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It's still music to Dan Wallin's ears

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At 84, the oldest working sound engineer in the film industry lends his expertise to the 'Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol' soundtrack.

Just before noon on a clear fall day, the Newman stage on the 20th Century Fox lot is alive with bright lights, hovering microphones and a full 105-piece orchestra. It's one of the final scoring sessions for “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol," and director Brad Bird and composer Michael Giacchino are listening closely to the music when a man with a snow-white ponytail and baseball cap leans over to whisper in Giacchino's ear. The composer nods and asks the conductor, Tim Simonec, to take it from the top, with a shade less emphasis on the piano.

The white-haired man behind the sound console is Dan Wallin, or Danny as he is widely known. At 84, he is the oldest working sound engineer in the film industry, yet his ears still rank among the sharpest around, according to his colleagues. He recognizes, often before anyone else, if the trombones should be doubled, if the saxophone is too brassy, or whether the timpani need to be taken down a notch.

Despite Hollywood's long-standing practice of ageism, Wallin has stretched his career over 60 years, working on more than 500 films and TV shows and recording the scores of such notable composers as Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and Lalo Schifrin, creator of the music for the original “Mission: Impossible" TV series. He fine-tuned the car screeches and jazz-inspired score of “Bullitt," mixed the wild saxophone sounds in John Cassavetes' “Gloria" and was nominated for Oscars for “A Star Is Born" and “Woodstock" in the 1970s. More recently, he captured the ethereal score for all six seasons of TV's “Lost" and won an Emmy as part of the sound mixing team for the 2009 Academy Awards show.

“I think at this point I probably have more mileage in than anybody," the lanky engineer remarked over craft-services salads after a morning of scoring “Mission: Impossible." He has been on the Fox lot since 7 a.m., choosing and placing dozens of microphones on the stage, testing equipment and making sure all is in order before the first violinist draws her bow.

“We do everything all at one time—the tracking, rhythm, brass, string," Wallin says. “I prefer it, and the musicians prefer it too, because it's more of a performance."

It's a tactic he has used since his days as a sound mixer at Warner Bros. in the 1950s and 1960s and one that many say gives his scores an added warmth.


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