Find a need and fill it. It’s a ready-made success formula for just about any business, and it’s worked especially well for Chace Productions of Burbank.
Last year, the company scored a pair of technical coups with the theatrical re- releases-in glorious 5.1-channel sound-of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Chace was the company that took the original composite mono tracks and converted them-via a patented process-to the multichannel release format. Before that, the company had gained some notoriety for restoring matrixed soundtrack versions of 4-track stereo, Cinemascope[superscript]TM features. These restorations were required because the original 4-track magnetic masters from the 1950s had been re-used by the studios back in the days when magnetic stock was considered expensive. And before that, the facility had a nice business getting mono movies, including more than 400 titles from the Turner, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and Disney libraries, ready for stereo television and video cassette. Many of the old movies seen on TV, VHS and laserdisc (and soon, DVD) have had their soundtracks cleaned up and “stereo-ized” at Chace Productions. It’s a small company with a big track record.
The late Rick Chace founded the company in 1981. He was a mixer, a designer, a builder, a programmer and a tinkerer, and he had a passion for restoration and preservation. Long before Sonic Solutions came out with NoNoise, Chace had developed a “noise busters” process. Later he developed the Chace Optical Sound Processor, a patented device that used a customized video camera to photograph optical track negatives and clean up distortion and noise. And after that, he came up with Chace Surround Stereo[superscript]TM, a patented processor that unlocked composite mono tracks and output Lt-Rt stereo with surround, with a consistent sound field.
In 1992, just as the company began internal discussions about a mono-to-5.1 processor, and just after they moved into a new building on Victory Boulevard, Chace passed away. Bob Heiber, general manager and colleague, moved up to president of the company and, with the help of the engineering team, completed the mission for discrete multichannel output. The result was another proprietary device, dubbed Chace Digital Stereo[superscript]TM.
“All of this coincided with a drop in the need for stereo programming for television,” Heiber explains. “John Blum, Jim Young and a couple of the engineers had already developed a methodology of using three of the stereo processors to output a 6-channel, 5.1 stereo image. Then when we really started tearing into the guts of Rick’s designs from the early ’80s, we realized that he was inventing stuff that people take for granted now, like MIDI control. Rick essentially created his own version of MIDI, not realizing he could have patented that and made a fortune in the control world.”
Today, the glamour part of the facility revolves around the two Chace Digital Stereo rooms-where spatialization artists program the cues in space and time-and the THX-approved Rick Chace Theater. But the company has six divisions, all connected over a network to a central machine room, that do everything from preservation, restoration, transfers to/from any format (there are 48 formats currently in-house), sweetening, Foley, re-synching, audio forensics, you name it. Chace even has one of the few approved nitrate vaults in town. A job such as The Wizard of Oz required roughly 500 hours from the various divisions working in parallel, but only a three-day programming session and three-day mix, which should give some idea of the amount of prep work that goes into such an undertaking.
Essentially, all of these divisions work offline, which helps keep costs down. Before reaching the Lafont Chroma console in the Rick Chace Theater, a film will typically pass through one or all of the three transfer rooms that deal with multisource projects: one of the two Sonic Solutions NoNoise suites; a Sonic Solutions/Soundcraft Ghost-equipped editing room for effects or music rebuilds (from the original tracks, when material is missing); a Neotek Elan/Soundmaster room for sync correction; one of the two sweetening rooms, which include Sony MXP-3000 boards (with PicMix) and CEDAR DC-1 de-clickers; and the Chace Digital Stereo rooms, equipped with the patented processor and M&K 5.1 tripole monitoring system.
There is an incredible assortment of old and new technology, both off-the-shelf and proprietary, all of it kept running by four full-time maintenance techs. While Heiber admits that the processor gives his facility a leg up on the competition, he reserves all praise to his “product specialists,” the rather nondescript title the company uses to describe those who excel at sound placement, seamless transitions and true directional stereo.
John Blum, a “product specialist” since 1993, says, “You have to think about what stereo is. It’s timing cues, differences in phase from reflections in the hall, and a mono piece of audio will typically have all that folded onto one track. What this system can do is unlock it and put it back in its proper perspective. I’ll literally go through each stem [from a mono composite DME] and design, even down to the frame, a stereo sound field and all the movement within that. I can program the box to very realistically and efficiently put in left-right moves, back-to-front movement, surround ambiences, just from a mono effects stem. We often liken it to audio animation. We’re not just putting it through a black box; we’re dynamically adjusting per sound, and that’s where it really excels.”
“There’s a person making aesthetic decisions all along the way,” interjects Jim Young, former “product specialist” and now lead re-recording mixer. “In addition to the directional moves, there’s also what we call the width, or depth, of the stereo field, where there’s no actual directionality, but you can make elements seem bigger.
“The original process had been an Lt-Rt, and it worked nicely for a Dolby ProLogic decoder,” Young continues. “It was completely and wholly collapsible back to mono. When we combined Chace Surround Stereo Lt-Rt back together at equal levels, we got exactly what we started with, which was necessary because while stereo TV was just getting started, most people were watching TV in mono. When it comes to 5.1, it’s not so simple. The AC3 downmix doesn’t necessarily work that well going from 5.1 to Lt-Rt, and I don’t know who’s experimenting going 5.1 to mono. But it’s not as straightforward. For that reason, most of our clients are distributing their software with a 5.1 mix and Lt-Rt version on it.”
All of the engineers at Chace are certainly well aware of the purists’ argument, which at times accuses them of doing for audio what colorization did to picture. Their aesthetic, they insist, is to remain conservative, unless the client demands exaggeration, and they rarely add sweeteners; when they do, it is to fill in a hole, and they use material from the existing tracks. The first step in any restoration or stereoization is to clean up the original mono track, which is then stored in the vault. The Wizard of Oz DVD will include both the 5.1 and the mono track, as pristine as it’s ever been.
“When you go see Wizard in theaters, there is still some optical noise in there; it still sounds like 1939,” Heiber says. “But it’s in a contemporary format. The real goal is that it should sound as good as the day the track came off the stage the first time. All the wear and tear, all of the flaws that have crept into the track over time from usage and handling and storage, have been taken care of. The day that engineer pulled it out of the soup and put it up for the first screening-that’s our aesthetic here. We don’t presume to know what the director’s intent was. Michael Friend-Director, Center for Motion Picture Study, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences-phrased it much better. He said, ‘The real goal is to preserve the director’s achievement.’ That’s our goal-to preserve the achievement and never presuppose that we know the intent.”
The big decision now facing Chace Productions is what to do with the processor. The coming of digital television, multimedia games and music in surround opens up an incredible amount of work updating catalog material. And Heiber doesn’t begin to assume that his company can do it all. For that reason, he’s exploring the idea of manufacturing and selling units, working on a deal with an overseas company, licensing use of the processor to other facilities, creating a plug-in or any number of similar ideas for different markets. Whatever the outcome, Chace will be sure to play a major role in the preservation and contemporary presentation of our shared heritage.