If you've ever gripped your popcorn bucket in fear as a torpedo screamed across the movie screen or watched in awe as a spray-painted chunk of cardboard morphed into a vast, menacing spaceship, thank a sound designer.
For more than 25 years, Frank Serafine (pronounced "serra feeny") has applied his creative sonic seasoning to Hollywood blockbusters such as The Addams Family, Field of Dreams, The Lawnmower Man, the first and third Star Trek movies, Tron, Virtuosity, and The Hunt for Red October, for which he shared the Academy Award for Sound Editing.
Frank Serafine in his Malibu, California, home studio, one of a dozen studios he has designed. Replacing his bulky old synthesizers with software helped create the spacious feel.
But Serafine's audio magic isn't limited to movies. He has contributed to television shows (including Baywatch), commercials (Eveready, Mercedes-Benz, Nike), and video games (Grand Theft Auto). His sonic environments power Busch Gardens' Corkscrew Hill adventure ride in Virginia, Sony's Explora Interactive Children's Museum in China, and Toyota's Aroma-Rama experience in Tokyo, among many others. When Disneyland opened its Space Mountain Pavilion way back in 1977, Serafine composed and performed the music.
But lately Serafine, who is also an accomplished recording engineer, has been focused on the delicate craft of transferring old analog tape recordings into the digital domain—using a surprising combination of cutting-edge software and a cake-baking oven.
"The audio and music restoration business is exploding right now," Serafine enthuses, crediting advances in noise-reduction software for the flood of old analog multitrack master tapes now resurfacing on CD and surround DVD. I caught up with him by phone at his Malibu home studio.
People often talk about the warm sound of analog, but baking an analog tape before transferring it to digital seems rather extreme. What's the reasoning?
I have used the oven at Paramount Studios to bake an old analog master tape now and then if the oxide on the tape is shedding or particle-izing, but most of the time I don't bake unless I have to. I start by baking the tapes moments before threading them up on my old analog 2-inch, 24-track machine for playback through digital converters into the computer. The oven evenly warms the tapes up to about 90 degrees to prevent them from shedding during playback. The bad ones stick in the machine if you don't bake, and there are some older tapes that you just have to throw out.
Once baked, are the tapes just like new?
Not at all. Once a tape is on the machine and playable after baking, we often have just one chance to play it and transfer it through the Edirol FA-101 FireWire [audio] interface before the tape sheds again—that's it. We record 24-bit stereo at 192kHz [today's highest sampling rate] into Digidesign Pro Tools|HD, thus preserving the content to digital while we still can. I'm really looking forward to remastering all of my archived 1/4-inch sound-effects libraries and 24-track music masters this way for digital DVD releases, as well.
Serafine afield with his new Holophonic 7.1 surround microphone and his custom remote recording rig that can be charged by a car battery.
What other sorts of audio problems pop up on the master tapes of 10, 20, or 30 years ago?
Back in the pre-digital days, when I recorded sound effects for Star Trek and Tron and other films, everything recorded in the field was captured to analog tape on battery-operated Nagra and Stellavox 1/4-inch tape machines. We ran those at 15 ips [inches per second] to get the best sound possible at that time. Those are amazing analog recordings, the best of the best, but without battery-operable Dolby noise reduction we were capturing lots of inherent tape hiss and noise as well. Now that we have software plug-ins like BIAS SoundSoap Pro and the high-resolution Edirol FA-101 I/O box, which can also operate on battery power for high-resolution recording in the field, those issues are gone.
Does noise-reduction software really make that much of a difference?
Actually, yes. Until now, noise reduction required that you encoded the actual noise reduction in the field as you recorded it so you could then decode it when you got back to the studio. [In general, analog noise reduction systems work by boosting high frequencies during recording and cutting them during playback, therefore removing a bit of the tape hiss along with the artificial brightness.] Back then, there wasn't anything like the Edirol box around that you could use to record at these high 192kHz sampling rates [in the field]. That's why we need to remove all that hiss from those original field samples and recordings today, and SoundSoap Pro does that for us: It quickly and easily takes out the hiss and leaves just the super high-resolution audio from those great original analog recordings.
Wasn't Dolby SR tape noise reduction around in the days those masters were recorded? SR recordings are still considered to be very high quality, if not better, than today's best digital standards.
Good analog tape noise reduction systems have really only been around the last 20 to 25 years. That was when Dolby starting getting really good at it. But even when using Dolby A and Dolby SR, those original masters are a bit noisy. Go back and listen to those old movie soundtrack masters, man; on even the best-recorded soundtracks there is a lot of hiss! You could never totally get rid of tape hiss.
Everyone is going to want to go back to even their great old Dolby SR masters to get rid of hiss, and using ovens and noise-reduction software is the way to do it. All those guys going back to their old Rolling Stones or War or Beatles record archives, as well, will have to deal with a lot of noise on those tapes. That's a lot of cleaning up, restoring, and remixing to do before the record company can rerelease it these days on a surround DVD.
But can't a good engineer remove a fair amount of tape hiss and hum and other noises simply by using a decent parametric EQ?
I tried taking all that hiss out manually with EQ for years. The minute you start doing that, you begin to take out a big chunk of your overall sound. Once you cut any high frequencies, then everything in the song sounds thinner. Most or all of that crispy top end is gone when you remove tape hiss using an EQ. If you're not using intelligent noise-reduction software, then you're sacrificing all your hard-earned fidelity, especially up there in the high end.
Can you describe a situation in a recent film project where SoundSoap saved you by saving a piece of audio?
We recorded all the background ambiences for The Aryan Couple in the field at 192kHz in 5.1 surround sound, using Apple's Logic Pro 7 software with the Edirol interface powered from an Apple G4 laptop. But some of the dialog tracks were recorded with the intense noise of a gas fire in the background. None of those tracks would have been usable if we hadn't used SoundSoap Pro to clean it all up.
What other software and hardware has really come through for you lately?
I use Digidesign Pro Tools 6 software for post-production editing and mixing, Logic Pro 7 for music and special sound effects multitracking, and BIAS Peak for two-track mastering and sample editing. Also, it is great now having access to Arturia's Minimoog, Moog Modular, and Yamaha CS80 [software synthesizers]; IK Multimedia's Sonic Synth and Sample Tank 2; McDSP's various plug-ins; EastWest's Quantum Leap sample collection; and Native Instruments' Kontakt virtual synthesizer plug-in for sound effects and music work. The capabilities of virtual instruments today are incredible. It's like bringing all your old favorite analog friends back to life in the digital age.
The Arturia Moog Modular is a software synthesizer that emulates the sound of the expensive classic without the tuning and storage problems. See a bigger view.
I hear you recently sold every one of your physical synths on eBay. That's depressing.
Not really. I got my Minimoog when I was 16 and loved it, but it was never quite in tune and has no compatibility with today's digital world. Now I'm totally virtual with my synths. The Minimoog plug-in has hundreds of programmed presets whereas my original Minimoog had none, so I had to tweak for a sound every time I used it back then. I used it all over Tron, and every day for all the movies I've done sound effects for over the years, but now I just launch my synth plug-in and tweak a resonant filter and it's like, whoa, that sounds better than the Minimoog ever did.
But how do you like using a mouse instead of actual knobs to edit your synth sounds?
I like using the controls on the Edirol PCR-80 [soft synth controller keyboard] to program all the software synths' virtual knobs, so I'm still tweaking knobs. I wasn't playing my old synthesizers anymore because of their limitations, which was the main reason I sold them. Now I'm playing my virtual Minimoog every day because it's become so much easier to do. I also use Arturia's Modular Moog, which is cool because I've always wanted to own one of those. [The original hardware instruments] cost $50,000 and Bob Moog made only a little over 100 of 'em, so it's like a dream come true for me to have that huge vintage synth right here inside my laptop.
You've designed, built, and recorded in a dozen high-end studios over the years in a wild variety of locales and structures. Which is one of your favorites?
The first one I built was next to Denver University when I was just 19 and playing in a fusion band. I built it in an abandoned house near downtown that had this funky, weird laundromat attached to it. I have no idea how it ever got zoned to house a recording studio—there were all these huge holes in the floors for plumbing! Years later I drove by to take a nostalgic look back at the place and could hear a band rehearsing in there. It's still a music place almost 35 years after I built it.
You've also built studios on the beach in Santa Monica, in an art complex near the Venice Beach canals, and now way atop the highest point in the Malibu mountains. Is your sound and music work directly inspired by nature?
Yes. I especially love hiking when the sun is going down after a good day's work in my studio. That's the best time to run with my dogs; they're so happy that it rubs off on me and my work. Looking up into those endless layers of coastal mountains at sunset or seeing the full moon shining down on top of the L.A. clouds below is amazing. Sometimes I just have to pinch myself. My ultimate goal is to get a bigger piece of land up here, design and build a modest home and studio on it, and get completely off the power grid by creating a very clean photovoltaic power source.
Serafine's 3,800-square-foot house and studio offer panoramic views of Malibu.
How far do you think computer technology has advanced the craft of sound design and music production?
It's just incredible what we can do now. But there are some things that I loved to do in analog that are still very difficult, if not impossible, to do with digital technology. For instance, I used to take a 1/4-inch tape, thread it into the machine backwards, and use my hands to slow down and nudge the reels manually to create sound effects. It was much more of a tactile thing with music and sound effects back in the day.
In some ways we've lost some major things by going completely digital. Just listen to those old Beatles records like Strawberry Fields Forever. Many of the weird sound effects on that piece were done by John and Yoko experimenting with backwards voice and musical instrument effects in their home studio using old analog tape recorders. No one currently—at least that I have heard—is doing such cool effects using digital technology.
Can't you just reverse digital audio tracks in the same way?
It's not the same effect. Reversed or slowed-down digital tracks don't come close to recreating that weirdness of an analog tape. Guys like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page used to play a track backwards on their analog machines and then record new tracks of them playing along to the backwards track. No one I know these days turns an entire Pro Tools session [song] backwards.
What it would be like for you to do a sound-design session today using only your 1974 studio system—just your mixing console, a Minimoog, a rack of hardware effects processors, and a 2-inch, 24-track analog tape recorder?
I would be in hell! For instance, we had major issues with the footage in The Aryan Couple. The footage was shot in Poland using the European PAL format, and only the latest Pro Tools version on OS X could solve the problems of converting PAL to the U.S. standard. I asked the best consultants in Hollywood, but no one could tell me what to do to transfer that footage into the digital world. Until recently, when the new version of OS X supporting Pro Tools and Avid's OMF Digi-Translator came out, that process would have been a total nightmare. Now there's a Pro Tools preset that simply allows us to click the mouse and, boom, the analog PAL production tracks from Poland align perfectly with the digital world over here.
With audio software and noisy animals, it's easy to push an audience's emotional buttons.
Sound designers have been using animal recordings to create emotional effects for years. The galloping horses in the first Lord of the Rings film? Those were made using pig-squeal samples from Serafine's best-selling sound effects library, L-Squared. And the Millennium Falcon fighter in Star Wars? Yep, elephant screams.
"It's great knowing where those sounds came from, but it sort of ruins it for me now," laughs Serafine. "Now when I hear those sounds I think, 'Damn, those are elephants, not Millennium Falcons!' Animal sounds are great for creating emotional responses because our brains are still wired to be alert to those sorts of sounds. It's a survival instinct. The growl of a bear pulls the hair up on the back of our heads because it's tapping into our ancient survival DNA."
Try it yourself. First, download one of Serafine's pig-squeal samples:
Then open the sample in an audio editing program such as Sound Forge (Win) or Sound Studio (Mac).
Next, select the waveform and reverse it.
Now, find your program's pitch- and time-compression command or plug-in and open it. The trick, Serafine explains, is to then lower the sound's pitch to the threshold where you're just beginning to not be able to recognize what it is anymore, and then use the plug-in's time controls to slow the sample down to half-speed, which is probably listed as 50 percent. You can also use other plug-in effects to add some slapback [that is, short] echo to beef up the sound. The idea is to manipulate your animal sound just enough so that people can't tell what it is while maintaining the psychological characteristics in order to trigger their survival-fear instincts.
Here's another tip Serafine suggests trying while you have that backwards plug-in open. Write out your name backwards, letter by letter, and practice saying it expressively. (For example, Joe Smith would become Htims Eoj.) Record yourself saying your name in this manner, and then use the software to reverse your name so it plays forward.
"It's totally wild and eerie doing this," Serafine says. "Now you'll get an idea of what John and Yoko were doing in their studio. That's how they got the Strawberry Fields Forever lyrics in that song to sound so otherworldly."
The Audio-Technica AT822 is an inexpensive X/Y stereo mic that's great for field recording.
Most of today's top sound designers use a combination of samples from disc, imaginative signal processing, and their own custom sounds recorded in the field and in-house to concoct what we hear at the movies. Here's how to get started yourself.
"Creating your own sounds from scratch for your independent film, radio commercial, or even just a hobby QuickTime project is one of the most creative sound-design processes you'll ever do," says Serafine. "And you don't need a major high-resolution field recording setup like mine. In fact, I often use my MiniDisc recorder and an inexpensive stereo microphone to get my swarm samples."
Swarms? Serafine explains that every movie scene needs two types of sound effects: in-your-face samples recorded as close to the subject as possible, and ambient samples recorded from farther away in the room, field, or other environment. You need both because in almost every scene the director will constantly cut back and forth between close-up shots and footage taken from farther back.
"You'd be surprised at the high-quality sound effects I add to my tracks using my MiniDisc and a $150 stereo mic," Serafine confides. He uses an Audio-Technica AT822, but many times an even cheaper mic from Radio Shack may do just fine, as long as it's stereo. "Be sure to get your swarm sample recording levels as hot as possible without distorting, and get as close as you can to the subject," he advises. "You'll want to be within an inch or two of a door lock, ticking clock, or chair leg skidding across a squeaky wood floor. And, if you're recording anything outdoors, be real sure to keep your MiniDisc in a case or in your pocket and place a windscreen cover over your mic."
These MP3 files open in new windows.