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The One-Eared Monster

Some day, they'll come out with stereo television. I mean, the kind that you have to look at with both eyes, probably through special glasses like at

Some day, they’ll come out with stereo television. I mean, the kind that you have to look at with both eyes, probably through special glasses like at the IMAX 3-D theater. Until then, it doesn’t matter whether you use one eye or two: The picture is the same. And that may have something to do with the fact that a lot of people in the world of television still think human beings are born with only one ear.

After all the work we’ve put into standardizing formats, simplifying delivery systems, bringing costs down and just getting the word out to the video people that, yes, sound counts — and by the way, we do hear in stereo — you’d think they’d get it by now. But don’t bet on it. If a recent experience of mine is any indication, then there are many folks on whom, unfortunately, my living and yours will at some point depend, who haven’t got a freaking clue.

Sometimes I find myself thinking that there’s no longer any way that I can be surprised by people in our business screwing up. At this advanced stage of my life (to plagiarize Tom Lehrer, “When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for 15 years”), you’d think I’ve seen enough incompetence, wrongheadedness, misconceptions, superstitions, stupidity and plain old recto-cranial inversions that today there is nothing I could encounter that I couldn’t shrug off with, “Been there, done that.”

Guess again.

Here’s the story. About three months ago, I finished producing my very first full-length documentary film. I had received a small (I mean small) grant that allowed me to hire a director on the West Coast (someone who usually hires me to do music for his productions, so this was a nice twist) and shoot some interviews in places like Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and Martha’s Vineyard. We shot on DVCAM and MiniDV with professional, although usually one-person, crews. We wrote the script together. He edited on the Avid in his basement, and I mixed on Pro Tools in my attic. Outside of the crews, the biggest item in our budget was for FedEx.

The film is about an avant-garde composer in the last century, and as you might expect, it’s filled with his music. The audio goes back and forth between mono for the dialog and narration, and stereo for the music. I wondered for a bit about the wisdom of this approach, but an experienced television mixer I hired to come in and coach me for a couple of hours (at 71 minutes straight through, this was the longest and most complex Pro Tools session I’d ever done, and I needed all the help I could get) assured me it was a terrific idea, provided that the stereo sections translated well to mono. I’m very happy to say that it went off without a hitch. It’s amazing what you can achieve with a G4, a gigabyte of RAM and an 80-gig hard disk.

We actually came in just under budget. With the last few hundred dollars from the grant, I decided I would make about five dozen copies of the film on VHS for the people who had worked with us and those we’d interviewed, including some folks who might potentially be interested in broadcasting or distributing it.

Since the early 1980s, I’d been getting my video dubs done very reasonably and quickly at a local duplication house, so naturally I called them. They weren’t there any more: In the three or so years since I had last used them, they had been bought out by a bigger company that had shut them down and moved the whole operation to another state. So I called a bunch of other local facilities, but found, to my great dismay, that during those ensuing years, the price of VHS dubs in the Boston area had gone up approximately 400%.

Fortunately, in the back pages of a professional video magazine, I found hope. An outfit about a half-dozen states away from me (no, I’m not telling you their name or divulging their location for reasons that will become obvious) was advertising video duplication at prices not outrageously higher than what I was used to paying. I sent them an e-mail asking for a detailed quote, and they came back to me with some numbers that made a lot of sense. Because I didn’t know them from a hole in the wall, I asked for references. They sent me three. I Iooked them all up on the Web, saw that they were legitimate businesses and called two of them. Both reports were just fine: good quality on the tapes, delivery on schedule and no surprises in prices or processes. I decided to go ahead and put in my order.

It proved to be a simple procedure: download a PDF form, fill it out, e-mail or fax it in, and then send the master tape, heavily insured. While we hashed out the details, they made a number of intelligent recommendations, like suggesting that they should ship the master back separately from the dubs (for an extra $10), and letting me know that if I ordered 100, it would actually end up costing less than if I asked for 60. I needed some European copies, too, and they gave me a good price on a half-dozen PALs and a couple of SECAMs.

One thing I did notice about the order form was that there was nothing on it about audio: They weren’t asking anything about whether I wanted hi-fi tracks or separate left and right channels. And how about Dolby on the linear tracks for those six or seven machines still in existence that can handle it?

The last time I ordered video dubs, I made a point of telling the salesman that the tapes needed to be hi-fi stereo and he was insulted. “Of course we’ll do them in hi-fi stereo,” he said. “There’s no other way!” Surely by now, everyone in the industry recognized this, didn’t they? So I figured if my new friends didn’t think this was an issue, I wouldn’t either.

Okay, I know you’re telling yourself, “I can stop reading now.” You’re right, you do know what’s coming. But I’m going to make you squirm just like I did, because it’s even worse than you think.

The final cut the director sent me was on Beta SP, and I was supposed to lay the finished audio onto it, which is not really ideal for sound quality. (You folks who’ve worked with Beta know all about this, but bear with me for the sake of those not so lucky.) When you lay audio onto existing video in Beta format, you can only use the relatively low-fidelity linear audio tracks, not the hi-fi (AFM) tracks. But I had another choice: I could do the master on MiniDV. The video would be slightly lower in quality because it would be a copy of the Beta original — albeit first-generation digital, which looks awfully good — and the audio would come straight out of Pro Tools onto the tape as 16-bit, 48kHz PCM. Well, actually, that’s not quite true, because MiniDV decks don’t have separate digital audio inputs. But taking an analog output from Pro Tools and feeding it into the analog input of a MiniDV deck isn’t going to hurt the signal very much.

I borrowed a MiniDV deck from the video lab at my school (a Panasonic AG-DV1000; gosh, this thing is cute!) and rented a Beta SP machine. And because I could, I made masters in both formats.

On the MiniDV tape, I dutifully recorded 1kHz tones right after the color bars — left, right and both channels — at -15 dB below full-scale. I wrapped a note around the tape for the duplication engineer, telling him that the audio levels on the dubbers should be set so that the tones were at -3 dB below nominal zero.

A week or so later, UPS dropped two big boxes (and one small one that had the master) on my front porch. I eagerly opened them up and popped one of the VHS tapes into my deck. I was in such a hurry, I didn’t even hook the deck up to my audio system but just played the tape through the TV. Immediately, I knew something was wrong. Even through the crummy speaker in my set, the audio sounded squashed and off-balance. I looked down at the deck and saw that its “hi-fi audio” indicators weren’t on. I stabbed the Audio Monitor button a few times, but nothing changed. There simply was no hi-fi track; my beautiful audio had been squashed onto the VHS tape’s linear track (which sounds far worse than Beta SP linear), in lousy, hissy, over-compressed mono.

Of course, I jumped to the phone and called the duplicator. “Gee,” said the engineer, “you didn’t say anything about ‘stereo.’ I don’t even think all of our machines have that high-quality audio thing.” I imagine you have to go a long way these days to find a VHS deck without hi-fi audio, or was it that their machines were all 10-plus years old? But in any case, why the hell did he think I put separate tones on the two channels if I didn’t want stereo? He had no answer for that. “How many of your decks can handle hi-fi?” I asked. “Oh, most of them. About two-thirds, I think,” was the reply.

And what about the European-format copies? I had no way of checking them, but he straightened me right out: “Oh, our PAL and SECAM machines don’t do high-quality audio.” So they were a total waste of money. I demanded a refund on those, and he complied.

There were lots of friends and colleagues waiting anxiously for their copies of this film, and I wasn’t about to make them wait another two weeks while I shipped the bad dubs back to the duplicator and went through the whole process again. So I proposed to the engineer that I would go through all of the tapes, pick out the ones that were hi-fi and send him back the rest. I’d pay for the shipping, and I’d send them overnight. He agreed, and so for the next four hours, I plowed through 100 VHS tapes, checking to see if the hi-fi lights went on when I shoved each one into my deck. I ended up keeping 26. The rest I put back into their boxes, scratched out my address and replaced it with theirs, and sent them off.

After UPS came by to pick up the box, I put the 26 good tapes into the padded envelopes that they had sent me and started to address them. Before I could put the stamps on, however, the engineer called me back. “Hey,” he said, “did you say you want these in stereo? ‘Cause I don’t think any of them are.” What the hell was he talking about?

“Well, when I did the run, I noticed that the two channels on your master were, like, at different levels? And I know that a lot of clients don’t like it when that happens? So I put a Y-connector on the outputs to combine them and then another Y-connector to split them so they fed both channels on all the decks.”

At first, I was sure he was kidding me: I could see on the tapes I kept that the two channels weren’t at the same level. But before I let him off the phone, I plugged headphones into the deck and listened to one of the tapes. When the first big music passage came, the sound went from mono to…mono. No change. The channel levels were different because, well, they were different. Maybe this was hi-fi, but it certainly wasn’t stereo.

I demanded to speak to the boss, who, of course, was unavailable, but he did call me a few minutes later and was genuinely apologetic. They’d send me 100 new dubs, give me credit for the European tapes and for the extra shipping charges, and get the whole thing to me as fast as they could. And to their credit, that’s exactly what they did. The color on some of the copies is a little funny, but I’m going to leave that alone.

The scariest part of all of this isn’t that the engineer ignored my notes, misunderstood what I wanted or had somehow developed this bizarre technique. (When he called a few days later to tell me that the new dubs were ready, he said, “Well, I guess this will cure me from combining the audio channels again.” Hey buddy, glad I could be of service, but usually I get paid to teach.) No, the scariest part was that when I picked out that one tape to check, there was actually a 74% chance that I would never have realized anything was wrong until it was much too late. Had that first tape been one of the hi-fi dubs, would I have put on headphones and thus noticed it was in mono? Good question. Maybe I would have. Or maybe I wouldn’t have bothered until after I’d sent out a few dozen.

Some day, they will come out with stereo television. But until they do, whenever you find yourself entrusting your tracks to anyone who dwells in the murky world of video, first make sure that they know how to count their ears.

Except for a missing upper-right molar, all of the parts of Paul Lehrman’s head are in perfect symmetry.