N*Sync on DVD

Mar 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By David John Farinella

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As if the N*Sync calendar wasn't full enough — four albums in five years, a run of stadium tours and appearances at the Olympics, the Super Bowl and World Cup — the band recently hit movie and television screens across the world. Pop Odyssey, a DVD that evolved into a European television broadcast, was recently released in a new chain of digital movie theaters. The project kept bandmember JC Chasez and live sound mixer Tim Miller busy for nearly five months.

“I felt like we were doing the Fleetwood Mac thing without the drugs, when it took them four years to do a record,” Miller jokes. “But it was always something that needed to be done, and we couldn't do it half-assed. One of the big reasons N*Sync is successful is because whenever they've had a chance to make the right decision or not make the right decision, they always make the right decision. They always do the right thing.”

For the Pop Odyssey DVD, television broadcast and digital theater release, that meant doing a lot of right things in a row. After recording the band's show at the Superdome in New Orleans (which was part of the biggest tour in history with 91 trucks, 320 crew members and 65 stadium shows), Miller and crew hopped over to Ideas Studios in Florida to perform a handful of vocal overdubs and then sent all of the tapes (that included the original tracks on 1-inch and Tascam DA-88s, as well as the overdubs and a reference mix on Pro Tools) to Skywalker Sound. Once the material arrived at Skywalker, it was dumped into Pro Tools, which served as the playback source.

According to Leslie Ann Jones, Skywalker's director of scoring, playback and mixing to Pro Tools seemed to make the most sense. “They really undertook an amazing amount of work,” she says. “They had many different mixes to do, because these particular projects that they were on were going to be released on so many different formats. They ended up mixing mostly to Pro Tools; that way, they could overlay audience and things like that. As their time on the scoring stage went on, their needs became clear for all of these different formats.”

Miller and Chasez start the video-mixing sessions by getting a rough layout of how the tracks come together. “We'll start mixing something together, maybe the first two songs, to get a vibe. Then I'll say, ‘All right, you sit with this for an hour, and then I'll come in and get you and we'll talk about it at that point,’” Chasez explains. “Then we start tag-teaming it after the first two songs. That way, our ears stay fresh.”

The first mix that Miller and Chasez tackled in Skywalker's scoring room was the stereo mix for the European television broadcast, which they completed on a Neve VXS console. “After mixing live sound for 20 years, it was really cool to have the feel of the Neve and do a true stereo mix,” Miller recalls. “At the same time, you kind of forget — what with all of the keyboards and the sequencers — how fast the show moves. There's a lot of moves, and the desk was built in the '70s without automation, so it was a lot of work.”

Yet the stereo mix laid the groundwork for the 5.1 DVD and digital theater mix, the part of the project that really excited the team. “It was a whole different thought in mixing, because when you're mixing in stereo, you're doing more EQ, more effects, and [there's] a much different thought in layering your sound and how you're spotting your things into your mix and making it all fit,” Miller says. “It's easier with N*Sync, because you hear it night after night. But then there are all of the little nuances of the music that you have to make sure they sound out. That's where JC becomes a huge part of this because JC is a real talent.”

The 5.1 mixes were performed at Skywalker's Mix E room, which boasts a Euphonix System 5 console. To be sure, Chasez had fun with the extra channels of audio. “You can do so many cool things,” he says. “You can move effects — a lot of the explosions start running around your head. But the toughest part about it is the placement in the 5.1 mix, because you want to take advantage of how wide it is; you don't want to put everything in the front and just the crowd noise in the back. So, we'll keep the kick and snare in the front stereo and then we'll have the percussion coming from behind you. It's wild, yet it all blends.

“We mix it as if you are sitting in the crowd, so [there's] a bit of it all around you,” he continues. “That's the one part that gets tough to mix, and that's what makes you take the extra time. But we feel like it's worth it, because we want you to feel like you're actually in the crowd, not just watching a DVD at home. We want you to feel like there's three or four people standing in front of you making noise, as well.” There are certain pitfalls to that approach, Chasez allows, such as how to blend a screaming fan in the same channel as a guitar. “You have to bring the guitar up a little bit more, because the crowd noise will disguise and camouflage some of the sounds,” he answers. “You have to mix around that, as well. Usually the people that listen to the stuff that we mix feel like they're not just watching a concert, they feel like they're sitting in the concert; it's more of a live experience.”

Once they left Skywalker, both Chasez and Miller believed that the sessions were done. Yet, there was a major problem with the digital theater release that Chasez didn't realize until he heard it in a theater. “When we heard it in that room, I called up Tim on the way out and I said, ‘Dude, I don't know what happened, but that's not how it sounded when it left there,’” Chasez recalls. “‘It's scaring the crap out of me. I know we didn't do this.’”

It turns out that the digital theaters had pulled the standard crossovers and added their own audio systems. As Miller explains it, the bottom end was “mushy. They had taken the processing and the crossovers out of the amp racks, so everything was just going full bandwidth.” The easy solution was to go back to the stem mixes, cross over the subs and then clean up some of the aural clutter. “I had the audience too far forward in the 5.1 spectrum, so what I did was move the audience stems more to the rear of the mix,” Miller says. “The combination of those two things just made it click.”

The perfectionist in Chasez was relieved. “I was freaking out, because I know that there was no way in creation that I would have left it sounding like that,” he says. “We came to find out it was a technical problem, and when I heard the mix put back together that fast, it sounded great.”

Even as the band are taking a bit of a sabbatical, the Miller-Chasez team are heading back into the studio to mix the DVD based on N*Sync's latest Celebrity tour.

Portraits of N*Sync onstage, by Steve Jennings:


N*Sync getting their groove on. Photo by Steve Jennings


N*Sync belts out a hit. Photo by Steve Jennings


Slowing it down onstage. Photo by Steve Jennings


The stage is prepared for N*Sync's show. Photo by Steve Jennings

Mix Los Angeles editor Maureen Droney interviewed Leslie Ann Jones, Skywalker Sound's director of scoring, in August, 1999; the veteran engineer shared recording tips, career history and her favorite gear. Read interview






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