What inspired you to pursue engineering?
It was the Apollo program and specifically Lt. General Tom Stafford, the Apollo 10 mission, and Projects Gemini and Apollo-Soyuz. I remember being at Farragut State Park in Idaho for the Boy Scout Jamboree and watching Armstrong set foot on the moon. I recall how inspiring that vision was and how proud I was to be an American, which spurred me to become an Eagle Scout.
All of mankind has benefited from the U.S. investment in space exploration. At the time, it was a paltry 1% of GDP! Today, it's less than 0.1%. If we want to talk job creation, there is no better return on investment.
As fate would have it, I've become good friends with General Stafford and I know a number of the other Apollo astronauts as well. Over the past two years, I've attended two 40th anniversary celebrations, one in Oklahoma for Apollo 10 and another in Florida for Apollo 12. Most of the surviving Apollo astronauts have been there. Talk about awesome!
What's your educational background?
I attended a college prep high school called St. Pius X outside of Sacramento. In my senior year, I received a full scholarship to Purdue to pursue electrical engineering. While there, I got interested in radio and helped build a college radio station, WGRS, where I had a weekly show. From there, I thought I wanted to make records, so I headed west to get into the music scene. I continued my studies at City College of San Francisco and received my A.S. in Electronics Engineering and my First Class FCC license.
What happened next?
I was searching for recording classes, and caught wind of a seminar at McCune Sound — the major live sound company in the area — and attended a lecture given by a true electronics wizard, Peter de Blanc. I went up to him afterwards and asked for a job. He asked if I could solder and I said yes. The rest was truly a magic carpet ride. He ran a company in nearby Terra Linda called dB Labs, which built custom audio gear and pyrotechnics for the major Bay Area rock bands — Jefferson Starship, Steve Miller, Pablo Cruise, and others. Not only was I introduced into electronic manufacturing and assembly, but I learned sound reinforcement and did work for the groups. However, there was financial trouble, and when I showed up to work one day, the sheriff had padlocked the door.
From there, I connected with a high school buddy and became assistant chief engineer at KMEL radio, the newest rock station in town. There I learned the broadcast world, did live remotes from the Fairmont hotel, and performed electronic maintenance of the studio gear. That led to a gig at Xandu recording studios where I became a recording engineer. Then I landed at Ampex, the founders (thank you, Ray Dolby) of modern magnetic tape recording.
Where did your career path go from there?
One of the Ampex customers was a company called Vidtronics, the leading post-production film and TV house in Hollywood. I serviced their equipment and one day they offered me a gig. That was a phenomenal place to work because they had an R&D department with some really bright guys. In those days, much of the gear required to do certain jobs didn't exist, so Vidtronics engineers invented it.
After that, I moved to a number of other post-production facilities: A&M records, MGM/Lorimar Studios, CBS Studios, and then onto Sony Pictures doing post-production film sound and production sound. After that, Sony Systems Integration offered me a job, as they had been hired to renovate the Fox Studios video department and film dubbing stages. I left Sony Pictures to do that for a year.
While into the Fox project, they offered me a job and I've been here for 12 years. It's a great place. They understand that engineering isn't just a necessary evil: It's regarded as the bedrock upon which all of the other departments rest. When I first entered the field, we recorded on magnetic tape and used film and videotape. Today everything is based on digital files, creating new headaches that call for new solutions. It's challenging, but fun.
What's a typical workday for you?
I'm responsible for our ADR (Automated Dialogue Recording) stages. Before a show comes in, I'm in communication with the post-production supervisor who books the stage, wrangles the talent, and interfaces with the picture and sound editors. I get files on a hard drive or electronically delivered via a system called Aspera. I then load it onto the computer and make sure the picture is in sync with the sound and that the “head pop” and “tail pop” line up. These are synchronization points at specific locations in the reel that allow syncing from beginning to end.
In the days of yor, the sound was married to the videotape, so it wasn't an issue. The practice of putting in “pops” comes from the film industry: The purpose of the “clapper board” right before the director calls “Action” is to record the physical sound of two pieces of wood coming together. In post-production, the film editor would line up the film frame of the two pieces of wood coming together and then put that sound at that position. From this point on, picture and sound are in sync.
Today, sound and picture are separate files, so there are many ways for things to get messed up — though I try to head these off at the pass because the last thing a director or actor wants to hear is that there is a problem. To them, it's technical mumbo jumbo. The difficulty lies in how fast things happen now. People expect you to have received the e-mail they just sent, or they don't bring the picture until 30 minutes before the talent shows up, and there's not enough time to fix any problems. But hey, it beats mining coal.
Tell us about a recent project.
We're now remodeling our ADR stages, starting with the Marge Simpson stage. It's been 15 years since the last upgrade, and we're installing a console from Solid State Logic. We had them widen it to accommodate a Vector Electronics sub rack that we're stuffing with custom electronics, constituting the AIP (Ahead In Past) panel. Ahead is when you are ahead of the record “in” point, In is when you are in record, and Past is when you come out of record. I've being doing the project assembly. We used a PCB fab company and when the boards come back to us, we attach surface-mount chips and the supporting caps and resistors.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
I enjoy live music and visiting the nearby wine country in and around Paso Robles. Besides that, Buzz Aldrin got me involved with the Federation of Galaxy Explorers (FOGE), a non-profit educational group that seeks to inspire youth in science and engineering. One of my assignments was to help create a video game called Moonbase One, a free game that teaches teamwork. My contribution was acquiring the sound effects. Next, we worked on a more advanced game called Rocketnauts and a 20-minute video tour of the local solar system.
Schools and other groups can easily implement the program, and we provide lesson plans and most supporting materials at no charge. Lessons are designed to be taught by volunteers with no special experience in science. FOGE focuses on space and earth science, engineering, rocketry, and space citizenship, and students receive medals for successfully completing exercises. For more information, visit foge.org.