Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Just When You Thought You Were Finished....

Have you ever watched a Star Wars movie without sound? Better yet, have you listened to a Star Wars movie without the picture? Neither experience is any fun. You also don’t get the full picture (pun intended). Now, translate that to a music video. Audio and video need as equal attention. To sacrifice one or slough one off as “good enough” does not serve justice to the other. I was fortunate enough to work with a production company that sought quality from both their audio and video teams. As a whole, we work well together. While the video team lacks expert audio knowledge, I am certainly not qualified to work the magic they do.

I’ve mentioned before the Leftover Salmon DVD I had been mixing. A couple weeks ago I spent the day with David Glasser at Airshow Mastering in Boulder mastering the final mixes for the project. Getting to listen to your work in another environment as incredible and his was a real treat. Even more uplifting were Mr. Glasser’s comments that he liked my mixes and noted he wasn’t changing them much at all. That’s praise coming from an award-winning mastering engineer.

Once the mastered mixes were finalized, both the surround and stereo versions were taken to the video production company and re-synched with the video. From there the authoring specialist worked his magic. He produced some reference DVD’s to verify everything was in order.

On Tuesday last week I had just arrived in San Diego when I received the call the reference DVD’s were ready. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be back for a week, so I had to decline my copy until I returned. David Glasser was kind enough to check it out and kept me in the loop. He discovered that while the surround mix was fine, the stereo mix was in mono! In their haste to complete the project, the video team had neglected to pan the left and right channels. Ooops! I’m glad David was thorough in his listening.

To add to the drama, I got a call Wednesday evening from the executive producers. Their mood was severely grim. They didn’t like my mixes. They thought the mandolin/electric guitar was too quiet and the keyboards too loud. Remembering these were panned opposite (hard left and right respectively), I asked if they had listened to the mixes on more than one system. They hadn’t. They had listened once through a Bose system in the living room of one producer.* I proposed they listen on another system and verify their results. I received an email later that evening with an attached list of each song, time stamps and suggestions for fixing the mixes. Some suggestions were as much as 3dB!

I did mention I was out of town, right? I wasn’t in a position to fix anything. Moreover, after authoring has taken place is not the time to make mixing alterations. It costs $1,000 every time a change is made to the authored DVD master.

Da, dada, daa! David Glasser to the rescue! He invited the producers to come and listen on his system the next day. They listened to both the reference DVD and mastering session. To the producer’s chagrin, everything sounded fine.

Understandably, they were concerned. They honestly thought what they were hearing was accurate. As engineers, we make all of our decisions based on what we hear. That’s why it’s imperative to have a good listening environment. If you need to bring a boom box to a studio or listen on laptop speakers, go for it. However, it is not wise to make mixing decisions based on laptop speakers. They just aren’t that accurate.

Since the producers were concerned, I was a little concerned. One of them is a talented live sound engineer. I trust his ear. To have him say he didn’t like my mix was little blow to my ego. But, I noticed the consistent remarks and remembered how I had panned each instrument. Additionally, if the mix was off by that much, a mastering engineer of Mr. Glasser’s caliber would have certainly picked up on it. I deferred judgment on myself until I had more evidence.

Happily, it turned out well. No further mixing required and everyone is happy. I think the experience was educational for everyone involved, including myself. It helps to keep a level head and think things through clearly and rationally. Thankfully, we have a team that agrees with that philosophy. The DVD has been corrected and is in production. Whew! Now I can let that little piece go.

I would also like to reiterate that audio and video people need to work together. None of us exist in a vacuum. There’s a little cultural phenom out in the world where audio and video people think they’re better than the other. A little animosity and ignorance created this rift. The fact is, we need each other. The technology is so complex now that not one person can master both disciplines. I sometimes have a hard time remembering key commands for my audio programs.

Can’t we all just get along?

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

* Let me rant a little on Bose. I dislike their products. They might be a fine company, but their products leave a lot to be desired. I’m further irritated by their successful campaign in convincing the masses that their products are superior. I think most audio engineers would agree with me on this.

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