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Dynamics…or…DYNAMICS!

by George Petersen • in
  • Editor's Note
  • October 2018
• Created: October 11, 2018

By George Petersen

No, we’re not talking about moving coil microphone designs here, but as the term relates to dynamics processing. I’d like to share a story from about an experience from a long time ago in a venue far away. In the summer of 1977, I got a call from my IATSE local boss asking me if I wanted “some” projection shifts at Oakland’s Piedmont Cinema — a nice medium-large (about 900 seats) local neighborhood theater but as a single-screen, the pay was lower compared to multiplexes. I knew the film was Star Wars, as I had recently installed a Dolby Stereo LCRS system there for the occasion.

I was a mostly broke, married grad student (ironically studying film production), and any money I could amass during the summer would come in handy in the fall, so I told the IA business agent I’d take as many shifts as I could get. He said “you could have them all,” which was fine with me, as I needed the dough. The film opened on May 27, 1977 and I was working from 9:30am to 1:30am. The standard call was six hours; covering a 14-hour day created two six-hour shifts, each with an hour of overtime. I figured “no problem” doing this for a couple weeks and truthfully, no one ever expected Star Wars to be going strong three months and more than 500 showings later.

Still, I enjoyed every one. In 1977, the Piedmont Cinema was old school, with two curtains and ancient, long-handle Variac dimmers controlling individual colored lights on the curtain wash, ceiling and walls. I’d fade the house music (an LP of the soundtrack) and slowly take the house down to about half before hitting the screen with that classic gleaming 20th Century Fox logo, and leave a hint of amber footlighting across the screen as the main title came up, followed by the famous scrolling text opening. It was beautiful and nothing like the modern Cineplex experience.

‡‡         A Bump in the Night

Flash-forward 41 years later, my wife and I had dinner with friends a few weeks ago, and they mentioned their first date was seeing Star Wars in 1977. Ted, the husband, mentioned he was amazed by the sound and how it affected him. At the time, most people had never heard a stereo film, and he said from the beginning of the movie, he knew he was in for a real treat.

Ted recalled the unforgettable opening scene where Vader’s imperial star destroyer appears from overhead and launches its first salvo against Princess Leia’s ship, adding everyone in the theater cheered when the entire building shook from the explosion effect. I said, “you saw that at the Piedmont Cinema,” and he asked how I knew. Well, I added a bit to each of those 500 showings — I’d bump the house gain about 10 dB just before the blast to let the woofers really kick in and then I’d gently bring the fader back to normal right after. I didn’t want to destroy anyone’s ears, but a little LF bump exactly at that point seemed to set the mood and have people key into the film’s incredible soundtrack a little more. Four decades later, hearing Ted’s recollection of how that bass bump flapped the hems on his bell-bottom jeans made me smile.

‡‡         Less Volume/More Impact?

Dynamics processors (compressors/limiters/etc.) are essential in the live mixer’s toolbox and play an important role in the well-defined mix. However, like any tool, these can be used properly or improperly. There’s nothing more disheartening than hearing over-compressed records these days, where in the quest for “make it louder,” someone crushed the life out of the performance.

It’s up to the sound engineer to make an informed decision about overall dynamics and apply it in context with the situation. For example, besides the simple need for volume, there is a world of difference between reinforcing a string quartet in an intimate chamber setting as opposed to mixing that same ensemble at a noisy outdoor street fair. When you’re dealing with a significant amount of ambient background (or crowd) noise, there are times when subtle nuances have to give way to getting the signal out to the audience.

One of the best (and memorable) mixes I ever heard was David Morgan on FOH for Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, where despite having dozens of musicians on stage, he was able to create space and impact — without violating anyone’s ears. One notable point was during the intro of “Call Me Al,” where the horn intro was kept at a moderate level and the transients of the snare flam accents came through much louder, bringing an instant vitality and punch that could be felt throughout the arena. It was amazing.

And this month in our interview with master FOH engineer Kyle Hamilton on mixing Janet Jackson’s State of the World tour (See story, page 28), he talks about how he creatively uses mix dynamics to create a big, punchy show. He keeps average SPL’s around 98 dB — and succeeds even though audience noise can peak at 110 dB. He also feels a responsibility to practice safe sound and make sure his audiences leave with just a memory of a great show — without ringing or ear damage.

In any genre, it’s certainly possible to create a vibrant mix with impact and punch, without falling into the “louder is better” trap and that’s one aspect where the real art of the mix comes in. So which side are you on?

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