by Stephanie Argy
Sound post production has undergone a dramatic evolution over the last 10 years. As a result of the new tools available, some sound editors and re-recording mixers, including Larry Blake (Full Frontal, Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic, Erin Brockovich), have begun to use workstations not only for editing but for mixing as well, integrating previously separated tasks into a unified workflow built around a single hardware standard.
Others, including supervising sound editor Mark Mangini (The Time Machine, The Green Mile, Lethal Weapon 4, City of Angels) and re-recording mixers Michael Minkler (Black Hawk Down, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Star Wars) and Myron Nettinga (Black Hawk Down, Insomnia, Double Jeopardy, Runaway Bride), prefer a more traditional approach in which editors edit on workstations, and mixers dub with a conventional console. In this conversation, they offer sharply differing views about the future of sound post production and why they work the way they do.
Larry Blake: Let’s start by looking at the industry as a whole. I think in this day and age there are certain givens. To my knowledge, there isn’t any editorial done on mag anymore. The industry seems to have solidified in that regard.
Mark Mangini: I think we’re all happy to have gotten rid of mag, but there’s still no file standardization for digital playback and recording. That’s what I bemoan about the loss of 35mm sprocketed sound. Not that I wish we had it back, but the standardization was fabulous.
Myron Nettinga: We’re in an in-between state. From a mixing stage point of view, we have to allow for all the different possible formats and workstations that can come to us.
Michael Minkler: It’s a bad situation that seems to be getting a little bit better, because some of the formats have gone away. Standardization would have been nice. We should have set the standard high and found something that suited everybody. But it didn’t happen. The important question, though, is what kind of creativity does it bring you?
“Mixing is building an audio landscape that enhances the visuals and takes an audience through all different human emotions over the course of the movie. None of that is done on a frame-by-frame basis with a level control or volume graphing or notching out little things here and there.” – Michael Minkler
Blake: Why don’t we go right to a topic I know we’ll get to eventually — the whole idea of mixing within Pro Tools, as opposed to mixing with a separate console.
Mangini: My use of automation and mixing in Pro Tools has been really scattered. I have premixed some things to develop an aesthetic that I wanted to control entirely, maybe for a design effect, and I’ve used it for the precise automation. But I am not generally premixing in Pro Tools and bringing the results to dubbing stages.
Nettinga: I came from an editing background, so I’m very familiar with digital workstations. But I would not want to use it in its current state as my main mixing tool. There’s been a misperception that a ProControl [Digidesign’s hardware controller] is a mixing console; really, it’s a control surface, a front end to a single digital editing workstation — the key word being “editing.” On our stage, we have a total capability of over 900 inputs. We generally use a maximum of 300 to 400 channels, but we have the ability to grab something else if necessary — from a variety of different sources, including a DA88 with the editor’s tracks, MMPs playing previous temp stems, or stage workstations running at different sample rates.
Mangini: Let’s take some fictitious reel — this insane sound editor brought a thousand tracks for one reel of film…
Nettinga: (laughing) You call that fictitious?!
Mangini: Let’s not go there! Larry, would you want to have a thousand virtual tracks on a desk?
Blake: With the current technology, the most tracks you could have per system is a little over 100, including EQ and sends. When I’m working, each track has multiple sends, multiple reverbs, full six-band EQ. It has what you’re used to. When some people mix in a workstation, they try to cut corners by having EQ only on the bus. I’m horrified that they wouldn’t have EQ on each channel.
“Great mixes are getting done with traditional consoles, and great mixes are getting done in a ProControl-based environment. I think it’s really dangerous for us to get stuck on the notion that one way of working is better than another. All that matters is that you get the results that you want.” – Mark Mangini
Minkler: I think you’re starting to get into the crux of the whole thing, which is cost.
Blake: Absolutely. If it were literally a thousand tracks it would be unwieldy, because you would need ten systems. For something of that scale, my technology as it is today wouldn’t work. However, there are ways to do big movies and not have a thousand tracks. Ben Burtt designed Star Wars: Episode I [The Phantom Menace] — and we can’t call that a small movie — so that every reel, with the exception of the big reel six, had one Pro Tools session with 120 or less tracks, including backgrounds and hard effects.
Nettinga: But even on smaller-scale projects, you won’t get the best results using one machine that tries to do everything. Our stage is set up to take advantage of several manufacturers’ equipment — the best of all worlds. The ergonomics of a ProControl just aren’t up to the level of a good re-recording console.
Blake: There is no question that the current control surface technology has nowhere near the ergonomic flexibility of a good re-recording console like the Euphonix or an [AMS Neve] DFC. However, you have a different mindset when you can do so much work of a critical, small nature off-line. In a normal situation, you have to be at play speed to make a change.
Minkler: Right there, you are defining the difference between mixing and editing. What you are saying is with a ProControl and a workstation, you can do these little finite pieces of work. That is the job of editorial. That is the composition of sounds, and that is not mixing.
Blake: But I’m not talking about moving or adding or deleting sound; I’m squirting a little bit of reverb on that syllable, or changing the EQ on that syllable, or changing the level. On the last few movies I’ve done, at the beginning of the first temp dub, I will put the input faders at zero, and then I will listen to representative sections of the dialogue. I find out at what level things were recorded at, then I adjust the master fader so that it will play at 85. At that point, I do the first temp dub, using the moving fader automation, with my hands on the faders, to adjust the level of that movie. That first temp might take anywhere from two to six days, usually closer to two. When I get to the second temp dub, having heard the first one in many theaters, carefully aligned at 85, I know what stood out, what wasn’t right, and I will go ahead and make those adjustments, either on faders or with volume mapping. And ditto with the EQ, sends and reverbs. When we get to the pre-mix proper, levels and EQ have been honed in, and I rarely touch the faders; I almost never touch them for dialogue at the finals. At that point, because all of these decisions that I’ve made cumulatively have been kept, I’m fine-tuning at the level of words and syllables. The act of having to go in and record it at sync speed would slow me down tremendously.
“Let’s not call rushing, ‘efficient.'” – Larry Blake
Nettinga: It seems like you’re saying that not having the ability to recall your moves from a temp dub is limiting, but to us it’s not. I’ve seen many great mixers at work, and they didn’t seem to be hampered if the automation from a temp dub wasn’t carried over into the final. On a first temp, we’re trying to find where the director wants to go and become familiar with the movie. We take the final to a higher level by incorporating what we’ve learned from the temps. I’ve never felt like I lost the effort of a temp dub.
Blake: You’re creating a false dichotomy. You make it seem that you remember either the mood or the technical stuff. I’m doing both. Hundreds, if not thousands, of good decisions, approved by the director, will be reproduced exactly.
Mangini: Larry’s way of working allows him to piggyback on work he’s already done, while you guys start from scratch after the temp dubs with new tracks and new recordings. So is this an efficiency issue?
Minkler: No. Somehow, a misconception developed that this ProControl tool can actually mix. But all you’re doing is assembling sounds, and very few of those at that, in a very limited domain.
Blake: A ProControl is clearly far from an ideal console, but to say that what is done with it is not mixing is absurd. Does the dialogue sound good? Does the music sound good? Is it appropriate? That’s what mixing is. At the end of the day, all that matters is what you’re hearing.
Nettinga: Using a ProControl would never fly on some films we’re on. Directors like the fluidity that we give them. One of the worst things I’ve seen happen to somebody supposedly mixing on their workstations is when they pull picture off-line and start doing something with an EQ or plug-in. A glaze comes over the eyes of the other creative people around, because they’ve been excluded from the process.
“You won’t get the best results using one machine that tries to do everything. Our stage is set up to take advantage of several manufacturers’ equipment — the best of all worlds.” – Myron Nettinga
Blake: Ironically, I find it more involving. On the last film I did, the director sat next to me when we were making the final fixes. We had a mix we all liked, but we took advantage of the power of mixing in Pro Tools to tweak every last frame and syllable. When the mix ended, he said, “I cannot conceive of working any other way.”
Minkler: Again, Larry, you’re describing editorial — preparation of tracks, composition of material, and assembly of tracks.
Blake: What are the tools of mixing, if they’re not volume, sends, outboard gear and EQ? None of us would agree with the infamous line from a legendary old-school mixer, who summed up all that he did on a re-recording stage as, “I raise ’em and lower ’em.” But I’m trying to establish a broader description of mixing. Tell me what else is done.
Minkler: Mixing is building an audio landscape that enhances the visuals and takes an audience through all different human emotions over the course of the movie. None of that is done on a frame-by-frame basis with a level control or volume graphing or notching out little things here and there.
Blake: But I’m still soundscaping. I’m not even discussing that, because to me, that’s a given.
Mangini: And to be fair, in addition to Larry, there are many people mixing movies on ProControl.
“My use of automation and mixing in Pro Tools has been really scattered. I have premixed some things to develop an aesthetic that I wanted to control entirely, maybe for a design effect, and I’ve used it for the precise automation. But I am not generally premixing in Pro Tools and bringing the results to dubbing stages.” – Mangini
Minkler: But it’s rudimentary. In a closed environment, for instance, a television series, where you’ve got the same tracks, music set-ups and effects set-ups, day in and day out for nine months, beautiful. Do it that way. But it doesn’t have the flexibility and sophistication to do any kind of project, any size, to deliver anything to anybody.
Mangini: Larry is both sound editor and re-recording mixer, so he has great control over the flow of elements between the two. Myron and Mike and I live in another world — they have to service many different clients, and I have to bring tracks to a wide variety of mixers. Unfortunately, as I understand it, Larry’s virtual paradigm doesn’t work very well in a client-based world. Unless mixing and editorial are symbiotically connected, you don’t get the full advantage of virtual mixing.
Blake: I admit that the way I work is not good as a business model for a facility, because I’m committed for six months or so, supervising the sound editing and re-recording. But I do 90 percent of the “mix” decisions on a mix stage, with proper monitors, during temp mixes and the final, and not in an edit room. What’s wrong with this?
Minkler: There’s nothing wrong with it. But we’re debating where the industry is going. Well, the industry’s not going there, you’re going there.
Mangini: The industry could go there, though. God knows, if there’s a cheaper way to do something, somebody’s going to make us do it that way. Let’s not assume that ours is the only way to work.
Minkler: The industry cannot go there right now. It’s still too inefficient.
Blake: If you were to ask my clients — specifically, Steven Soderbergh or his producers — I think that they would strongly disagree with your concept of “efficient.”
“On the last film I did, the director sat next to me when we were making the final fixes. We had a mix we all liked, but we took advantage of the power of mixing in Pro Tools to tweak every last frame and syllable. When the mix ended, he said, ‘I cannot conceive of working any other way.'” – Larry Blake
Minkler: In the world I live in, efficiency is whether you can make an A+ track when someone says, “You’ve got six weeks of editorial and mixing, total. Go, now!”
Blake: Let’s not call that kind of rushing, “efficient.”
Minkler: It’s not efficient on their part to have demanded it. But it’s efficient on our part if we accomplish it.
Blake: I could do it, too, if I had to. But, I don’t, because we plan around it. There’s very little waste of people, time or money. And that, to me, is efficiency.
Minkler: I agree that the way you work is extremely efficient. It’s the best way to do a movie. But your client is the only one I know of in this business who will allow that to happen.
Blake: I do this to remove the grief overhead, so I can focus on what the director and I want to hear. Let’s look at any movie, which has x number of original edit sessions in Pro Tools, which get boiled down to y number of pre-dubs, which get recorded on z number of stems. Now what happens if, in the final dub, the director wants to pull a scene out of a reel and move it to the next one? You have to conform the final stage session, maybe the music session and whatever else you have going out to final mix. You almost certainly have to conform all the effects pre-dubs and all the stems. In my scenario, I only have to conform the original units. On a complicated show, I think this would offer a big advantage.
Minkler: Initially, if we were in a hurry, we would just conform the pre-dubs and start mixing, while somebody else conforms the original elements.
Nettinga: If we felt the need to conform the original units. If I have over a hundred pre-dub tracks, I probably had four times that number of tracks coming in on original material, which means you would have several hundred tracks to conform. I pre-dub to MMR-8’s, then play them off of Pro Tools, and if I need to change something, I can.
“With a ProControl and a workstation, you can do these little finite pieces of work. That is the job of editorial. That is the composition of sounds, and that is not mixing” – Michael Minkler
Blake: You’re saying that you don’t have to conform the original elements. I never have to make that choice. I always come to the final with everything.
Mangini: You guys are running direct from Pro Tools?
Minkler: Yes, and we use MMP-16s, as well.
Blake: How many Pro Tools stations are working at the final mix of a complicated movie?
Minkler: Seven, eight, or more.
Blake: And the fader moves and EQ that you used to make your pre-dubs are playing with the original Pro Tools edit sessions?
Nettinga: I don’t dub off of the original source sessions, but if it’s necessary, I can recreate any pre-dub. All moves and settings are saved.
Blake: But let’s say you’re doing complicated outboard processing on, say, a line — the classic instance where you don’t dig into the line too much because you want to see what everything’s going to be like at the final dub.
“God knows, if there’s a cheaper way to do something, somebody’s going to make us do it that way. Let’s not assume that ours is the only way to work.” – Mark Mangini
Minkler: That’s the one advantage that you have, Larry. But it has nothing to do with having a ProControl. Could we process something in Pro Tools before it hits our faders? You betcha. We just don’t do that, but we certainly could. We have a set of procedures that works pretty well. You’re saying you have a set of procedures that works pretty well, and that’s fine. I think our debate is about the technology of a console versus a ProControl, and the ProControl, we have to admit, guys, is just in its infancy.
Blake: Absolutely. But there is nothing that you can do that I can’t do, and vice versa.
Minkler: But we can do it ten times faster.
Blake: Oh, give me a break! Ask me how long the dialogue pre-dubs were on Ocean’s Eleven, or on Traffic. Five very leisurely days. But the bottom line is the work. Did you hear Traffic and say “God, if Larry had only used a Euphonix, it would have sounded good.”
Minkler: Absolutely not.
Mangini: The fact is that great mixes are getting done with traditional consoles, and great mixes are getting done in a ProControl-based environment. I think it’s really dangerous for us to get stuck on the notion that one way of working is better than another. All that matters is that you get the results that you want.
Editor’s Note: Read part 2 for the extended discussion.