April 5, 2011

The Road to Surround – Part 5: Generalizing Your Routines

By. Mick Sawaguchi

There are some documents in my hand which former old seniors had left before I joined in 1971. Among them was "Maintenance Outline for Music Performance Facilities" issued in 1951, and in it described what items to check with the studio equipment routinely, daily, weekly, or monthly, and even specified the difference of cleaning depending on the flooring as well as describing the procedures to wiping out the dusts from the ceiling using a duster. It is a document to remind you the spirit of those who loved the tools and to take serious responsibility on broadcast.
In addition back in old days in 1934, the measurement of the reverberation time of the control room as well as general-purpose halls, auditoria, and theaters was performed, and the examination of the acoustic absorption materials which are suitable for the control room was experimented.
In 1960, the model of the spectrum analyzer was produced, and the report that measured long-time spectra of various genres of the broadcast was given.
As for the documents related to content production, I don't have a clear idea when they started showing up, but in my personal memory there was a document in mid to late 60's that investigated the most suitable level of sound effects and BGM music, and the balance between monitoring in mixes and in the real home environment listening with regard to the broadcast programs.

Picuture 1: The example of a book regarding software production published in U.S.A. in the latter half of 1980's.
Amazingly enough in them were the artistry of sound effects, the editing methodology of music in movies, and the film mixing technique to cover wide range of topics. I also found a realistic publication titled "About a session man in Hollywood".

Not limited to the job of mixing engineer, you must accumulate your carrier and various experience till everything becomes full-fledged. What is important in it is to adopt a viewpoint of generalization overlooking what you have experienced individually. I heard the voice that said "it is impossible to generalize the experience because you do new things in different jobs every time". However if it is your way, what you accumulated each time will not grow into your asset.
If you are stuck with the pattern as "it took me 20 years this way, therefore the new guys should dedicate the same 20 years to be full-fledged", it leaves no room to think about the next move and it becomes difficult to step out beyond the succession of the same thing. If you cover many jobs whatever they are, you come to notice that there exists a certain law in the way of thinking fundamentally.

Picture 2: From music performance facilities maintenance outline in 1951.
Details of check procedures in the practical studio duties and cleaning of the equipment, as well as cleaning methods depending on the difference in flooring are given here.

You start from there and expand your interest to such topics as "how do the other people do then", "how is it handled by competitors", or "are any related books and references available".
The first step is to have a viewpoint to build database of methods in thinking and the things that you noticed without floating into the vague emotion".
Vague expression and sense tend to sit as a core in the world of content production in particular, but it will be a good start if you think how you can bind them in expressing them in the form of data.
I will introduce here below some personal experience of mine.
Unchangeable soul devoted so much in the job is recorded here that still lives today.

Picture 3: Engineering Research Report in 1934.
The reverberation time measurement in the space such as studio/theater/auditorium and the examination of sound absorption material suitable for studio design are investigated in this.

When you are asked how much dB is appropriate for the BGM level
When I ran the training for productions in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, this question was often asked by mixing engineers each time. Because I used to move the faders of BGM only relying on the sound of monitor speakers, without having thought of how much it was normally, the question was shocking for me. Thereafter when I investigated the music level that did not collide with dialogs and comments while playing various music pieces, I found that BMG tended to properly balance with the level lowered by 12-16dB from the reference.
If I was asked the same question in Japan, I would have answered something like "you should follow your feeling at that time to reduce how much because it cannot be said unconditionally regardless the type of music". Simple thing as such in fact can turn out as data of certain numerical value if you observe your manipulation a little more carefully, and can serve as a trigger for generalization. When I answered to the similar question with data afterward, they seemed to understand it conceptually.

How do you use the delay?
The first thing we employed with something called a digital delay was a unit type product made by EVENTIDE in 1979. (It was the time when the original sound was altered by 12bit process.) Regarding how to make use of an effector that delayed the sound, it was all the repetition of trial and error to get the feeling by hearing for everybody. In the field of recording around that time, they started using such delay units effectively, and production reports and examples came to appear in trade publications in those days. In addition, during the recording session in studios, the musicians often explained me things like "a delay about this much should work".
In about five years of practice, I could see that there was a certain law in the domain of time setting. Therefore I classified the delay time range by 10msec/30msec/100msec/1sec or more, and gathered the ways of usage and characteristics in each range.
In this way, since the junior engineers can begin with these factors, there was not much wasting of time spent for unnecessary trials and errors. Also the stand-by time of studios eventually decreased. Of course you can make fine adjustments and achieve your original delay refinement, but the generalization in terms of forming a quick clue is important as far as I could see. Similar application can be adopted in other effectors than delay. I was troubled particularly with the digital reverb without successfully reaching my preferred acoustic through variety of reverberation time and pre-delay EQ settings, but when I got to understand that there was a certain law in the relation of the parameters and the sound through handling several companies' units, it was easier to arrive at the sound quickly that I imagined via the generalization process.
In our sound workplace in 80's, there were four or five young staff who were making their efforts to summarize such know-hows in a text form, and they attentively collected the points that seemed to be useful for generalization in their daily duties, and this was very much appreciated in the workplace. Mikio Sasaki based in Nagoya was the leading staff among them. I strongly recommend that the current young staff continue such efforts by all means.

Thinking about the size of the sound
While I mixed dramas and documentary programs, I came to be interested in the area of sound design that addressed the entire program or the title. While I groped for something that could be a new trigger, I encountered with a book called "Master of Light" which collected various approaches of director of photography or often called as the DP of the movie. I was particularly interested in the visual expression by V. Storaro, an Italian DP, and purchased a reference movie "The Forest of the Assassination".
In the book it discussed how to realize the producer's philosophy using what kind of lenses and filters against the light as a total visual expression.
I felt that I found a hint about the microphone in a sense being the same as the lens when it comes to designing the sound. It is said that you will hear the sound from superior pictures and see the picture from superior sounds. Just as the pictures have a variety of sizes, the world of sound also enjoys a variety of sizes in sound. I thought that the composition of these different sizes contributed in the structure of so-called well-modulated production, and I decided to classify my experienced examples with the following slices of definitions.

• Big close-up size
In case of picture, this is the size with a focus partially on the eye, the lips in the face, or the tip of finger.
As for the sound you can record the nuance of the details that is different from what you usually hear such as a whisper at the ear, a monologue, a breathing, footsteps of an ant, or a burning core of candle in the enlarged world of sound.
It is a pleasure particularly in movies and dramas for a sound designer how adequately they can arrange minute sounds to the effective scenes.

• Close-up size
In case of the picture, it is the size of roughly the whole shot of a face.
As for the sound, it is the recording with a close microphone setting.
For example those that would fall under this size are an important dialog suddenly breaking in the mere routine conversation; a momentary flash back to a charater's inside; or representing some dialog in a cutback.

• A regular size
In case of the picture, it is typically two shot BS size which is quite average and stable. As for the sound, it falls in the normal recording position with the distance of 1 to 3 feet from a microphone. This position offers a safe recording, most common and easy to hear, while if this size is employed throughout the program, it will sound like dictating a story without accents to result in boring the listeners with a monotonous world of sound.

• Long size
In case of the picture, it is a wide size as overlooking the whole living room, or a person marginally recognizable in a great plain.

One of the elements that we should think about when we read the script is which size of sound to compose depending on the scenes and the situations in order for listeners to enjoy modulations and changes along with the story.
A boldly big close-up and a long shot may appear as an adventure.
However, by restructuring the entire script using the keywords of above-mentioned sizes of sound and modulations, you will be able to display the contents of what you perceive as "accent" out of your cummulative experience in a more concrete form of expression.
The word "accent" may attract a consent instantaneously, but does not provide any clue to proceed further. If your advice is only "think for yourself", there will be not progress gained. I will introduce a checkpoint below when I was in charge of a production, and it may be said that this is a summary of generalization derived of my cummulative experience in order to avoid any excuses and confessions.

The check points to measure if you did a good job on sound or not:

1. Use of sufficient frequency range from lows to highs?
This implication premises the generalization in which the sound goes stable if a stable, pyramid-type frequency structure is realized.

2. Dynamic range sufficiently used?
See if you added undulation, lenience and severity to your work covering widely from dim sound up to massive loudness.

3. Range of focuses from sharp and clear sound (pin-point focus) to blurry sound (out of focus) used?
By giving a multi-layer sound structure, you can construct a sound field with thickness and depth departing from a planar sound, and can evade from the superficial sound field with constant close-ups.

4. Variation of shots combined?
By setting the sound field from an extreme close-up shot to a very wide shot, uneven "accents" can be created.

5. Aggressive dialog miking employed?
Did you enable the sound with errand changes ranging from the mutter as if licking up the microphone to distant off-the-mike setting?
The following is, I believe, a very important point to discover the next challenge or to attempt generalization when you have finished an assignment and settled the mission as accomplished.
A. Have you done new attempts and challenges of your own?
B. Have you conveyed anything instructive to your assistant?
C. Have you offered the environment where all the staff including the director and the cast could comfortably perform?

If you do not rely on the Epicureanism for your job to go well somehow repeatedly, but stay course with the above-mentioned viewpoint in your job, each step will be the accumulation of your nutrition. Now, for the last but not the least, is a recent example.

Does the generalization for the surround design possibly exist?
In the surround music production scenes, various main miking methods are suggested inside and outside of the country that discuss the techniques applied to the main microphone for recording.
In Japan, "FUKADA-TREE" since 1998 and "HAMASAKI-SQUER" after 2000 are well known. On the other hand, the design approaches in the movie surround was interesting because they enjoyed a long history since 70's. I believed that it was 1999 when Mr. Graham, the chief engineer of British Pinewood Studio, gave a lecture on the surround design of the movie in IBS. I expected to hear some story about generalization of entire sound designs with surround because Europeans particularly from the U.K. are fond of the systematization, but it was not the case.
Then how about the sound designers in Hollywood, the capital of the movie, and I investigated, but here did not find any systematization efforts in particular, either.
I realized this later, but the world of movie business holds an extremely specialized society, and does not open many doors to newcomers.
It is because they are cautious with their jobs not to be violated easily. The tendency was that you get your know-hows built for yourself in the movie world, as it seemed.
As I ran surround mixes of drama productions since 1987 and from time to time when I found techniques which looked great I wrote them down in the script books, there were many patterns in my archives when I decided to organize them systematically in 1998. In addition, when I had time, I investigated the movies to gather the data about sound design, and also looked into music with approaches ranging from more live-oriented to avant-garde presentations, and I came up with 6+3 basic patterns to propose. Some of you may have already understood this, but if you classify various examples of your experience to lay them down under a certain rule, you will notice that the cues in your job will be easier to get and you can get to know the entire outlook of your job. Even though there may not be an eternal answer, I still recommend an effort to generalize what you have gathered in your job experience in this way.

In this section, I discussed the generalization of what you gain in experience of routine job. When it is read in a text, it appears as if the clue could be found quite plainly, but the driving energy to realize it is "the concentration of the mind". One of the directors whom I admire, Kenki Saegusa always talks earnestly about "the difference between an inspiration and a momentary art" when at work, and the important thing is the energy with which "one concerns about something with a continued concentration". Then almost suddenly but you will see the light that shows the way.
It could be in a bathtub, or while commuting, in a restroom, or anywhere, but it simply pops up when you concentrate on. Please experience this concentration that does not break off. You will surely find the generalization of your own.

2006.5 Broadcast technology

Part 6: The trigger to the surround sound field - dissatisfaction is a new dynamo! >>>

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