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INTERNATIONAL UPDATE

by Randy Adams

 

ADVENTURES
IN FOREIGN
RECORDING

IN WHICH OUR INTREPID CORRESPONDENT
TACKLES A PROJECT THAT TAKES HIM TO
FOUR CONTINENTS


recording project that takes one halfway around the world is bound to pique the interest of any locked-in-the-studio audio engineer such as myself. So when I was presented with the opportunity to work on a film crew traveling to Fiji, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, and El Salvador, I wasted no time in saying yes. The project is a full-length musical film entitled Whosoever, funded by the Assemblies of God Church to promote the work of missionaries around the world. My job involved the recording of studio and location audio in each of the countries, and the final mix and assembly back at my studio in Dallas. The crew consisted of video director David Ford, music producer Dan Smith, cameraman and all-around technical whiz Bruce Deck, and myself.

We began by recording a basic version of the work, so that the choir director in each country could begin the task of teaching the music to their singers. Most of the choirs also had to learn the English lyrics phonetically.

I checked every resource I could find but there was almost no mention of recording facilities in the countries to which we were traveling, so I had to rely on local contacts to obtain the information I needed. I sent a detailed list of questions for each studio, practically burning up my fax machine in the process, but it often took several tries to get answers to important technical questions. I thought I had all of my ducks in a row when we left, but now that I know a little more about international communications, I realize I was mistaken.

Our first journey was to Fiji, a tropical paradise in the South Pacific. It took the better part of two days on airplanes and in airports to get there, but that first sunrise at the Nadi airport on the western side of the island was almost worth it. Unfortunately, we had to fly to Suva, a bustling city on the southeastern coast, where it is hotter, noisier, wetter, and generally not much like paradise at all.

The first sessions were not scheduled until the day after our arrival, so we had a chance to see the sights and recover from some serious jet lag.

That night we went to a small church in the hills around the city to hear the choir rehearse for the recording sessions the next afternoon. We arrived just after dark, and the rehearsal had already started. As we emerged from the van, thankful just to have survived with our director driving on the wrong side of the road, we experienced one of those unforgettable epiphanies upon hearing the Fijian choir for the first time. Their voices were strong, their pitch accurate, and the joy in their singing made us look forward to the recording sessions to come.

The next morning, we went to the Civic Auditorium to meet the people from South Pacific Recording, the company from which we were renting all of the necessary equipment. We chose the Civic Auditorium because it was supposedly the only air conditioned space on that side on the island large enough for an 80 voice choir. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that, although well ventilated by huge louvres that were impossible to close, the auditorium was definitely not air conditioned. We also found that the stage level was three floors up from the street and the lift, such as it was, had not worked in years. The large ventilation louvres opened onto a busy street with lots of bus traffic, and many birds made their nests in the protected space between the louvres.

Encountering surprises on remotes is not unusual, but finding them 10,000 miles from home before we even got the gear set up was discouraging, to say the least. After a futile attempt to find another place in town with air conditioning, we set up the equipment in the auditorium with help from South Pacific's chief engineer, Jay Shaffer, a transplanted American from Denver.

In Fiji's South Pacific Recording.South Pacific Recording has two studios in Fiji - an 8-track in Suva, which we basically dismantled to do our recording, and a 16-track room in Nadi, where their main offices are located. They are the leading producer and marketer of Fijian music, with many of the most popular recording artists in the country signed to their label, SPR Records. Fijian music has a strong Polynesian influence, with some bands playing a style similar to reggae.

When we put everything together, I recorded some room noise just to confirm that everything was actually working, and to evaluate how the leakage from the foldback monitors sounded. This is a crucial step in remote recording that I learned from Paul Christiansen of Omega Audio, and it has saved me from potential disaster several times. When I played back the room noise, I heard several dropouts, and the problem got worse. It seemed to be related to the heat backstage, which had to be at least 90 degrees. We ran a few diagnostic checks, and it became obvious that we had severe problems with the machine. With our choir arriving in less than two hours, it was panic time!

Fortunately, SPR had a Fostex E-8 in their Suva studio, only a few miles away. This was where I got a lesson in Fijian culture. Although the Fijians are hardworking people, they like to work at their own pace. The concepts of promptness, urgency, and other hallowed, American, Type-A behaviors are simply not practiced in Fiji. The trip of a few blocks to pick up the other machine took over an hour. My main concern was the fact that we would have to copy the half inch slave tape from the Tascam to the Fostex before we could even begin to record. Not only did I have to transfer four songs, somehow using a machine that only moments ago appeared to have completely given up the ghost, but I also had to transfer the time code - no reshaper, regenerator or refresher - just a straight machine-to-machine copy. One thing I learned from another mentor, Mike Simpson of Midcom, is a healthy respect for the care and feeding of SMPTE time code. Copying time code without reshaping the wave to ensure proper playback is always ill advised. On top of the buckets I was sweating because of the oppressive heat and humidity, I was now sweating over the health of our time code.

The choir arrived, got in place and warmed up just as we finished the last transfer. The only confirmation we would have of the quality of our transfer would be to listen and look at levels as we were recording. To record the choir, I used a matched pair of Beyer MC 740 microphones in an X-Y pattern, since an M-S pair seemed to pick up too much ambiance, including buses and bird calls. Fortunately the choir really sang! Their enthusiasm and unique accent translated into a wonderful sound.

The two MC 740s went via Mogami mini-quad cable to a pair of Symetrix 528 Voice Processors: one-space modules that contain a mic pre, compressor/limiter, 3-band parametric EQ, noise gate and de-esser. The output of the 528s were patched directly into the inputs on the tape machine. A small Fostex mixer was used for playback, and Yamaha NS-10Ms were used for reference, along with Sony MDV-6 headphones. Compared to the process of setting up, the recording went extremely well. In two four-hour sessions, we had all we needed, including a scorching solo by a Fijian woman. The next afternoon, we checked our copied time code and found it to be okay - a major load off my mind!

During the next two days, we traveled to several locations around the main island, shooting segments on a hillside overlooking a beautiful isle with colorful houses and boats docked on the shore, on the banks of a small waterway at the Pacific Harbour Resort, and in a small church in the neighboring town of Naushori. On the location shoots where electricity was available, we used the Fostex E-8 for playback. There was no way to lock the speed of the playback machine to the internal speed of the Betacam, so the master time code was not frame accurate to the video.

We had to live dangerously, resolving all of the Fiji shoot to video speed in post production, but it worked out. David Boothe of Color Dynamics worked a little magic during the final assembly that saved us. On later trips, we eliminated the problem by striping the multitrack with code generated by the Betacam running at speed, and using that code for all lockup procedures afterward. This resolved the 30 frames-per-second, non-drop frame SMPTE that our sequencer and automation software prefer to the 29.97 code used by the video editor. I've heard a lot of loose talk about resolving audio playbacks to video speed, and I don't know if this is the best solution or not, but it works. In the future, I'll always use 29.97 SMPTE for everything, and I'll never go out into the field without resolving my audio to video speed first.

After a few weeks back in the U.S., we were on our way to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. We delayed crossing the border from Austria for as long as possible, because we could not bear to leave Vienna. It is truly one of the great cities of the world, but that's another story. When crossing international borders with lots of audio and video gear, good paperwork and an honest face are very important. We were carrying a document known as an ATA Carnet, obtained through the U.S. Council for International Business, which has offices in most major cities. Many countries accept a Carnet in lieu of a cash bond, and you need only present the documents and the equipment upon entry and exit. You need to check the requirements of each country before you leave the U.S., and don't forget to register your equipment before you leave this country. When you return to the States, customs will not appreciate the fact that they didn't get to sign your colorful little forms first!

Our communications with Opus, the local recording studio in Bratislava, had been difficult from the beginning due to problems with both software (language) and hardware (a lousy phone system). We really had no idea what to expect, but we were told that they had a Sony PCM-3324 digital multitrack. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find a complex with two SSL/Sony-equipped control rooms at right angles to each other, sharing a small recording area between them and a cavernous studio one floor below that was easily large enough for a marching band, two football teams, and lots of cheerleaders. Although the studio had possibly the best microphone selection I have ever seen, the air conditioning was inadequate and noisy, and the creature comforts we have come to expect in Stateside studios were nonexistent.

Recording at Opus Studios in Czechoslovakia.Because of our tight travel schedule, we depended on the choir directors in each country to prepare the singers for the sessions. Although some minor changes and on-the-spot direction took place, we didn't have time to teach the songs to the choir in the studio. In Czechoslovakia, the choir was so well prepared, we could have recorded everything in one night. Instead, we knocked off early to sample the local nightlife, which consisted of some policemen randomly stopping vehicles with foreign plates and trying to extort money in broken German. We got away by playing extremely dumb. We even ignored the international symbol for extortion: the thumb and forefinger extended and rubbing together.

After an evening of Beethoven and Bartok at the Opera House back in Vienna, we headed for Durban, South Africa. At the Vienna airport, the security personnel refused to hand-inspect our carry-on luggage, which contained our audio and video tapes. They insisted that everything, including our tapes had to go through the X-ray, and they didn't care if we made our flight or not! Fortunately, we were saved at the last minute by the local KLM Airlines manager, who took the tapes, put them in a KLM baggage pouch, and hand-carried them to the plane. We picked them up in Amsterdam and carried them with us the rest of the way.

We had a day off before we began recording in Durban, so we checked out the surfing and swimming in the Indian Ocean just in front of our hotel. ( I hear the sharks are a lot more afraid of you than you are of them.) The next afternoon I went over to Durban Beach Studios to set up for the session that evening. The studio is owned and operated by Neil Snyman, who also serves as a technician for several other studios. His studio is equipped with an MCI 636 console and 2-inch, 16-track MCI, for which he is actively seeking eight more modules of electronics. For our project, a 1/2-inch 8-track was rented. Neil's technical chops saved us, because we had to go through three tape machines before we found one that was satisfactory. The first machine had such severe wow and flutter that it only lasted about 30 seconds. the second one failed after a couple of hours when a capacitor in a reel motor burned up, making the tape tension uncontrollable. The first night was a wash-out, with equipment failure and a paucity of air conditioning contributing to a generally tense mood, but the second night went a lot better. We brought some food and drinks, the studio was well-chilled in advance, and a good time was had by all.

South African choir on location.The only interesting detail about our location shoots in South Africa had to do with our efforts to stay cool and shaded while shooting out on the side of a barren hill in KwaZulu, the homeland of the Zulus. Our African hosts found the sight of four white men turning bright red in the noonday sun quite amusing.

But our trip through Gatwick Airport in London on the way home was anything but funny. Once again, the security personnel refused to hand-inspect our carry-on luggage, but this time they also refused to let British Airways load our audio and video tapes on board without going through X-ray. Although the British Airways people were very helpful, the airport security people seemed to enjoy watching my frantic efforts to find a way to catch my flight, while saving my tapes from magnetic oblivion. Finally, we all agreed that I had no choice, so I put the tapes through the X-ray machine. As far as I've been able to tell there were no ill effects, but next time I'll ship the tapes home by some other carrier that does not X-ray packages. The problem with doing this is that the packages have to clear customs at their destination, and some duty or taxes may be charged. Also, customs may X-ray your packages, even if you label the boxes "DO NOT X-RAY." The simplest solution is to avoid flying out of London on the way to or from anywhere until a bit of sanity returns to the airways.

Our trip to El Salvador had originally been scheduled only three days after our return from Fiji, so no one shed any tears when the Salvadoran government canceled all visas because of the election planned for March. We needed the time off, and the choir needed more time to learn the material, especially the lyrics. We really expected this to be our most difficult trip, due to the country's political unrest, primitive recording facilities, and the fact that our choir was made up of 60 Salvadoran children who spoke no English. The children attend school in the largest private school system in Latin America, operated by Latin American Child Care, which was founded by our client, the Assemblies of God Church. Much to our surprise, El Salvador turned out to be the highlight of the entire project.

When you land at the only international airport in El Salvador, the first two words that come to mind are "Banana Republic," and I'm not talking trendy clothes. Guns are everywhere in the airport, on the streets, at restaurants, in front of buildings and homes; automatic weapons on parade! Even the security guards at the Pizza Hut carry Kalashnikovs. Other than that unsettling little detail, El Salvador is a wonderful country, with some of the kindest and friendliest people on Earth.

We spent the first two days at Estudio Doble V, owned and operated by Willie Maldonado, who was introduced to me as "The Bob Barker of El Salvador." Willie has a Saturday morning TV game show, which makes him a celebrity everywhere he goes. His studio is a comfortable place to work, with air conditioning (after this trip, I will never again take it for granted), a wonderful courtyard with a pool and waterfall, and a good working environment. The studio is equipped with a Tascam 38, Tascam mixers, a few old Neumann and RCA mics, and several digital effects processors. Everything has to be kept in good working order because parts and technical help are almost impossible to obtain.

The author with singers in El Salvador's Estudio Doble V.The one thing that doesn't work very well at all is the electrical supply. Power outages and brownouts are an almost everyday occurrence, so Estudio Doble V has a power regulator and a generator. Still, everything worked pretty well (that always puts me in a good mood), the children were a joy to be around, and I believe I may have made some friends for life. I have since brought the studio owner's son to the United States as an intern, and I'm trying to encourage some of my clients to do some recording in El Salvador.

Postscript: Well, I'm back in the States now, finishing up post-production at Future Audio in Dallas. As I listen to the choirs we recorded and I see the faces of so many new friends on the video monitor, I long to go back to each of these wonderful places and renew the friendships that began there. After all, someone has to use those frequent flier miles!

 


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