New York's Met In HD

Apr 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow



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“After the first season or two, we got a digital reverb,” he continues. “We're currently using a Lexicon 480L. I try to make reverb sound like it isn't artificial. I also use compression, filtering and EQ — anything to re-create in someone's mind the sense that they're experiencing an excellent live performance. The irony is, to do that I have to use these processing tools!

“There's a big difference between recording an opera and an orchestral concert. When one records an orchestra in a concert hall, you're able to pretty much place microphones wherever you need to. But opera is a visual art, so I don't have the freedom to hang a tree or place microphones on stands where they'd be in full view of audiences both in the opera house and in HD. As a result, all of my miking is either too close to the orchestra or too far away from them, and usually not in ideal locations. Same goes for the singers. If I were making a recording of an opera, I'd mike completely differently.”

Surround sound has had no impact on the Met's live radio broadcasts. “We're still working in stereo,” Saks says. “However, for HD transmissions I can't handle both stereo and 5.1 simultaneously, and the Met doesn't want someone else doing a separate surround mix. Our live stereo mix signal is fed to a truck sitting out on Amsterdam Avenue. The guys in the truck use Dolby to up-convert to a 5.1 stream. Prior to our first HD transmisison last season, I went down to Dolby with samples of Met stereo broadcast recordings, and we very carefully set the parameters that would work best. We then went over to Digital Cinema, Sync Sound's cinema studio, to verify the quality of the signal. Ken Hunold, a Dolby employee, sits in the truck on Amsterdam and checks the up-conversion in real time. Ken brings the converter box, and our production mixer, Tom Holmes, sits with him. In preparation of the post work to come, we use David Hewitt's multitrack truck. David records everything to Pro Tools.”

Once the elements of a show — including intermission interviews, PBS fund pitches and other ancillary material, in addition to the multitrack — have been assembled, Saks moves over to Sync Sound. “I start out editing with John Bowen fixing music and performance errors and making inserts. We might spend just a day on a show, or could go up to three on this part of the process. Then I move over to another room to work with Ken. Over the years, the Met's productions have become more complicated, and I'll know that there are spots that need additional work. Ken and I often work for three or four days together.

“Once the stereo mix is completed, we'll make a real discrete 5.1 mix, not an up-converted one, mostly for DVD release, PBS broadcast and archival purposes. On occasion though, we will just up-convert the stereo version. The technical complexity of the production's recording is a factor. We always ask ourselves if a 5.1 mix built from the stems and tracks will really yield a product superior to an up-conversion. If we're convinced that it's worth the time, we'll go ahead and make the 5.1 ourselves. As far as the theatrical broadcasts, I have to say that we've gotten great response to the up-conversion, even from audio pros.”

Delays are an unavoidable part of the live-transmission process. The task of minimizing any disjunction between the audio and video streams falls to Mark Schubin, who holds the title of engineer in charge, Media Department at the Met.

“There are several issues to consider,” says Schubin. “The first is not transmission-related; it's based on the way theaters are constructed. Every loudspeaker you see in a theater carries surround material; the left, center and right speakers are all behind the screen. In a theater, the audience hears the bulk of the surround sound coming from in front of them. In the home, the majority of the surround information comes from speakers in the rear. Jay has to construct his 5.1 post mixes keeping this distinction in mind.

“Time delays are interesting from two standpoints. First is absolute time delay itself. We distribute our surround sound via AC3 encoding. AC3 has a significant delay on the order of six television frames for the encoder and one more for the decoder. That would be an absolute nightmare were it not for the fact that video encoding and decoding takes even longer! We can dial in the specific delay we want for the audio, and to make sure that everyone gets it right we do extensive lip synching prior to a show so that the theaters can adjust the audio and video streams. For two hours we send out signals.

“The second issue is a bit trickier. It involves the way human beings establish an audio perspective. The speed of sound is roughly 1,100 feet per second. At that rate, 37 feet is one television frame in the U.S., more or less. If a singer is standing 37 feet back from the lip of the stage, where Jay has established his microphones, the singer's sound will, therefore, be one frame late. In a theater, someone might be sitting 37 feet from the screen as well, adding another frame of delay.

“This isn't necessarily a problem, though — at least not yet. In television, a lot depends on what the director is doing. If he or she is showing a wide shot, no sweat — the audience expects the sound to be delayed. If a close up is being presented, however, there can be a problem: I'm seeing a big face and my brain says that it should be accompanied by immediate sound. We get the occasional complaint that lip sync has changed during the transmission of a show. That hasn't happened; there's really just been the introduction of an acoustic perception issue. There's not much we can do, though, and by and large the audiences have been happy with the link we've created between the audio and video that we deliver.”

Gary Eskow is a Mix contributing writer.

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