A Capital Idea

by Simon Garber
published in Mix Magazine November, 1994

(If anyone cares to translate this article into French, please e-mail me.)

Imagine yourself on Parliament Hill in Canada's capital, Ottawa. It’s summer. The air is dark and soft, the sky bright with stars. And there is music - the cold clear music of the wilderness, brightly evocative of Canada’s beginnings. This is "Reflections of Canada", a sound and light show that translates the story of our country into lights, voices and music. The message -- there is strength in unity and diversity and hope for the future.
Every evening at six o'clock, from Victoria Day in May to Labour Day weekend in September, operators begin placing the 8 Meyer UPA-1s in a semi-circle, about 60 feet apart, along with 2 Meyer 2x18 subwoofers. By 7:30pm the 700-seat bleachers, which can accomodate about 1/2 of the average audience, are in place. At 8:00pm all systems are tested and traffic is re-routed away from the streets adjacent to Parliament Hill. At 9:00pm it's showtime. Two shows a night - one in English and one in French - for a total of 180 shows, will entertain anywhere from 120,000 to 150,000 people during the season. As in past years, half the audience is expected to come from outside the Capital region, and more than one third from abroad (15% from the United States).
The audio playback system starts with a Tascam DA-88 digital 8-track recorder with a SY-88 time code card chased by a PC running Cakewalk, which in turn controls the synchronized lighting system via MIDI messages to a DMX controller. Audio is fed directly to UREI 535 octave-band equalizers, a 360 Systems AM16-B audio crosspoint switcher (for loudspeaker assignment), eight Bryston 4-B power amplifiers pushing the UPA-1s and two QSC EX-1600 powering the subwoofers.

The Production
The production required a number of elements, interrelated and woven together into a 43 minute seamless production. Like a symphony, the show has three movements , each with a different theme and mood, each focussing on a different period of Canadian history. In colloquial terms, the bed tracks are the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (61 of them); the background vocals are the Vancouver Men's Chorus, the Elektra Women's Choir and the Vancouver Children's Choir.
Resting on top of this are about 20 actors, the voices of ordinary Canadians from Canada’s past and present, telling their stories (penned by producer Lindsay Bourne) with dramatic intensity from their diaries, letters and conversations. And just to make the project more interesting and challenging, award-winning film-score composer, J. Douglas Dodd has featured traditional instruments such as pipa and erhu (Chinese) , classical guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, violin, bagpipes and drum, spoons, sax, pennywhistle, voice, native drum, and an invisible touch of synthesizer.
Vancouver’s Stellar Productions along with the National Capital Commission defined the scope of the project. Bourne's desire to keep every door open in this production encouraged the engineering team including myself, Charlie Knowles and assistant Marc L'Esperance to examine new appropriate technology - technology that didn't even exist when the budget was drawn up two years prior. The ADAT's ability to slip pieces in time, keep multiple performances, move to different studios, and keep tape costs under control were mighty attractive. So ADAT became the medium of choice.

The Voices
The first phase was to record the dialog tracks to DAT at Blue Wave's Studio 'C'. Dodd's score is tied directly to the script and the delivery, so this was a natural first step. All dialog had to be recorded in both English and French, so the production team was almost as large as the acting pool. Language issues were to play an important part in the direction of the entire production. The mix may have been a little simpler had the French and English deliveries been exactly the same length. However differences in both script and performance would still have required different music mixes for each language.

The Orchestra
Orchestras seem to be most comfortable at home, so we recorded the orchestra in their living room (Vancouver's 2800-seat Orpheum Theatre) with David Kelln's White Line Mobile. We had very little rehearsal time and no time to experiment with mike choice or placement. Normally I would record an orchestra with 6 or 8 mikes but the production required the ability to select specific instruments and pan them to any of the eight speakers. So we went with 40 mikes, half of them being AKG C-451 and the rest were an assortment of C-414, Neumann U-87 and KM-84, Sony C-38 and 969 stereo, Sennheiser MD-441 and MD-421, and an AKG C-426 stereo mike, mixed through a Soundcraft 6000 and an auxiliary Mackie 1604 to 21 ADAT tracks (3 machines) plus two tracks for an additional AKG C-426 stereo pickup and one for click. The Otari MTR-90 24-track that lives in the bus sat on standby.
The next step -- head back to my home base, Goldrush Recording Company's editing suite, to make clones. You can't overdo cloning. Every time you see 'Error on Machine 3' you bless your clones. Some masters that displayed a lot of errors spawned fawltless clones. By the way, do you call the 3rd generation clone the ‘clone of clone’ or ‘clone 2’? Semantics...
Our next task was to create an edited sequence of the orchestral score onto 4 tracks of an ADAT in A/B roll fashion. The C-426 stereo tracks were sufficient for cuing purposes so a pre-mix was not necessary (yet). The score embodies an overture, 11 stories, a finale and 'O Canada'. All the elements are linked together with the 'traditional instruments' or reverb hanging over. Hindsight being 20-20, we later realized that this step would either determine the frozen time relationship between segments or cause somebody's nose to be buried in the Frame Master Plus Time Code Calculator (I heard they stopped making them -- pity) to re-calculate offsets later on down the road.
Next - make clones.
Up to this point Doug had been scoring and arranging with his home studio Proteus 2, Cakewalk for Windows, and the dialog tracks. Now he could replace the synth orchestra-in-a-box with the real orchestra performances and lay them up on his old reliable 1" Scully 280-8-track..

The Choirs
The choirs demanded a large enough room to accomodate over a hundred bodies with a live enough acoustic environment for the singers to be comfortable and controlled enough to minimize leakage of the studio playback of the orchestra tracks. The choirs all voted for CBC's Studio 1. Who were we to argue? We arrived with our ADATs. I chose to record the choirs with 8 microphones -- 2 B&K 40011, 2 B&K 4006, a stereo AMS and 2 AMS large-diaphram through John Hardy M-1 preamps patched directly to one ADAT. We monitored through CBC's soon-to-be-replaced Ward-Beck desk. First, the children's choir and soloists were recorded on one machine followed by the mixed chorus on another, while a third was playing back the orchestra layup tape. The childrens choir were recorded at zero offset to the orchestra tape which was at zero offset to the BRC (Big Remote Control - cool acronym). When it came time to record the mixed chorus, we wanted to have the ability to keep a take and do another. Also, the choirmaster, Willi Zwosdeski elected to record out of sequence. So I decided to record them sequentially on the tape. This meant that each choir selection would have a different offset to the master machine. The plot thickens.
The next day we were back at Goldrush making more clones.

The Traditional Instruments
It was easy to choose a studio to record the traditional instruments. Mushroom Studios is a favourite tracking room in this neck of the woods. It's been my favorite for over 20 years, where I got flung into the pit as staff engineer in the early 70s. The main room will accomodate a 40 piece orchestra and is very complimentary to acoustic instruments. Thirty Universal Audio tube preamps still heat the room, and there's an ample selection of vintage microphones. The custom Altec 604-E / Mastering Lab monitor system has always been my point of reference.
We got smart and recorded the traditional instruments at zero offset to the master. Since each segment only used a couple of tracks we were able to allow multiple takes painlessly. Some of the musicians, such as Qiu Xia (pronounced chiu sha) on pipa and Shirley Yuan on erhu, wrote their own parts for a story about the mass immigration of Chinese to build the railroad across Canada. They worked so well with the orchestra that we didn't want to lose a note. But alas, the dialog always wins out. (Someday maybe we'll do a music-only mix....but I dream....). A native story was also arranged by one of the performers, Stephen Point. But this time there was no orchestra -- just voice and drum. And no time reference. And the French read was 30 seconds shorter than the English (a rather unusual occurance). From now on the shows would be different lengths and all the offsets would differ between the French and the English shows.
Next -- clone.

The Mix
Which brings us to the mix and our introduction to Rod Michaels, who quickly became known as Sir Build-a-Mix - master of the 56-channel SSL - G series console at Greenhouse Studios. A mixing theatre may have been most appropriate for this project, however, a mixing theatre with 56 channels of total-recall automation didn't exist within our realm. Studio B had just enough room to comfortably fit 8 Yamaha NS10-Ms, a subwoofer, 4 engineers, 4 producers, 10 ADATs and coffee.
We decided that the only logical way to approach the mix was sequentially. Each piece had a different complement of elements, each with it's own offset. We started by submixing the orchestra to 8 tracks, assigned to channels in such a way that the panning emulated the actual orchestra setup. To conserve channels, the mixes were laid up on A/B rolls and then remixed to a single ADAT. Keeping every door open, we gave Doug one last kick at the can -- one last chance to make minor adjustments to the pacing of the show, a second or 2 here or there or maybe just a few frames. Time to get out the Frame Master...
The mixed chorus also imitated it's performance environment. Then we added the traditional instruments, the kids, and the soloists Joëlle Rabu and boy soprano Fraser Walters. Lindsay says, "Can you make the flute start over there, fly over to there and then swirl around the block?" No problem, says techno-wizard Charlie Knowles who anticipated this request and built a 'dual quad panner' with a couple of surplus rotary pot joysticks, some tin foil, and a cardboard box.
Each story had to overlap the next in one way or another so we had to have faders for anything that had to carry over the transition. That meant building a 'join mix' which had all the elements in each of the 2 segments required at the crossfade. This ultimately became the mix file for the subsequent story. Because the mix ADAT was locked to the others we were able to do seamless punch-ins and outs anywhere in the program.
The voices had been edited on a PC running Turtle Beach 56K-PC and its Gem-based software Soundstage. We triggered the voice clips with SMPTE generated by the BRC and re-recorded the voices on yet another ADAT tape. By this time the library had grown to a point where we had developed a system to catalog the tapes. We burned through close to 100 in all.
A word about cloning.
Cloning doesn't always work like the manual suggests. After following the step-by-step instructions many times and exercising language that we hadn't used since high school, we are of the firm belief that the ability of ADATs to clone is related to the position of the moon and stars and the rock (I’ll explain the rock in a minute). The very last day of our mix sent us to clone hell -- armed with 7 machines, loads of sync cables and fiber-optic digital cables, we tried every possible combination of all seven machines and only one set of two would clone. Even machines with the same software version wouldn’t talk to each other!
The Fine Tuning
The first time I heard the show ‘on the hill’ in Ottawa I was stunned. I phoned Doug in Vancouver on a cell phone during the first run of the show in the middle of an April blizzard and let his answering machine hear a bit. The image was a thousand times bigger than it could ever be imagined on eight NS-10s in a studio. 90 degree pans became 180 degrees. Sounds moved over your head and the orchestra hugged you.
After a day of system calibration, eq and level balancing, I determined that the biggest problem in the soundtrack was the subwoofer activity accompanying the voices that came from speakers other than the centre pair. Since our subwoofer source was controlled by the crosspoint switcher, we were able to assign subwoofer sources via MIDI events in Cakewalk. Problem solved. The tricky spot was an overlapping collage at the end that required about 30 MIDI messages in 20 seconds.

Originally the show was to be 35 minutes plus pre-roll so ADAT became a logical choice for playback. As the show grew beyond 40 minutes we realized that we would either have to change the medium or find longer S-VHS tapes. We found numerous errors on T-180 tape immediately after formatting new tapes. A phone call to Alesis' 800 number didn't solve the problem. After experimenting with combinations of the 'set locate' button and other buttons, we found that the undocumented combination of the 'set locate' button with the 'format' button toggled the display between 'Std1' and 't160'. After formatting tapes we found that T-180 tapes formatted and recorded with the 't160' setting were stable. Also, the machines default to 'Std1' so they must be toggled each time a T-180 tape is used as the transport ballistics are affected by this setting. After experimenting with T-180 tape we determined that the media is not as robust as the T-120, so we opted for the Tascam DA-88 for the playback machine. Tascam's integration of the time code functions was also a big plus. The scrub wheel was indispensible in determining the exact start and stop point of each voice in the collage.

Most of this list of ADAT combinations with the SET LOCATE key is not documented in the user manual.
ALL INPUT dac / in
AUTO INPUT tape / in
FORMAT t160 / Std 1
REWIND tor / ----
FAST FWD version #
SETUP hours of use
RECORD fad1 / fad2 / fad3 / fad4
READY 1 prot / recd (protected / recorded)
AUTO 2-1 Inf
The following error messages were decoded for us by Alesis technicians through their 800 number technical support. They were scrawled onto a piece of paper during conversation and may contain some interpretation.
0 Doesn't see sensing switches for tape loading
1 Problem with tape position (unthreading)
2 Capstan not engaged
3 Capstan engaged
4 Head not spinning
5 Head not spinning - speed off
6 Can't read data
7 Can't read tape
8 Lost sync
9 Lost tach pulse from head
The BRC has a few annomilies of it's own. A 'reset' feature could replace the rather brutal method of powering down to reset -- a regular procedure with this technology. After all, it's just a dedicated computer.

The End
How would I do it if I had it to do all over again?
I would think twice about the current generation of Alesis ADAT machines. Although I’m pleased with the sound quality, I’m discouraged by inconsistancies in the performance of the machines, slow rewind, lack of documentation, limited time on reliable tape, and clonability. The Fostex will, by nature, share some of these drawbacks. Today I’d probably bet on the DA-88, and tomorrow...who knows.

The Rock
And now, about the rock. Some time ago while recording the sound track for the film ‘Bowl of Bone’, the filmmaker gave Doug a rock. The rock, a tree-bark tool, had been given to her by a medicine woman, the subject of the film. She had gotten it from her grandmother who had gotten it from her grandmother, etc. Doug was told to keep the ancestral rock with him whenever he is working. So the rock lived on his computer all through the composition phase. More than once, when things started to go haywire in the studio, Doug placed the rock on the desk and, presto! All systems began working properly! ADATs would clone, and evasive intermittent noise disappeared.
We began a daily ritual of stroking the rock. First thing in the morning and occasional strokes throughout the day.
A little ancestral guidance vouldn’t hoit.
Rock on.

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