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All-in-one but not all conquering

As Kevin Hilton reports, technology and functionality have moved on to the point where the audio programs on integrated video workstations are being used for sound-only projects instead of their specialised counterparts.

When a product is claimed to do everything there’s always the suspicion that some features will not be as good as others and certainly compare badly with a dedicated stand-alone system. But, as Kevin Hilton reports, technology and functionality have moved on to the point where the audio programs on integrated video workstations are being used for sound-only projects instead of their specialised counterparts.

The all-in-one box was a long-held dream in broadcasting and post-production. The idea was that by bringing audio and video editing, sound mixing, colour-grading, graphics and mastering together in the same system one person would be able to do all the post work on a project, with no need to go to other facilities or transfer material between workstations.

Over the past 20 years digital technology made the concept a reality but there was still resistance to the idea. This was largely due to the fact that very few people are all-rounders; they’re either excellent picture editors or they’re superb sound mixers – but not both.

So the different disciplines remained separate and, by extension, so did the technology. Dedicated, stand-alone systems continued to be used for audio and video into the 2000s, But the rise of desktop technology brought the concept of the all-in-one box back into the spotlight, particularly for low budget independent filmmaking and corporate production.

Apple made a statement of intent with Final Cut Pro (FCP), a computer-based video editing and finishing package that proved so successful it rattled the mighty Avid. The weak link was audio. FCP’s sound editor was roundly derided for poor quality in terms that were over-the-top, even by the standards of the internet.

The problem was solved in July 2002 when Apple bought Emagic, developer of the Logic music production package. A few months later Pinnacle (later bought by Avid) snapped up Steinberg, with its Cubase recording system, but sold the company to Yamaha two years later.

In 2003 Adobe took over Syntrillium, maker of the Cool Edit Pro package, and Sony Pictures bought Sonic Forge. Since then the do-it-all system has been a fixture in many post-production set-ups, whether people like it or not.

FCP has been extended into Final Cut Pro Studio, with Logic now the integral Soundtrack Pro. Adobe has its all-in-one box – Premiere – as well as marketing the Audition DAW, originally Cool Edit Pro, as a stand-alone product.

Sony’s contender in this field is Vegas. Now in its Pro 10 incarnation new features were announced for the system during IBC 2010, including tools for 3D picture production. On the audio side users are now able to work with event level sound effects, where previously it was only possible to deal with effects at track level.

Matt Brohn, video product manager for Vegas, says this enhancement is aimed at editors who use the system solely for audio production. “Vegas is a video system but there are people who use it for complete audio mix-downs without touching a frame of video,” he says.

Someone who is doing this is producer-director-composer Chris Brickler of media group Xlantic. Brickler has used the video side of Vegas for commercials but says because of his music background it is the audio features that are his main concern. Among his recent projects are the band Love in the Circus, which he co-founded with vocalist Leanna Rachel, documentaries and TV ads.

Brickler says he is able to do everything on Vegas and only by necessity has to bring something into the system from outside. “I’ve just produced five commercials for Wal-Mart and my regular voice-over artist was in New York and couldn’t come to my studio,” he explains. “So files were sent to me, I added compression and put it all together. Vegas is the perfect merger of technologies. Final Cut Pro doesn’t have anywhere near the audio capability. I see Vegas on the same level as Pro Tools.”

Nigel Albermaniche, a production sound mixer whose credits include Heroes, CSI, Smallville and the forthcoming Streetfighter movie, does not share this view. Albermaniche uses Soundtrack Pro within FCP not just for dialogue editing but also for producing a final, mixed soundtrack.

Running FCP on a Mac Pro in conjunction with an Euphonix Artist console, Albermaniche says he rarely mixes on more than eight faders of the controller. “I never need a massive 128-fader system,” he comments. “I find I can be creative with dialogue on Soundtrack Pro. Pro Tools needs too many other boxes and niggly things.”

Desktop production has proved popular with independent filmmakers and corporate producers but in high-end TV drama and film post-production, dedicated systems for audio and video are still the norm.

Like most facilities in Soho Hackenbacker Audio Post Production runs on Pro Tools. Dubbing mixer James Feltham, whose recent work includes spy drama Spooks and Channel 4’s winter highlight Any Human Heart, says dedicated systems are necessary because the all-in-one box does not have the capability to do everything at this level of production.

“The skills are also very different,” he observes. “Pro Tools has very basic video editing features, which allow a sound editor to bring a new cut of a picture into the system and then work on the audio cues. But that’s really about making sure everything is in sync – I wouldn’t offer myself as a picture editor because of that.”

LipSync Post has made a similar investment in Pro Tools, again with basic video capability for bringing in pictures. Re-recording mixer Rob Hughes says complex projects will always demand specialised equipment, especially with a 120-track project requiring two mixers.

All-in-one systems are no longer roundly derided but there is still a clear demarcation in what they are used for and what projects require a dedicated, stand-alone approach. But as Rob Hughes says, getting to grips with either is no longer a big leap. “I’ve used Soundtrack Pro as well and once you get your head around it there’s no problem. It is easier to approach than Pro Tools but I see them as being for different kinds of work.”