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Tamas Dragon Posts

The anatomy of a score mix #1

As I’m completely snowed under with the current score mix I’m working on, I thought I share the anatomy of this mix. Have to break it into parts as I frankly have no functioning brain at the end of a long day.

Format

It might be different where you live, but here 5.1 is still the major format. Occasionally we encounter other formats, but that’s so rare I wouldn’t mention all of the possibilities. Immersive formats are far away things we only dream of, but never ever met. It might change in the future, but honestly in Europe I think there’s still only very few cinemas and dub stages offer true immersive workflow and experience. There’s some news that the biggest post houses started to upgrade their stages to be able to mix in Dolby Atmos or Barco’s Auro, but I don’t see it’s spreading that fast, so for the time being we seem to stick with 5.1.

It’s important to know your delivery format before you even start to build your mix session because it can lead you to very different bus and session layout that would be extremely hard to change during the mix. Wait, I mean it, really! Starting with an inappropriate format can ruin your work and drag you into an endless re-route, re-do, re-mix cycle. I know it seems like the most obvious thing, yet still so many fall into this trap.

Principles

It’s all about what to do and what not to do. The best is to eliminate any guesswork and have a discussion with the re-recording mixer. This is the only advice I can honestly give. Really. You can endlessly browse every audio forum, try to decipher anyone’s workflow, watch every tutorial videos on Earth and still, the only person who really knows the answer is the re-recording mixer. And to further confuse you, it might be different on every film. So this must be on your checklist.

What you need to know is: are you allowed to use the LFE for certain moments? How to treat the Centre channel? Leave it empty or use it sparingly? These are very important questions which can affect your final mix on the dub stage.

LFE stands for Low Frequency Effects, hence it’s not there to create ample lows for your orchestra. Treat it as a special thing. If you put everything in it, you have a good chance that it’s going to be muted, and for a good reason.

Almost the same with the Centre. This is where the dialogue is the king, period. If you happen to ruin their chances to clearly hear the dialogue, they will eliminate your Centre, again, for a good reason. In a film mix there’s tremendous amount of things they have to balance in order to achieve a nice, good sounding mix, don’t make their life harder, especially if you can make it easier.

This doesn’t mean that you should absolutely avoid using the Centre channel, but my advice is to make sure you’re not putting anything truly important Centre only. If unsure, consult the re-recording guy, even ask for some time on the stage to test your mix, but never ever rely on it as your main anchor.

Stems

Let me start with a common misconception. I’ve heard this numerous times and the misbelief is still very wide spread even amongst professionals. Here it is: “I don’t deliver stems, fullmix is my mix and they shouldn’t change that…

Well, stems are not there to alter your precious mix. Quite the opposite! They are there to preserve your mix as much as possible. Think about this example: you delivered only a fullmix, where a huge taiko drum hit just happen to be at the same spot as an explosion. What would the mixer do with this? Lower your music fullmix in order to carve space so that the explosion is clearly audible and have its intended impact. Now let’s see what happens if you deliver stems. Now they lower only your Percussion stem, which means most of your mix is left intact, only that taiko drum hit suffer, but given the circumstances, that’s understandable. Which is better? Obviously I’d choose the second one.

Delivering stems are the only way to make sure your mix will be preserved as much as possible. Also, this should be discussed with the re-recording mixer. How many stems does he/she want? Too many might put too much on their shoulder, too few or badly organised ones might cripple their chances to affect only the problematic areas.

Don’t forget, this is a collaborative vocation, it’s not about your ego, it’s about the film.

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Native or DSP

I always hear that native is the future. And honestly I think it’s true. But then many says we can throw out our DSP solutions because native is already has plenty of power, and it is in fact a better choice than any DSP solution available today. This is where I usually raise my eyebrows.

I know that post production and scoring is a somewhat special part of the industry, requires immense power, usually much more than a regular music or simple production. For example in scoring it’s a daily practice to deal with hundreds of tracks more often than not mixed in surround. Even without too many plugins, the size of the session is a huge burden on any machine. Just quickly add up for example 200 tracks divided into 5 stems, all with its own audio subgroups, own effects. To this you must add the final routing and the stem recorder tracks. This all have to work together without any issue. And imagine if you need to EQ a few things, want to use some dynamics processing, special effects, saturation, spatial effects. Oh, and don’t forget the last steps in the chain, the stem processing, which is essentially a high quality mastering chain in surround, and it’s usually the same on all stems.

So while I definitely think that native is the future, I don’t think that we are already there. Here’s a screen photo of the current score mix I’m working on, and it still lacks some material, so it’s going to be bigger.

This is a trashcan MacPro with Pro Tools HDX2. Imagine if all this would be on the MacPro, which is a very powerful machine by the way.

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Modularity

Some of you probably know that I work for a company where modularity and flexibility plays a huge role in our workdays. Few years ago when we decided to upgrade to Avid S6 controllers we had to find a viable solution to integrate them into our existing workflow. This also means we had to implement things that make changing from one workflow to another feels easy and can happen within a few minutes.

Our Studer systems has been updated and maintained for several years but for many reasons we felt that to remain future proof and to be able to serve the enormous amount of work we need better solutions, yet without abandoning the old one. We achieved this with special roll-over-car for the S6.

Here’s a video sped up to show how one person can change to S6 within five minutes. Five minutes including putting the S6 into position, connecting all the necessary cables and booting up Pro Tools and loading the session. The video is only a bit over one minute:

Avid S6 roll over the Studer system. from Tamas Dragon on Vimeo.

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First live gig of the year

As some of you know, I still do some live gigs beside the studio work. Although it is less and less year by year because I feel I need less night work and long travelling and night driving. And frankly many times I’m fed up with the constant high SPL too. Call this the natural process of getting older, I’d like to call it getting more focused on tasks that really matters to me on the long term.

Facts of life… live sound

We’re still in the club season here which means most gigs happen in smaller, and technically challenged clubs. Which mean one thing: compromise! Nothing new here, we all know that the whole live sound scene is saturated with compromise, in fact, most of the time it’s built upon it.

I think I’m quite well prepared for anything, but still, after many months in the studio with almost limitless possibilities it’s hard to accept the fact that suddenly many things are just as they are no matter what I do, I can’t control very important things even though these things seriously affect the outcome of the gig. Still, I have to be the one who convince the musicians that this is going to be great. In live sound you must be in a “I solve it all” superhero state in order to really tackle all the issues.

Sometimes even organising the stage so every instrument and musician have enough space to function is a challenge. And at this point I don’t even start to talk about monitoring. In the club season generally I insist on mixing the monitors myself as well as the FOH. I know the musicians pretty well, know their needs, what they like and how they like it. It’s easier. A bit more work but the comfort of knowing that it’s done properly is well worth the extra effort. You know, it’s like the headphone mix in the studio, if it’s bad, the performance will suffer. The same goes here, they must feel comfortable on stage or else the whole show is going to be a fight for their life, which inevitably degrades the performance.

The best would be to go on tour with our own console. That would make sound checks easy, monitor mix a breeze and generally it is the only way to remain sane during a long tour. But with these small club gigs it’s nearly impossible to do this. So, the wisest thing is to get all the information prior to the show and start ferociously read some manuals if you don’t already know the console. The console is going to be a small one, so be prepared to know some tricky workaround to achieve what you want. Never assume that everything will work just fine for the first time.

One advice to keep you calm and sane. It might sound ridiculous, but you have to take care of yourself. Eat and drink! Stay hydrated and grab a coffee if you feel you’re getting dull. It sounds as the most obvious things in life, but if you don’t eat and drink, you’re going to loose focus, might lost your temper and you’re going to make more mistakes. This is natural though, your body just sending you signals that you haven’t had a sip of water for hours for example. That’s not normal, it’s a live concert, nobody’s going to die, relax. And the band needs you in top form prior and during the show so the best thing you can do is to keep yourself sane.

What happened that night

Brought 3 in-ears with me so that who really can’t perform without proper monitoring will have my mixes. The club has a small analogue Midas console with 6 auxes (that’s all for monitors and send effects), two channels of gate and two channels of compression, two effects, one hall and one delay.

I used most auxes for monitors so I decided to have a hall effect that night. One gate was inserted on the kick channel while the other worked on the floor tom. Even before the full soundcheck I realised that gain before feedback was going to be a serious issue here so I patched the compressor into a subgroup. The plan was to use it as an emergency bus for vocals if things gets too loud and I can’t push them through the band. Suffice to say this kind of a parallel compressed emergency bus saved the show.

The channel list:

  1. kick
  2. sn top
  3. sn bottom
  4. hihat
  5. floor tom
  6. oh l
  7. oh r
  8. spds di
  9. bass di
  10. sub phatty
  11. dave smith samp
  12. nord left
  13. nord right
  14. moogV l
  15. moofV r
  16. gtr 1
  17. gtr2
  18. ac gtr
  19. mpc
  20. bvoc
  21. mainvoc

During the setup it came to light that they don’t have enough Direct Boxes so I had to cut some channels. Being a club I decided to get the Moog and the Nord in mono, keep only the snare top mic and loose one overhead. With these I managed to fit on the console.

The other nasty surprise for me was the quasi parametric EQ. Not that I’m a snob who only works with thousand bands in Fabfilter’s ProQ2, but really, on a small stage, in a small club where not only the PA system but the room also has serious issues a full parametric would’ve been a more appropriate tool.

Having so few dynamic processors, no full blown EQ, less channels and a bit shoddy PA the night turned out to be a success and honestly I didn’t felt myself bad during the show. I kept a positive attitude to really make the most out of this situation and I think with the help and attitude of the musicians we managed to do a really great show.

Few tips

At the end of this I’d like to offer a few tips. These are not dogmas, rather small tried and tested things and ideas which might help you one day to overcome some obstacles at a gig.

First: maintain a positive attitude, always search for the solution, everybody knows what is the problem, no one need another smart guy who emphasise that

Second: sacrifice anything for the performance. For example I had some instruments sound as they love it. I didn’t really like it that way and it didn’t sound great on the PA, but they were happy with their monitors and believe me, the audience couldn’t care less about your perfect guitar EQ shape.

Third: communicate. Even if some musician insist on having things in a certain way, if you’re honest and frank, and most importantly involve them in the decision making, they tend to agree with the compromised version. Don’t act like the holy grail of knowledge, ask their opinion and really consider it, they might surprise you with a very good solution.

Fourth: do everything in your power to make their monitor mixes perfect. Obviously as perfect as it is possible under the given circumstances. That really helps the show, your endless PA tweaking might not so much (although that could be important too)

Fifth: Try to enjoy and have perspective. Accept that this time you are not at the Royal Albert Hall. Do whatever you can to make the best out of the situation and enjoy.

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From fragile ideas to a film score

I’m a huge fan of Jóhann Jóhannsson. I think he is one the true composers who not only understand what a score should do, but able to capture the essence of the film so deeply that the music really convey emotional content. Without his music those films would loose their magic. It’s great to see how a fragile idea become the part of the score, how he still curiously experiment with different thoughts and ideas. A sneak peak into the process:

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