Interview with Arni Benediktsson for Aaton-Digital, August 2021
Mel Noonan, StylusMC, interviews Arni Ben for Aaton-Digital
Photo#1 With my new CantarX-3 I can still keep everything compact. Black Sands 2021.
1: Arni, can you tell us something of your childhood and teenage years –where was it, and do you think there was anything that could have led you towards your present career? Did you become involved in music or recording in any way?
I was brought up in Reykjavik, Iceland in the early 70’s and to my surprise, my first recording is actually from the age of 4 or 5 on my parents’ Telefunken Magnetophone 300 portable recorder. I still have that recording and the recorder as well. I spent a lot of time in corridors of the National Theatre as my parents worked there, and I made good pocket money performing or acting in the National Radio’s recordings of radio plays. It was all done on tape of course, and we also did a bit of Foley as we went along, with little miniature doors closing and opening and stuff like that. It was a lot of fun for a 10 year old. I used to spend long hours with the engineers watching them edit and splice the tape, and even got to try it myself. I’m still in contact with some of the engineers from back then. It was definitely not a straightforward process to continue with my recording career from that time, as my troublesome teenage years took their toll. There was a lot of music around, the punk and the new wave years, local bands being formed in all shapes and forms, and basically all my friends and family were in that business. I sort of fell out, and for my own good I was sent to the country to a farm working with horses. There I learnt to appreciate nature and the harsh environment of Iceland. I remember discussing with an old farmer about the military, if it was of any use to learn discipline and survival -we don’t have any military service in Iceland. He said, ‘You don’t learn anything there that you wouldn’t learn by taking your horses and riding into the mountains and staying there for 3 weeks and survive.’ And so I did. I ended up going to farming school and then took a further education in Denmark and practiced work experience in Holland for a year.
After I moved back to Iceland at around 21 years old the music scene was flourishing and somehow or other I ended up as an executive manager for a band breaking out from Iceland, the Sugarcubes. I worked for them for 6 years, until they broke up, and lived and breathed in the music industry 24/ 7 during those years. I was never really happy with my role in the music industry or more – let’s say, I wasn't happy with the way the music industry worked, so I took a break from it, only to find myself coming back to it three years later because it was the only thing I knew how to do, and I had big family I had to care for. I started working as a manager with artists like Emiliana Torrini, Leaves, and Without Gravity. In the later years I had set up studios for my artists to work in and got to be more familiar with studio work.
With the decline of the music industry around the millennium the workload shifted more towards me and I was more engaged in the studio. So in the end I set up my own studio complex and started doing some sound design for commercials and smaller things, along with producing commercials for production companies in Reykjavik. On one of the commercials the director shouted, ‘We need sound for this’, so I called around but no one was available. I told the director and he replied, ‘You’ve got a studio. Can’t you get some stuff together and record this?’ And there my road to production sound started. I absolutely loved it.
Photo#2 With my two most trusted, Lappi my dog and CantarX-2. Moments before the volcanic meltwater came rushing through.
2: When did you first come across Cantar recorders?
I love the challenge of learning something new, and I’m all in it. I study, read, trouble shoot in my dreams because there everything goes wrong and nothing works. But in my previous job as a producer, which I hated, I had seen enough of people doing sound badly. I knew that the standard of sound in Icelandic productions was actually really bad and very few people were good at it here. I was not going to be one of these guys blaming equipment malfunction. As I was doing my research, I discovered that Gunnar Arnason, one of the best production sound mixers in Iceland had a CantarX-2 and I was intrigued. What a beautiful machine. My mind was blown away. I rented it off him for few gigs and there was no way out of this. I had to have machine like this. I had been doing a quite a bit of sound straight to camera like you used to do back in the old days through a portable mixer, but this was the way forward.
3: What came next?
As the years went by, I was lucky enough to get assistant jobs on big Hollywood films coming through Iceland. It was such a blessing for me, even though I had already started working as a sound mixer on my own merit, working along with gurus like Production Sound Mixer Simon Hayes on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. This was such an eye opener for how to work professionally and how to be in front of your game to be not caught out. I hold much respect for him. I worked as a boom op on Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty film for Production Sound Mixer Danny Michael, another great sound mixer I hold very much respect for. Being a boom op is extremely physically demanding, along with having all senses activated, and I really appreciate my mentors for pushing me through difficult shoots. On Darren Aronofskys Noah, I worked with the Sound Utilities department, and with jobs like this I really got to know good standards and workmanship along with getting good on the technical stuff. I once got a little job to document Chris Watson on his work recording whales around Iceland. I was mesmerised by his work ethic, knowledge and approach, and tried to breathe it all in. He later got me to assist him on a field recording course held in Iceland with Jez Riley French, and for me to be hanging around these guys and trying to learn from them is just something else. It’s just so inspirational to see and find the passion for recording from them.
Photo#3: Mount Hekla was believed to be gateway to Hell in the 1600’s. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland. Here we are just checking how she sounds.
4: What about the experience of starting to work professionally as a sound mixer? Can you talk about the first few jobs?
Even though I have great training from the big films, it’s quite difficult to adapt these work methods into the little cosy Icelandic productions. It has to be scaled down a lot and adapted to the shape and size of the production. But at the end of the day, the challenge is to do good sound, and as I like challenges, there you go; but this one is pretty difficult. It is very hard to achieve good sound in this work environment of making films, and I need absolutely the best equipment available to help me towards that goal. I’m never really satisfied and always think of ways to do better, up to an annoying point. When I came up to the director few weeks ago and was complaining about something, he told me to shut up and said, ‘Do you realize that we did not ADR one word of your work on the last TV series we did together?’ I said “Well that does not mean it sounds good!’ Ok ok ok, I go before he hits me…
5: Have you moved around a lot to follow your career? Where are you located now?
The job has taken me to the most wonderful places, and I have been lucky following productions around. I was working a lot on geological shows and got to follow the process and ended up in getting a work visa in the States but I have always been based out of Iceland. That is my home turf and I don’t really have any ambition to dig any deeper. The industry up here is small, but quite busy and I have been working all through the Covid pandemic.
Photo#4: Black Sands production 2021.
6: Do you manage to have a family life?
Yes, I have a wonderful little family now. My wife is from the Pacific coast of Mexico and we have one daughter together. She is 3,5 years. But I have 3 other kids from my former marriage, and my son works with me. When we are in Iceland I work, but then we try to take good breaks in Mexico. The plan is to have it 50-50 but we have not been able to do that yet. Work is still more demanding
7: From where you are now in your career, what were say the one or two jobs that stand out for you and why?
This director guy I told you about earlier, his name is Baldvin Z. he is my favourite director, and I have been doing all his productions. And they are all great. I’m lucky enough to be included into his realm along with the DOP J Johannsson and it’s fantastic to be able to grow and mature with the same people. It can be difficult too, when you work with such talented people that when they grow sometimes I feel they are growing too fast and away from you, but that’s just on a bad hair day. My favourite productions are with Baldvin, ‘cause he is so frikkin talented and every aspect of the film is great and I have the feeling of having participated in something great. I have done three feature films with him and a number of TV series, but it still feels like the prelude to something majestic. At the moment I’m on a criminal drama TV series with him called Black Sands. We will finish that production end of July.
Last year I participated in Damon Albarn’s solo project, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, his portrait of Iceland that will be released on a record later this year. He incorporates some of my ambient recordings from places he chose, and when someone so brilliantly talented and creative says to you that they have never heard so nice quiet and open atmos recordings, I blush and think of my Stradivarius CantarX-2.
Photo#5:Black Sands again. Its actually never cold in Iceland! (photo credit Juliette Rowland)
8: What about the kit you’ve had and used along the way? Can you give us a rundown from the early days to now, just to get a feel for the different genres of kit you’ve been working with.
My first field mixer was PSC alpha mix. In the early days I had to rent gear, and the only thing available was Sound Devices 788 or something like that, but I was never comfortable working on that. I got very early on my CantarX-2 and I didn’t really record on anything else other than that. I have a Sound Devices 633, that I use occasionally as a grab bag. For wireless I use Lectrosonics SM sends and Venue receivers, along with few UCR411a and SRB for when I’m in the bag. Lavaliers I more or less only use DPA 4063 4060 and 4071. I have in my kit as well Sanken cos11 and Countryman b6 for special needs. On the boom I use Sennheiser MKH50 and in the MS rig I use MKH40 and 20 and for double MS use MKH 50 40 20. For the reasons of how harsh the environment is up here, I use the MKH, but I absolutely love Schoeps as well. I use the ambient for booms and TC and the crown jewels are the Cinela and CantarX-3, both French products.
9: Can you tell us what was the experience of using your Cantar X-2 after you bought it. Did you find it a difficult learning curve? Did you jump in and use it to learn as you went along?
To own an X-2 was such a dream so I had read a lot about it and read the user manual long before I got it. But I used every opportunity to rent an X-2 when I had use for it, so the learning curve was a gradual thing. Along with being new in the industry, I can say it was quite some period before I was fully fluent on the X-2. I can’t say it was difficult, I thought it was totally fascinating. Everything about that machine was so wonderful. I mean, how can you design such a machine where even the batteries look dead cool!
Photo#6: Just one of these hikes...
10: I know you now have a CantarX-3. Have you adapted to it yet? What features do you think you will value most in your work?
I just started working with my X-3 and I did not read the user manual before I started this time around. It is a big jump to X-3 but being familiar with Aaton’s Tarkan and Aajax software utilities I was not so worried. But when I started playing around what an awesome machine this is, and I really look forward adapting to all the capability the recorder has.
It feels like its design is great for people coming from big mixer boards, but then it has also all the X-2 tweaks to it. I think it will be a lot of fun mastering it. At this point it’s the number of channels that I need, and to be able to do a proper mix of more channels is what I also need. The X3 gives me all of that. The preamps sound great and the smoothness of everything is just something else, but I have not had the chance to bring back any tests to the studio to listen back to.
The workflow on the X3 is so much quicker and easier and I'm actually amazed how quickly I have adapted to it. I'm by no means fluent yet, but it feels I have lot of more time on my hands now to sort other issues out. To be able to edit metadata in rec is fantastic feature, and to solo 2 channels is very handy. Visually I have so much more overview of what I’m doing and it’s so easy to monitor lots of channels now.
11: What can you say about the team at Aaton-Digital and your user experience of the company?
I used to take my Cantar back to Aaton at Grenoble for service, just because I wanted to see Mecca. It’s all irrelevant what I say because I’m such a fan. But I can say, I have had my worries for the company, back in the days when my contact left the company and I didn’t know where I would stand, then the company merged with Transvideo, I didn’t know if Cantar would be honoured, but all good so far. My dealings with Aaton have been really good, and they have gone the extra mile to provide me with some stuff. I really appreciate it. For me, it was such an important thing to be able to talk directly to the company that makes my products. I have the same with Lectrosonics.
12: From where you are in your career now, do you have any further ambitions for the period ahead?
It’s really funny, now I’m the oldest guy on set, but I hope it won’t be so that I will roll over when they call ‘roll sound!’ The way things are going now I hope I will participate in more of these TV series we are making up here, but as you might know, it’s getting to be more and more difficult to do good sound on these films because the way they shoot now. Multi cameras and artistic angles, 10 min walk and talk 1-shots. I like the challenge, but I don’t think that my sound is going to get any better, I’m just hoping I will be able to continue to get away with it. I hope I will get to do another film like Life in a Fishbowl- one camera with Anamorphic lenses. But my team is building up and I get to work with 2 booms now. I’ll have to see if the industry up here is going to allow me to do that going forward. It’s only few years since I did a 6 episode TV series on my own in Denmark. Never again!
Arni Benediktsson (aka Arni Ben)
Photo#7: I like recording the sound of silence!
Photo#8:Preparing for an outdoors night shoot.
Photo#9: My son Benni whom I work with. Black Sands April 2021
Photo#10: I am proud of my minicart. I can get it everywhere! - waterproofing is a necessity
Photo#11: Occasionally we follow script.. I mean, once it happened that we followed script.
Photo#12: Told you.. I can get the cart anywhere.. in the middle of an old lava field.
Photo#13: Black sands. Flying off the cliffs.
Photo#14: Ahhh.. Back in the old days. DOP Agust Jakobsson and 1AC Godi Gudbjornsson on a short 2011.