The eyes have it

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One of the best music DVD titles to come out in the last year, and what may prove to be somewhat of a landmark in the genre, is The Residents’ Icky Flix. This innovative disc not only stretches the boundaries of what is possible with the format, but does so at a high creative level as well, which is nothing less than one would expect from this quirky yet artful group. While Icky Flix has already been nominated for numerous graphics and DVD awards, the audio on the disc has not been overlooked and, indeed, has received equal and meticulous attention thanks to mixer and audio supervisor Ron MacLeod. MacLeod, widely known for his work with the Deck DAW software and later for his groundbreaking and popular “Poke In The Ear” sample libraries, recently agreed to share his bleeding-edge Icky Flix experiences with us.

SP: How did you get involved with The Residents?

Ron MacLeod: I first got involved with The Residents on a technical level over a decade ago while at Digidesign, and later at OSC. They became really early adopters of Deck and really helped mold it thanks to their useful input. Over the years, they also used my sound libraries (Poke In The Ear) a lot as well.

I just happened to meet up with them again about a year ago at a BBQ and mentioned what I was up to in surround and they became really interested. A few months later they called up and asked for some advice as to repurposing their existing stereo material into surround for DVD. A brief conversation convinced them that it would be a lot more satisfying experience to do a remix. Since most of the original multitracks (some over 30 years old) were no longer usable or available, they one-upped me and decided to re-compose and record new versions.

I think what turned it around was my passionate and outspoken belief that, for surround to progress as a format, artists have to understand it and compose for the medium itself. It’s an extended pallet for expression, not just a marketing tool. It was a hard concept to get across at first – they’re solid stereo guys – but they really wrapped themselves around the idea and embraced it more and more as we went along.

When they started sending me their tracks, everything was in stereo. Guitars, vocals, samples, and drums were all stereo files. So I told them that stereo doesn’t necessarily fly in my world, and what I needed was either point source or files that were already spread out in surround. I showed them what was possible other than ambience in the rear channels, because that’s all they had really experienced with their new DVD/surround setups, as it seemed to be all that mixers were doing in the surrounds. So we talked about doing some things that were a little more radical, but because the early elements given to me were primarily stereo files, the basic tracks were mostly just pancaked stereo; multiple layers going from front to back. Then it evolved once they began to understand the possibilities of how different elements could be spread around, so they composed more specifically for it.

How did you approach the mixes?

I noticed that most things that I had heard in surround made me lean forward because most of the sound was coming basically from the center or front. So I proposed that for some of the pieces they use a lot of big textural low-end heavy beds leaning toward the rears to give it a feel of floating on this fluffy cushion. I described it as giving the listener a big beanbag chair to kick back on while the puppet show went on up front. They got that and started to recompose things so I could put some of the longer sustaining and subconscious parts in the back with the more active storytelling elements wrapped around the front. Of course, we used this to our advantage for emotional manipulation – once you have them nice and kicked back, you can suck ’em up front and center for impact or send chills with a subliminal whisper in the ear.

Also, I explained that, while we could do all this wild stuff, most of the audience, at least in the beginning, would probably be hearing it in stereo folded down, so it had to be compatible. They just said to design something for true 5.1 surround and if the consumer didn’t have that, then they’ll get a different mix that isn’t compromised for the fold-down. That was scary but at the same time really exciting because I realized that I could really experiment with some of the things that I had always wanted to do that most people won’t let you do.

What’s your setup?

Early on I decided to use Steinberg’s Nuendo and mix everything inside the DAW. I also made extensive use of the Waves Gold Bundle plug-ins on this project, with a lot of the Q10 and Renaissance EQ for clean up and restoration, and L1 and especially the Renaissance Compressor for beefing things up. The surround reverbs were custom combinations of two Renaissance Reverbs (stereo front and stereo rear) with a touch of Trueverb direct reflections to tie them together (LRC bleeding into LS RS).

In the beginning we discussed how their fan base would be listening to this primarily at home, so I wanted to go with a monitor system that would approximate a home system without too much overkill. So I used a set of NHT Pro M-00’s in a very near field (about three feet away) with an S-00 subwoofer, but I used my old Tannoy Golds to check everything against. These were set up in my living room in San Francisco, mostly because there was no studio space available thanks to the whole dot-com revolution that was happening at the time. The advantage is that it gave me a perfect “living room” mix environment – it worked. I think it translates well. One radical decision, after a lot of research and debate, was to not use the LFE channel at all. I created a 5.0 mix (Dolby refers to this as “3/2”) because the way that the LFE is set up in the home is so unpredictable that I decided to just go with what the bass manager would give me. There weren’t any specific effects that really needed the LFE anyway. This also saved room (memory) on the DVD, allowing for higher data rates for the Dolby AC3 encodes.

What did you use for a bass manager?

I built my own within Nuendo through a whole bus system that I ran filters through. Halfway through the project Steinberg, sent me their Nuendo Surround Pack, which has a bass manager that sounds pretty good, but, to tell you the truth, I didn’t really hear much of a difference between the one I built and the one they sent. But theirs was a lot easier to use!

So you were getting mostly data files?

The band is really process oriented, and every album or tour that they’ve done is created around an artistic set of restrictions. There’s always some set of rules and a working method that everyone works off of. For Icky Flix it was, “Send multiple versions of your track without knowing what everyone else is doing.” The original stereo tracks were sent out on whatever format was available. The player would then multitrack to whatever format they could get their hands on and create multiple parts, which we had to sort through and choose. People really did a good job recording, so I really didn’t have to EQ or compress a lot.

None of the stuff was locked to code, so for the existing videos I just got full frame (29.97 fps) QuickTime movies, put them up in Nuendo, and aligned everything there, which was really accurate and worked well.

How did you deliver your final mixes?

I’m trying to convince people that a multichannel broadcast WAV file is the way to go, but in this case the authoring house wanted a DA-88 that was then popped into a Sonic Solutions system anyway. That actually turned out OK because I was able to go to a couple of post houses that had surround systems and hear how well everything translated.

Was the band there when you mixed?

Generally what happened was I’d set up the mix to present my ideas, then they’d come by every day and we’d go through everything and make changes. Instead of finishing one song at a time, they just wanted to go through each song (27 titles) every day and tweak it. We only had two weeks to mix before deadline, so it was really crazy. They’d be here all day talking about approaches and balances, then, when they’d leave, I’d go back through it and make the changes so I could leave more of the time that they were here for the creative.

You spent a lot of time playing with Dolby Digital metadata, didn’t you?

I was really curious about metadata because I was always told that, “We just leave it up to the authoring guys.” But I started to meet the authoring guys and it was curious to me that none of them were into audio, and then I found that they just usually left all the settings on default. When I started to do some serious research about metadata I got a lot of conflicting information, so I made an appointment with Dolby and talked with several people to find out what everything actually did. I finally sat down and made a big chart about what all the data was and how it interacted, then I went into VideoArts and experimented with different settings to see how everything was affected. Luckily, the guys at VideoArts were very into the audio end of things, so they pressed me a bunch of DVD one-offs with these varied settings that we took down to the local stereo superstores and tried them on a variety of systems. That was a real education. When we put the final disc up at Dolby they were amazed that every song had different settings because most discs have just one setting throughout the disc. They actually use it as demo material now.

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