A personal journey through sound.

Mixing and Mastering “Firmament”

Posted: June 27th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: interactive audio, music
Image courtesy of Cyan.

A Project Thirty Years in the Making

Cyan’s game Myst was the first game I ever finished more than once. That was the winter of 1993. I never would have guessed that exactly 30 years later, they’d release a game whose soundtrack I mixed and mastered. That game, scored by composer Maclaine Diemer, is Firmament.

I had worked with Maclaine before, mastering his episodic scores for Guild Wars 2 and both mixing and mastering his dark score for Salt and Sacrifice. Being asked to help work on a Cyan title was pretty exciting, especially after being thrilled by Maclaine’s desperate and grim Salt and Sacrifice material, and being told that he was going in a fairly dark emotional direction for Firmament. There was a time I’d have been nervous about such a gig, but this was about my 500th musical services project, so I was just more excited than anything.

Image courtesy of Cyan.

Maclaine’s approach was paying subtle homage to the original Myst score, composed by the game’s developer Robyn Miller, by using (and abusing) synths used on that game and effects from that era.

The E-Mu Proteus Plus Orchestra. Picture courtesy of E-MuMania.

While not orchestral, each song was quite simple in terms of instrumentation…but the number of parallel processing effects was insane. Maclaine deep-dives into his process for creating the music in this interview, which is well worth watching. Projects that I mix don’t have to be in my favorite style or genre, of course, but this one sure hit me where I live, aesthetically speaking.

Image courtesy of Maclaine Diemer.

Mixing Firmament

The 25 cues we created for the game (21 were released on the official soundtrack) itself became a game of what effects layer was doing what job in the cue, so the mix was more about arranging the effects like they were parts of an orchestra. Some cues only had six tracks total; others had maybe only two or three instruments, but up to six layers of delay, in addition to other effects, per instrument.

One misstep I made was grunging Maclaine’s mixes up even further with additional saturation. When I was asked to pull back on it, it was not only the right decision, but a strange sort of victory. I found my client’s limit! From there, the mixing process was more streamlined with less guesswork.

While the track counts per mix never got that high, it was no mean feat balancing all these frequency- and time-domain effects to build “density with clarity.” Over eleven discrete rounds of mix deliveries, some cues took four or five revisions to get right. We got three nailed on the first try. The mixing process took approximately one month.

Mastering the Score

Mastering went quickly, but it’s always a challenge mastering work that you mix. I can’t do it without lots of translation tests and, frankly, time. I need to have my sense memory of the mixes fade away quite a bit. Being a game project, though, there wasn’t too much time we could take between mixing and mastering. I tested my mixes in a friend’s studio before starting the mastering process, taking notes of what I thought were issues. I listened on daily walks on AirPod Pros. I used nearfield monitors alongside my full-range mastering monitors, as well as a Bluetooth speaker.

For this project, my signal chain started with digital EQ and resonance control, and ended with all-analogue dynamics control. Tubes and transformers added a subtle mid-high sheen with no phase shift, which was a big help in a score with lots of low-end and low-mid frequencies. Mastering took about a week.

Lessons for Media Composers

One thing that’s always tricky when mixing is ensuring that all the tracks or stems are exported correctly, and this project was no different. Simply due to the number of individual files involved, I’ve never had a mixing project where all the stems or tracks were delivered perfectly the first time. Software is getting better at this, but there’s so many human elements involved that it’s important to remember it’ll never be perfect. Plan for re-exports, because that’s just going to happen, especially when track counts are high or stem deliveries get wide…like, maybe don’t go on vacation the day after you send all your tracks. (That didn’t happen on this project, thankfully!)

In my role, that means it’s critical to always call ask about anything that seems like it could be a mistake. Checking composer intent is essential at every step of the way. Composers can also proactively provide comments and notes to this effect. “Now, you’re gonna hear this sound that seems like an error, but trust me, the whole cue hinges on that sound…”

Every DAW also seems to have a different threshold at which it thinks that all effects tails have been printed fully. Speaking from experience, never trust your DAW to do this for you. Always pad each track with silence manually, or set your render region to where your meters are reading infinite negative dBFS. Add two seconds to the maximum delay time in your session if you’re not sure. That tip won’t work, though, with high-feedback delays, relying on meters and monitoring the tails at very high output levels is the only way to know for certain.

Image courtesy of Cyan.

This project was fun, thrilling, and an absolute honor to be involved in. Huge thanks to Maclaine for having me on his team once again, and the whole team at Cyan for being so supportive of the composer and his vision for this interactive experience.

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Negotiating Location Access

Posted: June 20th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: field recording

Despite my years of field recording and sound design, it wasn’t until recently that I negotiated my first location access for a personal recording project. It was easier than I’d had expected, but I also got lucky and had lots of factors in my favor. I thought I’d summarize my experiences for anyone who might want or need to negotiate access to a private or controlled location for field recording.

This article is intended for those who have never done this before; the process for much more involved locations for larger commercial projects is beyond the scope of this post.

A sound example of this outing is at the end of this article.

Lesson One: Passionate People Want to Share

My sea kayaking club had a meeting aboard the SS Red Oak Victory, a World War II ammunition freighter that’s now a floating museum and event space. The vessel is operated as a nonprofit and has a cadre of volunteers keeping her (ahem) ship-shape. That meant I could reach out to the Red Oak Victory’s crew and staff, and relay that I was already familiar with the vessel, but that I also had a genuine interest in her story.

The SS Red Oak Victory is docked in the same (decommissioned) shipyard in which it was built, in 1944. Over 700 ships like her were made Richmond, CA, USA.

What I didn’t expect, but is painfully obvious in retrospect, is that the ship’s staff are all volunteers. You don’t volunteer aboard a vessel like that if you don’t have a passion for it. And they want to show off the object of their passion! I couldn’t possibly ask enough questions of the crew and staff, and they were all incredibly supportive…and excited that anyone would “bless” their vessel with as peculiar an interest as audio recording!

Find a location with people who dearly love it, and find an authentic way to be interested not just in the location, but to understand their passion and share it.

Lesson Two: Educate Stakeholders about Audio Recording

As a nonprofit organization, I was happy to throw some money at the Red Oak Victory in exchange for my time aboard. But how much? In my favor, the ship also acts as a performance venue and has a rate card for rentals, including for photography clubs and video production/filming.

Equipment for the day in Cargo Hold Four.

But their director of marketing had said no one had ever just wanted to record audio there, and had no idea what was involved, so how would we price it? Rather than make a rate suggestion, I outlined how my footprint on the vessel would differ from that of a film or video crew. One person just moving multiple recording rigs around. They offered a rate that was a small percentage of the full video-crew rate, which that seemed fair to all parties.

We also discussed noise levels; I wanted a mix of quiet and ambient activity. Learning that the crew is tools-down from noon until 1pm for lunch, we picked a time that bridged both activity levels, and the results were great.

As a recordist, it’s your job to both respect the location as well as educate its gatekeepers as to what your impact will be on the location.

Lesson Three: Start Small

Recording an entire vessel is a daunting task, and being unsure how my presence would be received, I wanted to use that first visit to show that I could be trusted and would be respectful.

So I started small. Ambiences, small hard effects (hatches, doors, etc.), and things that would keep me out of peoples’ way. At the end of the session, it was the Red Oak Victory’s staff that asked if I wanted to come back some time; “Maybe the cargo hoist could be fired up for you, it makes cool noises.” Hey, maybe that ship’s alarm I wasn’t prepared for could be tested on cue? “Yeah, we can definitely do that.”

Another sub-lesson here was that I had not yet learned Lesson One, so I could have pushed harder than I did for more access and more involved requests, because they wanted to share their passion for the ship!

So, use your instincts and balance what you think the location’s gatekeepers will allow with what you hope to accomplish. And as I learned, sometimes there’s such a thing as starting too small.

Recording in quad (double ORTF) in Cargo Hold Two.

Lesson Four: It’s All About Relationships

Like everything else in life (and certainly in professional audio), it’s all about building relationships. I had a great time, and so did the crew and the staff. We joked about how I botched a recording of the coolest sound on the ship, and they laughed knowingly when I said it was the refrigerator compressor in the officers’ mess. Everyone felt respected and heard. And all parties are already talking about future visits. Heck, it turned out that they belong to an organization of other historic vessels, and maybe they could place a few calls on my behalf…

Even if you’ll only use a location once, build that relationship. Even if all you might need in the future is using that location’s gatekeepers as character references for others, you never know what connections might happen, even years down the road.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…but what did it sound like?

Here’s a sample of some of the recordings I made: This was recorded with a mid-side rig in the ship’s shaft alley, a 10-foot-wide by 170-foot-long corridor that houses the shaft that runs from the ship’s engine to its single rear propellor. I loved the ambient sounds of movement and work, which almost had an organized, musique concréte rhythm and dynamism to it.

noisejockey · SS Red Oak Victory: Distant Clangs

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With Fronds Like These…

Posted: June 4th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects

The same winter storms that I mentioned in my last post also brought down a ton of fronds off the King Palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) in our front yard. One can never have enough foliage source recordings, so… (the video below is just camera audio, not the Sennheiser MKH 50+30 mid-side rig I used to do the recording)

Field recording greatly improves one’s motivation to do yard work!

Here is a designed vegetation movement or destruction sound effect made from the material I recorded in this session. Soundcloud’s MP3 compression won’t be kind to this sort of material, but oh well!

noisejockey · Plant Movement/Destruction from Palm Fronds

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