Thinking aloud

Interpreting the brain's functions in terms of sound and music is a thought-provoking brief and an involved and convoluted process. Neil Hillman lifts the lid on Tele-Cine's brains


SITUATED SOMEWHERE BETWEEN the brachialis anticus muscle and breasts--at least in the index of Gray's Anatomy--the human brain with its 3lb weight and hard-boiled-egg consistency, occupies a particular fascination for most of us. The problem for science documentary makers is that by its very nature, the story of the brain is a complex one. For instance, start with the phrase, 'The brain, or encephalon, is that portion of the cerebro-spinal axis that is contained in the cranial cavity', and try to make it accessible without reducing the accuracy of the information, and you start to get an idea of what challenges must be overcome.

A major documentary series produced by the renowned BBC Science department has brought a fresh approach to this subject in a series of six 50-minute programmes, shown in the UK on BBC 2 and airing world-wide through a variety of programming outlets. The series is presented by Professor Susan Greenfield, an eminent Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, and explores the grand themes emerging from the latest brain research.

London's Tele-Cine was called upon for its postproduction expertise, particularly in audio design, and Tele-Cine's head of sound and chief dubbing mixer, Steve Cookman was the man responsible for creating the soundscape that helped to illustrate the internal workings of the brain. Steve joined Tele-Cine in October 1999 from Molinare and has a wide variety of experience encompassing drama, documentary and feature-film mixing work. He was awarded the International Monitor Award for Sound for the animated feature-film Fallen Angels in 1998. He started his career at Odyssey recording studios as a sound assistant in 1983, and his subsequent credits include BBC's Horizon, LWT's South Bank Show, Pie in the Sky, Time Team and Billy Connolly's tours of Australia and Scotland.

'The initial brief for The Brain Story's sound came from the director Sam Roberts, and one of the editors, David Fairhead, as we viewed the programme in its early stages of editing. At that time there was no music, so many of the "dream-like" and "thinking" sequences were somewhat bare. We were asked to try and "fill" these sequences as much as possible--our job was to decide with what. Once the music arrived, usually well before the tracklaying began, our job was made easier as we could use the music to try out our fx design on'.

The project was a subtle departure from other programmes Cookman had mixed. 'At Tele-Cine there had not been anything quite like The Brain Story, science-based with a presenter--although we do work on other programmes for BBC Science, such as the Horizon series or Channel 4's Equinox.

The series material was a combination of DigiBeta, 16mm and Super-8 film with a variety of original archive footage, and the audio-post began with an auto-conform using CMX3600 lists from DigiBeta to AMS Neve AudioFile. There were two lists for each programme, Tracks 1 - 4 and Tracks 5 - 8, as CMX 3600 only supports four audio tracks. The lists were split into: Sync-sound 1, 2 & 3; fx 4 & 5; and music on 7 & 8; with everything taken in as stereo as the conform included a mixture of M+S stereo atmosphere tracks and A/B interviews. The conformed material was then tidied, smoothing out all the edits. This was undertaken by one of Tele-Cine's 'tracklayers' who once the conform was tidy, set about laying in atmos and fx tracks.

The original series material was all shot on DigiBeta, and the voice-over from Professor Susan Greenfield was recorded with a Neumann U89 microphone fed into an AudioFile.

Cookman worked closely with composers Christian Henson and Marcos D'Cruze, to develop the blend between musical and real-life sounds interspersed with special audio effects. The music was supplied on DAT, which the editor dropped into his off-line and later audio-post conformed from.

So how much of the original sound was Cookman able to use, and how much work was needed to match the 'clean' voice-over with that of the ubiquitous hidden personal microphone used in the presenter's location Pieces To Camera?

'I would say we used 80% of the original sound,' he reveals. 'Certainly all sync. PTC's, some of which were recorded in busy markets, or by flowing water. So a little tweaking of EQ. was needed at the mix stage; but some of the field sound could not be used simply due to too much noise. There were also a few sound problems with tapes that were recorded near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The original recordings were very sibilant, so there must have been a problem with the kit on location- we had to use the tapes however, as they had an important section of Susan Greenfield's dialogue to camera'.

Cookman believes problems such as these were made easier by the combination of Tele-Cine's AMS Neve Logic 2 and S16 AudioFile hard-disk editor-recorder. 'Extensive use of the equalisation and compression available on the Logic 2 desk was required to clean up these tapes, but the kit is fantastic. I mixed the series on this setup. The power of the console was very useful, as we could try any number of permutations for mixes. The console also has 90 plus inputs--a few too many for this programme --but it made the mixing easy as I could display all the tracks--a rarity for virtual desks'.

And how does a dubbing mixer go about creating a smooth transition from personal-mic to studio-mic?

'I wanted to keep the voice as "full" as possible, so it stood out from all the fx and music, as some of the narration had some fairly complex facts to portray and I did not want people to lose interest through unintelligibility,' Cookman explains. 'The PTC's needed to be warmed up to match, and so the voice received a little brightening at 4k and 11k with the Logic's compression set at +7 threshold at 3.5:1. For TV I find moderate compression overall usually works well, as the actual broadcast process seems to add compression of its own'.

The dub was done after the tracklay, with the stages being: conform first, track lay second, voice recording third and finishing off with the final mix. The tracklaying comprised of the laying-in of various atmosphere's, followed by spot fx, with the last pass encompassing the sound-designed audio. Commentary was recorded towards the end of the tracklay, and was then merged into the event list for final mixing. The fx were backed-up to Exabyte for safety and the removable hard drives taken from the tracklay room and plugged into the dubbing theatre. The series audio was produced in stereo, mixing to DAT for both final and M&E and creating a 'splits' DA-88 of sync, fx, music and narration. The conform took about nine hours, the track lay around eight. The sound design took anything from five hours to 12 hours, with the mixing itself taking about eight hours per episode.

On the high-speed and slow-motion sequences, the music was laid as early as possible to allow the audio fx to be built into the music. There was much layering and varispeeding of sound using the AudioFile's Reelrock record function, followed by delays and pitch shifts to blend in with the music using an Eventide DSP4000. Almost from the outset, Cookman had a feeling of what he wanted the soundtrack to achieve.

'For many of the pictures we wanted to lay sound which would help the music to convey ideas such as the travelling of a thought or emotion through the body,' he says. 'The music was excellent, so we concentrated blending the sounds together. For example for a sequence which was high-speed footage passing through sections of London, we tried to punctuate the sound so that we heard many different types of sound quickly--bursts of car horn, car pass-bys, odd voices, trying to emulate the rapid thought processes of the brain. Some programmes required more sound design work than others depending on content; whether it's computer beeps, slo-mo raindrops, or de-tuned traffic and footsteps. The slo-mo pictures can consume time because if you take the audio literally it can sometimes sound comic, so some creativity is required. Slo-mo crowd can sound like groaning hags--not too pleasant. Speeded-up traffic can sound like a demented radio-controlled car. Using pitch changers and stretching the audio can help on these occasions. The voice took about four hours to record and though Susan had never recorded a voice-over she sounded great; I think her lecturing must help. She was a little nervous to begin with but soon settled into the swing of things'.

Steve Cookman's resulting soundtrack is both inspirational and a testament to how good sound for the small-screen--and for programmes of this genre--can be. But don't take my word for it, hear it for yourself. Because as Gray's Anatomy suggests that the weight of an idiot's brain is seldom more than 23oz, it could simply be that I am feeling a little light-headed by it all.
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