Back in 1988, ancient history in the consumer electronics industry, it was suggested by friends in the post production community that I put together a reference for our NTSC television systems. The request came because of my activities as Chair of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) Working Group on Professional and Studio Monitors. We were asking the program production world to conform to production standards established in our Working Group. These were based on the original 1953 documents establishing our NTSC color television system plus some changes we found necessary to achieve consistent picture quality. The production world wanted to know why they should make such an effort to be consistent in program origination when the consumer world was in such a state of chaos. According to them, none of you was ever going to see the results of the extra effort our committee was asking them to make.
The first generation of addressing their request came in the form of A Video Standard. It appeared on the market at the end of that year. It contained test signals that defined how a display device should work, in addition to assisting in its calibration. The first copies of the disc came with a 15 page book that attempted to tell the story of the large amount of material in the disc. That was followed in 1990 by a much larger book that endeavored to answer many of the question that had come up in the first two years of the product being on the market.
Several years and many magazine articles later I realized that a more direct approach to explaining our television system was required. With the help of A Video Standard I had also learned a great deal more about the state of the consumer industry. In the process I also learned what was needed to help it grow into the future promise of new audio/video systems, what ever form that might take. My world had also expanded into projection technology. The need for more references for that type of display device became clear. Another videodisc program was required.
The initial script for a second generation program, titled A Video Standard, Getting Started, was written in early 1993. It was to be a half hour long tutorial on how to set the front panel controls on your average home TV set. At the time I envisioned yet another program that would discuss Home Theatre technology. It would cover the audio and video requirements of a dedicated installation as well as covering the all-important environment of the room.
Mark Dennison was brought back on board to design the look of both programs. He had helped me with A Video Standard. Production got underway on the Getting Started version of the program in June of that year. By November production was halted for lack of funds. We weren’t even close to having the graphics finished for one program, let alone started on the editing process. The next two years were spent in script revisions for both programs, many of the changes based on what I was learning about the growing audio/video industry. THX® certification for Home Theatre audio components had become a significant part of the home audio market, Dolby introduced their 5.1 channel digital audio system to the laserdisc, multiple aspect ratio, including the anamorphic format, had come to video, and they all needed to be included in one or both of the planned programs.
There were other activities keeping me busy. February of ’94 saw the formation of the Imaging Science Foundation. Experience in teaching classes provided valuable material for the still growing scripts. It became clear from my increased work load that both programs were not going to get produced any time soon. I needed to back off expectations to just one disc. The new program, incorporating essential parts of both programs became known as Video Essentials.
By the end of 1994, the revised program required a two sided disc, up from the 28 minute 1993 version Mark and I had planned in graphics. An initial attempt at editing Video Essentials was started in December 1994. It helped me determine how much material was still needed to complete the longer form of the program. Well over half of that first edit was a black hole.
At the same time I was working on the movie Congo with Van Ling and Casey Cannon of Banned From The Ranch Entertainment. The type of work I was doing for them was, coincidentally, the subject of Video Essentials. (You won’t find my name in the credits of Congo. As many names that are listed in that final roll, my efforts were not large enough to be included. My name did get mentioned in the book about the making of Congo.) What came out of that movie for me was Van and Casey indicating a strong interest in helping with the disc. This in spite of warnings from others in the industry that they were in for far more work than they would see in the average full length movie.
In order to build on what Mark and I had already put together, they had to start over. Van and Allen Manning kept the basic ideas, updating the look to their graphics capability. Josh Kirschenbaum was brought in to assist. Their combined efforts got started in June of 1995. We finished the graphics in March of ’96. Wess Rubinstein, also part of the BFTR team, re-started the program edit in parallel with the construction of the graphics.
The final audio and video edit was finished in early May. David Goodman at U.S. Laser initially set up distribution with Image Entertainment. Deliveries began in June 1996. The disc hit the Billboard Top 25 Laserdisc Sales for the week ending 10 August 1996. Distribution was taken over by DVD International shortly after that company was formed.
The idea of Video Essentials, from the beginning, was to provide the consumer with a much simpler explanation of what they needed to know about getting good pictures at home. The introduction of the audio system, stereo, Dolby Surround Sound®, THX® additions to the Dolby system, and Dolby Digital ® AC-3, were pulled from the Home Theatre program.
There were other parts of the second program, such as an introduction to proper environment for the video display device, a demonstration of our perception of luminance intensity and color, and technical stuff that were moved to Video Essentials. Most of the technical stuff is grouped in Chapter 15. It, like material in A Video Standard, requires more explanation than could be fit into the format of Video Essentials, yet couldn’t wait for the Home Theatre program.
Some of the test material found in that chapter is designed for video equipment manufacturers, going beyond even what was even envisioned for the second program. I’m calling it “my chapter”, one that you’ll be reading about here and in video magazines. The narration in Chapter 15 tells you that some of what you are seeing is designed for purposes beyond the scope of the disc.
“What you’re now seeing is a continuation of the image test section of Video Essentials. These are real time test patterns needed for evaluating color decoder quality, picture resolution, flicker, and signal-to-noise ratio. The sample images you’ll see following the test patterns are designed to challenge certain aspects of the display system. You’ll find a more comprehensive set of test patterns at the end of this chapter. … Assisting you in properly adjusting the front panel controls is as far as we can go with Video Essentials. There is one more important parameter that must be properly set to complete the process of obtaining the best possible picture fidelity from your set. That’s the adjustment of the color of gray. It’s not being detailed in this program because the adjustment requires a qualified technician with instrumentation. … The test patterns needed for closely examining and adjusting the gray scale are included at the end of this chapter. Once again, DO NOT attempt to go beyond the consumer accessible controls without engaging qualified help.”
Inside Video Essentials
Video Essentials contains a number of surprises. The opening Swelltone logo is a great place to start. Swelltone is the trademark of people who care about good film sound. It has an important social conscience as well. Proceeds form the licensing of the Swelltone logo are donated to AIDS-related charities. It’s theme is “In One Ear, Out The Other”. Swelltone is about having a good time with audio.
Van Ling and Allan Manning took the original visual concept of the Swelltone logo and turned it into the opening statement of Video Essentials. What better person to represent Swelltone than Beethoven, the composer who lost his hearing before he wrote some of his most important works. The final animation was turned over to Larry Blake about a week before the audio mix of the program. With the help of Mark Mangini and Steve Lee, he assembled 25 tracks of audio for the mix. Upon arriving at Pacific Ocean Post, where the audio mix magic of this disc took place, they announced that they hadn’t had time to organize all of the channels required. More effects tracks were added to the source tape.
At this point we abandoned any idea of the Swelltone logo being strictly a Dolby Pro Logic mix, as called for in the script. It was mixed to the five channel system in the Dolby Digital (AC-3) tracks. In true form for Swelltone, we did something other than what we said we were going to do. It is first and foremost a true 5 channel mix, then encoded to Dolby Pro-Logic for the two CD audio tracks of the disc.
Listen carefully, there are a number of variations on well known sounds running around this logo. You should even be able to pick them out on a good stereo system, but will find it a lot easier when you get to hear it played back on a Dolby Digital system.
We look forward to the video industry, as well as the original intended film world converting to Swelltone. This is where people care about good sound and have fun making it happen. You’ll find the Swelltone logo at both the beginning and end of the program, which is why we can say that the entire program is Swelltone encrusted.
I’ve asked Larry Blake, the co-creator and person who introduced me to the concept, to provide background on Swelltone.
In spite of the “This film was re-recorded in a Swelltone theatre” credit at the end of many films, Swelltone remains a mystery to all but a few in the Hollywood sound community. Now, for the first time, the complete story can be told.
As the credit implies, Swelltone, like its more famous rival the Lucasfilm THX system, is used in both professional re-recording and commercial theatres. Unlike THX, however, Swelltone also imbues the track itself with a higher level of quality.
Indeed, Swelltone is unique in that it is neither an A-Chain specific recording system (such as Dolby Stereo or any of the three digital theatrical formats, Dolby Digital, DTS, or SDDS), nor is it a set of specifications for a reproduction system (the best known being THX). Rather it combines the best of both worlds, and its design introduced the concept of “encrusting” to pro audio, so that the audio, once monitored and encoded in a Swelltone-licensed environment, needs no further decoding. (Although we labored for years under the impression that this was a wholly original concept, it was pointed out that, as is the case with virtually the whole field of pro audio, the geniuses at Bell Telephone Laboratories arrived at the idea first. In this instance, it was the famous Philadelphia-to-New Orleans Code transmission in 1919, which utilized varying levels of encrusting at repeater stations along the way.) Extensive tests with all major sound formats have indicated that Swelltone is completely compatible with all systems including, we might add, playback in THX theatres.
A great majority of Swelltone-encrusted films have been mixed at the birthplace of Swelltone, Weddington Productions in North Hollywood. Kafka, the first Swelltone film, was mixed there in 1991, followed by Reservoir Dogs, King of the Hill, Suture, plus soon-to-be-released Hype!, Gray’s Anatomy, and Schizopolis. The only other theatrical Swelltone mix was for The Underneath, which was mixed at Sound One, Studio C, in New York. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it needed very little modification to meet Swelltone certification.
The Underneath was also notable in that it was the first film whose laserdisc release directly benefited from Swelltone technology. One of the supplemental chapters introduced our master audio reference signal – the Type TG voice warble. This signal is the results of extensive listening tests conducted in Sweden in the early ’80’s which showed that these band-limited voice warbles were more accurate than pink noise in “matching timbre and level characteristics of the multiple speaker arrays”.
Video Essentials is the first direct-to-home video Swelltone release. (Joe Kane has been a big supporter of ours for years.) Although the Swelltone encrusting remains from the original mixes of the above-named theatrical mixes, the benefits of going “direct to Swelltone”, as was the case with the AC-3 presentation of Video Essentials, should be obvious to all. As usual, encrusting is also totally compatible with standard Dolby Pro-Logic presentations. (You should set your surround delay to 30 msecs.) Although the mix for Video Essentials employed the prototype encrusting unit, in the near future we will be offering a rack-mountable unit for sale; again, the proceeds after expenses will go to AIDS research.
The Swelltone logo at the head and tail of Video Essentials is actually an “extended dance mix” of The Underneath’s test material. (If you listen carefully, you can hear a reprise of our Type TG voice warble, in addition to a large number of other familiar sounds.) The sound waves shown funneling into Beethoven’s ear at the beginning of the logo are actually not quite round, thus visually representing the Swelltone “realignment” principles. The logo was created by Van Ling and Allan Manning of Banned From The Ranch Entertainment based on Aaron Glascock’s original “In One Ear, Out The Other” concept. I cut the sound effects for the logo with Mark Mangini and Steve Lee, and it was mixed by the great Ted Hall at Pacific Ocean Post in Santa Monica.
Just as the THX laserdisc program introduced their proprietary video reference signals, so too is Swelltone concerned with the picture quality of laserdiscs. Throughout the whole program of Video Essentials (on line 279) we have our unique Swelltone visual reference signal. That’s the good news; the bad news is that it can only be analyzed with the now-discontinued Hewlett Packard Proctoscope. (If you look around you might find a deal on a used one.)
Proceeding from the fact that all systems, both A-Chain and B-Chain and A/B Chain (only Swelltone), are essentially meaningless to the creative process of a film’s soundtrack – what really matters is the creativity that goes into the track. Thus, in 1993 those of us involved with Swelltone thought it important to put meaning into our meaninglessness and decided to charge a license fee of $500. for the Swelltone logo which would be donated directly by the film’s producer to the AIDS-related charity of their choice. Regardless of the hidden, backwards-masked humor you might find in the world of Swelltone, this is quite serious. (There is another $2. charge payable directly to me as a trademark and licensing fee; this check is never cashed.)
Any questions about Swelltone – either the process itself or the sale of Swelltone items (profits of which go to AIDS research) – can be directed to me at Post Office Box 24609, New Orleans, Louisiana 70184, or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Larry Blake is a sound editor/re-recording mixer who is co-creator of Swelltone with Mark Mangini and Aaron Glascock.
Most of the first fourteen chapters of the disc are complete in themselves, requiring little explanation beyond what is provided in the tutorial. You may have to go over some of the material several times before picking up all that is being presented. The section in Chapter 1 about the proper viewing environment is an example. Watch carefully when the image on the screen of the TV is held constant while the area around the set is changed in both intensity and color. Most of you will find it hard to believe that the image on the TV is not changing, but if you look at the video signal on a waveform monitor, you’ll find that it doesn’t change. These examples are reprised in Chapter 15 using a slightly different scale.
The Disc Takes You through the Video World
“You’ve probably noticed that no two people seem to set the TV controls the same way. To make matters worse, people often turn knobs without knowing what the individual controls will do to the picture. This is part of Video Essentials, an explanation of how each control changes the picture.
Did you know that the Brightness control is used to set the level of the dark parts of the picture? … or that the Contrast or Picture control sets the peak light output? … or that the Sharpness control usually distorts the picture as it is increased? Most of the television audience has not been told how to correctly adjust these controls. There are several reasons for this.
First, properly setting these controls requires the use of test patterns, and not just the ones you can find late at night on your local TV station. Second, even if you have the test patterns, you need to know how to use them, including how to detect and compensate for any errors your set might be introducing into the picture. Third, you might be unpleasantly surprised when you find that after properly adjusting the controls, your set can’t compete with direct sunlight and still produce a good picture.”
Catches You Up on Where We Are with Audio
“When reproducing program material, high fidelity sound is just as important as great looking video. The speaker system shown here reflects some of the changes that have taken place in Home Theatre systems over the past few years.
Certainly the number of speakers has grown from the conventional stereo system. This Home Theatre configuration is designed to recreate the ambiance and sound quality of a high end movie or television mixing stage. The sound quality achieved in the program mastering process can now be heard at home.
Introduces Dolby Digital or Dolby AC-3 as it Was Called When We Wrote the Script
“There is also Dolby Surround AC-3 audio information on this disc. This discrete digital 5.1 channel system gives you the five independent, full bandwidth channels of audio available in many movie theatres. The five main channels are designated as Left, Center, Right, Left Surround, and Right Surround. The remaining .1 channel is an effects track, containing low bass information. This track can be programmed to be completely independent of the other five channels or contain some of their low bass information. Since the channels are independent, they can be used for other purposes, such as multiple narration tracks, conveying two channel Dolby Surround encoded information, true stereo, or even monaural sound. A Dolby AC-3 decoder is required to take advantage of this information. Look for an AC-3 output on the latest generation of laserdisc players.”
Video Functions Are Detailed on Side 2
“The Sharpness control adjusts the amount of detail enhancement or high frequency peaking to be added to the video signal. In this picture the transitions from the gray background to the black lines are clean. In most sets, increasing the Sharpness control will add extra edges to at least some of the transitions in the picture, making them stand out. The problem is that you are adding information to the display that is not part of the original signal. Noise is also added to the picture when increasing the Sharpness control. While this added noise may give the impression of more detail, it actually has little or nothing to do with the original signal or any real picture detail. In both cases, turning the Sharpness control up to the point of adding false information is pushing it beyond its correct setting. The correct position of the Sharpness control is just below the point where extra lines are being added to the picture.
Then there is a significant reward for all of your efforts in adjusting your system. It can be found in the middle of Chapter 15. It is a montage of video and film original images with spectacular music by Mark Gasbarro. You’ll have to know how to operate your player’s remote control to get at this section easily. Search for Frame 34,443, then press Play on the remote control. You’ll see and hear the rewards of your efforts. This six minute section of Chapter 15 is the introduction to great audio and visual quality to come.
One thing you won’t find about the program on the disc or in the album cover notes is that several of the chapters have multiple index markers. This information has not been included because many laserdisc players don’t recognize the indexing capability of the CD audio sub-codes. Examples of machines that do recognize these codes would include the Pioneer LD-S2 and the Philips CDV-488. If your machine does understand and respond to these codes, you’ll most likely seem them displayed along with the frame and chapter counts on the front panel.
A comprehensive index that includes the index markers for Video Essentials Release 1 can be found here.
A comprehensive index that includes the index markers for Video Essentials Release 2 and 3 can be found here.
Joe: Kane Productions is located at
Joe Kane Productions
12526 Otsego Street
Valley Village, CA 91607