AUP230 - Individual Projects and Studio 3 Round Up

This trimester I didn't take as many risks as in the previous one. Having worked on several external projects last year was great, however I decided to scale things down and instead focus on the transferrable skills that needed to be improved. This trimester was all about understanding who as I am as both a student and a professional, as well as learning what are my strengths and weaknesses in the audio universe and where do I fit in. 

I've been finding that I'm a much better surgeon than a designer, so to speak. I genuinely enjoy repairing audio and editing and mixing dialogue. Perhaps this is because I spent most of my career working with dialogue instead of sound effects, and dialogue editing feels as if I'm truly assembling the film. In spite of dreaming of becoming a sound designer since my childhood, I've identified that what causes anxiety attacks is, ironically, creating sound effects; it's the process of spending a lot of time inside a room experimenting with ideas that may or may not work. It feels as if I'm losing productive time. 

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Nevertheless, sound design is just one of the elements of a film's soundscape, and I'm in peace with letting it go for the greater good of my mental health. That said, my main freelance project was a contribution to the Tonebenders, a podcast about sound design. I got in contact with them to see if there was an episode I could edit, and about a day later they replied asking if I would be OK with editing an interview with Ethan Van der Run and Eric Aadahl, the supervising sound editors for 'A Quiet Place', in a relatively small timeframe. This was a Monday I believe, and they'd need it prior to the following weekend. I accepted the challenge and spent two straight days working solely on it. 

My strategy to efficiently turnaround a 40-minute podcast within a short deadline is to first to a rough edit, trying to find the best pacing for the conversation. Then, I duplicate the playlist, route the track to an aux track with iZotope RX inserted, and send the entire program to RX for a general click and pop removal. Next, I render the changes to the files and begin to edit the 'ums', 'aahs' and the like, although only where necessary. If the flow of the dialogue would be damaged by the removal of one of these sounds, I tend to leave it in. People are not paying attention to every little detail after all. Once I fix the majority of problems, I begin to meticulously edit the show. For this project, that took me an entire afternoon, and mixing took me about the same time.

Speaking of dialogue, a week after I finished the edit they released an episode in which four dialogue editors would talk about their process and experience, as for someone who's always looking forward to improving his editing skills, that episode was very enlightening. 

In addition to the podcast, I've collaborated with the film department on the first episode for a web series. Initially I was meant to work only on the post-production side of things, although my colleague, Daisy, needed help with location sound and I volunteered to help out. Instead of using SAE's lapel mics, I brought my own set of lapels as I've got all the accessories for them and trust their sound. In the end, we managed to save plenty of time and successfully go through the day without any inconvenient troubleshooting. 

A challenge I've been facing lately is that of making the dialogue as crisp and clear as compared to professional quality. Many years ago when I studied in Canada, I learned that to achieve that result professionals would route the dialogue tracks to a chain, where they'd do all the processing, such as de-noising, limiting and multiband compressing. This is a standard method of mixing in Canada and in the US. While I do remember the order of plugins and the steps to do it, I need to train a lot more and figure out what works and what doesn't and, more importantly, why it doesn't.  

The film got transferred to us quite late in the trimester -- more like a week before exhibition, and since we were all busy with our main deliverables, we ended up not putting all of our effort in it, although we did manage to make the dialogue sound smooth. There were some parts where I'd go back and fix if time allowed, but I think that for a 7-day workload the end result was acceptable. I've been told many time by colleagues and family members that I tend to be too hard on myself in terms of quality control. Even though I've been trying not to be too perfectionist, I always think I could've done better.

What was unfortunate of only having a week to edit and mix the film, was that none of us had time to do foley, and I only made sound design decisions during the mix, as time was being specifically allocated for that work instead of the development of my major project for CIU 212.

Looking back at my distance traveled, both academically and professionally, I believe I should've said 'no' to the film students. It' not that I didn't want to collaborate, but essentially because as time went by, I found myself with a plethora of work to focus on; work that would vehemently make me happy about. 

 Image from Taylor in Time. Click   here   to view source.

Image from Taylor in Time. Click here to view source.

Learning to say no when other priorities arise is not a weakness; rather, it's a strength. It subconsciously implies that you are confident enough about your skills, and that denying one or two projects won't damage your reputation at all. In fact, right after week 2 or 3, I spoke with an animator about helping him out on his project. About a month later he provided me with further details as to what was he expecting of sound and an estimated deadline. I decide to pass as I didn't want to commit to somebody and not deliver what I promised due to time management conflict. That decision was one of the most important ones I've taken this trimester: it helped me identify my limits and be respectful to my peers. 

Finally, as much as this trimester was about mastering, tape, music and post-production, it was also about understanding what type of student I am and professional I'm becoming.

AUP230 - Mastering Intensive

Mastering is a subject I've been interested in for a fairly long time now. I've always wondered how engineers would make mixes louder without clipping, even though the waveform looks like it is indeed clipping. I've also wondered how to make dialogue sound crisp and clear such as in the movies, and despite having done a lot of audio repairing, there's always much more to learn aside from it. Furthermore, although I'm not great with maths, I love to learn about audio science, and how both analogue and digital audio works. 

Mastering take place in between mixing the audio and preparing to be replicated or distributed; it's the process of turning a collection of songs into a record by making they belong together, in term of tone, volume, and timing, which means the spacing of songs in an album (Owsinski, 2013). In the case of post production, it differs in that there's no album to be created, although the final product must meet the EBU standards. 

What makes a professional mastering engineer is not only well trained ears, but also the room acoustics, speakers and hardware. What's common in the relationship between mastering and mixing engineers is that the later wouldn't be the appropriate professional to master a track or an album, since he or she will be biased as to what they should accomplish. By assigning the work to a mastering engineer, the product will be listened to with unbiased ears, as well as with a more meticulous attention to detail that the mixer might have missed. 

It can be perplexing to learn that it's better not to apply too much EQ and compression in mixing, since in mastering the engineer would have a better time bringing the tracks to the required standards. I got befuddled by this idea although I understand its logic, and it does make sense -- if I received a project to master and I had to do way too much to improve the quality, the most conscious approach would be to send it back to the mixer to fix the issues. 

Speaking of fixing, the art of audio repair also belongs to the mastering universe. Many people think that iZotope RX is exclusively a de-noiser, and that's not  the case. In RX, the engineer is able to rebalance the levels of a stereo recording, restore audio dropouts--which is particularly useful in post-production--, remove thumps, clicks, crackles and really dive into frequency by frequency in a spectral view. It can even be used as a sound design tool, though that's a topic for another blog.

One aspect of mastering that I wish the unit covered is authoring, more specifically in relation to Dolby's requisites, as well as DVD and Blu-ray in the case of post-production. Now, taking nowadays circumstances into account, why would anyone bother to care about these things since students don't necessarily kickstart their careers in studios whose facilities feature Dolby systems? Well, you never know where you will end up and what are your clients going to ask you to do, right? So it never hurts to get more knowledgeable about your practice. That said, I think future students would certainly benefit from more advanced tutoring on mastering.

As for what I've learned, it was jaw-dropping to learn about the mid-side trick to remove unwanted noise from the centre or the sides -- I had never thought of mid-side with that perspective. I've also been confused about the differences between a compressor and limiter -- the one the raises the sound to a proposed threshold--, given that a compressor can also act as a brick wall limiter. 

 Example of brick wall limiting. Image from Practical Music Production. Click  here  to view source.

Example of brick wall limiting. Image from Practical Music Production. Click here to view source.

 Waves L1 Limiter

Waves L1 Limiter

Imagine that the image on the left represents a typical DAW compressor. The difference between these two pictures is that the screenshot of the Waves L1 illustrates a brick wall limiter with the capability to boost the signal to a desired threshold while making sure that it doesn't exceed the specified ceiling. Conversely, the left image suggests a compressor with an option of just limiting the signal.

In addition to the aforementioned limiters, there are multiband compressors and limiters; that is, instead of compressing or boosting the whole signal, the user can apply the effects only on a particular set of bands. 

 Waves C4 Multiband Compressor

Waves C4 Multiband Compressor

 Waves L3 Multiband Limiter

Waves L3 Multiband Limiter

When reflecting upon my creative practice after going through the tape and mastering projects, I think it'd be reasonable to take back what I said in the tape blog about preferring the sound of digital. While I do fancy a cleaner sound, I detest music that sounds too "perfect". I was listening to the soundtrack of Schindler's List today and couldn't imagine it without the hiss. In addition, the impurities of the score resembles the antiqued look of the film, so I wouldn't make much sense to remove them anyway.

One reason I enjoy classical music so much is because of its dynamics. The audio industry has been suffering from a loudness war for quite some time now, and music is only getting louder and louder. In an article for Sound on Sound, Emmanuel Deruty wrote that modern productions lack subtlety, and sacrifice quality for level. Have a listen at this track from Schindler's List. Notice how we can feel the tension, the hopelessness of the violin, played by Itzhak Perlman.

When my classmates and I were being taught about loudness, it was mentioned that the average LUFS applicable for general pop, rock and the like is usually -10 LUFS. The average level for podcast and audio book is around - 18 LUFS and I already find it loud -- well, acceptable loud. -10 is simply too much. From my perspective, today's society seems more interest in compression than in the experience of listening to music. 

Learning about mastering was a true eye-opener as to how I approach my mixes. Yes, mastering for film is different but, after all, mastering is not only about making mixes louder. 


References:

Deruty, E. (2011). 'Dynamic Range' & The Loudness War. Retrieved from https://www.soundonsound.com/sound-advice/dynamic-range-loudness-war

Owsinski, B. [Author] (2013). Introducing Mastering [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.lynda.com/Pro-Tools-tutorials/Introducing-mastering/109358/120958-4.html

 

 

AUP230 - Tape Project

  •  Introduction

The tape project was very unusual as I've never recorded anything to tape before. We started off by heading to Soundpark Studios in Melbourne. The entrance looks like a film studio as if it'd built an abandoned warehouse set.

 Entrance of Soundpark Studios

Entrance of Soundpark Studios

Overall, the studio looks fantastic, as if there's plenty of story to be told about it. There are loads of artwork spread across the place, as well as an impressive amount of handmade wooden diffusors. What's more, you can find an overindulgent set of keyboards, cables, interesting lamps and more.

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The objective of the project was to successfully record two bands: Tram Cops and . My role was that of the Pro Tools engineer, which meant that I was responsible for communicating with the producer and the band. The project lasted the whole day and the class was split into two groups; I was assigned at the afternoon period. 

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As far as I remember, the recording setup was as follows: the microphones signal would first go through the preamps, than the tape, then move to the mixing console, then end in Pro Tools. In other words, the audio was being recorded to tape, and being monitored through Pro Tools. I have to admit, it was very confusing to fully understand what was going on, as when I arrived all was already up and running. 

 The massive tape setup.

The massive tape setup.

The tape recorder available at Soundpark Studios was a Studer, although I don't recall if it was the A80 or A800. It had 24 channels at our disposal, and we made use of all of them. Despite there being a limited amount of time to complete all the recordings due to the finite length of the tape, as opposed to nowadays non-linear DAWs, I was impressed at how much all groups could record in a day. 

  • Production

When I got in the studio I had no idea what was going on. I thought it would be a turn by turn project, so to speak, where the first group would set up, record and pack, and the second group would repeat the process. That was not the case. When I got there I had to take over a session that had already begun and familiarise myself with the environment. There were very many people inside a small room, and one of the things I have the most trouble with is concentrating at one thing while there are people talking right next to me. Either way, I had to keep my cool and be professional. I think that the key ingredients that differentiate an amateur from a professional is patience, empathy, confidence and positive attitude. In the inside, I was freaking out, but I tried to push my insecurities aside and just focus on the outcome of the project.

The genre we recorded was quite jazz-y, and therefore the hiss produced by the tape was very pleasant to hear. Despite preferring the sound of digital, I can't deny that tape hiss adds so much character to certain types of much, especially classical, which is my favourite genre. There were a couple of moments when I completely zoned and just enjoyed the sound. As mentioned in an article from Universal Audio, 'probably the most commonly cited characteristic of analog recording is its "warmth." Tape warmth adds a level of color to the sound, primarily softening the attacks of musical notes, and thickening up the low frequency range. Recording at slightly hot levels to analog tape can also produce a nice distortion that works well with certain types of music such as rock, soul, and blues.' 

Another interesting aspect of tape its speed is directly related to the amount of bandwidth it can retain when recording. The table below, extracted from OpenLearn, briefly illustrates this concept.

 Bandwidth related to tape speed. Image from OpenLearn.edu. Click   here   to view source

Bandwidth related to tape speed. Image from OpenLearn.edu. Click here to view source

In the same article from Universal Audio, they mention that a faster tape speed tends to result in a cleaner recording since the signal is spread over a larger area and the signal-to-noise ratio is increased. Supplementary to this, when recording in 15 its (inched per second) the engineer will often find an improved low-frequency response compared to running the tape at 30 ips (Mignola, 2015). Therefore, I think that if we had the tape running at 15 ips, the amount of noise in the vocals and drums would be higher.

Why'd She Have to Leave so Soon? - The song we recorded for Tram Cops

The mix above was crafted by my colleague, Nick Penberthy, and when listening to it a couple of weeks later with fresh ears, I'd say that the vocals could be a bit louder, although since it was recorded quite low, I'm afraid that if it got boosted, then tape hiss would be much more prominent, thus making noise an intrusive element rather than a characteristic of the song. Nevertheless, despite this minor issue, the mix sounds pleasant and the band was very pleased with it, and that's what every engineer wants to hear, isn't it?

All in all, I had a great time learning about tape and being in a professional music production studio. Despite having worked in a music production studio before, it was nothing compared to Soundpark in terms of space, decoration and equipment. Even though the sound of digital audio pleases me more than analogue, tape quality, it was very interesting to learn about the differences in tape speed as well as hearing it happen in real time. This experience gave me a broader appreciation for classical and jazz music, as opposed to when I thought that tape hiss was an inconvenient element.


  • References

Keller, D. Universal Audio. Analogue Tape Recording Basics. Retrieved from https://www.uaudio.com/blog/analog-tape-recording-basics/

OpenLearn. Revolutions in Sound Recording. Retrieved from http://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/engineering-and-technology/technology/revolutions-sound-recording/content-section-1.3.3

Mignola, P. (2015). Learn The Key Differences Between Analog Tape Speeds. Retrieved from http://performermag.com/home-recording/learn-the-key-differences-among-analog-tape-speeds/