Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap year and drop-frame time code are conceptually the same

For those in the media production industries, February 29th is a good day to revisit drop-frame SMPTE time code, because both leap year and drop-frame time code came into being for the sole purpose of reconciling two different time bases on which we do things with mundane regularity.

Take the calendar first: our calendar simply charts the sequence of the individual days that comprise a single year. The day is based, of course, on a single rotation of the earth on its axis, whereas the year is based on a single revolution of the earth around the sun. Rotation and revolution are the two different time bases on which our calendar is constructed.

Since it takes about 365.25 days for the earth to revolve around the sun, we collect four of those quarter days and add them together into a single day—February 29—that appears on the calendar once every four years.

We do this because there's no such thing as a quarter-day: you couldn't start a New Year at 6:00 a.m. After all, a day is a day and cannot be partitioned like that. It's an integer.

It's important to see that the concept of the yearly calendar comprises 366 days—February 29 is not imaginary. But rather than adding it every four years, what we are really doing is dropping it from the calendar in every year that is not a multiple of four. If the year is not divisible by 4, then we drop February 29 from our count of days in that year.

It's exactly the same with drop-frame time code, where frames are analogous to days, and hours to years. A video frame is a whole thing, an integer, and we count 30 of them in one second. But the rate at which they proceed is a bit less than 30 per second, more like 29.97 frames per second.

This is the same sort of fractional discrepancy that exists in the annual rate of 365.25 days per year.

We deal with it the same way, by dropping 2 frames from the count at the very beginning of every minute that is not a multiple of 10. In that first second, there are only 28 frames.

So frames 00 and 01 simply do not exist at the beginning of every minute of time code that doesn't have a zero at the end of it (10, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 00 minutes being the exceptions), just as February 29 does not exist in any year that can't be divided by 4. It's as simple as that.

Why go to the bother of doing this? For the calendar, it's long been considered important that the seasons start at roughly the same time every year: if we didn't have February 29 as a corrective, then the beginning of Spring, for example, would progress steadily back through February, January, December, and so on as the years rolled by.

For producers, it's important that the time displayed by your time code reader agrees with the real-time clock on the control room wall. Without drop-frame time code, a one-hour program as measured by your time code would actually run 3 seconds and 18 frames too long, and that would wreak havoc with broadcast schedules.

Note that what we are NOT doing is cutting out frames from our program and leaving them on the cutting room floor, as some of my former students at the Toronto Film School used to believe. Those "dropped" frames are simply never there in the first place, just as February 29 will not "be there" in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The calendar works as "drop-day" code.

The takeaway from this blog entry is that if you can intuitively grasp the concept of leap year, then you've already got the essence of drop-frame time code. Conceptually, they are one and the same.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Seller Beware—When You're Being Shopped for a Price

I got an email last week asking how much I would charge to mix 5 songs for a band's EP. I wrote back asking whether I'd be recording the original tracks, or just mixing tracks that someone else has already recorded for the band. Both, came the reply, and how much would it cost?

I wrote back to ask about the band, number of players, what instruments, etc., so that I could price out the job using the appropriate recording facility, and asking for a couple of possible dates when the band wanted to start recording. This is an important question, because in sales, there's a strong relationship between price, availability and delivery. You can sometimes get a better deal on studio time that would otherwise remain unbooked.

At this point, the answers started to get vague. What was clear, however, was that I was being shopped for a price. In other words, the prospect (not yet a client) had no intention of coming to me for the job, but was only trying to get a handle on the price of a job that most likely he was bidding on himself.

This happens to everyone from time to time, and is one of the reasons why it's not a great idea just to shoot out a price in response to an inquiry. Every job is different in some way, and a big part of the sales process is asking questions to qualify the buyer.

Asking questions not only keeps valuable business intelligence—your pricing policies— out of the hands of your competition, it also saves you from wasting time with tire kickers who would otherwise take up a lot of your time, but never end up buying anything.

The 80-20 rule seems to apply here: 80% of your business comes from 20% of your prospects. This is further refined so that in turn, 80% of your income comes from 20% of them. In other words, 4% (20% of 20%) of your potential clients are responsible for about two-thirds (80% of 80%) of your business.

Asking questions is your best line of defense here, and a genuine prospect will appreciate that you're drilling down in order to provide the best possible service.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MIDI Orchestration

I've just finished a first read-through of the 4th edition of Paul Gilreath's The Guide to MIDI Orchestration, published by Focal Press. Coming in at 600 pages, it's a pretty thorough introduction to the subject of orchestrating a musical composition using MIDI-based equipment and instrument sample libraries.

Several topics of interest to non-MIDI orchestrators and project studio folks alike are covered here, including instrument ranges and playing techniques, notation, voice leading, distribution of melodies and accompaniments to different instruments in the various sections, combining instruments to create different sounds, and achieving specific moods with orchestrations.

For the MIDI producer, there's a wealth of information on equipment, software, choosing sample libraries, and sequencing strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, piano, harp and voices.

The author illustrates portions of the text with screenshots from his favourite digital audio workstations: Cubase/Nuendo, Logic, Digital Performer and Sonar. Unfortunately, Gilreath dismisses ProTools, saying it's "still working to catch up" in this area, which is too bad, given its market penetration together with the strides that ProTools has made in the whole area of MIDI sequencing and sampling since version 8 was released at the end of 2008.

In any event, readers working with ProTools can easily adapt the material to their way of working, which, in most respects, is not too different from the others.

Supplementary material is available online at, including reviews of several good instrument sample libraries, supplementary tutorials, and audio examples, but you have to sign in to access it.

Much of this material—including several full-length, uncut chapters—is still freely available for download as a single zip file from Focal Press at

The book is a terrific reference, and it's refreshing that the author combines description and prescription in almost equal amounts, which is a rare feat. Anyone looking for a grounding in MIDI orchestration would do well to own this book, and will check in with it on a regular basis, if not frequently. It's a beautiful volume, well designed and easy to read, with a crisp and clear layout, and it should be on every music producer's reference shelf.

My criticisms are few. There are numerous errors relating to missing or misplaced illustrations or examples, including a missing reference section with bibliographical apparatus that the author himself refers to twice yet, strangely, is nowhere to be found!

There are also too many proofreading errors, not many of them spelling mistakes, which leads me to believe that spell-check may have served as a convenient substitute for a thorough proofing. This is a tad disappointing in a 600-page book priced at US$82.50 ($86.50 Canadian).

Fortunately, these shortcomings are overshadowed by the author's monumental achievement in turning out what was surely the crowning achievement of his career as a composer for film and television. May his new life as a dentist in Atlanta be as fulfilling!

The Guide to MIDI Orchestration, 4th Edition, by Paul Gilreath, published by Focal Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-240-81413-1