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Audio Post Faces Rising Expectations, Falling Budgets

By Steve Harvey. In the world of audio post production, from commercials and television to major motion pictures, two things are increasingly certain: budgets—or lack thereof—and Dolby Atmos. Pro Sound News talks to pros to find out what’s they’re seeing day-to-day and in the larger picture.

New York, NY (November 20, 2018)—Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. In the world of audio post-production, from commercials and television to major motion pictures, two things are increasingly certain: budgets—or lack thereof—and Dolby Atmos.

Downward pressure on studio rates is a fact of life, and not just in audio post, of course. “Budgets are continually shrinking,” says Peter Holcomb, mixer, sound designer and founding partner at Manhattan’s Sound Lounge. “Cost consultants make up their own numbers now. Triple-bidding is huge. No one has any money, even if they’re a Fortune 500 company or a luxury brand. And clients always think social or digital should cost less than their TV commercials, when it’s exactly the same work.”

Consequently, says Holcomb, “You try and shave a couple of hours off; it’s going to take six hours, but I’m going to get it done in four. What else are you going to do?”

Software from iZotope helps, he says. “They continually improve their plug-ins, and they are fantastic. What used to be an unusable dialog track is now completely usable. It has saved so many mixes.”

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Even in the million-dollar movie world, purse strings are tight. “We’re definitely feeling the pinch, with less time, less money,” reports re-recording mixer Ron Bartlett. Yet client expectations are not diminished. “We have to constantly build a better mousetrap. You don’t say, we only have this much money, so we can only do it this well.”

Full-service post sound company Formosa Group—for whom Bartlett and mix partner Doug Hemphill work—is always working toward that better mousetrap. “Formosa is an avid adopter of the Dante environment, using Focusrite interfaces for the majority of DAWs on our stages,” says Danial Shimiaei, director, operations, at Formosa NoHo.

Formosa’s workflow enables mixers to move seamlessly between formats, says Shimiaei, recalling a recent DTS:X project. “We had our initial set-up day, which requires DTS to tune, calibrate and lay out the arena. Once we did that, I didn’t have to change anything in my setup. The environment is tremendous; it just works.”

There has been an uptick in work for social media platforms, he reports, which have completely different needs and specs than feature films or TV. “Formosa’s investment in our custom speaker management and monitoring system on stages has afforded us incredible ease for switching between multiple ranges of products being serviced,” he says.

These days, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Netflix, for whom everybody, it seems, either works or wants to. “Netflix has specified Dolby Atmos for its original content, so a year ago, we upgraded our film mix room,” says Holcomb.

Bartlett recalls having to jump through hoops to create a Dolby Atmos mix for Life of Pi, one of the first films released in the format. Avid’s updates this year, incorporating the necessary panning and busing capabilities, have made things much easier, says Shimiaei: “That has removed a layer and allows the mixers to work in a more fluid and natural environment.”

Dolby Atmos is not necessarily well understood on the post side, says Shimiaei. “People tell us they need the Dolby Atmos DAMF file, the ADM and the Pro Tools Record session. Well, they’re all the same product in different containers and formats. There’s a lack of clarity about what is truly required.”

But while Dolby Atmos holds the promise of being that one format to rule them all, scaling to playback according to any system’s capabilities, from mono to immersive, we are still a long way from that utopian ideal. “There are films where I’ve spent more time on deliverables than on the final mix,” says Bartlett, enumerating some of the formats—Atmos, 7.1, 5.1, Auro, IMAX, foreign language versions—that must often be generated, and QC’d. “We did two weeks on Blade Runner 2049,” he says. “It’s very time consuming.”

There are also differences between Dolby Atmos for the cinema and the home theater. Happily, says Bartlett, Formosa’s new stage at 959 Seward in Hollywood can handle both, following consultations between engineering staff and Dolby Labs. For Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, “We could do all of our formats in one room. That’s one of the few rooms that can do that.”

Sound Lounge is seeing a panoply of projects, says Holcomb. “We’re working with a giant outdoor brand, we’ve doing two or three little films a week. They’re a nice break from the usual :30 spot.” In fact, branded content—three-minute films, on average—come through at the rate of up to five a week, he says.

At the opposite end of the budgetary scale, he reports, “I did six spots the other day that were shot entirely on iPhone—audio and video. I saw one on-air the other night; it sounded fine.”

In the movie world, says Bartlett, the middle has dropped out of the market in the past decade. “There are a lot of lower-budget independent films, then there are a few tentpole movies. Our bread and butter was the middle ground, $60 million movies. A lot of those have gone away.”

Bartlett was an early adopter of Avid’s S6, which he also rents out, and has an S3 in his home studio. “That’s been one of the biggest changes of the past few years—studios are taking out their big consoles or putting an S6 on top of them.”

Most post pros are now working virtually, he continues. “With the schedules and the budgets, you have to work as efficiently as possible, and be able to recall mixes and conform them instantly and just keep going, from the temp dub on.”

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As a result, perhaps, “A lot of the rooms are trending a little bit smaller,” says Bartlett. “It’s great to be in a big room. On a big show, you want to push some air.”

Yet even with today’s advanced tech and support for every format imaginable, Shimiaei observes, “We still have to keep up with some of the older tech. We just finished a project which required Dolby E deliverables on HDCAM SR at both 24P and 1080i tape formats. We always have to be ready for what the customers’ needs are.”