POST MIXING DURING COVID 19

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By Karol Urban CAS MPSE 
 
Dubbing happens in two directions: facing the screen and facing the client. The success you achieve in a re-recording mix is dependent on ensuring that both directions get addressed. 
 
In the days leading up to California Governor Newsom calling for a state-wide shutdown, stages all across Los Angeles were burning the midnight-oil under the threat of lockdown.  Complete mixes for productions that were approaching the final days of their post-production schedules were delivered, but a bigger question loomed: “What about everything that’s already on the books? How can we offer mixes for all the productions that are already in the post pipeline?”
 
Some decided the only way forward was to remain on the dub stage, strictly adhere to safety guidelines, minimize the presence on stage to essential personnel, and ensure that a quality product delivered on deadline.  But, many have had to embrace the limitations of the stay-at-home quarantine. They have begun establishing new routines and workflows in hopes of serving their clients and maintaining the level of professional excellence for which our members are known. The good news is that many of us have been successfully working remotely in some manner for years.
 
Sometimes it doesn’t take a global pandemic to keep clients off the stage; sometimes, it’s just a drive across LA traffic that forces your hand to solve problems creatively. For a couple of seasons and a couple of productions, myself and Kurt Kassulke CAS have been mixing at Westwind Media’s Stage 3 using a remote approval system. With production offices located on the Westside, Craig Holbrook and the engineering staff at Westwind crafted an excellent workflow that allows us to stream high-quality video and audio to up to five different users simultaneously using a Clearview Flex system.  The in-board talkback of our control surfaces is routed to allow myself and SFX mixer, Kurt, to seamlessly chat with all five users through our live stream while hearing the client’s notes and discussion through a conference call. The stream is monitored closely by an engineer in the machine room to ensure all members of the call are successfully receiving the high-quality stream. With many mixes under our belt, we have perfected this system of remote approval for major broadcast network shows. While I dearly miss the face-time with my clients, and get excited when I hear one of them is coming to visit in person, everyone is thrilled with the remote results.
 
As COVID-19 was ramping up in late-February, we took extra precautions with our regular clients on-site to make the review process safe. Stage 3 at Westwind has the good fortune of direct access to the outside via a sound-locked vestibule. The only people who need to enter the door are ourselves and our clients. Our rooms were wiped down every day before and after mixing. Our engineering staff was instructed to wear gloves and masks and not to enter the room unless absolutely necessary.  All tech assistance and recordist functions were able to be done via remote access from the machine core. Supervisors and music editors were encouraged to work remotely and use Aspera to deliver adds to the machine room. Kurt and I would sit as wide apart from one another at our consoles and occasionally bump elbows in celebration of a bitchin’ scene. When the mix was ready to present, a maximum of two producers/editors/EPs were allowed in the backfield if they preferred to approve in person. We would schedule a Clearview Flex review session with engineering if anyone preferred to weigh in remotely. By early March, nearly all producers, editors, and writers were remotely approving.
 
 
But what about complete remote mixing under stay-at-home orders?
 
When I first came to LA with my husband, Steve Urban MPSE, we were starting anew.  We had over a decade of credits and experience, but we were hoping to break into new genres of work and teams that would allow us to expand our craft. Understandably, however, no one wants to put unfamiliar talent on a dub stage or in a spotting session with their client.
 
So, circumstances forced our hand. We invested in a modest 5.1 home studio, and one of our two bedrooms became a home studio. With an iso rack for temperature and sound control of our equipment, a separate video playback rig, a 5.1 speaker array (JBL LSR4308s in LCR, LSR4306s LsRs, and LSR4312SP sub), some sound baffling, a battery backup, obscene amounts of licenses and software, and a few other bits of hardware we could offer our services directly to clients. We treated the room, calibrated the speakers, and edited and mixed documentary series, independent films, pilots, and scripted streaming series for years.
 
Our workflow was streamlined for digital delivery. A password-protected link from picture editorial via Aspera, Frame IO, or Vimeo of a screening copy was used for virtual spotting sessions.  We received turnovers from picture editorial via Dropbox, Hightail, or WeTransfer. Foley was outsourced, and ADR was shot at other high-quality home-studios or formal facilities, often using Source-Connect or Skype. We assembled the dailies and a remote sound editorial team would jump into action, digitally delivering elements back and forth. 
 
Before the world was on lockdown, a predub would typically occur in our home studio and then finalize on a 4-walled dub stage. With relationships with studios all around town, clients would have their dub stage of choice in their part of town. After the mix was approved, we would print and leave with files that we would use to create detailed deliverables based on network specs or theatrical distribution documents. This final mix stage is where it is crucial to know the limitations of your small room and how it will translate.
 
It is this knowledge I have had to come back to in the last few weeks when mixing for a couple of clients exclusively from my home studio.
 
Most recently, after predubs and a temp dub in my home studio, an approval QuickTime was securely sent to EPs, producers, writers, the picture editor, and the music editor. Notes were streamlined by a shared Google Doc, which we addressed together on a Source-Connect Live session.  This process allows me to play in near real-time my mix changes with picture and audio in perfect sync. After printing and QC’ing my stems, I send them to my engineer, who packaged everything up for final delivery to the network from his home system. In the end, deadlines are hit and goals met.
 
Fellow re-recording mixer David Barber CAS MPSE, is also a veteran at remote mixing. David and Juniper Post have been devising an ingenious system of remote mixing for years, which has allowed them to service many clients from all over.  Having completed the mix for the feature films Force of Nature, Axis Sally, and The Uncanny, all 100% remotely, Barber offers some thoughts as well.
 
 
David Barber CAS MPSE:
“At Juniper Post, we’ve been fortunate during the early stages of this societal shut down as we were nearing the final mix stage on several projects. All of them wanted to push through to completion and were willing to follow our lead on how best to do that.
 
I’ve been working remotely for nearly four years now as family circumstances took me across the country. This situation has ended up being a blessing in disguise as we’ve been ironing out remote mixing during that entire time.
 
Our internal workflow has remained the same in terms of parsing out editorial, Foley, and design. Spotting sessions have taken place over Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom, and we’ve found that directors and producers alike have enjoyed the opportunity to stay home, spot, and quickly move on to their next task.
 
Over the years, we’ve tailored our remote workflow to our clients’ preferences and sensibilities. Some producers and directors are product-driven, while others have a keen interest in the process. By product-driven, I don’t mean to say that they are not vested in the artistic merit of the final soundtrack, but rather that their MO is to give instruction and trust us to do the job right. Process-driven clients tend to want to be there for as many steps of the project as they can – give notes and approve sound design, review and approve ADR cues, etc., as well as being present for all ADR sessions and the final mix.
 
Recent events have forced everyone into the “product-based” workflow, and it has been up to us to accommodate the “process” minded clients in the best way possible. A lot of video chatting, sending designed/premixed clips back and forth, and an overall uptick in communication have been vital in making sure that everyone is comfortable and involved in the audio post process. Recently, we’re having great success with live, real-time reviews with clients using Source Elements’ Source-Live software. We have found our clients to be very satisfied with the workflow and product that our (forced) remote sessions have delivered.
 
One final note: while studio setup (proper monitoring/calibration) is vital to the success of any remote mixing, the absolute most important equipment that perpetually requires updating is your ears. Listen, listen, listen to mixes you have done on larger stages in your home/remote studio—as well as Blu-rays of all film genres. Pre-COVID-19, my standard workflow involved all prep and premixing in my studio, taking it to a large stage (Stage 1 at Juniper Post, Harbor Picture Co., WBNY, etc.) to audition or final. Then immediately returning to listen in my studio while EQ, level, and other mix decisions were fresh in my mind. Every mix is an education for the ears and will help you build confidence in being able to produce a final product remotely.”
 
Michael Keeley CAS is another mixer who invested in a private studio and has been remotely mixing for a while.  Michael is a freelance mixer but has constructed an extremely high-end space with Dolby Atmos capabilities. Below he describes his remote workflow at Sound Striker Post that I find very familiar to my own experience.
 
 
Michael Keeley CAS MPSE:
“About five years ago I built a Dolby Atmos home studio, where for the last couple years I have been doing remote projects.
 
I work with the editors and Foley remotely and they send me their individual PT sessions, where I assemble and do the predubs before taking it to a larger dub stage for the final review.
 
For projects that needed to have reviews done remotely, I would export a QuickTime video with the mix for the clients to review. Lately, I have had the clients use Google Docs. That has been very useful since everyone can edit it, and the EP or showrunner can instantly approve or deny a note from others. This has streamlined the process and helped to avoid back-and-forth notes.
 
After addressing notes, I would then QC and deliver the final mix stems. The challenges with this workflow have been making sure the clients are listening back on full-range speakers or a decent pair of headphones (I love and recommend the Blue Mo-Fi headphones) and not laptop speakers or enhanced bass headphones, etc.”
 
The various listening devices, room acoustics, and bandwidth available to clients have possibly been the most significant technical hurdles of remotely approvals. When remote approving from more extensive facilities, I have often been able to ensure correct acoustics for my clients because they would have a listening space built in their production office or lot. But, with clients wanting to approve on the go, communication about how certain types of devices may color their listening experience has been a massive hurdle. There is software available that can model speakers and use IRs of your dub stage space, which could be useful. I have personally had great results on broadcast/streaming projects when clients’ own Smart TVs and are able to stream the QuickTime audio and video to their home system to better approximate the end viewer experience. But, the very best way to make and give notes is on the dub stage, where your soundtrack will never sound better and worse all at the time, as this space is designed to reproduce and reveal everything.
 
Keeley does point out that there are some advantages to mixing from home, such as “having a more flexible schedule, not having to commute, and spending more time creatively on certain projects when needed.” I like wearing bunny slippers. 
 
But he also expresses that there are cons. “I seem to work longer hours at times when at home, and it’s a pain to have to be my own tech support occasionally,” he explains. It is easy to get lost in overcoming an error that won’t go away or a scene that derails you.  Time management becomes a practice of discipline.
 
It is very possible to mix in quarantine and do it very well.  But, in addition to it requiring practical study in how your room translates, how your technology works, and a significant financial investment, there are unavoidable effects on the creative process.  Keeley expands, “I miss the energy and rapport of being at a facility and the one on one time with the client.”  I could not agree more.
 
I am currently slated to begin a new project, and I am faced with creating a mix for a new team, a new distributor, with a new mix partner without ever spending time with them in the same room.  I won’t be able to ask them in the moment whether we should foreshadow something or diminish its presence, or completely misdirect.  As I prep for this project, I find myself watching hours of projects produced and written by the same team to observe sonic patterns and preferences and taking notes for a future video conference call I hope to have.
 
A client-turned-dear-friend would often say when she would enter the dub stage, “Let’s play in the sandbox!” Besides technological hurdles, the creative process changes with physical distance.  It is the input of my supervisors, the knowledge and creativity of my music editors, the dance with my mixing partner, and experiencing first-hand the visceral reactions of my writers, editors, producers, and directors that I lack most.  It is the professional and creative hive mind that often creates the magic of an impactful narrative. While I know our industry and sound mixers continue to find ways to meet the demands of the ever-changing landscape of our industry, I can’t wait to get the band back together, all in one room to do something amazing together again. Perhaps we can incorporate the bunny slippers. 
 

CAS COVID 19 RESOURCES

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Last modified: May 6, 2020

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