Penteo Surround Master Class Series

A Conversation with Oscar-winning Re-recording mixer Mike Minkler

Mike Minkler

Oscar award-winning sound designer Mike Minkler
using Penteo 4 Pro at Todd Soundelux L.A.

ABOUT MIKE MINKLERMike Minkler is a Motion Picture Sound Re-Recording Mixer.  Known for a wide body of work including films like Inglourious Basterds, JFK and Star Wars, as well television programs like The Pacific and John Adams, Mike has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards (three wins including Dreamgirls, Chicago and Black Hawk Down), six BAFTA Awards (three wins), eight Cinema Audio Society Awards (two wins), one Motion Picture Sound Editors Award (one win), two Emmy Awards and three Satellite Awards (two wins).  In 2006, Minkler received the Cinema Audio Society’s Career Achievement Award.  Mike works at Todd-Soundelux in Hollywood.

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Penteo:   Today we are talking to Mike Minkler at Todd-Soundelux in Hollywood and for this installment of the Penteo Surround Master Class, we’re going to learn about how sound designers are using Penteo in the TV & film post-production process. Mike, you go back to the early days of Penteo, working on such features as Inglourious Basterds. That was quite an achievement, because I understand that Quentin Tarantino liked to work from rather old sound sources.  Let’s catch up with what you’ve been doing lately with the new Penteo 4 Pro plugin. What projects have you used it for?

Minkler: I’ve been using Penteo on almost every project since Inglourious Basterds. That was my first one, and that was five years ago. I use Penteo daily, and we just received our new Penteo 4 Pro license, so I’m just getting my feet wet with it. I have found that it is a tremendous improvement from the other versions, but I’ve enjoyed them all along the way. I’ll tell you what I really enjoy about Penteo, though, is the surprise that I get when I plug something into it.

Here’s what I mean: for years, I’ve been looking for a great sounding but more importantly, an easy way to spread a two-track music mix into a five-channel music mix in the 5.1 world that we live in. I’ve done it through various types of processing and panning and reverbs and delays and whatever we can find, some phase shift, whatever will help achieve that goal. When Penteo was brought to me by the designers, I was very excited to play with it, and the exciting part of it is I never know what I’m going to get when I plug it in.

Normally, when I am doing a surround upmix with a new piece of technology, I want to know exactly what I’m going to get when I plug the technology in, as I expect it to react a certain way.  But with Penteo, because Penteo’s algorithm treats each song uniquely, what comes out is a great sound, but more importantly Penteo gives me great flexibility on what to use: sometimes I’ll find myself using  the five channels, sometimes I may use Penteo for its discrete Center channel.   Maybe I’ll use the left and right surround. Maybe I’ll use a combination of a front right and a left surround for spreading things out.

Sometimes, Penteo gives me a nice bigger and fatter bass ‘slam’, and sometimes, I get steering that’s amazing, and I wonder how Penteo could possibly have done that. For instance, I injected a two-channel music mix where solo vocals are married with background vocals, yet the Penteo will know the solo from the backgrounds and will literally pull the background vocals out of the front speakers and put them into the surrounds, leaving the solo vocal in the center speaker of a 5.1 configuration.

Penteo:  Can you tell me more about this steering and why that is helpful to your workflow?

Minkler:  Sure, let’s take an example where embedded in the left and right master is the vocal, of course, which has a phantom center, but it’s just a two-channel source. Within that two channel track, there are the left-side components, the right-side components, which are musical instruments as well as the vocals. Those vocals are literally embedded in there on the same channel, yet Penteo can separate them.

The same thing can happen with guitar. The same thing can happen with pianos and strings. It can pull a piano away from the strings.   I’ve used Penteo to upmix every type of content from rock to symphony to sound effects and I always get the same result.

Penteo: When you’re doing this, are you creating a sound field that will allow the dialogue to rest in the right place? How did you anticipate that?

Minkler: The dialogue within the movie, 98% of the time, is going to stay in the hard center, so when a musical number comes, I would have total control of the vocal on a separate channel, and I would keep it in the center because you don’t want someone’s voice spreading from the center to the left and the right.

Even so, within the context of a movie, you have center channel dialogue. When a song comes on with vocals in it, a two-channel source song comes on, it’s nice to have it spread to the 5.1 that Penteo provides us and have a hard center, have the vocal within the context of the music go into the hard center speaker. The reason I say that is because it’s just not as separate and shocking to have a vocal coming out from some other source.

Now, sometimes we do want it coming out of a different source, in which case I may use certain channels of the Penteo and not the others. Sometimes, I won’t use the Penteo at all, and I’ll just go with the two-channel mix as provided. I’m not using Penteo 100% but I’ll try it 100% of the time and see what I get.

Penteo: Do you have a favorite Penteo setting when you’re working?

Minkler: No, I don’t. We don’t play around with it too much because I have confidence about what will come out, so I have more fun seeing what I get out of it and tweaking it a little bit with some faders or some EQ or not at all.  It’s a great workflow tool and time saver.

Penteo: How does Penteo help speed your workflow?

Minkler: Oh, it’s instantaneous with Penteo. The beauty of it is I get exactly what I want or better every time I plug it in. As long as it is a stereo file that needs to be processed, I never get, “Oh, this isn’t working”

Penteo: You mentioned earlier that you have tried Penteo on all types of music and special effects.  What kind of music really shines with Penteo?   Anything to stay away from?

Minkler: All, equally actually. Classic rock and roll, yes. Hip hop, yes.  Today’s version of hip hop music, that style of recording, yes. Orchestral, yes. There’s nothing to stay away from other than you need to know that whatever exists in the stereo track will translate into the surround.  For example, some of what I would call “grungy,” that sound that’s pretty much all synthetic, and it’s all highly compressed and smashed. That smashed sound that is very popular today in that genre of music. If you want to try to alter that sound, it just falls apart, so just leave it because it’s tight, and it’s crunched, suppressed, smashed, but that’s the sound that they’re looking for, so Penteo’s not going to help that much.

Penteo: Talk to me about the importance of a 5.1 surround mix being able to be folded back perfectly into stereo – so that it matches exactly the original stereo track.  Is that possible and why is that important?

Minkler: Absolutely. Penteo says that you could just turn off the center and the surrounds and the boom, you basically have your exact same two-track record mix, but at the same time, we live in a world where our 5.1 mixes have to live in a two-channel world, with both broadcast television and theatrical that are still playing two-track Dolby stereo. Penteo folds down perfectly. You don’t have to do anything. Penteo creates a perfect fold down.

Penteo: There’s a quadraphonic function. I’ve heard from other sound designers that quadraphonic is a great setting to isolate the center channel for dialogue or vocals.  Does that come into your work flow?

Minkler: I have played with the Quadraphonic mode a little bit, but I mainly use some other modes. One thing I’ve never done with Penteo is get really weird with it. By “weird,” I mean ask it to do things that it wasn’t really designed to do. In that case, I might go into the quadraphonic mode, and I might start turning some knobs and doing some things just to see if I can get something unique out of it. I really haven’t done that yet because I’m so happy with what Penteo’s doing for me in the process that I’m using it for now. I haven’t really gotten around to it.

Penteo:   I know you said you use Penteo on almost everything, but what are some of the recent projects that you’ve been working on?

Minkler: I’m currently using Penteo on a small, independent feature called Point Break. A couple of features that I used Penteo on within the last 12 months were The Fifth Estate, which is a DreamWorks film, and RIPD, a Universal film. I’ve also used Penteo on a couple of other smaller, independent films such as Parkland and Shreveport.

Penteo:  Do you use Penteo differently on major productions vs smaller independent films?

Minkler:  On the bigger films, sometimes you get these really fabulous, well-made 5.1 or 7.1 mixes of the orchestra that come to us, and it’s all properly stemmed out so on the big films, I use Penteo more on the source only. They’ll give me 10 or 12 or 15 stems broken up into various parts of the orchestra. On smaller, independent films, when they deliver the orchestra, they never had the money to do that because it wasn’t a live recording. It was probably produced in a synthesized way inside a small studio using samples.

What they give me is two-channel orchestra, and I can make that two-channel stems of the orchestra, and that’s where Penteo really shines. Penteo allows you to take their two-channel orchestra and make it into a 5.1 orchestra.

So Penteo is really great on smaller, independent films, when they don’t have the budget to have 5.1 mixes that are all stemmed out properly, they give me two-channel mixes or two-channel stems. That’s when Penteo really shines because with literally, a click of the switch, I can take their two-channel mixes and give them what they couldn’t afford before, which is the 5.1 mix, so in the small, independent films, I use it almost exclusively.

Penteo: Is there a difference in working with film and television, between the two?

Minkler: Not for me. Now, people would say that you should mix them a little differently but I don’t!

Penteo: Last question: You’re talking to someone who’s new to the business, and you want to explain to them quickly how they can incorporate Penteo into their work flow. What would you tell them?

Minkler:The biggest advantage that Penteo can afford a mixer or record producer is the simplicity of just putting a two-channel source into it, and you’re going to get five out, and you’re going to be very surprised at how well it sounds. That’s its greatest application. In this day of lower-budget everything, that’s an asset.  That’s a huge, huge asset.