One Part Panther, Two Parts Sound, Mix Thoroughly

I spent most of another day with Cameron today. Dana, his wife, is always making jokes like “So when are you moving in?” They are such great people.

We were setting up his second Pro Tools system in his office / guitar room at his house and I found out some interesting things. We were able to get Pro Tools 6.2.3 working on a Mix Plus with Panther. Here’s the specs:

  • Power Mac G4 1.25GHz (OS 9 bootable “Speed Hole”)
  • OS X 10.3.3
  • Pro Tools | 24 Mix Plus Hardware
  • Pro Tools 6.2.3 Software
  • Aurora IgniterX Lite video card with 6.2.2 drivers

Digidesign has not officially qualified Mix hardware for use with Panther and the 6.2 software. The setup that we have on our systems at Fox is Pro Tools 6.1 and OS X 10.2.6. Panther is so much nicer, I’ve been dying to use it for work. Digi does say though that they haven’t experienced any problems in early testing on the Mix hardware.

So we thought we would give it a shot since we’re not on a show right now. Pro Tools seems to function fine under basic usage. I was able to create a new session. Import some guide tracks and a movie. Play, scrub, shuttle, lots of fast starting and stopping, basic cutting and fades all worked. Now obviously a “real” session has many more than two tracks–lots of files and edits and fades. We haven’t beat on it very hard but so far it’s working well.

They also have finally fixed the Grid Mode bug that’s been in 5.3, 6.0 and 6.1 where zooming way in would cause the grid lines and the Feet and Frame timeline to disappear.

I did encounter a problem with the Digidesign Core Audio drivers. When you select “Digidesign HW” in either Sound Output or Sound Input, the name changes to “Digidesign HW (Mix)” which is good. However, none of the options appear like setting the sound level or left / right balance or anything. Also when “Digidesign HW” was selected in Sound Output, iTunes would only intermittently work correctly. Sometimes I was able to play songs fine. Other times you’d hit play and a blank window would pop up that said “Hardware Setup” in the title. The song wouldn’t play and you’d have to Force Quit iTunes to get out.

I’ll keep you informed as we discover new things. I would welcome any comments from anyone with their own experiences of Mix hardware, Panther, and Pro Tools 6.2.

Another Day Another Doc

Session drummer turned aspiring filmmaker, Gary Gardner, met with Cameron and I today about a documentary he’s been working on for the last two years. It’s about an LA jazz club called The Baked Potato which opened in its doors in the early 1970s. Practically every jazz musician has played that club in the past 30 years. Gary was recently able to interview Lou Rawls about his experiences at The Baked Potato. I suspect he still has a ways to go before he gets this whole thing pulled together, and even though I’m not a jazz fan, this is one exciting project.

First there’s going to be a documentary with all these major jazz musicians like Al Jareau, Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, and Robben Ford. (If I’m remembering the names correctly… again, I’m not the jazz guy.) Then there will be a live concert recording of these jazz musicians each playing 2 songs at the club. I think he was saying that he’s planning on 30 different artists. That concert will be released on CD and DVD.

So even though the classic rock documentary I was talking about recently is a little more my style, this one is very cool for including the concert. We’ve already been talking about doing the 5.1 DVD mix to give a true feel of a small club experience.

And A Bowl Of Noodles

Cameron and I also spent time today goofing around with some instruments of our own–Cam on guitar, I was on bass. I’ve been learning to play bass for a few months now. It’s so much fun. I’m never going to be great at it. In fact right now I’m definitely not good. I need to practice more. But bass is very cool.

The People Behind The People

I had a meeting yesterday about a documentary. Denny Tedesco has been working on a documentary about his father, Tommy Tedesco, one of the most prolific Los Angeles session guitarists, and the other session musicians he worked with. People like Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye. The Wrecking Crew as they came to be known.

Denny has been working on this project for eight years collecting interviews, cutting his footage together, and trying to find investors and distributors. He showed a 15 minute promotional cut to Cameron, my partner in crime in sound, and I. It was one of the cooler documentaries I’ve ever seen. I had no idea.

We all know that The Monkees didn’t actually play their own songs. Tommy was the guitar of the Monkees. But what people probably don’t realize is how many recordings session musicians appeared on in the 60s and 70s. Hal Blaine claims to have played on tens of thousands of recordings during his time as a session drummer. If you look at a list of the recordings that Tommy Tedesco played on (which is definitely not complete), it will blow your mind. Practically every big American name from the 60s and 70s like The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Joan Baez, Pat Boone, J.J. Cale, Glen Campbell, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin, Doris Day, The Everly Brothers, The 5th Dimension, Jan & Dean, Peggy Lee, Barry McGuire, Roger McGuinn, Harry Nilsson, The Partridge Family, Elvis, The Rip Chords, Linda Ronstadt, Sonny & Cher, and Frank Zappa.

Denny is getting close to pulling his documentary together. He has an editor who is going through the footage and helping him make a cut. But he wasn’t sure about the post-sound end of things–the editing and mixing. He came to us looking for advice.

This is one documentary I hope gets finished and made available to the public whether through film festivals, or PBS, or DVD, or all of the above. It is a fascinating story about the classic rock era and the people who made it happen. And I would consider it an honor to be able work on this project.

Digging For Sound Effects

Yesterday I was shown a demo of a great sound library program called Soundminer. It’s very exciting: 58 metadata fields, SQL search functions, Rewire support for multichannel monitoring, Quicktime support for auditioning against picture, all kinds of fun stuff. But I get ahead of myself…

A sound company’s or sound supervisor’s bread and butter is the sound effects library. Attitude, communication, and all those customer service things are very important, but without a sound effect library there can be no post-production sound. A critical factor in the sound effects library is how easy is it to get to the necessary sounds?

When I started working in this industry eight years ago, most Supervising Sound Editors would use a process similar to this: Take the continuity list that shows the division of the film into reels and scenes. For each scene create a list of spots. Search the sound effects library for appropriate sounds for each spot. Listen to the CDs and DATs and make lists of the chosen sounds for each spot. Print the lists. Have the assistant load the sounds into the computer from the source CDs or DATs. Have the assistant copy the sounds to the editors’ drives and make copies of the lists for the editors.

For example, scene 20 is a car chase through New York with gunfire between the two cars. So spots might be Good Guy Car, Bad Guy Car, Good Guy Guns, Bad Guy Guns, NYC Traffic Day. It might get even more specific since the most dynamic sounds for the scene would probably be the cars. So there might be spots for Engine Revs, Tire Squeals, and Brake Slams.

Supervisors would use a database program like Filemaker Pro, Leonardo, or even something on a ancient Alpha Micro computer to search for sounds. Type in “Engine Rev” and see what goodies pop up. Or maybe there was that one recording of a really beefy police car who’s engine sounds might be perfect, so the supervisor types in “Crown Vic Engine”. The list of the matching sounds would be displayed, and then the process of pulling the DATs or CDs from the shelf, finding the right track number and listening to the sounds would begin. Between all this searching, finding, listening, and the all the loading, copying, and photocopying that the assistants would do, the process could take weeks.

Thankfully now we have large quantities of cheap disk space, high speed networks, and some really great sound library software. Now most supervisors have made a point to get their entire sound effects library loaded onto hard drives and ready for instant access. These might be Firewire drives that sit in their office or they might be network storage hanging off a server. With the new sound library software, supervisors can type in keywords to search for in the database and then click a button next to the description to immediately start auditioning the sounds. Choices can be made and put into a “pull list” or “bin” depending on the terminology used. And then with another click of the button, the chosen sound effects can be downloaded on to a cutting hard drive from or server or set of master drives, and imported into an open Pro Tools session.

As you can probably imagine, this saves HUGE amounts of time.

Three years ago this May, Cameron, the Supervisor I work with, and I set up a system like this for ourselves. We used a program called MTools from Gallery and it changed everything. Suddenly the process that used to take weeks could be done in several days. And we loved it for a long time. MTools is basically a series a utilities applications that interfaced with a Filemaker Pro database. The database would list all of the information about the sounds, and by clicking a button, the path to the sound would be handed off to a program called Dcode which would audition the sound from the server. Dcode is the same program that would copy of the files from the server when the pull list was sent to Pro Tools.

Unfortunately MTools has also been a bit buggy. It’s a problem with a lot of sound software. We’re definitely a niche market and it doesn’t attract the top developers. The Filemaker part of the equation was pretty rock solid. Some people have complained about the speed of Filemaker search hundreds of thousands of sounds but I never found it to be too bad. The problem typically stemmed from the strange behavior of Dcode.

Sometimes it would refuse to run. As soon as it started, it would immediately quit. The solution was to throw out the preferences file and copy “fresh” Dcode from the install disk or the server. Then if you auditioned your first sound, Dcode wouldn’t quit if you hit Command-Q. There is this button with a down arrow that is supposed to rebuild waveform overviews, but by clicking this button, Dcode will quit after you’ve auditioned your first sound. It also has a problem remember the path to the save directory. You run the program, select the directory you want all your sounds transfer into, spend an hour selecting the best sounds, click the transfer button, and it throws up a bunch of error messages. You realize that there’s no longer a path listed in the destination field. There was literally I time two weeks ago when I sat on the phone with Cameron for two hours while we tried to get Dcode to copy the selected sounds to a local hard drive.

We have decided that we need to find a better solution. That is where the demo of Soundminer comes in. It does all the basic functions I’ve talked about flawlessly. And there’s a lot of extra functionality that we never had with MTools. You can customize the layout, font size, color, etc. as easily as you can with a program like iTunes. (You can make customizations in Filemaker Pro and in general it’s a pretty easy database program to learn, but doing something simple like change the font from 12 point to 18 point because the editor has bad eyes is a bit involved.) You can set in and out points on the sounds your auditioning and it will only transfer those portions to your editing session. It has a function where it will find matching sounds based on the characteristics of the sound itself, not just the keywords you typed in. And about a half-billion other things that are great.

I suspect that I will spend most of next week in the office switching us over to a new Soundminer-based library.

Sync? What’s That?

Did you know that these cool new LCD and Plasma TVs add a delay into the video signal? Well, they do. I’m no expert but I would imagine it has something to do with converting the analog video signal to a pixel-based digital display.

If you take the cable out of your wall or a feed from your satellite dish and plug it straight into the plasma TV, and also hook up the sound to play through the TV speakers, you won’t have any problem. The flat panel TV will delay the audio and video signal the same amount and everything will stay in sync.

The problem occurs when you feed the video to your plasma or LCD TV and the audio to a separate receiver and speaker system. Because of this analog to digital conversion delay that happens in the video (which by the way does not happen on standard CRT televisions), the sound will appear to happen just slightly before the visual event. Try watching a live concert and you’ll really notice it.

Another way to see it is to send the same video signal–cable, satellite, DVD, or VHS–to a flat panel TV and to a CRT TV at the same time. Look for hard cuts from one shot to the next. The cut will happen a fraction of a second earlier on the CRT than on the panel.

I spent some time today at my friend’s house tweaking his new home theater that I’ve previously mentioned. His new 50″ Sony LCD Projection TV delays the video signal just like all flat panels do. Luckily his Denon receiver has a function where it will delay the audio signal on all channels to compensate for this. After a lot of testing with a Stevie Ray Vaughn concert DVD, we found that a 5 ms delay in the audio put everything in perfect sync.

Hopefully this information will help you make your home theater experience even better.

The Big Picture

This isn’t strictly an “Audio” entry. In fact it’s more of a “Video” entry, but I since those two things are often tied together I thought I would include it here as opposed to “Musings” or “Star Trek” or something.

I spent several hours last night and most of this morning helping my friend set up a new home theater in his house. It is awesome. He bought a 50″ Sony LCD Projection TV and a new Denon Receiver and they’re both fantastic pieces of equipment.

The Denon Receiver is so new that many stores don’t carry it yet. It’s 120W per channel. Something around 3 audio inputs and 5 video inputs. It has 3 component video inputs which is perfect for a situation with a DVD player, an HD decoder, and an Xbox or other game system. Plus is has video conversion so you can still attach composite or S-Video signals to the receiver and it’ll convert them up to component and send that signal to your TV. It does a ton of other great things. I suggest you stop by your local home theater store and check one out.

When we were looking at all the different gear options for his home, we looked a various speakers too. Eventually he decided not to get anything just yet. He’s just relying on a pair of full size speakers that he’s used on his previous stereo for many years. They sound nice and there’s no rush. You might think it strange that a couple of guys who do sound for a living didn’t immediately buy speakers but there are so many factors to consider. He and I can both easily listen to many different speakers and find a nice sounding set, but now that the largest surround setup supports 8 speakers (7.1), you can easily triple the cost of a home theater system by buying those speakers at the same time. Plus my friend is in this new house. He’s very concerned about getting the exact right set of speakers. Size and color are a big consideration in this. Anyway, the point is, he was very happy to get a huge TV and an amazing receiver and spend a little more time researching the speaker situation.

The TV is phenomenal too. That 50″ screen is enormous. Prior to this my friend was watching TV on a 27″ set. I measured the picture on his new TV. Even when the image is set to Normal 4:3 mode, it’s still 41″. And then of course when you’re looking at a DVD in 16:9 it’s just so big.

The key to a great looking TV though (and I can’t stress this enough) is properly calibrating the TV. I am completely serious. I know that not everyone can afford to go plop down three grand on a new widescreen television. But even with a modest one you might have in your home right now, you can make it look pretty great. You need to have a DVD player attached to the TV set. And you need to buy a copy of the Avia Guide to Home Theater on DVD. This is the critical part. I’ve been calibrating monitors for several years now using this DVD. It’s fantastic. Normally I keep it at work to make sure our video monitors are up to spec, (and remember I work on Hollywood movies for a living) but I went and got it to set up my friend’s new TV.

There’s a whole presentation on the DVD where a couple of dorky guys talk you through every single nuance of a home theater. Skip it. Unless you’re interested. Maybe you don’t know anything about a home theater and want to create one. Then it’s worthwhile. But if you’re looking to calibrate your TV, just hit the “Menu” button on you DVD remote. Selected the Advanced menu, and from there go to basic video calibration. They will talk you through all the steps necessary to get good looking pictures on your television. It’s really easy and it only takes about 10 minutes the first time you do it.

Once you’ve calibrated the video input that your DVD player is attached to on your TV, you’ll need to figure out what’s going on with the other inputs. Some older TVs only have one setup. You configure the Picture, Brightness, Color, Tint and Sharpness settings once and they hold for every single input (RF antenna or cable, Video 1, Video 2, etc.) You can check this by hitting the “Input” or “TV/Video” button on your remote to change to another input. Now go back into your TV setup menu and see if the new settings you made for the DVD still hold. If they don’t (and this will probably be the case on most new TVs) you’ll have to calibrate the video for every single input that you use on the TV. If you have multiple video inputs, you can hook the DVD player up to each one in turn and rerun the calibration DVD. You won’t be able to do this for the antenna or cable input. Your best bet is to make a note of the settings from the original DVD calibration and use the same settings for the cable. It’ll be pretty darn close to what it needs to be.

So there you go. Enjoy your “new” television.

Deva Sound Files and Damaged Resource Forks

A lot of sound recording for film and television is moving to the Deva II hard disk recorder. They’ve been around for several years but if the recent conversations I’ve had with production mixers are any indication, we fear change.

Actually I think post-production sound tends to embrace new technologies, but lets face it when you’re on the set or on location with a production, you’ve got one chance to get that recording right. So I don’t blame mixers for being a bit hesitant to jump on the non-linear digital bandwagon.

Here’s the problem:

The Deva II mirrors to a DVD-RAM disk as it records to a hard drive. Those DVD-RAM disks become the sound rolls for the production. There are two sizes of DVD-RAM disks–2.6 GB per side and 4.7 GB per side. The older 2.6 GB drives are not compatible with 4.7 GB disks.

The Deva II formats in MS-DOS FAT16 format, but if you set it to record Sound Designer II (SD2) files, these are Macintosh files with resource forks. In post-production, if you use a SCSI DVD-RAM drive, there is software that can be installed in OS 9 to give you proper access to the SD2 files. No problem.

Unfortunately SCSI DVD-RAM drives are no longer made and have not been made for about a year or so. There is a very limited supply of rental SCSI DVD-RAM drives in Los Angeles. Only Firewire DVD-RAM drives are available for purchase now. Plus according to Apple, OS 9 has been dead for about a year and half. All new Macintoshes only boot into OS X.

Thankfully OS X comes with drivers for DVD-RAM drives built-in. Plus it supports the MSDOS FAT16 format. So if you buy a Firewire DVD-RAM drive, plug it into your OS X-based Macintosh, and insert a DVD-RAM disk from a Deva II, it will pop up on your desktop. No additional software needed.

There is a problem with this. Apple’s implementation of the MSDOS FAT16 filesystem under OS X does not properly deal with resource forks. They get stripped out of the file and appear under another directory as separate files. For something like SD2 files, this means that you lose your source timecode information which is critical for doing an auto-assembly of you production dialogue track.

The easiest solution is to record all the production sound on the Deva II in the Broadcast Wave (BWF) format. This is a flat file with no resource fork so there is no problem with losing timecode. Plus Digidesign Pro Tools, the digital audio workstation that most of us in the post-production sound industry use, fully supports the BWF format.

This solution is not always available. Often you get sound rolls from the production after shooting has wrapped and there was no conversation with the production mixer. It might be in SD2 format and there’s nothing you can do to change it at that point.

I’ve developed an AppleScript that makes use of two other programs–ToggleFork and Resploder–to fix this problem. Take your DVD-RAM disk. Insert it into your Firewire DVD-RAM drive under OS X. Copy the entire disk (including all folders) over to your working hard drive (it can be SCSI, Firewire, internal, it doesn’t matter). Run my “Deva SD2 Fix” AppleScript and point to the folder that contains the Deva sound files when you are prompted. That’s it. It’s pretty simple and only take a minute or so to fix an entire sound roll.

Let me know if you have any problems with this.

Download Deva SD2 Fix.
Download ToggleFork from me.
Download Resploder from me.

NOTE: I didn’t write ToggleFork or Resploder. Other people did. Also, Apple released OS X 10.3.3 yesterday. It’s possible that MSDOS FAT16 resource fork bug was fixed in this release. I’ve been in touch with Apple trying to get this fixed for many months now. I haven’t had a chance to try out the new OS software and see if it now works.