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Surround Professional

An unedited manuscript for an article published in Issue Nine of Surround Professional.

Millenium Modifications

This article condenses a series of interviews I had with the staff of Skywalker Scoring in September and October of 1999...

Driving out to The Ranch, the pegs drag lightly on the pavement rounding the tightest turns. Just another blue sky day in Marin. Arriving at the Technical Building, it looks like an rehabbed woolen mill from my New England youth. Like the mills of days past, the bucolic appearance, quiet ponds, tawny hills and trellised grapes belie the determined activity within. Over the course of 11 years, Lucas Digital Ltd. has refined the physical plant, tweezed the gear and adjusted the process of recording, massaging and delivering sound for discerning clients from all segments of our industry.

Overseeing the evolution is Leslie Ann Jones, recently elected National Chairwoman of the NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences) and Director of Music Recording and Scoring for the Lucas family of companies. Her efforts have kept Skywalker Sound at the forefront of world renowned facilities. Jones recalls that “…Its been a steady process over the last two and a half years to get the stage, and the control room in particular, to the point where we could do multichannel mixing for film.” It seems to have worked, with 11 Academy Awards, numerous nomination and kudos from Mix magazine as top audio post facility. Jones notes that, on a parallel track, multichannel for music has become much more popular. “So, we’ve had the advantage of doing something for one segment of our clientele that has been really perfect for a whole other segment, which is the multichannel music clients that we have.”

The Scoring Stage is the pride of the facility, a room loved by Isaac Stern and George Massenberg alike. A cavernous 60 by 80 foot studio with 30 foot ceilings, it sports adjustable acoustic treatment that translates into an RT60 ranging from 0.6 to 3 seconds. This enables the space to serve equally well for a solo performance or 125 piece orchestra. Three isolation booths, measuring 16 by 16 with 12 foot ceilings, are located at the far end of the studio with a fourth iso booth tucked in next to the control room.

The control room, available with a variety of Levinson–driven monitor speakers from Wilson, B & W and Tannoy, houses a 72 input Neve VXS with NEVE/Martinsound Flying Faders. An eight by eight VSP Film Monitor section accommodates mixes up to eight speakers wide. It also allows switching in and out of stereo so two channel and multichannel mixing can happen simultaneously. Two and a half years ago, when the desk was installed the monitor section posed a problem. “The minute we put in an eight wide post panel,” Jones says, “we had to triple the size of the patch bay. Its really multiplied the number of patch points that we had to have…So, we put in the (Z–Systems) AES router and its been great. Not only does it make our lives easier because we can do setups to multiple formats in much less time (but) I think its made the client’s product better because we’re able to move signal around easier and better with less clocking problems.” Routing and patching were only two of several fundamentals that needed to be examined in order to provide the optimal production environment.

To reduce high frequency hash from the plethora of switching power supplies in their modern audio gear, scoring engineer Aaron Reiff has designed a new power and grounding system for the scoring stage. “We started looking at different technologies like special cables. We use MIT (Music Interface Technologies) cables, and they lent us some power conditioners. I was amazed that we were able to hear a difference in the audio based on power conditioning.” Given that more clients were bringing in 96 kHz/24 bit jobs, he realized that no one was optimizing the environment around the new, high resolution release formats. “I went to balanced power and custom spec’d a transformer from Square D that has a very high K-Factor* and specified the way it was constructed to cut down on harmonics (on the AC lines)…Once we installed it, I was definitely able to hear a difference in the audio.”

After tackling the AC supply, Reiff went to work on the sink for all that power. “I found these ground rods that NASA uses, they’re called electrolytic ground rods. The difference is; with a normal copper rod, you’ve got maybe 15 ohms of resistance between the ground rod and earth. Several (bonded) stakes gets you down around 10 ohms. But, with this technology, you can get below an ohm of resistance to earth,” and significantly reduce the high frequency impedance. A grid of custom fabricated ground braid made of nickel, to reduce the chance of corrosion and the subsequent loss of conductivity, completed the picture. Or did it? Reiff notes, “I’m going to go through each piece of gear and see what AC cord it ‘likes’ the best.” He changes cables, modifies the power supply if necessary, all the while checking his test equipment and listening. In this critical environment, he admits “…it’s worth it in the end.”

As with any up to the minute recording facility, the building is laced with high speed networks, both Fiber Channel and Ethernet throughout the building. Reiff elaborates, “There are terabyte servers in the basement but…it’s easier for me to hand the client a storage format that I've instantly backed up to an Orb or something. Here in scoring, we do utilized the network when we need to but its not a heavy part of what we do. In the rest of the building, they really rely on the servers for everything…all of the sound effects are on servers, all the audio gets backed up to servers. They’re delivering from and recorded to (Tascam) MMR-8, so…editors can pull it off the server and edit it or go get the hard drive and put it in their system. The network is heavily used, we also deliver digital video as well. That makes it really handy to have the video on the server because then any editor can decide he’s going to edit reel 5 and, boom, he can just have it instantly rather than dealing with tapes. It really makes it easier for us.”

Easier yes, but it requires continual supervision of their networked assets. “We have several terabytes in the basement and still, we end up having to do a lot of data management. We have a robot that backs up to DLT as well but, the thing about it is that you can run out of room! So, if a project comes back in and we’ve wiped it off the server, to restore it off the DLT isn’t a 5 minute process, its several hours. If we wipe it off too soon, the client comes back in and says ‘I want to punch in on reel 5…’”

That attention to the client’s needs and expectations is the hallmark of Skywalker Sound. Jones admits, “We actually have a pretty astute clientele for the most part. Very knowledgeable in their own right about experiences with converters and things like that. So, its a real exchange, especially with clients that have come back two or three times…They’re always very nice about being a part of our ever present need to tweak stuff (laughs), constantly!”