A former sound engineer for both George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, McGovern talks about his new role and why even solo shops need integrators

Throughout his long and varied career, Tim McGovern has been a radio engineer, a pioneering sound engineer at Skywalker Sound during its digital transition, and a designer of network facilities for the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He has also learned more than a few valuable lessons in flexibility working as chief engineer, alternately, for George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. When we talked to McGovern he was just two weeks into his new job as director of professional services at Advanced Systems Group, an installer and integrator of production, post and shared storage software and hardware in the Bay Area and Southern California. A former client and freelance consultant to the company, he will now be managing ASG’s in-house group that designs engineering plans, builds custom interfaces, installs equipment, and trains and supports post customers in small to large facilities on how to keep it all running smoothly and on budget.
Studio/monthly: Why were you drawn to this new role and what are some of your initial goals for the Technical Services group?

Tim McGovern: ASG has such a broad range of clients. They do very large sites and they do individual producers, but they also do everything in between. That’s part of what’s been interesting to me about them; they span that whole gamut. They are able to take the expertise that they derive from the large clients and apply it to the small clients. These guys are busting at the seams in terms of clients, so my primary goal is to more efficiently handle the volume. Beyond that, it’s about keeping pace with changes in technology in a way that makes the most economic sense to our customers but also doesn’t detract from what they already do best. Everybody talks about product life cycles: first it was five years, then it was three years, then a year. I hear a lot of folks say at this point that the average product life cycle is less than a year. I tend to agree. If you’re not paying attention within the course of a single year, then you’re missing out on all sorts of new ways to skin the cat. That’s what keeps us vibrant and excited about what we do.

But part of what’s also going on there has to do with the direction of technology in general. For a user, technology is getting easier to use and more transparent by the day. The reality is that the underlying technology is getting more complicated, but when it’s working properly, the user doesn’t know and shouldn’t know it’s there. The creatives we deal with are working with increasingly complex systems but all they really want or need to do is cut audio and video and deliver it on time. (By the way, I consider the technicians who support the creatives extremely creative people; it’s just a different type of creativity.) Everything underneath that allows them to meet those deadlines is very complex, but the creatives on staff shouldn’t be burdened with that technology. That’s a gap that ASG is filling. We are able to specify appropriate technology, depending on budget and staffing and expertise, and continue to support that technology, whether through training or upkeep, so the end user doesn’t have to have a full-blown engineering department doing its own support. My goal is just to try to make that process more and more seamless. New technology always brings challenges, but I don’t want our clients to go through the complexity of getting to the bottom of some trouble in the system. That’s ASG’s job.

That seems to make economic sense for mid-size facilities without an engineering department, but what about your smaller customers?

While it’s true that the largest facilities tend to have their own in-house engineering departments, many mid-size facilities don’t and an individual producer definitely doesn’t. But it’s still economically feasible for that individual to hire a company like ASG, have all the support they need to keep things running, then devote themselves to the creative process. The nice thing about ASG is we don’t have just one manufacturer’s solution to offer, we’ve got a whole toolbox full. That lets us be more flexible. If you’re an individual, we can build you a RAID array that’s fairly inexpensive. Even two or three years ago, you couldn’t even think about building something like that on a small scale. You couldn’t touch multi-terabyte arrays! And now you can. There are home computers that ship that way. It’s up to us to figure out how to open that up and get our customers more and faster storage.

What’s one of the biggest technical challenges facing your clients, regardless of facility size?

Technologically speaking, I don’t know that there’s a single biggest challenge other than hoping their previous investments don’t just turn into land fill. They also all want to try to get as much life out of their systems as they can.

Transitioning from out-of-date equipment to newer pipelines must be a huge concern for many.

It is a big concern. What you end up looking at is what they are starting with and what resources they have available. Then you look at where they want to go. You help determine a good transitionary path, so the stuff they currently own ends up getting phased out over time and hopefully within a timeframe that makes sense on the books. Then you’ve got that target of what to end up with. Phasing and staging how we bring in new technology is key, with the goal of always keeping both our small and big clients current.

You’ve had some experience moving between large and small facilities before, specifically from Skywalker Sound to the vastly different Zoetrope Studios.

A place like Skywalker had a lot of staff and a lot of technology, and as a result, they weren’t very nimble. A place like Zoetrope, which was much smaller, had that nimbleness. We only had one guy to keep happy there, and his name was Francis. And when he wanted it, he wanted it now. So we learned how to deliver it from project to project. You weren’t encumbered there by technology that you were essentially stuck with for extended periods. At Zoetrope, if you wanted to try out something new, you tried out something new. If it worked out, great. If it didn’t, then it went. That’s one reason why I ended up going back and forth between Skywalker and Zoetrope. Skywalker had a huge capital investment in their technology; they couldn’t just throw it away. There were options that continually revealed themselves, but it was always seen as too much of a risk to switch the entire pipeline. As technology evolved, the advantages eventually outweighed the risks. So a place like Skywalker was finally able to start transitioning to newer equipment safely, and on the scale necessary to affect the entire workflow. Before all of those workflow “gotchas” had been ironed out with newer digital equipment, it didn’t make sense to bring any of it into such a large operation.

Transitions to newer digital tools are never as smooth or as clean as we sometimes remember them to be, either. Take digital dubbers. When these devices, which started out as DAT tape and became on-and-off hard drives, first came onto a stage, the mixers always asked if they could hear the audio while they were in reverse play, something they could do on analog dubbers. They had to do that with the analog devices because they didn’t have random access to any one point of the track. But on a digital machine, it was simply ridiculous! But it became a requirement. Once the mixers learned how to use the new tool the right way, they no longer needed the feature and it finally disappeared. But at the time, no manufacturer could get in the door without offering that analog-like feature.

Fast-forward to the present: Do you think there are sometimes too many options at everyone’s fingertips, and what’s the challenge in training users in any one direction?

I think that’s a really good point. You’re always run the risk of being too fractured and having too many ways to accomplish the same goal. Then the challenge of any engineering entity is to look into your crystal ball and figure out which one of these manufacturers’ products is going to be more adaptable in the future and has the longest product life. There is so much stuff that was once considered essential but which was put out to pasture by something else that came along and achieved all those essential needs and did it better and cheaper. My favorite example of that is Pro Tools and all of the subsequent plug-ins. We once had to spend thousands on things you now can do with plug-ins, some of which are scary cheap! And they work great, so why not? The seasoned folks will be used to the technology they’re used to, but a lot of the younger guys coming up don’t even know about the analog stuff because it was out of their price range. It’s amazing that an individual is able to achieve the quality and the productivity that used to only be attainable with a very large budget and a very large support staff. As far as ASG is concerned, that individual is treated as if he or she is a huge company. They hold the same weight. Conversely, the huge companies we work with get a personal touch, that custom, boutique-like attention. We want to make the creative process easier and less expensive for our clients, big or small.

How big is ASG’s Technical Services team?

We’ve actually got a fairly large staff and it is expanding. And the collective expertise is pretty great. If a problem comes up from a client, it’s not just one service tech dealing with it; we’ve got a number of other brains, many from different disciplines, looking at the same problem. When a client has a problem, I’ve got computer guys telling me that it’s a buffer issue in the computer, and then I’ve got the younger guys telling me about some new plug-in that gets around the problem without taxing the computer. We have guys here who could build you a custom GUI for your system if you needed it. We basically provide the glue that makes a lot of different technology work well together.

For me, personally, I just like technology. It’s my idea of a good time and I’ve dealt with it forever. And I like puzzles. Back when I started in radio, the puzzles were pretty simple. Moving from radio to production music, with multitrack and synchronizations, on then to film, where you had all of that and picture, the puzzles got increasingly more difficult. Back in the early ’80s, you didn’t see computers as part of the production process. Toward the end of the ’80s you definitely did. Now, computers are at the heart of production, rather than just on the edges. It’s really a computer-based world. And the integration of that from office workflow, to production workflow and whatever you need on the other side of the finished product, such as archiving and the ability to retrieve it again and again, is all computer-based.

I’m sure you get a few wildly unrealistic requests from clients. How do you deal with them?

I have a favorite motto: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Dave Van Hoy, the owner of this company, is an engineer like me, and there are just some jobs he’ll walk away from. He’ll say, “This is headed for trouble and I’m not going to do it.” Our clients always want to achieve, at the least amount of cost, the best quality and most reliability they can. We help them figure out what compromises they can afford to make. You can tell a client, “Based on your budget, you can’t even think about expanding in that area, but you can afford to look at improving in another area that will also help you achieve your goal. But here’s what you’re going to be missing.” One recent client, in order to save some money, got rid of some necessary redundancy, basically computer fail-safe measures that we’d recommended. Then they were burnt by it. We felt bad but they knew they’d gone in a direction we didn’t suggest, so they weren’t mad at us. Sometimes, you have to be burnt before you understand the real need for that kind of redundancy and why it’s worth every penny.

It’s also easier to keep a client than it is to find a new one. Our support team runs the interference to determine what system is the most appropriate for a client. It really comes down to customer education. We’ve got to educate them on what they will get for their money and what they won’t get for their money so there aren’t any nasty surprises. It’s up to them to make the final decision, and they don’t always make good ones. But they rarely get into trouble.

Training must also be key in making sure costly mistakes don’t happen often. How specifically does ASG train its clients?

We do training at different levels. It’s on a need basis for each client. We train the operators at a very high level on how to use a particular system. And if anybody wants to drill down in one specific area, we set it up with the manufacturers and they can get as smart as they want to get through longer-term, feature-specific training. At the other end of the spectrum, we periodically have educational events, whether a barbecue or other similar gathering, to discuss a new technology. We just had one on the iPad. A bunch of network and freelance production people showed up-guys in shorts and guys in suits, and even a few women. At first, a lot of people thought we were trying to sell them something. But we weren’t. We just wanted to discuss the various video-related apps with everyone there. It was a brainstorming session, the brain trust in action. When someones asks, “It would be cool to see dailies on this thing,” then we know we should think about building something, through our software department, to make that happen.

What else separates ASG from other integrators out there?

We partner with all kinds of different people to expand on the services we already provide. The other so-called VARs are basically box houses who plop a piece of equipment down in your room, hook it up, then go away. If somebody else has a specialty that they do better than we do, more than likely you’re going to see us form a partnership with them and go in on the deal together. I’ve been working with these guys for years already, both as a client and as a partner, so I know this first hand. They’ve always looked at ways to both build their business and make the customer happy through partnerships.