November 2, 2005
A Prairie Home Companion
Gotham Builds Custom Metacorder/Cantar Rig for New Robert Altman Film
by Nick Huston

“It’s Saturday night here on a Prairie Home Companion,” and now it’s time to make a movie.  In July of 2005, A Prairie Home Companion’s creator Garrison Keillor teamed up with director Robert Altman to make a feature length film based around the long running radio variety show. 

One of the first issues that came to mind was sound.  Altman is notorious for his long takes, multiple cameras, and his desire to have everyone’s dialogue available at any time.  In addition to Altman’s intensive sound demands, A Prairie Home Companion (PHC) the movie has the same rigorous sound setup that the radio show does, using up to 32 channels of audio for a full band and various sound effects.

Who would face this epic challenge?  None other than Drew Kunin, mixer of films like Lost In Translation, Hulk, and Broken Flowers.  Seeing the need for up to 48 tracks of audio, Drew called Gotham Sound for a custom built solution to tackle this production’s demands.

We first started by breaking the shoot up into two categories: dialogue and music.  Fortunately the movie was being shot almost entirely on the PHC sound stage at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.  All of the music scenes were to take place on the main stage and could utilize their existing setup including one Yamaha PM1D Mixer.

The Yamaha PM1D Mixer is a 32 channel digital mixer that uses external processing and i/o boxes.  We turned to Gallery Software’s MetaCorder to answer the 32 track recording with timecode challenge.  The conventional solution would use multiple recorders such as DA-98’s daisy chained together to make 4 separate tapes with 8 tracks apiece with no labeling information other than the Timecode stripped on each tape and a handwritten sound report.  MetaCorder allows you to record any number of tracks (depending on the power of the computer and specifications of the audio interface to the hard drive) while including all pertinent scene and take information on each file, timecode, and an automatically generated sound report in PDF format.  The first problem we encountered was that there was no single audio interface available that provided the number of inputs required.  The solution was seemingly handed to us on a silver platter as Apple released its update to Mac OSX – Tiger with version 10.4.1.  This update included the ability to make an aggregate audio device using two or more separate audio devices as one thus allowing us to have an unlimited number of inputs.  We chose two Lynx 16 AES cards to make use of PHC’s existing AES i/o box for their Yamaha mixer. 

The high track count also starts to push the envelope of processing power and disk speed.  To compensate for this we selected a Dual Processor Mac G5 with 1.5GB of Ram, recording to two external 250GB Serial ATA drives.  We chose SATA due to speed requirements that occur when sequentially writing 32 monophonic Broadcast Wave Files, another necessity for this job.  The MetaCorder operator John Sims commented that he “was worried that the G5 and MetaCorder would not be able to handle the track count,” and “was impressed at how well the entire system performed.” There was never a moment when John and MetaCorder were not ready to roll.

As the only true redundancy is a completely separate recording system, four Fostex DV824’s backed up the MetaCorder.  As it is exceedingly tedious to enter scene and take information in four different recorders, the DV824’s were put in Fostex’s Date naming mode. 

This created a new dilemma: Digital Signal Distribution.  To split the AES signal coming from the Yamaha to the MetaCorder and the four DV824’s, we used four Aphex AES splitters along with some custom cabling.   Splitting the timecode was a lot easier as we were able to use the Symetrix 581E analog distribution amp. Thanks to the Fostex 824’s and Lynx AES16’s ability to sync to incoming AES, word clock sync issues were avoided entirely, and the Yamaha became the master for digital timing.

The dialogue recording rig was slightly more traditional.  On a film with fewer track demands, Drew records to his Aaton Cantar-X using a Sonosax mixer and a set of Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless.  To compensate for the additional tracks, we doubled Drew’s existing rig.  We used another Cantar with another mixer and, due to the need for a lot of wireless in a small space, we added a Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Venue System with six (VRS) standard receivers.  All of this equipment was able to fit one magliner style cart.

Now that we had all the equipment in place, we worked with Drew and the editing team to determine the best work flow possible to get this huge amount of information to post production.  For the dialogue, we simply expanded on Drew’s existing work flow.  Both Cantars simultaneously recorded to their internal hard drive and an external hard drive which, when they were idle, would copy all of those files to an internal DVD-RAM.  At the end of the day, the DVD-RAM disks were sent along with the HD camera tapes to post production.  At the end of each week, Drew would send the external Hard Drives to sound post production so that they could start pre-loading files.  To make life as easy as possible, Sam Hudson, PHC’s on air mixer, did a mix of the music on the Yamaha which he sent to Drew.  Drew then took that mix and created a dailies mix using his two Sonosax mixers and sent it directly to all three cameras.

Since MetaCorder was only being used to record pre-fade tracks of the music, there was no need to deliver anything to post production on a daily basis.  However, since a hard drive is only as good as its backup, all files were automatically copied to a LaCie 1TB Firewire 800 using Metacorder’s “Mirror” function.  Both the primary and the mirror drives were shipped separately to the music editor where they would be imported, synced, and remixed to picture. Also shipped with the drives were PDF sound reports automatically created from scene and take information entered by Sims.  Sims calls MetaCorder’s sound reporting ability, “great and key,” particularly because “not only does it pull the scene and take information automatically, it also lists the timecode for each take, making it usable for the backup.”

As complex as this system sounds it was a reasonably quick and easy setup.  It was delivered to set on July 4th in the morning, with the promise of having a whole day to setup and test.  That promise was quickly swept under the rug as Altman decided to start filming a large music scene directly after lunch.  So with less than 4 hours to setup a new 32 track redundant recording system and verify word clock and all audio connections, Drew’s team had to be ready to roll.  Fortunately, all that was required was to patch 4 cables between the Yamaha board and the MetaCorder system and to install the G5.  As a bonus, we used the second monitor output on the G5 so that Hudson could monitor his pre-fade levels to MetaCorder as he mixed, By the time Keillor was singing about Rhubarb Pie, Drew and his crew were happily rolling along.

That brings us to the end of the production portion of our story.  You may still have questions like, “How did they deal with 48 tracks of audio in post production?” or “What did their post production work flow look like?” In the next issue of Gotham Gazette, we will explore all of these questions and more as we go through A Prairie Home Companion’s post production process.  Stay tuned!

For more information about the products discussed, please click on the following links:
Aaton Cantar
Gallery MetaCorder
Lynx AES16
Aphex AES Splitter
Symetrix 581E Distribution Amp
Lacie 1TB Drive
Lacie External SATA 250G

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Gotham in the New York Times

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Published by Gotham Sound and Communications, Inc.
Copyright © 2005 Gotham Sound and Communications, Inc.. All rights reserved.
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