Print Page

Cartoon Cutups

6/1/2001

The wacky undersea world of SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon's first original Saturday-morning cartoon, is officially a hit. Recently touted by TV Guide as the most watched Saturday-morning kids' show, this highly original series springs from the mind of marine biologist Steve Hillenburg-which explains the show's oceanic slant. It features a host of kooky saltwater characters: the protagonist, SpongeBob, a pants-wearing, rectangular, bucktoothed sea sponge with goo-goo eyes; his pet snail, Gary; his best friend, Patrick the starfish; an egotistical clainet-playing neighbor, Squidward; and SpongeBob's love interest, the beautiful Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel who lives in an underwater biodome. The show's theme is simple: SpongeBob's simpleminded antics, although well intentioned, continually wreak havoc. * With such a unique cast and setting, the show has ample room for an equally unusual musical score. But Nickelodeon isn't hiring famous composers to perform original music for every episode. SpongeBob SquarePants is a new show wading into untested waters (no pun intended), so budget constraints are a real consideration. And the madcap production pace of an animated series-cutting all the music for a 30-minute episode usually takes about a week-leaves little time for writing original music.

Enter Nick Carr, an ace music editor able to weave mind-blowing musical backdrops with only a small collection of home studio gear and some needle-drop music (prerecorded music purchased for commercial use, also known as production music). During his two decades in the business, Carr has received accolades including an Emmy and a Golden Reel Award (given to outstanding editors by the Motion Picture Sound Editors). He has lent his talent to shows such as The Really Mighty Ducks (Disney), Pepper Ann (Disney), Rocko's Modern Life (Nickelodeon), Modern Marvels (Discovery Channel), and Power Rangers (Saban Entertainment). Carr's editing expertise and creative use of music in SpongeBob SquarePants have garnered much applause, most recently a 1999 Golden Reel Award for music editing in an animated television show.

CORNER STUDIO

Upon first hearing the SpongeBob soundtrack, most people would never imagine Carr's studio to be the humble space that it is. Housed in a small abode precipitously perched in Los Angeles's Studio City hills (where he lives with his wife and business partner, Chiho, and their wiener dog, Oscar), Carr's entire studio fits into one corner of his living room. In the opposite corner, taking up almost as much space as his equipment, are two large bookshelves packed with music-library CDs. Within these four walls, Carr does some of his best work-a stone's throw away from multimillion-dollar movie and television studios such as Disney, Warner Brothers, NBC, Nickelodeon, and Universal Pictures.

Carr's system centers on a SoftSplice 4-track hard disk editing system hooked up to a Macintosh Quadra 650. The SoftSplice is a little-known piece of gear from the now bankrupt company Digital Expressions. A 19-by-5.25-inch rack unit, the SoftSplice communicates with the Mac via SCSI. It handles all of the audio files and processing; the computer functions solely as a front end. Proprietary software installed on the Mac controls all of the SoftSplice's functions (see Fig. 1).

Nick Carr (left) in the studio with sound effects editor Jeff Hutchins (center) and director Steve Hillenburg.

Nick Carr (left) in the studio with sound effects editor Jeff Hutchins (center) and director Steve Hillenburg.

The SoftSplice itself has only digital I/O (AES/EBU and S/PDIF); it has no converters. The unit uses a companion 18-bit A/D/A converter for monitoring, and a Tascam DA-30mkII DAT recorder acts as both source and backup medium. (You can back up the SoftSplice's internal hard drive to DAT.) The converter is normaled to the AES/EBU input and the DAT to the S/PDIF; you can select I/O formats directly from the interface software. The machine can read and write SMPTE in a variety of formats (24, 25, 29.97, 30, and 30 drop).

A 3/4-inch Sony VP-9000 video deck (for playback only) that Carr bought used for $600 feeds a 32-inch Toshiba television (which doubles as the household TV set) to provide picture. Professionals in film and television post-production generally use 3/4-inch video work tapes, although 1/2-inch VHS tapes are also common, and digital video is quickly gaining popularity.

The work tapes are striped with 29.97-frames-per-second (fps) non-drop-frame SMPTE time code. The SMPTE track acts as the studio's master sync source: a Y-cable splits the signal and routes it to both the SoftSplice and a Tascam DA-88 digital multitrack recorder outfitted with an SY88 SMPTE card. All music is delivered on DA-88 tapes, an industry standard.

MIDI sound modules, samplers, and effects units fill a waist-high rack shelf (see the sidebar "Modest Digs" for a complete list of Carr's gear). Everything runs through a 24-input Roland M-24E console and is monitored on a pair of Boss MA12C self-powered speakers. About 10 inches tall, these diminutive speakers are only a little bit bigger than typical multimedia speakers. Carr says that the motion picture industry uses these widely as a common point of reference, and he stresses that since he isn't actually mixing the music, high-end monitors aren't necessary. The MA12Cs also emulate the sound of TV speakers, through which most people hear SpongeBob.

COUNTDOWN TO PICTURE

Two 11-minute segments compose a 30-minute show; the other 8 minutes are dedicated to commercials. For Carr, the editing process begins when the director, Steve Hillenburg, faxes the spotting notes to him (see Fig. 2). (Spotting is the process of viewing picture and identifying the parts that need sound or music.) These notes detail what type of music each cue should be and where the cues should appear. Shortly after the fax arrives, a courier delivers a 3/4-inch work tape of the final picture and rough dialogue.

In animation, the dialogue is recorded first, and then the visual element is created to match it. Sometimes the rough dialogue is kept for the final mix; other times it's rerecorded in a process called automatic dialogue replacement (ADR). Once the dialogue is done, Carr begins to lay in the music for the final product. At the same time, Jeff Hutchins, the series' sound effects designer and editor, is busy laying in the appropriate pops, squeaks, explosions, and footfalls. Rarely does Carr hear the sound effects before the final mix.

At this stage, Carr cuts the first round of music according to Hillenburg's notes. This is often easier said than done, for although the spotting notes are nicely detailed with SMPTE I/O times, the timing is usually off. By the time Carr gets the work tape, Hillenburg's spotted times have shifted, often due to picture edits. If Hillenburg cuts out several frames in the middle of the show, the rest of the picture moves up by that number of frames, and nothing beyond that point corresponds to the director's notes. Carr has no magic solution to this problem. "I just have to pay close attention to the description in the spotting notes and trust my intuition."

CHOICE CUTS

Interpreting the director's notes and choosing the music he envisions is always a challenge. Because the show takes place underwater, Carr uses a lot of surf music for action sequences; "'Wipe Out'-type music," he says. For dreamy situations and everyday walk-and-talk scenes, Carr picks straight-ahead Hawaiian tracks. With dramatic moments, he opts for music that's "way over the top, like a London Symphony Orchestra track," and to convey a sense of heavy danger, he pumps up the volume as much as possible with string swells, piatti (cymbals), timpani rolls, and so on.

SpongeBob's producers have completed 20 half-hour segments. The process has gone smoothly so far, and Carr is quickly amassing a library of music that Hillenburg likes. Carr says that this speeds up cue choices. "Knowing what's going to work and what isn't gets a little bit easier the longer you work on a show." But the show's musical needs are always changing. Carr explains, "Though we have a set of staple music we regularly pull from, we are constantly introducing new musical styles as the characters evolve." For example, recent episodes have incorporated country music, an electronica dance piece, and a track commissioned from a local independent band.

Sometimes the director's notes are quite explicit. For instance, the cue for a scene in which SpongeBob is sleeping reads, "Nighttime Hawaiian music." Carr recalls, "I've used a Hawaiian steel track for this type of description before, and the director loved it." The cue is only about 10 seconds long, but the CD track is almost 5 minutes, so the track is perfect for recycling. Carr can cull from it quite a few 10-second segments. "No matter how I cut it, it always comes out different," he remarks.

Occasionally cue descriptions are vague at best. One reads, "Title cut, sickness," followed by a big question mark. (The title cut is the first 10 seconds of the cartoon, the intro and title before the story.) "This is a tough one," says Carr. "I haven't done it yet."

Music editors often leave title-cut music for last, because it sets the tone of the show. After all of the other music has been selected, the episode has a set musical feel to which the editor will match the title cut. Carr looks for a signature piece representing the episode's subject. He might spend an entire day combing through music libraries to find the perfect track. But the director may hate Carr's first choice, so he lays down several different cues.

Periodically Carr needs to play a piece of music himself. In one episode, for instance, SpongeBob sings to a hypothetical beat without any backing track. Carr needed a piece in rhythm with SpongeBob's vocal riffs. Finding prerecorded music that played in time with SpongeBob's actions would have been nearly impossible, and time-stretching or cutting audio to match picture is a real pain.

At times like this, Carr's experience as a drummer comes in handy. He pulled up a conga sound on his E-mu Pro/Cussion drum module and, with the SoftSplice locked to picture, played the part on a Roland Octopad drum controller, recording the result directly to disk. Carr recalls, "After a few tries I nailed it, and voila-the cue was done." Carr works faster live and does so whenever possible, but he occasionally uses Mark of the Unicorn's Performer sequencer.

FIG. 3: SoftSplice''s audio-editing software includes a Mixer window and a handy Speed control.

FIG. 3: SoftSplice''s audio-editing software includes a Mixer window and a handy Speed control.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Carr often employs pitch-shifting and samplers to make keys and tempos match. "Since this is a toon, I can get away with a lot, speeding things up and slowing them down." Carr sometimes gradually speeds up a cue as onscreen action gets crazier. He says, "This technique works great, thanks to the SoftSplice, which has a real-time speed control that sounds like an analog deck." Carr simply slides the SoftSplice's onscreen Speed fader forward or backward to change a track's tempo and pitch (see Fig. 3). Sometimes he does this while viewing picture and recording directly to the DA-88; at other times he records the effect to DAT and then flies it back into the SoftSplice for editing.

A more radical effect than the SoftSplice's Speed control involves tweaking a track with a sampler's pitch and modulation wheels. Carr selects a piece of music, samples it into his E-mu ESI-4000 sampler, then moves the pitch and mod wheels while the sample is playing. After achieving a sufficiently warped and warbled sound, he records it to DAT. Because the DAT recorder connects digitally to the SoftSplice, that's a breeze.

Over the years, Carr has collected extensive Emulator II and ESI-4000 sample libraries, which he often draws on for orchestra hits and sampled loops. He uses these samples as links between cues. If a cue ends seconds before another one starts, Carr may trigger a sample of a timpani roll or cymbal hit to bridge the gap. In this way, he can connect cues with different tempos and keys. Carr might also manually play a string or other instrumental part so that it speeds up or slows down to match the upcoming tempo, simultaneously ascending or descending in pitch to match the keys.

Carr runs the tracks through outboard gear on a case-by-case basis; some cues need weird effects, some don't. If he comes across a poorly recorded sample or piece of music, Carr runs the track through his BBE 262 Sonic Maximizer to give it more clarity and crispness. He adjusts delays and reverbs in real time as he pipes music through the effects. He usually records the processed track directly to DAT, later porting it to the SoftSplice for placement.

Cool effects can come from the most unlikely sources. Recently the SoftSplice drive crashed in the middle of a show and began playing back the music tracks in a crazed, fragmented fashion. The bizarre audio glitch was the perfect musical effect for a time-machine sequence. Carr sampled the sound, doctored it up with some delays and additional music beds, and flew it into the show. "The director nearly fell out of his chair-he loved it."

FIG. 1: Proprietary software allows the Macintosh to act as the front end of Digital Expressions'' SoftSplice 4-track digital editor, controlling all transport, editing, and DSP functions. The SoftSplice connects to the Mac via SCSI.

FIG. 1: Proprietary software allows the Macintosh to act as the front end of Digital Expressions'' SoftSplice 4-track digital editor, controlling all transport, editing, and DSP functions. The SoftSplice connects to the Mac via SCSI.

DIRECTOR'S CHOICE

After Carr completes the first round of music edits, Hillenburg swings by his pad and reviews the work. Hillenburg watches the episode straight through, silently taking notes. Then it's time for Carr to press the rewind button and address the director's changes. "At that point I'm doing really quick fixes-fast, rough edits-because the director doesn't have time to sit around while I fine-tune. That happens after he's left," Carr says. If Hillenburg wants a totally different sound, Carr pulls out piles of CDs and runs through alternatives. Instead of loading each cut into the editor for playback, he cues it up on the CD player. "I wild-sync it to picture," he says, "just to get a feel for whether the track will work." If Hillenburg likes the cut, Carr makes a note of it and they move on to the next cue.

When Hillenburg hits the road, Carr loads in the new cuts and adjusts the necessary cues; with all elements still in the editor, making changes is a snap. Afterward he lays all the edited music tracks back to the DA-88. He alternates successive cues between two stereo pairs of tracks, a process known as checkerboarding. For example, if the first cue records to tracks 1 and 2, the second will record to tracks 3 and 4, the third will record to tracks 1 and 2, and so on. Fig. 1 shows how the music cues appear on alternating tracks in the SoftSplice before going to the DA-88. The SoftSplice provides only four tracks, so Carr sometimes has to make two passes to the DA-88. "But since it's just a toon, not a feature film," he says, "four tracks is usually enough."

Carr must use more than four tracks when the director isn't sure about a cut or has chosen one different from Carr's original selection. In such a case, Carr prints other options on additional tracks. He keeps his first choices on tracks 1 and 2 and prints other selections on tracks 5 through 8. Each cue has a nearly identical SMPTE start time, allowing Hillenburg to make a decision in the final mix. "There have been times," says Carr, "when the director didn't like my selection and chose another bed during our review, but in the mix he decided my cut actually sounded better." By keeping the alternate takes available on other tracks, Carr covers all the bases. Says Carr, "It's better to have too much than not enough."

FIG. 2: The spotting notes tell Carr what the director wants in terms of the music, moods, genres, effects, I/O times, and other considerations.

FIG. 2: The spotting notes tell Carr what the director wants in terms of the music, moods, genres, effects, I/O times, and other considerations.

DUBBING STAGE

After Carr has tracked everything to the DA-88, he sends the tape to the dubbing stage for mixdown. The dubbing stage is a full-fledged recording facility with a 48-input automated mixing board, racks of expensive outboard gear, an exotic microphone collection, comprehensive digital-editing capabilities, a coffee-break room, lots of Emmys on the walls-you get the picture.

When Carr's music is locked to the sound effects and final dialogue, and these elements are locked to picture, the show is ready for mixing. The two mix phases are premix and final mix. The premix, handled by a second engineer (usually after-hours), provides a base mix from which the main mix engineer, Tim Borques, can create the final mix. (Here the term premix means a rough version of the final mix, but the film world also uses premix, along with predub, to indicate the process of mixing a large collection of edited tracks down to a more manageable number.) The director and his assistants are present when Borques tweaks the final mix. Carr usually stops in toward the end of the process to check out the result.

Carr says, "A lot of credit goes to Tim, because he ends up with everyone's material: dialogue, effects, music, everything-he's the one who puts it all into perspective." To help Borques decipher what's going on, Carr provides a cue sheet displaying the exact times and titles of all the cues. In the margins, he writes notes about special treatments; for example, "Make this cue sound like it's through a telephone handset," "The music comes from a passerby carrying a boom box," and "This is heard on a TV in the living room." Carr leaves the cues dry, usually without fades, and provides some overlap time between cues on the alternating tracks. This gives the mixer plenty to work with when crossfading or adding effects and reverb tails.

FIG. 4: The publishing cue sheet lists all of the final times and cuts used for a show. Meticulous accuracy and detail are extremely important in this cue sheet, because it determines the payment of publishers and composers.

FIG. 4: The publishing cue sheet lists all of the final times and cuts used for a show. Meticulous accuracy and detail are extremely important in this cue sheet, because it determines the payment of publishers and composers.

THE FINAL TASK

By now Carr has spent countless hours choosing and editing music for the episode, but his job still isn't over when he hands the tape to the mixer. In order for the composers and copyright-holders of the music libraries to receive residuals, Carr must meticulously fill out a publishing cue sheet (see Fig. 4).

The publishing cue sheet lists the final tracks' times, titles, and composers, as well as the music libraries from which the tracks were culled. Carr also notes the music's use: whether it's an instrumental background (for example, backing music for people dancing) or a featured instrumental (for instance, music with sung vocals). Residuals are much greater for featured instrumentals than for background music. If Carr lists the wrong composer, incorrectly describes his use of the music, or makes a mistake with any other item on the publishing cue sheet, a composer may not get paid the amount that he or she deserves. Carr says, "I always try to be as clear and concise as possible. People's residuals are on the line."

Once the publishing cue sheet is complete, Nickelodeon's legal department fills in some additional details, such as whether a publisher is with BMI or ASCAP. Music editors don't always need to fill out the publishing cue sheet, but for SpongeBob, says Carr, "That's the way it works. It's bothersome and time-consuming, but essential." In the end, Carr is the only person who knows what all the music cuts are and where they came from.

Carr's favorite music library for SpongeBob is Associated Production Music (APM). Nickelodeon purchased the rights to use APM, giving Carr open access to all of its tracks. Although other libraries are available, APM has perfect toon tracks, says Carr, "stupid, corny, over-the-top stuff." He mentions that many of the libraries he's heard are "too clean, too perfect, too pasteurized." For SpongeBob, Carr needs a lot of live vintage stuff from the '60s and '70s, and APM has this type of material. Whenever possible, the director also makes songs from independent artists available by buying the rights to use their tracks or albums, such as those of Los Mel Tones and the Woodies (both distributed by LoveCat Music in New York). The director envisions using more tracks from independent artists as the show progresses.

CUT AND FADE

Carr offers this advice to would-be music editors: "Get your rhythms down. Take some drum lessons, rhythm guitar-whatever it takes-and learn your time signatures and key signatures." It's not just about grabbing a piece of music and pasting it in, he says. "It's about tempo and feel, hitting the right spot in the right key to make completely different types of music, recorded in completely different locations, blend seamlessly together."

Carr's accomplishments prove that success comes not from having the most expensive, newest gear, but from getting the most from what you have. A 3/4-inch deck, a Tascam DA-series recorder, a DAT machine, and an editing system (with at least four tracks and preferably computer based) are a music editor's basic necessities. Beyond that, you just need a good pair of ears, knowledge of your equipment, some solid music libraries, and a flexible, creative work ethic.

Carr's modest but effective setup includes the following equipment:
Computer Gear
Macintosh Quadra 650
Opcode Studio 3 MIDI interface
Mark of the Unicorn Performer
Digital Expressions SoftSplice DAW
JLCooper PPS2 sync box

Video Gear
Toshiba 32-inch television
Sony VP-9000 3/4-inch U-Matic

Recording Gear
Roland M-24E mixer
Tascam DA-88 MDM
Tascam DA-30 mkII DAT
Boss MA12C powered monitors

MIDI Controllers/Processors
Roland Octopad 8
Oberheim Strummer

Samplers and Sound Modules
E-mu ESI-4000
E-mu Emulator II
Kurzweil MicroPiano
Korg M1r
Oberheim Matrix 6R
E-mu Pro/Cussion

Signal Processing
Yamaha Rev7
Lexicon PCM 70
Alesis MicroVerb II
BBE 262 Sonic Maximizer

  Print Page