A Qualified Panegyric

As the process of innovation gets ever faster, I’ve noticed that combinations of workflow and gear now resemble snapshots more than portraits.  When I was at Post Logic years ago we had rooms that didn’t substantially change for some time-- a big analog desk with fader automation, and an Adams-Smith AV system controlling various 24 tracks, DATS, video machines, and the odd 2 track.  Certainly we tried to innovate as far as the technology would allow--it was a big deal when we put all the sound effects CDs in a central jukebox with a Mac in each room to search and audition, for example--but a picture of the room taken in the late 80s would have been substantially the same five years later.

What a difference a few decades makes.

These days, a workflow/gear combination may go roaring past me with only a fleeting glimpse before being swallowed forever by progress.  So I want to take a moment and talk about the present workflow “snapshot”.  Some things that have been around for a while have been joined by some newer things, and some older things have seen some dramatic improvements.  Since this is largely a love letter to the D-Control, I’m putting it here, but it involves a variety of other gear not necessarily limited to the Avid marque.

Here are some highlights from the present snapshot:

Blueface 32 fader D-Control

Pro Tools 11HD

Pro Tools HDX|3 talking to Focusrite Rednet 5’s and HD I/Os

Aphex Aural Exciter and Big Bottom

Avid Pro-Lim, Reverb One, Revibe

Sources from the stage on Yamaha Rio 3224Ds via the Dante network

And here’s my workflow:

In the morning, set up and sound check a guest artist of some type.  Could be hip-hop, could be rock, could be blues, could be pop, could be latin, could be anything.  Anywhere between 10 and 60 inputs.  After that, rehearse with the house band (48-58 inputs depending) setting the show order and possibly recording some new cues.  Then camera blocking, and if time is available I may get to play back the last camera pass of the guest artist to get it as dialed in as I can.  Then and at some point we do the show.  Depending on time available before the network feed, maybe some quick touch-ups to the musical performances, but mostly it airs as it went down.

Here are the things that make coming to work fun.

First, as I said before, the D-Control.  Being able to have a dozen different Custom Fader setups a single button away is really what makes this whole thing possible.  I set all 32 faders for Custom, with drums on one setup and the rest of the band on another (the drum submaster lands on the band setup).  It keeps things calm on the active layer while making a quick look at the kit for a touchup simple.  Multiply that by two bands, and you get an idea of why it’s important to me.  And when last minute things get thrown my way, after a quick layer edit I’m ready to go.  I keep another layer with just masters on it for switching stems in and out of record and selecting which busses feed the external meters.  The surface is also very good at letting you know what the automation is doing: the status lights on the channels really yell out what state they are in, and since my workflow involves hitting Write To All during rehearsals and Write To End when recording, having those buttons dedicated on the surface is really useful.

I also find D-Control amazingly responsive.  I know it’s just a big mouse, but it reacts instantly and doesn’t fight me.  Some other digital desks I know seem to love to fight.

Up top I mentioned this observation was “qualified”.  Of course, the biggest irritation for me is Avid abandoning the platform just as I'm starting to fall in love with it.  I understand corporations have to chart their own courses--I just wish they had done a redesign/relaunch of ICON instead of abandoning it for the S6 project.

And of course I share the usual gripes about the surface that have been with us since it came out.  The meters are strange, no way around it.  It’s always a shock to go from the meters on the desk to the ones on the Mix screen, especially now that we have such a great selection of meter ballistics in 11.  My personal grump is the control spacing--the console could have been probably a third smaller without sacrificing utility (which would also have made the top row of encoders a little more reachable by standard-sized arms).  I’m not as unhappy with the scribble strips as some others seem to be--they’re a reminder of what the state of the art was ten years ago, but still an enormous source of critical information while working.

Now that I’ve mentioned Pro Tools 11 I can list a few things about it that make my present workflow possible.  First of all, in the configuration I have, it’s much more stable than any other Pro Tools version I’ve ever used.  There was release a few years back that would drop record during concerts, which was not good for my blood pressure.  11 feels completely different in this regard from its predecessors: the spikes are gone from the system status bars, and while this may just be the effect of re-writing the graphics software it certainly doesn’t feel that way.  Taken together this means a reduction in much of the pucker factor when mixing in the box.

Second is the Offline Bounce capability.  Since most of my work involves song-sized chunks I guess I could use the regular Bounce to Disk function and not give up too much, but I always seem to be in situations where minutes count.  The fastest I’ve seen Offline render a selection that involves quite a few plugs, re-entry paths and a bit of automation is around 4-5 times real time, and mostly it’s slower.  But it works, except for one strange bug (11.0.2).  If your session start time is anything other than 00:00:00;00 (I work in television and therefore drop frame) the original time stamp on any bounce you make will be offset by exactly the difference between your session start and 00:00:00;00.  Annoying, but the workaround is fairly simple: keep your session start time all zeros.  Although for me this means the Session Start time is now 15 hours away from the first recorded material, it also means that any bounces I send over to editorial will fall in to their timeline frame-accurate to the camera master time (which saves them a lot of grief spotting).  I hope Avid fixes this soon.

Third is the ability to automate while recording.  This may not sound terribly important, but it’s a huge timesaver.  Now we all know that the automation in Pro Tools is some of the simplest and at the same time deepest ever written for mixing.  Everyone who was big into SSL or Flying Faders automation, raise your hands: automation used to be really scary, and only those who have seen 60 faders suddenly fly to the wrong position after an hour of careful balancing because you missed one button push know what I mean.  Not anymore--I never even bother to turn automation off these days.  The PT automation suite is really the only one that an operator can start using right away and still be confident the automation isn’t out to ambush him or her.

Those advantages really come together when doing music for television.  When a show has a daily delivery, the feed to the network very often starts an hour or less after production finishes.  In our case, it’s always less,  sometimes 30 minutes or less.  Let’s consider the case where something needs to be tweaked in that time.  If you weren’t able to automate while recording you would either have to rebuild the entire mix very quickly or just punch in spots that really need fixing.  If you wanted to make a minor change for one instrument or vocal across the whole song you would very quickly run out of time, losing whatever good moves you made during the live performance.  With the ability to automate while recording your moves are all safe and you can pick and choose which elements require touching up.  When you have the remix finished, you can quickly select that area, do an offline bounce, and 11 will deliver it to editorial in a third the time it takes to play it out (all the while miraculously saving all the reverb tails, compression ballistics, etc).  My favorite application of this is when we do hip-hop and the artist uses language that Standards and Practices is unhappy with.  When this happens I just select the entire performance (with sufficient handles for the editors), mute the channels that may contain questionable language, label the bounce “Song no vocal” and send it on.  Editorial can then quickly drop it on the timeline in sync, and wherever the lawyers object just swap from the line mix to the remix for a few frames.  It means the show isn’t forced into silence, tone, or some other substitute sound and the song doesn’t get interrupted.

Lastly, let’s talk about sonics.  I don’t consider myself a “golden ears” type, but even I can hear the difference between HDX and TDM.  The amount of detail in the audio now is startling.  Overhead mics now actually reproduce cymbal sounds and not the ripping paper sound we’ve all put up with for so long.  For better or worse, things actually sound more like their sources now than they used to.  I don’t know how they did it, but the sonics are dramatically better. 

Once again I’ve taken way too many column inches to say something simple.  I’m grateful for the combination of tools and toys available now that make mixing easier and more fun.  Which is what it’s always supposed to be, isn’t it?