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Sound for Film: Changing the Soundscape

An interview with Frank Morrone of MPSE

With Tom Inglesby

Frank Morrone at work doing a mix at Technicolor Studios.

Frank Morrone at work doing a mix at Technicolor Studios.

 

Frank Morrone, president of MPSE

Frank Morrone, president of MPSE

Frank Morrone wears several hats; he is an award winning Hollywood audio professional who has mixed sound for high profile television shows and movies including The Strain, Boss, Sleepy Hollow, and the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings. He is President of the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and has served as a Governor for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Morrone is a member of the Recording Academy and has served on the Board of Directors for the Cinema Audio Society. All in all, a sound guy first and foremost.

“I’ve been working in film since mag, then 24-track interlock, and from there to the DA-88s and digital dubbers,” Morrone recalls. “Now we are in Pro Tools land. The changes have been substantial in a fairly short period of time. And the changes keep on coming. The big changes now are just in workflow because our track counts are getting bigger, and our budgets are getting smaller, and our times are getting shorter. That’s been the biggest change.”

The computer has, indeed, taken over the processing of audio for film. “It’s all in Pro Tools,” acknowledges Morrone. “Even composers are all in Digital Performer and converting everything to Pro Tools for deliverables to the mix stage.”

Silly question: Are there things that have transpired with the equipment on the set; the microphones, the recording equipment? “Most certainly!” is his response. “Going from the Nagra days, we went to eight-track recorders, and now to the new Dolby Atmos capabilities. I was looking at a recorder that Sound Devices is putting out, a 64-track recorder for use on production sets. We’ve gone from a single boom and a lav to 64-track capability; that’s huge.”

The Nagra portable tape recorder, in mono or two-track, was the workhorse for sound engineers in the 1960s.

The Nagra portable tape recorder, in mono or two-track, was the workhorse for sound engineers in the 1960s.

A virtual audio console is one feature of Avid Pro Tools

A virtual audio console is one feature of Avid Pro Tools

The impact on production mixers has been equally great. “Their carts have become very, very sophisticated. I’ve been on sets where some of the transmitters they have on the lavs, the custom carts that they’ve built, the custom antennas that they’ve built to work with the number of wireless mics that they employ, are phenomenal. Production mixers have had to get very, very hip to technology, and it’s really impressive how they’ve adapted.”

Audio people are creative and innovative, just like their counterparts behind the cameras. “A couple of years ago, in Los Angeles, CAS held a parade of carts,” Morrone remembers. “We had 14 production mixers bring their carts to a set, and it was amazing to see how 14 different production mixers had 14 totally different carts. Some were on hard disk recorders. Some were in Pro Tools. There were no two carts that were identical. They were all like fingerprints. It was interesting to see how everybody really adapted their way of working with whatever technology they wanted to use.”

All the technology on a set points to heavier bandwidth needs and more computer power and that’s true of audio, as well. Morrone agrees, “Absolutely. Our computers need to operate at much higher speeds and handle much higher loads. We are getting up to 500 tracks of audio playing at one time. So Pro Tools has developed HDX cards, which are fantastic and much more powerful than the previous generation, the HD cards. With TDM systems, you were limited to how many voices you could have in Pro Tools. Now you can just deploy as many of these cards as you need, and every card gives you 256 voices per card. It’s pretty amazing.”

Avid Pro Tools creates a virtual sound studio on screen.

Avid Pro Tools creates a virtual sound studio on screen.

He continues, “Most of the processing power is on the card itself, so it doesn’t tax your computer’s processor so much. One generation ago, Pro Tools cards were doing a lot of the processing but so was your computer. Sometimes you would get that “wheel of death” on the Mac that we all so often fear; the rainbow spinning wheel of death, as we call it.”

Years ago, the audience wasn’t too concerned about the quality of sound in a film. It was possible to create sound on film that was much better than the reproducing capabilities of the theater. Then Ray Dolby came along and changed everything. Newer technologies are making the delivery systems, whether in theaters or in 4K television set, so much better that the original audio on the set has to be that much better. “No question about it,” Morrone says. “The analog-to-digital and the digital-to-analog converters have gotten so much better over the years, and they’re recording at higher sample and bit rates. Now the norm is 24-bit 48K. That’s just the norm. The tools are there.”

But tools are not always enough to overcome the barriers faced on real-world sets. “Production recordings are limited by the location,” admits Morrone. “If you’re shooting under the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s very little you can do about the ambient noise. There are ways to overcome that problem but it makes it that much more difficult when your ambient noise is 85 dB to start with.”

The current and next generation of audio engineers will have more technology to apply than ever before. But knowing when and how to apply it is going to make some winners. “I think the tools that people now have at their disposal are so much more than what we ever had—and there are so many new ones coming. The challenges aren’t with the gear; the challenges now are with workflow, just being able to do work quickly and still produce the quality that the client demands. The audience has gotten used to a much higher quality in their movies so that’s the challenge for everybody on the set. We’ve evolved to where we are now and somebody just coming into the business might not have the background old timers have—I’m not sure if they appreciate it as much as guys that have come up through mag. But whether they appreciate it or not, they have fantastic tools at their disposal right now.”

Sound Devices’ 970 records 64 channels of monophonic or polyphonic 24-bit WAV files from any of its 144 available inputs.

Sound Devices’ 970 records 64 channels of monophonic or polyphonic 24-bit WAV files from any of its 144 available inputs.

As the technology has evolved, so too have the educational approaches. Let’s hope that those entering the field take the time to learn the basics before jumping into the deep end. “You have to understand where you’ve been to know where you’re going,” counsels Morrone. “I think they should touch mag, they should know what a splicer is; it’s important to have a feel and a sense of how sound developed. I think that the teachers that I’ve seen at these schools are teaching them about signal flow and not overloading one stage of a preamp or any stages of the signal chain. That was one of the first things I learned, signal flow through a console. How to set up your line inputs and preamps on the microphones, keeping things all at unity so nothing would overload one stage or another.”

He adds, “I’ve done a lot of lectures, at universities and schools like Full Sail, and I think the kids are pretty sharp. I love it when I see how enthusiastic they are. When somebody is enthusiastic and wants to do the job right, I get encouraged, because I see both ends of it. You can also tell the students that are not as enthusiastic and may have a tougher time with it. Then there are the ones that are really sharp and on top of it. That makes me realize, the industry will be in good hands.”


April 9, 2015