Pro Tools User

Silent Orchestra Scores with 'Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror'

by Stephen Murphy
"Right place, right time." That's how Carlos Garza of Silent Orchestra modestly explains his role in the expertly restored re-release of Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, the legendary 1922 silent film by F. W. Murnau. Garza and partner Rich O'Meara comprise Silent Orchestra, a live performance and recording duo specializing in original soundtracks for silent films.

Silent Orchestra had been performing live accompaniment for silent film screenings since 1999, and they decided it was time to "go Hollywood," metaphorically speaking. "We contacted film restoration expert David Shepard and asked permission to use his print of Nosferatu for a private-label VHS release with our score. Coincidentally, he was actively restoring a better print of the film for a DVD release, timed to coincide with the theatrical release of Shadow of the Vampire." Garza said.

"I went out on a limb and asked him if he would be interested in an original surround score for the DVD, even though I had never done this." Taking this "seat of his pants" approach to heart, Garza set about adapting his Pro Tools-based studio for surround mixing.

The good fortune for Silent Orchestra was that Shepard ended up using their Dolby Digital 5.0 mix for the DVD. This is reportedly the most successful DVD launch of a silent film, and, Garza believes, the first Dolby Digital surround recording for an antique silent film.

Garza talks

Pepperland Recording, Garza's project studio, is based around an expanded (32- channel) Pro Tools 3 PCI system with version 5.0 software and an 888 I/O. Sync is done using an Opcode Studio 64 XTC synchronizer. It all runs on a Power Mac 9600/200MP under OS9.

They used large diaphragm condenser and dynamic mics to capture the live percussion. The vibes and drum overhead microphones were AT 4033s. They used an AKG D112 on the concert bass drum. The snare microphone was usually a Shure SM57 or an EV N/D 857. They also used an ART mic pre and Mackie 1202 and 1604 mixers.

Overdubs were kept to a minimum because, as Garza stated, "We wanted to end up with a score that we could do live." All of the tracking was done synched to a video dub with 29.97 (drop frame) SMPTE timecode on one audio track feeding the Studio 64. The Studio 64 provided Super Clock (256X) sync for the Pro Tools system.

Garza created the surround mix in Pro Tools using busses and automated panning and sends. He used a mono mix bus for the center channel and stereo busses for the left and right front and surround signals.

Garza found that creating a discrete Dolby Digital five-channel mix for the DVD was not technically challenging. His experience with the older Dolby Surround technology for the VHS release was a different story. "The encoding was done with a Dolby SEU4 encoder and monitored on the fly with an SDU4 decoder. I used the '4-2-4' configuration that Dolby recommends. I created four discrete outputs from Pro Tools and sent them from the 888 to the SEU4. To do this I simply took the stereo surround channels from the 5.0 mix and panned them both to one side. This became the send for the mono rear channel. The two-channel surround mix went back out to the SDU4 and the resulting four channels went on to the monitors."

One of the lessons he learned from the project was the need to be extra careful in arranging the overhead microphones. Signals that arrive out of phase are thrown to the rear in a Dolby Surround program. Dolby Labs calls this "magic surround." He added, "Some of my keyboard patches tended to fall into the center channel in the Dolby Surround program making them sound mono. So a lot of my time was spent trying to make the keyboards wider to keep them out of the center speaker and the drums a little less wide to avoid the magic surround."

That's a wrap

After wringing everything he could from his Pro Tools 3 system, Garza says he is ready to upgrade to a Pro Tools MIXplus for the surround panning in Pro Tools 5.1. "I'd also like to hire a small chamber orchestra for the next score. And maybe get someone else to engineer." Garza and O'Meara are currently working on new feature length silent-film scores and have also discovered the world of so-called "talkies."

You can catch up with them at their Web site, or at the studio Web site,