Monomix Chronicles – Postscript
Thanks for the preliminary kind words. I’d be the first to admit that it could always be better, but I think I exhausted about 95% of everything I could throw at it before I let it go (and, thanks for your patience on that one!)
So much to do with the sound of this project was a compromise. Subscribing to the notion that you can’t please everybody, consider the following sort of a preemptive document to any future critique.
The final composite turned out to be comprised of about 80% Moth3r file and 20% Alan Mikkelson file (with exception of the very open and close which were sourced from CD). Once into the mastering stage, I felt it necessary to replace some additional scenes (mostly the longer dialogue pieces) with the Mikkelson file, where it proved to be a cleaner source.
I deliberated long and hard about the final EQ for this thing.
I did some early tests with the approach of matching the overall EQ to that of its stereo counterparts, including the German track that shares some common elements. It was immediately clear that this was not the way to go. The result was very harsh and strident, and virtually unlistenable at higher volumes. I would chalk this up to a couple of things:
The design of the mono mix was to play respectably off of an optical soundtrack with no Dolby noise reduction in an average (lo-fi mono) theater. As such, it did not employ extended frequency response or dynamic range, as the target venues could not reproduce it. Furthermore, the release sound format (known as “Academy mono”) was designed to be reproduced through what is known as the “Academy Filter” - a hard roll-off in the theatrical system's playback response above ~2kHz (to -18dB at 8kHz) to minimize noise in mono optical tracks. Put simply, a severely truncated high frequency response. Typically, the practice in mixing for this limiting playback curve was to accentuate the midrange to give the track presence. Taking this into account, I would imagine that it was approached differently than its wider range counterparts.
The other contributing factor would be the source material, which came from the linear audio tracks of a VHS tape - of a television broadcast whose original audio was a transfer of a 35mm optical track with no noise reduction (optical tracks will always exhibit a unique signature distortion, most apparent in the mid and upper frequencies, and more pronounced with the absence of noise reduction).
The approach in mastering was to extend out the upper and lower frequencies, while attempting to quell some of the midrange edginess. To this end, I think I was reasonably successful. The primary reference monitor was a JBL 4435 system that meets professional THX cinema specifications - tuned with the modified X-curve for medium-small rooms. All mastering was done at a fixed monitor level of 85dbc, with the volume approximated to recreate typical cinema playback levels.
Lastly, although various single-ended noise reduction (hiss removal) schemes were applied to the source file, the process by nature is destructive to the program content as well. One CAN remove virtually all of the hiss, but not without also removing much of the subtle detail. The final product is usually best served by settling on a balance between the two. The hiss level that remained DID influence the decision as to how much high frequency boost could be added to the final product. Certainly, more boost would bring it closer to matching its stereo counterparts, but would also increase the hiss to an objectionable level – particularly at higher monitoring volumes. I’m still not satisfied with degree of hiss that remains, but I believe it is as good as I can make it with the technology currently available to me. That said, the effectiveness of digital noise reduction has progressed significantly since its inception. I can only imagine it will continue to improve with time. I will be archiving files at various stages of progress pertaining to this project, including a fully mastered version WITHOUT noise reduction. Perhaps I will revisit the project in a few years time to see if this aspect can be improved.
Over the two years I’ve spent working so intimately with this track, there was always a concern in the back of my head that by the time I was done I’d probably never want to hear it again! The outcome actually turned out to be quite the opposite. This may now be my favorite mix for the film. Maybe it’s simply a matter of finally coming home to the one that got me hooked on SW in the first place, but it seems to nail it in a way the others don’t quite manage to. I have noticed that there’s occasionally an inadvertent side effect to the quality of these older mono tracks that impart an edgier almost documentary quality, don’t draw so much attention to themselves, and end up better serving the story.
I think Neil S. Bulk said it best here:
“It's probably the best mix of the movie. Everything in it just sounds so right, to the point that I start saying to myself, "This is how it should have been all along". It's the most complete sounding version of the movie, and since it's all from 1977, nothing stands out as new, the way things in the 1993, 1997 and especially that horrendous 2004 mix do. I like the 1977 and 1985 Dolby mixes but even they don't seem to be as well done as the mono track.”
I would have to agree. Despite the shortcomings of this particular issue, it has become the one I default to. The music is much more prominent and well integrated; the effects and even dialogue seem to have more thrust.
One final note: This has been a collaborative effort. OK, if your keeping score, I’ve clearly logged the most hours, but none of this would have been possible without the generous assistance of MoveAlong, THX, Mallwalker, Russs15, Allan Mikkelsen, and most of all Moth3r. I am an audio engineer by profession. I deal with “professionals” everyday, and they all have their individual agendas. I cannot say I’ve had finer experience than working with the people on this board who seem to have none, and have consistently offered untiring, uncompromising collaboration without a second thought. Thank you one and all.