Austin City Limits

Opening a second facility, the team behind the legendary concert TV showcase adopts an all-Avid workflow to streamline mixing


For almost 40 years, Austin City Limits (ACL) has introduced an extensive variety of live music to public television audiences across the U.S. Since the 1974 pilot program, which was originally conceived to showcase the music of Texas, veteran engineer David Hough has mixed sound for virtually all of the show’s taped concerts (which now feature regional, national, and international artists in a wide range of musical styles) for PBS station KLRU in Austin.

A self-described “analog guy,” Hough relied on Neve consoles and Studer tape recorders through much of his ACL journey. But that began to change as the show shifted into the 21st century, replacing the Neve with its first System 5-BP console (manufactured by Euphonix at the time) in 2001 (the “BP” is short for Broadcast & Post Production). 10 years later, the show is now home to a second System 5-BP—and Hough is delighted.

“The S5-BP, with its unique combination of fixed and fully assignable controls, fits my needs precisely,” Hough explains. “I’m a died-in-the-wool analog guy; the System 5 lets me find what I need easily and quickly, which is essential during a live concert where we just don’t have the possibility of a second take.”

Austin City gets Moody—and Avid upgrades

This recent acquisition came about in 2011, when the show decided to move production from its original Studio 6A location at the University of Texas to a new purpose-built facility—Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater—to provide a larger space for its audience. (Though the venue can hold 2,700 people, the show is taped live in front of a more intimate crowd of 800.)

“The original audio room is now used pretty much for reconforming and remixing the audio tracks from concerts recorded at The Moody Theater,” Hough explains, “so full compatibility between the two consoles is absolutely essential.”

Both the theater and the original studio house identical 32-fader System 5-BP consoles with EUCON Hybrid for Pro Tools control. Each console features 72 mic/line inputs that are routed through multichannel MADI connections from the stage boxes or Pro Tools|HD playback sources to the main DSP engine, which can handle a total of 160 full-featured signal paths.

The team also upgraded its facilities with an all-Avid workflow, adding 64-track Pro Tools|HD recording to the mix (while Pro Tools replaced the mix down machines in 1995, this was the first time the team committed to using Pro Tools for recording the shows).

Tighter audio/video integration leads to faster, easier workflows

Hough’s workflow is also tightly integrated with the show's video team. Each concert episode starts by sending all HD-SDI camera feeds into Avid AirSpeed Multi Stream recorders for capture directly into the facility’s Avid ISIS 5000 shared storage network using the broadcast-quality DNxHD 145 codec. During this time, Hough sends the 64-channel audio stream, via MADI from his console, to the Pro Tools|HD recorder, along with a temp 2-channel mix, multed to all of the AirSpeed Multi Stream camera feed recordings to ISIS.

At the end of the show, everything is recorded on ISIS, so the team can just hit save and go home. In the morning, the video and audio crews both have completely synchronized picture and sound recordings available to start their editing and mixing work. Even working three miles away in the original facility, over a state-of-the-art fiber-optic connection, Hough has access to all audio files, plus Ethernet synchronized video playback through Video Satellite with Media Composer.

“Avid integrates my entire post production universe,” Hough says. “It allows me time to be creative, still push the envelope, and hit my delivery dates on time. It's like rocket science.”

Hough cites the AAF auto conform feature as just one example of how his workflow has greatly improved. “Expand Tracks lets our video editors, who cut the show on Media Composer, very quickly conform my Pro Tools tracks from the recorded concerts [to match the picture edits],” he explains. “Because we have high-speed audio and video fiber-optic links between the two locations [linked to Avid ISIS servers], I can record the show at the Moody Theater, return to the original studio and, thanks to Avid’s new auto conform function, be remixing the edited show very quickly. I just open up the conformed Pro Tools sessions, and all of the blocks of music are already there in position to match the edited picture.”

The System 5-BP console’s eMix 5 software also adds many useful operational features. “The new Aux Page function lets me quickly set up an auxiliary mix and send it to the musicians as a stage monitor mix for overdubs,” he explains. “We had that situation during a recent session with the band Explosions in the Sky, who were asked to record a new theme song for the show. I used the Aux Page to create a monitor mix for the band so that they could add overdubbed guitar and bass; it was very quick and easy to set up—the new function worked flawlessly.”

The mixing sweet spot

While remixing the live concerts for subsequent broadcasts on PBS stations and other outlets around the world, Hough makes substantial use of the S5-BP’s multichannel audio features to create both 5.1 and stereo mixes. “I can easily reach everything from the sweet spot, with the main group faders directly in front of me, and all channels fully assignable across any of the on-surface fader strips. No function is ever more than a button push away from a rotary control, switch, or fader.

“Although the S5-BP is now fully EUCON-capable,” Hough adds, “for the live tracking and remix session, I normally use the System 5 DSP Engine. But now that I’m starting to use more Pro Tools plug-ins during these sessions, I look forward to accessing Pro Tools channels from the S5 surface and using the assignable controls to make changes to the powerful EQ, dynamics, and reverb plug-ins I want to use within Pro Tools. System 5-BP is a very powerful console with a lot of creative options for a live show like Austin City Limits.”

* Arcade Fire image by Scott Newton, courtesy of KLRU-TV.