Liquid TV: As Good as it Gets
The Sound, The Fury...The Speakers
There is a sense of resignation in those who do audio for broadcasting. Its a by-product, one supposes, of an initial and long-suffering sense of frustration that, no matter what one does in the way of sound, its still got to come out of a one-and-a-half inch speaker, after being compressed God knows how many times and possibly abused by tropsoherically transient gamma rays and sunspots.
Its probably a testament to those broadcast engineers that they continue to persevere cheerfully in the face of what is a chronic situation. Particularly since the sound going into productions is getting bigger all the time. Animation has always lent itself to large sound; viz. the rerecordings and spiffing up of audio tracks for big-screen animation classics from studios like Disney, and the emphasis counter-culture animator/director Ralph Bakshi has traditionally placed on sound and music in his epics like Fritz the Cat and Cool World.
It all points up the fact that animations original venue was cinemathe classics of the medium were initially shown on big screens with commensurate sound. Saturday morning television started changing that forever in the 1950s, as the small screen began usurping cinematic animation to wrap around cereal commercials. Eventually the demand became so great that television began producing its own animation, often cheaply rendered visuals from cartoon sweatshops in Korea and Taiwan that were tailored to the world. As animation gained a measure of respecti.e., made it to prime timeits audio tended to lag. The Flintstones is remembered more for its cultural value than any emphasis on audio.
Its only in recent years that animation audio has begun to catch up to the visuals. Take MTVs Liquid Television, for example. Now in its third season on the cable network, "Liquid TV" is the product of eight different producer/director teams working on various animation shorts with sound designers from San Franciscos Focused Audio, including studio owner Jeff Roth and sound designers Mark Pittman, Tom Vonderhaar and Gordon Lyon. Pittman mixed most of the shows. Shawn Cuddy was the coordinating producer for Colossal Productions, which produced the visuals.
The audio for the various segments involves a lot of original music and library sources. It was compiled on equipment that included a pair of eight-track Waveframe digital audio workstationsa Waveframe 1000 with both 32 MB and 16 MB samplers handling 24-bit audio, and a Waveframe DCS which, with the optional editorial software package, was used for editing the audio tracks. Signals passed through a 40-input Sony JH 636 with DISKMIX II-Plus automation. The DAT deck was a Panasonic 3700. Meanwhile, an AKG 414 was the workhorse microphone for much of the dialogue and sampling work.
Sourcing the sound effects came from both Focused Audios library selections and a sizable in-house library the studio has created. The raw sounds were fairly heavily manipulated, says Roth, in search of original and unique effects. "What we were seeing here were requests for a very wide range of sound effects for all these pieces. In one instance, for example, the director was asking for a combination of authentic documentary sounds contrasted with cartoon-like sound effects. We did a lot of Foley direct to picture, about 10 to 15 percent of each segment. In fact, Prudence Fenton, who was the Executive Producer for Colossal Pictures, at one point went out to her car and got her high heels and came in and did footsteps. That really tells you a lot about the atmosphere during this process: it was highly structured but at the same time, it was an atmosphere in which everyone was free to contribute."
As intensive as the audio production was, however, it still came back to having to be mixed for television. Roth and crew monitored appropriately, using both a pair of tiny Auratones (the speaker that has come to be the reference monitor for the jingle industry) and the 1.5-inch speaker on a Sony 14-inch television set. The irony of the juxtaposition of big sound and small speakers is not lost on Roth, who noted that most television audio producers learn early on that taking something mixed on large monitors back to the client, who then plays it back on a television set, can be a humbling experience.
"You learn that you have to mix for the lowest common denominator," says Roth. "The biggest problem is reproduction of the bass frequencies. Trying to squeeze them into the mix is what causes the rattle and distortion you hear in small speakers."
Roth was able to compare the audio from some 40-year-old cartoons with current projects when, several years ago, he re-did the audio to the claymation "Gumby" shows. The 32 half-hour originals were produced on 16 millimeter film, which Roth says was "primitive" compared to the 35-millimeter new programs, 33 of which were produced in 1987. Hearteningly, Roth found that there have been improvements in cartoon audio in the interim. "The originals definitely sounded antique," he says. "The video that the 16-millimeter opticals had been transferred to still had the typically noisy optical sound to them: a lot of high-end crackle."
Still, Roth acknowledges that television audio production is a dog that will continue to be wagged by the consumer tail. "Television can accommodate the needs of contemporary audio, if youre willing to go along with the frustrations of working in the television medium," he says. "The consumer playback systems are such that few people out there are using their whole stereo system to listen to television. Its a lowest common denominator situation and thats just how it is. Once people start using better playback systems, well have more freedom to start mixing for that. But especially for television broadcast, you have to also be also aware of the entire chain that audio goes through before it reaches those less than perfect playback systemsfrom the post house to the broadcast center to the satellite uplink and downlink. It passes through more stages than any other media."
As if it were any consolation, Roth noted that the audio currently being posted for CD-ROM actually makes television audio sound good by comparison, pointing to a recent project in which the digital audio was compressed to 11 kHz and eight bits. "The highest frequency was 5.5 kHz," he says. "Television at least gives you almost full bandwidth."
The big sound that cartoons require will apparently have to wait for better playback systems. But it might be nice to see them show up on a regular basis again in the best reproduction environments we now havemovie theatersinstead of being relegated to occasional art house retrospective of Fritz Frehling. But as television is the medium of the moment, animation will have to live with its constraints. Th-th-th-thats all folks.
TV Broadcast Magazine, June 1994