August 11, 2010
What Can Go Wrong
by Larry Loewinger, C.A.S.

This article is about me and — you — when confronted with trouble in your work: How do you come to understand the situation you find yourself in, how do you analyze it and, most important, how do you alone, or with the help of others, resolve it. As a starter, reaching out to others may be the most important thing you can do.

As production sound mixers, we live in a world of repeated actions: We go in each morning, format discs, check time code, jam slates, watch rehearsals, replace batteries, check the various wireless rigs that we use to record and fill out our sound report headings, wondering if anyone ever looks at the reports themselves. Then we record. We do this for 12-14 hours each day. It is hard, demanding and, at times, repetitious work. This is what our normal days look like.

But the day I am about to describe, while working as the back-up sound mixer on NBC’s “30 Rock,” was far from normal. It was one of those days, where it seemed, things had gone seriously wrong.

Writing about trouble is never easy, especially in our world. Say the wrong thing and you may not get invited back. But describing this potentially bad situation is made easier on “30 Rock” because of the productive work environment in which it occurred—more below--and because ultimately it was more about confusion than technical glitches. Nevertheless, there are many lessons to be learned about what did happen and how things got resolved. This article is neither a finger pointing exercise, nor is it a trade journal puff piece. It is about how a sound crew, production and post-production, joined together to solve what at first seemed like a series of daunting technical challenges. It is an example of conflict resolution at its most telling.

Recently I have done a lot of the back-up sound for NBC’s award winning show, “30 Rock.” Emmy awards have rained down on “30 Rock” in all categories, sound included. This is a good, creative and happy work environment. People show up not only because they have to make a living, but, even more, because they like being there. And the bonus is we all get to laugh as we work through the day.

The production mixer, Griffin Richardson, C.A.S., had left the show a few days early to start another show. I took over. On the last shooting day I arrived to encounter a message from telecine delivered by production. There were time code and audio level issues from one disc from the previous day’s work. This was not the kind of season ending message anyone wants to hear and everyone who mattered had already heard about it.

Like all mixers, I record to two disc recorders. Unlike some, I replicate the track configuration from one machine to the next. I do the same with metadata. Consequently, it is easy to send in the “back-up” disc as an almost perfect replication of the primary disc. And, occasionally, throughout the seasons I’ve worked on the show, that is exactly what I have done. It has worked seamlessly—until this day.

Let’s start with time code. The complaint was of a time code discrepancy between the photographed slate code and that derived from the disc recorder. Since I had yesterday’s work stored on hard drives on both recorders, it was easy enough to check all of the parameters where questions had been raised. I went back to the beginning of the rogue sound rolls on both machines, pressed ‘play,’ and watched as the time code drifted apart. I knew right away the probable cause. I had most likely forgotten to manually jam the code in the back-up recorder, something I had heretofore always done. Now, we all know time code problems occur, mostly, because the TC slate(s) get switched off during the day. When we hand off the slates to the camera department we know ‘stuff’ can and does happen. We can’t control that. So why worry? Wrong!

When time code goes bad it may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility. You can spend your life entering accurate metadata — and I do — but the utility of having correct scene and take numbers positively shrinks in importance to maintaining accurate time code. Time code is the audio glue that binds production to the post-production process and the various sound elements together in the post-production environment.

What about the audio level issues? There were two of them—the overall levels on the one disc in question were uniformly low, and they appeared to be fluctuating, by all reports, maniacally. Audio levels were easy enough to check in my disc recorders. I auditioned the files from the disc in question many times, on both of my machines. I auditioned sound from surrounding sound rolls. Levels were normal, and there was no fluctuation. And yet this was the perception of the post-production sound crew. Here was a crucial point in confronting the problem, let alone understanding it. Make this into a “we” versus “they” issue and the distance it takes to resolve the matter only grows. Moreover, in my case, when I had an opportunity to go to the post-production suite, I did hear low levels. Was this merely a technical problem, a political communication issue or some combination of the two?

Before the last morning ended, Shannon Fogarty, the show's post production Associate Producer, dropped by the set. I assured him that, other than time code, I could detect no problem and that if post were to utilize the other disc, the one that was the original production disc with correct time code, the problem would be solved. This was a Tuesday. The problem had occurred on the previous morning. We finished early, my crew and I wrapped gear and I headed home. But before I got into my car one of my crew members came running up, and told me Shannon wanted to talk to me. The back-up disc revealed the same problem, he informed me. I hightailed it straight to the post-production office to see if I could sort things out.

Going up to editorial was an eye opener. There were maybe half a dozen people working in a rather cramped space. It wasn’t especially quiet. Not an environment, I realized, in which to make precise judgments about sound levels. Nor was there any serious equipment there to accomplish that goal. Shannon Fogarty auditioned the production discs on his Macintosh. The assistant editor nearby employed the standard Mackie mixer and indeterminate brand speakers which took the output from her Avid system. Like those of us on the set who sometimes make critical decisions in hostile sound environments, they too, had adapted to their situation. I listened to discs. I heard low levels but no fluctuation. Why the levels seem low in this environment I will never know. But the other complaint—gross level fluctuations--was a unique wrinkle, and not one I heard here. However, it was clearly a ‘red flag’ issue that would have to be explained. Before I left I promised Shannon to burn some new discs.

On Tuesday I had warned Griffin that there were sound problems from Monday. Even though he was now working elsewhere and was on a night schedule, he stayed tuned, and did eventually get involved. The experience in the editing room convinced me that, whatever technical problem may have occurred, the underlying concern was one of trust. The post-production people had been alerted to potentially serious sound issues, some of which I actually heard in the cutting room myself. They had reason to be apprehensive. But how to convey to them and be believed that, aside from time code discrepancies, there were no audio problems? At this point did I have self doubt? You bet! I have been a very happy employee on “30 Rock” for several years. I wasn’t sure that would continue.

By Wednesday I burned new discs — which, as digital media, were exactly the same as the previous ones—and heard no further reports of trouble. I thought the issues might be going away. Not yet!

The next day Shannon called and requested a conference call for later that afternoon. “Were there any new problems,” I cautiously asked? “No,” he said. Then why I wondered to myself did we need the conference call? On the line with me for this call were two post people from “30 Rock,” including Shannon, Bill Marino from Sync Sound, who is the show’s dialogue mixer and whose company is responsible for the final audio posting, and Griffin Richardson. This became the moment where everything you do gets put under a microscope. The more you explain, the less things seem clear. Little details potentially become large issues, and you wonder if you have any credibility left. In this trial by fire moment what is important is to listen closely and clearly to what people are saying.

Fortunately, the conference call brought forth good news. Normally for sound purposes on the DVD media that the telecine facility delivers to “30 Rock” personnel, the mixed track is doubled across both the left and right channels. On this day channels one and two were transferred straight across. This little nugget of information would initiate closure. It would explain fluctuating levels. Channels one and two contain exactly the same sound but are recorded at slightly different levels. One is gently mixed. The other is unmediated, ”raw.” They would certainly fluctuate one against the other. Everyone in the post-production chain who had been long accustomed to monitoring their dailies’ sound using stereo wired headsets or through computers or TVs with two speakers would hear it as a centered mono signal. Not this time!

What had probably been the source of greatest anxiety for everyone involved had turned into little more than a monitoring error. As for the overall low levels, they were also probably no more than a monitoring error. We never found out why the level initially appeared low. The issue simply receded.

When I was in the middle of the conference call, I felt like I was the guest at a Friars’ roast gone badly wrong. In retrospect, however, the conference call, I realized, was a smart move for everyone involved, and a reflection of the productive atmosphere that drives the show. The post-production personnel had to find out what, why and how things went wrong. Clearly, if I was anxious about my work when the first phone calls and emails came in, everyone else had ample reason for concern.

By now we were moving toward real resolution. Griffin suggested that I take my disc recorders into Sync Sound and have Bill Marino examine the sound that was on their hard drives. It was an astute suggestion, less from a technical than a political point of view. It would clarify once and for all the nature of the sounds levels I had recorded. All of the sound personnel at “30 Rock” have great trust and respect for Bill Marino and Tony Pipitone, the show’s re-recording mixers. Sync Sound has been an anchor of high quality post-production sound work in New York for many years.

The next day I spent several pleasurable and informative hours with Bill Marino at Sync Sound. We went through some files in my two recorders. We confirmed what by this point everyone knew—that the absolute levels were fine. We discovered one interesting anomaly. There was a slight discrepancy in overall recording levels between the material I record on the 788 and what goes onto the PD-6/EX-12 combo. Mostly, because we’ve known each other for a long time, we talked about working on the show, where the sound business is headed and what men and women of a certain age tend to discuss, the infirmities of encroaching age. When I left I sensed that the crisis was ending. Later in the afternoon, Bill, Griffin and Shannon had a conference call in which the week’s sound crisis was properly interred.

What were the lessons that emerged from this week? Many of them are embedded in the piece you have just read. But there are others: Understand how the post-production chain works. Examine your habits. Never take anything for granted. Renew yourself and your equipment periodically. Make sure your crew is also not on auto drive. See the editors, post-production supervisors and re-recording mixers as your fellow colleagues working on the same show under the same deadline pressures you are, even when conflicts arise, especially when conflicts arise! This is the way “30 Rock” works. It may seem obvious to say, but I know of shows where this is far from the case.

Here are some technical suggestions: When starting a project or beginning a new season submit a file with –20 dB tone on it. Make sure it circulates throughout the whole postproduction chain and that everyone can reproduce it as it was recorded. Having a monitoring system in the postproduction environment where you can make critical judgments about sound can be useful. In New York, at least, DVD-RAM is the default media to pass along to post-production. It may be time to think of making Compact Flash as the new default, portable media. Compact Flash is more robust, and writes at a much greater speed. If, for some reason, you have to do a lot of file copying at the end of the day, CF will definitely get you home quicker.

When you do a substantial amount of back-up work, as I do, make sure you understand the techniques and equipment that the production mixers you work for utilize. But ultimately, your success as a sound mixer depends far less on your technical skills and far more on your ability to create an environment where trust and communication predominate.

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Published by Gotham Sound and Communications, Inc.
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