DEVA ON LOCATION: HARD DISK RECORDING FOR FEATURE FILM PRODUCTION

Jan 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Jeff Wexler

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I always try to attend AES conventions, yet every year-even as the exhibits get more elaborate with more manufacturers showing product-I usually feel left out. As a production sound mixer working primarily in feature films, the equipment and tools we use have changed very little in the past 30 years. Most recent advancements in audio have come with the digital revolution, but digital recording-at least for production-has only really just begun. So, I went to AES in 1996 and was overwhelmed by the vast number of exciting DAWs and digital studio recorders, but, as always, these have limited application for the job I do. I was somewhat disappointed in not finding that one terrific new piece of equipment for production sound, when I noticed a little black box in a small, unassuming booth off in the corner of the vast exhibit floor.

However, it was not immediately clear exactly what this box was intended for. It looked somewhat like a CB radio but had buttons on it labeled Rec and Play and Stop. The person at the booth told me it was a digital audio recorder that recorded directly to hard disk. I was intrigued.

I had already been involved in the use of DAT on feature films, well before anyone else was willing to take the plunge with a totally new format. Also, at the time, I was the co-owner of a sound transfer facility, so experimenting with a new format was not so difficult. I was in control of both sides of the equation: the production recording on this new format, DAT and the transfers that had to be made to the then-required format, which was 35mm mag film.

Of course, technology had not advanced to the point where a full-sized, computer-based DAW, which is terrific for post-production, could be brought to the set to record production sound. I was sure that this little box was a controller for some CPU hidden under the table, but that turned out not to be the case. The entire recorder, battery and removable hard disk were all enclosed in this small but rugged unit. I was told that Deva (the name affectionately given to it by its creator, Glenn Sanders of Zaxcom) was only a prototype and that the software was far from fully developed. In fact, I believe it was not functioning as a real recorder at this time. But I was promised that it would be a real product very soon.

At AES, I had seen a few other devices-also not truly operational or fully functional at that time-such as the StellaDAT and the Nagra ARES C re-corder-but Deva really captured my attention. However, I remember thinking that it would never be a reality. How could Zaxcom (unknown to me at the time) produce a viable product when the prototype they were showing looked like something built in a garage and wasn't functioning?

A few years later, after I had successfully completed several other pictures using DAT with only minor difficulties, I saw Deva again. This time it was a fully functional hard disk recorder, still in the same little rugged black box, but it offered four tracks of 20-bit digital audio on a hard disk and ran for three hours on an NP-1 battery. I realized that soon I would be able to have in production the same benefits of the digital technology used in the DAWs, and I could throw it over my shoulder and record sound on location in the middle of the desert if I needed to!

I have completed two feature films using Deva: The Siege, directed by Ed Zwick for Twentieth Century Fox, and Fight Club, directed by David Fincher, also for Fox. I didn't do all of The Siege but only the last six weeks of production in Los Angeles; the first 12 weeks were recorded by Alan Byer in New York. All of Fight Club was shot in Los Angeles with production audio recorded entirely by the Deva.

My experience with Deva has been wonderful. There have been a few difficulties, mostly relating to software revisions, but even with the problems encountered, none were ever fatal-Deva made a perfect 20-bit, 48kHz recording every time. It has been more trouble-free than any other piece of equipment I have ever used, including my first Nagra III.

Launching a new format is never easy, but as one of the first to use DAT in feature films, I knew what needed to be done. For one, I had to convince the producers that although we were going to be using new technology, we would also do everything the old way. The old way, in this case, was DAT, which the producer was comfortable with. If Deva failed, the producer was confident that nothing would be lost. I also had to convince the production company that this new technology was not going to produce any difficulties for them or cost any more money.

As Deva is really a new way of doing things-even more so than DAT-there were a number of issues to be solved. Both The Siege and Fight Club were to have normal daily mag transfers done so we could see projected dailies. At the end of the shooting day, I had to deliver to the transfer house something that could be transferred to mag film. Since very few transfer facilities had Deva, Coffey Sound Services (the distributor) agreed to lend Fox a unit for the transfer room. On The Siege, I sent in the hard drive and transfers were made to mag by playing out from the Deva. This all worked perfectly. The hard drives were cycled back to me to be re-used the next day, and the DAT cassettes (recorded concurrently on the set) were put on the shelf to be used as the masters. The DAT, of course, was a 16-bit recording, somewhat inferior to Deva's 20-bit, but certainly acceptable during this experimental phase. This procedure would change on Fight Club as Deva gained new capabilities.

On Fight Club, we recorded to the hard disk and also, in mirror mode, to an outboard 2GB Jaz disk. At the end of the day, the Jaz disk was sent in and transfers of selected takes were made to mag (for dailies), and a one-to-one of everything was made to a Tascam DA-98 8-track. By transferring to DA-98, the tracks were in a format accessible to all who needed to deal with them. Currently, the expense of the Jaz disks makes them unacceptable as a daily consumable media that the production company would purchase, so the Jaz disks, like the hard disks, are re-used over and over. This procedure will change as well, probably by the time I start my next film. Sanders has demonstrated the Deva recording (in mirror mode) to DVD-ROM. DVD would allow the production sound department using Deva to send in the DVD purchased daily by the production company to transfer and to serve as the archived master for all to use at a cost of approximately $20 per day.

There has been much discussion in the professional community concerning the features needed on a location disk recorder, with many people undecided about what we really require. Do we need 20-bit recordings? Do we need four tracks? Do we really need random access in production? Without debating all of the issues here, I can say from personal experience that it is really neat to be able to play back instantly any segment or take, on the disk, and then punch Record to start a new recording with no tape shuttling required and no fear of recording over previous material.

Another feature built into Deva is the automatic pre-roll that records up to ten seconds of pre-roll before program material is actually needed. When you go into Record, Deva automatically puts down at the head of the segment up to ten seconds of timecode and program-that's ten seconds before you even pushed Record! This ten-second pre-roll has been terrific for telecine sessions, which now can be done much faster than ever before. As fast as lockup has been in the past, even with a proper DAT recording with pre-roll, using Deva has proven to be a real savings in time and money in telecine.

I think the technology represented today by Deva will be the technology that is used by virtually everyone in production in the near future. The benefits of digital recording over analog have been well established, and recording sound files, rather than audio, to a rugged field recorder with file format compatibility (Deva supports the major industry-standard file formats, including broadcast .WAV and SDII) makes all the sense in the world. These sound files, easily transported, easily copied and easily manipulated by all those involved in the recording process, make production and post-production work much more efficient. Multiple access and multiple transfers are all easily accomplished, and everyone is assured of the preservation of production quality as everyone is essentially working on the same sound.






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