Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An interview with Michael Rubin, pt.2

by Matteo Milani, October 2008
(Continued from Page 1)

MM: EditDroid and SoundDroid in the post production workflow: what were their respective roles?

MR: They were designed to work together. One of the biggest selling points, in fact, was that these two devices connected. It wasn't just cutting pictures and cutting sound, you could send the edits from EditDroid to SoundDroid and then you could do your spotting, your mixing. Everything was there. Those features changed the workflow tremendously.
Avid did acquire the technology from the EditDroid, but didn't need it. They actually started before the EditDroid licensing and invented their own product in 1989. Their acquiring in the Lucas technology was more about being inheritor of that, they wanted to feel like the continuation of the work. There were a couple of interesting years when a product called AvidDroid appeared, but was only a marketing thing.
Primitive graphical and sound editors developed along separate paths until the early 1980s. The EditDroid and SoundDroid systems developed at Lucasfilm in California showed how random-access media, interactive graphics, and automated mixing can be combined into a picture-and-sound editing system.
Audiovisual editing can be quite complicated, since the two domains can be interlinked in complex ways. For example, when a video editor changes a scene, many channels of sound must be redone to fit the new sequence of images. Dialogue, effects, and musical soundtracks are all affected by changes in the visual domain. The visual information is often recorded on many tracks, each one corresponding to a particular camera angle or special effects overlay. To manage the complexity of this information, the usual approach taken is to prepare the raw material as a database of audio and visual data (Hawthorne 1985). The first step is to transfer the material to be edited to a random-access medium such as magnetic or optical disk. The author or director annotates the material with pertinent facts about a particular segment, for example, the scene, the take, and other data.
This kind of audiovisual editing is nondestructive; nothing is physically cut or deleted. Edits can be rehearsed and adjusted ad infinitum. Each edit causes the system to write a description of the edit in an 'electronic logbook'. Since the audio and visual editors share a common logbook, any decisions made in picture editing are reflected in the corresponding soundtracks. At the end of an editing session, the result is a list of entries in the logbook that can be used to reconstruct the desired sound and image combination. If the ultimate medium is, for example, a 70-mm film with 6-channel soundtrack, the logbook shows which segments of film and sound must be spliced and mixed to create the finished product.

[The Computer Music Tutorial, Curtis Roads]

MM: You were one of the first employees at Sonic Solutions. What was your duty?
MR: When my boss Robert J. Doris and Mary C. Sauer started a company called Sonic Solutions, they brought me over. Counting the founders Bob, Mary and Jeffrey (Borish), I was the employee number four. James Andy Moorer, the inventor of the SoundDroid. was employee five, although he had been consulting with Bob for a bit by the time he joined. It’s seems a little odd, but when he left Lucasfilm, he came to Sonic after me.
[..] Andy Moorer joined the Sonic team and the company debuted NoNoise®, a Macintosh-based system that applies proprietary DSP algorithms that eliminate broadband background noise, as well as AC hum, HVAC buzz, camera whine and other ambient noises. NoNoise could also reduce overload distortion, acoustical click/pops, transients caused by bad splices and channel breakup from wireless mics—without affecting the original source material. - Mix Magazine
The first restoration project they did was the live album "Live At The Hollywood Bowl" by the American rock band The Doors. It was recorded on July 5, 1968 but not released until 1987. Starting in 1968, every couple of years, when someone had new technology, Bruce Botnick, co-engineer of the Doors' recording, would bring these recordings to them to try to fix the Jim Morrison's track, which was partly unusable due to a cable fault. It was an amazing thing when Sonic finally solved the seemingly impossible problem.
[...] While still in prototype form, NoNoise was used to resurrect a long-lost recording and film of the Doors playing at the Hollywood Bowl in July 1968. Because of a faulty microphone cord, much of Jim Morrison's lead vocal was nearly obliterated by loud clicks and crunching sounds. ''I sent them a digital tape and in three weeks they sent us back a digital tape and it was glorious,'' said Bruce Botnick. ''We wound up saving 12 minutes of the show that would have been unusable.'' - The New York Times
I did sound restoration for many classic records, including a couple of the Greateful Dead albums (Live/Dead and Europe '72). I went through the entire albums, listening on the headphones, looking at the waveform. If I heard any click, I had to manually set the gate, interpolate and listen if I created any anomalies. That was my job in 1987. It took so long, and I usually had the night shift. When de-noising, I had to find some samples of pure noise, but often the tapes were cut right at the beginning of the song, so you didn't have any ambience. It was very hard sometimes to find a piece of noise signal you can use to filter out the track.
Then I went to CMX to help them design and release their own nonlinear editing system, basically it was very much like a next generation EditDroid. A full digital system was coming, but it was cost-prohibitive. At that time it wasn't ready for a feature film movie, it couldn't cut back to the negative. There were rough years from 1989 to 1994-95 when people were really taking risks using something like an Avid.

MM: Where was the SoundDroid originally located?
MR: The SoundDroid sat in a totally acoustically neutral room called Sound Pit in the bottom floor of the C building, a beautiful kind of redwood building in the middle of Lucasfilm campus, a bunch of unlabeled buildings in Kerner Blvd, San Rafael, CA. If you winded up to the building, you didn't know it was Lucasfilm. It just said "Kerner Optical Company" on the door, there were no guards, it was an unsecured campus, because no one knew it was there.
Kerner Optical:
The SoundDroid is based on a SUN workstation. This is about 1985. At the time Macintosh had just come out and the Mac pioneered the startup sound with its little chime. They were making a joke and decided to make a startup sound for the SoundDroid. Partly for fun, partly because they needed to test everything out. They had to run through a test of all the loudspeakers and all the circuits on the SoundDroid.
Andy Moorer came up with a sound to test the speakers out. Today it is known as the THX logo (The Deep Note). At the time no one had ever heard this before, so in this little tiny room, perfectly silent, with speakers all around, it started swirling and collapsed and resolved in this chord and the hair would stand up on your arms and your neck, and a little tear would form in your eyes. That's how it started everyday. Whenever you went in the Sound Pit doing a demonstration, we often just turned it on when people were seating there and watched them freak out.
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