"Sound for Stomp" Adventures in IMAX Audio, by Larry Loewinger
To mirror IMAX's wide visual scope, the location audio work for Pulse, A Stomp Odyssey, demanded daring and stealth on New York's Brooklyn Bridge.
In the minds of its creators - Englishmen Luke Cresswell and Stephen McNicholas - Stomp is a malleable idea about rhythm as language, a nonverbal way of communicating through percussion. That concept formed the basis for their celebrated theatrical event, simply called Stomp, and a series of ever-evolving films, from their first short, Brooms, which was nominated for an Academy Award, to an HBO special, to their most ambitious effort so far - the recently released IMAX film, Pulse, A Stomp Odyssey.
Currently being performed in five theaters around the world, Stomp involves a small community of skilled performers playing everyday objects in a kind of infectious rhythmic back-and-forth; purely abstract, but with a subtext of race and class that fills the theater with thomps, whacks, scratching, banging, and clanging. Over the course of an evening, the solos and duets build to larger ensemble pieces and climax in a wonderful, percussive orgy of loud sounds and powerful rhythms that never fails to bring down the house.
The concept for the IMAX film was to expand Stomp's reach: to take the show's creators, technicians, and performers around the world, and join the Stomp cast with local performers in a planetary, percussive dialogue. "We always had a desire deep down to do a global drum rhythm project," McNicholas says. "Something that paid tribute to the people who inspired us, for example the Kodo drummers from Japan. We wanted to do something that celebrated great rhythms of the world."
In its theatrical form, Stomp required a signature sound. Cresswell and McNicholas turned to their old rock 'n' roll band buddy turned audio engineer Mike Roberts to help them figure out what the sonic aesthetic would be. "The show creates its own sound," Roberts says. "What you have to do is reinforce the energy and the movement onstage. You are trying to involve the audience in the space with the lights and the movements."
The HBO special, Stomp Out Loud , elaborated on the audio techniques employed in the theater. In both the scenes filmed onstage and the location scenes, the miking involved arrays of open mics with only a few radio mics stashed in drums or hard-to-reach places. But the wide vistas and the great detail that the IMAX camera captures required a rethinking of the theater audio technique. To get impact meant hiding multiple radio mics on people's bodies or within drums. The open mics - the Sennheiser shotguns that Roberts loves - would now document ambience as well as performance.
In any of the larger projects that Cresswell and McNicholas contemplate, Roberts is an integral part. He is there at the very first planning stages, as well as the final mix, suggesting the great range and diversity of his skills. I have worked with the Stomp creators and Roberts since 1996, recording or playing back music for their commercials, then the HBO special, and, most recently, the IMAX film.
In the large-scale projects, all of the sound that is heard on the screen is live and direct, with one notable exception: In Pulse, in the scene filmed on New York's Brooklyn Bridge, what we hear on the screen is wild sound recorded on location at the end of the shooting day. Producing the sound for that scene reveals all of the perils and challenges of doing location multitrack audio. In retrospect, it leads us to wonder whether we were arrogant, naive or foolish to think that we could record usable sound for an IMAX film on the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time, we wondered who was in charge, the bridge or us?
"I was under no illusions about the Brooklyn Bridge," Roberts confessed later on. "I knew it was going to be hellish. Everything was against us - the weather, the distances, the logistics, the location of the truck. People told me you can't do this in a complicated way." But because the charge from Stomp's creators was to bring back live, direct sound, Roberts felt he had no choice.
The Brooklyn Bridge scene happened at the end of a grueling 'round-the-world adventure, in the middle of a New York winter, on a very snowy weekend. It was cold, and daylight was short. The scene itself involved two marching percussion bands - one hip-hop and the other a conventional drum band. They were to play on the walkway above the traffic lanes of the bridge and, at some point, meet near the center of the bridge. Because we could not stop traffic, we asked ourselves if they could make enough noise to mask the enormous traffic roar below.
Chris Anderson brought his multitrack Nevessa sound truck, along with a couple of assistants, down from Woodstock. We would park the truck at the base of the Brooklyn tower of the bridge. That meant an enormous multicore cable run up to the bridge from the truck - probably 150ft. to 200ft. - and that was only the beginning. We probably ran somewhere between a quarter- and a half-mile of cable. That raised the issue of whether mic-level signals would be of sufficient strength and integrity to reach the inputs of the truck's console. So we decided to rent an active mic preamp rack to deliver the signals at line level to the truck. On setup day, we tested everything we could. We had one 8-channel radio mic rack from Sennheiser and two 4-channel quad boxes from Lectrosonic. They worked well on Friday, but we knew they wouldn't necessarily work as well on the shoot. We tested all of our open mics, all of the mic lines, the simple stereo rig - consisting of a Fostex PD-4 and the Neuman M-S stereo mic - the active preamp rack, and all 52 lines of the audio snake. It all worked.
We set up on Friday, but by that afternoon we got word that snow was expected the next day, and as a consequence, we would film on Sunday rather than Saturday. All valuable items had to come off of the bridge, leaving only cables and the 52-pair snake.
Our seven-person crew started work at 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning. I assigned myself the cushy job of working with Chris Anderson in the heated Nevessa truck, monitoring the recording, while Roberts took his four guys up to the bridge to set up in the cold and the dark. By 7 a.m., though, the walkie crackled with Mike's voice: He needed me on the bridge. I left Chris alone to run his truck, knowing I probably would not return.
For the Brooklyn Bridge shoot, the Stomp crew overcame long cable runs and limited daylight to capture the audio from two percussion bands.
Once on the bridge, I noticed that the PD-4 stereo rig had not been set up, let alone tested. Then, as the day progressed, necessity dictated that the bands be placed closer and closer to the Manhattan side, farther and farther away from our staging area. Cable runs grew longer; radio mic signals grew weaker, and our anxiety levels increased.
Even as the sun was rising that morning, losing light was in the back of everyone's mind. Getting good, live multitrack sound is normally a major priority for the Stomp directors, but it was clear that on this day, archiving images - not recording sound - was paramount. There were two elements to the recording we were doing - impact was to be handled by the radio mics placed on selective performers, and space was to be captured by the array of shotgun mics we placed along the walkway. But because the radio mics were performing so erratically, we knew we wouldn't get much impact, at least on a consistent basis. And we soon found out that the walkway wasn't wide enough to permit us to hide the elaborate shotgun array that we had planned from the ever-seeing IMAX camera during a turnaround shot. The wild sound recording would make or break our day.
"It was the toughest day's work I have every done," Roberts admits. "Looking back, I probably pushed people too hard, trying for a result we were never going to get. I am slightly dis-appointed, because it is the one event where we used wild track, but I am [still] very pleased with the outcome."
During the editing, co-director Steve McNicholas saw the Brooklyn Bridge scene spring to life with the wild sound. "Whenever we mention the Brooklyn Bridge," he says, "Mike's eyes light up."
Cresswell and MacNicholas edited the film themselves on Final Cut Pro. Once reasonably sure of a cut, they would bring Roberts into the process. He described the parallel picture editing and sound construction as "working right to the edge of the technologies. We all have the same media - about 150GB of video media. They email me the edit as a reference movie. What Final Cut Pro gives me is the ability to look at the cut, any scene. I stream the video in from Final Cut Pro into my Pro Tools AV, using Final Cut Pro to get my sync references. I then lift the audio from my DA-88s, and conform that to picture in Pro Tools AV. So I am building the edit changes and gradually building up the program in Pro Tools AV."
Pulse was supposed to be completed by the end of the spring 2002, for an early summer release, but the demands of editing pushed the release date back substantially. That played havoc with the final mix dates for the film and the IMAX room at De Lane Lea Studios in London, where they had planned to take the project, was not available. Roberts and his directors decided on a two-pronged strategy for the mix. The music would be brought to another old colleague, Sven Taits, at De Lane Lea, for a mix to Dolby 5.1, and those stems would travel across the ocean to be finalized into the IMAX format, with its five discrete tracks and a sub, in Toronto at Masters Sound, IMAX's home.
Of all the pieces Taits mixed, he was most drawn to a brief, underwater musical sequence filmed in the United States. Luke Cresswelljoins his Stomp cast members banging out rhythms below the surface of a large outdoor tank in Burbank. "Both Luke and I are very keen scuba divers," McNicholas says. (So is Roberts.) "We've always been interested in the way sound travels at different speeds underwater, the effects you get with bubbles underwater, the way metal hits underwater. Also, because it's IMAX, we have to have helicopter and underwater shots," he says, joking.
The piece was recorded with a pair of B&K hydro-phones augmented by four waterproofed Countryman B-3 mics. When the piece arrived at the mix, Taits didn't have to do much to it. "I EQ'd it a little bit," he says. "As the track goes on, I started adding some effects just to give it some shape. The choice of micro-phones worked very well. No one is going to believe that this was recorded live."
While Brian Eimer, who did the final IMAX mix in Toronto, faced challenges, he was also presented with a gift: He had the opportunity to mix a direct-sound film, unusual in the IMAX world. "Pulse is by far the most production sound we have ever received on a project. It's not something you can emulate in the studio after the fact. It would certainly take away from the performances on the screen. You wouldn't enjoy the journey as much."
Eimer adds: "There was a real opportunity in this one to play with the 3D space of the theater and create a surround field for the mix. As the music was mixed, we had to make sure that the positioning of the performance elements be kept forward. At the same time, we needed to feel the transition from one environment to another. For example, when we went to New York, we really made sure to have a presence of that [place], and when we went to South Africa, we really felt that we were in that location."
Pulse, A Stomp Odyssey is a short film, lasting around 40 minutes. Yet it challenged everyone involved to work to the peak of his abilities. At the end of the day, what satisfies most is the knowledge that our technical skills were brought to bear on a vast and entertaining canvas that contains a serious and, we would like to think, important ambition: to celebrate life and brotherhood. Its goal, as McNicholas noted, "is to link arms with the rest of the world."
Larry Loewinger is a sound mixer and president of SoHo Audio, New York.