CLINTON HILL, BROOKLYN: This ‘hood is better known as “Crooklyn”, but resident Neil Benezra is only a thief of hearts. The founder of Brooklyn Sound Society, he charms the pants off his film/TV mix, art installation and 5.1 surround clients by being advanced, involved and efficient.
With two films he worked on in Sundance this year, we thought Neil was oh-so-apropo to learn a ton of really valuable information from.
Q: (Said like Navin Johnson) Who is Neil Benezra? What came before Brooklyn Sound Society?
A: I started out as a drummer in NYC rock and experimental bands and played with a wide range of musicians—everything from making a record with Joey Ramone—you can read all about this in the new book I Slept With Joey Ramone written by Mickey Leigh — to performing and recording with sound artist Stephen Viteillo, and playing percussion and making a record with the band Sulfur that included the brilliant Swans guitarist Norman Westberg. Along the way, I started playing a few other instruments and writing some music and doing sound design for theater.
Q: Nice start. From there, what led to Brooklyn Sound Society being born?
A: It was a combination of a few roads that led me to starting BSS. After spending a few years working as an art installer, and also as a result of being in the right place at the right time, I was asked to work on different sound projects for museums, galleries, and theater.
Fortunately this led to working with some really incredible artists, including Richard Foreman, and Joan Jonas, among others, sometimes becoming part of their creative process, which became for me the most valuable part of the job.
One highlight was working on-and-off for eight years with the avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman. It began by assisting him in his NYC theater on his sound design and making his ideas come to life with the occasional idea or mistake of mine getting thrown in. Then I went on to work on the sound for his international tours and had the chance to work throughout Europe and Asia on making his vision translate to different-sized venues.
One week the show might have been in a four hundred seat black-box theater and the next week it might have moved to a 1000-seat, four-tier opera house; obviously this presented some serious challenges. The most valuable part of the job for me was helping him develop the sound design for each show over a three-month period. He is widely recognized as a ground-breaking artist and his ideas on sound are a big part of that reputation.
A few years later, I was asked to supervise the building of an audio post production studio in NYC called Splash Studios, and this is where I got involved in working on films. After the construction was finished I jumped at the chance to work as an editor and mixer on the first big wave of reality shows that hit the airwaves and whatever film work was available.
It was a real trial by fire, within the first year I had the chance to mix about 60 shows that went on air. This experience taught me all about the process as well as what is required to pass through the QC process at different networks including Discovery, HGTV, Nick etc.
Q: Nice timing. Dude. What about your approach makes Brooklyn Sound Society different or unique from other audio post providers?
A: Well this is the tricky part! In a sense, I don’t want to compete — but I do want to try to stand out — in one area which is creativity.
My approach from the beginning has been to take the extra time needed to commit to each project in this way and to become a creative partner and part of the team as opposed to watching the clock. I’m committed to watching the outcome.
A lot of times when filmmakers come to me they have put everything they have into their work emotionally and financially, and I appreciate this and try to give them 110%. I’m interested in working on great films with interesting people and it seems that having this attitude is starting to pay off as I see the quality of work keeps going up.
I should say however that this is not the approach to take if you are in it for quick money. Most of the jobs that I find I’m up for these days are in direct competition with much bigger facilities and I think that I offer something that is increasingly hard to find at these places, which is a one-on-one relationship with each person that I’m working with.
Q: It’s a service industry, I agree. Tell us about your technical setup. What’s your key hardware/software, and why? And tell us your secret weapon! IF YOU DARE.
A: For the time being at least my studio is an extremely well-equipped small studio, although I should point out that it is acoustically designed and has a fully isolated voiceover/foley/ADR room, unlike most smaller spaces.
I work in Pro Tools because I find it to be the most straightforward program for editing, and is so far the industry standard in film sound, and it is important that my files can transfer to other facilities if needed. My setup is a fully loaded Dual Mac G5 with a Digi 002 LE with the Complete Toolkit so that I have surround-mixing capabilities.
For monitoring, I use the JBL LSR series and find that they translate incredibly well to different playback situations.
I also use the Waves Gold Bundle and assorted noise reduction programs, which I think I have worked to the limit of their capabilities. I’m on the fence right now about buying a Cedar DNS system, which is what most Hollywood studios use, because the technology is changing so rapidly.
My assistant editors are working on a fully loaded Intel Imac with an Mbox and the DVToolkit, and when I travel I take an Intel Macbook Pro with the Mbox Micro.
My secret weapon would be twofold:
First, technically I have really taken the time to learn what can be done with noise reduction after a few years of editing and mixing about two hundred episodes of reality-based broadcast episodes which was an incredible training ground for working with bad sound!
My second secret weapon, and more important one, is that I think I’m pretty good at connecting on a creative level with people, and this is what it’s really about for me. My goal is for people to come to me for this reason above anything else.
Q: You get a lot of art installation projects. How did you get started in this niche? What are the unique demands of art installations, from an audio post perspective?
A: Working as an art installer put me in the place of being the only guy on the crew who knew anything about sound, so I would hang the speakers, make the last-minute recording and mix or whatever else came my way.
After a while, I started getting calls to do all sorts of interesting projects from working directly with an artist creating their next sound piece to cleaning up important archival works of sound and video art. Some of it has been installation-based, like the On Kawara show in 2009 where I designed a voice booth that was installed in the middle of a gallery for five weeks, during which I had an engineer record voice recordings five days a week for eight hours a day as part of the artist’s work.