29 June 2007

AfterEffects: Working With Audio

Over at Creative Cow, Aharon Rabinowitz has posted a video tutorial entitled AE Workflow Tips #8: Working With Audio.

Link to the flash movie. For those who have trouble with playback of that particular file (as I did), here is a link to a video podcast in mp4.

John Eargle 1931 - 2007

From JBL Professional:

John M. Eargle, who was considered by many to be the foremost expert in the audio engineering field, has died. He was 76. Eargle, who was senior director of product development and application for JBL Professional, authored The Handbook of Recording Engineering; The Microphone Book; The Handbook of Sound System Design; Electroacoustical Reference Data; Music, Sound and Technology; The Loudspeaker Handbook; and the recent The JBL Story: 60 Years of Audio Innovation. He also wrote and coauthored many articles in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society and the SMPTE Journal.

If you've been to a cinema in the past twenty years, you've heard the results of his work.

From Mixonline:

In 2002 Eargle received a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences along with other JBL engineers for the concept, design and engineering of the modern constant-directivity, direct radiator style motion picture loudspeaker systems.

Links to articles via mixonline.com, jbl.com, and a memorial tribute at johnmeargle.com.

26 June 2007

Vegetable Abuse

From The Official Dark Sector Developer Blog: Sound Designers Dustin Crenna and George Spanos talk about how they abused fruits and vegetables to obtain the raw material they needed to create the soundscapes for the game Dark Sector.

Working in a talent-based industry is an experience in and of its own – this becomes even more apparent when you line an empty room with plastic sheets and pulverize a variety of fresh produce to capture the sounds of breaking bones, splattering blood, and tearing flesh. And all this happens on a Tuesday afternoon. Along with insightful commentary provided by sound designers Dustin and George, Digital Extremes is proud to present the results of a Foley session that left the 17th floor of an office complex smelling like cabbage…

Link to the blog post, including a pretty cool movie showing the process.

It's All Greek to Me...

Semi OT: Found this interesting article over at livescience.com, entitled Mystery of Amphitheater 's Amazing Sound Finally Solved.


Audiences of up to an estimated 14,000 have long been able to hear actors and musicians--unamplified--from even the back row of the architectural masterpiece.

How this sonic quality was achieved has been the source of academic and amateur speculation, with some theories suggesting that prevailing winds carried sounds or masks amplified voices.

It's in the seats.

Link to the article.

24 June 2007

New Film Sound Blog

Filmsound Daily is a new(-ish) film sound blog, detailing major film releases and featuring interviews with post sound mixers about their recent projects.

From the mission statement:

I started this in hopes of creating something that focused on feature post sound, showcasing all the talented people and world class facilities that often are faceless entities or job titles in the finishing of films...So, I view this blog as a more extensive, sound only imdb.com: a one-stop shop for all things film-sound including, but not exclusive to info on the dubbing stage(s), and scoring stage(s) used, as well pictures, mini-bios of the supervising sound editor(s), re-recording mixer(s), production sound mixer(s) and composer(s).

All I can say is that it's about darn time. :)


The Fifteen [drops tablet]...Ten! Ten Commandments of Sound for Picture! (Part Two)

Okay, kids, here is Part 2:

6. Thou shalt arrange/budget for a dedicated audio post mixer. (aka: Avoid being a Jack of all trades, master of none).

Granted, at the low/no budget level, you have to take what you can get, and many non-linear video editing systems have rather impressive audio features. But that doesn't mean that you can skimp and just be a one-person-band: writing, directing, shooting, editing, then mixing your project, and expect professional results.

There's a reason why you get a DP: they know how to shoot better than you do, and they worry about picture so that you don't have to. Same thing applies to audio post. While it's all well and good to do a temp mix for screening purposes, nothing screams "amateur" more than rough sound, no matter how pretty the picture.

Pro sound mixers fill in the rest of the picture with a full, rich sound track. They have access to more diverse sound effects, making your track fresh and dynamic. They have tricks up their sleeve that may end up saving you from having to loop that one line after all.

They are definitely worth it.

7) Thou shalt make an effort to commission an original music score.

Don't cheap out in the end. You created an original screenplay, got actors to create original performances, got a DP to create original images, and then at that critical final step, you shrug and say "just use pop music. They'll never find out. No one will ever sue us".

There are numerous resources for new, affordable and even legally free music out there. Use them. You crewed up through Craigslist; now keep going, and find a hungry music school student or a local band. There are plenty of talented musicians out there who could use the exposure, and would be willing to score your film, sometimes for little to no money.

And, for the bazzilionth time, there's a reason why that track you bought from iTunes won't work in your Final Cut Project: you're not allowed to use it. (Yes, I'm well aware of the myriad technical workarounds for this, which shan't be discussed here).

8) Thou shalt learn about "headroom" and "standards".

There's a very specific reason that mixers insist on making that annoying "bloop" tone when you record color bars at the head of each tape. This tone represents the nominal bus voltage output of the mixer, and thus must be generated by the mixer, not by the camera (I've had more than one heated discussion with many a DP on this issue).

WWCD: just as you must record the bars from the camera actually used in production (to get an accurate representation of the gear's output), so must you utilize the tone from your field mixer. The reason for this is that if any discrepancy is found in either picture or sound from a particular camera (too low of a red level, sound is 2 db higher on channel 1, etc), they can reference the bars and tone, and trouble-shoot to see if it's just a temporary issue, or consistent across the entire shoot, and then compensate for it if possible. Think of it as a Rosetta Stone for post.

Headroom: it can be a wonderful thing, if it's paid attention to. Just because you're not seeing every segment of your meter lighting up does not mean the audio level's too low. Your mixer will set the nominal reference level (usually -20dBfs for pro stuff), and then mix accordingly, giving you enough signal to have a clean recording without going "full scale" on loud or unexpected sounds (which, once reached, can't be undone, and sounds horrible).

Trust them, and it will turn out fine.

9) Thou shalt learn how to consider sound when scouting locations. (aka: "Well, they weren't using jackhammers here yesterday...")

I recently worked on a short where a dialogue scene was scheduled to be shot in a city alley at night. Good looking place, power nearby, permission from adjacent business owners. Everything seemed in order.

Until I asked about sound.

See, one of the neighbors to the alley was a nightclub, and right there on the front door of the place was a flyer for the reggae/dub band scheduled to play that night at 8 pm...precisely when we were supposed to roll. The band's prodigious bass (common to the genre) would have obliterated any chance at clean dialogue. Since this was a low-budget indie, there was little to no chance of guaranteeing the actor's availability for looping (or the money and facilities to do it properly, for that matter).

To their credit, they had the locations manger re-scout, and do a last-minute company move. At the end of the night, we had another location that fit their needs and ended up being just quiet enough.

Point being, you can avoid just this sort of thing by including your mixer in your pre-production and scouting process, just like you include your DP.

10) Thou shalt accept the fact that, once and for all, there is no such thing as a "remove echo" filter.

I've seen more than a few panicked posts on the boards out there asking about how remove the echo from their track. See, they used a shotgun, but it was at the other end of the room (or worse, mounted to the camera), rather than in close proximity to the subject, and now it sounds like everything's in a big bathroom. Guess what, Chachi, there is a solution: it's called the "shoot-it-again" filter.

Short shotgun microphones (easily one of the most misunderstood pieces of equipment in indie filmmaking) are not like zoom lenses. They do not bring the subject acoustically closer. Think of them more like a ring of Vaseline around a medium lens, with a clear circle in the center: the subject isn't any closer, but everything around the center of the frame, while not completely blocked out, is now "de-emphasized" and blurry.

The interference tube (the slotted "barrel" of the shotgun) filters sounds from the sides, and, in concert with the native directivity of the capsule, helps to "reject" (but not completely block) those sounds (and only at certain frequencies. Once you learn how complex short shotguns are, it's easy to see why they're so misunderstood).

If you want it to sound closer, you have no choice but to get the mic closer. You can't argue with the laws of physics (well, you can try, but the last guy who did ended up as the Incredible Hulk).

Whew. Rant over.

If anyone would care to submit addenda and/or criticism, please don't hesitate to comment...nicely. :)

The Fifteen [drops tablet]...Ten! Ten Commandments of Sound for Picture! (Part One)

Pay attention, class.

Mike Curtis over at hdforindies.com recently posted a brilliant rant/advice list called 10 Things Not To Do, detailing his "don't" list for indie/digital filmmakers. Inspired by this, I have attempted to concoct my own finger-wagging list for the audio sound of things, for filmmakers as well as other producers, directors and DP's.

(Edit: I'll preface this by stating this is mainly based on my professional experience, the majority of which has been shorts, both DV and S16; indie DV and HD features; corporate and industrials; documentaries and some reality TV. Additionally, much of what I've come up with is echoed to an extent in The Letter, which you should already have framed on your wall:)

1) Thou shalt make it a priority to shoot double system (aka: I don't care if your camera can also record audio, because it probably sucks at it).

I understand the temptation to go directly into camera: it gives the impression of saving time on set by not making it completely necessary to slate each shot, you don't have to spend time in post syncing each shot before you even begin to cut, and the audio always lives with video, so no having only one and losing the other. But doing so involves major quality compromises.

Cameras are by definition image-capturing devices, and while the audio sections have improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years, they still pale in comparison to a dedicated audio capture device, with 24 bit uncompressed PCM recording capability. Some may argue that 24 bit isn't necessary, given that most systems can't reproduce 144 dB dynamic range, and they may be right. But the fact is, everything you record out in the field is going to go through at least some sort of shake'n'bake in post, and having the (theoretically) lower noise floor and head room concurrent with greater bit depth allows for a cleaner signal after the fact, especially when summing multiple tracks.

And, in more practical terms, going double system means one fewer cable tethered to the camera, one fewer set of switches to be accidentally bumped to the wrong setting, and allows the person responsible for the audio recording to actually control and directly monitor the audio recorder. What a concept, eh?

2) Thou shalt budget or make arrangements for a dedicated boom operator (aka: No, the boom op is not just another "carbon-based stand").

I've been on several low/no budget shoots where, as production sound mixer, I was promised a boom operator, since I don't personally know of any that would do the job for free (for which I don't blame them in the slightest).

Inevitably, production assigns me either a Craigslist volunteer who's never operated before, or someone who "totally went through the audio program at the Art Institute", and thinks that learning game audio for post qualifies them for the position. I've worked with both, and while they've all been perfectly nice people who really gave it their all, the simple fact is that it's too critical a job to just drop on whoever is within arm's reach.

The audio department's job is to shoot your sound, just as the camera department's job is to shoot your picture.

Good boom ops know acoustics, microphones, and lighting techniques. They have to be able to direct the boom to the right actor on cue, silently, while making sure not to cast a visible shadow. They have to be physically agile, able to walk backwards while not running into camera rigging or tripping over dolly track. They have to be able to hold a boom fully extended over their head for hours a day.

To help non-audio folks better understand this, I offer this litmus test: WWCD (What Would Camera Do)? Try posing audio issues as camera issues, and make your decisions accordingly.

Would you really expect to shoot your movie if the camera operator was someone who had never touched a camera before in their life? If you wouldn't ask this of the camera department, don't expect the audio department to do it.

3) Thou shalt accept the fact that "we'll fix it in post" is TOTAL BS.

We've had sync-sound cinema (the art, not this blog :) for about 80 years, yet we as filmmakers keep making the same mistakes time and time again.

Somewhere, someone decided that audio shall defer to picture, and it has been down hill ever since. Routinely, people make decisions that are penny-wise and pound-foolish, laboring under the illusion that it is magically fixable in post.

Of course, I live on planet earth and realize that sometimes, some things are truly, completely unforeseeable and beyond production's control. These instances are what ADR was invented for, not because you want to save a few minutes on the schedule and decide to press on with that intimate dialog scene, even though a leaf-blowing brigade has just begun maneuvers not 50 feet away.

It can be as simple as waiting for clean backgrounds. In WWCD terms, it would be like this: instead of locking down a perimeter, you just decide to roll with bystanders wandering into the background of the shot, with the idea that you'll simply remove them digitally in post. While this is technically possible, any director who actually tried run their set in this manner would be hauled away to spend some quiet time in a padded room, and with good reason. Why spend all that time and money to get a final product that is guaranteed to never be as good as if you'd just shot it clean to begin with? Yet, audio is asked to do this daily.

4) Thou shalt learn how to properly slate each and every shot.

Yes, even now, and even with digital formats.

Everyone thinks that it takes too long to fill out a slate, drop it in, read it, and then clap the sticks. But without it, you are setting yourself up for some very expensive and time-consuming frustrations.

While you may plan on cutting you film yourself right now, that may change. Or, down the line, you may want to have someone else re-cut it, or bring certain shots into their system for color-correction or VFX. This may happen months or years later, and though it still feels fresh in your head, that will fade when you have some distance between you and the trenches of the set.

Additionally, if you shoot single-system (grrrr...), you may end up with audio that needs some specialized clean-up. Rather than bring over DV or HD clips, the operator may just want the audio files themselves. I've saved my own behind with just this sort of thing, because if I hadn't insisted on slating every shot on this particular single-system shoot, post would have had one hell of a time (and by time, I mean many, many hours) trying to re-sync by eye and ear.

This is my own particular philosophy when it comes to slating: Label everything, and do so with the idea that, upon wrap, you should be able to put all the raw material into a box, hand it to an editor you've never met before, and the editor should be able to construct a rough cut from the slate info alone, without ever having read the script.

And with media continuously being re-purposed after its initial release (whether for director's cuts on DVD, re-broadcast in another market, etc.), fastidious slating can facilitate ease-of-use years down the line.

5) Thou shalt not labor under the illusion that wireless mics are "magic".
"Hey, can we do anything about all that clothing rustle?"


"Yes, either re-frame to allow a boom in, or make the actors do it naked."
(beat, thinking)
"Naked, you say?"



Sometimes, there simply is no other way to cover a scene. Wireless mics can be incredibly useful tools in these circumstances.

Where we run into trouble is when production dictates that everyone simply be wired, merely because they don't want to have to make a decision about where frame is going be, or have to communicate this information the audio department, or, after taking an hour to light a set, give the boom op five minutes and a rehearsal to figure out mic placement and shadows (you'll notice that I said "production", and didn't simply lay it at the feet of "camera". It isn't "us vs. them". Sets are run from the top down. If production treats audio with the same respect that they show other departments, many of these problems I'm talking about would go away).

With some shows (and more often with single-system), you have more mics than available recording tracks, forcing you to mix-down on set. While this can be fine for the most part, you run the risk of an RF hit from one mic spoiling what was otherwise a perfectly good feed from another, simply because they're sharing a track.

Also, due to their placement on the body, wireless mics mainly pick up only voice, and little else. That means that everything else (even footsteps and prop handling that could have been captured clean on set) will now have to be foley'd. Plus, you miss some other, more ephemeral qualities, the "air" of a room, when you don't boom the shot.

And, as mentioned in the "aka", if you choose clothing based simply on how it looks, you run the risk of having wardrobe that makes wireless mics useless due to uncontrollable clothing rustle.

There are other options besides wiring actors,as well. Here is my own list of audio coverage tactics, rated in order of preference:

A) Boom from above.
B) Boom from above (not a typo. It's that important).
C) Boom from below.
D) Hard-wired plant mics.
E) Wireless plant mics.
F) Wireless body mics.

Reality check: On the job, I work for the producers, and will do whatever they need to get the job done. This is simply some proselytizing whose sole purpose is to encourage better audio quality in film and TV production.

(I also know that some folks may be wondering about Robert Altman, and his being famous for wiring his actors to allow improvisation both for performance and camera. From all accounts, Altman pulled this off because he had the clout to insist that the audio department be properly budgeted and equipped for multi-channel recording on set. Indeed, California Split is famous for being one of the first films to record more than two channels of sync-sound.)

Okay, enough ranting for today. Stay tuned for Part 2, which you can read here.

23 June 2007

The Art of Noise (no, not the band...)

Tony Palermo has put together a very impressive primer called Sound Effects-The Art of Noise, which details how to create your own SFX, including many classic radio play techniques.


Tony "Sparx" Palermo is a sonic showman who uses voice, music, and sound effects to create worlds before your very ears...Tony's worked for the United Nations, public radio, audiobooks, theaters, museums, schools and colleges across the world...Tony's RuyaSonic Radio Drama Resources website is one of the most extensive collections of do-it-yourself information regarding radio drama and sound effects to be found on the Internet.

Link to the how-to section of the site.

21 June 2007

Back from the Dead

Hey, campers.

Recently returned from eleven days on the road with a well-known reality TV show. Of the two camera teams, we each ran 5-6 wireless, a boom, and a wireless hop for the majority of shooting, which I will cover in more depth at a later date.

As for today's tidbit, back in May Macworld ran a first look at Adobe Soundbooth CS3.


Unlike most audio editors, which are designed largely for audio professionals and enthusiasts, Soundbooth was created with video in mind.

Rather than offering countless ways to tweak audio waveforms or alter those waveforms with a dizzying array of effects, Soundbooth includes a focused set of tools for performing the kinds of tasks designers most need for their video projects—removing noise, performing basic cuts and fades, and automatically generating background music tracks.

With Adobe editing software finally returning to the Mac platform, entry-level audio-for-video on the Mac has just gotten a little more interesting.

Link to the article, via macworld.com.

01 June 2007

Man, that's one HOT sound...

Slightly OT: from Discovery News, a thermoacoustic device is being produced for developing nations. Snip:

An appliance being designed for developing communities in Africa and Asia not only generates electricity, but also cooks and cools using acoustic technology.

The "Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity," or SCORE, could help improve the health and quality of life for the two billion or so people in the world who cook over open fires. When used in enclosed places, smoke from such fires can cause health problems.

And these stoves are notoriously inefficient. A person can spend two hours a day collecting wood to burn in a fire that is so wasteful that 93 percent of the energy generated, literally, goes up in smoke.

"We make the burning more efficient so that they use less wood and have more time to spend on other things like education," said Paul Riley, the project director at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

The efficiency comes from a technology known as thermoacoustics, which produces sound waves from heated gas and then converts them to electricity.

Link, via discovery.com.