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HomeCraftsPostproductionFollow that sound: The sound of Musicals

Follow that sound: The sound of Musicals

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By Sam Molineaux
Of the top 100 American Film Institute Films from the last century, some 85 have had their soundtracks restored by Burbank-based postproduction and restoration facility Chace Productions. With its proprietary Chace Digital Stereo (CDS) technology, the company specializes in the restoration of film soundtracks and their conversion from mono and early stereo recordings to 5.1 or 6.1 surround for theatrical re-release and DVD release.
Chace engineers work concurrently on a wide range of projects. On a recent visit, a full restoration and 5.1 upmix of the classic 1956 adventure Around The World in 80 Days was being prepared for DVD release; the TV series M*A*S*H was also being restored for DVD; engineers were cleaning up sections of this year’s Oscar-winning The Pianist to prepare it for home video release; and an extensive audio restoration and 5.1 mix of Roy Orbison live performances was being done for a new Orbison greatest hits DVD.
Not every project that comes through the doors gets the top-to-bottom treatment, but many do. Around The World In 80 Days will end up with a staggering 200–300 hours of restorative audio work performed on it.
The process begins with film inspection and repair in the Magnetic Film Recovery Room. “We go through all of the material, every foot and every frame,” says Chace Technical Operations Manager Jeff Gersh. “We repair any splices that are about to fall apart, and determine the physical condition of the film to see what we need to do to it.”
Easiest case scenario is if the film master will play back naturally. Often, however, it may need to be baked, dehumidified or undergo a process as extreme as chemical treatment. “We’ve come up with our own chemical process, which relaxes the element and flattens it out so we can play it over a play head again to get a good contact with the material,” says Gersh. “If we have to go to that extreme, that’s certainly the last time anyone will use that film. It’s worthless after that.”
The repaired film is played back on a magnetic reproducer, re-recorded to a hard drive and simultaneously archived on 2” analog tape. Some preliminary removal of hiss or hum occurs at this early stage using a variety of different filtering devices, and then the audio is conformed to picture to put it back in sync with the new master.
From here, the sound travels through one of Chace’s four NoNoise rooms, where it’s meticulously treated for removal of distortion, ticks, pops and hums. “Near-field is preferred in this part of the process. If you’re very close to the sound source, you can hear everything much better. In restoration work, it’s better to be small,” says Gersh.
Using proprietary CDS software, Chace engineers manually program as many as 18 parameters on a half-frame by half-frame basis to come up with stereo cues that determine how the sound moves through the listener’s environment.
“We can have something as limiting as a mono composite track of dialog, music and effects and psycho-acoustically cheat it to amazing levels so you hear stereo material. Or where you have stereo dialog, stereo music and stereo effects, we can treat them all independently to where you have a nice surround spread to it,” explains Gersh. “This is an off-line process where we’re creating stereo cues, locate positions, and soundfield information based on our now in-sync material
Depending on the type of project, the process now moves on to either the nearfield mix room or the larger Rick Chace Theater, both THX-certified.
“We’ll place the source through the stereo programmer’s cues, and then do the mixing in here,” explains mixing engineer Greg Faust, from the nearfield room. “We’re using Pro Tools for editing and we mix into 5.1 or 6.1 mostly at the board.”
Just over a year ago, Chace purchased a second building a short walk from its main facility. The newly renovated building houses a fully functioning Foley stage as well as the 34’ x 25’ x 16’ Rick Chace Theater, with its 60-channel LaFont Chroma cinema console, various high-end processors, Pro Tools and Sonic Solutions workstations, 5.1 monitoring and video projection.
Remastering engineer Jim Young is an old hand at creating some of the best “upmixed” stereo surround tracks in the business. Around the World in 80 Days features one of the best examples of early surround, he says.
“We just augmented the original left/center/rights when we made the 5.1 track and used the original mix as a primary source,” explains Young. “I’ve never seen that much care put into a surround track, it’s extraordinary, especially for 1956. Ninety-five per cent of the credit goes to the people who made this movie in the first place. All we did was not screw it up basically.”
The next step is the encoding process: Dolby Digital (or DTS) in the case of a theatrical release print or, in one of the compression rooms, AC3, the format for encoding for DVD Audio. Clients receive a computer file based on the final mixes, as well as a safety analog copy of the full data of the digital mix. “That’s still the best thing for putting in the vault for the next 15 years,” notes Young.
For a theatrical release, the very last stage of the process is to have an optical soundtrack made that can be put onto the release print. Veteran optical recording/film prep manager Thom Piper works his magic in this highly specialized area, to make the final long-lifespan “museum quality” print.
“There have been few changes in how movies are presented. The majority of it still is optically based,” explains Gersh, of the end-product. “You’re listening to a soundtrack that is coming from that celluloid film the picture is actually projected from. The only difference now is you have that analog track but in addition there’s a Dolby Digital or potentially a DTS track. The digital soundtrack is very similar to what you would hear on your DVD player, since it’s all from the same master. What’s cool nowadays is you can get a very similar sounding soundtrack in the home as in the theater, and they’re very close to the original master.”

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