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Together ... and scrambled. The sound design of audiovisuals

On many occasions they ask me to make the sound design of simple projects, under ideal conditions: few performers full of peace, who demand a minimum of technological resources and efforts, a paradise! However, the usual thing is quite the opposite: sound recording in titanic audiovisual projects, which require a technological deployment inaccessible by the modest resources that we manage in Cuba, only possible if the technique of several suppliers is combined, until having dozens of tracks of recording, hundreds of cables and an array of microphones to choose from.

In these cases, after seeing the tremendous location chosen for the filming -which is, in most cases, far from being suitable for the sound recording of the project-, and adding the requirements of the staging, lighting and video personnel -frequently incompatible with those of the meticulously elaborated sound design-, the band of musicians arrives and they replenish the set before being called. During the editing, their genius prevents them from not playing the instruments for a second, being the technical staff victim of strident metal notes or deafening blows that the timbalero decided to emit just when he was connecting the microphone of his timbal. Conclusion: a challenge to creativity and a challenge to sanity! I love!

In recent years I have had the privilege of being responsible for the sound design of several DVD projects, some of which have been unique experiences in my career due to their complex requirements. All have had a common denominator: they were executed in a single place without isolation among the performing musicians. Many would consider this an inconvenience, not without reason, since inevitably clear tracks of a recording in such conditions are not obtained. But, if we consider the work in a different way, in the style of the old school, where with few microphones it was possible to capture a sound set in phonograms of excellent quality, with rich timbre, spatiality and volume; perhaps we can give an advantageous solution to the noise pollution of these projects. So I have proposed: we will record together ... and scrambled.

My master's thesis in 1986 had multichannel audio as its central theme. I really enjoy working on mixes with surround, that's why I raised each of these projects with views to a phonogram with double audio: stereo PCM and 5.1 AC3. Unfortunately, for the seemingly expensive production of double layer DVDs, almost all ended up in simple media with a capacity of 4.7 GB, where there is no physical space for so much information. Therefore we had to settle for a final stereo mix.

Next, I would like to briefly describe three of these megaprojects in which the leading role was played by the drums.

Enrique Plá: El Drums en Cuba

Conceived by Enrique Carballea and directed by Mildrey Ruiz, this record was recorded in two sessions lock-out, in room 1 of Estudio Abdala. The base was constituted by Plá's drums, in the acoustic piano Ernán López-Nussa, and the double bass of Gastón Joya. Until now it was quite generic, with the sum of soloists of the likes of Yasek Manzano, Carlos Miyares, Kelvis Ochoa, Niurka Gonzalez, Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo and Haydée Milanés.

The complexity appeared with Déjate de atrevimiento, a theme popularized by Irakere at the time when Plá was his drummer. On this occasion he counted on musicians of the height of Roberto Carcasés on piano and keyboard, Julio Padrón on trumpet, Yaroldi Abreu and Adel González performing a set of eight tumbadoras, and the voices of Oscar Valdés, Bobby Carcasés and Mario Rivera. Due to its magnificent interpretation there was no need for post production, which would have meant a problem due to contamination between tracks.

The stress came to a head with the top number of the album, Dinga, Dongo, Dunga, for its complexity and expertise. This theme was composed by Ernán in homage to Frank Emilio and his famous Sandunga, Mandinga y Mondongo. The base was joined by José Luis Chicoy on guitar, and two more drummers, Oliver Valdés and Rodney Barreto. With this scene, I had two alternatives: to place an immense amount of microphones for the three drum sets (about 30) or to follow the canons of the old school and reduce them to only three per set. The second, in addition to being sufficient to cover the overall sound of each battery, minimized the nightmare of multiple phase cancellations involving the use of several adjacent microphones. So I did it and the result was very satisfactory. First battle won.

Ruy López-Nussa: Repercussions

When I thought that having recorded three batteries together had been a feat, the great musician and friend Ruy López-Nussa proposed to me to sound and record a mega concert in which, together with his band La Academia, some 30 students from the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory would be armed with various drums in the number that closed the show: Poliscandú. The concert also included his masterpiece Baterías a la carbonara, composed for six batteries and a set of tímpani.

Even without believing myself capable of taking on the challenge, I put myself in charge of putting together the project. A month later we were filming live on the stage of the Sala Covarrubias, of the National Theater, under the direction of José Manuel García. La Academia was armed on one side, and distributed throughout the stage were six drums, a set of six timpani, a timbal and a set of four percussionists doing rolls and playing tom toms. As if that were not enough, the show began with a group of 20 musicians playing a rumba body composed by Ruy himself, while its performers danced throughout the proscenium.

To record the concert had only 32 tracks. Once again I used the knowledge transmitted by the masters of the old guard, when more was done with less. I had only two microphones, meticulously chosen and placed, for each drums (one on the bass drum and over the drummer), one stereo pair for each set of percussion and six surface microphones to capture the execution of the body rumba. In the band, however, I used the usual microphones in order to respect their contemporary sonority.

The equipment was insufficient for a show of such magnitude, so I was forced to mix the sound of the room and the monitors from a single Yamaha M7CL console located on the side of the stalls, and linked in parallel to it my recording devices. The concert was a resounding success. So much so that a few months later it had to be repeated, this time with the finished DVD and on offer to the audience.

Horacio "El Negro" Hernández: Italuba

In March 2018, the team that carried out the study of Abdala once again met in El Drums en Cuba, this time to undertake for three days the intense recording work of Horacio Hernández and his quartet Italuba, with Amik Guerra on trumpet, Dany Noel on bass, Iván Bridón on piano and keyboard, and Horacio himself after a colossal green drum kit with double bass drum, two boxes, five toms, bells, claves, and a wide selection of cymbals. Together with them, a big band composed of 15 young musicians, under the baton of Joaquín Betancourt. The band was joined by guitarist Héctor Quintana and percussionists Roberto Vizcaino (father and son) in the tumbadoras, timbal and batás. Each work is joined by renowned names such as Carlos Miyares, César López and Eduardo Sandoval. In addition, in the song that El Negro dedicated to the people of Puerto Rico, the voices of Robertón, Mandy Cantero and Haila joined together, and I say it in the full sense of the word: behind a single microphone to follow the old one.

The final assembly allowed a greater isolation than expected between the instrument groups. This facilitated the brief editing process, since the tracks were not too "dirty", and the acoustics were quite neutral and dry; although in order to achieve more defined sound planes and greater spatiality, I had to resort during the stereo mix to the study environment signals reserved for the 5.1 mix.

The technical conditions of Abdala at the time of recording were not entirely satisfactory - such is the case that shortly after the study closed for capital repair. The SSL console was occupied almost in its entirety (more than forty tracks were used). We had to assign a person to safeguard the switching panel in the face of the constant approach of personnel to the cabin, which caused noise by false contact and stopped the recordings on more than one occasion. The number of microphones and lines available in the study were insufficient and had to be completed with material supplied by other studies. A domestic fan (in a precarious state) was the main hero of the hot days, responsible for the cooling of the computer on which the Protools digital work station ran.

Once the recording sessions were over, we decided to take a refreshing break. In the meantime, Dany -bajista, arranger and composer of several of the songs- offered his valuable contribution as an editor, adjusting the slight imperfections detected in the recording. This was followed by three weeks of mixing in the tranquility of my modest studio, during which Horacio joined me on a couple of occasions, and some other time that we reevaluated the product that was almost finished at home. It was very easy to work with him, a very talented musician and with clear ideas of what he wants to achieve.

This time I did not give up. In total complicity with Mildrey Ruiz, its director and editor, and with the permission of El Negro, we decided that it was essential to include a 5.1 surround sound track on the DVD. Before the repeated controversy of the difficult production of double-layer DVDs, the solution was to divide the program into two simple discs, both with double audio tracks. The result was excellent, an immersive sound that places the viewer in the middle of the band. The work merited it. Its sound design has not been worthy of an award in any event, although, paradoxically, it has received great praise from figures of great prestige and opinion in this field: Dave Wills, recording engineer whose credits include Chick Corea, Withney Houston, Phil Collins , Chicago, among others; Dave Weckl and Dennis Chambers, drummasters who do not need a presentation. So, what greater prize can one aspire to?

Alfonso Peña Cuban sound engineer with more than 30 years of experience in the Cuban music industry. Your texts and some examples of your professional contributions can be found on his blog More posts

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  1. Argeo says:

    Great, I follow everything you write. Congratulations

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