From the Guild
'Lost' in the Mix
In Search of the “Lost” ICON
By Michael Kunkes
Frank Morrone, foreground left, and Scott Weber with their audience at Disney Stage 6
Photo by Rick Nevens
On August 4, a standing-room-only group of TV sound professionals crowded onto Disney’s Victory Stage 6 in Burbank to view a practical demonstration of the power of Digidesign’s ICON Integrated Console System by re-recording mixers Scott Weber and Frank Morrone, CAS, who together produce the acoustically complex mix for ABC’s hit series Lost, now finishing its fourth season. The event, presented jointly by Digidesign and the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE), proved such an enthusiastic success that Morrone and Weber repeated the presentation for three straight evenings.
Morrone and Weber just received their third Emmy nomination for Lost and have been mixing the show on Stage 6 since the first episode in 2004. After finishing seasons one and two on a Neve Logic 2 console, they acquired the dual ICON console in time for season three. The two linked systems each have 72 channels of I/O, necessary for feeding 24 channels from each system into the 48-channel ProTools recorder. There are also four additional edit playback and auxiliary input systems, with up to 32 additional channels, and a Soundmaster ION system is used to synchronize four ProTools/HD Accel rigs, ProTools recorder and both mix systems––a total of seven systems. The room also features three stations for music, dialogue or sound editors, any of whom can access any of the ProTools machines or the ProTools recorder via a KVM switcher, do any needed editorial work, and return it to the system.
One of the most unique things about the Lost ICON is a custom shelf at the rear of the console that houses a bank of monitors arranged left to right, displaying Weber’s ProTools rigs for backgrounds, Foley and hard effects, then moving over to Morrone’s music score, ADR, group and production dialogue, various plug-ins and the main mix. “The great thing about this setup [which is unique even for an ICON room] for both of us is that it acts as one big, elongated cue sheet,” says Morrone. “At a glance, I can view when a music cue or an ADR line is coming up and can see all my principal dialogue. On most systems, you are constantly scrolling up and down to see what your tracks are and what’s coming up, but on this ICON, we are spreading the horsepower out among a lot of systems with a lot of visual feedback. It helps us run a lot faster and smoother.”
A typical mix on Lost takes four days, although for the two-hour finale, they were awarded a generous six days to mix a show that was twice as long. “On a normal episode, the first day and a half is dedicated to roughing out the show,” Weber explains. “Then the producer screens the show and provides notes, and we will run off DVDs for the writers, executive producers and picture editors. It’s a complicated show, and we have quite a lot of creative input coming in––more than on most series.” Music is scored weekly by composer Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille) with live orchestra recording (a rarity these days for a weekly series) and arrives at the mix in stereo pairs split in elements such as percussion, melody instruments, woods and harp.
During the mix, Morrone and Weber work closely with the editorial team (not to be known as “The Others” as a Lost fanatic might say), which includes sound effects editors Paula Fairfield, MPSE, and Carla Murray, MPSE; Foley artist Doug Reed; Foley mixer Geordy Sincavage; and supervising sound editor Tom de Gorter, MPSE. That’s important on a show such as Lost, where Weber alone has128 tracks of effects, Foley and backgrounds on his side of the board.
Frank Morrone, left, and Scott Weber demonstrated their workflow for mixing Lost for an audience at Disney's Stage 6.
Photo by Rick Nevens
“All the editors on Lost work on ProTools, and we have it worked out ahead of time what tracks to put their edits on so we can easily put them into our template,” Weber explains. “The way we’ve laid things out, certain effects must go onto certain tracks, so I subdivide my effects tracks in groups of eight faders––which correspond to a VCA master fader. For example, we just finished the two-hour season finale, and I had 112 effects tracks; you can imagine trying to toggle through all that. By creating VCA masters to subdivide all those tracks to a custom fader bank, I was able to have all those tracks controlled by only 14 faders. The effects editors cut all their background and volume graphing automation roughly into where it should be, so when I go in to do the mix, I can immediately get a relative level and present it the way they cut it, with all their volume automation maintained.”
Though as a rule they like to work together on a scene through a near field (left>center>right) speaker setup on the stage, Morrone or Weber will on many occasions go to headphones in certain situations in order to mix more efficiently. Says Weber, “If Frank is working on dialogue, I can be on headphones pre-dubbing the next scene, using M-Audio Q-40s. Sometimes he needs to isolate and doesn’t want to hear what I am doing, so I will put on the headphones and go do the next scene, setting up my tracks and rough balances. Or Frank will do the same with his dialogue, and that comes in handy when working with ADR. Producers just aren’t that patient listening to ADR; you get a couple of passes, and that’s it.” “The biggest mistake you can make is playing an ADR line barenaked and letting the producers hear it. That is sheer suicide,” adds Morrone.
“That’s again why ICON’s preview mode is so great; I can sweep through the EQs, comparing the ADR against the production line, but I am doing it on the headphones,” Morrone continues. Additional plug-ins employed by the Lost team include Massenburg EQs, McDSP’s ML4000, DP575 and Futzbox, Digidesign’s ReVibe, convolution reverbs from TL Space (a Digidesign company), Dolby Surround Tools and Waves L.1and L.2 Brickwall Limiters.
To conform to ABC broadcast standards, Morrone and Weber apply final compression to the mix, employing a Dolby DMU (Digital Mastering Unit) and the Waves L2 to contain the two-track levels below +10db. The end deliverables are a 5.1 mix and a two-track stereo “LtRt.” “We lay down both the 5.1 and the two-track at the same time, but don’t listen to the stereo mix until the final pass, then make adjustments to compensate for any loss in dynamics,” Weber relates. “We supply our 5.1 HD deliver on D5, as well as a stereo composite and stereo M&E for the SD delivery.
A slide from Morrone and Weber's PowerPoint demonstration.
Courtesy of Digidesign.
Production sound, both dialogue and effects, are a huge part of the mix process on Lost. The show’s executive producers, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk, Jack Bender and Carlton Cuse, believe strongly in salvaging and using as much production dialogue and effects as possible, and Morrone and Weber have risen to the challenge––to the point where ADR accounts for only a small percentage of Lost’s performances. “We’re cursed in a way, because a lot of scenes take place on the beach,” says Morrone. “When you point the mic toward the ocean, you have the surf noise, and you can’t point it the other way because there’s a highway there and its supposed to be a deserted island.”
To reduce noise and preserve the integrity of the production tracks, the team utilizes a Cedar DNS2000 Dialogue Noise Suppressor, as well as a McDSP notch filter, part of a suite of powerful McDSP plug-ins (including EQs, de-esser, FutzBox, etc.), that the two have been utilizing during this fourth season. “What I love about the Cedar box [the only outboard signal processing used on the console] is that you can bring the controls up to custom faders,” says Morrone. “I can look at the waveforms as they come up and constantly ride them and simultaneously automate my rides.
“The custom faders on the ICON are wonderful for that,” he continues. “I can be balancing my dialogue against ADR, or switch to dialogue against music or the loop group, and the custom faders can be in any order you want or as deep as you want. You just keep creating different configurations, and that feature gives me a lot of flexibility. Not only that, I can go into preview mode on the ICON, go through different ranges on the Cedar, and see if and how it is affecting the integrity of the dialogue. That mapping ability is one of the strongest features of ICON. Most of the plug-ins map out really well.”
“We are essentially mixing a feature film in a fraction of the time, and that’s the quality that is expected of us, especially for the DVD releases,” summarizes Weber. “It’s important for us to have a highly efficient automated system and the ICON has made our lives much easier. That reliability is critical on Lost.”
Michael Kunkes is a freelance editor and writer specializing in animation, production and post-production. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.