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Tamas Dragon Posts

The anatomy of a score mix #3

By popular demand, let’s take a look at the plugins in the session. As you can imagine there’s plenty of different brands and types represented in this mix. I admit that sometimes I suffer from plugin fetish in a way that I fall in love with some and maybe use them many times, but try to actively control myself in this regard.

During the mix I have the luxury to use both AAX DSP and AAX Native plugins as I don’t need to overdub right into the supersession. If we need some additional recording then I prepare another rec session instead of dealing with this huge monster. It would not only be extremely hard to do everything in the supersession during recording but would put immense burden on the recording machine too.

Let’s see the plugins divided into different categories.

EQ

Probably the first one will raise some eyebrows, but I still use it and actually like it. It is very reliable even when you automate the hell out of it.

EQIII

Yes, the old built-in EQ in Pro Tools, available to anyone. It’s versatile, trusty and requires virtually no DSP or CPU power so if you can have zillions of instances.

Avid Channel Strip

This is also a very good choice, a huge plus is it maps on the control surface almost perfectly. Honestly I could mix a whole score only with this. Don’t get me wrong I still love some other EQs, but I’m happy to use this anytime.

BX console

It’s a beautiful Neve emulation and a very good one in fact. Even if I only use the equaliser part of it, I often have it at certain places just for the sound. This EQ always make me smile, it’s smooth and for the lack of a better term, it’s always musical sounding no matter what you do with it. I don’t use it for surgical stuff but for general ‘console’ EQ. Also maps great on the Avid S6.

Maag EQ 4

I really rarely say this, but this thing is magical. Although by today’s standard this is not a flexible tool as it doesn’t offer variable frequencies. But frankly, it is still one of my all time favourite tone shaping instrument. Even half a dB can make huge difference and the Air band is amazing.

Waves API 550

The 550 B and A also falls into the emulations category, and I confess I’m in love with them. For me, these pieces just works. It doesn’t matter what the application is, you can be sure about that if you insert an API on it, it’s going to sound awesome. It has fixed frequency bands, but the bands are overlapping so it is possible to achieve anything you want.

EMI TG 12345

Yes, I know, another vintage emulation… But believe me, they offer vastly different vibes and sound. These oldies are somewhat limited when it comes to features, especially when you compare them to the newcomers, but they still has some very special magic you can’t really achieve with the modern tools.

SSL EQ

I know this is a big fetish in some circles, and for a very good reason. This is for me a very liberating tool. Just insert it, twist the knob and enjoy the result. Not saying that I’m thinking too much when using any other EQ, but this one always makes me smile.

McDSP AE600 Active EQ

This is a very special one. As this masterpiece can be a spectacular EQ and a Dynamic EQ at the same time. I use it for cleaning up things and for general tone shaping. It also sits on all the stems. As much as I love vintage emulations, this EQ offers all the flexibility you’ll ever need. It has 6 fully overlapping fixed and active bands and you can choose from many different curves depending on your needs.

Well, believe it or not, that’s it, I’ve used these EQs during the score mix. I know many think that using these vintage emulations are useless because you can achieve the very same thing with a flexible and modern tool as are able to have many different curves. I won’t say that sometimes it’s impossible to almost or completely match the curve of a vintage EQ. But! And this BUT is bigger than you’d think. The main point here is to achieve what you want rapidly without overthinking and without loosing perspective. If you start to be an engineer with a white lab coat analysing and reproducing different special curves, you surely won’t have a great mix. This is the reason why we still love and use these emulations.

In my opinion during a mix the bottom line is to use any tool that helps you achieve the result you’re after. Different EQs leads to different results and mixing is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Use whatever you like, use it wisely and trust your ears.

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The anatomy of a score mix #2

In this second post I share the basic layout of my supersession. But first things first, let’s start from the beginning.

Basics

This film is in 5.1 so the music supersession is 5.1 too. As I’ve had a conversation with the re-recording mixer, he’s going to get 5 5.1 stems and one 5.1 fullmix.

  • String stem
  • Brass stem
  • Atmospheric stem
  • FX inst stem
  • Percussion stem
  • Full mix

I use the Centre channel sparingly constantly double-check that I’m not hurting the dialogue. As this is a modern hybrid score with lots of atmospheric and synth instruments, we agreed on that I’ll use the LFE for certain things where we think it has added value. The main point is, the score is complete without the LFE, it only adds weight at certain points.

If I feel I might have gone too far, after checking the temp dialogue and fx I received from the dub stage I ask about the specific scene, how likely my LFE would hurt anything. I’m a bit old-school in this regard as I sat in their chair a few times and I know exactly how hard it can be to decipher all the messy stems, music and effects when you end up with a constantly pumping LFE in the theatre. It’s really better to double-check and make sure you’re going in the right direction.

Up to this film score mix I’ve always used a dedicated LFE-maker per stem. Now I didn’t feel the need of it so I abandoned that approach in this case. Probably because the electronic part of the score was filled with pretty high quality samples and analogue instruments I didn’t have to generate anything, just had to treat what’s already been there.

Without sounding overly obsessed, one more thing about the use of LFE in a music mix. It’s dangerously easy to overdo it. Because as you start adding things into the LFE channel, you instantly feel the satisfaction as the additional powerful sub enhances the low-end of your mix. It’s not only sonics but also a real physical sensation as we’re talking about deep lows here. And we can’t deny the fact that it’s very, very entertaining. And this is the reason why it’s such a huge trap. It’s like a child in a candy store, really. So when I really use the LFE, I always double and triple check if I’m in the right ball park, and always have a coffee break before I print the stems for delivery. This is a kind of reality check which keeps me on the right path. I know in our industry it’s already a well known cliche, but it’s even more true here, less is more!

Colour coding and organising

Basically every stem has its own colour. This is the primary sign which helps me find everything rapidly. Generally I avoid using bright red colour because that is used on the record stems and fullmix so whenever I see bright red I know it’s a record channel.

Other than that there are really no rules here, except that every stem must have a unique colour. If you still need more separation, then use an inactive track to separate them. If I find I always searching for things in the session then I set up these separator tracks that always stay inactive and their only purpose is to guide my eye. It’s quite amazing how these small things can help and guide your brain and eyes so you’ll find things much easier and faster. Combining the separator tracks with vividly different colours are the best for me. Remember, your session will only grow as you delve deep in the mix so use whatever can help you to keep track of everything.

Use brighter or darker colours inside a stem to differentiate things. I try to follow my own rule of using one main colour throughout a stem, only varying the brightness of it. If the stem is huge with lots of tracks, then I might split up to two different main colours. The only really serious rule is to not mix colours between stems.

The reason for this is rooted deep in our brain. If you use kind of similar colours, your brain will automatically recognise things without searching through many tracks or reading the track name. If you mix colours through multiple stems then your brain loose track of things. The point is to find a system that works for you, and no matter how hard it seems to stick with it, you must to stick with it. You’ll thank yourself later. Remember, we’re talking about hundreds of tracks and in any given moment you must find certain elements in a huge mix in seconds to deal with them. It is not wizardry, but certainly requires preparation and diligence during the mix.

At last, I always leave the internal audio buses and stem fx tracks at the end of each stem. I’ve been doing this so long that even the stem fx tracks signal me the end of a complete section. Combining the colour coding, the separator tracks and the routine to have the effect tracks at the bottom of every stem I can quickly fly through 300-500 tracks without being lost.

Groups

I usually create groups to have certain kinds of instruments or sounds treated together. For example if I have eight kind of similar synth pads then I create a Edit-Mix group for them. This way I can adjust them in bundle, but it’s also very easy to adjust only one if needed. But once I have a pretty good internal balance, it’s rare that I need to adjust them absolutely in isolation from the others. If it happens, then I can grab two faders in the group so it temporarily let me adjust them separately, or I can quickly suspend the group to have them separated completely for the time being.

The other trick is to don’t use the globals but create your own rules for the group. For example controlling certain inserts or send together or have their panning controlled by the group. If you choose wisely this can save you tons of time.

This kind of grouping is a double edged sword. If you need to edit a lot, than you might consider using mix only group or make a separate edit group so you can selectively have the needed groups enabled. Obviously huge editing shouldn’t happen during the mix stage but honestly many times today you can’t eschew that. Since picture lock seems to be non-existent, the constant changes forces the composer and you to re-edit things to really fit the picture.

One thing I always do is to create a CUT group. That includes all the audio from all the stems, except the mockups, the dialogue and effects track, the video and the final prints. If I need to readjust-copy-move an entire cue for some reason, this group takes care of the process. Just be sure to really include all the necessary things but nothing more. Double-check it, otherwise you might get into trouble using this global group.

Marking the groups properly is another must do thing. All the edit groups start with capital E, all mix groups start with capital M. VCA groups get a small v prefix. For special things I usually create so called Temp groups. These can be anything from special group panning to similar plugin adjustment. If I know it’s not going to be an absolutely necessary group in the mix, I mark it TEMP before the name. Of course this is my system which works perfectly for me. You can use this, or make your own system. The point is, you need something that works for you. At the end you need something that is informative and easy to recognise.

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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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