Surround On The Air.The Times Are Still A’Changin’

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HBO’s recently aired made-for-cable movie Boycott, which chronicles the early years of the civil rights movement, was mixed in 5.1 surround sound, using the Dolby E multichannel codec that allows all six discrete audio channels, plus a matrixed LT-RT pair of channels, as well as metadata to control the audio for various playback formats and environments, to be encoded for transmission, beamed via satellite across HBO’s network, and then decoded to six discrete surround channels once again. In conjunction with the 24P high-definition picture that Boycott was posted and mixed in, the film represents as much a technical milestone for entertainment as the boycotts were themselves human achievements.

The audio crew for Boycott included supervising sound editor Richard Taylor, dialog/music mixer Rick Ash, and SFX mixer Joe Earle, working at three Livewire Audio facilities: ADR at Sound One 54th Street (formerly Todd AO East), editorial at Todd Studios West, and mixing at Todd Studios Vine Street in Hollywood (formerly Soundelux and before that Ryder Sound Services). The film was very much a collaborative effort between them and the film’s director, Clark Johnson.

“Clark’s vision of the film was to do it as though it were a documentary,” Ash explains. “Yet, as we went along we realized that there was a tremendous amount of dramatic pictorial that we also had to complement with the audio. So the sound very much reinforces the sudden shifts between the black and white documentary scenes and the more dramatic, narrative scenes in color.”

An example of that is the use of heavy signal processing to dialog and effects to simulate sound through the lo-fi television and radio speakers of the period, particularly when Martin Luther King, Jr., portrayed by Jeffrey Wright, was shown in broadcast news settings. “We used Fairlight [MFX-3plus] systems for most of the dialog audio,” says Taylor, who is also director of editorial services at Todd Studios West. “But to get that gritty, early television sort of effect, we transferred the dialog tracks to Pro Tools using an OMF file. But we did still use the old tricks to get the effect, like notching the voice up around 1 kHz, even though we were working with 24-bit digital audio.” One particularly clever soundscape was created by squashing an old 1950s hit twice: first for radio, then through the window of the car King’s character is washing in the scene, listening to it.

Those tricks — and other variations of them — were used throughout the production. Ash says that it added considerable time to the post and the mix, which took a month to complete — long by made-for-television standards — but that it was eminently worth it. “I wanted to take the time to get the grainy effects just right, like you were hearing them speak through an old ribbon microphone,” he says. “We also spent a lot of time getting the off-camera dialog and ‘walla’ tracks to do the same when the moment called for it, yet had to be careful to still keep the dialog intelligible. Then we would have to follow the picture shift to a dramatic scene in color, and the audio would follow it by switching to the full-range sort of sound you expect to hear today.”

One of the most telling moments is when King’s character speaks to parishioners in a church. Ash experimented with reverbs to get just the right effect combining a sense of place — of emotion — and still keep it intelligible. In fact, HBO president Colin Callender was so taken with the effect that he personally requested it be used even more intensely in the final mix.

Regardless of its particular period, there was plenty of audio to deal with; Taylor estimates a dozen tracks of dialog, 16 tracks of ADR, 45 tracks of effects and backgrounds, and 16 tracks of music, plus another Pro Tools system at the dubbing stage for last-minute fixes.

Taylor points out that Boycott is the first broadcast marriage of Dolby E and high-definition television. Yet the vast majority of viewers, those without access to certain satellite receiving systems, would see Boycott in stereo or mono. Dolby E’s ability to send both discrete and matrixed audio tracks and to send control data along with them enabled both audio formats to avoid compromises. “We don’t have to compromise because the metadata allows us to send different compression instructions, for instance, for the different formats,” Taylor explains. “The compression changes to elevate the music and background sound effects in smaller playback television systems because those sound elements tend to go one way or the other when you turn the volume up or down. So we were able to mix the movie as we would have for a theatrical release. This is very new territory for people used to mixing for television.”

New enough that tracking the audio to the 24P hi-def picture format, which had already undergone two telecine conversions, raised previously unencountered challenges in maintaining sync. However, Taylor said the audio team kept copious notes and knows what to expect next time.

The team worked on a Harrison Series 12 digitally controlled analog console, monitoring through JBL mains and Auratones for mono reference checks, in Todd Vine Street’s THX dubbing stage at 85 SPL. Ash, the lead mixer, kept a light hand on the LFE channel, reflecting the narrow-banded audio of the period in which the film is set. “Other than that, we mixed it as we would have a feature film,” he says, with the 5.1 mix done first, followed by a stereo one for separate print masters. Because it was the first time using high-definition picture and Dolby E together, the team did comparisons between the console audio and the Dolby E-processed output. Ash opines that the encoded output was ever-so-slightly brighter than the console audio. “But, in a way, that little bump in the high end is perfect for television; it makes the dialog that much more articulate,” he adds. “And the difference is so slight that no one would notice it unless they were listening in the kind of environment we were.”

Ash addressed the music and score similarly to how the rest of the audio supported the movie’s docudrama and period shifts. Dizzy Gillespie songs, which are a musical motif in the film, are left in mono. However, surround plays a big part in the pivotal church scene, in which a gospel group called the Tri-City Singers are down the middle when on camera and move into the sides and surrounds when the camera cuts away from them. The score, which was the result of two individual efforts by composers Steven James Taylor and Joseph Vitarelli, as well as new and vintage material compiled or recorded by music supervisor Evyen Klean, came in on Pro Tools SD2 files, and the original pieces were composed and recorded with surround in mind. “And now, finally, people will get to hear it that way on their televisions, too,” adds Taylor.

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