August 2001   

SMPTE-ed Off

Why we can't drop drop-frame

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN

Drop or Non-Drop? Pull-Up or Pull-Down? Thirty or 29? And what the heck is 23.976? All questions that strike terror into the hearts of post-production audio engineers, sound designers and even composers, all over this great land.

Anyone who works with sound for television has a nightmare story about dealing with this nonsense. I've been collecting them for years. One of my favorites, from the days when analog multitrack ruled the post-production world, involved a studio that striped 29.97 SMPTE on one track and 60Hz Nagra resolve tone on another, and then told the synchronizer to lock to both. The hapless 2-inch machine bucked like a clothes dryer with a bowling ball inside, until the tape snapped.

Even now, in the age of digital, we still can't escape this insanity. I just went through yet another journey through sync hell with a score for a 15-minute film on Beta SP video that was being posted by an expensive transfer house in New York. I told them, “I can give you the music on audio CD, on CD-R as a Pro Tools session, on CD-R as .AIFF or .WAV, on ADAT or DA-88, or on timecode DAT. Which one would you prefer?” The response: “Ordinary DAT will be fine just tell us at what frame of the film to start the audio.” I thought this was great; among other things, it saved me the cost to rent a timecode DAT machine (and can someone explain why they are still three times the price of a digital 8-track?).

When I got the videotape back, the audio indeed started right on the money, but it ended about 40 frames after the picture did. For the next three days, the transfer house and I argued about mismatched frame rates. We used up my monthly allotment of cellphone air time, and then some, arguing about how to make the audio and the video come together. They tried different DAT machines, different video machines and different operators. They tried transferring it from DAT to another videotape, and pulled it up and down, and probably in and out as well. Nothing worked. Finally I asked, “Is the DAT machine locked to house sync?” “How do you do that?” came the response. I knew all was lost.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman