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Sound Advice

In With The Old, Out With The New

December 18th, 2002

Three Reasons to Reconsider High Technology

Reason 1 – Analog audio had been refined to an art form with its origins dating back to Alexander Graham Bell. While tube technology was extremely inefficient due to heat loss, it sounded very pure and warm. Transistors were bulky compared to integrated circuits but they were produced on printed circuit boards that simply had more conductor for the electrons to flow through. Many audio designers maintain that “If ICs are so good, why don’t you see them in any of the finest audio amplifiers?” Fact is that the transistor has rivaled tubes in sound quality while being a far more efficient device. The IC might never be able to produce enough current reliably to be considered for amplification but it has a home in many other low current applications like mixing consoles and processors of most every type. In plain English this means that today you can still find “state of the art” analog studios and sound reinforcement systems that can sound amazing. Analog is not perfect. It has noise, it has heat loss, it has distortion, but it is easy to listen to.

Reason 2 – The digital revolution has moved so fast that not enough attention has been paid to how the product sounds compared to how many functions it can perform. The current digital mixing consoles are sold on their features. Further proof of this is the re-emergence of tubes in combination with transistors and ICs in processors designed to add warmth to the sound. If you are continuing to doubt the above, buy your next CD from the store then download the hit song from the Internet, burn a copy of it and listen to them both in a high-end, hi-fi shop on a set of speakers worth over $3,000. The difference between the two discs will astound you.

Reason 3 – People. A Front of House engineer that has been on tour with a metal band for the last 10 years probably does not hear well anymore. Conversely, a graduate of a production school program has not had enough hands on experience to make a good recording or handle a live show. A person can read all the books on golf ever written and not break 100 playing the game. You have to do it to be good at it! It will not hurt if you have a solid understanding of acoustics and electronics while you are at it. I have seen PA technicians put speaker boxes out of phase, have no idea about time alignment of drivers vs. delay lines vs. delay effects. Front of House sound “engineers” who must have gotten the gig because of how they bop their heads in time with the flashing red lights on the console and studio engineers who got their gig because of how cool they were to party with.

Ted Barker is an independent audio consultant and production specialist affiliated with Show Pro in Toronto. He can be reached by e-mail at tbar61@yahoo.co.uk.

Sound For Picture: Sound Design … Realistically

December 18th, 2002

The term sound design is often misused. Typically it conjures up visions of science fiction or fantasy films that feature people, places or things that do not exist in our reality and thus need to have their own sounds created (or “designed”). However, the term sound design is more appropriately used to describe an all-encompassing, top-to-bottom, start-to-finish overview of what a film is going to sound like. From that point of view, most supervising sound editors who work closely with the director and picture editor of a film project can be considered sound designers, but many of us prefer to reserve that term for a select number of our peers. Indeed, sound design is not the domain of the synthesist or plug-in junkie. The best approach to sound design is considering what sound is needed during every frame of a film, and that process is best started by looking at what is in each of those frames at any given time. There is a commonly used, self-explanatory phrase amongst sound editors that reads, “See a dog, hear a dog.” My challenge to all editors (or designers, if you must) is to go a step farther – “See what kind of dog? Well, hear that kind of dog.” This is a deceptively complex task at times.

The most successful track for a feature is one that does not distract from the entire viewing experience, so we must endeavour to make our tracks fit seamlessly with the images on the screen. That is not going to be achieved by, for example, cutting the sound of a muscle-car engine for a Reliant K-Car. You say that muscle car engine is the only one you have in your library? Well, time to expand your library! Go out and shoot (record) one. You will only ever be as good as your library, and note that off-the-shelf libraries will rarely have exactly the sound that you are looking for.

Now, of course, it may be that in the script for the film, a scene is described where a throaty V8 engine block and exhaust system is fitted (somehow!) into a K-Car. Well, the supervising sound editor who has been in touch with the director from the pre-production planning stage through to the last day of the printmaster will have to figure out how to pull this off in the track. In short, they will have to design the sound of this vehicle…

Stephen Barden is a Supervising Sound Editor for Sound Dogs Toronto, who recently brought home a Genie award for their work on the film Treed Murray. The company also recently completed work on Men With Brooms, which had the largest theatrical opening for a Canadian film in history. You can contact Sound Dogs at (416) 364-4321, info@sounddogstoronto.com.

Keeping It Simple

December 18th, 2002

I try to keep everything as simple as possible. I just find that in big huge venues it doesn’t really pay to get the most expensive equipment, It would be nice to have the best mic preamps, and the best tube compressors, but you just don’t hear it. It simply doesn’t make a difference. It probably does to a board tape, and it does when you record it, but there are so many variables involved in a huge room.

You’re just trying to make it as good as possible for every seat in the house because people pay a lot of money and they have a lot of choices, they don’t have to come and see [your band]. The better we can make it – the better we can make it look, the better we can make it sound, the better the band hears it – the better for everyone. It keeps people coming back, and ticket prices are not going down in price, they’re going up. Let’s make sure that when people pay that money, they enjoy it and they feel they get their money’s worth.

Robin Billinton has over a decade’s experience as Front of House Engineer for the Barenaked Ladies.

Getting Ahead as a Pack-Rat

December 18th, 2002

I just love collecting equipment because everything is designed to do one specific job and different artists want different things. So you might get someone in here saying they want something that sounds a bit dark. Okay, so that preamp isn’t going to work – let’s use this one. It’s like the tools of a carpenter … if all you have is one handsaw you’re kind of limited. If you’ve got 15 different kinds of saws, hammers, drills, etc., all of a sudden you can make cabinets or chairs or whatever you want. That’s the way I look at it. The studio really is a giant tool – it’s just an extension.”

Arnold Lanni is producer of bands Our Lady Peace and Finger Eleven, owner of Arnyard Studios, and former member of both Frozen Ghost and Sheriff.

The Soundperson’s Survival Kit Checklist

December 18th, 2002

* Several of every kind of adapter imaginable
* A set of Allen keys (useful for guitar repairs and various other things)
* Tape – electrical, duct, masking
* Markers for the console
* Soldering tools
* 9-volt batteries
* Meter for testing cables, batteries, AC lines
* Screwdriver set, wire cutters, exacto knife
* Flashlight
* Ear plugs
* If possible, spare cables and speaker wire
* Headphones to do line checks during set changes

Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile and other published articles can be seen at her Web site, www.total.net/~mixmama.

Interconnecting Multiple Sound Systems

December 18th, 2002

At concerts, you often see three audio systems in use: house PA, recording, and broadcast. Here are some tips on connecting those systems without creating ground loops and hum.

Consider using a single power distro system, and connect all three systems’ power cables to that distro. Make sure the distro can handle the total current requirements of the three systems.

If you hear hum or buzz when the systems are connected, first make sure that the signal source is clean. You might be hearing a broken snake shield or an unused bass guitar input.

If hum persists, experiment with flipping the ground-lift switches on the splitter and on the direct boxes. If there is no ground-lift switch, insert an adapter that lifts the cable shield at the input of the system you’re feeding. On some jobs you need to lift almost every ground. On others you need to tie all the grounds. The correct ground-lift setting can change from day to day due to a change in the lighting. Expect to do some trial and error adjustments.

Often, a radio station or video crew will take an audio feed from your mixing console. In this case, you can prevent a hum problem by using a console with transformer-isolated inputs and outputs. Or you can use a 1:1 audio isolation transformer between the console and the feeds. Some excellent isolation transformers are made by Jensen (phone (818) 374-5857, www.jensen-transformers.com). Finally, try a distribution amp with several transformer-isolated feeds.

Bruce Bartlett is Senior Microphone Design Engineer at Crown International.

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