"Sound Preservation: Restoration or Remastering?" Bob Heiber








We are going to talk about sound. We live now in this digital age and we have kind of become used to a mindset where if we have a problem, we can digitally correct it. Digital will solve all of our problems. What I want to talk about today a little more conceptually, so we are not going to be real technically oriented. I will talk about some of the hardware that we have available or that we use, I don’t want to imply that we have any endorsement or that this is the only way to do it. The things that I am going to show and talk about come from our experiences—king of the real world application; and while it is not exactly specific to orphan films, it is really specific to sound preservation and restoration in general. I will give you some idea as to the challenges and problems that we face.

I want to really get into the concept of what is analog and what is digital and examine the digital mindset that says, "digital, we can take care of it." We all know that in the audio world digital is very well embraced, certainly in the post production community, in current post production, and when we go digital with sound, it is a much easier component than working with video or images just because of the size of the storage requirements.

What I want you to understand first is what I mean by our terms "preservation", "restoration". We will try to come up with a concept of analog and digital for the film preservation and restoration world. We will look at some applications of how we use this technology, and then if time permits, we will try to draw some conclusions. I have also brought along some good sound examples, and rather than spend a lot of time talking about things, I am going to try to breeze through some of the definitions so we can get into the meat of the program.

Preservation for us in the sound community and even in the image community is strictly what we would call a technical copying process. We take material that is deteriorating. We want to make a technically correct and accurate copy as good as we can, so we will have access to the material in the future. Of course, this presents a number of challenges. The challenges that we face in preservation have to do with the condition of the elements, all the wide variety of formats that have been used for sound recording over the years, and sometimes we have to develop our own technology to be able to now retrieve this information.

What kind of challenges do we face in preservation? I think there is a children’s rhyme about an egg, and as you can see, here is a piece of 35 mm full coat film on acetate. It has had a complete failure of the base material. It is actually a unique piece. I have never had a piece of film that was this fragile and any time you touch it, it just absolutely shatters like glass. Another piece of film, does anyone know what we call this in the sound business? We call that a drop out. What we have here is another piece of 35mm magnetic film and the binder has completely failed, so the emulsion has peeled away from the film, leaving just a clear acetate base. They are good for leader, but very bad for sound.

How do we fix this kind of stuff? Just like you saw on the Library tour this morning, we have film preparation inspection areas. I would call this an analog process, because we are going to go through the material literally frame by frame. This is a real challenge. Of course, on the very bad days with vinegar syndrome requires special areas to work on and obviously special OSHA required gear in terms of avoiding magnetic dust and such. It is not a lot of fun to have to clean 10,000 feet of film dressed up like that.

We also are required to have lots of additional formats to look at all of these old sod elements. These are some of the formats that we currently have. Actually this slide is a little bit older. We have added about four more formats since then, and even this is definitely not enough. Literally, we have a hallway that is somewhat of a museum for analog transports.

As I mentioned, we also have developed our own kind of technology. We have a custom piece of technology that plays back soundtrack negatives. We developed that and we also move on to the commercial marketplace, and we have a special machine that was built to transfer very distressed magnetic film. Believe it or not, I actually have some examples of material that looked that bad and was transferred, and I can’t believe the audio quality. There are all of these different components. These are all really analog solutions primarily, and I guess the question is "Is preservation important?"

We were very fortunate last year. We were able to restore, preserve, and remaster The Wizard of Oz, and I would like to point out that that picture was completely done from what I call first generation preservation elements because none of the original elements still existed. If the people back at MGM in the 1960s hadn’t taken care of these elements, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve the results that we were able to get.

Then we go into restoration, which is where we try to remove the flaws of age and use. These are things that come in from either improper storage; many multiples running, so we have tears and breaks. We are just looking to repair the film. When you listen to old movies, they weren’t produced to sound scratchy, poppy and noisy. They came out of a laboratory and they sounded great, but over the years these kinds of flaws have crept into either the masters or the protection copies, and so the restoration process is strictly to remove these problems and bring us back to the day that the film came out of the laboratory. The challenges that we face in restoration, basically I summarize all of the issues as you saw in preservation as just this term "playback", cause we have got to get it off the original material. Then we look at different processing technologies that we would be able to apply to it, and that I call this thing our archival access which is really being able to research the material and find the most original or the best undamaged work copy in someone else’s collection that we can get our hands on to begin the restoration process.

Now we get into these other kinds of other metamorphous ?? concepts. The first one is "What is analog?" The best description I can give you without getting very technical is where we do some kind of conversion but we are always in a one to one relationship. In other words, if we do a transfer from an optical print to a piece of magnetic film, that is an analog transfer. What would be our analog processes then in the film preservation restoration world? We look at the laboratory where we have what we call the photochemicals. We make prints and we make duplicates of positives to negatives, and we can print new prints. In our place we do sound transfer. The types of equipment we use – we have analog sound processing equipment. Then, of course, there is a whole other issue of analog recording media. As you can see, it kind of embraces a very large range of disciplines, and that is what we want to look at in this somewhat abstract concept of analog.

Then we have digital. What is digital? We all know about computers. Primarily in sound and then what we call digital picture restoration, I call it a conversion where we have the original material then we make a numerical representation. This, of course, would be the sample rate, where we are taking something analog and turning it into bits of data. Why are we doing that? Really, the only reason we are doing it is at some point we want to try to manipulate those bits of data to be something different or to take flaws out and change those bits into unflawed bits. Of course, the bits themselves are not flawed but they carry the information. So what would be our digital processes? Of course, we have digital processing equipment. This is the new era of the Dr. Killdeer of audio where we can cure anything.

Then, of course, we have this area of word processing or audio recognition. There are some interesting things I have been exposed to in the past few meetings where there are cataloguing systems now that will actually do word recognition. We have, of course, archiving. Karen has talked about us starting to move into this whole world of digital archiving. What is that going to represent? Then there is this area called the internet. Which, I don’t know what it is. It really gives the ability to research and access and communicate with people who are on the AMIA list. It is a fabulous way of suddenly being connected to 1000 people who may be able to solve your problems. To me that is a digital process and a digital application. To summarize, you can see that it is very easy to see how we have different disciplines and yet they are all going to interact in this very beautiful butterfly pattern. I want you to understand that nothing is exclusive. Certainly, preservation becomes the foundation for the whole process. If we don’t do the preservation work, forget the other three blocks. They just don’t even exist. So preservation really builds the foundation which then these other three disciplines are able to interrelate in.

We will jump in now into our audio examples. The first area is this thought about analog copying. In analog copying we have our laboratory processes, and those would be the photochemicals where we are making dupes of negatives, and making positives, and in the sound transfer business obviously, we can do this analog. The analog copying is really perhaps one of the big negatives of the analog world, because in the digital world they would have us believe the digital copy is really as every bit as good as the original. In fact, we call them clones, and there are people who are big supporters of digital work who would say that actually the digital copy is better than the original. If the original digital master was made well, the error correction schemes that are built into all digital recording devices have less work to do, so you actually have more error correction overhead on your second copy. So, certainly, digital has a wonderful application in the preservation and restoration area, and I have a very nice example of how the analog copying process is not necessarily the best way to go in certain areas.

What I want to talk about is making what I call budget sound preservation. Now this is actually a piece of film from It Should Happen to You with Judy Holiday in 1954, but it is not the sound that we are going to hear. What we have here was a client who actually had in the original, it was a nitrate positive that had shrunk, about 2 _ - 3% shrinkage. We had some Gene Autry trailers from the early 1930s. So in the laboratory process he had a nitrate positive print, but he couldn’t really use it. He didn’t want to project it. Went into the laboratory, made a safety dupe negative, which would be the first generation. You can see the little soundtrack area in the squiggly lines here, so in the negative they are right here and they carry right along. Actually this is a great example of digital copying. You can tell our original looks every bit as good as our second generation, because in the computer you just use copy and paste and you have a new copy. Then, of course, in our second generation we have again another copy of the sound track. Of course, here looks every bit as good as the original, but what you are going to hear is that when we do this kind of budget sound preservation, we end up really with some severe problems in the audio world. Just because you can do this work and the track comes along for free, there is no free lunch.

John, play #2. Listen to the hiss that is around the modulation of the dialog. This is the transfer now of the second generation print: Music………..cowboys, ponies……..
That is the transfer off the second generation. That is a brand new print, it was easy to transfer, put it up on the machines, let it go. It is easy work, but it sounds lousy. So we modified some sprockets on our equipment and we went back to the original nitrate positive, and we just transferred that. And that’s, John, #3………….Music……………cowboy saddle up…………..

There is a little hiss modulation, but that is kind of normal for early 30s recording work, but it is certainly a lot less excessive than what we have on the second generation. Now if the client had made his safety copy, got a good looking image, but the sound is not very good and if he has thrown away that nitrate, what would the laboratory do? They would say, fix it digitally. So, we took a transfer off the second generation, gave it to the engineers and asked how much they could knock down the hiss modulation? We start to get into a little fine area, so I want you to really tune your ears here for it, but again, listen around the dialog and the modulation of the voice and you will still hear some noise come up with the voice. So this would be #4…………Music……………….

Now, we knocked it down an appreciable amount. It almost sounds as good as the transfer of the original track, but we had to go in there and digital sound clean up is not inexpensive work. So, why do we want to make our job harder.

John, if you could skip over to #6. I then had our engineers take our transfer of the original and with less process that was required to give you the quality of the second generation. If we had this material to work with and then put it through the same digital process, what does our end result sound like? If you could do #6, sir…………………………Music……………….

So you can see the final track is something you would be very happy with, and certainly wouldn’t have you get up and turn off the TV set or change channels if you had to sit down and watch that old Gene Autry movie. So I think it is very safe to say here that, if we wanted to draw a conclusion in our world, we would say certainly for our processes, we always want to say that preserve our most original sources, and then, obviously, in our analog, digital world, I think we can prove fairly conclusively that we don’t want to look for budget sound preservation. We want to avoid photochemical processes for sound preservation when we are doing our work. I think these are safe conclusions. Of course, this is a university and I felt professorial, so we are going to change our minds.

This is part of having a flexible and open frame of mind, always looking at your problems and the solutions you are going to use. If we just said we are not going to do any laboratory processes when we want to do audio, and now I am saying maybe we don’t want to make that blanket statement. So, I have another really interesting example. This one just cropped up for us, and is an example of when we want to get into a laboratory setting and do some photochemical work before we do our sound work. This is actually a piece of a thumbprint. This is the sound track area here. You can see that is one piece of a perforation, so there are 4 perforations to a piece of 35 mm film frame, we are down within _ of a frame, and the sound track are is only 1/10 " wide here. This is about 30 power under the microscope. The problem here is one called microspotting. These little tiny pin holes. They are pretty tiny little dots, and you wouldn’t think a big powerful postproduction company would have a problem with these little tiny dots. I must say, they brought us to our knees because when this print plays back over a light and photo cell, it creates a terrible noise flourish of a sound we call bacon frying ……John, #7……………..Clip……………………

That was actually The Job Interview. I hope you could here the bacon frying sound. Well that is what all of these little micro dots cause. We tried all of our analog and digital processing, and all we could do literally, was kill the track to try to reduce that noise. As part of preservation and restoration, you sometimes have to have special tools and tricks. We happen to have a piece of equipment that will play variable density negative tracks. This is a bad density example. The actual modulation goes this way. These straight lines are not problems. It is actually a form of masking that was used for noise reduction. So we sent the print to a laboratory to get a dupe negative. Here is our first generation copy, but now we have a special little player to play it in, and when we played back the track, on the negative these light dots now turned black so they don’t transmit light through them, and hence, we don’t get the noise………….John, play #8…………..Clip…………………….

I think you can see there are still some slight noise issues, but we have reduced our problem considerably. Now if we decide to go to work on this picture for restoration or even preservation, we have made a copy that has taken out these flaws that were likely processing problem. I have been talking with several laboratory people, I think somewhere along the line something became deposited on the film that didn’t allow this film to be properly chemically processed, leaving these voids in the track. So, we really had an analog solution to solve this, because we printed it photochemically, and then our little readers, both analog and digital process, where we can set certain parameters.

Now we move into what I call the digital processes, and we talked about what they were. There is processing equipment, word processing audio records and archiving. What we are interested in the audio world is what we do with our digital processing equipment and digital equipment. Those break down into two areas. For processing equipment we have our digital equipment which will take the information and will be able to do our manipulation with it. Of course, there is also a wide range of analog equipment which we can also use. The analog equipment would be things like filter sets and noise gates and such. In the digital processes, we have our work stations and our work stations basically have two processes there that are divergent. One is processing algorithms. These are written by audio genius who can do all sorts of wonderful noise mapping and bring all of the noise forces down. Of course, a digital work station has proven in the post production business is the cat’s pajamas when it comes to editing processes.

I want to focus on today is look at the editorial area because these areas really bring in some interesting other issues when we start talking about preservation and restoration. We are actually able when we get into the digital world to perhaps overcome obstacles the original filmmakers encountered and maybe even make their pictures better with sound tracks. Better than they were actually able to produce it in the early days of filmmaking. One of the very first things we encounter often is something we call splice bloops. In the early days of filmmaking, everything was recorded optically and when you made an optical splice and buttered the two pieces of film together. When that went past the light and photocell, it made a very nasty, big, hard edged pop. So they blooped the film and it made a much softer, low and thumpy sound, and what we have here now is #9…..The Bloop Loop…….

Generally, these are found between different dialogue cuts when the show is being edited together, and we do this to remove bloops in one of our digital editing suites. We use some high end equipment from Sonic Solutions, Tom Regal. Here is what these spliced bloops sound like in programming. Again, this is where different dialogue edits are made, not always with the picture edit. This will be #10……………………..Clip………………………..Every change of dialogue is a cue to you by this bloop thump coming through now. The question comes, do we take the bloops out or leave them in the picture? We are a service facility, so we do what our client asks us to do, and I have no opinion on bloops. They are actually very simple an painless to remove, and they are done in the editorial workstation by editing and cutting in a little piece of fill between the tracks, or depending on if it is somewhere too close to music, we will do an audio interpolation and the bloops disappear. Bloops weren’t a problem in the early days of motion pictures because the theater speakers didn't reproduce these low end frequencies. Here is what the track sounds like with the bloops out……..Clip………..

Certainly, in the commercial world of distributing motion pictures those are always removed. From a preservation standpoint, they are an original artifact of the motion picture. They are an original artifact of the way these pictures were made, and so there is absolutely a place for bloops in this world.

I talked about surmounting some of the obstacles that the original filmmakers encountered, and I brought along an example. Here is a very mediocre pot boiler, made in Canada right after the war. It has a flaw that was in the original sound track negative. This is the original nitrate sound track negative. This is the master sound track that was mixed down and used to print all of the release prints for this epic and here is as it sounds in its original form…………………Clip……………………………..

You can hear there is a complete drop out in the track.. We don’t know how that happened. There is no splice, no damage, and no break. It is a bad job of recording the obstacle. Do we want to preserve that artifact if we are going to restore it? On the preservation side, you would probably keep of the track just the way it was, flaws and all. When we go to restore the track, if we have an opportunity to fix it, we are going to. ……………………..Clip…………………It’s not perfect, but we certainly could convey the sense of what was going on. That is better than having a big hole in the track where someone made a bad track in 1948. You can see we start to have creative, or technical, input either to correct things. It is a very fine line that requires a very important aesthetic to not just trying to correct all of the problems and begin working without being certain that is what the project calls for.

By looking at some of these slides, you can understand analog preservation problems are still going to require analog solutions. Primarily, it is because the original material is analog and you are always going to have to be able to access that material and play it back. You can’t just dump all your analog gear. It is absolutely more important today than ever before. Then it is clear and digital and analog processes are completely complimentary and not exclusionary. We always want to have the open mindsets of problem solving and be able to jump into either world very comfortably, wherever the best solution is.

Finally, there is no question that as we move into archives, we are starting to live in the digital age, and there is a lot of material that is just being created digitally, strictly and solely that way. These are going to create new challenges and new opportunities as we move forward into the next century. These are the basics for sound preservation in the digital age.