THE WHAM! BANG! POW! ST
by Michael Perry
Sound editing in Hollywood will never be the same--that is, if Bob Moore has his way. His DM-1 system, driven by a Mega 4, promises to revolutionize the process of movie sound recording. Whether it's a gunshot or a cow's moo, the DM-1 can add it to any film, anywhere, and far more efficiently than the time-honored Foley process.
Screech! The bad guy's car speeds away. Crack! Crunch! Shatter! The cop car careens into it. Ka-Pow! Rat-A-Tat! A shootout. Mmpph! Thud! The bad guy moans and falls to the ground. The members of the audience teeter on the edges of their seats.
Every thrilling sound effect in the motion picture "Cannonball Run III" was added using a Mega controlling a revolutionary new digital sound-editing system called the DM-1, developed by Bob Moore and his associates.
Traditionally, once a film has been edited, it goes to a sound-editing company where craftsmen painstakingly cut and splice sound effects, one by one, into bulky reels of magnetic film. A 30-second chase scene can have more than 500 individual sound effects, from gunshots and sirens to footsteps.
For the last 60 years, this has meant physically cutting magnetic film and splicing in each effect. (Magnetic film is 35mm motion picture film coated with the same magnetic oxide found on an ordinary music cassette. It runs parallel with the picture. For each "track" of sound, there is a reel of magnetic film.)
To create 24 sound-effect tracks (a common number), the sound editors splice together 24 separate reels of magnetic film which all run at the same time when the pictures sound is mixed. It's cumbersome, slow and subject to failure--when one track breaks, two dozen machines must be stopped while the reel is repaired. This method has been used throughout the history of sound film.
But what would happen if someone invented a system that stored the sounds digitally, with CD quality? And, rather than cutting reels of film manually and splicing in effects one by one, a sound editor could simply play the picture on a video deck, stop it where he or she wants to add an effect, choose the sound, click a mouse and lay it in? Well, someone did, and the Atari Mega is the heart of this versatile professional sound-editing system that's winning rave reviews in Hollywood.
Behind the DM-1
The DM-1's inventor, Bob Moore, has four of the systems at BLC sound, located on the 20th Century-Fox studio lot in Los Angeles. Each system consists of an off-the-shelf Mega 4 with a color monitor and Astra 120-megabyte hard drive, a multi-track tape recorder with amplifier and speakers, a standard VHS video recorder and Hybrid Arts' ADAP Soundtrack and SMPTE-Mate boxes, which read SMPTE time code from the video recorder and send that information to the computer and a multitrack recorder.
SMPTE code is to video what ASCII is to computers: an agreed-upon standard that editors, broadcasters and others use as a common frame of reference, no matter what equipment they're using. (SMPTE stands for Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.) SMPTE code assigns a unique number to every picture frame of a videotape, 30 frames a second. The DM-1 uses the SMPTE code to keep the three different elements--the Mega 4, the multi-track recorder and the videotape--in sync.
|File selector box
showing sound ef-
fects files names.
Each file contains
one sound effect.
Highlighted is the
Building soundtracks with the DM-1 is extremely intuitive. To demonstrate, Moore loaded a videotape showing an action scene from the trailer of a "coming soon" cops-and-robbers movie. On the videotape, the picture had been edited, but there were no sounds yet, so the car chase, gunshots and explosions played silently.
"First, we go through a picture and mark where we want to add sound effects," Moore explained. A screen on the ST showed four columns: Sound Start, Sound End, a blank column and a column for description.
The videotape showed a man popping out of a car window and firing a gun. Moore paused the VCR and typed into the description column "Gunshot/Car". The ST added the starting and stopping times automatically by reading the SMPTE code off of the videotape.
Similarly, he paused at many other spots in the two-minute video, making notes such as "Body falling", "Skidding" and "Machine gun". Soon, he had a detailed cueing sheet with SMPTE code start and stop times and descriptions of the sounds he wanted. What was missing were the sounds themselves.
Then, the really amazing part began. On the ST screen, Moore opened a START Selector box, labeled A to Z. He chose the C: folder and within that opened the CARS folder. Inside were standard ST files with names such as CARSTRT.SND, CHARGER.SND and CARSKID.SND. He selected one of the sounds and then clicked on the PLAY box onscreen. Over speakers came the unmistakable screech of a car speeding by, reproduced with CD quality.
|Bob Moore, inventor of the DM-1 sound editing system, in his
studio. SMPTE time code from an ordinary VHS video deck drives
the ST--controlled sound editing system and the multitrack recorder.
After a mouse click, the cue sheet appeared again. Moore clicked next to "Gunshot/Car" and the ST copied the filename CARSKID.SND into the blank column. Then he played the video. The screech was perfectly synchronized with the picture on the screen.
Going back and forth between the cue sheet screen and the sound selection/modification screen, Moore chose appropriate sounds for every action in the videotape. The once-empty column on his cue sheet filled quickly with sound filenames and within an hour he had accomplished what normally takes two days--selection and positioning of 60 to 80 sound effects.
Now came the real test: How would it all look and sound together? Moore put up the cue sheet screen on the ST and simply pressed Play on his video deck. The DM-1 read the time code from the video and, amazingly, every sound effect he had chosen played back, one after the other, and sometimes two simultaneously, filling the previously silent videotape with thrilling action sounds, exactly synchronized to the picture.
The Computer of Choice
Bob Moore looked at several computers before choosing the ST, largely for its sheer computational muscle. "We considered several other popular computers, but none had the raw power and speed we needed to drive our system. The ST's low price was a major factor. We also needed a machine that would be around for years to come. If we had developed this fantastic sound-editing system and the computer that drove it had been discontinued, it would have been very frustrating." Moore's faith in the ST has been rewarded--it's still here, when some other systems have disappeared.
Larry Smith and Dale Jergenson of Candlewick studios in Hollywood bought the ST when it first came out and claim that "it paid for itself on our first job." Smith explained that most similar systems cost over $100,000 and many are less versatile. Jergenson gave an example of the efficiency of cutting soundtracks using the DM-1: "A couple of years ago we had a scene where we had to add the 'click and whir' of a photographer's camera. Back then it took us seven hours. Using the ST system, I can do the same scene now in 10 minutes."
Smith feels that the machine addresses a real need in the film industry by allowing him to create better soundtracks faster and for less money. "Put in the hands of a good sound artist, it's a jewel," Smith says, but he cautions that the DM-1 is only a tool and only as good as the artisan and craftsperson using it. "It's a wonderful piece of equipment," he says, "but just as a good word processor does not make a person a good writer, this equipment won't turn a hack into a great sound editor."
The old method of sound-editing has many serious limitations. A walk down the hall at 20th Century-Fox reveals how sounds were stored in the past: a gigantic sound vault, filled with thousands of boxes of magnetic film and indexed on filing cards, like a public library. Harry Snodgrass, a film sound editor who has switched to the DM-1, explained what an editor ordinarily had to do to get a sound effect.
"You would go to a vault like this and look in the index to find the sound you wanted. If there were several options, you'd have to get the actual tapes and play them on a player. Once you'd found a sound you liked, you couldn't just put it into your soundtrack--these were master tapes. You'd send it out to a sound facility to be copied and you'd get it back the next day to splice into your film."
"If you found a gunshot sound you liked and wanted to use it 50 times, you have to get it transferred 50 times onto 50 different pieces of magnetic film."
The procedure is much simpler with an ST. All of the sounds that you may need can be sampled and stored on a hard drive. Once there, they can be previewed and copied instantly, using the appropriate software.
Care for a Sample?
Sampling is as simple as playing the tape on an ordinary tape player and sending the audio signal into the ADAP soundtrack, which converts the sound into digital information. Then a file name is chosen and the sound is captured in the hard drive. The only limits are the quality of your original sound recording and the capacity of your hard drive.
Moore plans to expand the sound storage capacity of the system in two ways. First, he plans to sample each sound effect in the cavernous 20th Century-Fox library and save it onto a set of about 100 CD ROM disks that can be played back on Atari's CD ROM player. He chose CD ROM over ordinary CD's because of its ability to use a file organization system that lets an editor locate a particular sound effect instantly. The sound library that once filled three large rooms should soon fit snugly into an amazingly small space.
The second storage expansion Moore is developing is a proprietary 1.6 gigabyte--that's 1,600 meg!--hard drive that will be introduced next year. He envisions that the drive's capacity will allow the storage of several hours of digital sound and the ability to build multiple tracks completely digitally rather than downloading two at a time to magnetic tape.
|Screen from DM-1
showing cue sheet
function. At top
right is SMPTE code,
as read from video-
tape. Columns from
left to right show
start and stop times,
sound effect file
name and editor's
As the demonstration progressed, the power of the system to handle routine sound-editing situations was proven handily. I decided to throw Moore a curve and asked him to put a Martian death-ray-type sound over the gunshot in the videotape.
In the old days, that would mean going to a specialty sound facility, creating the sound on synthesizers, transferring it to magnetic film and splicing it in. On the DM-1, it's a lot faster.
Moore put up the sound selection/modification screen. Using the mouse, he drew an irregular sound wave by hand, then repeated it several dozen times, by clicking on a few selection boxes. Then he loaded in an existing gunshot sound on top of his hand-drawn sound wave and drew an envelope around the sound. ("Envelope" is a term that describes the way the sound starts from nothing, ramps up to its full volume and fades down. Using the ST, creating a unique envelope is as easy as moving the mouse.) Then Moore played the videotape again. When the bad guy drew his gun, instead of "Bang!" we heard the "Woo-Woo-Woo!" that was unmistakably a Martian death ray.
The real advantage of the ST-based system is in its flexibility. The difficult (but not uncommon) sound problem of the death ray that once would have required the talents of several different people and machines (and a delay of a couple days) could be solved by one craftsman, without his having to leave his sound-editing station.
As fast as the DM-1 is at creating and adding sound effects, there's an even faster method for putting in certain kinds of effects. This is called the Foley method and it's used for adding footsteps, clothes rustling or any long series of repeated sounds.
Traditionally, Foleying is done in a room where the floor is covered with the different types of surfaces: gravel, wood, asphalt, leaves, etc. Then, the picture is projected over the Foley artists' heads and they try to copy the actions on screen as accurately as possible, while their sounds are recorded.
The new way to Foley a film, with the DM-1, requires that a single sound, say a footstep, be sampled and fed into the ST's memory. Then, the Foley artist hooks up an ordinary MIDI keyboard to the ST's MIDI port and assigns to each key a slightly different version of the same sound. The picture is played and the artist merely presses one key for each footstep while watching the picture. The computer makes sure that the video and his sounds stay exactly locked up.
|The sound design for "Beauty and the Beast," CBS's hit TV series,
is created with the DM-1 sound editing system. Photo Courtesy of
Film industry reaction to the ST-based sound-editing system has been quite positive. Brian Kelly, sound engineer at Sprocket Systems, the post-production branch of Lucasfilm Ltd., wrote an article for a film-trade paper that described an imaginary sound-editing system of the year 2000. The article called for digital sound storage, a user-friendly interface and the ability to place effects with the push of a button. The day after the article appeared, Kelly was surprised to get a call telling him that most of his "imaginary" system already existed!
Kelly said, "When I wrote the article, I'd never spoken to [the inventors of the DM-1]. Apparently, they'd done the same research that we had and the system I saw was a beta version but seemed very promising. I wish them the best of luck! I was surprised to see most of the features I whined for included in their machine."
The End of Razor Blades
The DM-1 is rapidly gaining acceptance in Hollywood. More than a dozen feature films have had their soundtracks created on it, as well as many popular television shows and specials, including "Beauty and the Beast," "MacGyver," "The Cosby Show," "War of the Worlds" and ads for Coca Cola and "Beverly Hills Cop." Considering its high quality, ease of use and relatively low cost, the number of movies and TV shows that use the DM-1 system should grow exponentially in the next year.
Is it still "sound cutting?" It will always be called that, just as the act of making a telephone call on a touch-tone phone is still called "dialing." But thanks to the phenomenal power of the ST and the programming wizardry of Bob Moore and his associates, razor blades and splicing tape seem to be rapidly headed for the cutting room floor.
Michael Perry is the head of CU Productions in Hollywood. He has produced over 100 music and industrial videos. When not on a film set or in front of his ST, he usually can be found at the latest horror movie.