Wednesday, October 15, 2008

SoundDroid pt.1: the Timeline

Here's the organized output of my researches about the early days of the digital audio workstations. You can track the sources at the end of each excerpts.

Before Skywalker Sound there was Lucasfilm's Sprocket Systems, which opened in 1979 at 321 San Anselmo Avenue in San Anselmo. Film editors worked upstairs on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Empire Strikes Back" while sound editors downstairs worked on "Alien" and "E.T." Kentfield resident Pat Walsh, discovered while shopping at Seawood Photo, provided the voice for the loveable alien, with the help of actress Debra Winger. Sprocket's parking lot was also notable: It's where Harrison Ford practiced snapping a bullwhip for his role in "Raiders." Sprocket's work on "The Return of the Jedi" came to a halt when the Flood of 1982 ruined equipment. The division moved to Lucafilm's Kerner complex in March of that year.

At the peak of San Anselmo's post-production era, another space was rented on Tunstead Avenue to house Lucasfilm's new Computer Division, located initially on Bank Street. The division would move to the Industrial Light and Magic complex in San Rafael before it was spun off in 1986, relocated to Point Richmond, and became what it is today, the Oscar-winning Pixar Animation Studios.


In 1984, Lucasfilm and Convergence Corp. formed The Droid Works, and under the leadership of James A. Moorer, showed its SoundDroid workstation at NAB in 1985. The product was years ahead of its time and too expensive for the typical studio.


The ASP hardware–based audio processor, designed by Andy Moorer after his work on the legendary Hydra at Stanford's CCRMA, was a proof of concept for what is now considered a digital audio workstation. The ASP's design started life in 1980 and was designed for real–time, multichannel EQ and mixing. SoundDroid, an in–house project of Lucasfilm's Ltd.'s Sprocket Systems that was later spun off as part of The Droid Works, was a hard disk–based, non–linear, 2nd generation digital audio workstation that leveraged the research done on the ASP. Though the SoundDroid project was never commercialized and The Droid Works was later sold to Avid, the audio development team went on to first create the NoNOISE restoration system in 1987, hosted on a Motorola–powered SUN 1, the first true computer "workstation," which had been developed in cooperation with Lucasfilm.


The landmark invention of the horizontal timeline for the EditDroid and visible sound waveforms in the SoundDroid, "soft" mixing functions, a "spotting" system for searching sound effects libraries and digital signal processing and noise reduction for the SoundDroid were even bigger milestones.


The big guys like Lucas had the Sound Droid, which not only edited audio to picture, but performed noise reduction for noisey film sound tracks. I approached Andy Moorer about licensing the noise reduction software to clean up old masters for record companies. CDs were still new, and the record companies did not yet realize the value of their old catalogs (and I am finding out that they still don't). Andy Moorer and Bob Doris went on to form Sonic Solutions and offer No-Noise software that runs on a Mac based DSP card. The rest is history.



George Lucas in his own words:

In the days when punch-in recording and high-speed rewind were on the leading edge, you went from being a user to becoming involved in the development of high technology, such as the EditDroid and SoundDroid systems in the early '80s. Could you talk about that transition?
I started putting together a computer division right after Star Wars and as one of the centerpieces of that division, I wanted to build a new [picture] editing system that was nonlinear and disk-based. It was not done like the CMX and other systems that were out at that time, which were simply designed around the offline/online [tape-based] television post process. I wanted to build something that actually included and focused on the art of editing as I learned it in school. When we did the SoundDroid, one of the things we included was the ability to see the striations [waveforms] of everything just like an optical track so that we could use some of the advantages that optical cutting had. You can see where the words are and see where the sounds are and cut accordingly, which a lot of the older editors really thought was great.

How about the transition to actually manufacturing EditDroid and SoundDroid?

When we were about to go to the next level, I realized I didn't want to be in the hardware business and run a company that built machines and things. We decided to sell EditDroid to Avid and have its ideas incorporated into the Media Composer [picture editing system]. I was very focused on wanting to have an integrated sound system so that the sound editing and the picture editing could be integrated. Unfortunately, I'm still fighting that fight.
[Larry Blake via]
more soon! MM
P.S. Sam shows you his love for Skywalker Sound @, it's an unofficial blog and it's not formally related to Skywalker Sound (or LucasFilm) in any way.

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