Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An interview with Michael Rubin, pt.3

by Matteo Milani, October 2008 

(Continued from Page 2)

MM: User interface. I read that the sound tracks were shown as parallel vertical bars with time being represented on the vertical axis. So the SoundDroid's timeline scrolled vertically. Is it correct? Was the purpose to mime the optical track on film? 

MR: It wasn't because of the optical track, not really. It was imitating the physical orientation of things in the mixing theater (the mags were loaded vertically on dubbers), because of the physical Cue Sheet that runs vertically. The cue sheet had several columns for notations of footage, fades, volume levels, and equalizations which are used in mixing sound tracks, where each column usually represents one track. It was a dubbing log used to alert the mixer of events happening from the various dubbers in the old days of mixing. I thought the SoundDroid was fun, no one had seen a program like that before, doing the patching right there on the touchscreen - "I want a reverb on this, I want to patch that track to a reverb unit." It was very exciting to show people those kind of functions. 

Novices were stunned. Professionals thrilled. SoundDroid allowed a user to go to a digital library of effects, grab one, and drop it on a track running vertically on the Cue Sheet. There you could slide it around, up and down in time, or over to another track. There were handles on the edges of each sound, so it could be shortened or lengthened into endless loops as desired. By using the tools on the right side of the screen, any given sound (or entire tracks) could be augmented with professional audio controls, including EQ, pan, and an enormous variety of filters. All the tracks were slaved to a videotape with the corresponding picture and a pointing finger - the "now line" showed where you were scrolling through the project. - excerpt from Droidmaker 

SoundDroid sound editor "cuesheet" screen. Each shaded vertical stripe represents a track of sound, with time going from the top to the bottom of the screen. The amplitude envelope in each track is shown by the solid black outline. Text annotations show the incipits of spoken text fragments, among other things. 

 from Droidmaker, by Michael Rubin; photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd. 

MM: Can you talk about the SoundDroid's early “spotting” system for searching sound effects libraries? 

MR: We were taking orders for SoundDroids, but it was still not ready for shipping. The company asked: "Is there a subset of what SoundDroid did, that is working and that we can sell now?" They decided that the spotting system was the part of the system that worked best. They built the SoundDroid Spotter, and digitized most of the Lucasfilm sound library at that time. I don't think they ever sold it, at least not between 1985 and 1987. I demonstrated it at NAB and AES, but it was just kind of abandoned, it went anywhere. This is my recollection about this product. I've never heard about it outside the company people. 

[...] The SoundDroid was too big, too general, and too expensive. There were several smaller markets that a scaled-back version of the technology would more readily be able to address. [...] The first logical result was called SoundDroid Spotter, a stand alone sound effects spotting station that utilized the database on the SUN with basic processing tools. Noise reduction was another. Specialized synthesis was a third. It would take years before the costs of storage and processing would make a digital post-production workstation viable for movie sound. - excerpt from Droidmaker 

MM: Did you interview Ben Burtt

MR: Yes, I know Ben very well, he's great. When I was writing the book, he spent many months of his time talking to me. At that time he was working on Episode III at Lucasfilm. After Revenge came out, he left Lucasfilm after 30 years of career with George, and went to Pixar. I thought it was a very interesting sight, because back in the 80's, he was one of the people who said: "What are these guys in the Computer Division doing all day? It looks like they're not doing anything." And he's here now, going over to Pixar. He's an unbelievable talent, what he did for the sound of Wall-E is an absolute tour de force. 

MM: Burtt, like Walter Murch did before, moved to picture editing, alongside his main career in sound. 

MR: It's fun, because when Ben first got hired from Lucasfilm, it was because Murch wasn't available. Lucas needed a “young Walter Murch” for Star Wars. His job at that time was partly sound recording, but he was also a production assistant. He said he was driving Carrie Fisher to get her hair cut, or drop off some storyboards over ILM, among other things. 

MM: What's the relevance of GUI (Graphical User Interface) in audio/video applications? What did you expect from its evolution in the long future? 

MR: Predicting the future is notoriously difficult. The best way to predict the future is to invent it (Alan Kay). Haptics will change the way we interact with the machines via the tactile feedback. That will be a cool way to interface with the computer. These devices are very expensive today for industry and medicine use, which means this technology will be cheap in ten years. And I think screens will go away for projections of things in the space. I don't think I would really try to predict which interface it will be, I'm still working by a year out. Watch Minority Report, that's good thinking about. I'm pretty sure it will be something like that, where you move around, you pick this up and control something in the computer, somewhere else. It seems logical to me. Just recently I saw an impressive demonstration of a head-mount that non-invasively reads your brain signals and moves objects on a computer. It is early, but I cannot imagine that kind of technology not changing the way we work with picture and sound. 


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Related Posts:


Rubin, M. (2006) Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution - Triad Publishing Company Roads, C. (1996) The Computer Music Tutorial - MIT Press


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