Luke Skywalker had C-3PO. B.B. King had his guitar, Lucille. Elvis had the Shure 55S. Dr. Edward Morbius had Robby the Robot. Throughout history, and fiction, technology has lent itself to being a faithful sidekick. It’s helpful, handy, and hard working.
Often, we spend more time with our gear than with our family, so why not give our favorite pieces of gear an appreciative nod. Whether it provides consistency, spawns creativity, or allows us to hit homeruns from crazy client curve balls, the gear we use helps to keep things running smooth.
Dave Nelson is the CEO and supervising sound editor/composer at Outpost Studios (www.outpostfilm.com) in San Francisco. Outpost creates original music and sound design for feature-length films, documentaries, commercials, promos, animations and videogames. They also provide audio post services such as editing, Dolby 5.1 mixing, ADR and Foley. Nelson was supervising sound editor/composer on One Way to Valhalla, which premiered on Showtime in January.
Nelson’s composing experience with Native Instrument’s Kontakt (www.native-instruments.com) led him to use the sampling software for his sound design. Over the past year, Nelson has incorporated Kontakt 5 into his sound design workflow. “I have been changing the way I do sound design, more toward MIDI sound design in Kontakt 5. The sound design becomes much more adaptable to the music and picture, because the events in time all stay the same but I can easily swap out sounds. What I find so great about making an instrument in Kontakt 5, is if there are any problems, or when the music is added and the sound effects don’t quite fit, I can just change the sound in MIDI, or alter it, pitch it; I don’t have to replace everything. Another key aspect is the length of the sound. If I find a sound I like and it’s too short or too long, I can just drag the MIDI note longer or shorter instead of finding a new sound. In the old style of sound design, where everything is an actual file, all that stuff is much more cumbersome and clunky to do. Using Kontakt 5 for sound design is flexible up to the last minute. Now, all the computer MIDI programming, MIDI volume and MIDI effects are so consistent and reliable that I find I’ll just leave things in MIDI right up to the final mix.”
Kontakt 5 ($399) is the latest version of Native Instrument’s software sampler. It can be used as a standalone application or plug-in. Kontakt 5 comes with 43GB of samples, and over 1,000 instruments. It also includes EQ, filtering, compression and tape saturation simulation. Another addition to this latest version is Time Machine Pro, which allows you to time-stretch samples without losing the integrity of the sound.
Currently, Nelson is working on a five-minute promotional video for Duarte Design that focuses on attracting businesses and jobs to Long Island, NY. Using Kontakt 5 allows Nelson to easily alter the sound design. “Duarte Design uses a lot of animation. There are a lot of pen movements in this project. The client and I had a long discussion about what those sounds are going to be so I am able to send them a temp of the sound that I’ve chosen, and if they want a different sound, I can just make a new instrument and all the events stay in the same place in time.”
Though Nelson mostly works on feature length films, his work on shorter projects allows him to experiment with new technology and techniques, and then apply any new approaches back to his feature-length projects. Recently, Nelson used Kontakt 5 for the sound design on the film, Valley of the Sun. “Valley of the Sun had a lot of wind in it, and I ended up making several wind instruments in Kontakt that I was able to perform along with the feature film. With things like wind, you just wouldn’t think of using those sounds in a sampler for a feature film, but it worked out really well. I was able to pitch the wind and switch the octave and tone of the wind just slightly on cuts in the film. I just wouldn’t have thought of doing that if I were doing sound design in the traditional manner with hard effects. When you have a keyboard up with 10 different winds on it, then it just becomes clearer that you might want to try a different one on the cut.”
Foley effects are another opportunity for Nelson to use MIDI sound design to his advantage. Working with Foley artist, Jennifer Myers, on Valley of the Sun, Nelson put the Foley effects they recorded at Outpost into Kontakt 5. This allowed him to adapt those sounds to the picture quickly. “There were a lot of hand shakes and back pats, a lot of hand stuff, so I made several different hand instruments and pat instruments in Kontakt. If we had missed placing any sounds or if there was anything we just didn’t notice the first time around, I had all the original recordings of the Foley and I was able to make my own hand sounds with them. Sometimes if the slap sounded too small, I could just lower the pitch of the sound and it would work really well. All that flexibility comes out of Kontakt 5.”
Within Kontakt 5, Nelson has been doing more effects processing and pre-mixing. “All their reverbs are becoming really sophisticated, so mixing has become another sort of hybrid function. My mixing used to all be done in Pro Tools. Now, within the instrument, I can pan, pitch shift, add reverb and add chorus. I can also EQ within the instrument. So I’m finding that flexibility, as a mixer, is also a very efficient use of my time. I can do a lot of pre-mixing in Kontakt and then bring it all together in Pro Tools. I run everything through Pro Tools.”
Kontakt 5 is becoming more a part of Nelson’s workflow, both for composing and sound design. “I love the way Kontakt 5 keeps updating all the time. They really are working on making it more and more user friendly. I’ve been working with Kontakt for the past four or five years as a composer and I started using it for sound design over the past year. I just keep leaning on it more all the time because it really delivers.”
Dave Robertson is a sound designer/mixer at Nylon Studios (www.nylonstudios.com) in New York. Nylon Studios creates original music and sound design for TV commercials. They’ve worked on spots for Smirnoff, Cadillac, Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Snickers, and Mercedes to name just a few. Nylon Studios has facilities in both New York and Sydney, with clients throughout North America, Australia and Asia.
For the past two months, Robertson has used the Anthony DeMaria Labs ADL 1000 Tube Compressor (www.anthonydemarialabs.com) on just about every vocal track he’s recorded. “What I love about the ADL 1000 is what it does to vocals. It adds this amazing presence and warmth, which I haven’t really been able to get out of other compressors. It’s a vacuum tube compressor and it’s very much warm overall. It’s one of those things, where, when you hear it, you can really sense the difference. It’s pretty much the only thing we use on vocals now because it really adds this other dimension to the sound.”
The Anthony DeMaria Labs ADL 1000 tube compressor ($1,450) is a mono tube compressor/limiter that boasts an all-tube design with no integrated circuits or chips. Using a vacuum tube in place of integrated circuits creates a naturally “warmer” sound. It also has an opto electrical attenuator that eliminates the typical “pumping” sound you might find with other compressor/limiters.
Robertson recently worked on a campaign for the African telecommunications company, Airtel. Instead of a :30 or :60 track typical of television commercials, Robertson had to create a full-length track, which Airtel plans on making available for purchase. “We created a song in the style of Taio Cruz or LMFAO, with that ravey-pop sort of sound. We used it for a vocal on that, and it came out really nice. We really got to give the compressor a workout on the full-length track and it worked really well in that situation.”
The ADL 1000 interface has a simple, two-knob design, a VU meter and two toggle switches. The Peak Reduction knob sets the amount of gain reduction as indicated by the VU meter. The Gain knob controls the amount of output from the ADL 1000. The VU meter displays two different levels, depending on where the toggle switch is set. It can display the output level or the amount of peak reduction.
For Robertson, the simple design makes the ADL 1000 even more appealing. “It’s very simple to use. It’s pretty much two knobs. The actual compression settings are all internal. They sell it as ‘invisible’ compression, so, all of that works in the background. It’s kind of an old-school compressor in the sense that it really just has Peak Reduction and Gain on the front. So, the simplicity is really what I like about it.”
Tom McGurk is a co-owner and Emmy-winning composer at Bad Animals (www.badanimals.com), a studio in Seattle that focuses exclusively on audio post for film, television, videogames and corporate video.
McGurk has been using Celemony’s Melodyne (www.celemony.com) since the first iteration of Melodyne Editor came out. “I’ve been using it for a few years now and I just got the upgrade to 2.0. I don’t use it as a standalone. I use it as a plug-in. Also, I haven’t had to use the polyphonic feature of it, but it sounds amazing.”
Celemony’s Melodyne Editor 2.0 ($399) is software that allows you to edit audio material in a musical way. According to Celemony, Melodyne recognizes the notes in audio material and displays them on pitch and time grids, allowing you to see where notes begin and end, as well as the pitch of the note. You can then edit the notes to fit whatever pitch and time you need. From simple pitch correction to an entire overhaul of the melody or song, Melodyne can be used as a standalone application or plug-in. It even works with polyphonic audio material, allowing you, for example, to change a single note within a chord from a major to a minor third. Celemony refers to this feature as Direct Note Access.
McGurk is currently working on Biz Kid$, a national PBS show that teaches kids about money. (Last year, McGurk and Bad Animals were nominated for an Emmy for their sound work on Biz Kid$.) He loves the flexibility that Melodyne gives him when it comes to creating music for the show. “When we’re writing music for Biz Kid$, our turn around can be a day. I might only have the singer for less than an hour, so if I have to create harmony parts to second things out, I can do that. Also, if I have to change the melody, I can, and a couple of times I had to do that. I’ve physically had to change what they were singing and because of Melodyne, I could do it and still make the deadline. Melodyne also allows me to take parts of songs and turn them into MIDI so that I can have different instruments playing what the recorded piece was as well.”
McGurk is usually limited on the amount of time he has with the talent. Often, performance energy and clarity are more important than perfect pitch. For him, Melodyne can handle much more than any pitch and time corrections he might need to make. With Melodyne, he is able to go back and write music for a song the actor had already recorded. “We have actors that have to sing on camera, and in reality, I really only get them in the studio for 35 minutes. So, with the severe time restriction, it’s more important to get a great performance. Afterwards, I can use Melodyne to fix any pitch issues.
“Another thing I used Melodyne for, which was really cool, was a scene they had performed where we had to put the music in later on. Basically, I took the singing that the actor did, which was not really in a particular key, and brought it in to the key of the music that we put in underneath afterwards. That was totally cool because it was all about the performance, and I could make him sing in whatever key I needed him to. That’s the kind of thing we could not have futzed around with and been able to do as quickly as we could now. It probably would have taken a long time to do.”
From simple pitch correction, to the seemingly impossible re-write, McGurk is never disappointed with Melodyne. “When I’m doing pitch correction, I love all the things you can do within it. I love the way you can take notes and stretch them out, or make words longer. You can change the internal vibrator fluctuation within it as well. There are so many different things that Melodyne does, and they’re all so great.”
Peter Levin is co-owner of Splash Studio (www.splash-studios.com), located in the Chelsea area of New York City. Splash is a full-service audio post facility. In addition to editing, mixing and sound design, their services also include on-site Foley and ADR, as well as Dolby and DTS theatrical print mastering. They work with such clients as TLC, Discovery, Nickelodeon and Con Edison, as well as on feature-length films and documentaries.
Levin, the primary mixer and sound designer at Splash, has been using Soundminer (www.soundminer.com) for the past seven years. He remembers the days before he started using Soundminer, when sound effects searches were tedious and time consuming. “I remember when sounds lived on CDs. When you needed a sound effect, you went to your library and that meant going to a book, and looking up the type of sound you thought you wanted. Then you’d have to find the right CD, load it into the player, listen and decide that wasn’t really the type of sound you wanted. So you went through the process all over again. When you found what you wanted, you either recorded it off the player or ripped it off the CD. It was a very slow and time-consuming process to get sounds.”
Now, with hundreds of Gigabytes of digitized sound effects, Levin is able to use Soundminer to instantly search through and preview all of the effects in the vast collection at Splash. He can listen to effects right away, narrow down the choices, and send the sounds, or even just selected parts of the sounds, into his session quickly and easily. “As a sound designer and mixer, I use Soundminer all the time,” he says. “We are a post company. There is a ton of stuff we are working with. How you organize your thoughts creatively is critical to being able to function as a creative person in this field. That ability to organize yourself quickly and easily, and get your fingers on things quickly, is — I don’t think I can stress it enough — the job. And Soundminer is something that is designed to do that thing really well.”
Soundminer is a digital audio assets manager and sound effects/music search engine that does more than just organize your collection. Soundminer uses the metadata attached to each digitized sound file to provide relevant and instant search results and then allows you to preview those effects right away. With the latest version, Soundminer V.4 ($899/pro), you can also view/edit the waveform of each file, edit metadata, spot to Pro Tools/Nuendo, apply VST plug-ins, import QuickTime movies, batch convert files, and so much more.
Recently, Levin relied on Soundminer to help him efficiently complete the sound design on a Web campaign for Con Edison, the power supply company for the metro New York area. “We work with them pretty regularly on these two- to four-minute videos for their power conservation campaign. There is a lot of sound design involved in that. It is a great opportunity to be like a Japanese brush painter. You have one shot to make it great, and the client is sitting right behind you. You have to design and mix these videos in a couple of hours. Soundminer is my go-to tool for that. Since these are live action with animation and animated graphics, it’s very sound-design intensive and I couldn’t do it without Soundminer.”
Though Soundminer offers many features, Levin uses only a small part of the program. “I probably use only 25 percent of what the program offers, but I really use what I use and I don’t have to think about it. If I need to find a sound and manipulate it in some way, choose a part of it, find it easily, then that’s what Soundminer does so great. At the end of the day, I use it as a glorified database, but it’s a database that’s designed specifically for audio professionals. It’s just well thought out.”
Curt Bush is the owner of White Dog Studios (www.whitedogstudios.net) in Atlanta. White Dog Studios offers a variety of audio post services, including editing, 5.1 surround mixing, sound design, and even on-location ADR. Bush has over 20 years of experience in the audio business, and works with a wide variety of clients, from local advertisers to Sony Pictures.
Whether he’s in the studio, on location or at home, Bush chooses to mix and monitor playback through Genelec speakers (www.genelec.com). He’s been working on them since he opened White Dog back in 1998. In the studio, Bush uses the Genelec 8040s in his 5.1 set up. “One thing I’ve been consistent with since I opened my studio, has been my speakers. For final mixes, I listen through the Genelec 8040s, and I also have a set of 1029s that I use as reference. I have both of those at the studio and at home. I know what everything is going to sound like when it comes off of Genelec speakers.”
The Genelec 8040A ($1,490) bi-amplified studio monitor offers a wide frequency response (48Hz – 20kHz +/- 2dB) with deep clear bass in a compact design. It has a flat frequency response both on and off axis. The Genelec 1029A bi-amplified nearfield monitor works especially well in challenging environments. The speaker offers room response controls that allow them to be matched to the surroundings. The 1029s were manufactured from 1996–2005, and are no longer available to purchase new from the factory.
When Bush records on-location ADR, he takes along his Genelec 1029s. “I record all the on-location ADR for Drop Dead Diva and Necessary Roughness, and that goes out to Sony Pictures in LA. I always take a set of 1029s when I do that.”
Bush likes the way the Genelecs translate to other media. “I’ve mixed thousands of things for TV, radio and films, and I’ve gotten to hear them on-air or in the theater, and I know how the mixes are going to relate. Even when I’m mixing for the Web, I know what I can expect on playback through computer speakers when I do the mix on the 1029s. I trust that when I hear it on a set of Genelecs, I know what it’s going to sound like on the air.”
While there are many brands of quality speakers available, Bush is glad he chose to go with Genelec. “I have found that if I picked one type of speaker to learn and listen to, and learn how they relate to the rest of the world, then it makes my life a lot easier.”