Flashback: Soul Power

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FROM THE ARCHIVE

In 2008 Dig It had the distinct pleasure to embark on a musical documentary journey with the film Soul Power. Conceived and beautifully directed by Jeff Kusama-Hinte, this film hits all the right notes in capturing the allure and chemistry of an amazing concert event in Zaire Africa in 1974. This is really the companion film to When We Were Kings. It is the story behind the concert that was arranged to be a major cultural event coinciding with The Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight, aptly named “The Rumble In The Jungle”. The concert sought to enlist the very best black and soul performers of the time in a three night event. Some of the headline performers were James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Spinners, and Miriam Makeba.

 

I think this film is important and amazing in many ways, but my focus was to take the recordings from the original event and turn them into a fully featured 5.1 soundtrack that could match the power and richness of the film footage and performances. Since it was all recorded live back in 1974, the recordings were all analog. The audio recorded with the general film footage was tracked to mono ¼ inch Nagra. It was recorded with a single boom microphone, as this was prior to the use of lavalier microphones. Nagras are really incredible recorders. They are swiss made with beautifully machined metal bodies and built like tanks. After years of working with digitally recorded dialog and production sound, I immediately appreciated the smooth character and warmth of the Nagra recordings. Analog tape has long been known to have a natural compression effect, and it was clearly the case with these dialog recordings. We had all of the audio recorded back into digital on Protools, but the character of the analog recordings was completely evident. 

 

I have said many times that I used less EQ, compression, and volume moves on this dialog dub than on any other film I can remember mixing. The disadvantage of having to rely on a single boom microphone is that it cannot be in all places at all times. If you are capturing a conversation at a table with several people, and one person is talking on one side of the table, and then the conversation suddenly shifts to someone else across the table, the boom operator has to swing the boom mic over to catch the new speaker. When doing a documentary film, where you are not staged or scripted, you can’t do a retake if the microphone does not get there quickly enough. You just have to live with the delay in getting the full sound until the mic is in position.  The advantage is the natural quality that boom miking brings to a recording. Also when you are only using one mic, then you can fully concentrate on that microphone being in the best position and capturing the best sound. You don’t have to split your focus of monitoring several microphones at one time. I haven’t yet but will surely write an article soon on the pitfalls of contemporary multi-track field recording. Sometimes less is more.

 

The concert audio is a whole other story. The concert recordings were tracked through an API console and captured on a Studer 2” 16 track machine. The engineers who manned the machines were top notch, and the resulting recordings were as good as one could hope for. Stereo temp mixes of many songs were completed in order to facilitate the picture editing process. Then once the final songs were selected we went back to mix those tracks in 5.1 surround. We enlisted the services of Tom Cassel, and excellent recording engineer with an extensive history in the music side of the business. He spent one week mixing the 15 final tracks for the film. Utilizing a different Protools session for each song. He then recorded his mixes as 5.1 files, and we imported the 5.1 song files into the individual reel sessions where they would be combined with all other sound elements for the final mix. Tom Cassel and I decided that he would mix with reverbs (mostly from the TC 6000) that would be necessary to make the songs sound great in a studio kind of way.  Then when I performed the final film mix I would add stadium reverb and delay to make the songs feel like they were in the outdoor stadium space. Since there were several tracks of new audience and crowd response, it seemed best to balance the final spatial stadium FX with the final crowds present. 

 

When we did the final mix for all the reels, I used a mastering kind of approach to the 5.1 music tracks. I used some additional EQ, but the main tool was a Waves C4 multiband compressor. I sat with Tom Cassel and we tweaked the range and gain parameters of the different bands to make it work also like an EQ.  We were very happy with the result. In a few cases we wanted to turn up or down a specific instrument. In order to do that, we would quit the Film Reel session and open up the specific Song session. We could then make the change we wanted and re-record the 5.1 song mix. The trick here is to click on the old 5.1 mix file, highlighting it, and then to choose Destructive Record from the Options Menu. This will update the recorded file but keep the name exactly the same. Then when you re-open the Film Reel session the newly modified file will automatically be pulled to replace the older file without having to import or line up the new file. It’s a big time saver and keeps all other volume and plug in settings in tact.

 

The final mix was a real pleasure to work on. The tracks came to life with the tweaks and crowds, and we were grooving in our chairs.  I highly recommend this film to anyone who loves music. It really shines on a great 5.1 system, if you can screen it that way, and I think it is a rare opportunity to hear older analog recordings mixed and mastered in 5.1 with 2008 tools.             

Thomas Efinger