David Thomas doesn’t watch much television, but when President Barack Obama visited a federal prison outside Oklahoma City in the summer of 2015, he tuned in. As Obama spoke to reporters about the need to reform the country’s criminal justice system, Thomas saw one of his babies.
“Suddenly the president turns around, and, hot dog, that’s our transmitter right there,” said Thomas, a senior sound engineer for the Rio Rancho electronics manufacturer Lectrosonics.
A satisfying sight, though not terribly surprising: About nine in 10 American film, television and news productions use Lectrosonics to capture and transmit audio, Thomas said.
As Lectrosonics’ wireless microphone technology has become the industry standard over the past decade-plus, its prevalence — whether on the president’s backside or the set of La La Land — serves as a testament to its worth, Thomas said. “I didn’t expect there would ever be anything beyond that,” he said.
But last weekend, the sound guys from Lectrosonics enjoyed a moment on stage all to themselves, after years helping many others enjoy theirs. Thomas, David Bundy and Lawrence E. Fisher — responsible for developing, designing and engineering Lectrosonics’ digital hybrid wireless system — received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement, a recognition of the New Mexico firm’s contributions to the movie-making process.
Actress Leslie Mann, introducing the Lectrosonics team in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Saturday, couldn’t help laughing as she read the teleprompter script, nearly stumbling over the intricacies of the wireless microphone technology.
Thomas put it this way: The Lectrosonics hybrid system predicts the future. “Poorly,” he added, laughing. “You don’t know what somebody’s gonna do or say next, or I’d be a lot richer. … But if all you have to do is better than chance, or better than always guessing zero, that’s not too hard to do.”
As audio is sent over a radio signal, the Lectrosonics transmitter and receiver each guess what the next sound is going to be. A guess is made every 23 microseconds, or about 44,000 times per second, but the predictions are reliably wrong. Thomas counts on that: The transmitter then subtracts the guess from the actual sound, sends the “error signal” and the receiver adds the difference back to the transmitted sound; the result is less susceptible to noise and distortion, which is ideal for film, where acoustics are crucial and can be nitpicked.
In essence, the system transmits remote sound information more efficiently. Or, as actor John Cho put it at the award presentation Saturday, the technology is “perfect for those long bus rides with Billy Bush,” a reference to the notorious 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump was overheard boasting about the freedom his celebrity grants him to grab women.
At last year’s Academy Awards, all five nominees for best sound mixing used Lectrosonics’ systems, a group comprising Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant, The Martian, Bridge of Spies and the Oscar winner, Mad Max: Fury Road. This year, Lectrosonics will again be well represented on Hollywood’s brightest stage, with at least three of the nominees for best sound having used their technology, including Rogue One and the category front-runner and award-show heavyweight La La Land.
“This has just been amazing. … You realize, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve been making movies and TV shows sound good for 15 years,’ ” Thomas said. “That’s a lot.”
At the technical Oscars, somewhat less glamorous than the prime-time Academy Awards but still prestigious, honorees are recognized for their long-term impact on the industry, rather than a singular contribution in the past calendar year.
“These technologists, engineers and inventors have significantly expanded filmmakers’ creative choices for moving image storytelling,” said Ray Feeney, chair of the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Committee.
The 34 individual and five group recipients were scientists and engineers behind digital camera systems, facial-performance-capture technology, computer-generated image rendering and more.
The seed for Lectrosonics’ digital hybrid system was planted some 15 years ago, when Fisher, then head of engineering, encouraged Thomas to think outside the box to improve on the dominant audio technology of the time, which relied on a compander, or a means of compressing and de-compressing sound information before and after transmission.
Thomas developed the core technology of the hybrid system, sans compander, and Bundy executed the physical aspect, building the next-generation transmitters and receivers. “I was just having a good time and wasn’t really thinking big,” Thomas recalled, “but at one point, [Fisher] patted me on the back and said, ‘Keep working on it, we’re betting the farm on it.’ I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, he means it.’ ”
The digital hybrid system has been Lectrosonics’ bread and butter for 15 years, but Thomas, now with an Academy Award in tow, said he’s ready to start on the next big thing.
“With technology, nothing ever stands still,” he said.
Segments of the technical-achievement awards show will air during the Oscars broadcast Feb. 26, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.
Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.