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LA Studios Special: Audio

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Between its three facilities, L.A. Studios/Margarita Mix boasts 18 control rooms each with its own adjacent studio, staffed by a total of 18 sound mixers and 10 assistant mixers. The boundaries may blur occasionally, but each location is geospecific to clients’ needs: the Westside’s Margarita Mix de Santa Monica takes care of audio for its commercials clients, Margarita Mix Hollywood focuses on movie trailers, television and adding value content to DVDs, and L.A. Studios’ Cahuenga Pass location is ideally situated for servicing animation and feature film. “We like to make things as easy as possible for our clients,” says president and CEO Jesse Meli. “L.A. has a traffic problem and a lot of people will not deviate from certain areas of town. We have all the territories covered.”About to celebrate its 25th year in business, The L.A. Studios Inc. is enjoying unprecedented success for an independent audio post house, particularly with its voiceover work; it’s the west coast’s leading facility for animated voiceovers. The company recently completed this month’s box-office smash Madagascar, another notch in its long-lasting collaboration with DreamWorks animation. L.A. Studios also recorded the voices for DreamWorks’ hits Shrek, Shrek II and Prince of Egypt; Disney’s Monsters Inc.; Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants Movie; and animated TV shows Father of the Pride, King of the Hill and all the series for the Disney channels. “Animation exemplifies and typifies the importance of the sound,” says Meli, the eternal champion of audio post.An animated feature such as Madagascar may take as long as three years to complete. Voices are tracked first to give the editors something of high quality to work with, says L.A. Studios’ mixer Larry Winer, who recently completed work on the DreamWorks feature. He’ll work closely with the director, producer and the voice talent to rough out scenes in the beginning. “I study the script early on, which really helps to get an understanding of the nuances for what’s going to happen in the scenes,” says Winer of the early part of his process. Later, in post after the editors have done their work and scenes have been reworked, talent may come back for ADR. Or additional scenes will be recorded, such as the “American Idol” end sequences on Shrek 2.In the studio Winer, a 13-year veteran of L.A. Studios, uses nothing more than a standard Neumann U87A mic for capturing vocal performances. “Some studios like to have two mics, one a little further back to catch the yelps and screams if it gets too hot. But with a lot of the talent we have we see them from day to day on other projects and we’re familiar with them and them with us, so I’m able to anticipate certain qualities of their performance,” he says.“Celebrities trust Larry, and all of our team,” says Geoff Nathanson, Margarita Mix Hollywood’s general manager. “The process takes place over a few years, so we’ll see, say, Chris Rock in January, in March and in August and every time they come in they feel at home. It’s a friendly and comfortable environment for them.”“In the tracking process it’s important that we’re providing the mixers and editor with a very transparent recording,” continues Winer. “Our booths are designed to give the best quality of audio as possible that’s acoustically flat, to give the mixers the creativity to do what they want.” It’s all down to the acoustical quality of the booth, mic position, and the ability to anticipate what the actor’s going to do, he says.Big-budget animated features certainly provide L.A. Studios with some of its most high-profile work, but it’s only a part of what goes on there. As a company built on independent spirit and a self-described hippie mentality, it still prides itself on nurturing independent talent. To keep costs down for budget-conscious clients, Margarita Mix Hollywood includes a combined recording studio/control room that provides a compact environment for mixing independent films.“Mixing on a large sound stage is expensive, so we’ve equipped this particular studio with technology that allows us to mix in a small environment and play back in a large environment and still sound good,” says Nathanson. “It helps our clients save money. Indies have tight budgets and a lot of these people may have to sacrifice a really strong final mix, and that’s something we can accommodate. We have an independent spirit here and we really support those people. Our culture is very entrepreneurial. We were started by two hippies from Northern California. The majority of the company is owned by the staff so that entrepreneurial nature is infused on what we do.”Part of what’s kept the company’s growth healthy is an ear for the next trend. While added content for DVD release is boosting the workload at Margarita Mix Hollywood, the company is using its Santa Monica location as the flagship for hi-def capabilities and surround mixing. “We had the infrastructure to do 5.1 mixing five years ago and we’ve been waiting for that market sector to start embracing that technology,” says Meli. “With the advent of HD, we’re doing many more 5.1 mixes now.” He’s seen the incidences of 5.1 mixes escalate from one a month, to two or three a week; to the point where 5.1 mixed commercials are beginning to be broadcast in theaters, further increasing the demand.Surround sound mixes are also becoming popular in video game audio, another burgeoning area for the company. Doing voiceover work for video games is little different to animated features and television, says Meli. “Games are becoming much more sophisticated, and in the last 12 months there’s been a huge increase in the amount of dialog; we’re starting to do ensemble casts in video games and even celebrity voices,” he says. “When LucasArts comes in to do their games, they bring in actors. It’s something they take very seriously; they want to specify their games as being different. It really makes a huge difference.”In contrast to a three-year animated feature project, a game voiceover assignment might last only two or three days. “It’s a whole other discipline,” says Margarita Mix Hollywood chief mixer Konrad Piñon, who works closely with LucasArts on its gaming titles. Piñon, a veteran of audio for commercials who’s more recently turned his attention to video-game audio, insists it’s all about clarity and projection. The sophistication of today’s gaming hardware and home audio systems means that the sound quality on game software has to be absolutely top notch, he says. “Previously the consideration was whether they recorded it at an editorial facility or not, where if there was as sound on tape it was fine. But now because so many users have multi-channel at home the quality has to be the best it can be.”Piñon, who has been working in audio since the advent of digital editing, has seen the video-game industry improve in leaps and bounds. “They pulled themselves up and realized they would have to compete,” he says. “We aim to get the cleanest sounding voice possible.”“We have clients who specifically request Konrad,” says Nathanson, of his star video game mixer.Compared to some, Piñon is a relative newcomer to the company. Many of the mixers have been at the company for 20 years or more. Its longest serving mixer is Jimmy Hite, senior mixer at Margarita Mix de Santa Monica, who was recently nominated for best sound for an animated United Airlines spot by the Association of Music Producers.“In sound more experience is better,” insists Meli. “We have staying power with our staff. They come and they don’t leave. These guys fin
esse what they hear each year. Something as simple as how they EQ a voice can change the story line or the motivation to sell. It’s all about storytelling and making things believable.”Meli constantly marvels at the abilities of his mixers. “They hear things that you and I can’t hear. I walk through a room and they play something and it sounds great. Then they’ll say, ‘come back 20 minutes later,’ and it’s so amazing, I’m embarrassed I thought it was great earlier. They are amazing, their ears are so finely tuned. They know the level of the voiceover as it relates to the music beneath it. They’re very good at bringing creative audio to what the client needs. They bring trust and versatility and their acoustic experience to the table, time after time.” Meli, an outspoken advocate for the importance of audio in any visual media, recognizes that the final stage in post often gets short shrift. “We’re perceived as an afterthought, but that’s starting to change,” he says. He cites DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg as someone who really understands the craft of sound. “We’re collaborators, we collaborate with a very talented and diverse group of people who we respect,” says Meli. “We genuinely love audio. If you saw what I look like, I’m a body builder, I cry at the final mixes sometimes; I jump up and down and hug the mixers, and beam like a proud daddy.”Reflecting on the company’s 25-year anniversary, Meli feel proud of what they’ve built up. “It’s a remarkable feat, to be known as leaders and still be ahead of the curve. It shows we’re doing something right.”

Written by Sam Molineaux

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