It’s been a fraught year for the creative industries, and the huge changes we’ve seen over the past five months are likely to have repercussions long past the end of lockdown. So how can you shore up your remote and distributed workflows long term? And can the need to stay remote be reconciled with the growing demand for full-blown Atmos mixes? Our experts have the answers.
Even as things begin to open up again, maintaining social distancing and safe working practices while carrying out tasks like ADR is difficult, while bringing people together for tasks which can be performed remotely can feel like an unnecessary risk. So what solutions are people employing?
For these less collaborative tasks where no actual recording is required, studios have gone one of two ways: allowing producers to remotely access the studio’s Pro Tools set up (in which case the main challenge is moving high quality audio over the internet) or shipping a Pro Tools setup to the producer’s location (in which case the challenge is how to move the data to that location securely).
While there are proprietary codecs and hardware boxes that can move audio over IP, we’re seeing the market trend toward low cost, software-only solutions in order to maximise flexibility and conserve cash through this uncertain period.
Some of these solutions are tried and tested audio software – step forward Source-Connect, a ten-year veteran of cross-platform remote working, and the EBU tech-3326 compatible ipDTL – but more standard connectivity tools can deliver audio if you’re in a bind and don’t mind working with a compressed audio stream. If you’re using Teradici’s PCoIP software to power your remote link, it supports analogue and USB audio at no extra cost, and that the free remote desktop solution NoMachine, which has become a staple of many pandemic workarounds, can handle audio streams.
Some may say that working with compressed audio streams is a short term compromise that people won’t want to put up with post-lockdown, but if the rise of the .mp3 has taught us anything it’s that people are willing to sacrifice quality for convenience, and it may be that from now on, uncompressed audio is reserved for only the most key parts of any audio workflow.
If your talent has more space at their location, you have the option of sending them a flight case with a temporary Pro Tools setup. The recommended Pro Tools build for this is a MTRX Studio paired with a Mac mini, as this gives your talent the ability to work locally, sidestepping the need for, and security concerns associated with, remote access.
However, you still need to ensure your files get to their location safely. Pro Tools supports secure FTP or transfer via high-speed accelerators like IBM Aspera, but its built-in collaborative tools are actually great at handling this scenario on their own, and we think one of the results of lockdown will be studios exploring these collaborative options much more fully.
What is it that Pro Tools does, exactly? Well, when you have multiple people working in the same project, it will disable the ability to save back into the original project and force each user to save a variant timeline instead. At the end of the session, all these versions can be merged using ProTools’ import session data protocol, so all recordings are recombined into a single master version.
Historically, teams have used consumer solutions like Dropbox to house their media in these workflows – a security risk that made the workflow unsuitable for many projects and clients. But now we have LucidLink, a solution that sits on top of your private cloud storage (meaning none of the security risks of the public cloud) which you can mount on your computer like a local drive (so your Pro Tools systems can see and interact with files instantly). Because it syncs any changes you make locally back to the files saved in the cloud, everyone working on the project sees the same file versions and is working from a single version of the truth. For mixing or track laying a project remotely and syncing it back to a master system in-studio, LucidLink is one of the most elegant solutions available.
The next ‘gotcha’ question for remote teams is: how do we work with voice talent? But there are a number of options here, too. And in fact, as remote working breaks down international barriers, reduces scheduling conflicts, and gives voice talent far more control over their time, we’re expecting to see remote voice work taking up a far bigger share of the market post-pandemic – voiceover artists have been buying up acoustic panels and audio interfaces throughout the lockdown and are set to keep remote working long-term. Here’s what you need to work with them...
The main question to ask yourself is whether the voice talent needs video playback. If not, then once again your cheapest option is to ship the artist a scaled-down Pro Tools setup. Along with their Mac mini and MTRX Studio, they’ll need a decent quality mic like the Vanguard V13 or similar with pop shields, and a video device like AJA’s T-Tap or similar – something with an HDMI output that they can plug into their television. Combine this hardware with a copy of Source-Connect and an engineer will be able to sync the relevant Pro Tools session between their system and the talent’s before the kit is sent out. That means all the talent has to do is power their machine up and let the engineer take remote control of the session via a NoMachine or Team Viewer – they don’t have to master Pro Tools themselves.
Again, Source-Connect is our preferred software here as it’s more attuned to the needs of an audio audience. It gives the engineer a compressed live feed of the talent’s performance and allows them to talk back directly into the talent’s headphones, while at the same time making a high quality recording of the performance at the talent’s end, which the engineer can simply sync back to the in-studio system for further work.
Much the same setup, but with the addition of our post-production team’s beloved Streambox, which uses a proprietary ‘pixel perfect’ codec to deliver full-res, low-latency images across standard internet connections. Find out how they do it here.
It's impossible to talk about the future of audio without talking about Dolby Atmos. Not only is the number of devices that support it skyrocketing, from theatres to televisions to home assistants, but the mixes those devices require are becoming more complex. When TIDAL first embraced Atmos, it relied on a stripped down, smartphone-only binaural version of the standard. Now, it can deliver full 7.1.4 mixes thought an Apple TV app. And as Amazon, Google and other tech giants integrate Atmos into increasingly advanced homeware, the demand for Atmos-ready mixes of songs, films and TV shows is set to explode.
While this is exciting, Atmos mixes are, frankly, huge, and would have posed a serious problem for remote tools from any other era. Luckily, in 2020, compact hardware is ready to help you rise to the challenge...
In an ideal world, everyone who needed to work on an Atmos mix would have a convenient shed or spare room they could convert into a studio. It’s doesn’t even need to be that big of a room anymore, thanks to low profile speakers like Focal’s PMC Wafer speakers and compact, powerful interfaces like Avid’s MTRX, which won’t transform your garage into a Dolby-certified space all by itself, but is a great centrepiece for a mid-level Atmos mixing system.
It has plenty of analogue inputs and outputs, including mic amp inputs and outputs if you need to record foley sound effects dual voice over, and enough analogue outputs to support a 7.1.4 speaker array. Granted, we wouldn’t recommend you do your final mix and QC of a Netflix series on this setup, but combined with the Dolby Atmos Production Suite, you can get pretty close to a full studio setup. We particularly recommend exploring the binaural encoder options in Dolby Atmos Production Suite, as they’ll allow you to do pre-mix balancing and sound design tasks on a pair of headphones, while still giving you enough spatial information to make intelligent decisions.
But what if you do need to QC your project? Surely that can’t be done remotely? Well, the Dolby Atmos Production Suite takes a pretty good crack at it. If your QC operator has access to consumer end Atmos equipment, you can use the Dolby Atmos Production Suite renderer to export a black video file that contains all your audio mix information. The QC operator can play this back on their home Atmos device.
If you're happy playing with the command line, GitHub has a Dolby Encoding Engine with some multiplexing tools, so you can multiplex a video into that black file to produce a true Atmos asset that you can QC on any consumer playback device.
If the thought of touching the command line brings you out in a cold sweat, you can always rely on Streambox, as we did when we had to do a real-time Dolby Atmos QC between Toronto, London and LA in real time. Streambox’s sixteen channels of SDI allowed us to transmit a high quality 4K HDR picture and full Atmos mix with no disruption – and no hand-typed commands.
So, aside from “Jigsaw24 love Streambox”, what are the main things to take away from all this?
Firstly, convenience often trumps quality, and you should expect clients to be more comfortable with compressed workflows as a result of their lockdown experience. Secondly, expect working remotely with voice talent to become far more prevalent – we’re not saying people will be abandoning the booth altogether, but now that many VO artists are set up to work from home, remote sessions are likely to become a much more common solution to scheduling conflicts and other clashes – and you need to be ready to accommodate that. Thirdly, demand for immersive audio is skyrocketing, and you need to make sure any remote workflow you’re planning on relying on long-term has the capacity to handle Atmos mixing at some level.
Finally, in support of all of the above, we recommend getting to know Avid’s MTRX Studio, which has really changed the game in terms of doing high-end remote work. As well as all your Pro Tools DAW I/O, it has your monitor controller, speaker EQ and time alignment built-in, making it a perfect pre-packed remote production kit for everything up to 7.1.4 mixes.
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