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Issue: January 1, 2004

AUDIO FOR REALITY TV

By: By Christine Bunish

POST LOGIC GETS EXPERIMENTAL

Described as a sketch comedy show wrapped in a hidden-camera format, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, which airs on the WB network, has been mixed by Fred Howard since its inception three years ago. "It's completely unscripted, but that's not to say we don't have an agenda: to get laughs," says the post production sound mixer at Post Logic, Hollywood (www.postlogic.com). "They set Jamie up to play an outrageous or absurd character against an unsuspecting mark and hilarity ensues."

Howard says the show's producers have helped carry his own agenda - to get cleaner, better sound - forward. And that's been particularly challenging this season as Kennedy has taken to the road with shows in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami.


Production sound mixer Jeff Frickman aims for "good, clean placement" of Sennheiser mics and body packs, which are recorded into a Digidesign Pro Tools Digi 02 rack system working in conjunction with a Yamaha 02R mixer. Set-ups for the sketches are often lensed with DV cameras, which present an additional challenge in fidelity but offer a further dynamic to draw viewers in.

Some bits, such as when Kennedy portrayed an ersatz talk-show host, or when marks can be lured near a stashed mic, yield better production sound. If Kennedy is in proximity to a mark the gain on his own mic can be cranked to better hear the unsuspecting individual. "You compromise fidelity for presence but that can add to the gritty, of-the-moment feel," Howard notes.


Showtime's Interscope Presents The Next Episode is mixed at Wild Woods and post supervised by Jared Bushansky.
Frickman uses "all the available I/Os of the Digi 02 and the expanded I/Os of the 02R so he can get as many as 16 tracks out of the 02R into Pro Tools," says Howard. The tracks go out of the Pro Tools workstation into an Avid Media Composer for editorial via DVD-ROM, dramatically cutting loading time for the offline editors. Final tracks come via OMF to Howard's Avid AudioVision, which is interfaced to an SSL 6000 console. He also receives another eight tracks of the offline editor's mix to use as reference. Segment wraparounds are shot on location and then played back for Kennedy's live audience in LA "so we don't have to sweeten the laugh track," he reveals.

"There's not much editorial time for the show so all the editing decisions are made in the mix environment," Howard explains. "We place sound effects and music with an eye toward the final level." During his first pass he sets levels and fixes "digital tics between clips," then during his second pass he steps back to examine the content's continuity and make any additional fixes. The third pass is the layback.

TONIC CLEANS UP ANGRY AUDIO

MTV's Boiling Points is a different breed of reality programming: a hidden-camera game show. Actors in various disguises - a waiter, a pizza counter man - try to push unwary participants to the boiling point. But if the contestant can keep his cool for a designated time, he'll be a winner.

Like The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, this new series runs the risk of its unsuspecting contestants being off mic. "People don't know they're on camera and on mic so they move around, especially when they're angry," reports Bill Cavanaugh, senior audio engineer at New York's Tonic (www.tonic.tv).


Post Logic's Fred Howard mixes The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, which recently featured Giants players Amani Toomer and Tiki Barber. His console is an SSL 6000.
"Every single show, every shot presents its own problem. The actor might have a camera and mic in his eyeglasses and fight to keep his head steady. There's traffic noise at an outdoor cafe; people are whispering to each other about their bad treatment," he explains.

Episodes are comprised of segments shot on different days at different locations. Each segment has multiple contestants in the same situation who are cross cut within the segment. Contestants are shot at different times of the day but reach their boiling points in tandem with other contestants in the same segment. "The pull-ups of multiple contestants crosscut compound the audio shifts," Cavanaugh says. "It's a challenge to diminish the background noise so the dialogue is intelligible and to match the sound shot-to-shot, so the segment doesn't look like it's slapped together. You might even want to worsen scenes that sound relatively okay to match shots before and after so it flows better."

An episode of the half-hour strip show is shot in a single day and Cavanaugh has just one day to clean up the audio and perform the final mix. He receives OMFs from the Avid editors who "try to do the best they can with levels" before he begins work on his Pro Tools and Euphonix 5 console. "Because of the time crunch I try to solve problems the most efficient and quickest way possible," he explains. "Sometimes that's the console, sometimes it's a Pro Tools plug-in. I do level changes on the console; music has been added in post production and you want to feel and hear the hit but not have it fight with intelligibility. On the other hand, music can bridge some of the noise. Rather than trying to automate in Pro Tools, I grab the Euphonix faders and let my ear guide me."

Cavanaugh provides a stereo mix as split stems - narration, dialogue, music, sound effects - which go back into the Avid for various segment outputs.


Post Logic's Fred Howard
CHALLENGE: INTELLIGiBLE AUDIO
Lending his talents to the more extreme side of reality programming is Terrance Dwyer, a re-recording mixer working at LA's Wild Woods (www.wwoods. com). Dwyer has mixed every episode of the Survivor franchise, netting an Emmy for the second season. He has also mixed all but the first six episodes of the Fear Factor series, which is in the middle of its fourth season.

"We approached Survivor differently from the reality shows that had come before by doing a film-style dialogue and effects edit with full M&E," Dwyer explains.

While he is continually challenged to make the audio for Survivor beautiful, "it's a constant battle just to make it intelligible." While care is taken with the location sound, the locales are often fraught with noise: guess why the insects in Borneo were called "car-alarm bugs?"


Survivor: Pearl Islands is mixed at Wild Woods by Terrance Dwyer. He mixes partially in Pro Tools but runs dialogue through a Sony DMX-R100 digital board. Mixdown is to a TASCAM MX2424.
Central to the dialogue-driven Survivor is the desire to make the audio flow. "Much of it is dialogue intercut with interviews recorded in different locales and at different times of the day," says Dwyer. "It has a dramatic feel and is mixed like a traditional drama." He spends his time ensuring that the location dialogue recorded by camera and boom mics "is as pristine and evenly mixed as possible."

Fear Factor, with its high-intensity, high-tech competitions, is action-adventure to the core. "There are speeding cars, trucks, helicopter and speed boat stunts, extreme point-of-view effects and people taunting and rooting," Dwyer points out.

Fear Factor is now using the Fostex PD6 DVD-RAM recorder for field acquisition. "There can be as many as 28 contestants so that's a lot of lavs," Dwyer notes. Supervising dialogue editor Ryan Owens performs the dialogue edit and converts the OMF to a Pro Tools session for Dwyer.


Sony Music's Sue Pelino works on a number of reality shows, including Making the Band for MTV. She uses Pro Tools 6.0.
"The OMF is transformed into six-plus channels of dialogue and more for production, host and voiceover," says Dwyer. He also receives another 30 to 40 channels of effects, eight channels of Foley, plus three or more music pairs. "The show really maxes out the Pro Tools system. It's usually at the maximum 64 channels for a Pro Tools 5.1.3 system with additional tracks unvoiced. I'm flipping back and forth to get things I can't have online at all times."

Dwyer mixes partially in Pro Tools but mixes all the dialogue through a Sony DMX-R100 digital console. Mixdown is to a TASCAM MX2424 in "a traditional-style mix pass." He uses Digidesign's Control 24 control surface for automated effects, music and other stems, and performs clean up with Cedar's DNS-1000 and Dolby's Cat.43.

TODD-AO MEETS AVERAGE JOE

NBC's new Average Joe is no average audio post project. At Todd-AO Burbank, an Ascent Media Company (www.ascentmedia.com), Emmy Award-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer Rick Norman cuts the dialogue and music and mixes an episode in two and a half days - sometimes less. On typical one-hour primetime dramas, dialogue and effects editors will toil for a week before an episode arrives at the mixing stage. Reality programming's smaller budgets call for scaled-down approaches, which find Norman doing the work of several people in a very short time.

For Average Joe, Norman blends interview bites, many of them from the field, with audio from the group activities the female contestant stages for her pool of prospective suitors. Interviews may be stitched together from sound bites uttered during the course of a day or an event, so Norman is challenged to make different ambiances and sentence fragments flow into seamless sentences.


Todd-AO's Rick Norman had just two and a half days to mix each Average Joe episode.
Working on a Pro Tools|HD system and 32-fader Pro Control, Norman begins his dialogue edit with an OMF of an episode from the Avid editors. "In the beginning, when there are a lot of contestants, they often don't get the right mic digitized into the editor's OMF," he notes. "So I have to go back and find it amongst various DA-88, DAT or DV camera sources."

Norman relies heavily on Waves Renaissance plug-ins for dialogue processing but in extreme cases a Urei 565 notch filter and Dolby Cat.43 are used in the analog domain to reduce background noises.

Norman has extensive reality TV credits, including Anything for Love for Fox, Scare Tactics for the SciFi Channel, Project Greenlight for HBO and the Emmy-winning American High for Fox/PBS. He met with the producers of Average Joe to discuss possible improvements in the audio process for next season. "A lot of dialogue gets unnecessarily clipped, which may be inexperience or improper monitoring," he notes. "The transfer from DV to media also needs to be watched.

"I often get dialogue through scenes in reality television that would easily qualify for ADR in any film," Norman continues. "With that not being an option here, extra precautions should be taken in the field in order to capture the best sound possible. By the time it gets to me, the damage has already been done."

RAPPING ON THE NEXT

Interscope Presents The Next Episode made its debut on Showtime in November. The battle-rapping competition combines an on-the-streets, urban perspective with performance elements. The series follows a pair of up-and-coming rappers in five different cities. Each show ends with one winner emerging from a head-to-head rap battle. The last show will feature the five semi-finalists in a showdown in LA.

The Next Episode poses distinctive challenges for freelance post production supervisor Jared Bushansky whose reality programming credits include MTV's Fraternity Life and Sorority Life, and the first season of HBO's Project Greenlight.

"Being gritty, raw and down-and-dirty is part of the show's appeal," Bushansky concedes. "You never know what you're going to get. They shoot 80 to 100 hours of tape in a week to get a one-hour show, and it's hard to gauge in the field what's going to work or not."

The four audio tracks of Sony's IMX format come in handy for the all-location-based show. "We record the lav on one track, the boom on another, and the camera mic on another just in case we need to use it with filters to get rid of extraneous noise," Bushansky explains. "The camera mic has saved us on a couple of occasions, including one impromptu shot with no lav and no boom."

In the first part of each episode the rap contestants, on lavalier mics, are followed through their city with their friends whose audio is captured by boom mics. Hearing what they're saying can be difficult as they talk over each other and compete with background noise. Re-recording mixer Mark Anderson at Wild Woods often needs to use noise reduction, EQ and filtration to make the conversation audible.

"Sometimes you lose sources in the field, you get ambiance as loud as the dialogue, or people are talking in the street in such close proximity to the boom mic that you lose the talent," Anderson reports. "You try to smooth things as well as you can but may still get hammered by a noisy clip."

The show is done "98 percent in the box," a Pro Tools 5.1.3 with a Pro Control surface. Anderson re-records anything that needs noise reduction back into Pro Tools but he finds that "if you push Waves' Restoration bundle enough to get good results you also get artifacts. So I run through the plug-in and then into Dolby's old Cat.43 film NR unit and that eases off a bit on the artifacts."

The showdown portion of each episode takes place at an outdoor location - an Atlanta intersection, a Detroit junkyard, overlooking New York's Brooklyn Bridge. The rappers are joined by a drummer, DJ and live audience, and are recorded onto TASCAM DA-88s so there's split audio for every element. Anderson delivers a full 5.1 discrete mix, then folds it down to stereo keeping the impact of the music strong in the stereo field.

SONY MUSIC: REALITY, TALK SHOWs & MORE

Sony Music Studios' recording arts complex combines audio, video, TV and film production capabilities at its West Side Manhattan location. It has been home to a number of reality, games and talk shows, including Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, which airs on Comedy Central. In addition, Sony Music Studios (www.sonymusic.com) handles audio post for MTV's Cribs and VH1's Driven.

Senior director of audio post Sue Pelino did complete audio post for the first two seasons of MTV's Making The Band, which mixes music and slice-of-life elements. The first season found P. Diddy auditioning talent nationwide and forming "Da Band." The second season had them come together at a New York City brownstone to work with music producers and record an album. The next season will pick up after the CD's release.

"In the first season every show was different; the locations were all over the place," Pelino recalls. "This year they were more in the recording studio so there was a lot more control. They gave me a lot of tracks to work with: vocals isolated from music, underscored music minus vocals. On a lot of shows, the DV cameras are the source audio but members of 'Da Band' had individual lavs, so I was starting with decent tracks."

Pelino opened the Avid OMF from MTV in Pro Tools 6.0. Assisted by sound mixer Christopher Koch, she added city ambiance to some location shots, smoothed out the music and dialogue edits and did the final mix on an SSL Avant console. Pelino also mixed a DVD of the second season.