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Sound Advice

Don’t Let The Software Push You Around! by David Green

November 18th, 2002

There are many well known postulates to Murphy’s Law, but none so thoroughly corroborated as ‘Interchangeable Parts Won’t’ in the wonderful world of digital audio. We are all aware of the attributes of DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations) and the virtually (an interesting choice of word) exponential growth in their functionality, but what happens when you want to interface with someone or utilize a feature on a different platform? Welcome to the world of file exchange.

This has been a major problem particularly for those of us who regularly collaborate on projects and finally there is a light, actually several lights at the end of the tunnel. The voice that has caught the attention of the manufactures is H-TAC (Hollywood Technical Audio Committee). Their group has come up with a proposal for a universal rendered file format that they call ProWave. In addition, the AES (Audio Engineering Society) has formed a committee to develop a recommended standard that they are calling AES-31, and Microsoft (Microsoft) and Avid (Avid) are working together on a AAF (Advanced Authoring Format).

All of that is down the road apiece as the song goes, but in the short term TimeLine recently introduced TransAudio PipeLine, a Windows or NT-based utility program to provide file backup, export and TapeMode conversion. The initial release will read ProTools, Akai, WaveFrame, OMF/SDII, DEVA and Sonic Solutions. Export formats include WaveFrame, OMF/SDII and ProTools.

All TLA’s aside (Three Letter Acronyms), this is an area that is finally receiving the attention it requires. The ability to exchange file data will become increasingly important as our industry grows. If you’re considering upgrades or changes that involve digital audio, it would be worthwhile to check where each of these initiatives are, and/or ask the manufacturer some pointed questions on the subject.

David Green is Vice-President of Audio at Magnetic North, a Toronto post-production facility.

Using a DAW to Remix an Analog Multitrack Tape by Bruce Bartlett

November 18th, 2002

A rap group recently gave me a multitrack analog tape that they wanted to remix. On two tracks of the tape was a synthesizer playing a stereo mix of MIDI sequencer tracks. On three other tracks were the lead vocal and backup vocals. The group wanted to change the mix of the synth tracks and re-do the mix with the vocals. That was going to be difficult since the MIDI instruments were already mixed to two tracks.

I asked the group if they still had the original MIDI sequencer file. Fortunately, they did. We were able to remix the synth tracks after recording them one at a time onto a hard drive through a 2-channel sound card. The procedure went like this:

1. In the synth, turn on only the bass voice in the sequencer.
2. Record the bass onto one track of a digital audio workstation.
3. In the synth, turn on only the drum’s voice in the sequencer.
4. Record the drums onto another track of the workstation.
5. Repeat these steps for each voice or instrument in the sequence.
6. Copy the vocals, one track at a time, onto tracks in the workstation.
7. In the workstation, slide each track in time to align all the tracks.
8. Using the workstation’s mixing facility, remix the tracks.

Bruce Bartlett is the Senior Microphone Design Engineer at Crown International.

From School to Studio by Phillip Demetro

November 18th, 2002

Pretty much every engineer has a different story about how they broke into the industry. Some engineers fell into it accidentally, others have been into audio for as long as they can remember. Older engineers had little, if any, formal training. Most of them showed up at a studio somewhere, got themselves endeared to a manager or an engineer there, started running errands for them and 10, 20, 30 years later find themselves the revered elders of the industry.

For young engineers, it is not quite like that. Many audio facilities, while willing to give a new engineer a couple of breaks, usually do not have the time to teach someone from scratch how to record, mix or master. These days you have to learn audio engineering pretty much outside of a professional studio. There is the formal education option of going to technical school and then slaving away doing school-arranged studio internships. The other option is a bit more free spirited by buying whatever new — or used — equipment you can afford, throwing out the instructions, re wiring it and in a Zen-like fashion trying to become one with it.

If you want to become an audio engineer, chances are you’ll take both these options. Maybe even at the same time.

Many up-and-coming engineers will have anywhere from one to four years of technical education and a couple of internships before landing their first full-time audio engineering job. I took a one-year diploma which gave me a background in both the technical and business sides of audio engineering. Some might say that a formal education in audio engineering is not important. That you should spend the money you would have spent on tuition to get the equipment, work with it, go out and meet people and try to do a few projects independently. But I think that going to school gave me direction. It gave me the opportunity to learn on some of the equipment, to interact on a daily basis with others with similar interests, and it also gave me the opportunity to intern at professional audio facility.

My mindset when I went into a studio for an internship was to go in and try to take work of off other people’s plates and generally make life easier for them. By finding work to do in the studio and developing my own niche tasks which no one else could or wanted to do, I hoped they would quickly realize they couldn’t function without me.

For me, the process of interning in a studio, Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto, was particularly prophetic as this is also where I finally landed my first full time engineering gig (some two years after my internship.) When I started interning there, I pretty much knew from the beginning that there was no job waiting for me at the end of my internship. But I went into it wanting to learn and figuring this was one way to pay my dues which I could somehow collect on later.

In the two years between finishing my schooling/internship and getting my first full-time engineering job, the trick was always to stay interested and involved. I got a job at music equipment dealership and that permitted me to deal daily with people in the industry and people like myself trying to break into it. And it was while working there that I bought some of my own equipment and started freelancing.

Debt is a freelancer’s best friend. If it wasn’t for debt, I don’t think many audio engineers would ever get started. Debt bought me my killer Mac 9600 with Pro Tools 4.3. By that same logic, a Focusrite Blue EQ and a Summit EQ also came my way a little later on with the help of some creative financing.

If you want to have a go at freelancing, you assume the attitude that you would be doing what you’re doing and spending money on the gear even if you were never going to see a single penny from it. Otherwise you’d go nuts when all the bills start pouring in. It may not pay off financially but it sure does pay of morally when you’re able to land a couple of gigs and start climbing that very steep learning curve on your own. And when you’ve invested some serious cash into some nice gear and you start hearing the music coming out of it … well let’s just say that the sound of the music helps drown out the sound of the collections agency.

Freelancing helped me further develop my chops. I also schmoozed Lacquer Channel and gained access to their studios whenever they were closed to use their equipment. This is tough because they have to trust you first, but once your able to get into their good books, having access to a professional studio either in exchange for slave labour during the day (which is what I did) or for a reduced rate can go miles in developing your credibility.

Then after doing that for a couple of years, I had some pretty decent equipment, a pretty decent debt from buying all that equipment and some pretty decent credits to my name. I maintained my friendships at Lacquer Channel and made some friends at a few other studios so when Lacquer Channel needed a new second engineer, I had credits, contacts, gear and a desire to master some cool music.

Phillip Demetro is studio operations manager/second mastering engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto.

Financing Your Way To Success by Corinne Light

November 18th, 2002

One of the most prevalent problems in the production audio business in Canada is a lack of capital to obtain the right equipment to do the larger and more lucrative venues. While the banks seem to take the brunt of the blame for this, they alone cannot be faulted for not understanding how the industry works and who will survive long enough to profitably pay them back. It is up to the individual business person to clearly show why a financing situation is a safe bet and to obtain the funding from the correct sources.

The production industry, whether it is audio, lighting, video or staging, all operate on the same principles. Say you have $1,000,000 in equipment, you earn about $1,000,000 in revenues each year in total for manpower, transportation and equipment rental charges and make about 5-10% in net profits after wages and all expenses are paid. If you wanted to grow by 25% in the next year, you would need more equipment and manpower. Typically, this could mean an additional $250,000 in equipment to achieve this, which can be very difficult to purchase without external financing if you only made 5% or $50,000 profit the year before. Of course, you could always cross-rent your equipment from your competition but somehow this doesn’t make sense to do on a large scale as you are really helping them pay off their equipment and it takes an enormous amount of manpower and cost to do this.

Sometimes it appears as though some businesses have endless amounts of capital available while others, who have been around just as long, can’t seem to borrow even a small amount of funds.

Most companies that get major funding have worked hard to make sure they have presentable financial information on their company that shows clearly that they will and have previously made profit from this kind of investment and have approached the correct funder for the task. This is something that the majority of businesses could do and it is surprising how few actually do it. Because of the enormous inventory requirements needed in the production industry, very few companies can grow to their potential without the aid of external financing, although many try because of their lack of comfort in this area. Care must be taken to obtain financial backing in the correct sequence and to use the correct form of financing for each task.

Many business people first go to the bank to get funding, as they are familiar with them from their daily banking tasks. While this appears to be the logical first choice to most, borrowing from a bank does have its drawbacks and can often limit the overall amount of credit you can obtain. This is caused by the method of securing loans that banks use as in many cases they will attach collateral security to everything you and your company owns to loan an amount of money. These are the dreaded GSAs or General Security Agreements and personal guarantees that allow them to take any or all assets you may have to pay off a loan in case of default. If you have confidence that you can pay back the loan this is not a problem, except that other financiers may not like the idea that if something went wrong, the bank gets theirs and they may get nothing.

Although this looks unfair, it is reasonable to the bank. Banks are in business to loan money and receive money back as payment. They don’t want the item you purchased, they would much rather take easily disposable assets like new inventory, cash, accounts receivable and your house. Product suppliers, while they too would like to be paid in cash, will often give you short-term credit as, being in the same business, your items of inventory have some value to them. However, they have the same problems as retail dealers, they are not banks and usually don’t have the resources to give long-term financing to everyone, even if they wanted to. Supplier credit should be used only to finance short-term inventory turnover and sales not your long-term inventories.

While product suppliers can be more liberal with credit than banks, even 12 month financing on production inventory can be detrimental to some companies; it is difficult to grow when the profit earned on an item is less than the ongoing payments to obtain the item in the first place. Many have built their business on the “leap-frog” method of financing but it is a painful way of doing it and just as many businesses have suffered years of cash flow and personal income pain because of it. Besides, product suppliers love cash and some will give additional discounts to get it quicker.

DInvestors are wonderful if you can find one but are really expensive if you do actually make the profits you promised them. Reasonably, an investor wants to make more than interest on their money for the risk they are taking.

Lease companies are ideal for long term financing but are not easy to obtain funds from unless you want a car, computer or photocopier. In our industry, it can sometimes be hard to obtain funds for inventories. Understandably, lease companies can be nervous about leasing equipment that does not stay in one location. As well, restaurants and bars do not, on average have a reputation of longevity and they are often confused or identified with our industry.

However, properly approached, leasing companies can be an invaluable source of capital, especially for production inventories.

One of the principal differences between leasing companies and banks is that while banks loan money, leasing companies buy the goods for you and charge you a monthly fee to use it. While this sounds like you don’t actually own the item, which you don’t, the leasing company doesn’t really want to own the item either and it is usual to pre-arrange a buyout at the end of the lease term.

In reality, leasing is just another format of lending funds and earning money because of it. A lease is more of a long-term rental contract rather than a loan document and lease companies have less security to collect funds, in case of default, than banks if something goes wrong. The bank usually can take everything, except the leased items, which the lease company owns. Lease companies like the idea that you were approved for bank credit but know that they stand to lose everything, except the item itself, if you owe the bank too much.

By using the bank line of credit for short-term financing of purchases and accounts receivables and leasing for production inventories, a combined larger amount of credit can usually be obtained.

Many make the mistake of focusing in on the cost of leasing versus bank loans. It is easy to forget that you are in business to make money, not to save money. Banks alone are fine as long as they can provide all the funds you require when you need it. While leasing can be a few percent more, this should not affect your profits nearly as much as not having the funds at all. Too many companies use up their available bank credit to buy inventory items then suffer from missed cash payments discounts, paying supplier interest and bad credit ratings, all of which are very costly. If you lease first, the leasing company looks at you in a healthy position. Once the bank comes in, the leasing company probably won’t give you too much more lease equipment because they are aware that the bank is in first position.

Logic dictates that if you can’t make more than 12 or 14 % on your money, you shouldn’t be borrowing it anyway.

Another problem is that, unfortunately, many companies decide to overly depreciate their production equipment inventories to save paying corporate tax. While this is very inviting if you are cash tight it makes you look unprofitable on your statements and nobody wants to lend money to an unprofitable business. Besides, if you intend to sell and replace these items, you are not really deferring much and if you do any major changes, you may inadvertently exceed the corporate tax relief level in a given year and cost yourself excessive tax payments.

In this perspective, when it comes to financing, showing a profit and paying tax is a good thing. It will help get you the financing you require to achieve your potential. Remember that it is difficult to see the difference between a company who is trying to avoid paying tax and one that just can’t make a profit.

In our industry, growing 20% can mean 20% more equipment need to be purchased so proper financing can be critical.

Understanding a bit about financing and working with your company’s financial information to maximize your credit capabilities will help you grow and profit using other people’s money.

Corinne Light is the President of Light Financial Corporation. She can be contacted at c@lightfinancialleasing.com

Post-Audio Advice by Richard Spence-Thomas

November 18th, 2002

Music First
When starting a post-audio session for a commercial or corporate presentation I am frequently asked by my client, “what should we do first?” My reply is always “Prep the dialogue and sync tracks then cut the music.” Quite often a client will come to a post- audio session with grand expectations for his or her project involving multiple layers of sound effects and ambience. While these elements can lead to a rich finished product, they can also conflict with or be obscured by a powerful music track. Start your session by assembling the music bed tracks. You can then decide which sound FX will add to your mix, saving the time of cutting in layer upon layer of material that you may eventually drop in the mix.

Frame Rate
Make no mistake about it — if you are watching a colour television picture on a North American television set, the actual frame rate of the picture is 29.97 frames per second, not 30.

Client Relationships
Although not the rule, more often that not post-audio clients don’t care what specific equipment is being used in their session as long as the end product satisfies their requirements. Of much greater import are the creative and interpersonal skills of the engineer operating that equipment. Of course technical proficiency is a must. However the ability to put the customer at ease, gain his or her trust, and produce the desired product in a reasonable time period is what will earn you customer loyalty.

One great indicator of customer comfort level is the amount of time that they book for the session. Customers quite often book sessions with their chequebook in mind, not their project. If a session is booked for six hours and you produce a brilliant track but take eight, your client will be dissatisfied that he is over budget despite your creative genius. If you take only four hours but produce a substandard track then once again your client will be upset this time at your lack of effort. The key is to do your the possible job within a reasonable margin of the allotted time. If you feel that the time frame for the job is not reasonable then the client should be made aware of this early in the process, so he or she can make arrangements to solve the problem satisfactorily. Studio monitoring can also prove problematic for clients. No two systems or rooms sound the same and the client who spends only a fraction of the time that you do listening in your environment is easily confused. As a result, he may often ask you to make changes to your mix that will adversely affect the end product. If you feel that the client is misinterpreting the sound in the monitors, be patient. You don’t want them to feel that you are being uncooperative. Try to gain their trust. Explain that your experience is an important and integral part of the monitoring system. You are more important in fact than any of the individual physical components. In time, most clients will simply defer to your experience. Remember that a state of the art, multi-million dollar recording studio operated by amateurish staff is really just a worthless bunch of buttons and knobs! This business is all about people.

Richard Spence-Thomas is the Manager and Chief Engineer of Spence-Thomas Audio Post.

Safety At Your Live Show by Brad Femiak

November 18th, 2002

Have you ever been to a live show and noticed a speaker hanging by a piece of chain from its handles or seen a lighting fixture with a broken plug? This sort of equipment setup should make you nervous because it is unsafe.

Electrical guidelines are most commonly abused. Never perform a temporary electrical tie-in by yourself! In other words, opening and connecting inside an electrical panel. This is a job for a certified electrician and it is illegal for it to be done by anybody else.

It is also incorrect to install an AC ground lift (often called a “cheater”) and not connect the ground lug to the screw terminal centered between the plugs on the wall outlet. In the event of any fire, injury or death, you could be found responsible. Make a habit of running any snakes or cables over top of doorways or exits instead of leaving them on the ground where people can trip over them. If the Fire Marshall makes a surprise inspection (and they sometimes do) he may shut down your show until the problem is fixed.

Hanging loudspeakers (often called “flying” loudspeakers) should only be performed by a certified rigger. Riggers are specially trained in this field and always carry insurance in case of an accident. Only speakers manufactured with rated flying hardware can be flown safely. Never fly from handles!

It is commonplace to hang lighting equipment, but it must be hung from a C-Clamp and must have a steel-rope safety chain. While hanging lighting fixtures, use scaffolding if available. If a stepladder has to be used, never stand on the top step. Lastly, you should always wear steel toe boots, leather gloves, and a hard hat if people are working above you. Always get help when lifting heavy cases or speakers and make sure you always have a good supply of earplugs for nights when the band is just too loud. A deaf soundman won’t be in this business very long! Have a good safe show!

Brad Femiak is an audio engineer and works at Show Pro, a sound & lighting company in Toronto.

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