Audio in post

Audio post has gone through some significant changes over the years. Once upon a time, the technologies used to create video and audio were separate and distinct, and the process of marrying audio to a finished picture involved synchronization and format problems that could be harrowing. The maturation of digital recording and the market domination of ProTools have made the process more routine. But have the problems disappeared? Or, have they morphed into issues that make audio post production in 2011 as pressured an industry as it ever was?

The home studio revolution

For starters, let's consider the home studio revolution that fundamentally altered the way records — at least most of them, including major studio releases — are produced and recorded. The Alesis ADAT brought high-quality digital recording equipment into the price range of every working musician on the planet, or so it seemed. One by one, studios that relied on soup to nuts tracking and mixing to meet payroll began to struggle. Many, including a number of the most highly regarded facilities in the business, went under.

Audio post remained largely unaffected at first because multiple analog and digital formats (high priced for the most part) kept fighting with one another. When Avid purchased DigiDesign, the deal was essentially sealed, but it took another decade or so for things to shake out and for Pro Tools to climb the throne and declare itself the king of all recording formats for all applications, including audio post. Assured that the equipment they invested in would allow for seamless transitions from homes to major post facilities, audio post specialists began beefing up their project studios, just as their recording brethren had done a few years earlier.

Skills that don't come in a box

According to Ren Klyce, who mixed the music to “The Social Network” (for which composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won Oscars), major recording studios, like Plant Studios where Stevie Wonder once recorded, are closing down. He says the danger is that the next generation won't be aware of the possibilities that high-end recording studios bring.

Looking to work on the cheap can force producers into a corner as well. Klyce says some aspects of the process have gotten easier as the technology has developed, but that turning out a quality product involves a certain skill level that can't be put into a box.

Lawrence Manchester seconds what Klyce has to say about the relationship between budgetary pressure and the still developing state of digital recording technologies. Manchester has engineered scores for three Academy Award-winning films (“The Departed,” “Frida” and “The Red Violin”). He's also a music mixer for NBC's “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

He says the line between the prosumer and pro markets has muddied things up, and budget-conscious producers often hire inexperienced audio engineers, causing quality control to suffer.

It's one thing for a picture editor to use the audio tools that are packaged with Avid, Final Cut Pro or several of the other prominent picture editing software packages. Some of these products are very good, and high-quality music libraries are available on CDs and as downloads that make it very easy to match sound to picture. Some products — Sonicfire Pro 5 comes to mind — are available as plug-ins, and the best of them make it remarkably easy to tailor prerecorded music tracks to the needs of your video.

If your picture editor is picking music beds and cutting them to picture but by default becomes the final stop on the train, be careful. According to Manchester, the layback process has become a huge issue. For example, channels are misassigned or discarded altogether, particularly when a project has been mixed in 5.1.

As the industry moves down the road to an all-digital, 5.1 pathway, producers have to make some key choices. It's not much more expensive to mix in 5.1 than stereo. All of the major DAWs have routing matrices that handle the task routinely. The larger question involves the operator and how skilled he or she is at handling the creative and technical issues that multichannel formats present.

Sync issues still thrive

With the ascension of a single audio format (for the most part), you might have thought that synchronization issues were a thing of the past. They're not.

Klyce says filmmakers used to shoot on film, and audio was tracked on a separate tape machine. There were slates that let everyone throughout the process know the details of a scene. Today, people believe that digital solves all problems, and it doesn't. Sync issues can occur due to satellite, cable broadcasting and plasma screens, which introduce latency differently than other digital screens.

“Many young filmmakers are unaware of the fact that drift occurs in digital media. And there is what I call the ‘ProTools dilemma’ — the various pull up and pull down menus, sample rate conversions — all designed to fix problems that should have been sorted out prior to production,” Klyce says.

According to Manchester, sync problems are not going away. “Things get hairy in post production,” he says.

For example, a singer will perform over a prerecorded track, which is then played back on set during a film shoot. It's critical that the picture editor understands how to sync that audio to video. The editor should know the sample rate of the recording and at what speed it was played back on set. A major source of difficulty stems from of the fact that post production is all done in video formats even if the original material was shot on film.

Automation is a blessing, but it can be a curse for both video and audio editors. Along with the digitization of source material, it's led producers to believe that changes can be made up to the last minute. Young assistants are often tasked with conforming work “prints” (what an antiquated term!) and delivering them to audio specialists. This is often where sync problems arise.

The audio apprentice

The apprentice phase used to last longer, in large part because the technology was expensive and not many people had access to it at any one point. The democratization of audio and video technology has been a mixed bag; it's allowed more people to experience the creative process, but they climb into the arena with less training than ever before.

The lesson? If you're thinking about entering the audio post industry, do your homework. If you're a producer in the process of selecting an audio post house or independent professional to work with, make sure that person is on top of his game.

Gary Eskow is a composer and journalist who reports on the audio post industry.