The Evolution of TV Soundtrack Mixing—Insight from Noted Pros

There is no denying that audio workstation technology and digital consoles have dramatically revolutionized the art of mixing television post-production over the last 15 years, and Avid has led the innovation, providing high-performance, tightly integrated solutions. For mixing complex TV soundtracks, post-production professionals look for systems that offer the ability to keep everything totally virtual until the last possible minute to accommodate late-breaking editorial and creative changes. Newer digital systems offer more than what older-generation, fixed-architecture consoles and their workflows are able to provide.

Because they can keep projects fully virtual and channel count flexible until the last minute, Avid's next-generation workstations, consoles, and control surfaces have become the professional’s systems of choice across TV post sound mixing. We talked to several mixers and asked them to share their thoughts on how the evolution of mixing has impacted their worlds.

Craig Hunter, co-owner, RH Factor

 “Our main ‘A’ room houses an Avid System 5-MC control surface with Pro Tools|HDX, while our smaller ‘B’ Room is based around a dual-operator ICON D-Control surface and a Pro Tools|HD Native engine,” says Craig Hunter, co-owner of RH Factor, a Burbank-based post facility that has been working “in the box” for the past decade.

“Like many studios, RH Factor has been Pro Tools-based for many years, which started as primarily editorial for dialog, ADR, and sound effects,” Hunter explains. “Sessions would be prepped and then taken to the mix stage and put on a playback device—a digital dubber—to be mixed on an analog console with outboard effects. It was time-consuming, inefficient, and expensive. We needed to streamline the workflow, save money by not investing in expensive dubbers, and increase editorial flexibility—in other words, stay all ‘in the box.’”

The facility is currently working on a range of TV shows, including Monday Mornings for TNT, Raising Hope for Fox, and The Middle for ABC.

“In the early days of virtual mixing, there were some workarounds, but the primary goal of having all functionality provided by mixing in the box outweighed almost every other consideration,” Hunter continues. “As a result, producers have become accustomed to a massive level of flexibility on the mix stage. The genie is out of the bottle—I can’t see going back to a non-virtual workflow from editing to final mixing. Virtual mixing [with Pro Tools|HD, System 5-MC, and ICON] is the full realization of an integrated editorial and mixing environment, providing the greatest speed, creative flexibility, and cost efficiency possible.”

 
 
 Virtual mixing is the full realization of an integrated editorial and mixing environment providing the greatest speed, creative flexibility, and cost efficiency possible.
Craig Hunter,
co-owner, RH Factor

Keith Rogers and Scott Weber, re-recording mixers, Walt Disney Studios

Keith Rogers and Scott Weber have been using dual operator ICON D-Control systems at Walt Disney Post Production Services’ Victory Stage Room 6 in Burbank for a number of years, working on such TV shows as Alcatraz and Tron: Uprising.

“Currently, I’m mixing sound effects, with Keith handing dialog and music, for Warner Bros.’ Person of Interest, which airs on CBS Television,” Weber explains. “We use the ICON with a total of six 48-track Pro Tools|HD playback units—three per mix position—and a single 48-track recorder for our stems and finals. We started mixing in Room 6 on a traditional digital console [with limited channels] and with Pro Tools as playback machines and sidecars for plug-in processing.

“The biggest thing that led us to move to mixing with Pro Tools and ICON for the kind of shows we do is that we would not be tied to a dedicated number of tracks. I start with 80 hard effects, 60 background, and 30 Foley tracks, but as the mix moves forward with new visual effects, a big design sequence or new scenes will be coming late in the process, so being able to add channels to what I’m doing without losing or changing what I have is invaluable.

“I really use the ICON and the Pro Tools mixer to organize and manage all those tracks. It’s easy to route things, contain levels, and quickly do complicated stuff. I’m always fine-tuning and evolving my mixing template to make it more efficient.”

“The workflow is vastly improved, because the mix really starts in editorial, which is very easy to import into our mix template. We keep their volume graphing and blends as a starting point for our mix and then control with VCA masters, which allow us to quickly dive down into the virtual pre-dub and change anything if we need to—it’s a continual process. We’re basically mixing a 45-minute feature film in 2 to 3 days, and with that schedule—the huge amount of tracks and complexity growing all the time—keeping it all in Pro Tools really is an efficient way to deliver a high-quality product on time and on budget.”  

Rogers agrees: “Keeping our options open from editorial through mixing gives our clients more options. I like to offer multiple choices—maybe developing several ADR mixes in addition to production dialog and letting the director A/B those very quickly and make creative decisions. Also, I might go back into Pro Tools to modify a volume graph that I can see and touch, or change levels via an on-surface fader. I like having those creative options, which are only available while mixing in the box. ICON was designed to be user-friendly and it’s the perfect controller for Pro Tools.”

“As Keith works his magic on a 16-fader ICON,” Weber adds, “I have a 32-fader ICON for my sound effects. Both systems can be run together or taken off-line for separate sessions. That ability to link Pro Tools sessions into a ‘Super Session’ means that everything—all our fader moves, multichannel panning, and DSP plug-ins—are all fully automated and available for modification right up until the final mixes.”

Ken Botelho, senior director of engineering, Golf Channel

TV network Golf Channel upgraded its audio systems to handle the increasing content demands. “In our three rooms—Post Audio 1, Post Audio 2, and Post Audio 3—we handle a wide cross section of shows, including audio sweetening for Big Break and Top 10, as well as for our promos and on-air commercials,” says Ken Botelho, Golf Channel’s senior director of engineering. “With all three rooms running virtually 24/7, we need fast turnaround of material. The integration of Pro Tools|HDX with Media Composer via Video Satellite to our Avid ISIS server with Interplay lets us run at maximum efficiency.”

But it was the Avid control surfaces that allowed the audio team to eliminate time-wasting steps from their workflow. “Previously, we were using another brand of audio console in these post suites, which meant that we had to download digital files from the server, load them into the console, mix to picture, and then offload the sweetened tracks back to the server,” he explains. “Now we simply point Pro Tools to the audio assets, access the appropriate Media Composer video files, and we are away!

“We need high-end tools for our world-class productions. The new Avid-equipped post suite offers full compatibility with our audio and video workflows for enhanced speed and flexibility. It is a major development for us, and one that has lifted audio post production to another level. Our post engineers think they have died and gone to heaven!”

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