Over the last several years, film sound has changed with the advent of digital technology -but not as much as you might think. What used to be a fairly simple process with extremely limited tools by which the best work was achieved through creativity, long hours and hard work has become a fairly complicated process using tools of incredible power and flexibility by which the best work is still achieved through creativity, long hours and hard work. There are literally dozens of different recording, editing, mixing and delivery formats trying to gain market share right now. And every one of these systems propagates enough marketing speak and technobabble to confuse the Oracle at Delphi. For the filmmaker trying to make sense of all this new technology, the chaos in the marketplace is compounded by what I call the "Blind Squirrel Factor."
The Blind Squirrel Factor. Current technology has been designed to be flexible and give us choices, choices that make it very easy to do the wrong thing. Often through this confusion someone who has recently migrated to the digital world will spend frantic hours, usually the day before an important mix, trying to understand and accomplish a procedure I'll call "Process X." Then in a mental haze of coffee, cigarettes, fear, frustration and lack of sleep, the digital neophyte will notice that "Process X" is now working. So they finish "Process X," go home, sleep for two hours, get up, take a shower, drink more coffee and head off to the mix. Sound familiar? What happens next is truly cool. Sometime over the next few weeks, our intrepid sound professional gets a phone call from a fellow who is going through the same or similar - or maybe even not that similar - problems. A hollow, dazed, feeble voice comes over the phone: "Process X, how do I do it? Help me! I have an important mix tomorrow." So, Sound Pro #1 recounts to the best of his recollection the steps which led to his success with "Process X." "Let's see, um, first I drank six pots of coffee. Then I switched the sampling rate to match the inverse timecode with a box my nephew made in electronics shop while he was in vocational school. I think Sam Ash has something like it now, the celivator or redivator or something like that. Then I set the tape machine to pull down 2.345% and transferred the element locked to reshaped code from the generator built into my reader without stopping the tape, and it worked."
Get ready, here's the kicker. "So," Sound Pro #1 concludes, "that's how you do it. Y'know, they never tell you that sort of stuff in the manual." That, my friends, is how folklore begins. There is an old expression about dumb luck that goes like this: "Even a blind squirrel backs into a nut once in a while." Enter the "Blind-Squirrel Factor" or BSF.
The New Digital Wave. The new wave of digital audio recorders, editors, mixing systems and delivery formats has really changed the process of post sound work. If you haven't posted a film for a few years, get ready for a shock to the system. These days, sound from location is rarely transferred to mag. Most productions seem to be either synching the audio on video or in the picture editing workstation using a combination of timecode and timecode slates or, in the absence of timecode, just the traditional slates. After the picture is locked, some sound editing systems can take the audio directly from the hard drives used for picture editing, open the cut reels in their native format, and, as if by magic, be ready to start cutting. That process is called OMFI, or Open Media Framework Interchange. The hippest thing about OMFI is that if the audio was loaded properly into the picture workstation, you never need to redigitize that audio. Even if the sound editing system you are using cannot do an OMFI transfer, almost all of them do what's called autoconforming. In a perfect world, autoconforming looks at the picture cut, and can apply it to the original sound elements leaving them in sync for the sound editors to begin to cut. In the real world, it's pretty close, but we have a few tricks to make it perfect.
After the sound editing process is through, the sound team will transfer their work to another format like Tascam's DA-88s. Multiple DA-88s can be synchronized at the mix; I've used as many as 14 at once. (14 DA-88s x eight tracks each = one huge headache!) Also, instead of recording stems on six-track mag, your final mix will probably be laid to DAT or Tascam or even inexpensive computer storage disks called magneto-opticals (MOs).
Finally, your printmaster will be used to make an optical track and also, in the case of the digital delivery formats, some type of digitally encoded sound somewhere on the print. (An exception is the DTS system which actually prints a type of timecode which drives a special CD player for sound delivery.) The only problem is that most exhibitors only subscribe to one digital format, and some not to any at all, so your print must also have a conventional analog track in the proper place on the film. Now that you've been brought up to speed, here are some ideas for producers, directors and editors preparing to venture onto the sometimes rough seas of digital post for film.
Sound Speak Translation. Anytime a sound pro discusses the relative merits of a given system over any other, whether it be DAT versus Nagra, Pro-Tools versus Sonic Solutions, DA-88 versus ADAT, or even sprockets versus digital, it means exactly the same thing. It means, "I am comfortable using the system I'm trying to sell you on. You will get better work from me if I do it this way. Of course I am willing to use any system to do your job but these are my tools and they fit me like daddy's old hammer fits his hammerin' hand." The most important thing for filmmakers to remember is that the tools don't do the job. If a sound professional ever tries to sell you on a job based solely on his or her tools, or if you ever find yourself tempted to hire someone simply because they own or can rent a particular piece of equipment, run, do not walk to the nearest exit.
Sync or Sink: Whatever system your production mixer chooses to record on, it must resolve to some sort of sync reference. Lately, many people have been trying to use consumer or even professional DAT machines that do not resolve as location recorders. You may have enough time and money in your budget to make these tracks look "in-sync." You can load them into a workstation and sync up the slates. You can tweak and shift a perf at a time for months on end. You can assemble a panel of champion lip readers to judge. But no matter what you do, these tracks will never be synchronous to the picture. The best you can get is for them to look in sync, but that takes extra time and money later. Do yourself a favor. Resolve everything, preserve the sync relationship from beginning to end. Do not settle for anything less from anyone you let touch your film.
Remember, since many films now are printing dailies to video only and loading into a workstation, you might never see the sound against real film until the mix or sometimes even later. If you choose to reject this advice, your sync will look soft, I guarantee it. Call me up, argue if you want to, just don't try the argument that "it worked fine on my last project," because you already know my answer to that - the BSF. Remember, communication is king. It's imperative that your location mixer, transfer engineer, picture and sound editors talk before the first piece of tape rolls. Make sure that your crew are all in accord regarding the formats, timecode and sampling rates your film will be using.
The Cutting Edge: Digital audio has advantages and disadvantages when compared to analog audio. The most important advantage is that digital has the ability to be transferred many times without affecting the quality, essentially leaving your audio in its first generation state. If you've ever made a tape of your friend's tape of a Motley Crue song that he taped off his kid sister's album, signed by the drummer, and wondered why it's so hissy and sounds even worse than normal Motley Crue records, you've had firsthand experience with what is known as generation loss. With each subsequent analog copy the signal level goes down and the noise level goes up. Of course, better analog recording equipment makes better tapes with less noticeable loss, but a generation is always a generation. The fact is that digital recording technology totally sidesteps this issue by transferring numbers, not sounds. Unless the computer or digital recorder you are using can't do math, which is possible but not likely, it cannot significantly screw up the numbers which will later be decoded into the sound you hear. Digital Audio Workstations or DAWs, like Digidesign's Pro-Tools, Avid's Audiovision and Sonic Solution's Sonic Station, are all excellent digital audio editors. The differences should remain totally transparent to the producer or director of a film. Remember, with few exceptions, anytime an editor tries to explain why he/she is using a specific system to you, refer to the translation earlier in this article. There are differences, but the systems I mentioned are all software updatable, so the differences never last for very long. With few exceptions, cool features have a way of migrating from system to system.
It's Digital and it's Neat-O: The advent of digital technology has resulted in the creation of some new tools which allow the sound editor to work quickly and genuinely improve the quality of poor tracks before the mix. Here are some of the new tools for digital editing that have really changed the process for the better:
Besides not having to bring an extra lunchbox, digital mixes have other advantages. These type of mixes usually mix to a 3/4"or Betacam dupe of the film. This speeds up the process a lot. An important thing to know about this process is that since video doesn't run at the exact same speed as film, your printmaster will need to be "pulled up" before your optical is shot in order to run in sync with your final projected film. Your sound supervisor/designer and mix facility should make all the necessary arrangements for this process. Be sure, if it's at all possible, to screen the sound to film before you shoot an optical. I always recommend a film/printmaster screening.