A Conversation with Oscar-winning Re-recording mixer Steve Maslow
Oscar award-winning sound designer Steve Maslow
using Penteo 4 Pro at Warner Bros. Studios
Welcome to Penteo Surround’s Master Class – a series of definitive interviews with award-winning sound designers, mixers, composers and DJs. Our goal is to share best practices, key learnings, workflow innovations and other useful tips across the Penteo community.
ABOUT STEVE MASLOW: Steve Maslow is a Motion Picture Sound Re-Recording Mixer. Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Steve entered the entertainment industry in late 1969 as a roadie with a local group called the Strawberry Alarm Clock that hit it big with their national hit, “Incense and Peppermint.” From there he entered the recording industry, studying and becoming a recording engineer, working with dozens of groups including Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and A Taste of Honey. With these two groups, Maslow was awarded a Gold record, a Platinum record and a Platinum album, for “Oh What A Night (December 1963)” and “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”
By late 1978, opportunity knocked once more and Maslow moved forward into the film audio industry and immediately became a success with work on such films as “The Last Waltz,” “Ten,’” “Hair,” “More American Graffiti,” “Star Trek,” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
Maslow was awarded the first of his three Academy Awards in 1980 for Best Achievement in Sound for “Raiders of The Lost Ark”, and again in 1981 for “The Empire Strikes Back.” 1984 saw another nomination for “Dune.” Another Academy award was given in 1995 For “Speed,” which also gave him his first British Academy Award. In 1996, he was again nominated for the film “Waterworld,” in 1997 nominated for “Twister” and in 2000 nominated for “U-571.” Recent films he has worked on include “The Town”, “The Conjuring” and “The Great Gatsby”. Maslow often works at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.
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Penteo: Could you tell me briefly about your career in sound for film?
Maslow: I started off in records. My last big hit was with Taste of Honey and The Four Seasons back in the early 80’s. Then it started getting tougher to make a living in the music industry, when it became garage band sound and people recording out of their home studios, so things didn’t look as rosy as they used to be. I transitioned into the film business when the door opened for me and I just started mixing music and eventually went into dialogue and music.
Penteo: Let’s talk about turning stereo into 5.1 surround. you’ve been using Penteo now for a year. How did you do this type of work before Penteo?
Maslow: I would take the left and right track of a 2-track and run them through a couple of panners, fold it in a little so the left and right contributed to the center just a little bit. Then I would take a boom box, take a bass feed from the left and the right and return it to a fader to get the bottom end. That would give me left, center, right, and the bass for the subwoofer. For left surround, right surround I would try to get a very short reverb to feed to the surrounds. That was the problem; it would always put some sort of echo into the track.
Penteo: How did you find out about Penteo?
Maslow: One of the engineers or mixers mentioned it and told me about a device that would take a 2-track and make a 5.1 out of it and I said, “Let’s check it out!” and that’s how I came to use it.
Penteo: What type of music do you use Penteo on? Does it perform better for rock, pop, symphonic, sound effects?
Maslow: Actually, everything sounds great with Penteo, and I’ll use it on any 2-track mix that I get. Sometimes, like for the film I am working on now, I will get maybe ten stereo tracks. It’s kind of retro to think that some people are still giving you 2-track scores, its 2, 2, and 2. I’ll get 2-track strings, 2-track brass, 2-track percussion and then I have to think about how I’m going to work with them. I can’t just put them all left-right. Sometimes I’ll take the percussion and put it in the center, but with Penteo, I just feed all the 2-channel stereo mixes in and it comes out as a great sounding 5.1 surround score.
Penteo: And then you can manipulate it from there and adjust where you want things to be?
Maslow: Yes, typically I don’t go straight across on the outputs. I pull the surround up or down using the Penteo fader. There are a lot of parameters inside the Penteo process, in terms of preferences. But I generally just use the default settings, because I’m usually under a lot of pressure to get going and Penteo is a real time saver. I’ll just use a default setting and pull back on the left surround, right surround and sprinkle the bottom in to “taste.”
Penteo: Penteo is now a plugin. You’ve worked with other plugins, how does this one compare?
Maslow: It’s easy. As I say, you have an ‘inski’ and an ‘outski’. Good to go. You just have to careful not to overload it, so sometimes I’ll have to lower the input or otherwise it’ll start to come apart a little bit in surround.
Penteo: Penteo comes with 6 modes. Which modes do you use and what situations do you use your modes for?
Maslow: To be honest, I haven’t played with all the parameters. If I have nobody on the stage with me I would have the time to experiment, but that is rare. Generally, I just use the default settings and it works great for me.
Penteo: Has Penteo helped make your job any easier?
Maslow: Yes. Most of the time now, like on the last show I just finished, I didn’t get one comment or note from the music department. Not one when we screened the film and they listened to it. Usually I would get some comments – you always get comments, but I got nothing. No critical notes from the music department. They loved everything, so Penteo does make me look a little better because of the way it makes the music comes alive in surround.
Penteo: Let’s imagine that you’ve got an assistant engineer coming in, or an intern, and you want to tell them how to use Penteo. What kind of tips would you give them?
Maslow: I would tell them to take a deeper look, because there are some great parameters that you can adjust. For example, adjusting the intensity of the Ls/Rs. One time I was adjusting the parameters and I thought, “You know what? I can do this on the faders.” But when I did it straight across, all 6 channels straight across, it can put a little too much information in the surrounds. If that happens, then I use the Penteo surround fader to pull it back maybe 60-70%, leaving the left and right surrounds and the channels pretty much close to unity. It’s that simple.
One thing to be aware of, is if you have multiple music sources, for example a music from an outside scene and you cut to interior, and you’re changing the echo between one interior cut to the exterior cut, there might be some processing latency with Penteo. All the reverb on any particular film has to be generated through Penteo so that means if I’m on an outside scene with an outside ambient reverb and I’m cutting to an interior with a different reverb, what I do is change the verb setting before I get to that interior cut and punch the cut.
That would be my only real ‘tip’ to another sound designer – you just need to understand that if you are putting the echo on the units, you need to factor in the delay up front, so what we do now is record through Penteo to make sure it’s in sync. Once you do that, it’s easy.
Maybe I would just say to the intern: “The very first time I used Penteo, it was great, so you’ve got to try too!”
Penteo: Penteo says that they don’t add any sonic artifacts to the mix. What does a sonic-free up mixing experience mean and why is it important to you?
Maslow: I’ve never experienced any artifacts through the Penteo, so as long as that’s not happening, I’m good to go with it. It sounds clean and I’m impressed with it.
Penteo: What are some recent stereo-to-surround projects you have worked on?
Maslow: I just finished a film called “Tammy.” Everything was 2-track. Every cue in that movie from source needle drops to score was all 2-track. I used Penteo from reel 1 to reel 6. It worked flawlessly. The last film I used it on before that was the Bruce Willis film “RED 2.” I had to work with a lot of 2-track music and Penteo sounded terrific.
Penteo: Sometimes you’re working with an old rock and roll record. How does Penteo perform with that?
Maslow: I just used it on the opening cue on “Tammy,” the record was a classic released in 1986, and it sounded great in 5.1.
Penteo: If I ask you to summarize your Penteo experience just down to one sentence to share with a friend, “Hey Steve, what are you doing here? What’s this thing anyway?” How would you explain it in a nutshell?
Maslow: For me now, Penteo is an essential workflow tool. I wouldn’t do another film without it if 2-track music came in. Penteo really makes you sound good and it definitely expands and turn a 2-track mix into a great 5-channel mix.
Also, I do find that a lot of 2-track mixes are very narrow and by using Penteo it gives me the hard center that I like. When you’re playing with a 2-track you just get left and right and a phantom center, not a hard center. Penteo gives me a hard center with that bottom-end that I like, and it just fills the room up better than a 2-track does. Any 2-track material that comes to me now is going through Penteo and sounds great.