A significant event in broadcasting history took place on January 9th, when ABC broadcast the season opener of its acclaimed NYPD Blue series in the HDTV format, with accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 discrete sound. It’s a calculated move; the show, now in its eighth season, has won numerous Emmys and other awards both for its performances and for its technical execution. It’s a high-profile program with which to mark the beginning of regular series broadcasting in HDTV by ABC, which is owned by Disney, a company that well understands the advantages of blinding audiences with cool science. ABC has acquired some experience in HDTV and 5.1 in the past — it began broadcasting high-definition television on November 1, 1998, with the theatrical presentation of The Wonderful World of Disney: 101 Dalmatians. Since then, ABC has broadcast 44 theatricals in HDTV, as well as numerous sporting events, including the first live, regularly scheduled HDTV sporting event in prime time — the 1999-2000 season of Monday Night Football. ABC also broadcast Super Bowl XXXIV and the 2000 National Hockey League All-Star game in HDTV. NYPD Blue is the network’s move into using episodic television to promote the format.
Getting NYPD Blue into the audio future was an interesting task, and became as a much a mission as it was a job for Elmo Ponsdomenech, the show’s lead mixer, and Stanley Johnston, its effects mixer. Both are staffers at Westwind Media, the post facility jointly owned by Steven Bochco, NYPD Blue’s creator; television music scoring guru Mike Post, who also scores the show; Steven J. Cannell, another of Hollywood’s handful with a Midas Touch for television programming; and John Bidasio, president of Westwind. Both Ponsdomenech and Johnston come from theatrical and music mixing backgrounds — extremely useful for the task of taking NYPD Blue (which had, for the last several seasons, been broadcast in the matrixed Dolby Surround format) into discrete 5.1, and both had worked on ABC/Bochco productions before, including Brooklyn South, City of Angels, and Total Security. Still, the preparation for the undertaking was substantial, despite the fact that it was done on pretty short notice.
“This all happened pretty quickly,” recalls Ponsdomenech (pronounced “pons-DOM-a-neck”). “We weren’t told about going HDTV and 5.1 until late last summer, just about when they were gearing up to shoot the first episodes. It was going to be a tight schedule. Not a lot of people have done Dolby 5.1 for television yet. What helped was that ABC and Dolby were willing to work closely with us, in particular Steven Venezia [manager for Dolby’s DVD/DTV Broadcast Support division], Randy Hoffner, who heads up ABC’s technical engineering staff, and Westwind chief engineer Curtis Gomez. That ‘surround summit’ was assembled by JoAnne McCool, co-producer of NYPD Blue. The teamwork that came out of that cooperation helped it go smoothly.”
Experience in the cinematic audio domain was critical, not only for dealing with discrete 5.1, but also for maintaining NYPD Blue’s semi-cinema-verite visual esthetic, a refinement of Bochco’s own pioneering efforts with shows like Hill Street Blues, in which hand-held cameras and wide-open microphones are used to establish a gritty (for network television, anyway) realism. “We think it’s important to not make any delineation between television and cinema when it comes to multichannel sound, and Steven [Bochco] is very cinematically oriented,” says Ponsdomenech, who did film audio work on productions including Searching for Bobby Fischer, Benny & Joon and Untamed Heart at Todd-AO before coming to Westwind. “We treated the show as we would have a feature film. The only real difference between movies and TV was the amount of time you have to mix a project.”
However, one of the techniques that Ponsdomenech brought to the 5.1 audio mix of NYPD Blue was to make the LCR spread even wider than would have been done on a theater screen. Johnston summed that up succinctly when he observes, “We tried to overshoot the screen, to give a sense that the picture itself was larger. Also, unlike in a theater, where the placement of speakers is set by specific formulas, you don’t know how everyone’s home theater is set up, so you try to broaden the soundfield for a living room.” At the same time, adds Ponsdomenech, “The dialog stays pretty much down the center and you don’t move things around too quickly, so as not to distract from the story and the visuals.”
Like in film, primary dialog is confined to the center channel. However, Ponsdomenech and Johnston took a more liberal approach to other audio elements. Much of the incidental dialog — the “walla” tracks — and off-screen dialog were moved off to the side and sometimes actively panned to support the constantly moving camera angles. “We actually found that panning harder for the small screen works better in terms of creating a believable environment,” Ponsdomenech says. “We’ll walk the group ADR tracks back and forth from the LCR to the surrounds as people walk around the squad room. If there were three tracks of walla, I’d put two in left-center and right-center and walk the third around a bit through the surrounds. That’s one of the ways in which mixing for discrete 5.1 is different from Dolby Surround. In Surround, we’d use level changes for the surrounds; in discrete, we use panning as well.”
Johnston brings up a curious point regarding panning of effects. “Something interesting happens when you move from Dolby Surround to 5.1 and you eliminate the Dolby Matrix,” he says. “The Matrix tends to move things around in the mix on its own; it’s a phase-related device, and all mixers have experienced this effect to some degree. When you go to 5.1, you’re the one steering the location of all the effects, so you have to be more precise and exact about where you want things to be.There’s no algorithm steering the sounds.”
All of the sound elements for NYPD Blue are edited under the direction of supervising sound editor Jeff Rosen at Miles O’ Fun, an editorial company in Burbank. Dialog usually has 24 tracks — eight each of principal dialog, group ADR, and other ADR. There are eight more tracks of music. That was another change from Surround to 5.1. “Before, the music came in an LCR configuration,” says Ponsdomenech. Now, there are two more channels of music, with separate elements cut for the rear speakers. However, Ponsdomenech points out, “One of the decisions we made early on was that the [LCR mix] had to be able to stand on its own, which it does, and it sounds great with or without the surrounds.”
Music arrives on the TASCAM DA-88 format, which is then transfered D-to-D to one of three Fairlight DaD digital dubbers, which gives Ponsdomenech 72 digital tracks to work with for all audio elements. Effects tracks come in on Digidesign Pro Tools, on which they are also edited. Dialog editing is done on a Fairlight MFX-3plus. The two analog stages for dialog and location sound effects are the analog Nagra decks they are recorded on by location audio recorder Joe Kenworthy, and then they pass through the Euphonix CS-3000 digitally controlled analog console Ponsdomenech uses to mix. “We would love an all-digital console, but the analog console does bring some measure of warmth to the soundtracks,” says Ponsdomenech, who also warms up the tracks further with an array of analog outboard signal processing, including Focusrite Red and Avalon EQs.
When monitoring the playback of mixes, Ponsdomenech runs them through the Dolby DP-570, which allows him to toggle between 5.1, Dolby Surround, Dolby stereo, regular stereo, and mono. The box compensates for the gain changes between each configuration, among other functions. The primary mix format for the audio for NYPD Blue is 5.1; Ponsdomenech and Johnston listen back to it in various modes, make notes regarding adjustment for them, and send the stems off to layback on TASCAM MMR-8 decks with their comments. The mixes are delivered to ABC on DA-88 tapes, as per the network’s specifications.
That raises one of the systemic issues concerning HDTV audio for the future: “ABC doesn’t have a way to handle 5.1 audio internally [in its own in-house postproduction] for when commercials are inserted and things like that,” says Ponsdomenech. “Dolby E is used in distribution, but it hasn’t been settled on for post yet. Instead, they’re using a high-data-rate version of Dolby Digital. We’d like to see them start to use Dolby E for that; that way, we could deliver the 5.1 audio on the same [D-5 format] master video tape as the program itself.”
The outcome of the audio for NYPD Blue has added another dimension to to a show that already tries hard for quirkiness as a grout for its sharp-edged narrative. And, says Johnston, that’s what the point of the move to 5.1 should be. “The show already relies heavily on the sound and effects to create an ambience, a sense that there’s a lot going on outside and around the squad room. It’s a counterpoint to the activity on the main set. With 5.1, we can use the effects to really bring people inside the squad room — and inside the story. We got a call from a Los Angeles ABC executive who was watching the show, and when a phone rang on screen, he turned to answer it, and when the walla tracks were moving around, he thought there were people in the hallway outside his office. When you can get that kind of response from listeners, you know that we’re truly adding to the show’s effect and impact.”
Contact Westwind Media at 818-972-9000 or visit their Web site at www.westwindstudios.com.