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Monday, April 23, 2012

NAB 2012

NAB is probably the largest collection of professional gearheads in the world.  The absolute latest, some still prototyped and demonstrated only after the sales engineer bows his/her head in prayer, broadcast goodies emerge there. 

As you would expect, given the continuing convergence of broadcast and “new” media, all those Oreos and sodas are there, too.

Things have changed.  Duh! But this year was especially significant.  It wasn’t a great anniversary like ’06 for quad tape.  No single revolutionary product like Red in 2007.  Instead, it was a year of, well, for me, realization and for the industry, one of maturation.

Here’s my take:

First, I saw hundreds of boxes to do thousands of things.  Convert anything to anything with a BNC in/BNC out black box.  Seriously.  I think I saw one that had ATSC in and black coffee out.  Then, if you look a little further, you find out that a lot of the same things that you buy black boxes for can be done in the digital domain with software.  One case, one processor (or multiple processors) with ins and outs and you don’t need any of the little black boxes at all.  It’s interesting to see which manufacturers are looking at software solutions compared to those looking to sell hardware problem solvers.  

Imaging devices:  Unless I get an assignment that calls for day-in, day-out shooting, I’m gonna rent. It’s changing so fast that you make a commitment, sign the papers, and before delivery, the XV3 is out, replacing the XV2.5 you just bought. 

Red Scarlet
I will say this – images are just plain gorgeous.  The range of the sensors is so wide (claiming up to 13 f/stops) that they’re presenting new challenges to the receivers/monitors…and working at 20-30 fc of light.  Lenses have caught up with HD and the definition and resolution are terrific.  And it's funny seeing a jib floating around with apparently nothing on it - only to see a DSLR  anchored to the baseplate.

Of course, a couple of things you can’t do anything about – depth of field is depth of field.  HD shortens it and that’s that.  But add a little extra light, get a couple more stops down, and you get your DOF back.  And, speaking of lighting, the LED luminaire is mature.  You can shoot with cool, low power lighting just about anywhere.  [After the fact note:  when you increase the sharpness of the "sharpest" area as with improved lens and sharper sensor, depth of field apparently goes DOWN.  But it depends on what you're viewing it on.  A hi-def image has lots more apparent depth of field when viewed on an NTSC receiver.  That's because the maximum sharpness is much less - so the sharpest image appears less so,, more like the slightly out of focus portions of the image just to either side, in distance from the lens, of the actual focused distance.]

One thing remains the same – the use of lights to control the resultant image.  LED’s don’t eliminate the need for multiple instruments (you can’t dump a bunch of LED’s onto a ceiling and shoot away expecting different results compared to doing the same thing with incandenscents,  fluorescents, or HMI’s).  But whatever you do, it’s a lot cooler and easier.  Hang a two pound panel and you’re shooting f11 at 15 feet – and for 3 hours on a battery.  Awrighty then.

3D.  Don’t sell that flatscreen just yet.  Sony, among others, demonstrated their glasses-less 3D.  This is for large screen.  I’d rather they called it 2.5D.  Nothing really came off the screen at me like when the Creature from the Black Lagoon scared the pants off me in a theater.  And while the gathered crowds oohed and ahhed at first, there was a bunch of sotto voce grumbling as the demo ended.  Same with Dolby’s version.  They suffered some additional problems, a bunch of high-end artifacts that spoiled the motion.  If you have HD with glasses, well, good for you.  Not a lot of programming but you’re an early adopter.  As for glasses-less…wait for the .1 version if you know what I mean.

Workflow:  Nobody wants to sell you just a camera.  Or a switcher or storage by itself, either.  They want you to use their entire system for “workflow”.  It’s the only way to ensure quality.  Well, that’s what they said!  It ain’t true.  If there’s any interface problem, either software or one of those boxes I talked about will solve it.  Speaking of switchers.  Ha!  They’re not.  They’re video program managers capable of controlling multiple feeds with multiple layers (and in multiple languages).  And they’re smart enough to automate a lot of what a TD once did.

Audio:  Both AES and IP audio abound.  In fact, once audio goes into the digital domain – which can be a USB microphone or hard disc audio – it doesn’t have to leave until it reaches the final audio amp or transmitter input.  I saw a guy named Hum out in front of the convention center begging.  He’s pretty well out of business.

An interesting thread was talk regarding the CALM Act and most of the techies laughing at the fact that, once again, trying to pass legislation to control laws of physics doesn’t work.  And speaking of the CALM Act, Rules:  The big concern was text-to-speech in the EAS rules.  Breaths were bated in anticipation of the commission’s announcement that would reinstate the TTS rule that they eliminated in the Fifth Report and Order.  It didn’t happen.  OK.  It did, but they waited until after the event.  None too soon since April 23 is the deadline.

Worth the trip?  Absolutely.  If you have to stay current, you have to make it out there.  I had some assignment and was looking for some particular gear.  Even if I hadn’t, well, it’s still so doggoned much fun just lookin’ at the goodies.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Live Performance Sound

I want to talk a little about live performances and audio.  This time, not from a production standpoint, but looking at it – make that listening to it – from the consumer standpoint.

Mitsuko Uchida became the foremost performer of Mozart piano works some 15 years ago.  She decided that wasn’t enough; she then became renowned for her performances of Beethoven.  Sure couldn’t pass up her performance with the CSO. 

But it was an interesting disappointment and it relates to staging a live performance.  In this case, her work was its usual top drawer level.  But she’s chosen to be both pianist and conductor.  So they wheel the piano into place…you look askance because as the stagehands leave the stage, you see the keys facing outward, toward the audience.  And, so that Ms. Mitsuko can be seen by all of the orchestra, they’ve removed the piano lid.

That creates the disappointment.

First, we’re seeing Ms. Mitsuko’s back and nothing of the keys.  OK.  I can live with that.  I can close my eyes and just imagine.

Second, and this is a real problem for me, removing the lid of a piano totally changes the tonality of the instrument.  Just for review, the note of just about any instrument consists of a number of parts.  First, is the attack.  That’s actually a high frequency component, even of low notes.  Heck, even with a kick drum, that chest-thumping part of the sound is due to the high frequencies – the punch in the pedal – that are followed by the thud of the drum.

When the piano is at ninety degrees to the audience and the lid is open (note: it has to be ON to be open) those highs actually bounce off the hard, polished lid and out into the audience.  We hear the attack of each note.  Take away the lid and you take away the attack.  Take away the attack and the notes turn to mush.  That’s not a passing comment.  It’s based on listening, critically, and – tinnitus aside – hearing the lack of attack, the lack of differentiation of notes.

Third, that lack of lid causes yet another problem.  Those close to the source – performer, included – hear those attacks.  As a consequence, their sound seems louder to them than to the audience who doesn’t hear those peaks as each note is articulated.  So? 

So, remember sending guys out to do ball games over POTS lines?  And you’d constantly yell at them about balance between their voices and crowd noise?  They heard their voices and the crowd noise at full range.  But the telco line rolled off everything starting at 3 kHz.  Welllll.  The highs in the crowd noise were already rolled off when they arrived at the announcer’s mic.  So when the play-by-play guy mixed his voice, he mixed it a little low compared to the crowd noise.  His high end was the key to being heard.  But at the other end, rolled off at 3 kHz, the announcers sounded lower in level compared to the crowd.  There were no highs to help them out.

Same thing with the piano.  The performer hears all of the attack of each note.  She/he balances her/his volume on that basis.  But, sadly for row G, the attack isn’t heard.  It’s busy rolling around the balconies.  So the balance is way off, with the piano’s apparent level far below what you as a listener would desire.

So, what’s the lesson to be learned?

Tell the performer she/he can’t conduct and perform?  Nope.  You don’t tell talent that.  But you do make her/him aware of what the issues are.  Make a test recording during a rehearsal and play it back for them.  With luck, you wind up with a separate conductor, or at least with the piano lid back on and the instrument reoriented to reflect the highs.

Same is true with rock bands, jazz, or any other form of live music.  Make sure that what the performer hears is what the audience hears…and make just as sure that the audience hears what you intended.  Is that the job of the house mix guy?  You have to decide that.  Regardless, you want to get the right sound out there.

And you know what all that takes?  Time.  You have to spend the time walking the aisles, sitting in seats and listening critically.  If you’re broadcasting the performance, you have to listen through a filter that duplicates the other end of the line.  That’s the only way that you’ll have even a remote (pun intended) idea of what the listener will hear. 

Doesn’t matter whether it’s a church service, a rock concert or a punk band at a bowling alley.  You gotta do it.  Just think about it from the listener’s (consumer’s) POV.  They’re on site – or listening over the air – because they want the excitement of live performance.  You want them to hear the best you’ve got.

Now, if you’ll let me, I’m going to go rack up a CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 and listen to those attacks.