Sound and video post production engineer | Dave Woolley
...of Trilion Video talks about the differences in recording techniques between audio and video.
David Woolley is a graduate of the Surrey University Tonmeister course; a training which he feels equipped him to choose from a wide variety of sound engineering careers.
David's first job was at AIR London where he worked with a stream of top names including Japan, Madness and Jim Steinman. He readily admits that it was an incredibly good start in life; and he could not help but become involved with very prestigious projects.
Nevertheless, he felt the need for a more demanding job, and almost accidentally found his forte when the post production of the Princes Charity Trust video was assigned to him. The video was made with top musicians such as Pete Townshend, Jethro Tull and Joan Armatrading, and the nature of the post-production appealed to David's creative instincts. Through this project he heard of Trilion Video who at that time were thinking of building an up-market video post-production suite and David left AIR to supervise the building of the studio he now runs.
Trilion are involved with many television programmes as well as straightforward videos and a lot of their work is sent off round the world through the satellite networks.
'Trilion can handle everything from the germ of an idea to a finished master tape. There's a big OB (outside broadcast) fleet, including one van which has ten cameras, four VTRs (video tape recorders), and a 48-track multitrack, and you can have anything from that down to a single camera and cassette. We also do conversion of film standards (from British to USA or vice versa) and small scale copying. Trilion can transform an idea into reality.'
Since video is a topic as yet relatively unexplored in Home & Studio Recording, David felt he would like to talk about some aspects of his work which differ from methods used in the recording of a record.
'There are areas which are very similar; for example the tape recorder and the desks. The areas that are different are broadly in the number of sound sources that you have and the fact that you are controlling several machines simultaneously.
'There are also differences in what is desirable production-wise. If you're making a record, you only have to worry about the record; side A and side B. You have a certain number of tracks on each side and the music on that record has to portray everything you want to say. With a television programme you have to have a conversation between the two different elements of the production: what the pictures portrays and what the audio says. With television and video these two elements are as strong as each other and have to work in harmony, so you have different production demands.
'Not all the work is music video; there is a lot that is without music. For example you might need to build up sound over a mute passage, which nobody in record production does. You don't sit around and think up something to record.
'As far as drama is concerned, from a production point of view the sound is tied in with the pictures. It will either be live or a studio drama set up and the process is very similar to that used for music. We would probably record on multitrack and then mix it down in the usual way. It's just the contents that are different, not the form.'
'We did a 13-part series called Mirror Image, directed by Mike Mansfield, in which the bands are allowed to film anything they want in the studio after they have played, and this can then be slotted in. It might involve having pictures over the concert audio, or the audio might stop and have something else. For example, in the last series they had dancers, one band had outdoor theatre, there was one about the Berlin Crisis, so they had lots of refugees and border guards and some of them had interviews with the artists.
'This is the method which is largely being used by directors to overcome the bland approach of 'In Concerts.'
'From a production point of view, In Concerts are difficult in that you have very little control over what is going on on stage. If there's a small budget, you may only get one crack at it, and if the band happens to have a bad night you're stuck with it. There is also a conflict between the audio requirements and camera requirements which are sometimes very different. '
Live broadcasting is very challenging and, of course, television is the only picture medium which allows you to do this. A recent project in this field was a series of ten 45-minute programmes, called ECT, which filled The Tube slot on Friday afternoons. These programmes were totally live and involved the most complicated and demanding live broadcasting set-up ever used prior to the Wembley Live Aid extravaganza.
Each 45-minute programme consisted of four bands who played for ten minutes each. They each had their own stage with its own PA and recording facilities. Recorded at ex-London Weekend Television studios, they were so cramped for space that equipment was in different rooms. Some of it was even outside in the OB van. Three of the stages were arranged in a 'Mercedes' shape in the middle of the studio, with the fourth alongside one of the walls. 'There were ten cameras, 120 microphones and a live audience!'
The biggest difference that David found when he moved into the VPP (Video Post-Production) field was that there was a lot more pressure and far greater things were expected of him. This, coupled with the fact that the medium allows him greater freedom to implement his own creative personality has added an exciting new dimension to his engineering craft.
Trilion was one of the first facilities to recognise the need for quality audio for video. This aspect of the medium has long suffered from negligence and it's only recently that studios all over the world have begun to realise just how important the quality of the soundtrack is. When we eventually have facility for stereo television in the home every video company in the world is going to have to gear up for it. Meanwhile with technology in the domestic VTR market moving on apace, companies like Trilion had to cope with the demand.
"The music video business is still enjoying a massive boom, although pop promos as such do not really give the keen sound engineer much to keep him busy."
The studio centrepiece is a Trident console with a Studer 24-track and a large number (for a video facility) of sound processing equipment.
'Music video is primarily what Trilion built the studio for. The idea was to merge the atmospheres of the recording and the television studios. We wanted it to be laid out in a fashion familiar to groups, but with all the bells and whistles you would expect from video post-production.
'We're geared up as a mixing studio. I don't think we have a lot of equipment compared to similar facilities, but there are only two or three other post-production facilities like Trilion in town and there aren't many who offer video sound as opposed to audio sweetening.'
The music video business is still enjoying a massive boom, although pop promos as such do not really give the keen sound engineer much to keep him busy.
'The band usually just mime to the record. Sometimes you have to add some clapping or cheering and things like that, but not very much.'
The other type of music video is, of course, live concerts; David, however, feels that these are changing their style now. The concept of a live concert is no longer stimulating the kind of excitement in the viewing audience that they initially achieved. It can be pretty boring watching a concert on the TV with the naff sound reproduction that your average set is going to chuck out. Simulcasts (radio and TV), because of the stereo sound facility, manage to portray some of the excitement experienced at the venue and these are growing in popularity, but if you haven't got the stereo facility, other ways of creating interest have to be found.
The straightforward 'documentary' approach whereby the television viewer is simply eavesdropping on the proceedings is giving way to productions which incorporate extra footage cut into the performances.
Equipment-wise, there were a total of seven mixing desks, dealing with the stages, the audience, the effects and the final mix to on air sound. There were four 24-input consoles (one for each stage): Soundcraft, Helios, Trident and Audio Developments. Each of these had 16 outputs fed into a custom built switcher with four sets of 16 inputs. Thus at the flick of a switch they could access any one set of 16 outputs. That set then went to the rack of 24 Dolbys which went to the multitrack (Studer and Otari). When Dolby is in encode, the output is a foldback of the input, and this was sent to desk five: a 24-input Trident, which mixed the sound of whichever band was playing at the time.
At this stage there were sound processors if required which included two digital reverbs, two digital delays, a harmoniser and several compressors. The output of the Trident went to a 10-input Neve console which had the on-stage mix combined with the audience and play-in from video tape (which had the 'end of part' stings and occasional film clips for which they would be broadcasting sound from video tape).
The seventh desk was again a Neve, and this had a mix of the 12 audience mics to stereo, and this was sent to desk six.
'We had problems getting together such a large collection of suitable compatible mixing desks! It proved impossible to hire, because none of the hire companies were interested in tying up consoles for just one day a week for ten weeks. In the end all seven were found from inside Trilion. I never knew we had that many! But we found them in various OBs and things.'
On that series David did a stereo digital mix which was transmitted to Channel 4 on a digital microwave link. Channel 4 then did their own mono mix. It would have been a simple matter to turn the exercise into a simulcast because the high quality audio was there and simply needed somebody to take it, and it is unfortunate that early plans to do this fell through.
The actual quantity of microphones and other equipment required were not really the problem; you just keep putting them up until you have finished. The main difficulty for David was learning the material of so many bands in order to do them justice. Four bands a week for ten weeks is a lot of material and his perfectionist approach requires him to, as far as he is capable, provide every single band with a high calibre mix of their music and a true representation of what they stand for.
'The stage mics were split from the PA (ENTEC, who also do The Tube), so our side was only half the story. There were also four sets of PA and monitors and everything else. It was certainly a full day's work. We would go down on Thursday night and check that the lines were still working. It was a studio rig; the multicores were put in on week zero, and there were left there until week ten, which was nice.
"With a television programme you have to have a conversation between the two different elements of the production: what the pictures portrays and what the audio says."
Many similar problems to those encountered at Live Aid were found, but luckily managed to work most of them out. During the ten weeks, only three of the microphones went down on transmission, and out of 1200, that's not bad!
'One of the strengths of the Tonmeister course is that it helped you to speak to the oboe player as well as the boffos. You learnt to understand everything that was going on and be able to relate to all those people. It certainly helped me to work well in that situation.'
Recent projects have seen a new approach to video production on concert recordings, in that David has been involved in the actual recording prior to post-production. The opportunity to actually do some pre-production has enabled him to input a lot more. Just prior to this interview he was in Paris recording Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
'It's good because I have been a little unhappy about some of the multitrack tapes that come in and it's highly preferable to doing post-production on stuff you have never heard before. This way you can study the records and then the band's set list and really get to know their music and them. You can make sense out of the track splits - you really need to know what's most important in each song - and it helps you to make a good stereo image out of all the sounds. You can speak to the front of house PA and everybody.
'Tapes which come in from music concerts are usually 24-track analogue recorded at 15ips with Dolby. The distinction they have from records is that only half of it is the audio production; the other half is the picture, so when you work on those tapes you really must be watching the picture. Everything you do must complement what's happening visually.
'Generally speaking, the most workable arrangement is to have the picture post production done first. The picture suite then sends you the ¾" video copy of what they have decided to do: orders, cuts, extras etc and, more important what camera shots they've chosen. With this sort of work you're relying on the director being musical. If the synth player is playing a relatively insignificant part it's inappropriate to have that featured visually. If the video picture is musically important it's possible to ask them to change it but it's really more common for them to get it right than wrong. They've usually done a lot of preparation and pan in on the right things.
'The possibility of sending tapes back for changes depends entirely on your relationship with the video people. We were recording a singer speaking a Gospel story over a piano playing 12-bar blues. When the tape came to me there was one cut which worked very well from a story point of view; it was cut at the beginning of each bar, but it left us with two bar sevens in the sequence. So I phoned up and said that it all worked very well but suggested another way of cutting it which amounted to taking out a further two seconds and left the music making sense. So there can be some creative feedback between the sound and picture people. To be fair, I haven't got so good a feeling for pictures as he has and he hasn't got so good a feeling for sound as I have, so what do you expect?'
When the pictures arrive at post-production they should be as near to the final pictures as possible, not so much for the actual content as for the length. It's relatively simple to ask for picture substitutions, but messing around with the length causes so much work and degradation of both sound and video that more often than not it's deemed impossible. This is because all video editing is done electronically (no razor blades) and you're stuck with the length once you have edited because the pictures are there. You can't take them away, only substitute others. The only way to do it is dub onto another film, and lose quality.
Another problem is that you're always working with a timing device which determines the length of fade outs.
'When you are putting records together you feel the gaps and crossfades, but all those decisions have been made by the time we remix and we have to conform. The job can potentially become more technical and appear to be more rigid but it is not a real problem if you have confidence in the person who did the picture editing. It's not a production problem, just a technical exercise.'
'So we have the 24-track and the pictures. The 24-track has timecode recorded at the recording stage and the picture timecode is recorded at the editing stage. There's a relationship between the position in the edited programme and the unedited multitrack which must be calculated from the computer readouts at the picture editing stage. The timecode calculated offset will change every time there is a picture edit, so you have to calculate all of these.
'Then I make a stereo mix, which I record onto Sony PCM F1 (which is video format) and record that onto a second U-matic. We playback two U-matics; one to picture and one with stereo digital audio and the F1 becomes the soundtrack master.
'We've been modifying our F1s to be capable of editing and slaving together, and from time to time I use two or three of them as a digital multitrack machine. Off the shelf F1s have no external reference inputs, but the technical department here have managed to do that. That gives us a pretty good springboard into the second generation of digital audio equipment which is just becoming more accessible: things like the new Fairlight CMI Series III, and the low cost things like the Greengate, with everything being stored on disc instead of tape. You can have anything in any order you feel like: forwards, backwards, sideways. Things recorded on tape are pretty unmanageable really. You have to wait for the machine to spool back and you are lumbered with having sounds in a fixed order. It's impossible to have the second minute first and the first minute second.'
Trilion are looking very seriously at building a high tech digital studio in their Soho post production facility, incorporating all the latest in a fast moving industry. 'Talk to me about that in maybe six months time.'
Okay, I will. Meanwhile, it's back to the studio and line up the machines.
Interview by Janet Angus
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