Bradley Cooper reveals why no ADR was needed for ‘Maestro’

Production sound mixer Steve Morrow explains why due to using Lectrosonics on set, Bradley Cooper relieved that no ADR was required for the Oscar nominated film, Maestro.

Now streaming on Netflix, Maestro sees director and star Bradley Cooper chronicling the life of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Connecting its myriad chapters via the narrative of Bernstein’s marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), the film explores Bernstein-the-man in ways never taught at any music school. 

Maestro has already earned nominations for seven Academy Awards, seven BAFTA awards, and two Screen Actors Guild awards — and won an American Film Institute award. One of those Oscar nods is for Best Sound, and mixing lead Steve Morrow, whose credits also include La La Land, A Star Is Born, and Ford v. Ferrari, had two equally challenging types of source to capture. First, a large cast dishing overlapping, rapid-fire dialogue; second, orchestral and choral music recorded in real time on set.

A long time Lectrosonics user, Morrow employed SSM transmitters and Venue2 modular receiver racks for actors, HMa plug-on transmitters for booms, and LT transmitters paired with a DSQD digital receiver for communications. Wireless Designer software was employed for frequency coordination.

What was your path to becoming a production sound mixer?

My love of making movies started when I was very young. When I was eight, we moved to California. We were across the street from a park and a hotel in Woodland Hills where movies were shot all the time. I’d go over, just curious, and fell in love with the idea that this could be a job. 

We eventually moved to Seattle, where I took film classes in community college. In all my projects, the sound was just terrible! I took a sound class, which was more about studio music recording but touched on video production. I

started applying what I learned there to other people’s projects as well as my own. One of the professors, who had done a lot of documentaries, told me the Washington state film hotline had job listings. I got my first unpaid job as a boom operator. It was a movie called Where the Air Is Cold and Dark, shot in a logging town where it rained the entire time. I was soaked from the first take until we wrapped, and I loved every minute of it.

The idea was to treat it almost like a documentary and in terms of sound, be a fly on the wall.

How did you find your way back to Los Angeles?

The first day I was on set, I realised I had no idea what an apple box or a C-stand were for, so I began to feel like I really wasn’t learning enough at community college. Seattle was a great town to make movies in as a hobby, but I didn’t see a path to a career. So, I saved up money and moved back to California in 1998, where I had a little studio apartment in Sherman Oaks. I worked on everything I could get my hands on.

Is there a moment during this time you’d single out as your big break?

There is in fact one project I can say everything in my career connects to. I was doing a series for Nickelodeon, and the key grip told me his brother-in-law was doing a short film about Y2K. I called the guy, Scott Putman, and he explained that there was no budget, and it was a one-week shoot, but I said I’d do it. Five minutes later I got a call for a paid gig, so I had to call Scott back and tell him I needed to take the paid gig. He was very understanding. 

About an hour later I get another call — the paid gig had fallen through. I called once again and told Scott I could do it after all. It’s weird, but almost everything I’ve done since then has some random connection to Scott. Even Maestro. I can’t imagine where I’d be today if I hadn’t taken that free gig.

What was the first time you worked with Lectrosonics equipment?

Like most sound mixers, I started out using prosumer-level brands that weren’t that great. Once broadcast HDTV had fully taken hold and wiped out a lot of our usable spectrum, I began to switch to Lectrosonics. When the SM-series transmitters first came out I got a bunch of those because they were the most compact thing going. Recently, including on Maestro, I use almost all SSMs on actors and plant mics because they’re even smaller. I’ve been with Lectro ever since.

technology has caught up with the idea that it can be narratively powerful to have 20 people talking at once.

Can you describe the rest of your wireless setup on Maestro?

Sure. We used the HMa plug-on transmitters for boom mics. I had my LT for my private line to my boom guys. These days I can’t imagine doing a film without being able to talk to my boom operators. With a ton of dialogue channels going at the same time, it just makes the work so much faster.

How about the receiver end of the equation?

For actor dialogue, we had three Venue2 systems going at once, so that’s 18 channels in total, which we needed with some of the party scenes where everyone is talking at once. Then I have one of the DSQD, the four-channel half-rack box, which I’m using mainly for comms and “voice of God” mics, as the Venue racks are paired with all the SSMs.

Bradley Cooper says he loves overlapping dialog and mentioned you by name as having a talent for mixing in the moment. Can you elaborate on that process?

The best example is the big party scene that starts the movie being in color. The idea was to treat it almost like a documentary and in terms of sound, be a fly on the wall. Bradley made an announcement at the beginning of the day and simply instructed everyone, “Please be in character and in the era. You know what year this is, but other than that, just be at a party having a good time. Talk about what you want to talk about”.

Maestro was the culmination of everything we’ve learned about recording scenes, so they feel as realistic as possible.

For those kinds of scenes, we had 18 to 20 channels going including the SSMs on the actors, a couple of booms overhead, and some plant mics. That way we could capture the whole room, and Bradley’s direction made it feel more real. 

Of course, we’re able to isolate each track as every mic has its own channel. Then in post-production, the mixers spaced those out across surround channels, so watching the film you feel like you’re in the middle of the party as opposed to all the dialogue having that centre-channel feel. Wherever the camera went is what the audience mainly hears mix-wise, just as if you were walking around the party catching different bits of conversation. 

It’s a very Robert Altman-esque style, but I’d say now the difference is that the technology has caught up with the idea that it can be narratively powerful to have, say, 20 people talking at once. We started really applying it in the 2018 Jason Reitman film The Front Runner. Also, on The Way Back, which was a basketball movie with Ben Affleck. 

We put a surround mic in the audience to get all the cheering and SSMs on all the actors. The first day shooting a game sequence, Ben asks, “We should all mime it, right?” I said, “No, just play basketball”. 

Thanks in part to Lectro’s performance, the feedback from post was that the tracks were perfect. Point being, Maestro was the culmination of everything we’ve learned about recording scenes, so they feel as realistic as possible.

What was one of the most challenging scenes to shoot in Maestro?

In that big party scene, there were two cameras basically shooting two separate scenes at the same time: one centered on Bradley and the other on Carey Mulligan. How do you mix that? I feel like I gave post a bunch of chaos and they did a great job sorting it out. 

I did ride faders to make sure the mics sounded good – no scratching against clothes, things like that. The nice thing about multi-track is, you do have insurance. You just need to make sure each individual track sounds clean.

How did you handle frequency coordination with so many channels in use?

With the Wireless Designer software. It worked perfectly. You just show up in the morning and scan, then start popping things on. For the Mahler concert in

Ely Cathedral, you had to capture the entire orchestra but with enough instruments isolated so that post could focus attention on one section or the other. How did you do that on top of dialogue?

For Ely, we had the London Symphony Orchestra, who brought in their recording team called Classic Sound. They totally got that delivery was going to be in Dolby Atmos. For our part, we brought a quadraphonic mic and a surround mic. 

As to wireless, we had an SSM on Bradley, an SSM on each of the main opera singers, a boom with, and a pair of [HMa] plug-ons for a mid-side stereo mic that tracked with the camera. The Ely concert was the biggest, but we recorded all the music performances live — the one with the choir, the one towards the end where he’s teaching students, all of it.

The Ely concert with the choir was the biggest, but we recorded all the music performances live.

How did your Lectrosonics equipment perform in general?

Lectro is always solid. It’s one of those things that just turns on and works. It never gets in the way of what I’m able to accomplish. Look, if I’m going to have a bad take, I want it to be a personal failure, not an equipment failure. If I made a mistake, I can learn from it and correct it, which is a lot easier if I’m not babysitting my gear.

Maestro is as densely filled with music as it is with dialogue. Can you speak to the audio quality of the tracks you delivered to post, for both types of sources?

Both exceeded all expectations. When I watched the movie for the first time, I was amazed. I asked Bradley Cooper, “What did you have to ADR or re-record?” He said, “Nothing. It’s all production. It’s all original”. 

That’s a testament to how well Lectrosonics works and how good it sounds. And again, this was a wireless-heavy movie given all the wide shots and overlapping dialogue.

I asked Bradley Cooper 'What did you have to ADR or re-record?' He said 'Nothing.'

Were there any outdoor scenes or walk-and-talks that presented a particular challenge in terms of range?

Well, it certainly wasn’t like Ford v. Ferrari where we were dealing with dialogue in cars on a racetrack. One scene comes to mind. In Central Park where Bernstein and Oppenheim [Matt Bomer] are walking in the park with Oppenheim’s wife and baby. There was dialogue in the script, so that’s how we recorded it even though the take where you don’t hear them is the one that made the cut. I think they walked about 100 yards. You always stretch your equipment, but Lectrosonics always works.

Maestro didn’t have a lot of physical action, but in other films, how have Lectrosonics packs stood up to harsh environments or other abuse?

Very well. There was one scene in A Star Is Born where Lady Gaga and her friend are getting on a plane, and her friend just starts dancing around in circles, spinning. On one take, the actor’s SSM came out of his sock and was just cartwheeling all over the tarmac. It didn’t go down. They work all day in extreme heat or cold, or when an actor is in the pouring rain.

What are the best non-technical skills for someone with your job to have?

I think it comes down to being a kind person. You’re working with people 10, 12, 14 hours a day sometimes. I’ve had a lot of success working with the same people over and over, and I think that’s because I don’t bring games or drama to the table.

I’d also say that being part of the storytelling process should be your first love. The film and TV business is hard enough already that if you don’t, it’s going to burn you out. Also, if you screw something up, own it, apologise, correct your mistake, and move on. In the long run it makes your life way easier than trying to place blame on another person or even equipment or some other … inanimate part of the situation. “My bad” is the easiest and classiest thing.

Maestro image credits: Jason McDonald/Netflix