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April 2014
Issue: July 1, 2008

MIXING DISCOVERY'S 'WHEN WE LEFT EARTH'

By: Marc Loftus
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Sound engineer Cliff Jones recently completed mixing a six-episode documentary series for Discovery Channel that details the history of the US space program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Produced by London's Dangerous Films (www.dangerousfilms.co.uk), When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions digs deep into NASA's vault, revealing never-before-seen footage that documents the successes and failures of the program over the years.

Jones, a two-time BAFTA award-winning re-recording mixer, also worked on Discovery's The Human Body, and is familiar with the high standards the network sets for its programming.
Audio post for the series involved sound pros working on multiple continents. The program is narrated by actor Gary Sinise, who was recorded in LA. London's Art of Noise (www.art4noise.com) handled sound design for the series, and was Jones' liaison to the project, but he's not in the UK. Jones is actually working out of Fairlight's well-equipped demo suite in Sydney.

He's a long-time Fairlight user and has worked on the manufacturer's MFX, MFX3plus, QDC and Xynergi platforms over the course of his career. The relationship benefits both sides, as Jones provides input for the company's product development, serving sort of as "a product evangelist."

"People are looking for value and good quality work," says Jones, about the long-distance collaborative workflow. "Working across so many time zones, a series like this — six hours long — requires a leap of faith from the clients, but it works in their favor."

The suite in Sydney is based around a five-bay Constellation mixing system with an integrated Xynergi edit controller. The whole system is powered by Fairlight's CC-1 FPGA, a digital media engine that handles processing and eliminates latency. The room is equipped with Dynaudio 5.1 monitoring, and Jones uses a Dolby LM100 to perform final QC before delivering final mixes to clients.

"I basically mixed all six episodes in the space of three weeks," Jones recalls. "The Xynergi allowed me to work as I wanted, which is a very traditional Dial, Music and SFX approach, and as fast as I wanted, without any of the glitchy overheads associated with DSP-based systems."

The picture edit for When We Left Earth was done by Dangerous Films, working on Avid systems. Jones referenced an AVI during the mix from Xynergi's integrated PyxisTrack video solution. "I had to get picture delivered to me through Internet," he explains. "They were about a 1GB zipped, and unzipped about 2GBs. Once un-zipped, it was a simple matter of dragging and dropping the video straight to the timeline"

Music was recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster of Air Studios (www.airstudios.com) and came to him as 48-track stems, set up for a 5.1 mix. Art of Noise would send him the sound design, dialogue and music project files via a yousendit.com account. Rather than continually having to download the music, the Nuendo project files allowed him to simply reference the 40GBs of broadcast .WAV files he had stored locally.

Jones delivered a continuous 50-minute version of each episode, which he says Discovery would later re-edit, shortening them to 43-minute lengths for broadcast.

"Using the Fairlight gave me the ability to deliver all the various stems for re-versioning in one pass. I have 230 channels available to me, and all have three stages of dynamics — expander/gate, compressor and limiter — along with eight bands of EQ."

Jones spent approximately two days working on each episode, including one that needed a quicker turnaround so astronaut John Glenn could to take it to Washington, where he would use it as leverage for NASA to support this project with continued access to its archives. This is where the benefits of cross-continent working came into its own. Jones started final mixing in Sydney at 9am Thursday morning, delivering to London for review at 9am Thursday morning, with final mixes delivered to Discovery US at 9am Thursday morning. "The combination of transparent workflow, speed of operation and reliability of the Xynergi system, made this impossibly-quick turnaround possible," he says.

The power of Xynergi allowed Jones to go against current trends by not using any third-party plug-ins. "The sonic quality of the CC-1 powered EQ and dynamics is far superior to any of the DSP-based plug-ins I have auditioned recently. So I chose to mix entirely in the box on this project," Jones notes.

Working between platforms is no longer an issue according to Jones. "I received an AES31 export from London that I just dragged and dropped into the Xynergi, including the temp-mix fader automation, referencing the media I had previously downloaded. Once the mix was completed I emailed back just the Fairlight DR2 file to London. This was loaded into an identical Xynergi referencing the same audio files. The clients were then able to review and make any tweaks they felt necessary before the final broadcast .WAV files were uploaded to Discovery Channel's FTP site." From a workflow standpoint, Jones says the reason this spread-out pipeline worked was because everyone involved was able to use their preferred format.

"Using the Xynergi as the axis for this production allowed me to fully exploit the power of the CC-1 both in terms of easy workflow and amazing sonic quality. "