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Pro Tools at the Battle of Trafalgar (part 2)

To do something like this conventionally, the sound track would be prepared in the studio and then a stereo mix would be taken to the rehearsal of the event. If anything needed changing then it would mean a trip back to the studio to make the change, and then a remix back into stereo...


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Mixing on Site

To do something like this conventionally, the sound track would be prepared in the studio and then a stereo mix would be taken to the rehearsal of the event. If anything needed changing then it would mean a trip back to the studio to make the change, and then a remix back into stereo. Since the audio in this production was on eight channels, then it could have been mixed to multitrack, which would have allowed scope for setting levels on site but there would have been no opportunity for moving cannon shots in time, or for swapping effects. Because the site was very big Peter wanted the flexibility to be able to mix it and make any changes to the sound track on site so he took the bold decision to run the project on Pro Tools. Pro Tools owner Laurence Cedar supplied and operated the equipment. The way the production worked was for Peter to do rough mixes on his own simple eight track system at home which allowed time for creativity without spending any of the budget on equipment, then once the outline had taken shape they spent a day loading the source audio material into Pro Tools and creating mixes of each section of the soundtrack. They then took the Pro Tools system to the site and did the final mixes on the system through which the audience would hear the re-enactment. The flexibility of Pro Tools is such that effects could easily be made to come out of different outputs at different times so that the audience was surrounded with the sounds of the battle, while at the same time maintaining a focus on the stage area. One of the limitations was that since they were using an eight output Pro Tools 2 system, and they needed the eight tracks to create the main stereo mix in the first place. This was done as a first step and mixed into stereo onto DAT, once again on site. The DAT mix was transferred digitally back onto two tracks of Pro Tools and the DAT became the back up tape which would be run in parallel with Pro Tools in case the system crashed. Once the other six voices were freed up, they could be used for the surround effects. With a system like Pro Tools, at any stage up to the stereo premix, anything could have been changed during rehearsals, and even afterwards it would have been possible to go back into the premix between rehearsals and make necessary adjustments. Of course, the surround channels could have been altered at any stage up to the start of the show.

Did it work?

I think that if the whole thing had been a failure I might have chosen not to put in on official record out of consideration for my fellow sound engineers, so you can take it that the event was a success and Pro Tools worked perfectly on each of the three nights of the show. The system’s owner, Laurence Cedar, has found it reliable if he takes care not to load up the computer with games, screen savers and the like. The packaging as an Apple Macintosh Quadra 650 desktop computer with a 16” monitor, keyboard and mouse, plus the Pro Tools hardware, is obviously far from ideal for transportation and setting up. Also there are doubts about using hard disks at an outdoor event. Normally, if security is adequate, you can leave sound equipment outdoors as long as it is reasonably well protected from the weather. There is a nagging doubt however that computers may not be quite so robust in the face of cold and damp night air so in this case the computer was removed overnight and set up again the following day. Laurence noticed particularly that moths and other insects seemed to be attracted by the high tech equipment. I have noticed that my own hard disks have tiny vents, presumably to equalise air pressure. The possibility of insect infestation of a hard disk may be slight, but I would prefer not to be the first to suffer from it!

The Pro Tools segment of the show was about twenty-two minutes long and you can see a part of it in the screen shot. Contrary to normal theatre practice, the live action followed the sound track rather than sound being cued from the action. At two points where sound had to be cued from the action, the cues were played in on top of the Pro Tools tracks from Minidisc. Since the show had been mixed on site, the result was certainly very good. With a large outdoor event obviously it is necessary for all of the audience to receive good sound, so Laurence and Peter had communicated by radio during rehearsals to set the levels of the surround effects. Without using delay towers, obviously the stage orientated sound was always going to be louder at the front than the back, but I think one has to presume a certain level of sophistication in the audience, and those who want a loud exciting experience probably know where to sit!

I would imagine that once you have worked in this way, with almost complete freedom to fine tune everything on site, rather than use guesswork in the studio, that it would be difficult to go back to the traditional way of working. I hope that manufacturers of hard disk recording systems will start talking to theatre sound designers and others who have to use sound equipment in the rough and tumble of the real world to see how the equipment can be better packaged and hardened to the rigours of outdoor life. It is obviously an area that isn’t being covered very well at the moment since there are few hard disk recorders that you can handle like normal sound equipment. Despite this, I think we can see from this example that hard disks are not just for the studio, live sound engineers can take advantage of their creative potential too.

By David Mellor Thursday January 1, 2004