Column: Mixing tools for captivating audio content

By Christian Struck, Lawo

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Let the truth be told: the overwhelming majority of A1s are masters of their craft, true wizards, resourceful, adrenalized by stress and excited each time they can prove that the impossible is workable. What they don’t realize is that the more they deliver, the more they are trapped in their own game. Clients and managers tend to take miracles for granted after a while. And so the exciting exception quickly becomes the new normal and starts putting unnecessary pressure on A1s. Let us look at a number of tools designed to make the lives of audio engineers just a wee bit easier.

While a few die-hards still argue that compressors are for wimps who never cared to master the art of gain riding, most operators happily rely on dynamic processors these days. This is already one—admittedly mild—flavor of assisted mixing where a routine task is left to the console’s algorithms, simply because too many signals are involved and there is so much else to do.

News and Transmission Control Rooms

Self-op audio scenarios for radio and TV free audio engineers from unexciting routine jobs. Station managers love the idea, because it allows them to do more with less. Depending on the solution at hand and its user interface, the results not only meet professional requirements but also allow users to devise new workflows and formats.

Audio Production/Content Creation

Of course, there are other areas closer to A1s’ homes where content production can be assisted. Manufacturers like Lawo, for instance, have been equipping their mixing consoles and audio processing engines with features like AutoMix and Audio Follows Video for years precisely for that reason.

AutoMix comes in handy during talk shows or panel discussions involving several guests where the A1 never knows who is going to talk next, and is likely to miss a few timely fader raises.

With AutoMix, the audio engineer can simply open all relevant channels and let the system decide which voice will be heard at any one time. For recurrent scenarios, some consoles allow users to store a number of AutoMix setups and to recall them for the next installment. Users can often fine-tune how quickly different voices are brought up and fade when a new speaker takes over, and a weighting system allows them to prioritize voices/channels.

For ultimate flexibility, some consoles allow users to include stereo and surround channels in AutoMix groups. This simplifies balancing commentators against the ambient sound during high-profile sports events. The A1 can mostly focus on other details of their mix.

Stereo-to-5.1 upmix functionality is another form of customizable, assisted content production, even though it is arguably less crucial at a time when most sound stages are captured and mixed in 5.1 by default (and downmixed to stereo where necessary). However, upmix tools like AMBIT help to have consistent multichannel audio on air, even if the original content is only available in stereo.

Mixing audio becomes more daunting as the number of bells and whistles expected by audiences increases. As 4K picture quality is in the process of becoming a given, TV viewers expect the audio to add to the immersive experience by means of a 5.1 (or better) sound stage.

This again increases the A1’s workload. And there is only so much you can cram into every split second during a live event. With next-generation audio productions (NGA) just around the corner, where TV audiences are served audio stems they can personalize according to their listening habits, there will be no shortage of work anytime soon.

One way of serving captivating audio information from a sports venue (before adding 5.1.4, or any other audio format, to the mix) is by taking advantage of the console’s Audio Follows Video (AFV) functionality to ensure that what you see on screen is also what you hear. Instantly. Camera switching goes hand in hand with bringing up the audio signals of that location on the A1’s console: the audio literally “follows” the video.

AFV is equally important for events like cycling races, where different perspectives—from the back of a motorcycle, from a chopper, etc.—need to be conveyed on the audio plane. AFV can either be scripted, i.e. prepared beforehand when you know how long it takes to whiz from A to B during a downhill race, or automated using (virtual) GPIs, trigger signals from the video switcher, etc. Without AFV, serving relevant audio information consistently almost certainly requires an extra operator.

Akin to Audio Follows Video—and again designed to take some weight off an A1’s shoulders—is software that controls fader balances during ice hockey, basketball, football and soccer games to ensure that the action is always upfront both on the visual and the acoustic level.

A system developed by Lawo is controlled by a camera tracking system, which sends information to a piece of software. It raises and ducks channel faders without so much as a hint of phasing problems or level imbalances. Already mandatory in some parts of the world for soccer matches, KICK (a.k.a. PUCK, for hockey) is even more responsive and consistent than a gifted A1 who has a million other things to do.

Audio consistency will be even more important in next-generation audio (NGA) scenarios involving user-adjustable stems rather than finished mixes. More time will need to be set aside for monitoring various renditions, producing “clean”, stable stems and for lightning-fast decision-making.

Long Story Short

The importance of audio mixing assistants, in other words, increases as TV audiences need to be pampered more, creative options regarding audio delivery skyrocket, and competition grows fiercer. So do yourself a favor. And fear not: there will still be ample room for working the odd miracle…

About Christian Struck, Lawo

Having joined Lawo in 2007 as a member of the Product Management Team, Christian Struck is today the Senior Product Manager of Lawo's Audio Production division. He studied Tonmeister at the Erich-Thienhaus Institute at Musikhochschule Detmold, Germany. Prior to joining Lawo, he worked as a freelance audio engineer.