Analogue Wayback, Ep. 19

Garage bands before the boy bands

As an editor, I’ve enjoyed the many music-oriented video productions I’ve worked on. In fact one of my first feature films was a concert film highlighting many top Reggae artists. Along the way, I’ve cut numerous jazz concerts for PBS, along with various videos for folks like Jimmy Buffet and the Bob Marley Foundation.

We often think about the projects that “got away” or never happened. For me, one of those was a documentary about the “garage band” acts of central Florida during the 1960s. These were popular local and regional acts with an eye towards stardom, but who never became household names, like Elvis or The Beatles. Central Florida was a hot bed for such acts back then, in the same way as San Francisco, Memphis, or Seattle have been during key moments in rock ‘n roll history.

For much of the early rock ‘n roll era music was a vertically-integrated business. Artist management, booking, recording studios, and marketing/promotion/distribution were all handled by the same company. The money was made in booking performances more so than record sales.

Records were produced, especially 45RPM “singles”, in order to promote the band. Singles were sent for free to radio stations in hopes that they would be placed into regular rotation by the station. That airplay would familiarize listeners/fans with the bands and their music. While purchasing the records was a goal, the bigger aim was name recognition, so that when a band was booked for a local event (dance, concert, youth club appearance, tour date) the local fans would buy tickets and show up to the event. Naturally some artists broke out in a big way, which meant even more money in record sales, as well as touring.

Record labels, studios, recording  studios, and talent booking services – whether the same company or separate entities – enjoyed a very symbiotic relationship. Much of this is chronicled in a mini-doc I cut for the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum. It highlighted studios like Sun, Stax, and Hi and their role in the birth of rock ‘n roll and soul music.

In the central Florida scene, one such company was Bee Jay, started by musician/entrepreneur Eric Schabacker. Bee Jay originally encompassed a booking service and eventually a highly regarded recording studio responsible for many local acts. Many artists passed through those studio doors, but one of the biggest acts to record there was probably Molly Hatchet. I got to know Schabacker when the post facility I was with acquired the Bee Jay Studios facility.

Years later Schabacker approached me with an interesting project – a documentary about the local garage bands on the 60s. Together with a series of interviews with living band members, post for the documentary would also involve the restoration of several proto-music videos. Bee Jay had videotaped promotional videos for 13 of the bands back in the day. While Schabacker handled the recording of the interviews, I tackled the music videos.

The original videos were recorded using a rudimentary black-and-white production system. These were recorded onto half-inch open reel videotape. Unfortunately, the video tubes in the cameras back then didn’t always handle bright outdoor light well and the video switcher did not feature clean vertical interval switching. The result was a series of recordings in which video levels fluctuated and camera cuts often glitched. There were sections in the recordings where the tape machine lost servo lock during recording. The audio was not recorded live. Instead, the bands lip-synced to playback of their song recordings, which was also recorded in sync with the video. These old videos were transferred to DV25 QuickTime files, which formed my starting point.

Step one was to have clean audio. The bands’ tunes had been recorded and mixed at Bee Jay Studios at the time into a 13-song LP that was used for promotion to book those bands. However, at this point over three decades later, the master recordings were no longer available. But Schabacker did have pristine vinyl LPs from those session. These were turned over to local audio legend and renowned master engineer, Bob Katz. In turn, he took those versions and created remastered files for my use.

Now that I had good sound, my task was to take the video – warts and all – and rebuild it in sync with the song tracks, clean up the video, get rid of any damage and glitches, and in general end up with a useable final video for each song. Final Cut Pro (legacy) was the tool of choice at that time. Much of the “restoration” involved the slight slowing or speeding up of shots to resync the files – shot by shot. I also had to repeat and slomo some shots for fit-and-fill, since frames would be lost as glitchy camera cuts and other disturbances were removed. In the end, I rebuilt all 13 into a presentable form.

While that was a labor of love, the down side was that the documentary never came to be. All of these bands had recorded great-sounding covers (such as Solitary Man), but no originals. Unfortunately, it would have been a nightmare and quite costly to clear the music rights for these clips if used in the documentary. A shame, but that’s life in the filmmaking world.

None of these bands made it big, but in subsequent years, bands of another era like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys did. And they ushered a new boy band phenomenon, which carries on to this day in the form of K-pop, among other styles.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 16

Football. That’s where they play in quarters, right?

One of the fun experiences while in Birmingham was putting together the telecast of three football games. It was a brief moment in time when the original, upstart USFL professional football league challenged the NFL’s football supremacy during the spring season. Birmingham was one of several cities around the nation with a team, which was a great opportunity for the TV station.

Back then (and maybe still today) one way for a television station to shore up its revenue for the month was to bump a night of primetime network programming and replace it with its own. An affiliate lost that night’s worth of network compensation (the money a network pays the affiliate to run network programming). However, they were then able to fill all of the commercial slots for the night, which more than made up for it.

As long as an affiliate didn’t do this too often, networks wouldn’t challenge it, especially if this was for a strong local event. Furthermore, a broadcaster could promote this as a special event, like coverage of important away games that were normally unavailable. The station could charge premium ad dollars for commercial placement within the game, as well as other ancillary income, like sponsorship of the broadcast.

The station covered three away games being played in New Jersey at the Meadowlands, in Chicago at Soldier Field, and in Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The first two were split feeds. A split feed is when you are tagging onto another company or network that is broadcasting the game with a full production truck and crew. All the station had to do was book a smaller truck that would piggyback off of the main production truck. The main truck would send our truck a “clean feed” from their video switcher without their graphics or talent inserts. It also included game audio without their announcers. In the split feed truck, we added our own graphics, mixed in our own play-by-play announcer audio, and then cut to our own single camera whenever we wanted to see our sports reporter.

As production manager for the station, I flew in to produce the telecast, along with our reporter and graphics producer. Chyron (character generator) material, like logos, player names, and templates for stats pages, had been produced in advance. We hired local crew members, including a camera operator, technical director, audio engineer, and Chyron operator.

It got off to a fun start in the Meadowlands. Our New York-based Chryron operator was experienced with hockey games. Football – not so much. As we started to finalize the Chyron pages prior to the game, his first response was, “We’re doing football. Right? That uses quarters, right? OK, I get it.” Everything went off without a hitch. The Chicago experience went equally well, except the taxi driver was a bit confused about where the entrance to Solider Field was! In addition, the director in the main production truck seemed very “high strung” based on what we were hearing through our intercom connection.

Denver, on the other hand, was a completely different experience. We were the main truck doing a full production and not a split feed. This meant hiring a full 40-foot production truck, plus crew. We arranged all of it through a production coordinator who specialized in large sports events. It was fun producing a full-on sports telecast. However, you never know who the locally-hired crew are. The director was highly capable, but his main sports experience was baseball, which led to some interesting camera cutting. For instance, in most football game coverage, when the quarterback passes the ball the camera stays wide and follows the ball to the receiver without cuts. However, this director chose to cut camera angles during the pass. It worked fine, but was a bit different than expected.

I learned to appreciate such live productions, because when they are done they are done. There’s no post-production with infinite client revisions. All of the stress is during the build-up and the live production. No matter how good or bad the broadcast turns out to be, the end is truly the end. That’s a rather cathartic experience. When it’s over, everyone gets a high-five and you go out to a nice, late crew dinner!

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 15

A radio station with pictures.

The mid 80s found me working for a year at a facility that operated two radio stations and owned two satellite transponders. I managed the video production side of the company. Satellite space was hard to get at the time, so they operated their own network on one of them and sublet the other to a different company and network.

At that same time MTV had come to the end of its first contract with cable companies and many wanted other options. Creating a new music video channel alternative was something of interest for us. Unfortunately, our other transponder client was still leasing space within that short window when cable companies could have chosen an alternative option rather than renewing with MTV. Thus, a missed opportunity, because it was shortly thereafter that our client moved on anyway, leaving us with an unfilled satellite transponder. In spite of the unfortunate timing, our company’s owner still decided to launch a new and competing music video network instead of seeking a new client. That new channel was called Odyssey.

As head of production, I was part of the team tasked with figuring out the hardware and general operation of this network. This was the era of the early professional videocassette formats, so we settled on the first generation of M-format decks from Panasonic.

The M-format was a professional videocassette format developed by Panasonic and RCA. It was marketed under the Recam name by Panasonic, RCA, and Ampex. Much like VHS versus Betamax, it was Panasonic’s M-format versus Sony’s Betacam. M-format decks recorded onto standard VHS videocassettes that ran at a faster speed. They used component analog instead of composite recording. This first generation of the M-format was later replaced by the MII series, which had a slightly better professional run, but ultimately still failed in the marketplace.

It was important for us to use a premium brand of VHS tape in these decks, since music videos would play in a high rotation, putting wear and tear on the tape. The Odyssey master control featured seven decks, plus a computer-controlled master control system designed to sequence the playlist of videos, commercials, promos, etc. The computer system was developed by Larry Seehorn, a Silicon Valley engineer who was one of the early developers of computer-assisted, linear editing systems.

We launched at the end of the year right at the start of the holiday week between Christmas and New Year. Everything was off and running… Until the playlist computer system crashed. We quickly found out that it would only support 1500 events and then stop. This was something that the manufacturer failed to disclose when we purchased the system. You had to reload a new list and start over, losing a lot of time in between. It would have been fine in a normal TV station operation, since you had long program segments between commercial breaks. For us, this was insufficient time, because we only had the length available of a music video in order to reload and reboot a new playlist.

Fortunately as a back-up in case of some sort of system failure, we had prepared a number of hourlong 1″ video tapes with music video blocks in advance. Running these allowed us to temporarily continue operation while we figured out plan B.

Ultimately the solution we settled on was to chuck the master control computer and replace it with a Grass Valley master control switcher. This was an audio-follows-video device, meaning that switching sources simultaneously switched audio and video. If you used the fader bar to dissolve between sources, it would also mix between the audio sources. This now became a human-controlled operation with the master control operator loading and cueing tapes, switching sources, and so on. Although manual, it proved to be superior to a playlist-driven automated system.

The operators effectively became radio station disk jockeys and those same guidelines applied. Our radio station program director selected music, set up a manual playlist, a “clock” for song genre and commercial rotation, and so on. Music videos sent to us by record labels would be copied to the M-format VHS tapes with a countdown and any added graphics, like music video song credits. Quite frankly, I have to say that our song selection were more diverse than the original MTV. In addition, having human operators allowed us to adjust timing on-the-fly in ways that an automated list couldn’t.

As ambitious as this project was, it had numerous flaws. The company was unable to get any cable provider to commit a full channel as they had with MTV. Consequently programming was offered to any broadcast station or cable company in any market on a first-come-first-served basis, but without a time requirement. If a small, independent TV station in a large market decided to contract for only a few hours on the weekend, then they locked up that entire market.

The other factor that worked against Odyssey was that Turner Broadcasting had already tried to launch their music channel with a LOT more money. Turner’s effort crashed and burned in a month. Needless to say, our little operation was viewed with much skepticism. Many would-be customers and advertisers decided to hold off at least a year to see if we’d still be in business at that time. Of course, that didn’t help our bottom line.

In spite of these issues, Odyssey hung on for ten months before the owner finally tossed in the towel. Even though it didn’t work out and I had moved on anyway, it was still a very fun experience that took me back to when I started out in radio.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Boris FX Optics 2022

Boris FX is a respected developer of visual effects tools for video. With the introduction of Optics in 2020, Boris FX further extended that expertise into the photography market. Optics installs as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, and Bridge. Optics is also installed as a standalone app that supports a variety of still image formats, including camera RAW. So, if you’ve avoided an Adobe subscription, you are still in luck. Before you go any further, I would encourage you to read my 2020 review of Optics (linked here) for an overview of how it works and how to use it.

How has Optics 2022 changed? 

Since that introduction in late 2020, Optics has gone through several free updates, but the 2022 version requires a small upgrade fee for existing users. If you are new to Optics, it’s available though subscription or perpetual licensing and includes a trial period to test the waters.

At first glance, Optics 2022 looks and operates much like the previous versions. Key changes and improvements for Optics 2022 include Mac M1 native support, Metal acceleration of most Sapphire filters, UI enhancements, and mask exchange with Photoshop. However, the big new features include the introduction of a Particle Illusion category with over 1700 emitters, more Sapphire filters, and the Beauty Studio filter set from Continuum. The addition of Particle Illusion might seem a bit odd for a photography application, but by doing so, Boris FX has enhanced Optics as a graphic design tool.

Taking those point-and-shoot photos into Optics 

I’ve used Optics since its introduction and was eager to review Optics 2022 when Boris FX contacted me. There was a local British car show this past Saturday – a superb opportunity to take some photos of vintage Jags, MGs, Minis, Bentleys, Triumphs, and Morgans on a sunny Florida weekend. To make this more real, I decided to shoot the stills with my plain vanilla iPhone SE 2020 using FiLMiC Pro’s FirstLight still photo app. Somewhere along the line, iOS and FirstLight have been updated to allow camera RAW photography. This wasn’t initially available and technically the SE doesn’t support Apple’s ProRAW codec. However, FirstLight now enables RAW recording of DNG files, which are kissing cousins of ProRAW. In the RAW mode, you get the full 4:3, 12MP sensor image. Alternate aspect ratios or in-app film emulations will be disabled.

After a morning of checking out classic cars, I returned home, AirDropped the stills to my iMac and started testing Optics. As RAW photos, the first step in Photoshop is to make any adjustment in the Adobe Camera RAW module before the photo opens in Photoshop. Next, send the layer to Optics, which launches the Optics 2022 application and opens that image in the Optics interface. When you’ve completed your Optics adjustments, click Apply to send the image back to Photoshop as a flat, rasterized image layer or a smart filter.

Working with layers and filters

As I discussed in my 2020 post, Optics itself is a layer-based system, similar to Photoshop. Each layer has separate blend and masking controls. Typically you add one effect per layer and stack more layers as you build up the look. The interface permits you to enable/disable individual layers, compare before and after versions, and adjust the display size and resolution.

Effects are organized into categories (FilmLab, Particle Illusion, Color, Light, etc) and then groups of filters within each category. For example, the Stylize category includes the various Sapphire paint filters. Each filter selection includes a set of presets. When you apply a filter preset, the parameters panel allows you to fine-tune the look and the adjustment of that effect, so you aren’t locked into the preset.

In addition to the parameters panel, many of the effects include on-screen overlay controls for visual adjustment. This is especially helpful with the Particle Illusion effects. For instance, you can change or modify the path of a lightning bolt by moving the on-screen points of the emitter.

Handling file formats

Optics supports TIFF, JPEG, PNG, and RAW formats, so you can open those straight into Optics without Photoshop. In the case of my DNG files, the first effect to be applied is a Develop filter. You can tweak the image values much like in the Adobe Camera RAW module. The operation for creating your look is the same as when you come from Photoshop, except that there is no Apply function. You will need to Save or Save As to export a flat, rasterized TIFF, PNG, or JPEG file. 

Unlike Photoshop, Optics does not have its own layered image format. You can save and recall a set-up. So if you’ve built up a series of filter layers for a specific look, simply save that set-up as a file (minus the image itself). This can be recalled and applied to any other image and modified to adapt that set-up for the new image. If you save the file in the TIFF format, then you have the option to save it with the set-up embedded. These files can be opened back up in Optics along with the various filter layers for further editing.

Performance

As I worked through my files on my iMac, Optics 2022 performed well, but I did experience a number of application crashes of just Optics. When Optics crashes, you lose any adjustments made to the image in Optics. However, when I tested Optics 2022 on my mid-2014 15″ MacBook Pro using the same RAW images, the application was perfectly stable. So it could be some sort of hardware difference between the two Macs.

Here’s one workflow item to be aware of between Photoshop and Optics. If you crop an image in Photoshop, the area outside of the crop still exists, but is hidden. That full image without the crop is the layer sent to Optics. If you apply a stylized border effect, the border is applied to the edges of the full image. Therefore, some or all of the border will be cropped upon returning to Photoshop. Optics includes internal crop controls, so in that instance, you might wish to crop in Optics first, apply the border, and then match the crop for the whole image once back in Photoshop.

All in all, it’s a sweet application that really helps when stuck for ideas about what to do with an image when you want to elevate it above the mundane. Getting great results is fast and quite enjoyable – not to mention, infinitely easier than in Photoshop. Overall, Optics is a great tool for any photographer or graphic designer.

Click through the gallery images below to see further examples of looks and styles created with Boris FX Optics 2022.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Think you can mix… Round 2

A month ago I discussed LEWITT Audio’s music challenge mixing contest. While there’s no current contest, all of the past tracks are still available for download, so you can try your hand at mixing. To date, there are six songs running about 3 1/2 minutes each. LEWITT has selected a cross-section of eclectic European artists, showcasing styles that include R&B, rock, jazz, folk, swing, and punk. I mixed one of the songs for that first post, but decided to take my own suggestion and ended up mixing all six. I have posted that compilation to Vimeo.

As I previously mentioned, I don’t mix songs for a living, so why add this to my workload? Well, partially for fun, but also to learn. Consider it a video editor’s version of the “busman’s holiday.”

Each of the six songs poses different challenges. LEWITT’s marketing objective is to sell microphones and these recordings showcase those products. As such, the bands have been recorded in a live or semi-live studio environment. This means mics placed in front of instrument cabs, as well as mics placed all around the drum kit. Depending on the proximity of the band members to each other and how much acoustic baffling was used, some instrument tracks are more isolated than others. Guitars, bass, and keys might have additional direct input (DI) tracks for some songs, as well as additional overdubs for second and third parts. The track count ranged from 12 to 28 tracks. As is typical, drums had more tracks to deal with than any other instrument.

The performing styles vary widely, which also presents some engineering decisions that have to be made in how you mix. Move Like A Ghost was deliciously nasty by design. Do you try to clean that up or just embrace it? 25 Reasons is closer to a live stage performance with tons of leakage between tracks.

The video component

LEWITT, in conjunction with the performers, produced videos for five of the six songs. The mixes are specifically for LEWITT, not the official release versions of any of these songs. Therefore, the LEWITT videos were designed to accompany and promote the contest tracks. This makes it easy to sync your mix to each video, which is what I did for my compilation. In the case of Move Like a Ghost, LEWITT did not produce a full video with Saint Agnes. So, I pulled a stylized live music video for the band from YouTube for my version of the mix. I assembled this reel in Final Cut Pro, but any editing was really just limited to titles and the ins/outs for each song. The point is the mix and not the editing.

On the other hand, working with the video did inform my mix. For example, if a lead instrument had a riff in the song that’s shown in the video, then I’d emphasize it just a bit more in the mix. That’s not a bad thing, per se, if it’s not overdone. One quirk I ran into was on The Palace. The tracks included several vocal passes, using different mics. I picked the particular vocal track that I thought sounded best in the mix. When I synced it up to the video, I quickly realized that one vocal line (on camera) was out-of-sync and that LEWITT’s mixers must have blended several vocal performances in their own mix. Fortunately, it was an easy fix to use that one line from a different track and then everything was in sync.

Working the DAW

One of the tracks even included a Pro Tools session for Pro Tools users, but Logic Pro is my DAW of choice. Audition and Resolve (Fairlight) could have been options, but I prefer Logic Pro. It comes with really good built-in plug-ins, including reverbs, EQs, compressors, and amp modelers. I used all of these, plus a few paid and free third-party plug-ins from Accusonus, Analog Obsession, iZotope, FabFilter, Klevgrand, Sound Theory, TBProAudio, and Tokyo Dawn Labs.

One big selling point for me is Logic’s track stack feature, which is a method of grouping and organizing tracks and their associated channel strips. Use stacks to organize instrument tracks by type, such as drums, guitars, keys, vocals, etc. A track stack can be a folder or a summing stack. When summing is selected, then a track stack functions like a submix bus. Channel strips within the stack are summed and additional plug-ins can then be applied to the summing stack. If you think in terms of an NLE, then a track stack is a bit like a compound clip or nest. You can collapse or expand the tracks that have been grouped into the stack with a reveal button. Want to bring your visual organization from a couple of dozen tracks down to only a few? Then track stacks organized by instruments are the way to go.

For those unfamiliar with Logic Pro basics, here’s a simplified look at Logic’s signal flow. Audio from the individual track flows into the channel strip. That signal first hits any plug-ins, EQ, or filtering, and then flows out through the volume control (fader). If you need to raise or lower the volume of a track going into the plug-in chain, then you either have to adjust the input of the plug-in itself, or add a separate gain plug-in as the first effect in the chain. The volume control/fader affects the level after plug-ins have been applied. This signal is then routed through the track stack (if used). On a summing track stack, the signal flow through its channel strip works the same way – plug-ins first, then volume fader. Of course, it can get more complex with groups, sends, and side-chaining.

All track stack signals, as well as any channel not placed into a track stack, flow through the stereo out bus (on a stereo project) – again, into the plug-ins first and then out through the volume control. In addition to the stereo output bus, there’s also a master output fader, which controls the actual volume of the file written to the drive. If you place a metering plug-in into the chain of the stereo output bus, it indicates the level for peaks or loudness prior to the volume control of the stereo output AND the master output bus. Therefore, I would recommend that you ALWAYS leave both faders at their zero default, in order to get accurate readings.

All mixes are subjective

The approach to the mix varies with different engineers. What worked best for me was to concentrate on groups of instruments. The order isn’t important, but start with drums, for instance. The kit will likely have the highest number of tracks. Work with the soloed drum tracks to get a well-defined drum sound as a complete kit. Same for guitars, vocals, or any other instrument. Then work with the combination to get the right overall balance. Lastly, add and adjust mastering plug-ins to the stereo output channel strip to craft the final sound.

Any mix is totally subjective and technical perfection is merely an aspiration. I personally prefer my mix of Dirty to the others. The song is fun and the starting tracks nice and clean. But I’m certainly happy with my mix on the others, in spite of sonic imperfections. To make sure your mix is as good as it can be, check your mix in different listening environments. Fortunately, Audition can still burn your mix to an audio CD. Assuming you still own a disc burner and CD players, then it’s a great portable medium to check your mix in the car or on your home stereo system. Overall, during the course of mixing and then reviewing, I probably checked this on four different speaker set-ups, plus headphones and earbuds. The latter turned out to be the best way to detect stereo imaging issues, though not necessarily the most accurate sound otherwise. But, that is probably the way a large swath of people consume music these days.

I hope you enjoy the compilation if you take the time to listen. The order of the songs is:

The Seeds of your Sorrow

Spitting Ibex

25 Reasons

Louis Berry and band

The Palace

Cosmix Studios session

featuring Celina Ann

with

Thomas Hechenberger (guitar)

Valentin Omar (keys)

David Leisser (drums)

Bernhard Osanna (bass)

Home

AVEC

Dirty

Marina & the Kats

Move Like a Ghost

Saint Agnes

©2022 Oliver Peters