Track Reading for Beginners

By David Jefferson

I make all of my animated cartoons to a pre-recorded sound track because nothing brings the drawings to life as well as sound that fits the action. These days I use a track reading sound head and frame counter together with a two-way synchroniser to check the results and a projector synchroniser to transfer the sound. However, this equipment has been built up over a number of years and there was a time when I used very much ‘make do’ methods. It occurs to me that anyone starting out will be looking for a cheap method to get started so the following is based on experience from my early days.

The process of making .a sync sound cartoon can be divided into five stages.

1. Record the master sound track.

2. Transfer the master sound track to a film sound track so that you have sprocket holes to count.

3. Flay the film track on a sound head and note the frame numbers of the sounds on a Bar Sheet.

4. Animate and shoot the visuals to match the sound.

5. Transfer the sound track to the finished film.

Step one is straight forward. The master sound track is recorded on a tape recorder. If it is to be a film to a record this is also recorded on tape so that it can be synchronised, the usual copyright laws being observed of course. The IAC can help here by providing a copyright license.

In step two the master tape is locked into sync with a stripe sound projector and a sound transfer is made. Not everyone has a projector synchronisor so this is where we come to the first ‘make do’ bit. If you run a particular tape recorder with a particular projector in the same conditions then the chances are that they will keep step with each other to a reasonable extent. As cartoon films are quite short any drift will be within acceptable limits, at least that is what I have found.

I warm up the equipment before making a sound transfer, this is particularly important if the equipment has been stored in a cold place. The projector is run with the lamp on for a while to get it up to normal speed.

When a synchroniser is used a pulse track is recorded on the master tape to work the synchroniser. This can be recorded on a spare track taking a signal from the projector contacts.

The master sound track is recorded onto magnetic film. When the magnetic film track has been read it is not used again so the sound quality is not important. This means that you could use film saved from the cutting room floor if you wanted to or striped white leader. When it comes to the final transfer in stage five I go back to the master tape track so that I have the minimum number of re-recordings.

A synchronising blip is recorded on the master tape about five seconds before the actual sound track starts. You will need this even if a projector synchroniser is not being used. It is a reference point for filming and the starting of the final sound transfer. I work on a reel to reel recorder so I splice in a short piece of noisy tape to give the ‘blip’. Ideally this should only last for one frame on the film. It is the equivalent to the clapperboard sound on a live action movie.

On to step three, the actual track reading. It is necessary to have some equipment to listen to the magnetic film sound track. This could be a purpose built sound head, the sound head on a film editor or a sound projector.

I do the track reading in two parts; First of all I run through the film and mark the sounds on the back with a fiber pen. A wax pencil could also be used. Then I run the film through a frame counter and transfer the information onto a bar sheet. In the absence of a frame counter the sprocket holes can be counted by hand. I have done this in the past without too much trouble.

When I am track reading I find that it is necessary to have a copy of the script to hand because hand wound sound can be rather garbled. If you know the word you are listening for it is much easier to find.

The film is wound over the sound head until the first sound is heard. This will be the sync blip. The film is inched backwards and forwards to find the exact start of the sound and then an ‘X” is drawn on the film. The film is wound on to the next sound. In most films the next sound will be the start of the title music. In this case draw a vertical line on the film at the frame where it starts, indicate with an arrow the direction of the music, and make a brief note on the film to identify it. Wind on to find the finish of the passage of music, draw another vertical line and an arrow pointing back with a note ‘music ends’.

The amount of detail you mark up will depend how tightly you want to sync the film. For instance when making a film to a record it may only need the start of each line of the song marking up. On the other hand, with lip-sync the words will be broken down into individual sounds.

I find track reading music on its own very difficult because of the slurred sound from a hand wound track reader. I settle for marking sounds that stand out such as drum bests, pauses and changes in instrument.

When all the sounds are marked up the film is run through a frame counter and the sounds noted on a bar sheet against the corresponding frame number.

The blip sound becomes frame number one. When the drawings are filmed a one frame exposure of an X will be made at this point.

With the bar sheet filled in the animation can begin. As the drawings are made information about them is written on an exposure sheet. This is similar to a bar sheet except that the frame numbers run vertically instead of across the page. There are columns for each cel level to be used, background, field size, sound track and camera details such as pans and tracks. Filling this in at the drawing stage makes life a lot easier when it comes to filming.

Now we move forward to the point where filming is complete and the cartoon is ready to have the sound transferred. I usually run the film through the frame counter to make sure that it is going to fit the sound.

The master sound track is transferred to the finished film using the same method as in stage two, with the addition of starting the sound and picture in sync. The blip on the master sound track will be on the tape recorder head when the X photographed on the film is in the projector gate.

The method I use to get a sync start is to play the master tape until the sync blip is heard and stop the tape recorder on pause. I then start the projector in the record mode. As soon as I see the synchronising X on the screen I release the tape pause.

I put a countdown mark on the film before the X by drawing a diagonal line covering about ten frames.

Originally printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 1 (Summer 1982)