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Nagra-D a Recorder to Grow up with
by Maurizio Argentieri

Choosing to work with the Nagra-D in Italy was a very difficult choice but after around 6 years of work, I can now say that I definitely made the right choice. When I decided to buy my Nagra Digital in Italy the work environment at the time offered little reassurance - it was a period of crisis in the working sector, the machine was very expensive and I was very young at only 29, so didn't have much money to spend on something like this. The choice was obviously between a DAT and the Nagra Digital, or to continue working with the Nagra analog. I felt a deep need to grow with my profession and I therefore wanted to invest in something which could grow with me, so I decided to buy a Nagra Digital because I believed that the machine would last me for a long time. Now I needed to solve another problem - money.

I was very young and there was absolutely no way I could buy ND without running into difficulties. I wrote a letter to Nagra Switzerland explaining exactly what I had in mind and asking them to give me a hand with paying for the machine - and would you believe it, a week later a letter arrived from Nagra in Switzerland explaining that they would be able to lend a hand. It wasn't easy choosing to take this path as up till now I have been the only person in Italy working with this type of recorder.

There aren't any post-production studios which have a Nagra Digital and so making this kind of decision gave rise to a series of additional problems with organizing work, as no-one recognized the properties of this machine. No technician working in post-production in Italy knew about this machine and so it required a great deal of effort every time I had to explain to the person coming in after me how the machine worked. Thankfully everything went well.

After about six years of working the the Nagra, I can now truly say that I made the right choice. All my colleagues who chose DAT (Digital Audio Tape) are now having to change something or other, as the 16-bit can no longer cope with the requirements imposed by technological advances and market progress. I simply decided to upgrade the converter and now I have a brilliant machine without spending very much at all. I don't think that my colleagues can do the same thing with their DAT.

That said, these days I have had to grow with my recorder by doing increasingly diverse types of work, but the important thing is that if I didn't have the Nagra-D, it would have been really difficult to do the work.

"BESIEGED" - Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
The adventure began the moment my telephone rang and the production team was calling to arrange a meeting with Bernardo to talk about a possible collaboration with him. I went along and everything started from there.

I read the screenplay and immediately realized that I needed to do something special. From a sound point of view, the story offered a great deal of freedom as (the first fifteen minutes of the film don't contain any dialog) the story is about the life of a pianist who falls in love with an African woman who is studying medicine in Rome and lives in his house doing domestic chores for him to pay for her studies and her accommodation.

He falls in love with her and declares his love through playing the piano and expressing his true feelings in the form of notes, so up to a certain point the sounds arouse Shanduray's feelings.

Bernardo immediately made me understand that within a few moments the piano would become the true protagonist of the film. From then on I immediately realized that I needed to characterize the sound of this piano. It wouldn't be enough just to do a simple recording of the piano, but to make the piano play within a film, giving the audience the feeling that the character who is really playing and so making the audience hear a sound directly linked to the images that they are seeing.

During the film, the sound of the piano can be heard by the audience at various points in the house because while our pianist plays we move from the room in which he is playing to the room in which she is listening. I therefore needed to work towards a support sound which moved in precision with the various images that followed giving the audience the sensation that they were seeing and hearing him as if he were actually in front of them.

In order to reconstruct this in keeping with the necessary realism, I therefore needed to carry out accurate sound research. When carrying out the work in stages, the first thing you need to do is to establish the general sound character of the film - i.e. whether to make a film with an artificial soundtrack or with a soundtrack which is as realistic as possible. I chose the second solution and so the decision as to how we should record the piano made itself.

The house chosen for the takes was a fantastic house at Trinità dei Monti, the famous steps which lead out of the Piazza di Spagna, but is was completely empty and uninhabited. It also had very thick walls and so this would cut off any noises from outside. However, the numerous windows throughout the house would not prevent external noises from coming into the house at all and so the first thing to do before we could begin recording the music was to acoustically isolate the interior of the house. This was absolutely necessary if we were to be able to edit the best parts of the performances and also to enable us to use the music in the film without bringing undesirable noises with it.

To solve this problem, we constructed a series of sound-absorbent panels made from a substance consisting of a sandwich of a 2mm layer of lead and a layer of open-cell polymer with good absorbency properties, and using wood as a support for mounting them.

Then myself and my great microphone technician Vincenzo got down to work and began to build the various panels, which would be placed in front of the windows. We were kept busy, as we had to erect panels in front of almost all the windows, as the recording wasn't only taking place in one room but in two other places, which meant that a large area needed to be isolated.

After about a week's work we had finished everything and the results were extraordinary - you couldn't even hear a pin drop and the natural acoustics of the place remained unchanged. Now we just needed to furnish the room to give it the correct reverberation time but we actually only had to furnish it as it would be in the film and everything was ready. At this point the art director, Gianni Silvestri, had the place in order and now we needed to work on the real sound and on the various sound levels to be used in the film as the images unfold to ensure that the sound is always appropriate to the various images.

This was made possible by giving the editor an extremely versatile support, which could be used on various occasions. The recording session was carried out as follows:

The sound event was recorded from three different listening points so that the same performance of an excerpt could have three different listening points. Therefore at the moment during the film when you pass from one room to another there is not a great deal to be done as you only need to change from one track to another in order to achieve this change in acoustics.
In situations where we start to hear the piano from her room and follow her without interruption, we enter the room at the same time as her until we reach the piano. We needed to have enough material to make a dynamic change, moving animatedly across the different listening points and therefore from one pair of tracks to another being both at the same tempo and adjustable. To make all this possible, the recording technique used for the two intermediate listening points as well as for the one in close-up, was the MS technique. Unlike any other technique, this allows you to vary the width of the sound field and the amount of ambient reverberation during the mix down process, which is fundamental in controlling the part of the sound used to combine the sound with the images. 
For the close-up shot the orthoepic technique was used as it offers great scope for reconstructing the sound scene. It's exciting to see these shots of him playing and with an impressive sound set reconstruction it seems as if he is actually playing the piano.

Two Nagra Digitals were used for the recording and to enable us to record on 8-track. For the nearest listening point, we used a pair of Brüel and Kjaer microphones in orthoepic configuration, which were preamplified by a Millenimedia. Again for the listening point in the foreground, a pair of Sennheiser MKH 80s were used to give a more rounded and sensual character to the sound. These were preamplified by a preamp with Manley valves and so we could choose between a clear and descriptive sound and a softer, more flowing sound at those points where it was required. For the second listening point located in a room approximately six metres away, a pair of Sennheiser MKH 40 and MKH 30 microphones were used in MS configuration which enabled us to vary the amount of reverberation during the mixing. The third listening point was located in the center of the circular stairwell which had a wonderful echo and for that reason we also used a pair of Sennheiser MKH 40 and MKH 30 microphones here, in MS configuration. These two pairs of microphones were recorded using the Nagra Digital preamps.

From there, we left to do some research into some of the most famous piano recordings in order to give us a basis for deciding which direction we should take and to enable us to identify as much as we could within the scope of the narrative of the story, those points at which the piano become the real protagonist of the story.

The choice of piano was made by the pianist Stefano Arnaldi who chose a Steinway & Son which they had brought into the house ready for the recording. The first thing we agreed on was that being new, the piano had a very big, harsh sound and not really the sweet, velvety sound that he had wanted. However, with his plahing skills, the correct positioning of the main pair of microphones and the appropriate opening of the top of the piano, they had done all that they could to achieve the result we wanted.

At the final recording we re-recorded the 8 tracks from the four pairs of microphones in a pro-tools station for editing and this is how we produced the master tape for the music with four different listening points to be used during the editing of the film according to the images.

At this point we were ready to start all the preparations for the takes. During the editing of the sound we were able to take our pick of equipment and the Sound Editor, Sandro Peticca, was able to take his pick of the sound equipment to be chosen to enable us to reconstruct the sound envisaged.

The results of this venture were certainly noteworthy if only because we had the opportunity to do it at all and for this I really must thank Bernardo Bertolucci because, despite the fact that this was the first time we had worked together (and I hope it won't be the last) he trusted me to do whatever I thought was right. Whenever I needed some guidance he was always willing to point me in the right direction and I didn't feel lost for a second because whenever I needed him he was always there.

I must also thank La Exhibo (Sennheiser distributor in Italy) represented by Mauro Mercuri, NAGRA ITALIA represented by Luigi D'Anzelmo and the company CHERUBINI represented by Augusto Cherubini, as without their support none of this would have been possible. Another great venture for this year was for the film "Pane e Tulipani" by Silvio Soldini. We won the David di Donatello award (Italian equivalent of the Oscar) for this film for "Best Sound". The technique used for sound recording in this film was very unusual. We wanted to improve the enjoyment of the sound in terms of its natural quality and we achieved this by setting up a triangle consisting of a sound technician and two microphone technicians who were permanently on set with two booms which were always in operation.

Because of its shape, the system required the use of three channels and the Nagra-D was the only reliable portable machine that would allow you to have 4 CH, otherwise we would have had to use two Stereo recorders which would have been too complicated.

Well that's enough about this new technique, which I don't want to talk about anymore as it is currently being perfected. We obtained really good results using the Nagra-D. I have just finished the takes for Giuseppe Bertolucci's film "L'amore Probabilmente" which was done using the same technique and it is the fourth film I have done using this technique.

Unfortunately, in Italy we have a big handicap with our wound mixing technicians, as they are still unwilling to receive and process signals that are slightly more complex than usual. As a result, the effort and commitment involved in obtaining certain results are often in vain as often not enough care is taken with the extremely delicate process involved.

Fortunately, this is changing in Italy as well and we are seeing the emergence of new, young groups who are very willing to update work on this extremely delicate mixing stage without losing anything at all in terms of quality in the process. 


Nagra News 
No. 19. September 2000.                                                     

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