Some 30 years after the original Star Trek hit the small screen, the saga continues in three TV series and several films. Richard Buskin visits LA's Modern Sound, home to a decade's sci-fi sound
IT'S FUNNY. No matter how far you go out into space they all seem to speak English,' says Jim Wolvington, sound designer for all three Star Trek television series that have hit the small screen during the past ten years. 'Still, you sometimes want to give the characters some kind of interesting alien caste, and it can be really tough to come up with processes that don't make their words unintelligible.'
In the beginning it was also difficult to devise futuristic sound effects that lived up to some of the well-known noises that we all associate with the original 1960s episodes, featuring Kirk, Spock, Bones and company; the 'wip-wip' of the walkie-talkies, the 'scheep' of the door.
'I have profound respect for what they did on that show,' says Wolvington. 'I mean, it was heavy-handed dramatically and it was heavy-handed sonically too--the sounds on the bridge were so loud, and in some ways Iquite envy that. At the same time, they did some incredibly clever things, and when I first started on The Next Generation it was quite a challenge to come up with a newer, higher-tech version of the original... In fact, in some cases I think what we ended up with was incredibly bland by comparison'
Modern Sound in LA has been the Star Trek post facility of choice ever since the inception of The Next Generation back in 1987. Together with the subsequent Deep Space Nine and Voyager series, at the rate of 26 shows every 10-months, that amounts to more than 250 episodes. Between 1987 and 1990 it also amounted to four consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Sound.
While the facility takes care of ADR, mixing and editing, Jim Wolvington designs the sound effects and relays his work to Modern Sound via ISDN from his home in Vermont. In LA, fellow sound designer and effects editor, Tomi Tomita, integrates Wolvington's tracks with his own work. Until recently, the Foley was also part of the Modern Sound/Star Trek agenda, but this has now been shifted to the new Foley stage at Paramount.
In addition to designing the sound for the aforementioned TV series, Wolvington has served as the supervising sound editor on the last two movies, Star Trek Generations and Star Trek--First Contact.
'In terms of the way that we approach the sound itself, the movies and the TV shows are actually quite similar,' he says. 'What I do find to be different, however, is that in the film form the picture never stops changing, which means that everyday you're cutting literally hundreds of tracks to conform to the new picture. You have to dedicate a large percentage of your labour to basically just keeping old sounds current with those new pictures. With the television show, on the other hand, they've really managed to make it fairly predictable. I get a cassette three to four weeks ahead of when it mixes, and I get the optical animated effects several days before the mix. That never happens with film. Otherwise, it's a remarkable similar process.'
Until 1994 Jim Wolvington worked close to LA, and it was therefore easy for him to go to a spotting session and learn what sounds were required. Now, however, with more than 200 shows behind him, he is able to anticipate what is needed about 90% of the time, while for the remainder he acts according to the notes that are faxed to him.
'We get a cassette of the new show and Ijust FedEx it to Jim,' says the TV series' supervising sound editor, Bill Wistrom. 'By the time we get in the next morning he's already been working on it for three hours, and so anything we need he sends down the pipe and we're off and running.
'I have a work station here with a Synclavier, Tascam DA-88s, a little mixer and a patchbay,' adds Wolvington. 'It's basically an identical system and database to the one that Tomi Tomita works on in California, and Itherefore either FedEx Tascam DA-88 8-track tapes with the effects laid down, or I modem sequences that allow Tomi to recreate what I've done.'
'Jim typically supplies nothing short of superb tracks, and I'm really fortunate to have the opportunity to deal with them,' asserts effects mixer Doug Davey. 'With no disrespect to the other editors, he is a phenomenal sound designer.'
At Modern Sound, Bill Wistrom coordinates the dialogue editing and mixing, ADR, Foley... 'everything but the effects.' Like Jim Wolvington, Wistrom has been involved with Star Trek since 1987, since when he states that in some ways the job has got easier, and in some ways it's got a whole lot harder. 'The technology has been growing. We started with Synclaviers and a clunky old Cass computer system for editing dialogue and so forth, and since we've moved over to the Fairlight our job has become much, much nicer.
'We've always recorded to digital, even though the dialogue and so on comes in on analogue. Currently the dialogue is still recorded on 1/4-inch, but we'd like to go to DAT soon. For the ADR we record to a Fairlight and an M-O, and our Foley also goes onto M-O, so it stays in the digital domain quite a bit, whereas before the analogue editing was quite a bit slower.'
Nevertheless, while the new studio gear has helped facilitate matters, the post schedules certainly haven't made life any easier. Production values on all three Star Trek shows have been extremely high--perhaps higher than anything else on TV--and so there is a direct correlation between producer expectations and the available technology.
'It's a creative process,' says Wistrom philosophically. 'What I like about these shows is that everybody's trying to do the best job possible. That includes the producers, and if they're not happy with something then it takes more time to get it right for all of us. However, that's okay, because in the end I think the shows come out looking and sounding awfully good.'
In terms of the dialogue, Modern Sound has two resident editors who--as the dailies come in--cut, back-fill and clean across a maximum of eight tracks. The ADR is shot to a Fairlight on the adjacent stage and recorded onto M-O. Then, after the dialogue editors have cut the print takes and everything is in sync on 24-track, dialogue rerecording mixer Chris Haire goes to work.
He, music and Foley mixer Richard Morrison, and Doug Davey, all sit at an 11-year-old, 72-input, G-series SSL 6000 console. Each man therefore has 24 faders to play with, Haire mixes down about 16 tracks of dialogue to produce the composite track, and he then shares the sound effects with Davey.
Basically, the hard effects are built on 20tracks using Tascam DA-88s; 8 tracks of mono effects and 6 stereo pairs. That doesn't leave Davey with many tracks of his own, which is why he and Haire split the stereo backgrounds.
'That's a typical layout,' says Davey. 'Sometimes I'll build hard effects on the background tracks where necessary. However, because we do surround encode the majority of the background tracks to a slight degree, I try to avoid cutting too many hard effects on there because it requires quite a lot of bus and panning changes. On a fully automated desk--with something other than just a Gseries automated fader--that wouldn't be a concern, but in our case it requires a lot of mental gymnastics, and it's very difficult to get everything correctly surround encoded and mapped out.
'I also have four automated pan pots--each up to 8 channels--and I rely on them quite heavily for ship-by effects, and effects that are moving overhead, and from front to back on-screen. I use them extensively, and I can still maintain the stereo integrity of the effects and get a nice, smooth even pan until they hit the surrounds, which, of course, are mono at this point in time. Hopefully, we'll get split-surround TV pretty quick.'
The music, which is scored by a variety of composers and produced at different facilities around town, varies from week to week. Still, as with the Foley and effects, the procedure is the same for both shows, save for the necessity to process sounds differently according to the dissimilar on-screen surroundings and the theme of a particular episode.
'With the exception of the main titles the music is entirely different with each episode,' confirms Morrison. 'It's not recycled at all. Only during the first years of The Next Generation--and then only on very, very, few occasions--did we go to a different episode to track in cues. Now that just doesn't happen.'
The music is mastered to 24-track 2-inch consisting of a 12-track score submix that is supplied to the stage.
'The 12-track lays out generally in pairs,' explains Richard Morrison. 'There's the high-string pair, a low-string pair, a woodwind /brass pair, a keyboards pair, and then a mono percussion--sometimes a stereo percussion--an electronic woodwind instrument that is on a mono track, and a pair of room mics. It's laid out for me pretty consistently that way. Meanwhile, we've already gone through and mixed the main-title end-credits, and so that's just on a 2-track DAT that we fly in every week. Then the Foley consists of either 9 or 10 tracks, and that fills up my frame.
'Having just 24 inputs is a problem when there are two 12-track music cues that are crossing, as well as 10 tracks of Foley. In that I case I have to do a quick premix of the area where I can get 12 tracks of the cue mixed down to 2 tracks, and then I cross into that so that I can free up those 12 faders to access the other 12, and then cross back into it. The second set of 12 are on my line 2s--or the second input on each module--so I'm able to cross out and cross back in quickly, and still contain as much independent control as possible. Because, sure enough, the producers will come in and want to change the balance. It's unfortunate if that happens to be in an area that I've already predubbed.
'Most often the changes in the music involve sync. The producers have specific ideas and so we move the music a frame at a time. They're most particular about the start, and we'll go over it until it feels just right. If it happens to be of any great duration that may involve some sort of on-the-spot editing; itmay be a move of six or eight frames and itneeds to get back into sync within a few seconds. It's rare when I don't have a half dozen of those instances during a show. That's another reason why it's spread out over 12 tracks; it gives the producers the control they need. When it originally came over here it used to be on 6 tracks and they just kept asking for more control. As a result it started growing, and I'm sure they would use 24 if I could handle it.'
Morrison processes the music through aLexicon 224 XL, Foley goes through a 480L, and then a second 480L is used for any additional music processing, which generally amounts to source cues. There are also a couple of Lexicon PCM42s for delay lines.
'When the tracks score we try to keep them as dry as possible,' Morrison says. 'We therefore add the reverb here on the mix stage so that we have better control over that.'
On a busy episode there will usually be around a hundred tracks to deal with, and it is therefore a struggle to transport that much information into the 72-channel SSL 6000.
'The producers don't like to predub,' says Doug Davey. 'They like as much control as possible down to the very last moment, and for that reason we don't predub. There's never been one show, regardless of how busy it is in terms of sound effects or whatever, where we've ever done any predubbing other than the spots where Richard's referring to for music crosses only. Even though it may mean that tracks are jammed very close to one another on a certain channel strip, we do what we have to do to keep all of the information on the desk at one time and not be locked into predub balances.'
'We now have a Sonic Solutions, we have all of these customised programs for the different rooms and locations, and we have a sequencer for our programs,' adds Richard Morrison. 'The Sonic was first used upstairs by the dialogue editors for Deep Space Nine, and for the past three years it's been in here with us.'
All the stems are recorded through a 3324. Meanwhile, for monitoring the three men use Westlake BBSM10s at left and right, while in the centre there are BBSM8s. The surrounds are Boston Acoustics. The close-fields are Yamaha NS10s.
'From a dialogue standpoint, the material that we're supplied with is not very good,' says Chris Haire. 'They're working in very difficult locations. There are tracking shots where the camera is being dollied back with the action as they're moving forward down a corridor, and consequently you pick up the shuffling footsteps of the entire crew. It's very unusual to be able to utilise the production sound--usually it's nothing but a cue track for ADR. 'On the positive side the sound effects help us a lot. There's always some kind of ship presence or room tone, and they usually want this massive sound, so there's this low-frequency rumble with maybe a mid-range element in there too. That's the case with anywhere we go, unless it's down on a planet where there's an atmospheric environment. I'm therefore able to hide a lot of production ills within that background.'
Still, technical problems are not the only cause of dialogue replacement. The producers place a lot of emphasis on the clarity of speech, and that means not only rising above extraneous noises, but also steering through strong accents, masks and false teeth. 'It's a very dialogue-orientated show in addition to the sound effects.' says Haire. 'A typical Star Trek episode averages about 150 lines of ADR, and a heavy show will be in the 300s. 300 lines is about half--or maybe more--of the total. That, however, is down to the fact that the producers want every word to be pristine; clean and perfectly spoken. If a word is slurred or its pronunciation is too colloquial, then the actor will be brought in to redo the line.'
Of course, the knowledge that postproduction will fix things can also encourage sloppiness during the production phase. 'The manpower that is used all the way through the postproduction process on Star Trek is unlike any other show that I'm aware of,' says Haire. 'However, things are much smoother now than they were during the early days of The Next Generation. Our typical dub time now for this process is two 10-hour days. When we started Next Generation the minimum was two 12-hour days, and sometimes more than that. So, it has streamlined.
'We've had a little less producer involvement along the way, although in the case of Deep Space Nine the opposite has been true.'
'They've done what they can to quieten the sets down too,' adds Doug Davey. 'You know, changing the floors and so on. When they started Deep Space they had a lot of metal surfaces which have since been changed...'
'I remember during the first year of Next Generation there were some real obvious things that we had to contend with,' interjects Haire. 'Somebody would walk along and the plywood floor would creak and squeak. Plus it was a raised floor and it was very boomy, and so, what with the boom, the creaks and so on the whole thing had to be looped.'
That's all well and good, but still, isn't it a little surprising that, in this most experienced of TV and film towns, things such as creaking floorboards aren't tested and taken care of well in advance? After all, once the production is rolling it's then costly to call a halt while a man with a screwdriver has to do his job. At that point it's cheaper to leave things to ADR.
'All of this noise could easily have been fixed with a little bit of fibreglass bedding under the floor surface as well as some tighter screws,' says Chris Haire. 'After the first year they did make a concerted effort to do that, as well as to get the balance transformers away from where they were shooting. That worked, but you still only have to look at the sets that they're working with on Star Trek and you can tell that they're going to be very difficult, not just in terms of extraneous noises, but also to shoot in and around.'
Which is what helps to keep Modern Sound busy. Still, according to Haire, the Star Trek work is now basically a routine. 'We've been in space for over ten years,' he says, 'and we've got it honed to a science!'
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