Where are you currently employed?
I have been an independent mixer my entire career.
What is your current project?
I just completed three back-to-back films, Reggie Harris and Mark Syler’s When In Rome with composer Christopher Young, and two for composer Rolfe Kent: Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats and Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air.
Describe Your Job.
As a scoring mixer, I record and mix the music for a film. Before the score is recorded, I will talk to the composer about their creative ideas and how to literally make their music come to life.
On a scoring stage, I am responsible for all technical aspects of the orchestra's set up: mics, placement of instruments, and how and where things are recorded––and in what format. During a scoring session, I will follow the score to facilitate proper balances between the players on the stage. During the recording, a huge amount of responsibility falls on my shoulders, including making sure everyone involved gets what they need so my clients have a great musical experience. It can be pretty intense when dealing with players all at the top of their game––from the musicians to the tech guys to the filmmakers and composers who have a lot at stake.
After recording, I will mix the music for a film. That's when experience and knowledge are essential. There's a mysterious quality to movie music; when it's right, you have the power to emotionally elevate the filmmaker's story. When the music is off, a movie will feel disjointed or inconsequential, and the story suffers. That's why I feel so lucky to have worked with many great composers. They have this powerful gift to create effective music for cinema and I get to be a part of turning their creative ideas into a reality.
How did you become interested in this line of work?
I have a love of symphonic film music and an intuitive feel for the technical side of the craft.
Who gave you your first break?
It was so long ago; I was just a kid on a big stage. But I definitely remember recording my first symphony at the age of 21 at the Warner Bros. scoring stage.
What was your first union job?
That project would have been my first scoring mixer job; I wish I could remember the title…
Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud and why?
It would either be Alexander Payne’s Sideways or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.
On Sideways, I blended vintage as well as modern technology to achieve the sound that played such a great role in the film. Alexander originally wanted the music to sound period, like an old 1920s phonographic record, so to compromise I recorded the score through a vintage original Bill Putnam tube console and used old RCA mics from the 1940s. Then I recorded digitally in a 5.1 format at an extremely high sample rate. I listen to Sideways and marvel at the blend of old and new technology and the purity of the sound.
Black Hawk Down was an enormous project, maybe 41 of the longest days and nights of my career. We had 21 people on the music team, with six rooms going non-stop. My first day on the film, we projected a reel on the wall and the players improvised a 20 minute- long sequential piece to the film in real time. I was proud to work with an industry legend like Hans Zimmer, someone with a lifetime of achievement.
What was your biggest challenge in your job and how did you overcome it?
Each project has a new challenge, something I actually love about my work. But on the whole, I am constantly adapting to new technologies. I have to be competitive and diversify to stay relevant in this ever-changing climate of making film music. I put together a fully digital 5.1 mixing room in my private studio, and from there I have been able to mix many large-scale projects.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
Every day I go to work I know I am doing what I love, being involved in the creative process of mixing film music. There's nothing like the adrenaline rush of sitting at the helm of a scoring stage in front of an orchestra first thing in the morning.
I'd also have to say that some of the most exciting times for me have been finding new acoustically superior environments to record in that have never been used before in that context. I search out halls or churches, places that deliver an incredible space and tonality. I bring in my team and completely conceptualize, design and build a remote scoring stage from the ground up. Recording a huge symphony or choir in these unique spaces, something that has never been done before, is incomparable. It is always an adventure to fly around the world to record in a new space I have never been to.
Job-wise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
Seeing how I have been doing this for 25- plus years, I imagine I will be doing it five from now. I've had many of my clients rely on my production skills, so music producer would be a wonderful addition to the title of mixer.
There Will Be Blood, Revolutionary Road, Sideways. All amazingly unique scores. A great score can make a movie for me.
Favorite TV Program(s)?
I watch movies on TV.
Do you have an industry mentor?
Since I started when I was 19, you would think I had a mentor, but actually I never had one. I used my drive and determination to propel me forward. I said yes to every opportunity. I learned some techniques along the way, of course; however, I developed my own style and tricks that are ever evolving to this day.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
Start mixing right away. Too many talented people I know assist for far too long. Mix any music––bands, friends, instruments, vocals, big groups, small groups—anything! Don't watch someone else do it for too long. Get right into it and develop your own individual way of doing things.
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
The Guild always assists us in maintaining our integrity and has consistently been supportive and worked diligently to maintain professional working conditions.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members?
Go to a scoring session if you get a chance, and see first-hand a room full of incredibly talented musicians brilliantly performing a movie score live. There is nothing quite like it.
- Michael Kunkes