18 Feb

Updates in a hectic schedule

Few days ago Avid has released a new update for Pro Tools and for the S6 control surface. For some reason I always get excited when a new update is out, reading the release documents to find out what bugs has been ironed out, to see what might be the new add-ons. The problem is, with a quite busy schedule it is very hard to find a few days where I can execute the update, and after the install I have time to test the new updates. As we also use the S6 in live broadcast environment, it’s imperative to test every new update. Stability is the main point. I rather have fewer features with great stability than plethora of options with occasional hiccups and crashes.

Planning

This weekend we have fewer broadcast events, so I marked my calendar to update both Pro Tools and the S6 to the latest, hopefully greatest versions. After that, the next two day will be post mix days so I’ll have the opportunity to test the new updates thoroughly.
Usually, after I’m finished with the normal daily schedule, I reach for my trusty test sessions to see if the system is as stable as we need during a live mix situation. Of course, during these tests I do much more than I usually need on a live broadcast event. But I think if it’s capable of performing 2 or 3 times more things than we need, than it’s surely can do what is asked of it. On a side note, so far our experience with the S6 in live broadcast situation has been flawless.

S6 update process

Do it

Usually the update process is simple and fast. Download the files from your Avid account, upload the necessary S6 file onto a thumb drive, and transfer the Pro Tools installers to the dedicated computers. From this point, it’s a matter of a few minutes to be completely up-to-date. This is time of careful attention.
I like to pay attention to every nuance from the boot up process. This is important. Is the computer and the S6 booting up as it was before? Is it faster or slower or the same? Any difference can be a clue if something goes wrong. If the booting is fine, start as you would on any regular day. In my case, lock Xmon to the surface, start Pro Tools and launch a session, this time I suggest to have a test session. This test should contain a huge mix with lots of complicated routing and many plugins on channels and buses, some VCA groups and a complete master chain with multiple feeds. I think it’s wiser to build a bigger-than-needed test scenario so you can really see how the whole system perform under pressure. From now on, use the surface ore actively than you usually do. Edit plugin settings, bank from front to back, automate the hell out of your session, while record automation in the session. Add markers on the fly, scroll, zoom and use the Master module on the S6 to edit your master plugin chain. At this point sound doesn’t really matter. I mean your should look for any hiccup or distortion, but this mix is not going to be a candidate for the Grammy award, the sole purpose of this exercise is to see if the system is working absolutely flawless.
I usually do one more thing to disturb the process, modify groups on the fly so Pro Tools has to update the assignments, and also has to update the automation. While this is really not recommended to do on the fly, if you can do this and nothing bad happens, you can be sure about that your system will perform absolutely perfect under demanding circumstances.

S6 module update

If, for some reason I don’t have ample time to test everything then I usually “pre-test” things on my MacBook Pro and if I experience no problems whatsoever, run a shorter test on the main system. However, this is only if for some reason (due to a nasty bug) we absolutely need the update but don’t have time to thoroughly test it.

Results

The last two days proved that the new updates are not only safe to use, but they make our life a bit easier too. Pro Tools is very stable, I experienced no crashes or hiccups whatsoever, not even with the biggest tests I’ve made. The S6 update has some very nice add-ons and the the whole surface feels a bit more responsive. So all in all, I’m very happy with these two updates, and as they proved to be stable, the rig is officially back in live broadcast too.

10 Feb

To bass manage or not

That is the question. A serious one indeed. As you might recall, we purchased a complete JBL LSR 6300 series stereo and surround monitoring into 3 of our studios. Since then we always try to reach the best settings so that we can really trust the whole system. This might seem like an easy task, as we already has pretty well treated studios acoustically, but still, when you dive into this topic, believe me, you’re going to spend crazy amount of time adjusting, measuring and tweaking. At every stage, you’ll be surprised how much work is going into some very tiny detail which makes the whole system more smooth, more punchy and more balanced, and still, there’s still room for improvement. As you discover the next step, you realise that your knowledge is lacking, so you dive even deeper, discover new things, and this circle just goes on and on and on.

Right now, we are at a stage where we seriously considering to use bass management, but not only in surround. We try to achieve a so perfect state that even the stereo system can be a 2.1 “bass managed” system. Why is it so important to use the sub? Because we deal with every aspect of post production daily, and a huge part of this is music. Music in almost every genre you can possibly imagine. With this in mind, I would like to have systems that properly “tell” me what’s going on in every area from 20Hz up to the human hearing limit. Of course the hard part is that it’s not that easy to properly integrate the sub so it is truly supplement the stereo and the surround system (bass management) and still have a powerful LFE in surround when we need it. Frankly it’s somewhat good that I didn’t know this much about this topic, because if I did know this, I would probably tried to make it someone else’s responsibility. The problem is my deep utter obsession, which doesn’t let me leave things alone. This obsession leads to long and thorough research, practice and many failures and re-starts. But the reward at the end is well worth this long and gruelling journey. I’ve learnt lots of things about room acoustics, acoustic treatment, loudspeakers, positioning, adjusting, testing, and measuring things with Smaart (phase, magnitude and how to treat things).

Although a not so sophisticated simple SPL measurement can make your system better, if you’re serious about a proper monitoring system, some kind of more sophisticated measurement system is a must. We chose Smaart as we have experience with it. My live sound experience was a huge help in this area. This is almost like tuning a PA system, but in a much more controlled environment, at lower volume, and generally you have to be more precise. But the fundamentals are the same. First we started with simple RTA measurements to find the problem spots. Because our rooms are properly treated acoustically, we only had one or two, but I really wanted to get rid of them. We had some problems in the 60Hz area (a peak) a dip in the 100Hz area and a wider peak at around 170Hz. Up from that point, everything was pretty smooth, I would say it’s like a perfect studio. After identifying the problematic areas, we switched to Transfer function measurement to check phase/magnitude relations, adjust angles and positions with the help of a laser measure. While it might sound a bit to geeky to make a fuss about a few centimetres, believe me, it has a huge impact on sound. After carefully adjusting every position and angle, the phase response of the system improved considerably. Of course, listening to sweeps and pink noise is not really an enjoyable thing, so at this point I switched to some very well known test material. My “Soundcheck” playlist contain many genres of selected songs and albums which I know intimately, heard them on many systems both at low and high SPL.

plot1

The music listening test proved that our efforts improved the whole system. Only adjusting the angles and playing with the positions (only by a few centimetres) made the stereo and surround much more defined. When using the stereo system, we gained a very strong and convincing phantom centre, all the tiny panorama changes become very obvious, and the system suddenly properly painted a 3 dimensional sonic field with detailed effects. Improving the phase relations also made the transient response much better.

Huge part of these measurements depend on the data you gather through Smaart, so you must be very familiar with what you see on the screen. It’s not enough to measure and capture data, you have to understand what you see, and, obviously, always check the adjustment with music, use your ears. It’s very important to remember that all the scientific measurements are there to help you, but at the end of the day, you simply cannot trust your life on these data.

phaseplot

Next we tried to eliminate all the frequency peaks and dips. We used the JBL’s room correction feature to get rid of the lowest problems (the 60Hz area). Constantly measuring with Smaart while adjusting the dip switches and the rotaries. One friendly advise: wear some ear protection while doing these adjustments. It is very tiring to listen to pink noise at this level for long time, and it is completely unnecessary while you’re adjusting the system. Spare your ears stamina for the actual listening tests. The room correction perfectly treated our first and biggest problem. The next two problem areas were treated with some minor EQ adjustment. These peaks and dips were so tiny (within 3–5dB) that we found that this is the easiest way to deal with them. After smoothing out the whole system I double checked the levels both with the stereo and the surround system and made some adjustment to be as exact as possible. As I said before, leave enough time to do these things. This process took more than 8 hours of work! After this period, no matter how cleverly you try to protect your ears, you need rest. Seriously. Don’t make huge decisions at the very end of a day like this.

The last day

After a good night sleep, it’s time to check what we did with actual test material. To really test the system, in my opinion you need dialogue, effects (mixed), music (many genres), and full film mix. If your system is properly adjusted, all the different material will sound as it should. Original film mixes will sound punchy with great dynamic range, compressed modern music will sound, well, compressed, original score music will have real 3d depth, and in surround you should feel that the sound really give that additional depth of field. When I was listening to carefully selected test material, I tried to focus on the well-known properties of the test music, I gladly found that the system is better than ever. These measurements helped us to re-adjust the whole stereo and surround monitoring to make it a proper, trustable system.

While the listening test made every one of us very happy, the last and most important test was awaited for us, real work on the system, and then check how our new “perfect” system translates to the real World! We produce material for TV, Radio, Cinema and Web. So the next few mixes become our reference. Written on CDs and DVDs, copied to pen drives and hard disks and checked as many different places as we could.
Finally, our last tests showed that this JBL system translates amazingly well! Better than I assumed. So for now, we’ve been using the bass managed 2.1 system, and the bass managed 5.1 system ever since, and very happy with it.

I know that this system still has room for improvement, but unfortunately that would require much more time. This is the way it goes: now we have really tiny error spots which would take incredible amount of time to solve, or at least improve a bit. But right now, this system serve us so well, translate so perfectly that we all think this is not only good enough, but a joy to work on.
Please be aware of the difficulties when implementing a bass managed system. It’s far from easy, and you can easily make your system more misleading if you’re not careful. If you don’t have ample time to do the measurements and adjustments properly, or you don’t have the necessary knowledge or equipment to do so, hire a professional. It might cost you some money, but in my opinion it would cost much more if your mixes won’t translate well, and every director, conductor and musician would be miserably surprised to hear the final mix at other places. Invest the time and energy, or the money into this process, it’s worth.

03 Feb

Lack of posts (again…)

I know I’ve promised that I have foolproof plans so even if I don’t have time to breathe, posts will come. Well, it seems that my plan failed miserably. At first I thought the start of this year will be a bit more relaxed, but it turned out to be even busier than the end of last year, which was a true chaos schedule wise. I just wanted to let you know that I have no plan to abandon this little place, ironically I have more than ever post to write and publish, but honestly didn’t have time or energy to write.

In the next few weeks though you’re going to read about many things. This hectic first few weeks inspired so many posts. About acoustics and different loudspeakers and their measurement and adjustment. About the importance of critical, analytical thinking when you want to build and operate a big system, and of course, about my beloved DAW, that’s working hard daily almost flawlessly.

Thank you for the many, many emails (I think I’ve managed to answer them all), everything is fine here, I’m busier than ever, more curious than ever, which means I’m going to write many posts in the very near future. Stay tuned!

26 Jan

My Pro Tools wish list for 2015

I’m absolutely not that type who make New Year resolutions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a list I would like to do. And, of course, there’s absolutely a list I would like to see in the near future in my favourite software. So, here’s my short list:

  1. Multiple marker tracks. With this so I could really organise them, use different ones for DX or SFX, etc. Even if you’re working in music only production it can be immensely useful to have more option here. For example have one to mark the parts of the song, another category for re-takes or mistakes, another one for mix notes and so on. In post production this would be a great feature.
  2. Clip bins. Almost like in Media Composer. Different bins for SFX, MX, DX. This would be also great for all kinds of audio job. Another great opportunity to keep your session organised.
  3. Remove the remaining silly limitations from HD. I’m an HD owner without HD hardware. I can’t use the full solo capability of Pro Tools for example, only if I use it with Avid HD hardware. This is nonsense in my opinion. Every HD owner should have the ability to use Pro Tools HD software freely, without limitations on any hardware available on the market.
  4. Revibe and other plugins efficiency. I truly love Avid’s Pro series plugins. They are spectacular sounding great and efficient tools. I also love and use Revibe which is still one of the best reverbs available in post production. But it is very far from being efficient. It’s not a big deal when I’m on HDX, but as I freelance, in native, it can literally eat up a quad i7 MacBook Pro in seconds. This is not right. I know it’s always on full throttle (working in 5.1) but still, take Exponential audio as a good example. Revibe should be much more efficient. Please Avid, make it more native friendly, just as your other great plugs.
  5. Bugfix, bugfix, bugfix. Seriously. If Avid won’t add many features, but iron out many bugs, I’d be a happy user who happily pay even the subscription fee.

I know there are many other things that should be added to Pro Tools, but this is my very short list, which would make me absolutely happy. So happy that I would gladly pay the new Avid tax-subscription price.