Interview with Billy Quinn, Production Sound Mixer
- Interview by Mel Noonan, StylusMC
Happy at my cart!
Where do you live now?
I live in Berlin. It’s a place I have had a deep connection with for many years. I was here in the mid 80s and left to return to the UK in 93/94, but I was always going back and forth every three months during this time. I returned in 2017 and have completely relocated over here. It’s a fabulous city with lots of wonderful, interesting people who think outside of the box, especially in my ‘Kiez’ (neighbourhood): Kreuzberg.
What’s your current situation?
I got married just over a year ago. My wife is a photographer and works for one of the biggest newspapers in Germany. She has lived in Berlin since the Wall fell. She has two daughters; one who is training to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a photographer, the other who is about to head to France for a year on a school course.
We bought a small farm close to the city, near the lakes, so we head out there together often.
Have you moved around a lot in your career?
The majority of my work has been in London and the U.K. More recently, this has changed a little as the last few jobs were set in Paris, Brussels and Barcelona. I used to work in documentaries a long time ago. This is what got me into meeting interesting people in interesting places.
Re: your growing up years, where were you? How was it? Were there any influences that may have led you to your later sound career?
I was born in Glasgow, Scotland. My father was in the Royal Navy and so we would travel every few years to wherever he was based. I would return to school in Scotland, but with an English accent (not recommended). We also lived in Singapore for quite a long time before we returned; first to Scotland and then on to Dorset.
My father loved it there. He became a specialist in helicopters; writing about as well as working on them, so it was the perfect home base for him. We spent many years there. It’s a really nice part of the world.
Apple TV+ ‘ Liaison’ studio. Listening very hard for any off-set noises !
At what stage or age did you realise that sound recording was what you wanted to do for a career?
I was too young to really realise what it was at first. I just knew that anything to do with music or sound recording was like a magnet to me as it was so exciting. My parents had always been very much into the 60s music & fashion scenes. They bought a reel-to-reel tape machine back with them from Singapore as they had all the albums, so I listened to them like mad. Later on, I would start to record on this machine and try to make some edits. I then started learning classical guitar, then onto jazz, but it was really the electric guitar that changed everything. I began playing in bands.
My uncle in Scotland was a front-of-house engineer for big acts in late 60s/early 70s. He went on to become Simple Minds’ main mixer. Years later, I actually ended up working with him at some shows in Berlin, purely by accident. I had always thought that that was also the direction I wanted to go in; as front-of-house mixer. Subsequently, I ended up spending years working at live concerts. I tried everything - from small venues to really large stadiums, as there was always a lot to do and learn.
I soon started getting involved in the film school in Berlin. That was the first time I set my eyes on a Nagra recorder. It would have been around 86/87, I think. It looked so basic compared to all the massive mixing consoles I’d seen at live concerts. Honestly, I was completely green to filming, but I ended up coming back, again and again, to help. It was fascinating how all these different departments came together to make a film.
Not long after the Berlin Wall came down, it was a total explosion of everything. Nothing was off limits and there were a lot of amazing possibilities; so much eclectic and exciting, innovative work. For example, working with Techno artists who had been on the Eastern side of the wall.
A lovely clear day on Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’. Watching how far I am going to be away from the action during rehearsals! Moving from interior to exterior scene so often stayed compact in a bag. Lots of radio mics used on this show.
I decided to go back to the U.K. and study. It ended up being a Journalism course in Manchester. I happened to be drinking tea one day, having a chat with a tutor who had come in to teach for a few days. The advice I was given was that I should really be considering the NFTS (National Film & Television School) as I had such a passion for sound/filming. I took that on board and ended up attending the NFTS Sound Design course there from 1995 to 1998.
There was no location sound recording course back then; you just did a bit of everything. Well, I pretty much immediately decided that I was not cut out for being in a studio. I needed to be in the thick of the action.
What were your first paid jobs, if any, for recording in those early years?
I ended up hooking up with an amazing, experienced cameraman at the National Film & Television School. He got me into jobs doing documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, etc. It was a phenomenal learning curve as we also worked together abroad. I quickly realised the responsibility of recording and the subsequent sensitivity of doing this job in sometimes particularly difficult environments. These were my first actual paid jobs while still at the school.
What gear were you using back then?
The school had Nagra machines. I took one with me to Argentina as I was there for four months. It saved the day when I was out recording demonstrations on the streets. The Porta DAT was the main one for documentaries. When I think back, it was scary the amount of kit I would carry in one bag. We would use the DAT plus another as a backup and transcript. There was also the Timecode, though they were not as small as they are today. I used a Blackbox system from Jim McAlister who was a genius in all things relating to location work at this time.
What about the experience of your training in sound? How did it all go? What were the high points you remember?
I was extremely lucky to get to go to the NFTS. You received a bursary back then, so it was a tremendous help. They had numerous short films going on and you could jump between projects, sometimes year groups too. These short films were taken very seriously and were an opportunity to experiment as well as to learn. I think going there was a game changer for someone like myself. I had zero contact to the industry and so it allowed me to develop and find out if this was the right direction. I see that as a high point as it paved the way for me to get started. This has also been the case for many students out there today who are working across all departments in the film and television world.
Blast from the past on a Cantar X1 BBC drama.
What were your first jobs as a production sound mixer? How was the experience?
I had worked on some small films before getting the opportunity to do a BBC drama. This led to more TV drama jobs and has been my main field of work ever since. Obviously, TV has changed a lot since those days, but the principal of filming remains the same. It was always fast paced, so you had to think on your feet and make quick decisions.
Some of these TV dramas such as ‘Criminal Justice‘ have later been remade in the US. It was great working on them, and let’s be honest; who wouldn’t love getting the chance to work with and record the late, great Pete Postlethwaite.
Do you remember the first kit you owned as a production sound mixer? How was the experience of using it?
In the early days, I used a HHB on documentaries and a Fostex PD4 on drama shoots. I didn’t really like this format, to be honest. It was always very unreliable if you didn’t know the idiosyncrasies of these machines. The Nagra just kept going. However, I still used them for many years until I saw an Aaton Cantar X1.
I also used Audio 2020 radio mic’s, though I swapped over to Lectrosonics in around 2007. I contacted Jim Guzzi at Gotham Sound and he sent me over the Lectrosonics Venue and SMA transmitters. They were, and still are, an amazing product. I found I could work longer distances remotely and it was a much quicker system.
When did you first become aware of Aaton recorders?
I first happened to see the Aaton Cantar X1 buried amongst a mountain of paper work in the office of Richmond Film Services in England in around 2006. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I then decided to buy one and tried to learn as much and as quickly as possible as I had a BBC drama starting three days later. I took it with me and used it in parallel with my DAT machine. After a few days I managed to convince the edit/production team to use the Cantar rushes.
ITV / Epix ‘ Belgravia’ with Boom op lovely Phil Walker.
What led you to the decision to buy your Aaton CantarX3?
Well, I bought the X1, then a X2, and used them for years. They were amazing. I still have them in my van. I waited in earnest for the X3 to come out. I tried it, though I was on a long job, and I immediately realized that it was a beast.
Did you just jump in and start using it for real, or did you spend some time first getting to know it?
As I was on a long job, I used it as back up on everything I was recording so as to learn my way around it.
What are the features of the X-3 that you now really appreciate in your work
Actually, it’s more straightforward and accessible to learn than the older models. This machine hits all the right notes. It sounds fantastic due to the phenomenal preamps. It’s very hands-on and also seems to have options for nearly every scenario we find ourselves in on set these days.
I believe you have other Aaton kit? Please tell us about that and how you use it?
I use the Cantarem 2 USB control surface with an A-Box 8.
I find being able to quickly take this small mixer surface off the cart and under my arm to any location an absolute blessing. I’ve obviously considered using the larger Canteress, but this fits my way of working at the moment. As I have two X3s, I can quickly swap between the two and add the Cantarem. It’s a very powerful system and fast, especially if you are recording at a harbour on the cart for one scene and then jumping onto a boat for the next one, for example. It has magnetic faders that are resistant to pretty much everything, while most of my jobs tend to be in the dust, dirt and horrendous weather.
The A-Box sits on my cart and I have it connected to my Lectrosonics 822s receivers digitally. It makes changing or tweaking settings very easy and fast. I like to keep my 8 mic’ preamps as free as possible in-case I need to plug an extra mic’ in quickly, or for additional channels.
‘Liaison’ Apple TV+ in beautiful Paris.
Have you ever met Jacques Delacoux?
I did meet Jacques. I travelled through to Aaton on my way back from six months working in Barcelona. It was really great to meet him. He was extremely friendly; he immediately asked if I would like to have lunch with him.
I also met Pierre Michoud - who I have had the pleasure of many phones calls with over the years. His help has been tremendous. Not forgetting Pascal & Sébastien; all fantastic people. We location sound mixers are truly lucky to have these guys making such amazing products for us, and the support they’ve provided over the years.
Anything to say about Aaton’s support for their users?
As above. It’s First Class.
Looking back over your career so far, which are the highlights that stand out, and why? If it was a movie or series, was it because of the script, the crew, the location, whatever?
That’s a very hard question. I’m trying to remember as some were a long, long time ago. I’ll list a few:
I like spy movies and dramas, so I would say working on the BBC production, ‘Page Eight‘. Great script and cast, and the sound was of utmost importance to the director.
BBC/Netflix production ‘River’ – mainly because of Stellan Skarsgard’s performance.
A British-French television series called ‘Liaison’ for Apple TV, which is still in the edit. It has Vincent Cassel, Eva Green and the amazing Peter Mullan in the cast. It was filmed in U.K., Brussels and Paris, and with a fantastic director.
Considering all your experiences along the way getting to where you are now, what advice would you offer to those starting out or in the early part of their sound careers?
I learned from many different people how to navigate my way around a set. Often, it’s the case when you first start out that your First Assistant will have more experience than you as a production Sound mixer. 1st AS have been on many sets and worked with very experienced crew as well as Production sound mixers. You can learn invaluable ways of going around things from this.
Listening is key. We can have all the best equipment in the world, but it’s ultimately ineffective if you’re not listening. This is often forgotten when everyone is rushed and put under extreme pressure to make the daily call sheet. Getting other departments to understand that sound is extremely important is also crucial. If they are not on your side, you’ll be in for a long, horrible ride and the sound will be affected. Learning to negotiate with other departments is essential.
1 st AS James Gibb & 3 Rd assistant Sergi Sarrià Marín in Barcelona filming Netflix’s ‘ Who is Erin Carter’ keeping cool under the extreme heatwave!
Do you want to thank anyone for the help that was extended to you in your career along the way?
Haha! Well, not to do a tear-jerker of thank-you’s, but they know who they are. You might know them as well. In no particular order:
Stuart Hilliker (Recording Mixer), James Gibb (1st AS), Phil Walker (1st AS), Gideon Jensen (1st AS), Tim Surrey (Prod Mixer), Tim White (Prod Mixer), Simon Bishop (Prod Mixer), Everything Audio (Roger Patel & Zelda Hallet), Richard Jay (1st AS), Ben Livingston ( Avington ), all at Aaton Digital, all at Independent Talent.
Where do you go from here?
I’ve just finished a Netflix show that was recorded in Barcelona for six months. It was an amazing place to get to film and explore over such a period of time. I was working closely with a Catalonian crew. That was truly a great experience.
Now I’m back to building work on an old farm until the phone hopefully rings again. At the same time taking some much-needed rest.
I think all crew know this feeling...
Billy Quinn AMPS
IMDB link: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0704028/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0
Cart set-up in a extremely noisy location ( old train factory) on Netflix’s’ ‘ Who is Erin Carter’.
Apple TV+ ‘ Liaison’ enjoying a days shoot in central London.
Night shoot in Bull Ring Barcelona.
Small bag rig in the mountains in beautiful Catalonia.
Low loader rig outside Barcelona in the hills in a heatwave. Additional Cantar in a bag as spare. No turning back in the mountains !
On a boat Apple TV+ ‘ Liaison’ requires constant RF scanning due to the phenomenal amount of RF transmitting from The Eiffel Tower.
Three Booms interior Paris ‘ Liaison’ Apple TV+
Rigging for one of numerous car scenes on ‘ Who is Erin Carter’
Running the X3 with a few tracks on Netflix’s ’Bridgerton’.
Myself & the fantastic crew on Netflix’s ’Bridgerton’