Innovation in Film Voice Dubbing
First STAGETEC installation for highly specialised film versioning
Everything is new and up-to-date with this installation: the rooms, the technology, the concept — and the choice of AURATUS consoles, tailored to the needs of a dubbing studio
Hitherto, the film versioning industry seems to have been pretty unimpressed by the digital revolution in audio technology, apart from DAWs taking over from analogue mag film or tape. Outdated studios, equipped with last century technology and interior design, dominate the scene. The new Film- & Fernseh Synchron GmbH (FFS) premises in Berlin are more remarkable. Opened in November 2011, a real passion for design is evident here in each and every detail. For example, in the rooms themselves. Five all-new studios together with their control rooms and a lounge occupy 700 square meters in the loft of an industrial building from the twenties, all of which is worthy of gracing the pages of an international interior design magazine. The entire ceiling was raised in order to achieve ceiling heights of up to four and a half meters. These major building works were executed not only for the sake of design aesthetics, but also to facilitate acoustic isolation and optimum room acoustics. All areas were acoustically separated from each other using room-within-a-room construction with acoustic insulation and vibration-isolating bearings.
Even inside the rooms acoustics set the tone: »Pretty much the only requirement we gave the architect and the acoustician was to meet specified values for the room acoustics. Otherwise we gave him a free hand in most areas,« explains Rainer Ludwig, managing director of FFS’s Berlin branch. The result is five studios and control rooms, all of which are almost identical acoustically. »Thus we solved one of the problems of film dubbing,« continues Rainer Ludwig. »For example, we may begin by recording the voice for a trailer in one studio. Once the entire movie is available for dubbing, we can continue in any other studio without the sound changing.«
The audio files are stored on a networked audio server which is accessible by all the DAWs in the building. The server also provides access to the recorded voice files for the mixing studios, usually one of the two FFS mixing studios at the Munich branch.
Much to Monitor
The technical equipment in the control rooms has also been harmonised and specified to the highest level. Lars Lächel, head of audio engineering, outlines the basic idea: »We consciously decided on a mixing desk and DAW solution instead of a DAW Controller because we believe in high-tech and speed. This ensures that our studios are a real exception in the film dubbing field!« The choice of console came to rest on AURATUS, the smallest of the STAGETEC production consoles.
For language dubbing purposes, voices are usually recorded as single tracks, i.e. mono. Stereo recording with multiple artists and microphones at the same time is much less common. In contrast, the monitoring requirements are much more complex. For a start, the actor needs to hear the original dialogue in order to replicate the performance accurately. While recording it is better to listen to the original sound without the dialogue, i.e. the M&E (Music and Effects). Both mixes are available in 5.0. AURATUS also takes care of the downmix in order to make the surround sources available in the artist’s headphones instead of just in the control rooms, which are equipped with surround-sound systems for monitoring.
The AURATUS design engineers have used this installation as an opportunity to further extend the desk’s surround capabilities. It now supports two independent 5.1 buses, including one group bus and one sum bus. For FFS this means the freedom to choose to record in mono, stereo or in 5.1. All other AURATUS customers will benefit from this development and after the next update will have the extended 5.1 functionality.
An actor may also want to switch back and forth between the original voice and his recording which is very important for picking up cues. This manual control of the NEXUS monitoring is selected by a user assignable button in the AURATUS channel strip. Several other defined routings are triggered automatically, which is why the NEXUS systems are equipped with XRI interfaces which receive external trigger signals and can trigger external devices themselves.
For revoicing a so-called 'taker' system is usually used. This controls the video and sound playout, displays a countdown clock and or wipes, and can initiate automatic punch-in to record and punch-out. The picture is displayed in takes, i.e. pre-programmed loops. The loops are repeated as long as necessary until the sound engineer marks the new recordings as good. The NEXUS XRI interface is also connected to the taker system. Once a DAW recording starts, NEXUS selects the artists microphone as the monitoring source automatically. This is controlled by its logic circuits and triggered by the taker system.
With these functions, the AURATUS and NEXUS combination is optimised for the specialised voice dubbing workflow. Compared with external relay circuits, the close integration of all logical functions offers much greater flexibility because they can be re-programmed at any time. Not to mention that this bespoke solution is very fast and easy to use — a real advantage in this business! The talkback and cueing functions between control rooms and studios also rely on this solution, with NEXUS being responsible for control signals as well as audio routing.
The NEXUS logic functions, together with a feature available as an option for all STAGETEC production desks, meter display switching, has made a slightly more unusual application possible. Here, this combination is used for access control. If the doorbell rings, the NEXUS logic routes the view of the door camera to the sound engineer’s monitor for about five seconds, who can then open the door if necessary.
Small Islands — Big Archipelago
A small 3U NEXUS Base Device in each control room hosts the necessary AURATUS DSP cards. Since these NEXUS units do not require fans — power consumption of each device with all the modules used in FFS is only 40 Watts — one could even be installed directly into the control room’s desk, which was neccessary for construction reasons. As access to this hardware is not needed in normal use, it is installed at the back, out of sight.
The five AURATUS and NEXUS units operate completely independently. They are not networked for audio; file exchange is achieved via the DAW-Server.
One extraordinary feature of this installation is that no operational changes to the NEXUS or AURATUS are necessary. FFS worked intensively to develop a configuration to suit a fixed pre-programmed setup scheme suitable for all recordings. This makes perfect sense for a voice dubbing studio running thousands of loops where speed and seamless interchange between control rooms are vital. The learning curve for freelancers is low and the administration overhead is reduced almost to zero.
Visitors to the new FFS Berlin premises are immediately struck by the high quality of everything in this facility. In fact, it is rather surprising that this trend has no yet gained more traction in the versioning industry. In any event, this installation sets the agenda for the entire industry, finally getting away from the quaint charm of DIY solutions and archaic decor, onwards into the digital age!
»Even choosing the right microphone pre-amplifier is indeed a science — or a matter of faith. We were very strongly opposed to analogue gain adjustment and are very happy with the NEXUS 32-bit microphone converters«, says Lars Lächel. »We also see a lot of potential in this plant for future development. If, for example, a transition to 96 kHz sampling rates is needed, we can easily convert our system. My personal hobby-horse is that I would love to replace the last remaining analogue devices, our mics, with digital ones, which I would like to connect to NEXUS via AES42. This would already be possible with our NEXUS today.«