Having worked with Avid’s new Pro Tools 2020.11 and likewise new Carbon interface for some time now, I wanted to highlight a few fresh features that I’ve found useful in the daily workflow.
Routing Folder: This organizational tool lets you select tracks and route them into a neatly packaged folder which behaves like a traditional Aux channel on steroids. There are two approaches to this—you can create the Routing Folder then put tracks into it, or select tracks and create a Routing Folder directly from them. For me, the value of the Routing Folder is that you can process it like an Aux, but then collapse it with the click of a button. You still have access to Solo, Mute, Insert, Send and so on.
For organization, you can collapse the entire folder structure by clicking on the small folder Icon at the bottom of each Routing Folder; simply click it again to unfold it back. Also, when in the Edit window, you can place the insertion point anywhere in a Folder track and select Shift-F to toggle between closed or open.
If you already have an Aux track setup for such purposes, you can also just click on the Aux and select ‘Convert Aux to Routing Folder.’ You could also just create a ‘Basic Folder,’ which has the same functionality minus the ability to process or route. Folders can also be created within folders for additional sub processing.
By using these folder tools, it makes the session much more streamlined both visually and functionally.
Convert Audio to MIDI: There’s only one word for this feature: Wow! With Pro Tools 2020.11, you can take audio tracks from your timeline and convert them into MIDI files. By selecting your audio clip and dragging it onto an Instrument Track, a Menu box appears with the ability to choose Automatic, Universal, Percussive, Percussive Pitched, Melodic, Polyphony Sustain or Polyphony Decay Conversion Types, and it offers you the option to Consolidate the Clip. You can also choose selections from the Clip List, by selecting the Copy Audio as MIDI dropdown menu option. From there, just drop the Audio Clip with its associated MIDI track to the Timeline. It’s that easy.
All of this is enabled through the authorization of Melodyne in your Pro Tools account. Pro Tools subscriptions and Software Update + Support Plans come with Melodyne 5 essential, which, aside from helping with the Convert Audio to MIDI, allows you to fix those questionable notes.
The first thing I did was take a recorded bass track and turn it into MIDI. From there, I tweaked a few note lengths (only had to do a few!) and assigned it to an Omnisphere stereo sub bass patch. The combination together was ridiculous. I then took a kick drum and turned it into MIDI, assigning that to an 808 kick in another piece of software. Imagine where we can go from here.
Dark Theme: For those who like the drama of the dark side, you can alter how the Mix and Edit windows look. By going to Preferences > Display > UI Theme, the dropdown menu lets you select between Classic or Dark. If you select Dark, Pro Tools will ask you to restart for the UI theme change to take effect. After restarting, you’ll notice a whole new world of color attitude. I like it just for a change of mindset, and I hope to see more adjustments available for it in future updates to allow for various gradients and more. It is cool, though, for the late evening sessions or when you want to lower the lights and have some attitude.
When composer/musician/producer Danny Elfman and actress Bridget Fonda, his wife, put their home on the market in the fall of 2020, the real estate listing for the mansion, located in the tony Fremont Place neighborhood of Los Angeles, was greeted with interest by those who love classic architecture, strident vintage interior decorating, and, in the case of audio pros, well-appointed home studios.
Elfman’s music career kicked off with the fondly remembered New Wave/Jump Swing band Oingo Boingo, but today he’s best-known for his work as a film composer, with a Grammy, two Emmys and four Oscar nominations to his credit. Films like Spider-Man, Good Will Hunting and The Girl on the Train have all featured his music, as have decades of Tim Burton movies, such as Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
A spin through YouTube reveals numerous interviews done in the home studio over the years, with the recording gear in the background changing over time, but in the final iteration of the recording space, shown in the real estate listing, there’s plenty of things to see, not least of which are the gymnastic rings and lush red drapes that serve to dampen reflections (and presumably cover some acoustical absorption panels).
Nonetheless, for audio pros, the focus is the desk. At the far end beneath the dual computer monitors sits an Avid Artist Mix control surface, adjoined by what appears to be a Novation Launch Control portable controller. Further to their right is a PreSonus Central Station Monitor Control Remote on the desk, used to look after the ADAM Audio S4A MK1 active studio monitors. Behind it all on the floor sits an APC BE350R surge protector.
Elfman and Fonda purchased the 8,346-square-foot mansion in 2000 for $2.125 million. The six-bedroom edifice, built in 1920, also includes a two-story ballroom that doubles as a massive home theater – a feature which may have proven helpful for test-driving film scores.
Elfman isn’t the only former member of Oingo Boingo to wind up with his own recording space; keyboardist Richard Gibbs went on to found the gorgeous destination studio Woodshed Recording in Malibu, CA, which we profiled in 2016. That facility miraculously avoided being burnt to the ground by the 2018 Woolsey Fire, despite the house on the property, like others in the area, going up in flames. Over the years, Woodshed has hosted the likes of U2, Coldplay, Chance the Rapper, Barbra Streisand, Sting, The Chainsmokers, Kanye West, Lorde, Neil Young and other notable artists.
UPDATE: Elfman and Fonda sold their mansion in late 2020 for $8.75 million, reportedly to TV showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.
If there’s one thing that we studio people like, it’s consistency in our gear. As the primary brains to most setups, the computer is central to that theme, so when my trusty Mac Pro “cheese grater”—which ran perfectly for 10 years—went down for the count a few months ago, I didn’t take it lightly. It was time to make some big decisions. I weighed the basic questions we should always ask ourselves when upgrading: Do I stay with my current platform (a Mac, in my case)? What’s my budget? What’s the latest hardware on the market to fit my I/O needs? Am I buying for the short term or long?
Over the last few years, I thought about upgrading my old Mac Pro, my primary DAW platform, when I ran into roadblocks with OS upgrades, software and Pro Tools compatibility, but the little “trash can” shape that Apple used for Mac Pros manufactured between 2013 and 2019 just didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to put my Avid HDX card and my UAD Octo card into a chassis. The trash can form factor is now history, however. After working on my laptop for a few months to get me through my “crisis,” I made the move and went big with a new Mac Pro Rack.
Luckily for me, my friend, producer/drummer extraordinaire Omar Hakim, had recently been through the whole process, so I had a guide. “Right before I got my new Mac, my ‘trash can’ suffered a catastrophic thermal meltdown,” he told me. “I ended up using a laptop for a few months while I was waiting for the release of the new Mac Pro Rack. I settled on a 12-core Mac Pro Rack model with 96 GB of RAM, a 2 TB factory SSD card and a base video card. I added two 2 TB internal Samsung SSD EVO 970 NVMe M.2 cards with two Vantec PCIe adapters—components I purchased, assembled and installed myself. I then loaded up my two Avid HDX cards and Universal Audio Satellite PCI card. My studio has never run smoother!” He noted that he purchased the base amount of RAM from Apple and bought the rest from OWC.
With his feedback in mind, I made the decision to purchase a Mac Pro Rack over an iMac Pro or Mac Mini. I visited Apple.com and went through the process of ordering the components I wanted: a 3.2 GHz 16-core Intel Xeon W processor-based machine with the base 32 GB of 2933 MHz DDR4 RAM to get started.
I also worked with Rob Zenn at Alto Music on this purchase; Zenn convinced me to get the AMD Radeon Pro W5700X 16 GB graphics card, as it includes four additional powered Thunderbolt 3 ports. We made sure the hardware came with macOS Catalina version 10.15.5 installed so as not to get into conflicts with the upcoming Big Sur OS release.
The good news: I had a machine that would rock. The bad news? It came to a whopping $9,900. However, since this is the brains of my setup, which I use every day to compose, mix or create music, I judged it to be a good allocation of funds. Besides, it’s a tax write-off!
When the machine arrived, crated in foam, I couldn’t believe what a monster it was. It’s built like a tank. I was taken aback by its design and downright sturdiness. I’ve had a lot of Macs in my day, but nothing like this. It came with eight PCI Express expansion slots, two of which were filled by my Avid HDX card and the Universal Audio UAD-2 OCTO card.
Engineer Mike Dwyer and I slipped on the heavy-duty rack rails (sent separately from Apple) and slid it into the 10-space rack I purchased for it. We hooked up an HDMI video cable from my Samsung to the Mac, set up the cool black wireless keyboard and mouse, and fired it up. Within a few minutes, it was game on.
Next, we attached a single AVB Ethernet cable from my new Avid Carbon interface (which I reviewed last month) to the Mac Pro, and plugged in a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 keyboard and PreSonus FaderPort 8 into two of the included USB ports. I had made an Apple Time Machine backup of my laptop the night before and saved the data on a portable SSD drive, which I hooked up to the new computer.
Using Apple Time Machine’s Migration Assistant, I transferred the files from my backup to the new Mac Pro Rack, and while it took almost two hours, everything transferred over to the new Mac: Pro Tools 2020.11, Reason, all of my Vienna Instruments, Omnisphere, Universal Audio Console and all of my plug-ins. I opened Pro Tools and everything simply worked. With just a few software updates, it was the easiest migration I’ve ever experienced.
This week, I’m ordering 32 GB more RAM and a few SSD internal drives to load the chassis up even more. It’s been flawless in its performance so far, and not even my heavy virtual instrument sessions can choke it. For the first time, I’ve found a machine that works faster than I do, which has already helped my creativity. For me, it’s already worth the money.
Santa Cruz, CA (November 23, 2020)—Antares Audio Technologies has introduced Auto-Tune Hybrid, a new edition created solely for Avid Pro Tools platforms.
Hybrid is reportedly optimized for Avid’s DSP-based hardware to give users more processing power but also works on native systems when Pro Tools users aren’t using such hardware. It is optimized for low-latency tracking on Avid DSP hardware, including Carbon, HDX and VENUE | S6L systems, offers Basic and Advanced real-time pitch correction, and also sports Classic Mode for the “Auto-Tune 5 sound.” Compatible with the Auto-Key: Key Detection plug-in, it also offers MIDI control of pitch and other parameters.
Auto-Tune Hybrid, which retails for $399.99, is included at no additional cost to subscribers of Auto-Tune Unlimited monthly or annual plans. Hybrid is one of numerous planned upgrades and releases to be included in Auto-Tune Unlimited.
I can honestly say that Pro Tools is a vital tool in my daily workflow, so when Avid sent an advance unit of Pro Tools Carbon my way, I was anxious to put it through its paces and see what it could do on some real-world sessions.
Avid’s Pro Tools Carbon is a new hybrid audio production system starting at $3,999 that combines a hardware interface with onboard HDX DSP acceleration and your native computer’s CPU power. With this Hybrid Engine, you can track and monitor with near-zero latency when using AAX DSP plug-ins. Intelligently, when you put a track into DSP Mode for recording, the chips in Carbon process the AAX DSP plug-ins while the computer plays back your mix in Native mode. Simply switch off the tracks in DSP Mode and the whole session is back in Native Mode, ready for mixdown.
Let’s take a quick look at the Carbon hardware, then get into how it all works together. The sleek 25×34 simultaneous I/O, 19-inch, 1U rack-mountable interface features two variable Z, unbalanced, ¼-inch TS instrument inputs on the front, as well as four separate stereo headphone outputs. There are eight 20 Hz to 20 kHz XLR Mic/Line preamps on the rear (four of which have Variable Impedance), as well as eight channel Line In and Line Out DB25 25-pin D Sub multipin connections. There’s a TRS Monitor L/R Main output, ¼-inch footswitch connector for talkback on/off, WC I/O and two Ethernet connectors. Also on the rear are a pair of ADAT optical inputs and two ADAT optical outputs, offering 16 channels at 44.1 – 96 kHz and eight channels at 176.4 – 192 kHz.
Back to the front panel—you’ve got eight separate LED meters for the Mic/Line inputs and a Main L/R stereo out meter. Input levels are controlled with the Input Encoder knob on the left, which, when pressed, switches between Mic/Line, as instrument input is automatically detected. The Input Level Strip displays input source and amount of gain.
There are buttons for Input Selection, Z for impedance choices, Link, Phase, Phantom Power, Input Metering, Integrated Talkback, Output Metering and another knob for main output and headphone levels, as well as a master Mute button, Headphone button and DIM button. EXT or NET indicators light up on the front when properly connected to their source. The Output Encoder knob controls headphone and monitor (Main/Alt 1/Alt 2) out, indicated with the Level Strip above it.
Under the hood lies the all-important eight HDX DSP processors (2.8 GHz aggregated processing), which allow all of this hybrid production to take place. Note that at launch, all preamp and monitor controls will be from the front panel, but remote control is at the ‘top of the list’ for the upcoming updates.
Since I do production and TV composing from my own studio and in a variety of locations, I have long used my own ‘hybrid’ system of recording. I go ‘Native’ with my mobile rigs, based primarily around a MacBook Pro and several interfaces, and ‘combo’ on my main HDX system, with an HD I/O hooked up to a MacPro. It works, but Native-only production tends to frustrate me with latency and buffer sizes and so on.
That’s why Carbon is a different animal. To integrate it into my system, I simply connected an RJ 45 Ethernet cable from Carbon to my MacPro and selected it in the Network Device Browser on the computer. I then hooked up both the Main L/R outputs and ADAT output 1 into my Grace Design M906 Monitor controller. Since I run a lot of guitar-centric gear and pedal boards into my Manley, Millennia and Universal Audio preamps, they connected via a DB25 to the analog input on the rear of Carbon. My Grace Design m108 8-channel preamp connected via ADAT optical input 1 and now shows up on ADAT 1 of the Input Tab in the I/O setup.
Literally within a few minutes, everything was connected and simply worked. It was remarkably seamless and since it’s connected via AVB Ethernet, you not only get 32-bit end-to-end workflow, but your regular computer audio will play back directly through the converters of Carbon.
With Carbon, it’s all about DSP Mode. Each track has the ability to switch from Native to DSP Mode, which can be enabled for Audio, Aux, Instrument, Routing Folder and Master Fader Tracks. When selected, the small ‘lightning bolt’ icon turns from gray to bright green and all plug-ins on the track switch from Native to DSP (if a DSP equivalent is available). DSP Compatible plug-ins are identified with a DSP Compatible badge.
At this point, the entire signal path for the track will then run on the HDX DSP mixer in Carbon. Any Native-only plug-ins will be automatically bypassed in DSP Mode. What’s cool is that any tracks associated with a track put into DSP Mode (light green lightning bolt) are automatically also put into DSP Mode (dark green lightning bolt). This would include tracks being bussed to downstream (subgroups, routing folders), as well as effect return tracks from sends. For effect returns, if a plug in does not have a DSP equivalent, the track can be placed in DSP Mode Safe. This places the track back onto the native mixer with a slight predelay. Note that you can also set DSP Mode to enable automatically when putting a track into record, and you can also set tracks into DSP Mode Safe to prevent DSP Mode from being auto-enabled.
So what this all means is that I was able to track my guitars through DSP plug-ins and some of my favorite effects with virtually zero latency, which is the only way to get that “feel.” Note that you can also use Aux tracks to put external reverbs, delays, etc. that have no DSP equivalent, into DSP Mode Safe. The main record tracks are running DSP with sub ms latency, but the reverb return is still on the Native mixer live, so your playback buffer is still relevant to the plug-in. This all adds up to me using Pro Tools for what it’s for—seamless creativity without technology getting in the way. Yes, it might require some forethought on DSP plug-ins, but it’s worth it.
Carbon is Mac-only at launch, with PC support hopefully added in the future. For those without Ethernet ports on your computer, you’ll need to use a qualified Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter; check Avid’s website for compatibility data. Also, the computer has to be qualified with macOS 10.15.7.
Also included in the package are a one-year subscription to Pro Tools software with its 115 AAX plug-ins (more than 70 AAX DSP plugins), a 5.4 GB sound library and standard support, and there’s also an additional selection of partner plug-ins from Arturia, McDSP, Plugin Alliance, UVI, Native Instruments and Embody.
Essentially, in one hybrid system, Pro Tools Carbon lets users have the best of both worlds: AAX DSP and Native. Carbon is a creative game changer in a lot of ways, and I can’t wait to see—and hear—where this is going.
Rich Tozzoli is an award-winning, Grammy-nominated producer, engineer and composer for programming such as FOX NFL, Pawn Stars and Oprah & Deepak Chopra. www.richtozzoli.com
Burlington, MA (November 12, 2020)—Avid has introduced Pro Tools | Carbon, a new hybrid audio production system intended to create an improved tracking experience as it integrates Pro Tools with HDX DSP acceleration and the native CPU of the user’s computer.
Using Carbon’s onboard HDX DSP, the new Pro Tools Hybrid Engine simultaneously allows users to access on-demand, low-latency channels to record through AAX DSP plug-ins in real time—with sub-1 ms latency monitoring performance. Going between Native Mode and DSP Mode requires only a single button press per track in Pro Tools, allowing users to simplify their workflow for recording and mixing.
AAX DSP, at the core of the Hybrid Engine, delivers the same sound quality in both native and HDX DSP Acceleration domains, enabling users to toggle in and out of DSP Mode while maintaining sound quality. This also enables music creators to disconnect Carbon and physically take their mix elsewhere or collaborate with others who don’t have the interface.
Carbon features double resolution clocking, and what Avid says is its most transparent mic preamp design to date. With four headphone outputs to send individual monitor mixes, eight preamps combined with 16 channels of ADAT inputs and an onboard talkback mi, the unit can handle tracking a full band. Carbon requires an Ethernet connection to the host computer, aiming to preserve the highest possible sound quality from input to output, as well as ‘futureproof’ the unit.
In addition, Pro Tools 2020 introduces a much-requested ‘Dark Mode’-style UI, as well as a new ability to analyze audio and render it as MIDI notes. For audio post professionals, Pro Tools 2020 includes native integration to export ADM files for Dolby Atmos, a new space clips function that lets users arrange a multitude of clips in a fraction of the time, and a reintroduction of the ability to bounce sessions to QuickTime formats in macOS Catalina.
Pro Tools | Carbon is available now, starting at $3,999 USD—that includes a one-year Pro Tools subscription and partner plugins from Arturia, McDSP, Plugin Alliance, UVI, Native Instruments and Embody.
North Hollywood, CA (November 3, 2020—Fever Recording owner Eric Milos recently swapped out the aging Solid State Logic 4048G console for an SSL Duality Delta Pro-Station desk in the facility’s main control room. “It sounds great, it looks great and the functionality, with Pro Tools control on the surface and the marriage of the console automation with the Pro Tools automation system, really gives you the best of both worlds,” he says.
Milos acquired Fever Recording, formerly owned and operated by multi-Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Warryn Campbell, at the tail end of 2016. The main studio, with its own tracking room, lounge and kitchen, is separate from the rest of the building, the other half of which houses three production rooms, rented to long-term clients, with shared amenities.
“There’s a gated back parking lot where you can pull in and walk straight into the studio. We’ve had a number of artists in who appreciate that privacy,” he says.
Milos, originally from Ohio, graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2010 and cut his engineering teeth at Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood. He subsequently hired on as an engineer at Clear Lake Recording, which chief audio engineer Brian Levi established in 1987. In 2012, Milos purchased the Clear Lake facility and much of the equipment in it.
Clear Lake’s Studio A was designed by George Augspurger. “It’s got a really great Trident 80B console. It has been a great tracking room for all of its life, with a wonderful sounding drum room and a great grand piano. We do everything—every style, every type of session,” says Milos, from large ensembles to solo vocals.
Pro Tools Ultimate and a Studer A827 tape machine are both available. Outboard, there is a Neve sidecar and various pieces of vintage Pultec, Eventide and Lexicon gear alongside some of the newer studio standard gear, plus classic Neumann, Sony and other tube mics. “There’s also a nice smattering of modern mics. We’ve never not had enough microphones for a session,” he says.
“When I took over, probably half the cool vintage equipment there. I could never dream of spending the money you would have to pay for it now.”
Milos built a B room in 2016 to handle overdubs, vocals, tracking and mixing. “It’s got an Avid D-Command and a basic set of outboard. We do a lot of vocal overdubs in there, for all genres of music, and we do a little bit of 5.1 mixing and some ADR.”
Two small production rooms, designated C and D, are leased out on a monthly basis. “In one room, we have a composer who has been with us for three or four years,” he says.
Fever Recording, located a couple of miles west along Burbank Blvd., underwent a bit of a remodel along with the Duality desk upgrade, says Milos, to give it more of a boutique hotel vibe. “We also got a few pieces of outboard gear, like the SSL Fusion, which everybody has been loving. The price-to-fun ratio has been excellent.”
The control room door barely cleared the old short-loaded 64-frame 4000G desk. “It was too big for the room. This Duality fits, and it looks like a spaceship,” says Milos, who bought the console, formerly at a N. Hollywood recording school, through Vintage King.
“I’ve done a couple of mixes on it; it’s so much fun and clients have been loving the Duality. I couldn’t be happier.”
The Duality behaves more like an SSL 9000 series desk, he says. “We can push it a little bit harder than a 4k. There have been occasions where we were getting a little bit of distortion on the master buss of the 4k, because we didn’t have the headroom for a massive 808.”
On the subject of headroom and 808 kick drums, Milos has also bolstered the Bryston-powered Augspurger main monitor system at Fever. “I added some dual-18 Meyer Sound subwoofers that I saw on Craigslist. It’s a great full-range system when you switch up to the mains. For the most part, people are up on the mains when they’re doing production and getting a feel for the song. Then they switch to the ATC25A nearfields for tracking and mixing, for more detail.” There is also a pair of Yamaha NS-10s.
“Anybody familiar with the 4k pretty much gets the Duality right away. In that studio, we do a lot of hip-hop and top-40 stuff, so there’s a lot of production—keyboards and that kind of stuff—and not a lot of full tracking. The Duality is nice for the situation where there are 20 people in the control room, and everything is interfaced, and being able to control Pro Tools.”
New York, NY (October 15, 2020)—The premise of Earios podcast The Alarmist may be farcical—host Rebecca Delgado-Smith uses her “superpower” of catastrophizing to assign blame for infamous moments in history—but the show’s sound design isn’t all lighthearted.
While shifting weekly from topics like who’s to blame for prohibition to episodes on the NASA Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, producer Amanda Lund bends standard stock audio to her creative needs.
“I have music that I pull from a royalty-free site, but I actually really love it,” Lund says. For the Challenger episode, she employs “very intense but almost neutral music, like drone beats,” while for other serious topics she plays the audio straight and digs up news clips if available. “Usually if there’s no news clips available, that means the tragedy happened like 100 years ago and it’s probably okay to be a little bit lighter in tone with it.”
Case in point: upbeat percussion and boozy horns usher listeners into the speakeasys of the 1920s for the episode on prohibition, while a stately church organ and Middle Eastern music set the tone for a discussion on who’s to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But each episode carries at least a bit of the team’s sense of humor.
“I knew I wanted to [make the] sound design a little bit tongue-in-cheek, because I feel there are a lot of really straightforward history podcasts and true crime podcasts that use this robust soundscape in a really sort of sincere way,” she explains. “With The Alarmist, we try to mimic that—but undercut it with some humor.”
Lund has spent most of her career on the talent side of the business, as an actor in TV shows like The New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. She wrote and created the critically acclaimed audio series The Complete Woman (Earwolf, Earios), where she also began to hone her editing chops. But while that series is a more tightly produced package, working on The Alarmist is a looser affair.
“You can manipulate so much in editing,” she says. “It’s amazing what you can do by taking out a split second of silence or adding a split second of silence. But I don’t do that too much with The Alarmist, just because Rebecca and Chris [Smith, live fact checker] are both improvisers and comedians.”
Conversations are presented more or less the way they occur live. Delgado-Smith prepares for each topic and commits to the arc of the episode, which makes Lund’s job easier.
“I try not to rearrange because I feel like it’s a house of cards, and the minute you start moving stuff around, you make 100 times more work for yourself,” she says. “I really try to just take out full sections if I [have to edit]. I really don’t have to worry about manipulating the conversation that much.”
Recording remotely hasn’t taken the fun out of producing the comedy podcast. The setup is straightforward, with the show’s host and guests communicating over video conference. Lund runs a Sennheiser E 845-S dynamic cardioid mic into Avid Pro Tools via a Behringer U-Phoria UMC404 interface. Delgado-Smith and Smith use the same mics, with a Tascam DR-70D audio recorder. Guests record locally, typically to QuickTime, and then Lund assembles the episodes. So far, she says she has only had to remove minor background noises in iZotope RX.
“We’ve been pretty lucky,” she says. “You never really know what you’re going to get, and you can’t control it because you don’t know really how it’s going to sound until you get the file. It really is a kind of crapshoot.”
Los Angeles, CA (September 29, 2020)—Mockumentary family sitcom Modern Family took its final bow in April at the end of an 11-season run that saw the sound team behind the show nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for 11 straight years. “Right out of the gate, we tried to come up with a signature sound for the show, from the pilot on,” says re-recording mixer Brian Harman.
The show—which explored complex parenting issues with humor— was something new to television, says Harman, and took off like a rocket with critics and viewers. “It’s one of those shows you wish you could get on every year for your career,” he says.
“We hope the audience and voters appreciate that there is something to be said about the legacy of Modern Family’s sound,” says re-recording mixer Peter Bawiec, who worked on “Finale Part 1” and “Finale Part 2,” the latter nominated for this year’s Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy or Drama Series (Half-Hour) and Animation. “A lot of other genre shows reference the way this show is mixed. It has its own language that’s very distinctive.”
The show has always been mixed at Smart Post Sound’s Burbank facility on Hollywood Way, says Harman. “The first five years were done on a smaller stage, where the pilot was done. I want to say year six we moved over to the bigger stage where Dean [Okrand] and I were already working on Sons of Anarchy and other shows, so for the final five years, we were on Stage 4.”
On the mixing stage, says Bawiec, “We’re running the [Avid] D-Command as well as the [Avid] S6. In terms of speakers, it’s interesting because we start off mixing in 5.1 on JBLs, which is pretty standard for cinema. And then we do playbacks on nearfields because we want to make sure that it folds down nicely onto stereo. And the print master is done on a TV. So we’re going all the way down to make sure that it plays in your average living room scenario.”
This being a weekly episodic show, turnaround is brisk. “We’re basically doing an episode in a day,” says Harman. “We start at 9 a.m. and go to playback at 2 or 3 p.m. and we print master by 5 or 6 p.m. Those are quick turnarounds, so we have to be efficient. It has to be predictable and controllable.”
What is not predictable is the show itself, says Bawiec, which can throw the team an occasional curveball. “Every episode is going to be different, and we don’t know what the episode is until we get on the stage to mix it and we play it down. The season finale was like that—there were so many different locations, including an ice rink. You’re trying to do so much in that one day; that’s the one limitation we deal with all the time. You’ve got to hit that 2 or 3 p.m. playback.”
Since dialogue is the focus, “it’s one of those shows where all of the writing, everything that’s said, all the jokes, have to land,” says Bawiec. “It’s one of the most important things, to make sure that people catch all of that. We can’t do that if the production sound doesn’t kick ass, and Steve Tibbo and Srdjan Popovic kick ass, delivering those production tracks, which are clean and crisp, so we can, in turn, mix that into the show.”
Sound effects, Foley and ADR for each episode are completed over the course of a few days, but it turns out that little ADR is done post-shoot for the principal characters. “A lot of ADR is done by Tibbo on set in the same room. If they need to grab someone, they do it between takes and shoot ADR on set,” says Harman. “Steve Tibbo is one amazing production mixer.”
Bawiec adds, “Because we’re mixing as they’re shooting other episodes, there’s not much work to match the ADR we get, because it’s recorded on the sets where the scenes take place. You basically can’t tell when we have ADR—because we can’t tell either.”
Shooting ADR on set is efficient, too, since the actors have no need to drive across town to the studio to pick up their lines. “Of course, when COVID-19 hit at the tail end of the show, things got slightly different because they weren’t shooting anymore. We had a bit of iPhone material instead of regular ADR,” notes Bawiec.
Recently Bawiec also had to record ADR remotely on a movie that he’s mixing. “Fifteen hours of ADR over iPhones is the new reality. You have to make that quality work.”
“I think everybody is surprised by how bad Apple AirPods sound!” laughs Harman.
“We’re used to FaceTime sounding decent, but it turns out the Air- Pods microphones are pretty bad,” Bawiec agrees.
Loop group—walla—for Modern Family is a different matter. Since it involves six to eight actors, it became a little more complicated with the arrival of the coronavirus. “We had them split between multiple rooms,” says Bawiec. “With new technology like RedNet and Dante, you can run three or four rooms at the same time without any issues, and have multiple people see the same picture and hear each other over the cans.”
As Bawiec discovered on a subsequent project, “You don’t even need a RedNet box because you can have Dante Virtual Soundcard, which turns any laptop into a Dante device. That is just a mind-blowing thing. We did a VPN-based Dante and had two facilities running simultaneously. Those are tricky things, but like everyone in the industry, we’ve managed to overcome most of those issues.”
COVID-19 has also affected who can now be on the stage during a dub, Bawiec says. “The new reality for everyone is either we mix on big stages, where everyone is socially distant and it’s a very limited crew, like a producer and a director, or else it’s entirely remote. A lot of the TV shows that we’re going to be doing this fall are going to be entirely remote. It will be just the two of us with maybe the supervisor on the mix stage, and everyone watching at home on their home cinema setups.”
Los Angeles, CA (September 24, 2020)—Improvisational comedy moves fast, and the audio pros entrusted to capture the magic don’t always have many opportunities to fix flubbed words or phrases. But over the course of recording the mostly improvised podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, producer Matt Gourley has found creative ways to get it done.
Case in point: When a recent guest hiccupped over the word “about” while recording a key segment, Gourley used a trick he learned while working on another improvised podcast, Superego. He analyzed all the audio tracks from the interview to find every other instance of the guest saying the word in search of a substitute.
“As I was editing, I was keeping mental notes,” says Gourley. “I think there were six or seven times he said ‘about,’ and only one of them fit. It has to feel like a natural human, not artificial intelligence taking speech from the internet and pasting it all together. Luckily, one of them really worked.”
Creativity also comes into play in other ways, he says, such as the introduction and theme music. Longtime O’Brien associate Jimmy Vivino composes and performs most of the original music used on the podcast, with one notable exception: a clip from The White Stripes’ song “We’re Going to Be Friends” featured in the intro. Gourley transitions from a Vivino-composed segment with a simple kick drum pattern that links the two clips.
“[He] did the music for it to be a complement, even down to the same beats per minute,” he says. “I was able to take the separate stems of the music and take out the music after the introduction, hoping to make it seem like one seamless piece. It’s a little hard to tell, but that’s kind of the point.”
The team normally records at the same Warner Brothers studios where O’Brien tapes his television show, Conan, in a dressing room they converted to a fully functioning podcast studio with a glassed-in green room. There, the typical setup is four Shure SM7B mics on Heil PL-2T overhead broadcast booms and Shure SRH840 headphones for monitoring, all with room to expand, but these days O’Brien and sidekick-assistant Sona Movsesian record at Earwolf Studios, using SM7Bs and Sennheiser HD 280 PRO closed-back headphones, while Warner is still shut down. They both record locally to QuickTime on their computers while videoconferencing with Gourley and the day’s guest via Zoom.
“Conan himself is an admitted Luddite,” he says. “He doesn’t really know anything about computers, so to send him a mic and a USB interface [wouldn’t work].” Gourley, who prefers to use a Sennheiser super-cardioid mic on the podcast, downloads their files and assembles them in Pro Tools, lining up the tracks to a hand-clap sync.
“We record on Zoom as a backup in case we need it, especially for the guests,” he says. “It’s different every time. [I] get on Zoom with the guests a little before the recording and have them try to set up a [local] recording on their own so that we can get some decent quality. It’s hit and miss—sometimes guests just don’t have that functionality, so we end up going with their Zoom recording.”
Once Gourley completes a rough edit, he gets to work on the signal using plug-ins like the industry-standard iZotope RX to remove “room noise, plosives and mouth clicks.” O’Brien isn’t a heavy editor, though. If he has any concerns, he usually notes them right after taping. Gourley puts the episodes together mostly on his own.
Producing a podcast that thrives on interaction and nonverbal communication can be a challenge, Gourley says, but one the team at Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend has adapted to well.
“Timing is everything and you’re always on a delay [with Zoom],” he says. “It’s like trying to be funny on a cell phone connection. But like anything, you start to learn the rhythms, and Conan’s a master of that. It isn’t long usually before the guests get in the rhythm, too.”