Inside Avid's new immersive audio showroom at Pinewood Studios

Phil Ward visits Avid’s new immersive audio showroom at Pinewood Studios to catch up with Chris Lambrechts, application specialist for live sound, and Al McKinna, director of product management for live sound, about the Avid journey and the brand's exciting product partnerships
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Al McKinna

Al McKinna

Pinewood is the European headquarters of Avid Technology, and as such provides a recording studio, newsroom and live sound demo facilities alongside all of the sales and marketing. It’s also a film studio complex, as if you didn’t know, and they do the Bond movies here. They used to do the Carry On films too, so somewhere in these corridors is the ghost of Charles Hawtrey on the deaf aid. 

A new demo suite has been completed that will not fall on deaf ears. It strengthens further the links between studio and live sound, a steady curve since IEM, line array, digital consoles and the rest, but does so only in the way that Avid can. Rights owners with rich back catalogues, best exploited today on stage, can rejoice. 

TOOLED UP

Chris Lambrechts, application specialist for live sound, explains the in-house journey. “When Avid went into live sound, I was a Pro Tools customer,” he says, “and I saw a natural step from studio world to live world through plugins: the digital revolution began in the studio, and by the time Profile was launched, most studios had gone digital. However, digital live consoles were still new. Avid’s major contribution was to migrate that studio digital technology to live sound, today including theatre and live broadcast as well as touring.” 

Al McKinna, director of product management for live sound, has his own experience of how things have changed. “In 2006 I was at the Montreux Jazz Festival and archiving was still done by mobile trucks,” he begins. “Recording directly into Pro Tools from the VENUE platform was little understood or applied, but all it needed was two lines into the DAW, and with the plugins inside the desk there was no outboard to ship either. Those two things really drove the analogue market, at least towards the Avid digital family. The rest involved sorting out the practicalities: stability; sound quality; processing capability, and ensuring backwards compatibility for its settings. It seems obvious now, but it can only be done if you have a common operating system and software platform.” 

Avid is today performing listening tests on line array systems that could only be imaginable previously in a high quality studio environment. “Music production as a whole has changed,” continues Lambrechts. “Pro Tools gave us access way beyond 24 tracks to 128 tracks at 96KHz, and so much more detail. Even traditional bands, like Duran Duran, who have been using our platform for a long time, can reproduce the sounds of a time span of nearly 40 years in a two hour show. And it’s not just the engineers who understand this – it’s the acts themselves. The artists are expecting the same kind of results they get in the studio." 

“A lot of customers want an S6L because they know they can reproduce a certain result from the studio live,” adds McKinna, “particularly with Waves SoundGrid integration. We do that in a way that you just can’t do with any other desk.” 

Although file compatibility between one brand and another remains a digital paradox, McKinna believes the connectivity of signal processing generally is on your side. “All consoles will connect as deeply as they can via third-party platforms,” he says. “For example, we will get to a point where everybody has to talk to immersive audio systems. At the moment, we believe that we’re doing it in a way that's in advance of what anyone else can do, but everyone will interconnect. It’ll be driven by the market, in the same way that everyone needs audio networking now. Whether console manufacturers will enable the porting of sessions between them, I’m not so sure. We’ve all got tiny different ways of doing things.”

“The challenge for all of us is to leave some creative space for the engineer and not drag him too much into the technology, where they have to be an IT expert as well,” says Lambrechts. “They have to focus on what the band is doing on stage. When it comes to the path from A to Z and all the hoops in between, we don’t want them to be too deeply involved. That’s our job.” 

PICK A CARD 

There are d&b audiotechnik business cards conveniently plated on the Avid showroom tables, at least the showroom for immersive live sound, alerting you immediately to a thrusting new partnership. It is, of course, because this showroom is equipped with E8 loudspeakers and the DS100 processing platform for Soundscape, and demos hosted by d&b can be arranged by appointment. However, Avid’s mixing ecosystem offers equal access to L-Acoustics’ L-ISA platform, and other options such as Astro Spatial Audio and Meyer’s Spacemap Live seem likely to follow in due course. 

“If we could have another room with L-ISA demos set up, we’d have one,” points out McKinna. “It doesn’t work to have both systems in one room, so what we want here is to partner with d&b so that when their folks who are close to London want to hear a Soundscape system, they can come here. They will listen to it through S6L, of course, and by the same token, if someone wants to demo S6L, this is the monitoring system for it. It works for both parties. 

“We also want to do training in here, with open days and events at which both ourselves and d&b can take on different roles in communicating what our products offer and how they interface. But there’s no specific promotion of or support for the d&b platform by us over any other. Both companies came to us at the same time and asked if we could connect to them in a deeper way for their immersive environments, actually within the same month, and we kicked off development for both platforms at the same time.” 

Beta plugins for both Soundscape and L-ISA were ready for Prolight+Sound last year, and there are more to follow. “We want to connect to everybody,” McKinna confirms. “We particularly love the way L-Acoustics designs L-ISA and the way d&b designs Soundscape; they blew me away when I first heard them. Both systems are amazing. It just made sense to connect with d&b in this location, at this stage – especially when you bear in mind the L-ISA showroom that already exists in Highgate, North London. If someone specifically wanted to demo S6L with L-ISA, we can make arrangements there and supply a console – in fact, we already have done on several occasions.” 

The new demo suite at Pinewood is not exclusively for immersive audio. It’s a live sound suite in which all of the ramifications of the VENUE ecosystem can be explored, beginning with good old stereo. But Adam Hockley of education and application support at d&b has installed a generous series of the company’s E8 two-way compact coaxial loudspeaker enclosures: along a front row, five of them create a virtual stereo field, although naturally just two of the boxes can be isolated to produce regular stereo. In addition, 10 more placed around the room can be used to investigate 360° Soundscape and its potential usability within the S6L. 

“We can also programme it so that the ‘stage’ is placed outside the room,” explains McKinna, “so that the perception of the sound is not near-field but more like a real-world distance to FOH. That’s pretty cool.” 

The virtual stereo paradigm is worth noting. Many of the initial applications of Soundscape, as of the other formats, are not to venture too far into full immersivity, but to create a better stereo image for a much wider spread of the room or site – to broaden the sweet spot from a narrow central axis to a much greater percentage of the audience. This is where many sound engineers think these techniques will win converts in the rock touring community, for whom a strengthened, stable image is of more value than the labyrinthine possibilities of 360° mixing. No doubt, Avid’s many admirers at the very top level of pop and rock rental will be taking note of this when they get the opportunity to drop in at Pinewood and take the first steps down this path. 

“Absolutely,” concurs McKinna. “You’ve always had the problem of hearing one side of the mix or the other, so in many ways the net result is you end up trying to mix in mono. The world of mixing exemplified here is that you step out of that traditional left-right conundrum and you place everything where you want the sound source perceived. It means everybody gets the same experience. Both d&b and L-Acoustics have addressed that really well. It’s the real issue that needs fixing.” 

Adapting the console range for this brave new world has been relatively straightforward for the company, so far. The workflow does not change hugely, barring the switch to multiple outputs and a brand new GUI on one of the touchscreens. 

“For us,” says McKinna, “it’s really simple because we have a plugin platform. We haven’t re-engineered our software to do this. All we have done is provided access to our plugin world to the speaker manufacturers – plus Flux, the French audio software people – and they live within our existing architecture, rich in features like surface control, touchscreen control, snapshots, instant recall, and show files. They’ve been able to get really deep into our consoles.” 

There is more to come. Deeper integration into the methodology of these desks is now the goal, so that immersive mixing comes as naturally as centre mono, stereo, LCR, or 5.1. You know, shaken and not stirred.

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