SFP: Sync Sound Turns 25N.Y. POST GIANT REFLECTS ON INDUSTRY'S GROWTH, CHANGES 10/01/2009 8:00 AM Eastern
Ken Hahn and Bill Marino may not have vowed to stand by each other in sickness and health, but they did make a meaningful commitment: They co-signed a pricey real estate lease in mid-Manhattan. Sync Sound, the enterprise they established in 1984, turned 25 recently, and Mix thought it fitting to sit down with the owners and talk about their careers, the company and the audio post industry.
“I got into the business right out of college,” says Hahn. “I graduated from Wagner College in 1977 with a music degree, but I pretty much knew all along that I wanted to get into the engineering side of the industry. Todd Rundgren was an idol of mine, someone who wrote the songs, played and was deep into the technical side of recording. I was the guy in the band who adjusted the P.A. system!”
Marino's dad, Frank, was the guitarist in The Tonight Show band. “I spent a lot of time in the control room,” says Bill Marino. “Kids under 14 weren't allowed in the audience so I'd hang out in the sponsor's booth. This was going back to the days when Jack Paar was the host. Bobby Bugg was mixing The Tonight Show at the time, and I remember thinking to myself that I could do it, too!
“I was also a musician,” he continues. “I started out taking lessons from my dad, then joined a group called the Hillside Singers. Our claim to fame was the record ‘I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing,’ which came from the jingle that was so popular.”
Marino and Hahn crossed paths at Regent Sound, one of Manhattan's early audio post facilities. “I was co-producing records for our group with Bob Liftin, who owned Regent Sound,” says Marino. “I came to him with a record idea, but the conversation turned to this new thing, sound for television. Bob was working on The Howard Cosell Show. Saturday Night Live was just ramping up, and NBC hired Bob as a consultant. It became pretty clear that he had little interest in producing our record. Instead, he offered me an entry-level job at the studio.”
While still in college, Hahn was logging upward of 60 hours a week at Regent as a second engineer, and that's where he met Marino. “I became a great second engineer,” Hahn says. “If you needed a razor blade, I was reaching for it before you asked for it! I studied engineering. Equally important, I studied people and how they got along.
“Sound for television was awful back then,” he continues. “Accurate sync was nonexistent, and audio was being cut in mono by video guys who didn't know what they were doing. Audio post took off in the 1980s when stereo became the standard. We did a lot of work for the emerging cable companies at Regent Sound. I recall us mixing a Charlie Daniels Band concert for the first commercially released laser disc. Bill and I worked on a Todd Rundgren project that was one of the first stereo VHS tape releases to hit the market. People were experimenting back then; audio post for television was a new world, and a lot of the tools we take for granted today — particularly in the area of synchornization — simply didn't exist. We took the best studio console technology from the recording industry and married it with the new videotape machines and sychronizers that were being developed.”
“Ken's exactly right,” adds Marino. “Post-production audio was just being defined. EECO's timecode had recently been adopted by SMPTE , and the first audio tape machine synchronizer [the EECO 450] had just become available. Until this time, sound for television was being laid to 2-inch Quadruplex videotape during the video online session. Additional audio source material was usually ‘fired-in’ on ¼-inch tape cartridges. Younger engineers may have a hard time imagining what a typical session looked like — everything was being done manually, with stop watches and your reflexes being the most important tools of all.”
Hahn and Marino both credit Bob Liftin with helping usher in the new era in audio post. “Regent Sound had a reputation for being able to fix things, especially problems related to sync,” says Marino. “Some of my biggest contacts came through our clients' need to solve sync problems — particularly producers and directors working on projects where music was critically important.
“By the time we started Sync Sound, in 1984, we were keen on Adam Smith synchronizers, but realized that what was missing was a good control system to glue everything together. I teamed up with a friend of mine to develop a software-based control system that could handle all of the tape machines we used. Ken's input, as to how he liked to work, was crucial at this time. We had a series of STD bus computers sprinkled throughout our facility, and a proprietary network system that handled communications between all of this equipment. Eventually, we integrated 9-pin machines into the equation. We had a high-speed data link operating on 75-ohm co-ax that could be as long as 2,000 feet. This gave us panache and a genuine advantage in the industry. We could do things other studios were not capable of.
“For example, we were the first studio to lock a pair of Sony 3324s to a video machine. I remember we tried this out on a Peggy Lee concert film — this was our first paying job at Sync Sound. Sony couldn't help us; neither could the folks at Adam Smith, so we invented a way to make it work on our own. Shortly after that, Laurie Anderson produced the first all-digital feature film, Home of the Brave. It was recorded and edited digitally. We did the audio post on that project.”
“See, I told you Bill was the genuis!” adds Hahn with a laugh. “Part of what made Sync Sound was having the know-how. The other half is knowing how to make clients happy. Understanding that a given client wants to be extremely involved in the technical process, and that someone else just wants to enjoy a good cup of coffee and give some editorial input at critical points is essential. The technology has changed enormously over the last 25 years. The human part of the equation hasn't.”
Hey, all you young post engineers, now gather 'round and hear what it was like to spend $100,000 on a workstation! “Let's put this in perspective,” says Marino. “We cut spot effects for Pee Wee's Playhouse on a Synclavier II. That unit came with a 10-megabyte hard drive — enough to store 100 seconds of mono audio!
“We saw a demo of the AMS Audiofile at an NAB show and were impressed. The original Audiofile was a 4-channel editing system. You stored to hard drive, but there was no backup capability — everything had to be output as audio. Then they integrated a data RDAT backup system. We had 10 Audiofile systems at one point. Our first held two hours of audio and cost 90k. Then we bought a four-hour system for 110k — an extra hour of storage capacity cost $10,000! By the time we installed our Synclavier Post Pro SD with the extra optical drives we incorporated into the system, we were spending almost $200k on a single system.”
Sync Sound began working with Pro Tools in the early 1990s. “Ray Palagy, an engineer who worked with us, liked Pro Tools, and we became intrigued with the possibilities,” Marino recalls. “So we bought a Pro Tools 2 system and ran it on a small Mac. We also had a Digidesign SampleCell system.”
Sync Sound currently has Pro Tools systems in all 10 of its editing rooms, four mixing studios and the facility's mixing theater. “Some are on [Version] 7.3, others 7.4, some on 8,” says Hahn. “Eventually, they'll all be on 8. We also have a variety of control surfaces — everything from HUIs up to ProControl, D-Commands and C Control. Funny, though, despite having all of these hardware options at their fingertips, most engineers use the faders for level control and the mouse for everything else.
“The ultimate goal of the recording industry is to make the difference between listening to a recording and listening to the same material live in a room indistinguishable. I always thought that was the promise of digital: the full dynamic range of human hearing with all spatial elements intact. Unfortunately, we didn't foresee the expediency of portable devices, the convenience of downloading MP3s, the success of iTunes. These things derailed the pursuit of quality audio. Whatever happened to 24-bit/96kHz becoming the standard release format? All interest in executing higher and higher quality was terminated by the success of lower-fidelity downloads.”
A few grumblings aside, Sync Sound's proprietors are sanguine about the future of the audio post industry. “I still have our original rate card on my desk,” says Hahn. “We laugh about it sometimes — we charged more for some services back then than we do today! And, sure, it can be difficult to make a buck in network television these days. Budgets are tight, audio is always the caboose on the train, and while the cost of equipment has gone down, labor costs have risen dramatically.
“But I still enjoy mixing as much as I ever did, and I know Bill feels the same way. My job is essentially just as it was back when we first opened the doors at Sync Sound. I want to get inside a client's head and tweak an audio clip just the way he or she wants it before they even ask for it. The sunset in this scene wasn't shot perfectly: Can I massage the audio to give the feeling that a director wants? How much reverb should be applied to a solo violin? These are subjective decisions. Bill and I, and our staff have developed relationships with clients based on our ability to come up with creative solutions to their problems. We look forward to many more years of service to them, and remaining an important force in the audio post community.”
Sync Sound Selected Projects
Since opening its doors in August 1984, Sync Sound has provided sound editing and mixing on projects for every major network, studio and music label. A partial project list includes:
30 Rock (NBC)
The Barbara Walters Specials (ABC)
Stephen King's The Stand (ABC)
Homicide: Life on the Streets (NBC)
Beavis and Butthead (MTV)
The Hours (Paramount)
Fantasia 2000 (Disney)