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September 2014
Issue: February 1, 2010

AUDIO POST'S UNSUNG HEROES

By: Ron DiCesare
While audio post talent is most important, we cannot deny the role of tools that help that talent reach its full potential. It is easy to forget how much we rely on people who are bold enough to create new products and start their own companies. Some have even redefined how we work.

DANGEROUS MUSIC

When Bob Muller, owner/founder of Edmeston, NY’s Dangerous Music (www.dangerousmusic.com), opened a recording studio in 1992 in New York’s East Village, he had no plans to become an equipment manufacturer.
Muller, a musician and recording engineer, teamed up with chief electronics designer Chris Muth to build and improve the equipment in their own studio. As a result, they developed a whole new category of audio products. Products like the 2-Bus, the Monitor and the MQ reflected the needs of digital audio workstations long before many other companies understood this market. Muller explains how his company started: “I had met Chris Muth on a session when he was brought in to engineer something I was playing on. He is an amazing bass player and innovative electronics designer who knows his way around recording studios. We became friends and partners, and spent our time and spare cash improving Dangerous Music,  the recording studio.”
Like most recording studios during the mid-‘90s, Dangerous Music experienced the transition from analog tape and a traditional console to smaller, more powerful DAWs. As studio owners, they could see the recording studio business change into a new industry that required new tools. “That time period was when the paradigm shift from the 2-inch tape with analog console set-up to this new thing called a digital audio workstation was beginning to take place,” describes Muller. “We were experiencing this revolution, from the position of being engineers and studio owners, and were seeing first hand the technical issues that were arising. For example, someone would come into Dangerous and cut tracks in the live room, through the Neve and record into our Pro Tools rig. Then, for budgetary reasons, they would wind up having to mix the record in someone’s apartment in Pro Tools. They would say to me, ‘I know this stuff sounded great at the studio, but I am not getting that same sound to come through in the context of my mix. Can you build something that can help us out?’ So we started looking at the system architecture of DAWs and how software mixing worked. We knew most everyone with a DAW had a multichannel interface already, so we put together these prototype black boxes to help our clients mix. The Dangerous 2-Bus evolved from that, and the gear company was born at Dangerous Music. It seemed appropriate to give it the studio name.”
He and Muth looked at what else was going on with DAWs, which were being marketed as recording studios in a box. “They are really software editors, software mixers, DSP and hard disk recorders in a box, not a complete studio,” explains Muller. “So, when someone [took] their mixing console and tossed it out because they bought a DAW, Chris and I asked ourselves, ‘What functions are they losing and how is that absence going to interfere with the creative and technical process of recording? Where is your volume control, your speaker selector, your input selector, your talkback, your cue path, your dim level and your metering?’ All of those things were not really part of any DAW. As soon as we knew the 2-Bus was something that the audio community wanted, we started thinking about these other areas DAWs didn’t cover, and the whole modular console idea was right in front of us.”
Muller credits their success to understanding the issues from “both sides of the glass” in the studio. That eventually led to the popular ST-SR stereo and surround monitor control system. “It took us longer to do the R&D on the ST-SR than anything else because we wanted this seamless upgrade path, especially since we knew that surround sound would become more prominent,” he says. “Some people would need surround, but not all the time, and everybody still needs stereo, so you can buy just the stereo controller and then you can add the expansion module to it and get into surround without having to sell the stereo unit to buy the surround one. It’s basically a system that you can expand and add functionality to as needed, with no obsolesce.”
Today, the amount of products for DAWs has increased sizably. “We get copied often and these less expensive alternatives come out, but I know that’s part of the business,” says Muller. “But, we refuse to engage in what I call ‘the race to the bottom,’ which is when new things get progressively cheaper, but none of them sound as good as the original. We cater to people who care about sound, the reliability of the equipment and consistency. We try to design gear that is going to work for those folks, and we don’t want to compete in the race to make a smaller, less expensive, inferior piece of equipment designed to sell a million units, despite the obvious financial appeal. Chris and I joke with each other and say that no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to design a cheap piece of shit.”
Muller offers an important observation about the current role of analog in a digital world. “The potential quality of analog equipment has never been higher than today. It is a mature technology compared to digital, which is relatively new. Analog component design has been consistently improving, and in some ways we have digital to thank for it. For example, look at something like noise floor. Everyone was initially wowed by digital’s low noise floor compared to analog. Well, that pushed developers to make higher quality and better performing components, and designers like us are aware of this market force and keep up with what is coming out. And if you are not afraid to use the more expensive parts, you can make higher quality analog equipment than ever before. So, analog has never been better, if you want it to be.”

McDSP

During the mid-‘90s, Colin McDowell, CEO/CTO/founder of Mountain View, CA’s McDSP (www.mcdsp.com), understood that plug-in technology was the future of the audio industry. While at New Mexico State University, he was already working on plug-ins. “Around that time, Digidesign had a plug-in called DINR, which was a noise reduction plug-in,” he explains. “Basically, I designed that same product independently while I was in college. That prompted me to seek out Digidesign. I worked for Digidesign, and later Dolby. I got to do a lot of signal processing engineering for both those companies.”
Working at Digidesign gave McDowell an insight to what the market needed at that time. “During my time at Digidesign, I saw that they weren’t really interested in making plug-ins. I could see they were a hardware company first and foremost. For example, their plug-in DINR was one of the most successful moneymakers of its time, but compared to how much revenue the hardware generated, DINR was a very small piece of the pie. So, that gave me the idea that a smaller company might be better suited for making just plug-ins, which is why I started my own company.”
McDowell started by building stuff he wanted to use himself while in the studio. “For example, I might have wanted a whole rack of Neve gear for a project, but didn’t have that kind of money to buy it all. Then I [realized] it all could be done in software, and I started modeling them. For each product I did, I seemed to have the knack to pull out the subjective stuff that people liked from certain outboard gear. It’s not that I saw the age of computers and software signal processing before anyone else, it’s just something that I liked to do. And like most engineers, I wanted things to be done a certain way, so I broke off on my own and tried it.”
McDSP has a large variety of plug-ins for both music production and post, and in today’s world, the line between music and post is blurred. “A lot of customers know us from the music production side, not the post production side,” says McDowell, “but many of our plug-ins crossed over from music to post through word of mouth. A good example is the ML4000 mastering limiter and the Multi-band dynamics processor, which is typically used for mastering. It’s really useful in post production because everyone is being asked to do twice as much in half the time. So if you have a sequence with 16 explosions, for example, the ML4000 limiter is great for keeping it at -6 or whatever arbitrary number it needs to be under. In my completely biased opinion, the ML4000 stands out from the competition with features like a knee control and low-latency operation. For people who still want dynamics in their productions, you can dial up this knee control and return some dynamics to your mix while the limiter still maintains your output ceiling.”
FutzBox is very much for post, he says, and is used on ABC’s Lost for a variety of dialogue effects. “By incorporating the distortion, filtering and Simulated Impulse Response [SIM] models of FutzBox into their production, they created authentic sounding futz-effects for all the wireless communications,” explains McDowell.
Another popular plug-in they make is a convolution reverb called Revolver. “It’s as flexible as a synthetic reverb, but it uses convolution as its primary engine,” he says. “Convolution reverb technology is the idea that you can capture an impulse response (known as an IR), which is kind of like sampling or taking a snap shot of an acoustic space or other signal path. From this technique you can obtain reverb sounds from places like the Taj Mahal or your kitchen. Then using the computer power of today, you can play back that experience so that when the sound comes into the reverb, it will replicate that audio snap shot of the acoustic space.”
McDowell offers some insights into what the future for audio post may bring. He anticipates a significant trend in video gaming with the growing need to make sound effects variable based on game play. “Another interesting technology trend is how many movies are turned into video-games,” he says. “The people making the sound effects for a movie only need to make them one way, for one time. But, the gaming industry now needs many variations of the sound effect used in the movie. For the games, they want to have all the sound effects available in realtime and configured in such a way that they can be changed based on what the player does. So, realtime processing of effects in gaming is going to be a pretty interesting market. It will no longer be enough just to have the sound effects from the movie in the game anymore. Those sounds will need to be controlled based on the player, or 10 players, of the game.”

PENTEO

Penteo (www.penteosurround.com), founded by John Wheeler and located in the San Francisco Bay area, provides both a product and a service for converting stereo mixes to 5.1 surround sound. The process works with any stereo master from any year. Wheeler explains, “The name Penteo is a link together of the words pentagon and stereo. We specialize in taking stereo material and converting it to 5.1.”
The idea stemmed from Wheeler’s love for listening to music in a unique way. “It is something that I started working on as an experiment about five or six years ago. I have always been fascinated by listening to left minus right of stereo recordings. In many old recordings from the 1960s, there would be only hard left, hard center and hard right. It was always fascinating to hear how much you could dissect and uncover musical performances that were buried under the lead vocal. Through a lot experimentation and a lot of math, we came upon a method that enabled us to break down stereo based on its pan pot position and turn it into 5.1”
The process is based on deducing the pan pot positions of the original stereo recording. Wheeler explains the presentation of this idea: “Our real first demonstration of it was at the 2008 AES show in San Francisco. We showed it purely as a service. You would FTP a stereo file to us, then we would do the 5.1 conversion in our lab and then FTP it back to you. That was our first incarnation as a business. That’s how we wound up doing the motion picture Watchmen for Chris Jenkins at Universal. They had bunch of songs, like “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and the classical piece “The Ride of the Valkyries.” Jenkins had heard what I was up to and gave me a few files to process. We have done several motion pictures purely as a service.”
Around December 2008, Wheeler started working on a piece of realtime hardware. “That’s because there are many TV shows broadcasting live in 5.1, like sports,” he explains. “We took the algorithm and, through a couple of months worth of work, turned it into a realtime processor that is specifically designed to do live broadcast production.”
In today’s computer-based world, he has no plans for a plug-in version anytime soon. Penteo is only available as either a hardware device or through its audio service of converting stereo to 5.1 in the lab. Wheeler prefers the audio service over the hardware whenever possible. “The quality level is slightly different. When you send your file to us, it can be quite complicated to process. If we are doing a major motion picture, or a 5.1 music CD, or anything that is going through tremendous audio scrutiny, we prefer to do it in the lab. That’s simply because we forensically make sure that the stereo master we have is flying straight and level. We check for any mistakes that could have happened from the time it left the original recording studio, which could have been 25 or 30 years ago. We prefer to take that material under our own wing and use all the knowledge and tools we have developed internally to make it the best 5.1 version possible. It’s done by hand and it’s a painstakingly-careful process to make sure that what we give back to our clients is master quality.”
He says the best part about all Penteo algorithms is that no matter how they are done, they all down-mix back perfectly to the original stereo mix. “We are not doing any sort of bandwidth filtering, we are not doing any delays, and no phase rotation. All we are really doing, to illustrate the point, is slicing a block of cheese into five pieces. You are able to hear the individual pieces in their separate 5.1 positions. And when you down-mix back to stereo, it’s like re-melting the cheese back into its original form. There is absolutely no difference when you put it all back.”
When converting older stereo masters, the available technology during the time of the original recording is significant. Wheeler explains, “The big thing that happened in the mid 70s is that pan pots showed up on mixing consoles. So anything mixed prior to the mid 70s was pretty much locked into either hard left, hard right or center. Back then, there was a three-position toggle switch on the console. In those cases, we can only separate out those three positions. We can’t give you back a larger number of channels than what was originally there. And we are not ashamed of that. We are proud to be able to deliver those three positions because that’s all there was during that time.”
Penteo is a great choice for meeting the growing demand of licensed music being used in surround mixes. Wheeler did not develop Penteo based on this recent trend, but understands how useful it can be for those situations. “No, I didn’t see the licensing trend ahead of time, this was just a fun tool stemming from my own listening experiences. It was purely out of fun. So, in many ways, that need found us. I feel that people are using legacy material more often now because music production isn’t being done the same way today. It’s a whole different world when you have a catalog of 50 years worth of stereo mixes you can pull from.”
Wheeler is confident that the need for surround material in the future will become the norm. “Virtually every movie theater has 5.1, so the need for 5.1 is going to be here for a long time to come, I don’t see it ever going away. As long as that need is there, then there will always be stereo mixes that need to be broken out in their component form. We are incredibly sensitive to the original stereo mixer’s intention. We are not trying to do something that is contrary to the stereo mix; we are just trying to optimize the stereo mix for surround, to convert the stereo into the most appropriate 5.1 mix we can do.”

BLUE SKY

Southern California-based Chris Fichera, co-founder/VP of Blue Sky (www.abluesky. com), which has headquarters in Farmingdale, NY, understands the needs of the smaller audio rooms found in many post production facilities, including video editing suites and color correct suites. His attention to the mid-range for all their systems is one of the keys to the company’s success and acceptance into the audio post community.
One of the first studios to install Blue Sky monitors had enough clout to get Blue Sky noticed in the audio industry. “When Jack Kelly [president] and I first started the company, one of my friends was the chief engineer at Skywalker Sound,” explains Fichera. “After a demonstration, the speakers were approved to be put into the smaller sound editing rooms there. They had about 30 rooms and were looking for some consistency. We were fortunate enough to get Skywalker to buy about 35 systems, which helped launch our company. That really gave us our start and the credibility.”
In the late ‘90s, the home theater market exploded, fueled by DVD sales. Fichera recognized this would change the post industry overall, including pro audio speakers. “We knew we wanted to build speakers using two key features: The first key was bass management. That means blending the subwoofer with a satellite system. We wanted to do that with both our stereo and surround sound systems. Bass management was the line in the sand, so to speak, that would make us different from everyone else. It worked really well for the film industry and the post industry, but the music industry looked at us like we were from another planet.”
The second key feature focused on an important area of speaker technology known as the crossover. “The idea of our system — that nobody else was doing — was designing it as a three-way system,” says Fichera. “So, the mid-range frequencies that are in our satellites are true, because we are not sucking it out to make it go to the woofer. And that makes all the difference. If you listen to a two-way monitor, to get that crossover to work they tend to suck the mid-range out to get the woofer to go lower. That results in a dip between 500hz and 4K. And guess what? For film and TV, that is were all the dialogue is. So that’s why we got high ratings right from the start from the post production community. Now, they can hear everything and not have to guess.”
Fichera knew this important distinction would be hard for some people to accept. “We started this at AES in 2001 when we had one system. People asked us if we could turn off the sub. Then I would ask them, ‘If this was a two-way speaker, would you want to turn off the woofer?’ They would always answer no. And then I would say, ‘That is the idea.’ I knew at that time the only way we would get noticed was if people understood that you do not turn off the subwoofer. Technically it’s the woofer, it’s just located in a separate box, and that idea makes it really simple to take this system and put it in a room that is very small. That way, the sub can be controlled by changing the level and placing it correctly in the room. Everything about this made sense, but the music industry still wanted a two-way speaker that was full range. So, I decided to the pay attention to post production instead.”
Fichera explains how DTV has a very important impact on stereo-only mixes: “I make the case that everything you mix in stereo is probably going to be played back in surround sound — people ask what I mean by that. Unless something is being played on iTunes only, television is all done in surround sound. So, whether your mix is surround or stereo, it is going through a processor and is going to be played back on a subwoofer-based system that people bought with their home theater set-up. And people need to be paying attention to that.”
Fichera has also designed speakers with the needs of game pros in mind. “The other big industry we were after was the gaming industry, because they were already in surround. We got involved in Electronic Arts and sold them many systems back when they were first doing Lord of the Rings. We built these little pod-based systems and that was a whole market that we didn’t even realize existed. Now the gaming industry is a very important part of our products and sales. Gaming is bigger than all the entertainment industries combined.”
Being a relatively new company, Fichera has a fresh take on the audio industry and what lies ahead. “I think the biggest thing that is going to happen industry-wide is 3D. When we went from standard def TV to HD, that was the ‘wow factor.’ People could see the difference. The next game changer is going to be 3D. That is going to be big, huge.
“I have been involved with this for a couple of years and helping [figure out] if we can use more speakers like 7.1. It’s about trying to get one more dimension inside the surround environment that can bring things into the sides of the room. And then, if you can add a couple of different speakers for height, there is a lot of stuff you can do that is unique. So, 3D is going to be a game changer once they get past the glasses. And if sports gets involved and you don’t have to wear the glasses, then everyone is going to buy it. Then we will adapt sound to the idea of 3D and make the audio match the same kind of experience of the visuals.”
Lastly, Fichera offers an important observation about the audio industry overall. “My argument for the music community is that television is the new radio. Most people don’t understand that, but think of how many TV shows today tell you who the musical artist featured on the show was, and tell you where to get it.These shows feature different artists each week, and every time I listen it’s in surround sound.”