring Jennifer Love Hewett

The utility person must be the "Swiss army knife" of the department, with skills in many areas of production sound and be able to do any of the other department members jobs at any moment. It is critical that the department has the advantage of a triple threat sound team. The utility person must have knowledge of sound mixing, boom operating, radio mics, on set politics, and understand the needs of the sound mixer and boom operator. I like to consider my position the best boy of the sound department. At the start of each day I like to go through a morning ritual to prepare the department for the days work. This often requires making sure all equipment is set up and working properly, cleaning the DAT and Nagra recorders, supplying the needed tape stock, sound reports, batteries, testing the Comtek system [note: wireless monitoring for the director and script supervisor], and setting up the time code chain for the jamming of the slates. Once I've accomplished this I'm ready to start the day and tackle the production sound challenges as they come.

I like to watch all blocking rehearsals with the boom operator to see if a second boom is needed for the particular scene. If radio mics are required I like to split the responsibility with the boom operator to expedite the body miking process. Once the boom operator and myself have worked out how to mic the shot, I try to solve any potential sound problems that may occur during the scene. When shooting at a practical location such as a restaurant, I touch base with the location department immediately to make sure all extraneous noises can be shut off, such as air conditioning, refrigerators, etc. I also talk to the electrical department regarding their cable runs in to the set. I always ask that they avoid running their cables through doors that lead directly to a noisy street and place lighting dimmer packs and HMI light ballasts [both use noisy cooling fans] as far away from the set as possible. I also must make sure the extra's are quiet and do not interfere with the dialogue.

The utility person is always aware of the day's schedule to anticipate any pre-rigging that may needed. If there is a car-tow shot, I like to breakaway from the set and pre-rig the process trailer or camera tow vehicle for audio. There's nothing more efficient than having the vehicle rigged for audio before the camera is mounted. The microphones are just roughly placed and can be easily adjusted by the boom operator once the frame is set.

If the company is doing a lot of stage moves during the day, I move and set up the sound equipment while the boom operator and mixer watch the rehearsal. It's not uncommon that as soon as I'm done setting up the equipment I'm needed to boom a complicated two-boom scene. The utility person must be flexible to sudden changes and strong in multi-tasking.

Last update : April 25th, 2000


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