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Creating Monster Vocals with Voxpat

People often ask us why we choose to work in such a niche market, sound for animation, and for us, the answer is simple.  Live-action sound design has its own challenges and rewards, but more often than not, you’re recreating the sounds of the real world.  While working in the animated realm, week after week we get to work inside imagined worlds, create sounds for unknown creatures, and image futuristic technology conceived in the minds of the world’s most fantastic artists.  These new worlds give us the opportunity to use ever-evolving sound design techniques to breathe life into them.

We found such a technique when the software developers from Digital Brain Instruments approached us with the opportunity to create new presets for their stand-alone application, Voxpat, which is a sound design tool for creating monsters, creatures, and robot vocals.

The Software

In the past we’ve used our usual suite of plugins as well as Dehumanizer for this task, so we were interested to try out a new creative avenue.  It turns out that Voxpat is a sound designer’s dream if a slightly complex one.  It combines all of the different vocal processing plugins you might want to use into one massively powerful application: convolution, sample player, ring modulation, harmonizer, FM synthesis, spectral pitch shifting, delays.  And the list goes on, and on, and on.

This plethora of sound design tools all packed into one application means that you need to read the manual to use it to its full potential.  But, once you do, the sky is the limit in what this application can do.  What Voxpat lacks in intuitiveness (and it is somewhat lacking here), it certainly makes up for with power.

Recording the Samples

This month, we used our creative team meeting to have a mini masterclass on how to use Voxpat.  Then we opened up a mic to record raw new monster vocals to use for processing. The team had a blast coming up with interesting types of creatures so that we could play with the full harmonic spectrum in Voxpat.  We recorded ourselves as a screeching monster, a giant serpent, an ogre, and even a gargle monster (our intern almost choked, but we assured her it was worth it. Anything for a great sound!).

 

 

Eric and Tess applaud Jessey for her awesome squealing alien sounds. Here are a few of the raw samples:

 

You can listen to their samples

Creating New Voxpat Presets

You can download a demo version of Voxpat here, and check out the Boom Box Post preset pack.

 

Creative Self-Marketing Ideas for the Audio Professional

As studio owners, Jeff and I get tons of requests for advice regarding how audio professionals can either kick start or amp up their careers. In an industry that doesn’t necessarily post jobs on a website, use recruiters, or have a standard interviewing process, how are talented creative people supposed to get their foot in the door? There are so many different ways to answer these questions, but at least one large chunk of this is personal marketing.

I read a lot in my spare time, and I love to get my brain working with business books of all kinds. Unfortunately, I’ve found personal marketing books tend to be, in my opinion, relatively useless for those of us in the sound field. They seem to be full of tips either so obvious that they’re painful (Make a website! Write an amazing resume!) or filled to the brim with antiquated business advice (Make sure you have professional business cards!).

So, I thought that I would put together a few interesting ideas that I’ve seen people use to creatively market themselves in the field of audio. Here they are!

Offer to write member interviews for your industry guild’s publication.

I know a mixer who did this years ago when she still lived on the east coast and was attempting to jump-start her career. She interviewed tons of top mixers in a thoughtful and engaging way. Then, when she decided to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles, she already had a bevy of contacts who had personally interacted with her. She never would have gotten to know all of those top industry professionals if she hadn’t volunteered her time for her industry magazine. To this day, whenever I’ve heard her name mentioned in passing, everyone is always quick to say, “Oh, you know her, too? Everyone knows so-and-so! She’s so amazing!” She put in the hard work upfront and it paid out tenfold in the long run.

Offer to write articles for an online professional magazine.

In this case, you can really present yourself as an industry influencer and/or technical expert. I mean, how amazing would it be if a potential employer googled your name, and fifteen plugin reviews from a top online audio magazine came up with your headshot and byline? You would definitely appear to be a cut above the rest. This is a great way to absolutely crush your SEO. If you go this route, you may want to prepare a spec piece to give them a sample of the kinds of things you would like to produce. Also (added bonus!), don’t be surprised if writing interesting product reviews also results in offers to try out new plugins for free! This is a great way to build your audio arsenal and your online brand.

Engage with your community on social media.

Follow sound professionals you admire on Twitter and comment on their tweets. Join some audio Facebook pages (I love Game Audio Denizens, Sound Girls Private, and Professional Freelance Sound Mixers) and comment on posts. Like your favorite studios’ Instagram pics. People love to feel connected, and it’s easier than you might imagine to feel like you “know” someone after you’ve interacted a few times on social media. This is the virtual version of hanging out in the right room. If you’re there long enough and you make your presence known (in a non-annoying way), you will inherently be seen as belonging. I would caution you to start small with commenting and liking, then move on to posting when you’re more confident. Definitely, don’t just jump in and post every day. That’s like crashing a wedding and then hopping on stage to give a speech.

Volunteer at a non-profit that involves your prospective clients or co-workers.

I’m a member of the non-profit group Women in Animation whose mission is to advance women in the field of animation. Their current goal is to reach 50/50 (men-to-women ratio) by the year 2020, which is absolutely amazing! You might ask why I’m into Women in Animation rather than SoundGirls, which has a similar goal but for the audio field. I’m actually in both, but the distinction is extremely important: I’m involved in the animation group for my personal/business marketing and the sound group for my own enjoyment.

That’s because when your aim is personal marketing, you want to put yourself in the “right room.” And that means a room with the people who can get you work, which is very different than a room filled with your peers. Boom Box Post does sound for animation, and we’re hired by animation studios. So that means that the main place I need to network is with animation professionals. For freelance sound editors, that might mean going to guild events to connect with new supervising sound editors. For mixers, it might mean attending a charity golf tournament sponsored by the post department of one of the big studios. The most important thing is to write down the top three people/job titles that could help you to find work, and then brainstorm places that those people might be.

Start your own professional networking group.

I know a few people who have done this. This can mean putting together speakers for a quarterly professional panel discussion, or maybe just setting up drinks at a local bar for like-minded audio professionals.  Whatever it is, you can put yourself on the map and meet a lot of amazing people along the way. If you’re facilitating networking and/or learning opportunities for others, chances are that one day they will want to reciprocate the investment you made and help you out. Plus, you’ll get to have a fantastic time along the way!

Start a Lunch & Learn club.

Jeff and I came up with the idea of holding monthly “Lunch and Learn” sessions a few years back, and we’ve been blogging about it ever since! Every month, we get our team together for lunch, and then one person gives a demonstration of anything at all at which they consider themselves an expert. This can mean using a certain plugin, cutting a slo-mo sequence properly, using Soundminer to the max, etc. It’s a great way to keep everyone both learning and teaching, and also gives the team a go-to person should they ever have questions on the topic in the future.

Since beginning to blog about this, we’ve had numerous people tell us that they’ve started their own Lunch and Learn at work. We absolutely love this! Keep the good karma going and share your knowledge.  Lunch and Learns not only show everyone involved in the best light as creative professionals, but they also give everyone a chance to invest their time and energy in helping those around them. And an investment in others is always something that can pay dividends down the line when those same people are in a place to hire you, recommend you, or even just walk your dog when you’re on vacation!

Start a virtual freelancers club.

If I had to guess, I would say that the number one group of people Googling “self-marketing” are freelancers. It’s hard to know where to start in making connections and positioning yourself correctly for a fab career in the future when you work from home and rarely interact with others. If you don’t get a lot of time with peers, starting a freelancers club is a great jumping-off point in marketing yourself!

For most professions, a freelancers club usually means meeting up once a week with other freelancers at someone’s home or a coffee shop and working in the same space so that you can be a little more accountable regarding how you spend your time and also get to feel like you have co-workers. Obviously, the need for a desk full of audio gear doesn’t exactly make this practical, at least in its usual incarnation.

But, I love the idea of starting a Slack channel or using other e-workplace software to create a virtual freelancers’ club. We all need other people to bounce ideas off of, get tech support from, bullshit with, and (most importantly) share stupid .gifs about things like our bad lunch habits and Golden Girls obsession. So go ahead a get e-out there! Having a set small group that you always interact with will make your workday much more enjoyable, eventful, and help you to bond with others who could help to vouch for you in the future.

Designing Signature Sounds


The Project

I recently had the pleasure of creating signature elements for a new animated series which will likely air near the end of 2019.  We were brought into the process at a very early stage, the first animatic, which was incredibly exciting. If you aren’t already aware, in animation, an animatic is essentially a video of storyboard panels timed to work with the recorded dialogue and then exported as a video.  An animatic is a very thorough blueprint for the animation studio to follow. Adding sound design to an animatic can do a number of things: it can bring the animatic to life for the animation studio which allows them to better understand how to animate important moments. It can help executives to better understand the action when reviewing the animatic for approval. And it can establish signature elements early on so that the sound can help to inform the animators’ creative concept for the series.  Having clients who appreciate the importance of bringing the sound team into the mix (pun intended!) early on is a wonderful thing for us here at Boom Box Post! So cheer to all of our amazing clients!


The Process

Step 1: Brainstorm about an Overall Aesthetic

The key elements of the series are birds and babies (sorry to be cryptic about the premise, but it’s too early to share too much about this project!). My mind immediately started churning about how to incorporate these in a way that would be nuanced and special.  When designing sounds for a new project, it’s also important to consider the audience. This series is geared toward preschool-aged children. So I also wanted to create a soundscape that would be friendly and familiar to viewers in that age group.

First, I decided to make all of the items in this animated world sound like they are made out of materials familiar to preschool kids.  This would involve recording a ton of children’s toys to really let these textures shine through in the mix. The set locations look high tech and designing in that aesthetic is always fun. But isn’t it much more fun to design a baby’s take on tech?  Now that would be a challenge.  Second, I decided to incorporate the bird aspect of the series by creating new sci-fi sound effects for all of the tech elements by processing bird calls.  I didn’t want the bird calls to be in your face. After all, it doesn’t take much creativity to just throw a bunch of hawk calls on everything. But, folding them into my tech builds sounded like a fun challenge that would result in a truly unique signature sound aesthetic for the entire series.

Step 2: Decide which elements should be stand-out signature designs.

I consider anything that will clearly appear in a series again and again to be signature.  And so, even if it’s a mundane item, to me it’s an opportunity to add a little special flavor.  You might think it’s a waste of time to create special door open sound effects or record all-new hand grabs. But creating a new palette from scratch for all reusable elements can ensure not just stand-out sound design moments but an overall signature aesthetic for an entire series.

For this series, I decided that the sounds for all of the things in the main location should be signature: all doors, all grabs of items and furniture, all mechanical elements, etc.  Basically, anything that will clearly be seen again and again needed to be custom.

Step 3: Create a Custom Recording List

When I’m creating a recording list, I like to brainstorm things to record which might add to the overall aesthetic I’m trying to achieve while keeping in mind what I need to cover.  Sometimes, if you map out exactly what to record for each signature element, you close off your brain to considering other options during the process. Think about the general aesthetic you would like to achieve and come up with items that you think may help to achieve that aesthetic–whether you think you’ll use them now or they may just be handy to have in the future.

Here was my list.  Notice that I’m focusing on what I want to hear and not marrying myself to specific items just yet:

  1. Toy ratchet
  2. Toy click into place
  3. Different plastic items for grabs
  4. Toy rolling
  5. A toy which “pops” or “thunks”

Step 4: Browse for Items to Record

I took this list to a local children’s consignment store and roamed the aisles looking for interesting items and listening to how they sounded.  I chose a consignment store because it was cheaper, but also because the toys were not in their original packaging, so I was free to test them out.  Often browsing for things to record is best done in your own home or a friend’s closet for this very reason. Keep in mind that the best recordings are made from items which are different from what you actually see on screen. You want to achieve a certain texture, a certain sound, a certain feel. You don’t want to just record the exact thing you see in the picture.  Think about how an old loose doorknob is often used for gun foley or a piece of celery is broken for a good bone crunch. When choosing items to record, shut off the visual part of your brain that’s telling you to go for the obvious, and start listening to everyday items with your creative hat on. Evaluate each item solely on its ability to give you the sound properties you’ve already brainstormed in the above list.

Step 5: Record new sounds

Step 6: Edit your recordings to work with the picture.

Once you’ve recorded all of your new (or old) props, bring everything into your DAW and start playing.  Often I find that elements I recorded in hopes of covering a certain signature element actually work best for something else.  Don’t be afraid to play around and try new things. Use the clean recordings, process them to the point that they are unrecognizable, or mix them together with sounds from your library.  In this step, you are the sonic painter. Give yourself the creative freedom to use your full palette and don’t be afraid to make a mess. That’s how the best discoveries are made!

Step 7: Collaborate with your clients.

Sound is never a job that’s pursued in a vacuum.  We’re part of a larger project team, and most often that project is the creative property of someone else.  Once you’ve come up with your most alluring signature sounds, share them with your clients and let the collaboration ensue.  It’s incredibly important to realize that the creative process doesn’t end with you: it’s easy to think that your signature sounds are the best they can be when you’ve finished designing.  In fact, I find that they often get even better when I present them to the clients and they offer tiny tweaks and new creative insights. Sometimes muting one element or incorporating something else that you never even considered is the key ingredient to the perfect sound.


The Sounds

Here are a few of the original recordings I made with the help of our intern, Sam, and the signature elements that I designed using those recordings.  The recordings and designs may sound simple, but remember that signature sounds compound with each other in order to create an often nuanced and distinguishable scape for the series as a whole.  It’s the totality of all of your creative ideas that form an overall new and exciting aural aesthetic.

 

SoundGirls at Mix Sound for Film

Every year in the fall Mix Magazine presents a Sound For Film and TV conference.  Hosted at Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, California, it is a congruence of the many different facets of film and television sound.  This year SoundGirls had a good showing, there was an energetic group of volunteers that braved the morning rain to register and greet the attendees. SoundGirls were attendees and even presenters.

New member Kristina Morss was excited about the wide variety of panels.  She lamented that the Animation and First Man panels were at the same time, which meant she could not go to both.  Coming from a video editing background, Kristina wanted to learn more about the sound side of post-production.  She had heard of the event from the Soundworks Collection, which also records some of the panels and hosts them on their website.

I too struggled to narrow my itinerary. Beginning with the keynote Scott Gershin, who focused on the possibilities of immersive sound, I made sure to see a sampler of different sound niches.  The Parade of Carts presented by Cinema Audio Society is always a must-see for me because each Mixer’s cart is a master class in problem-solving on set.

Parade of Carts

At the Animation Panel presented by Motion Picture Sound Editors panelist Eileen Horta promoted being bold, while she and the other panelists warned the differences between animation and live action.

Karol Urban moderated the Mixing Dialog: Audio Pipeline Panel, which followed the dialog process from location recording to final mix. You can listen to the panel Karol moderated here

To round off my day I attended the Future is Female Panel. This was the only panel with only women presenters, but that was not the focus of the talk. Each panelist is a respected composer in the industry, and each one presented a sample of their work and an explanation of their creative process.  Other panels that I missed included Composing for Video-games, The Sound of A Star is Born, Ambisonic Recording, and hands-on Dolby Atmos demonstrations.

Future is Female Panel

At the cocktail hour, there was finally time for networking.  Breakfast and lunch held similar opportunities but within a shorter time frame.  It was in these brief moments that I connected with another new SoundGirl Julie Keller, a former choreographer who is pursuing her new love of sound editing.  She told me about the panel on The Sound and Music of Black Panther, and how the design balanced between the cultural (African drums) and the futuristic. Afterward, I went to the local SoundGirls meeting and met even more amazing people in the industry.

This was my third time attending the Sound For Film and TV conference, and it keeps getting better.  The panels and talks are always insightful, and they cover many aspects of sound for film. I feel that there is almost not enough time to see all of the panels I was interested in, and there’s a lack of networking time.  I would also like to see more booths and vendors. Overall, however, I just want to see this event continue and grow. Let’s get more SoundGirls there next year!

Editors’ note: Althought SoundGirls was not involved with Mix for Film & TV Sound, we hosted an event at Sony Studios in September. You can view our panel discussion here. Moderated by Anne Marie Slack – Panelists: Karol Urban, Kate Finan, Onnalee Blank, and April Tucker


 

Career Paths in Film and TV – Highlights

“It’s ok to be wherever you are in your career. There’s no “right” way to get to certain jobs.”

SoundGirls recently held an event on Career Paths in Film and TV Sound at Sony Studios in Los Angeles. The main theme of the night was how to get past the early hurdles of a career – whether it’s trying to get started in post-production or how to build a career when you’re not where you want to be yet. The panelists were Karol Urban, Onnalee Blank, Kate Finan, and April Tucker. Anne-Marie Slack moderated the discussion.

Each of the panelists had different experiences and paths how they got to their current day careers. What was interesting is there were a lot of similarities in the lessons they learned along the way and their philosophies about work and the industry.

Onnalee used persistence and creativity to land her job on Game of Thrones.

Karol talked about the power of networking to find work. When Karol came to LA, she met with people she had connected with before she moved. Volunteering with the Cinema Audio Society helped her meet professionals she might not have had access to otherwise.

Kate talked about the importance of having experience at a professional studio for someone in the field today. There’s a lot of opportunities to work on your own (and value to learning on your own), but there are other skills needed in a studio environment. When you’re self-trained, it can be harder to adapt to the technical needs of a studio, to workflows, or even know studio etiquette.

Anne (who co-owned a post-production studio for almost a decade) said it’s good to show job history for an entry level position even if it’s not audio-related. Even if you’ve worked at Starbucks, it shows you have the work ethic and experience of working with a company.

April talked about the importance of taking jobs with good learning opportunities even if it’s not exactly on the path you want to go. April’s first studio job was assistant scheduler which allowed her to work up to machine room operator, ADR & Foley engineer, sound editor, and mixer.

The audience had a lot of questions about specific career choices, but there was a common thread: What can I do to get where I want to go with my career? The panel all talked about the importance of making connections – to get to know people and ask for advice or guidance (versus asking for work). Onnalee suggested looking for companies with a reputation for supporting women. Kate said she started her business in part because she wanted to work with and help support women in the field.

One takeaway we heard from a number of women in attendance was that it’s ok to be wherever you are in your career. There’s no “right” way to get to certain jobs. An audience member asked a great question: “What do you need to do differently now to get started than when you all got in the field?” It’s no longer about working at a prestigious facility or a major studio. You can work on great content or get credit on a show or movie that turns out to be popular or win awards. It’s always in hindsight that you can see the path.

SoundGirls would like to thank our panel:

Anne-Marie Slack, Executive of Organization Services for Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE)

Karol Urban, CAS, MPSE – Re-Recording Mixer

Onnalee Blank, CAS – Re-Recording Mixer, Formosa Group

Kate Finan, MPSE – Supervising sound editor and co-owner, Boom Box Post

April Tucker, CAS – Re-recording Mixer

We’d also like to thank Sony, Tom McCarthy, Timothy Kuzniar, Lane Burch, Gredel Berrios, Steve Urban, Jett Galindo and Jaymes Quirino of the Bakery, Bill Dannevik for filming, and our volunteers.

 

Why We Don’t Use Buss Compression

Buss compression (or mix buss compression) is a hot topic. It’s taught in audio schools, videos and tutorials, mentioned in textbooks, blogs, forums, and podcasts. For such a covered topic we rarely hear about why or when it SHOULDN’T be used.

Film/tv mixer April’s philosophy

I quit doing mix buss compression years ago for a single logistical reason: Most film and television work requires delivery of mixes and stems (dialog, music, fx, voice-over). If someone needs to edit between the mix and stems for whatever reason, it has to be seamless (other than needing a limiter on the master and maybe a small crossfade). These stems go on to have a lot of uses – foreign versions, promos, advertising, conforms/changes like airline or television versions.

Most of the music I mix is for film or tv which is a similar scenario. Music is delivered (to the mix stage) as a mix and stems of similar tracks summed together (such as vocals, strings, piano, guitars, percussion, pitched percussion, lead instruments, etc. ). Stems exist to repurpose music, also. For example, composed music may get reused in different episodes of a series but versions of different lengths. It’s easier to re-edit a music cue with stems because your reverb decays are clean, vocals are isolated from the mix, percussion is separated, etc.

I recommend anyone who mixes music to work with stems in mind. Even if a band is just making an album and not thinking about licensing or placement opportunities, it’s a simple step that will prevent major headaches and expenses down the road. If it’s time-sensitive and you can’t deliver what is needed it could mean the opportunity – and the money – goes to someone else. Twice I’ve had songwriters I recorded/mixed songs for ask for stems TEN years later because a song was placed in a film. In the digital world, there’s no guarantee your session will open, audio files won’t be missing, and plugins recalled correctly when that much time has passed (just look at .sd2 – a format that was standard at one time but won’t even open in Protools today). I now archive stems for everything I work on.

When do I use buss compression? When it has a clear purpose. Sometimes there’s a specific sound I’m looking for in a stem that can only be created with buss compression (compressing a drum kit is a good example). Sometimes I use it to help speed up dialog mixing (in instances with tight turnaround times). Buss compression can help with dialog intelligibility, too, so I might use it on an interview stem or for a news piece. In some cases, buss compression helps with DSP usage or simplifying plugins and automation – like bussing all your background vocals to an aux with processing versus a plugin on each individual channel.

On the occasions, I do use buss compression or processing I set it at the beginning of the mix, and once I’m working, I generally don’t tweak again. This is partly due to gain staging – when you make compressor adjustments it can affect the output level which triggers the buss compressor differently which means further adjusting. Compressors only get a sound in the ballpark – it takes volume automation/fader riding for nuance. It’s taken a lot of mixing with buss compression settings I don’t like to figure out what I do like.  It may seem counterintuitive to finish a mix with something that isn’t working but sometimes making a minor adjustment to a buss compressor causes as many problems as it solves. That’s one of the hardest parts of mixing – to know when to leave it be!


Music mixer Ryan Tucker shares this philosophy

After fighting with stereo buss compression for many years, I’ve mostly abandoned the practice altogether. Now, I tend to subgroup as much as possible so that my entire mix is limited to a handful of stereo faders. I often compress each with the most appropriate buss compressor and settings for that sound rather than leave all the heavy lifting to a final stereo buss compressor. This gives me more dynamic control and a more transparent compressed mix then would be achievable with only a stereo buss compressor.

Further complications with stereo buss compression present themselves when you decide to add the compressor to an already leveled mix. Compressing the stereo buss after getting the levels will completely change the mix you just spent so long tweaking thus requiring you to remix your levels into the buss compressor you just added. It is much harder to do a mix then compress it rather than to mix into the buss compressor from the beginning. Even then if you make an effort to begin buss compressing early on you may have to readjust the compressor settings to meet the requirements of any new tracks inserted. You may find that the rhythm section sounds great into the buss compressor until you’ve added all tracks and drastically increased your RMS level. And so it goes, on and on, a constant battle. Like a bowl of jello, push one end and the whole things moves around and jiggles. Better to do your dynamic reduction on individual musical parts than leave it all to the buss compressor.

On top of all the aforementioned complexities, one can’t just put any old compressor (hardware or plugin) on the mix buss! Most lack the necessary features to treat the stereo buss appropriately. For example, buss compression (or really any stereo compressor) must be very sensitive to the stereo image of the instrument or mix. Some stereo compressors reduce stereo image, create imaging unbalanced to one side or the other, or pump every time the kick or bass hits.

There are different ways designers address this. Many stereo compressor plugins implement stereo difference detection and MS techniques to avoid image steering. In addition, many implement filtering in the sidechain to reduce the low-end influence over the gain reduction circuit. This is what prevents your kick (center of the stereo field) from pumping the wide panned guitars, reverbs or whatever content is found in the sides of the stereo field. Shadow Hills Mastering compressor implements stereo difference detection along with providing a side chain high pass filter. Fairchild 670 is a little more blunt in giving the user control over center image and sides by implementing a mid-side matrix. Channel 1 becomes center image compressor while channel 2 compresses only the sides of the stereo image. This implementation requires a little more user understanding and responsibility to get things compressing correctly.

Either way, a stereo compressor may or may not call out that this implementation is taking place or how they are doing it – that it sums the side chain signals rather than just triggering off the L or R side, or the loudest side, or a sum of the sides; that gain reduction focuses on the peak or the average signal levels; that the rate of gain change is fast (ex: VCA style) or slow (ex: El-Op style); that non-user accessible filtering or EQ bumps are in the sidechain; that internally program dependant release switching is occurring, etc, etc. Just as one can’t judge a book by its cover, one shouldn’t judge a compressor by its interface.

Buss compressors exist because tracking compressors aren’t very good at compressing a mix. So, if you’re going to use buss compression, make sure it is specifically designed to be a buss compressor and to operate on stereo signals appropriately. Keep in mind, people selling compressors would rather sell two monos then just one stereo. Even though they say “Sure – side-chain two of our mono compressors on your buss”, you definitely need to take into consideration whether you should use it on your buss or whether you should do some research and find an appropriately designed unit to serve all your master buss needs.

In summary, after all of this discovery, I personally decided to move my dynamic reduction downstream, off the mix buss and onto my tracks and stems. If I use stereo buss compression at all it’s only musically reducing about 2-4 dB of gain at most, and is really just meant to glue the movement of the tracks together into a unified stereo program.


Ryan Tucker: Ryan is the owner of TuckerMix a custom music mixing service for independent artists, composers, producers, and labels. In addition to mixing music, he has served many world-class music-audio companies in software and hardware product development.

April Tucker: April is a Los Angeles-based re-recording mixer and sound editor who works in television, film, and new media. She holds both a Master’s Degree and a Bachelor’s Degree in Music/Sound Recording. April enjoys doing educational outreach such as writing for industry blogs, giving lectures and presentations. April can be contacted through her website, www.proaudiogirl.com.

The Versatile Engineer

I recently answered some questions for SoundGirl Kelly Kramarik, a student in the Recording Arts program at UC Denver for her thesis about versatility in the changing world of audio.

Do you consider yourself to be a master of one type of audio engineering or do you regularly practice different trades?

I would consider myself a master of post-production sound – which means I could work as a re-recording mixer, sound editor, music editor, score mixer, Foley engineer, sound designer, or dialog editor. Some jobs I’m hired to do a bit of everything and other jobs just one specific role (sound editor or score mixer, for example). Being versatile is important.

In post-production, I’d say people consider themselves masters of certain types of content (in addition to a trade). There’s mixers or editors who specialize in commercials, promos, episodic tv, reality tv, major film, indie film, etc (at least in Los Angeles).

How long did it take you to obtain your current professional status?

This is a tough question because we sometimes don’t have clear job statuses. A good analogy would be an actor who doesn’t land many gigs but still; auditions and takes classes and pursues it as a career while having another job. That person can still say he/she is an actor.

I was a mixer (by title) after three years in the field but at that time I did other audio-related gigs to make ends meet. As a “mixer” working as an employee at a studio I had other responsibilities. I remember weeks where I spent a day recording ADR or voice-over, a couple of days mixing, some time in the machine room or assisting, and sometimes selling stuff on eBay for the studio. It was probably five years into my career when I was mixing primarily and no longer doing other side gigs.

As an independent contractor, how many different companies/clients do you work with on a regular basis?

“Regular basis” is tough cause clients come and go. When I was totally freelance I’d have ten or more clients a year; now I have a stable mixing job and 2-3 additional clients. As a contractor, you don’t want to take too many clients cause if they call to book you and you aren’t available or can’t accommodate them they quit calling. You have to balance clients who hire you once a month with clients that hire you for a month straight but never hire you again.

For me, it’s more about finding clients whose schedules will work together versus having regular clients. I’ve worked for people who don’t mind if I work on other projects during my downtime. In those cases, if I’m on standby (waiting for materials to show up or waiting for client approval) I can edit or mix another project. I’m essentially billing two clients at once for my time. I also charge a four hour minimum for on-site work with my freelance clients. If it takes an hour to get to a studio and you only work an hour it’s a lot of lost time.

What have you found to be the best way to market yourself?

Make friends with other mixers and engineers and maintain relationships with past colleagues and clients. I have a couple of groups of friends/colleagues who will recommend each other for work when they aren’t available or need help. I hire them when I need help or have a cool project and they do the same for me.

Do you find yourself needing to learn new skill sets to stay afloat financially?

Not now – but the first few years of my career I had to diversify to make ends meet. I relied on other skills – such as classical music recording and quality assurance testing for audio products – to fill in the gaps and help pay the bills. Over time I had more mixing work and needed less of those other gigs.

For someone coming into the field today, it’s absolutely necessary to have different revenue streams to sustain, though.

How did you move up in your career?

In a lot of ways career success and “moving up” has not happened how I thought it would when I was in school. For years I looked for opportunities that would advance my career and then I hit the point where the next step up looked to be overly demanding, political, or self-sacrificing. Now I don’t want to sacrifice my health or my relationships overwork. If my kid is sick I can take the day off work without concern and I couldn’t do that in a lot of my old jobs. This job probably wouldn’t have been my idea of “success” until my priorities shifted.

The people I find the most discouraged in the industry are the ones with specific expectations of what they want their career to be (versus going where the work takes them).  I never planned to get into post-production or to be a mixer but it’s turned out to be a great fit. I thought I’d be a sound editor because I wanted to work alone. Watching other mixers looked stressful! But, I was always open to an opportunity to learn something new. When I was in the mixer chair to learn I really enjoyed it and had the skill set to thrive. You never know where things will take you.

 

Post Production Audio: Broadcast Limiters and Loudness Metering

Any time you’re working on a mix that’s going to broadcast, it’s important to ask for specs. Specs are essentially a set of rules for each broadcaster, such as:

Generally there will be a “spec sheet” for each broadcaster (i.e. ABC, CBS, BBC, etc) that your client will provide when asked. Spec sheets aren’t necessarily public or available online, but some are (such as NBC Universal). Some online content providers (like Amazon), movie theater chains, and movie distributors also have specs, so it’s always good to ask.

To understand some important concepts, we’ll take a look at PBS’s most recent specs (2016), found here.

For PBS, it’s a 21-page document that includes requirements for video, audio, how to deliver, file naming, closed captioning, etc. It gets pretty detailed, but it’s a good example of what a spec sheet looks like and the types of audio requirements that come up. The information in the spec sheet will dictate some details in your session, such as track layouts for 5.1, where your limiters should be set, dialog level, bars and tones, etc. We’ll break down a few of these important elements.

PBS Technical Operating Specification 2016 – Part 1, Page 6 Sections 4.4.1, 4.4.2 – Audio Loudness Requirements

The three most important details to look for on a spec sheet are peak loudness, average loudness, and the ITU BS 1770 algorithm. These will be explained in detail below. In this case, the PBS specs are:

Peak Loudness: -2dBTP (“true peak” or 2 dB below full scale). This is your brickwall limiter on the master buss/output of the mix. In this case, it would be set to -2dB.

Average Loudness: – 24dB LKFS +/-2 LU.

ITU BS 1770 Algorithm: ITU-R BS.1770-3. This is the algorithm used to measure average loudness.

Some background on the average loudness spec:

Before 2012, there used to only be one loudness spec: peak loudness. This was a brickwall limiter placed at the end of the chain. Back then, most television networks (in North America) had a peak level of -10dBfs. From the outside (especially coming from the music world) it seems like an odd way to mix – basically you’ve got 10 dB of empty headroom that you’re not allowed to use.

As long as your mix was limited at -10dB, it would pass QC even if it was squashed and sounded horrible. That’s what was happening, though, especially with commercials that were competing to be the loudest on the air. If you remember running for the remote every commercial break because they were uncomfortably louder, that was the issue.

In the US, Congress enacted the CALM act which went into effect in 2012 and required broadcasters to reign in these differences in loudness between programs and commercials. The spec that evolved from this was average loudness level. A loudness measurement covers the length of the entire piece, whether it’s a 30 second spot or a 2 hour movie. Average loudness is measured through a loudness meter. Popular measurement plugins are Dolby Media Meters, Izotope Insight and Waves WLM.

Izotope Insight screenshot

The ITU developed an algorithm (ITU BS 1770) to calculate average loudness. The latest algorithm is 1770-4 (as of early 2017). To get technical, loudness is an LEQ reading using a K-weighting and full-scale; the designation for this reading is “dB LKFS”. In the PBS spec sheet, section 4.4.1 and 4.4.2 say mixes should use ITU BS 1770-3, which is an older algorithm. This is an important detail, though, because when you’re measuring your mix, the plugin has to be set to the correct algorithm or the reading may be off. The PBS specs were written in 2016 (before 1770-4 came out). Broadcasters update these every couple of years, especially as technology changes.

In this PBS spec, the optimal average loudness is -24dB LKFS, but there is an acceptable loudness range (LRA) above and below +/-2 LU (“Loudness Units”). Basically that means your average loudness measurement can fall on or between -26dB LKFS and -22dB LKFS, but ideally you want to mix to hit at -24dB LKFS. The measurement plugin will probably show a short term and a long term value. The short term reading may jump all over the place (including beyond your in-spec numbers). The overall (long) reading is the important one. If the overall reading is out of range, it’s out of spec, won’t pass QC and will likely be rejected for air. Or, it may hit air with an additional broadcast limiter than squashes the mix (and doesn’t sound good).

As HD television has become more popular, broadcasters have loosened up on the peak loudness range. PBS is pretty liberal with -2dBTP (or -2dBfs); some broadcasters are at -6dBfs and occasionally some are still at -10dBfs.

Below is a screenshot of a mix with a limiter at -10dBfs (you can see the compression – it doesn’t sound very good!) and the same mix without. If your average loudness reading is too hot and your mix looks like the upper, there’s a good chance that your mix (or dialog) is overcompressed!

Initially re-recording mixers thought loudness metering would be restrictive. Average loudness is measured across the entire program, so there’s still room for some dynamic range short term. Loudness specs can be a problem for certain content, though. For example, you’re mixing a show with a cheering audience that’s still being picked up as dialog by the loudness meter. Say your spec is -24dB LKFS (+/-2). You mix the show host at -24dB LKFS (in spec) but every time the audience cheers the short term measurement is -14dB LKFS. The overall loudness measurement might be -18dB LKFS – which is way out of spec! So sometimes you end up mixing dialog on the low side or bringing down an audience more than feels natural to fall in spec.

Another difficulty of mixing with a loudness spec is making adjustments when your overall measurement is out of spec. A dB of LU (the unit of measurement for average loudness) is not the same as 1dBFS (full scale). If you drop the mix 1dB by volume automation, it’s not necessarily a 1dB change in average loudness. If you’re mixing a 30 second promo and the loudness level is out of spec it’s easy to adjust and recheck. If you’re mixing a 90 minute film, it takes a bit more work to finesse and time to get a new measurement.

There’s software that will make these adjustments for you – basically you can tell the software what the specs are and it’ll make small adjustments so the mix will fall in spec. While this is a good tool to have in the toolbox, I encourage mixers to first learn how to adjust their mix by hand and ear to understand how loudness measurements and metering works.

I find in general if dialog is sitting between -10 and -20dBfs (instantaneous highs and lows) and not over-compressed, the average loudness reading should fall pretty close to -24dB LKFS. When I first started mixing to an average loudness spec, my mixes were often averaging hot (-20 to -22dB LKFS) when spec was -24. My ear had become accustomed to the sound of compressed dialog hitting a limiter on the master buss. What I’ve learned is that if you’re mixing with your dialog close to -24 dB LKFS (or -27 for film) you can bypass the master limiter and it should sound pretty seamless when you put it back in. If you’re noticing a big sound change with the limiter in, the overall reading will probably fall on the hot side.

When I start a mix, I usually dial in my dialog with a loudness meter visible. I’ll pick a scene or a character and set my channel strip (compressor, EQ, de-esser, noise reduction etc) so the dialog mix lands right on -24dB LKFS. I do this to “dial in” my ear to that loudness. It then acts as a reference, essentially.

One thing I like about mixing with a loudness spec is you don’t have to mix at 82 or 85 dB. While a room is optimally tuned for these levels, I personally don’t always listen this loud (especially if it’s just me/no client or I anticipate a long mixing day). Having a loudness meter helps when jumping between reference monitors or playing back through a television, too. I can set the TV to whatever level is comfortable and know that my mix is still in spec. When I’m mixing in an unfamiliar room, seeing the average loudness reading helps me acclimate, too.

I mix most projects to some sort of spec, even if the client says there are no specs. Indie films, I usually mix at -27dB LKFS and a limiter set to -2dBFS or -6dBFS (depending on the content). If an indie film gets picked up for distribution, the distributor may provide specs. Sometimes film festivals have specs that differ from the distributor, too. If you’ve already mixed with general specs in mind, it may not need adjusting down the road, or at least you will have a much better idea how much you’ll need to adjust to be in spec.

How to Bid on a Project

One of the hardest parts of being freelance is knowing how to bid on a project. You want to be competitive but you don’t know who the competition is. If it’s a client you haven’t worked with before, you may have no idea what their expectations or budget are. “Small” budget for one gig could be $100 and for another, it’s $10,000. On top of it, bidding can be a game of poker where no one wants to be the first to throw out a number.

To give a good bid, you first have to understand who, what, when, where, why, and how. Some people will request a bid and give little or no information but it’s hard to give an accurate bid without knowing those details.

Approaching a bid

Here are some tips when approaching a bid. Never throw out a number or commit to any work without first having a conversation about it (whether it’s by phone or in-person). The main reason is to make sure what they’re asking for covers everything they need. At least half of the people who ask me for a quote need something different or additional from what they say (for example, a film mix may also need editorial or sound design).

Talking to someone also gives you a sense of how professional the project is and the temperament of the people you would be working with. I once had a singer inquire about a music mix and when we talked I learned she had no recordings, couldn’t play any instruments, no band-mates, and had no songs written (I passed on the gig). Sometimes you see red flags that someone is going to be really picky or difficult to work with which could mean extra hours that need to be factored into your costs (assuming you don’t pass on it – which is ok to do).

I always ask for materials to check out before giving a bid for a few reasons. One is to get a sense of sound quality, technical issues, organization, etc. Every project has unplanned time-suckers – tasks that take longer than you budgeted for (or didn’t budget at all). The more you can do to identify those time suckers beforehand the more accurate your bid will be.

Another reason for looking at materials is to evaluate content. Sometimes a project turns you off and you can afford to say no (like a boring movie or a band who’s music you don’t like). Sometimes there’s more to it – Years ago I bid on a film after only seeing the trailer. They told me it was a mystery/thriller but it was more like a horror film with a lot of graphic violence against women (two types of content I don’t like to work on). They were happy with my bid and willing to work around my schedule so it was awkward to back out.

If it’s a music mix, ask for a rough mix or for a sample session (which will give you a good idea of how many tracks/overdubs and organization). If it’s someone who needs a recording, ask for a demo or temp mix. For film, I ask for a rough cut (a video I can download or watch online) and maybe an output of a few minutes of the AAF/OMF to gauge how much time it’ll take to organize (more on that here)

The basic details to find out before giving a bid

Managing expectations

Part of this conversation is managing expectations. If a band expects a full album recording, overdubs, and mix in a weekend for $500 it’s a joke. If they’re willing to book a multi-room studio and crew, put up the cash to work around the clock, and accept it’s not going to be perfect, it’s a legitimate (but challenging) gig. It helps build trust if the client understands the limitations (what’s technically possible, the resources needed, and what you’re able to do or not do). It’s best, to be honest and only promise what you can actually deliver. If they are convinced they can find someone to do the impossible, then good luck to them!

Writing a bid

To write the bid, you’ll want to break down each element of the project and the time/resources necessary to do the job. I send some options based on the quality they are looking for. A low-budget “get ‘er done” job may cover the basics. Medium budget will be a solid job – taking a more in-depth look at everything and including some extras (if time/budget permits). High is going all out – spend as much time/money as it takes (within reason) to do an awesome job. You should have an idea already of what budget range they are in and what extras they might want from talking.

It’s a lot easier to estimate if you’ve kept track of these hours on past projects (if you don’t track hours, it’s a good reason to start!) For example, a 90-minute comedy film with a month deadline, a 5.1 mix (intended for theater), standard deliverables, and a moderate “indie film” budget the breakdown might be:

A recording/music mix of a band would have tasks like recording, studio time, overdubs, comping, tuning, editing, mixing, mastering.

I apply a day rate to each task (plus studio time) and tally up the total (keeping the optional items as separate add-ons). The exact numbers/dates are for my own reference and I usually send a condensed breakdown for the actual bid. I also like to pad hours a little bit in the bid because that helps cover unforeseen issues/changes without having to say “we’re going to be over budget” (unless it’s something major or time-consuming). Some people bid using a day rate but don’t mention that a day is calculated at 9 or 10 hours.

Once a bid is accepted it can be a legally binding contract so it’s important it’s accurate and includes details like when the work has to be done when you expect payment, what is included or not included. If you’re working on a project that might have updates/revisions (like a film or music mix) it’s important to clearly state what is included and what isn’t. For example, it’s common for indie filmmakers to make picture changes or ask for mix tweaks if their film gets into a festival or lands a distribution deal. This could happen as long as a year after finishing the film. I generally don’t include this work as part of the bid – I’ll have something written in the bid like “any conforms or audio changes after the final mix is delivered (or xx date) are considered a new version of the project and not included under this contract” or “any future changes after the mix is delivered will be billed at an hourly rate of xx”. It’s important to set limits so everyone knows what you’re going to do (or not do).

But, if the fixes they need later are minor (only take a couple of hours) I might comp the time (especially if I didn’t need all the buffer hours). Sometimes offering a small service for free can really benefit the relationship, which can bring in future projects and work.

Following up after sending a bid

Once I send a bid, I like to follow up with the client and feel out what they think of it. Is it in line with what they were expecting or do you sense sticker shock? If we’re in two totally different places and it’s a project I’m really interested in, I’ll be honest that I want to work on it and suggest ways to accommodate. Some ideas:

Bids become easier the more you do them. Sometimes you’ll land the gig and other times you’ll never hear from the client again. It’s not personal and maybe there’s nothing wrong with your bid – it might be that you’re not the right fit for the project. All of it is experience which makes it easier to do next time.