Category Archives: ProTools

EDU009 SYNC TWO – Markers

Thanks for feedback on EDU008 SYNC part 1. While it is fairly dry & technical subject, it is incredibly important on every project to verify the sync workflow. Most experienced sound editors will be able to share a sync horror story from their work. Unfortunately it is often in non-pro work that such issues can be a challenge eg people shooting multiple formats & frame rates, in the same project without regard for audio ramifications. At the end of this post I’ll add two more sync issues that you should be aware of (audio sync offsets with MP4 delivery, and verifying playback sync with your computer monitor or TV)

Moving on to actual useful techniques for sound editing, one function that has been invaluable for me since day 1 using ProTools is markers, aka memory locations. To give an idea of how useful markers are, the need for improvements in markers in ProTools has been in the top five most requested updates for literally decades! (Avid used to use a website called Idea Scale for users to submit feedback & suggestions. In 2018 they ended their use of Idea Scale & requested feedback etc via the DUC forum.)

At their most simple, a marker is simply a timed text comment. If your DAW of choice is not ProTools then you will have to check the manual & verify that your DAW has the equivalent because I would consider these essential (so eg I don’t use ableton LIVE for sound editing as it does not even have a timecode timeline, let alone timed markers. I love LIVE for music but a sound-post DAW it is not.)

In ProTools if you ‘drop’ a marker during playback can choose whether you name it, or use auto naming so you don’t interrupt your focus. Go to ProTools Preferences > Editing to view the Memory Locations (aka Marker) prefs.

An example of use where having ‘auto-naming during playback’ is important would be this: say you’ve finished sound design for a short film and you want to do a playback for yourself, in a continuous run. You hit play and each time you realise there is an issue to be dealt with, you hit the enter key (numeric keypad) and a timed marker is dropped. After you finish your screening you can then skip to the dropped markers, to do the fixes.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. One of the first uses for markers on the first day when I start a new project, is to skip through the video and drop a marker on every scene cut. With the video & guide track correctly sync’d in my session, I would skip through the video to the first frame of action (FFOA) drop a marker & name it as per the films script.
Marker 01: EXT Street Busy Morning
Then I’d play down to the next scene cut and drop the next marker
Maker 02: INT Car
Marker 03: EXT Shopping Mall
Marker 04: INT Car
etc

Now these markers need to be frame accurate, i.e. you need to verify that the marker is on the first frame of the new scene. I’ll explain why this is so important soon, but first let’s work through methods to achieve this quickly.

ProTools of course provides many different ways to move around the timeline, but two that I use a lot are:

1. nudge using plus + and minus – keys
Your timeline display should be in timecode, and check that your nudge setting is in frames. If you put your cursor in the timeline on the first frame of a new scene (with no audio selected) and click ‘minus’ the cursor moves backwards 1 frame, which should reveal the last frame of the previous scene. There are keyboard shortcuts for changing the nudge value and I suggest you learn them, as jumping between 1 frame and 1 second easily is very useful.

2. scrub/vari-speed playback via numeric keypad.
This method is less useful for small increments but can be handy for scrolling through a scene (or a sound) at different speeds. Go to Preferences > Operation and check the setting for Numeric Keypad:

With the pref set to Transport, I can click CONTROL 5 on the numeric keypad and ProTools playback starts at real speed. If I now click ‘CONTROL minus’ on the numeric keypad playback goes backwards at real speed and ‘CONTROL plus’ makes it play forwards at real speed. Why I love this function is because if you click CONTROL and a number less than 5, it makes playback slower eg CONTROL 2 is half speed playback. And if you click a number higher than 5 it makes playback faster than real speed.

This is useful as a way of skipping through a scene eg at double speed, you see a scene change go past so you click reverse and then slow down playback to land close to the scene cut. Then quickly click plus and minus to nudge forwards & backwards frames to verify the first frame of the new scene & then drop a marker. I’ll provide a video for you to practice this on.

But the other use for this Transport playback technique is much more creative, as it effectively enables you to ‘play the timeline.’ For example say you are creating some sounds for a strange transition between scenes. You place a few sounds on a track and then invoke playback via the numeric keypad. You can now play the sounds on the track at half speed, quarter speed, backwards & forwards with consistent speed (ie not varispeed scrubbing but consistent half-speed playback) which can reveal to you possible uses for the sounds. I love using sounds backwards or reversed, as the sound retains its organic nature but seems ‘unworldly’ especially if there are no big transients that reveal it is backwards. I’ll get into backwards sound a lot more in a future design tutorial. Please let me know via a comment or email if you’d like to see an example of ‘playing the timeline’ incase what I have described is not clear.

The number of tracks that can be played while in this mode is I think only mono or stereo. So eg if you had sounds on 20 tracks, it is the track or region that is selected which will be played.

Another option, which enables ALL tracks to be played at half speed is the classic shift-spacebar, which plays the entire session at half speed. But you cannot do backwards playback or vary the playback speed. But it is a useful technique for eg checking sync on design spread across a lot tracks, as the slower speed playback means you sometimes notice whether a sound ‘feels’ early or late.

OK so we have finished pass 1, and our session now has a new marker on every scene cut.

These markers are now useful in many ways. Some examples:

– when you edit ambiences for a particular scene (which will be the subject of a future tutorial) being consistent can be important, especially with recurring locations. So maybe the protagonist of the short film works in a junkyard. By looking at the list of Markers/memory locations we can check & see how many scenes are set there. And once we have some great elements edited in for the first occurrence of that scene, we can copy them and jump to the next occurrence of that location and paste the elements as a starting point. Maybe the time of day or weather is different between the scenes but this gives us a quick starting point for editing the elements for the same location.

– when editing an ambience it is common to start the audio from within a file, rather than from the start of the file each time. Having frame accurate markers means that when we are being creative working with layering sounds we don’t have to verify where the scene cut is each time. We know where the scene cut is as we have a marker right on it. So we can just drop a long ambience file and cut off the front or end at the scene cut by recalling that marker/mem location (which moves the cursor to the exact scene cut) and then select to the start of the region (or end) and hit delete. We now have ambiences that start at exactly the first frame of the new scene. (I’ll get into fades & overlaps etc in Ambience editing tutorial)

– another use for markers like this is to export them when making a record list. So say the short film was shot near your studio and you want to go record some ambiences specifically for it. In ProTools you can go to File menu > Export > Session Info as Text. For this use, I am only interested in exporting my markers so disable all the other options & check that TimeFormat is set to timecode:

Export it & then when you open the exported text file in a text editor or spreadsheet, you have a list of each location and can also see how long each scene is. This gives you a useful text list of the locations from the film.

Exporting markers is useful for all sorts of things, for example when I am editing a new sound library I drop & name a marker for each group of takes of a new sound (eg 01 Celery fresh twist breaks 02 Celery fresh snaps etc) and after exporting the edited sounds I export the markers. Then in a spreadsheet I use the marker names and cue number to calculate new names for them after re-ordering them…

Now markers had some updates in a new ProTools version late last year, so it is worth having a quick read of this article: Pro Tools 2023.6 – new features

As a sound editor you will use markers/memory locations a lot and in ways that you won’t appreciate yet.

Other uses for markers/memory locations:

– instead of making a marker store a timeline location, you can tell it to not remember any timeline at all but instead to remember your zoom levels. As an example, say you were fixing a glitch that occurred randomly in a file. You might start working through the file, playing at real speed and zoomed out, but when you hear a glitch you need to zoom right in to fix it. You can save a memory location zoomed out, and a second memory location stored when zoomed right in. Now you can consistently jump between zoom levels by recalling memory locations, regardless of where the cursor is.

Notice the difference between my choices when creating a new marker:
The marker on the left is storing a selection (ie cursor position in the timeline)
The marker on the right is not storing a selection at all and solely is storing the zoom level.

You can also see other options for markers eg storing the current hidden/displayed tracks, and the window layout, which can be very useful for complex setups.

On a big project my edit session might have 200 tracks in it, and say 50 of the tracks are for ambiences, 20 are for vehicles, 20 for weapons, 20 for creature vocals, 20 for practical FX etc… I could store a setup for each set, and rather than be overwhelmed scrolling across hundreds of tracks to get to the element I want to work on, I can instead recall the AMB memory location (which would display only the AMB tracks) or the VEH mem location for vehicle tracks etc…

So these are all invaluable techniques for navigating a big edit session, and you will want to become very familiar with them, as well as the keyboard shortcuts to access them. A command key shortcut is always faster than ‘seek & click’ with a mouse, and the same applies to recalling memory locations.

So let’s use that example of Zoom level memory locations. As I am going to use these memory locations a lot I might make them the first two memory locations ie Zoom level 1 = memory loc 01 and Zoom level 2 = memory loc 02. Instead of having the list of memory locations open onscreen and clicking loc1 or loc2 with a mouse, I can instead use a keyboard shortcut: On the numeric keypad type “. 01 .” and loc 1 will be recalled. Now type “. 02 .” and loc 2 will be recalled.

Sometimes it is worth making memory location markers with specific numbers that you will remember. And say you decide you always want those Zoom level markers in every session, you can export & import markers. So you could import them to a new session from the last one, or maybe you have a template session for storing such things.

Now let’s look at how markers are useful for cutting sound effects within a scene.
Let’s take a fight scene as an example. You watch the scene down in real-time & maybe guess there are twenty punches thrown. The next thing I would do is crawl through the scene using the nudge keys and drop a marker on every event. So I’d reach the first punch just as it impacts & drop a marker and name it punch1 or P1 or something. Then nudge forward to the next event, maybe it’s a body punch so I drop a marker P2 body. The third punch is right to the jaw, so marker 3 notes this. I carry on through the scene putting a marker on every event, with maybe the last marker is a body fall for the loser.

I’ve now gained a sync overview of the scene and have an idea of what resources I’ll need. If there are 20 punches I know I will need lots of material so I can vary each punch to be unique. And I know I need a body fall, and whatever else I have identified in the scene. But I have also achieved something else that will prove very useful: I have created a non-linear grid.

Now I don’t use Grid mode much when sound editing, as it mostly restricts you to seconds/frames etc… When making & editing music, the tempo grid is invaluable but for sound editing a consistent grid is less relevant. But there is a sneaky hidden feature to the grid: have a look at the popup menu for grid setting

With a timecode timeline, the grid defaults to seconds or frames etc but that is not the only option. If you scroll down you can choose ‘Clips/Markers’ and if this is enabled, when you drag a region on the timeline, it will ‘snap’ to the sync of other clips or markers!

So let’s say we want to layer punch 1.
We import a few sounds eg a slap, a cabbage being hit with a bat, a thumpy body punch, an orange squelch & a celery bone crunch and a bamboo swish. If I am in grid mode with the ‘Clips/Markers’ grid enabled I can drag the slap on to a track & when I get close to the marker for Punch 1, the region will snap to it. Now I grab the humpy body punch and drag it to another track & it snaps to the same marker. Now I grab the swish and drag it on to a track and it also snaps to the punch 1 sync point, but I know that isn’t where I want it to be as a swish is the movement leading into the punch. Again the sync marker is useful since if we zoom in a bit, we can see the vertical line from the marker which indicates when the fist meets the face. So I can use that as a reference and drag the swish earlier & then cut it off at the punch impact.

Do you see how this can be very useful when editing complex scenes?

By the time I am nearing predubs on a feature film, my edit session might well have many, many hundreds of markers in it. At times I also use markers as a way of tracking work still to be done, or fixes to be done during a mix.

For such a simple tool, there are a huge number of uses and each person will no doubt have their own favourite uses. Please feel free to share any in the comments, as I am a firm believer that we never stop learning and these are only techniques that suit me. You might well come up with clever uses that I have never even considered. Of course, rerecording mixers will have their own unique setups based on how their desk and dubbers etc are set up.

One of the requests for development of markers in ProTools I think really represents the future and that is for markers to become a database. Imagine being able to have multiple marker tracks with as many data fields as you like. You could then eg cue ADR or display only AMB markers or display only TO DO markers etc. And as a database it could be exported, imported and merged easily. Perhaps one day….

One last keyboard command that is important with regards to sync. When you drag a region from say track 1 to track 2, it “should” stay in sync but if you’ve had too much coffee & got the jitters or something, sometimes the mouse will move & placement on track 2 will not be identical to where it was on track 1. In that case holding down CONTROL as you select & move the region will constrain the movement vertically to hold the exact same sync.

One last tip that can speed up the scene cuts. When you start work on a film, it is usual to get an OMF or AAF of the sync material ex the picture editor. Once converted & imported to a DAW session, the regions from the picture editor will of course be on scene cuts. So skipping through those regions & dropping markers can be much faster than manually going through an empty session looking for scene cuts.

OK thats it for Markers for now.

Two other subjects require comment with regards to SYNC ONE.

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HARDWARE SYNC CHECK

First, you should be aware that your computer & screens may not be in perfect sync. A local sound editor bought one of these Sync Check devices which are quite clever. Basically, it has a light sensor and a mic built into it and you play a provided QuickTime with the SyncCheck device nearby, so it can see the QuickTime & hear it. It then measures any offset between your computer displaying a flash in the QuickTime and your computer playing the audio in sync to that flash frame.
If this sounds esoteric, trust me it isn’t. The makers of the Sync Check device published a list of common offsets
For example, results from testing this setup:

Apple Cinema Display, Quicktime floating window, PT 6.7 and 6.6r2
Two systems checked: G5/dual2.5G with 22” cinema display, and G4/dual1G with 20” cinema display. ½ frame “drift”. No change with movie window in different screen locations, but there is a top-to-bottom scanning delay within the movie window. Movie sync offset=3

So someone editing sound to picture with that setup would be out of sync unless they compensated for it, after measuring the offset! Imagine that: delivering your work to a predub & everything slightly out of sync!

Unfortunately they stopped making the Sync Check device, but this looks very similar:
Sync-One2

I cannot vouch for the accuracy but there are apps for your phone which claim to provide similar test results:

– a local NZ company QuietArt made an app CatchinSync
– another app by Benjamin Hoerbe is available: SynQR 4+

Once tested and the offset is known for your system ie computer + screens, then it should not need testing again until a major change.

Also as far as hardware goes it is always important to be aware of TV standards – PAL and NTSC. PAL resolves to 50Hz and NTSC to 60Hz. I won’t get into this now, but always be aware that if you are using a TV as a second monitor then make sure it is set to the correct system for your country & for the project.

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After SYNC ONE was published sound designer & rerecording mixer Andrew Mottl kindly got in touch to make me aware of a potential issue with MP4 delivery.

“When using MP4 as exchange format, depending on who imports when into which DAW or NLE, the guide track might be off slightly (due to the buffer frame padding in codecs like MP3, AAC etc. used in these videos). This will result in floppy or loose sync or phasing with the provided mix or whatever, and can be annoying when checking new cuts against old references using audio…. eg a 1/4 frame out of sync, which waveform should be leading, which following etc… ”

 

As always in sound post-production: never assume, always verify!