Professor on Lectrosonics & the film industry: “If you went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, you wouldn’t train with an Easy Bake Oven”

Geoffrey Patterson has been one of Hollywood’s most prominent audio engineers, being nominated for Oscars and Emmys throughout his career working on films such as The Usual Suspects, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Wedding Planner, Friends with Benefits. Now a Professor of Production Sound at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, the now-mentor has been teaching his students about Lectrosonics, which he has used exclusively throughout his career.

“In my upper-level undergrad and graduate production classes, I demonstrate and convince them to use Lectrosonics on their films,” he said. “If you went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, you wouldn’t train with a toy Easy Bake Oven.”

His career has seen him use almost every generation of Lectrosonics wireless, beginning with the original VHF Quad Box, the UHF Six-Pack, then the first generation of SM-series transmitters, and almost every product thereafter.

“For most of its 100-year history, production — not to mention designing and manufacturing the tools for it — had been a relatively small business,” he explained.

“Things slowly started to change in the 1960s with more portable cameras from makers like Arri and Panavision allowing more freedom of movement and hence creativity. That coincided with the arrival of the Nagra audio recorder, which ushered in sound being recorded separately from the camera, albeit on a single monaural track. As for multitrack recording, the Beatles and the Beach Boys were already using it creatively, but it would take the film sound world another 50 years of evolution.”

Patterson pointed out, however, that they took a fair while to catch on initially:

“I started as a boom operator in Hollywood around 1980, and it was at that point that wireless mics were just starting to be used. The radios were big and clunky, had limited range, were prone to interference, and had middling audio quality. Lavalier mics were also large and made to be worn on newscasters’ lapels, not hidden under actors’ wardrobe. So, sound mixers avoided using radio mics.”

There were only a few early adopters who took a leap of faith with Lectrosonics. “Two of the best mixers I ever worked for were David MacMillan and Jim Webb,” said Patterson.

“Webb was a very early pioneer in multi-track recording, having done several films with director Robert Altman. MacMillan had the Midas touch. He just knew how to make films sound good. He was never afraid of multiple radio mics and blending them in and out of the booms. They both encouraged me to start mixing, which I did in 1990.

“My first wireless purchase was the Lectrosonics VHF Quad Box, which housed four receivers in a single package. It would become ubiquitous in the film sound world. I worked hard to learn how to make radio mics sound like wired boom mics, and how to play them against and with each other. When was the best time to hard-cue scenes? It was during this time that I adopted my approach to always ‘force’ the perspective — to make all the dialogue in a scene match what a well-placed boom would sound like.”

Patterson had a strong instinct that the devices had huge potential, despite all the sceptics.

“In the early 1990s, Lectrosonics introduced UHF and that was a game-changer,” he recalled. “The improved reception and quality led me to buy a ‘six-pack’ of Lectro receivers, plus I added several loose receivers for run-and-gun work. The Lectrosonics Six Pack consisted of six receivers in a nicely machined aluminium case that had a built-in power supply and antenna multi-coupler.”

Patterson, in particular, recounts one unforgettable shoot. “Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is a film about child soldiers in Ghana,” he said. “I would run the SMQV at audio level four. That is not a typo. I never had to alter the level. We would repeatedly shoot scenes that involved full-load bursts from an AK47, followed by whispered dialogue, followed by more gunfire. I was able to get all the dialogue without any noise, and the transmitters still held up distortion-free to the thunderous automatic rifle bursts.”

Patterson also believes there is no competition when it comes to the durability of the devices.

“I have owned many different recorders, mixing boards, favourite boom mics, and lavaliers. But the one brand I’ve never wavered on is Lectrosonics. It has never failed me in tens of thousands of hours of use, all day, every day, all around the world. Whether in the blazing heat of the California deserts, the freezing cold of an all-nighter in a Chicago winter, the jungles of Africa, or the pyramids of Giza. Whether dropped, dunked, or abused in every conceivable way, they’ve continued to perform at the highest level.”

Even though Patterson has now traded such harsh conditions for the relative calm of the college lecture hall, he evangelises the gear that stood up to those conditions to his students.

“In my upper-level undergrad and graduate production classes, I demonstrate and convince them to use Lectrosonics on their films. Once they do, they’re hooked.”