Sound design: Jack Cashin records cherished memories


Jack Cashin founded Ultra-Stereo Laboratories, Inc. in 1982, ten years after Robert Altman had hired him “right out of USC Cinema graduate school.” The director “was looking for a better way to record sound for his movies,” Cashin recalls of his start in film and sound technology. Cashin had already completed undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

“Altman’s trademark was overlapping dialogue which caused all the actors to talk over each other. McCabe and Mrs. Miller had a soundtrack that was difficult to understand, since they recorded all sound with a single microphone. I suggested he use a multichannel audio recorder and put each actor on a different channel. In the 1970s, the multichannel recorders were huge and not portable, however. So I was hired to design a very portable eight-channel recorder.”

The system was first used on California Split in 1974 and became known as Lion’s Gate 8 Track Sound. Just one year later, “the second movie done with that technique, Robert Altman’s Nashville, won the British Academy Award for sound,” Cashin adds. He himself would be honored, another ten years later, “for improving surround sound technology” by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science with the first of two Technical Achievement Awards.

While his credits on note that he worked in the sound department of Surf Nazis Must Die and Pound Puppies and the Legend of the Paw, Cashin is quick to set the record straight when asked which one of the films he had more fun on. “Actually, our encoding engineers had the pleasure of working on those movies. I worked on the Player soundtrack. It was interesting…because I knew all the backstories about the characters in the movie that I had worked with.” Cashin calls working on Cobra with Sylvester Stallone “fascinating” and also enjoyed his stint as associate producer on Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson starring Paul Newman, among others. “Altman and Newman had a blast together and were always trying to outdo each other on tricks. There was never a dull moment. It was also fascinating for me to have the opportunity to observe and work with the great Burt Lancaster and with art director Tony Masters, who had recently done Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In November 2011, his film work came full circle when Cashin received the Samuel L. Warner Memorial Medal Award. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers awarded Cashin in recognition of his innovation in developing the eight-track recording equipment used for California Split. While he certainly feels winning “my first Academy Technical Achievement Award for improving surround sound technology” was the most exciting USL moment, he names “transitioning the company from analog technology to digital technology,” its biggest challenge. After all, “we design all our products to be affordable and dependable over a long period of time. I strive for perfection in my work. With hard work you can do whatever you want. You can develop your vision. Don’t get sidetracked by the quick dollar. As a small company, we just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep moving.”

So when his wife, company co-owner and VP Felicia Cashin, “came to work for USL, she made customer service her one and only goal. Felicia is very tough on how our representatives treat our customers. She feels each person is to be handled with courtesy and respect no matter how they fit into our sales figures,” Jack attests. “If we ever have a problem with a product’s performance, we replace it and do not argue with customers,” he illustrates. “I think Felicia has ears in the back of her head. If she hears anyone getting sharp with a customer or making snippy remarks after they hang up, she will stop whatever she is doing to go set them straight.” (For more on how she keeps Jack on the straight and narrow, please see this accompanying article on Felicia Cashin.)

“In appreciation for all the good things that have come my way,” Cashin continues, “Felicia and I strive to give back to the community in one form or another. We have set up a nonprofit organization that assists young people coming out of the foster-care system. We try to give the non-college kids an opportunity to get some type of training that will help them get a start when they return to the real world.” (More examples of Cashin generosity can be found in the next article.)

In business, “we respect and care about our employees,” he assures. “They are not just a blank face. They have a name, family and their own dreams. Through the years we have been so very fortunate to have this dedicated family of employees around us who work very hard and who are very proud of the USL name. Therefore, as the owner of this company, I can’t let them down.”

As a caring and creative force and technology leader for much longer than the 30 years that USL is celebrating this ShowEast, where does Cashin think this industry is headed? “In audio, the industry is moving to multidimensional spatial audio. This combined with high-frame-rate imaging will truly enhance the moviegoing experience,” he believes. “Cinemas will be around for many years. It is always the social experience of a live audience reacting to a comedy or dramatic story that surpasses watching the same content at home. Human beings have assembled in groups to tell stories since the beginning of time. The cinema is just the modern version of this.”

Dipping into the past, Cashin cannot remember his very first movie experience. “But I do remember my parents taking me to New York City to see Cinerama. The giant curved screen and multichannel discrete audio system was a wonderful experience for a kid.” As a grown-up, “my favorite movie theatre was the Malibu Cinema,” he declares. “Not so much because it was a premier cinema, but because in those days all the major actors and directors came to see movies there. The theatre manager treated them all alike and did not accept Academy membership cards because everyone who came had one. The incident I still find most amusing is when a very famous actress wanted to use an outdated pass to get into the theatre for free. Dave made a deal with her to sign a poster, and as she started going through the turnstile, he suddenly remembered that he would be charged by the studio. And cheap Dave was not going for that!” As he explained this to the individual in question, Cashin says, “she understood and proceeded to crawl under the turnstile. This was years ago, so cell-phone cameras were not around. But, oh, how I would love to have a shot of this big name on hands and knees just to save six dollars.”