Music Editing 101 – Dubbing

You were probably starting to think I’d never get around to explaining dubbing. I’ve mentioned it here and there in some of the posts leading up to this one and if you’re not familiar with film audio lingo, then you might have been asking yourself what the heck I was talking about.

Step 6 of 7 in my music editing routine is the dubbing session – one of the two final creative steps in the entire process of producing an episode, the other being color correction. In simplest terms, dubbing is the blending of the three distinct audio elements – dialogue, sound effects, and music – of a film or television show soundtrack. Soundtrack in this use does not refer to the music alone. I know when you buy a soundtrack CD you’re getting just the music, but a film’s soundtrack is actually the final, complete audio track you hear.

Last week we dubbed NABF16 “The Falcon and The D’ohMan” on Dub stage 11 at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA.

Sony Dub stage 11

Sony Dub stage 11

There are some terms in film making that have double meanings. Dubbing is one of them. Dubbing is also the process of re-recording the original actors’ dialogue with different actors speaking in a foreign language. American films are dubbed into many different languages around the world. Many jokes have been made over the years about Japanese Godzilla movies being dubbed into English with questionable results. THE SIMPSONS is dubbed into a number of languages. If you catch the show in syndication in the U.S. (reruns of episodes shown on your local TV channels or cable stations 5-days-a-week like I LOVE LUCY or THE BRADY BUNCH), check to see if you can access the SAP channel on your TV and you may be able to hear the show in Spanish. Select episodes on the DVDs also have foreign-language dialogue tracks.

But I’m here to tell you about dubbing the final soundtrack. Dubbing is a very meticulous, precise exercise. THE SIMPSONS runs approximately 22 minutes when you subtract the commercials and it takes the better part of two days to dub it. A 1-hour episode of TV can take 2-3 days and a 2-hour TV movie can take 3-6 days. “Simple” feature films (i.e. films with mostly talking and not a lot of action sequences) can take 6-8 weeks to dub. “Complex” feature films (i.e. TRANSFORMERS, HARRY POTTER, etc.) can take 4-6 months or longer. Dubbing crews used to have one mixer for each element – a dialogue mixer, a sound effects mixer, and a music mixer. The combination of shrinking post-production budgets with the introduction of the computer as a mixing tool has reduced the crew to two on most shows and features. One mixer handles dialogue and music, the other handles sound effects.

As mentioned in a previous post, I finish up all the music editing and track preparation following the scoring session. For each cue in the show, the digital music files are grouped together and labeled as either “MUSIC-A”, “MUSIC-B”, “MUSIC-C”, or “MUSIC-D”. Groups A & B are for the 15-track orchestral cues recorded at the scoring session; Groups C & D are for the 2-track stereo cues from CDs, the Main Title, Lisa’s sax, End Credits, and Logos. That’s 34 tracks altogether and that means that the music will have 34 volume controls on the mixing console. These controls are called “faders”.

Sony Dub Stage 11 Console

Dubbing Console @ Sony Dub Stage 11 - Some of the faders used to dub the music

Sony Dub Stage 11 Console

Dubbing Console @ Sony Dub Stage 11 - Pro Tools keyboard and screens to control and monitor the dub

Most of the time the first orchestra cue goes into Music-A. As long as there is at least one second of silence before the start of the second orchestra cue, then that second cue will also go into Music-A, and so on, and so on. There are weeks when all the orchestra cues go into Music-A because all the cues have silence between them. But if a following orchestra cue butts right up against the end of the previous cue, then I place it into Music-B. This allows the music mixer to independently control the volume levels of each cue without having to make any sudden moves. For example, if the end of the first cue needs to be loud, but the start of the second cue needs to be soft, the mixer would have to yank the faders from loud to soft within a fraction of a second. By having the second cue on separate faders the volume of each cue can be independently controlled for much smoother-sounding results.

Every character’s dialogue is on its own fader, every type of sound effect (i.e. footsteps, door opens & closes, birds, wind, etc.) is on its own fader. A typical SIMPSONS episode may have as many as 80-100 faders with all the sound that will make up the final soundtrack, all managed by the two dubbing mixers with the help of a computer that controls the mixing console. All those faders and knobs that you see in the photos above are connected to a computer which memorizes every little tweak or twist as the dub progresses. Using our old friend timecode, every time a mixer touches a fader or knob, the computer records how and when a fader was pushed or a knob was turned or a button was pressed. Then when the same stretch of footage is played back, the computer takes over and repeats all those moves. It’s kinda cool to watch. It’s as if ghosts were at the controls as all the faders and knobs move on their own. This advance in technology – known as “automation” – has greatly redefined the dubbing process. In “the old days” before automation, dubbing mixers had to take meticulous hand-writtten notes as to what they were doing at a specific timecode. Then if they had to make changes, they had to manually reset the console to match the settings from previous passes. Now they can jump to any point in the show and the console just “snaps” to the proper settings for that scene.

After I’ve laid out my music tracks for the dubbing session, I draw a “road map” for the dubbing mixer to follow so he knows what tracks have music in them and when they will play. Here’s a page from one of my dubbing “cue sheets” that I prepare for every episode.

SIMPSONS Music Dubbing Cue Sheet

SIMPSONS Music Dubbing Cue Sheet

You read from upper-left, going down the sections separated by the bold black lines, then over one section to the right, and so on to the last cue at the lower-right. The first cue is 1M1, the Main Title, on Music-C starting at timecode 01:00:00:00 (the 01 – the hour position – is omitted from the sheet because the show is only 22 minutes long and we never cross over into a new hour). The second cue is 1M1 Violin on Music-C. 1M1 Violin is Lisa playing the violin rather than the sax during the Main Title. Its placement on the sheet indicates that it plays during 1M1. These two elements are on separate tracks and track groups but the mixer will blend them into one musical experience for the listener. The next cue is 1M2 on Music-A. 1M2 is the first regular cue of the show and the first of the newly recorded orchestra cues. The line and arrow drawn from 1M1 to 1M2 indicates that 1M2 starts immediately after 1M1; 1M2 starts at 52 seconds, 16 frames and ends at 1 minute, 3 seconds. Next is 1M3 in Music-A, starting at 1 minute, 25 seconds, 12 frames and ending at 2 minutes, 8 seconds. Cue 1M4 is marked as “Source”. This way the mixer knows to add some type of treatment to the music to make it sound as if it is coming from a radio or a live band or an elevator or whatever. And so it goes from column-to-column, cue-to-cue throughout the show. I generally prepare cue sheets that are 3-5 pages long.

Very few people have been with the show since day-one (Me! Me! Me!). We started with a traditional 3-man crew back in 1989, but since then we’ve dubbed at three other facilities with four or five different dubbing crews. Our current team is Mark Linden and Tara Paul and we dub at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City.

SIMPSONS Dialogue & Music Mixer, Mark Linden

Simpsons Sound Effects Mixer, Tara Paul

The first 75% of the time spent dubbing a SIMPSONS episode is handled by our mixers under the direction of Dominique Braud, our Post-Production Co-Producer. First they spend some time discovering all the tracks, how many of each there are for a given episode, and how they are laid out by their respective editors. Usually the dialog and sound effects are “laid down” first, followed by music. Every line of dialogue is examined and its volume (called “level” on the dub stage) adjusted so that you can understand all the words. Then the sound effects are added, some to set a location (birds, traffic, construction, etc.), some to give a scene a sense of reality (footsteps, door closes & opens, tire squeals, etc.), some to heighten the comedy (splats, squishes, bonks, etc.). Finally the music is laid across the entire episode like a blanket, warming up the emotion or the action where needed.

Sidebar: Sound Effects Editor Travis Powers has been doing an amazing job creating our sound effects since the TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW days (he’s one of the few people who’s worked on the show longer than I have). Bear in mind, since this is an animated show, there are no sound effects recorded during filming. When shooting live-action, while recording the dialogue the microphone will pick up some sounds – let’s take the example of a morning wake-up-and-eat-breakfast scene. The alarm clock, the throwing-off of sheets, the running water and brushing of teeth in the bathroom, the kids footsteps bounding down the stairs, the clanking of dishes and glasses, the pouring of cereal or the sizzling of bacon, the opening and closing of cabinet doors. All these sounds would be recorded as the scene was filmed. For the same scene on THE SIMPSONS Travis must create and place every sound because the dialogue was recorded in a studio and none of the action I described ever took place with our actors. Makes you appreciate how real the show sounds every week. My favorite story Travis ever told about how he created a sound was for 2F09 “Homer the Great” when Homer must walk home naked, dragging the stone of shame behind him. Travis had to wait until some wee hour in the middle of the night when there would be no traffic or birds making noise in his neighborhood, then he actually dragged a big stone around his front yard and recorded the sound. I asked him if he did it while naked for total authenticity. He declined to comment.

On the dubbing stage “rock n roll” has its own special meaning. When there is a lot of sound going on in a scene, with all three elements vying for attention, the mixers will go back & forth, back & forth over that scene until all the levels achieve that perfect, delicate balance where everything is in its right place in the sound field and all the sounds complement each other. This back & forth is called “rock n roll”. It’s not unusual to spend ten minutes of dubbing time on ten seconds of screen time. Or even sixty minutes of dubbing time on sixty seconds of screen time. On a loud action movie filled with crashes and exlposions, it’s a good idea to bring a good book and ear plugs.

For the last 25% of a SIMPSONS dub Executive Producers Matt Groening & Al Jean, Supervising Producer Larina Adamson and the three soundtrack editors – Norm MacLeod for dialogue, Travis Powers for sound effects and Yours Truly for music – all join Dominique and the mixers on the dub stage for the final “playback and fixes”. Once in a while, but not always, the writer of the episode will also come to the final playback. The show is played non-stop so we can all hear how it plays. Everyone takes notes regarding what does and doesn’t “work”. Then we go back to the start of the show and go through everyone’s notes line-by-line. Much of this process is very subjective. A dialogue line or a sound or a music cue may not strike one of the producers just the right way and it falls to the editors to “fix” them. Then the search is on for a new or alternative line/sound/cue to put into the show. Travis and I have been with the show since the beginning, Norm has been here for fifteen years. We all know just where to find whatever we need to “make the fix”.

The dubbing stage can be a very stressful environment for a composer. He/She has just spent many days/weeks/months writing the score and has just come from a few glorious hours/days of recording and listening to it in all its musical splendor. Now on the dub stage that delicate flute solo or mournful english horn line may be obliterated by the screech of a tire or a barking dog. On the dub stage dialogue is king. If you can’t understand the words, you can’t follow the story. If you can’t follow the story, then what’s the point of watching? Composers just starting out in the biz have to come to grips with the fact that the music has to exist in service to the story, not be the story. Most composers avoid the dubbing stage and leave it to their music editors to be the musical ambassador/negotiator/protector.

After we’ve gone through all the fix notes and made the changes to everyone’s satisfaction, the main part of the dub is over. Everybody gets to go home except for the mixers. They still have quite a bit of work ahead. First they playback the show once more to make sure that there are no “bumps” or “clicks” or any kind of little sonic boo-boo that may have crept in during the fixes. As the show is dubbed, they are creating a Dolby Digital 5.1 master with Left, Right, Center, Left-Surround, Right-Surround and Low Bass tracks. The 5.1 mix accompanies the HD (Hi-Def) broadcast. A Dolby Surround encoded 2-track mix is created simultaneously for the SD (Standard-Def) broadcast. This 2-track mix will play back as a stereo mix in most homes, but if you play it through a decoder, then you will hear a 4-track soundtrack with Left, Right, Center, and Mono Surround tracks. After the mixers have made sure that these two masters are OK to ship to the network, then they start work on the M&E, which stands for Music & Effects. This is a 5.1 version of the show with no dialogue. This version will be sent to the various countries around the world that will dub in foreign language dialogue. Finally they will create a DME master which has mono dialogue & sound effects and stereo music. This soundtrack is used mostly for trailers and other advertising purposes. Whew! That was geeky.

I head back to my studio, organize all my tracks and Pro Tools sessions for digital archiving, make stereo copies of the cues from the scoring session and burn them onto CDs for Alf Clausen, the FOX Music Dept., and my own library. Then it’s just about time to open a blank template and start the process all over again.

So, the next time you’re watching the Academy Awards and wondering what the @#$%! they’re talking about when handing out the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound awards, remember: a Sound Editing Oscar would go to Travis, a Sound Oscar would go to Mark & Tara.

Step 7 of 7 is next and it’s all about paperwork and $$$.

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