Mixdown Presents Isolate and Innovate: Using Audio Engineering Gear From Home

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


Mixdown Presents Isolate and Innovate: Using Audio Engineering Gear From Home

The first instalment in our ongoing content series.

It’s often said that crisis is one of the key drivers of innovation. Needless to say, 2020 has provided plenty of opportunity for breaking new ground.

One area which has proved particularly productive for cutting-edge development is in the field of remote learning, with Melbourne’s own Collarts emerging as a world leader in remote solutions for the audio education sector.

For the first instalment of our Isolate and Innovate series, we recently caught up with Jason Torrens, Head of Audio Engineering at Collarts, to talk control protocol, binaural Atmos and the high production values of the modern Zoom meeting.

Usually when we hear the word ‘solutions’ in Audio, it’s often something really dry and logistics based, but seeing what you guys have been able to achieve at Collarts with the Audio course remotely – it’s actually a fascinating case study into how far the technology has come . What were some of the technical challenges faced through lockdown, and can you run us through some of the measures that were implemented to facilitate the move to remote learning?

JT: I think when the lockdowns and social distancing measures first came into play, we were lucky that we were already ahead of the curve. We had already been using things like Echo360 (the lecture capture and recording platform), so we were already recording every lecture for students whether on campus or not and putting it up online, so we already had the foundation in place there, at least from the classroom side of things.

The next major challenge for us was figuring out how we should integrate Zoom into the learning space. How do we optimise our video conferencing into something that is appropriate for teaching critical audio?

This was where Steeve Body, our Post-Production guru was pivotal, showing us how to get Zoom to operate in stereo, introducing Audio Hijack into our workflow (allowing our VC microphones to be sent through plug-ins), so we could demonstrate different processing techniques via video conferencing and more.

The next was the monitoring side of the equation: how are we going to get high quality audio to students? We don’t want Zoom crashing, so we jumped on the Audio Movers bandwagon, which has been amazing. We can literally stream a 1644 WAV file audio if the student’s internet connection is up for it. If not, we can stream at 256 kbps AAC quality audio, which is iTunes standard and is still pretty good.

We can now stream at that default level of quality, so when we are listening to playback, sharing students Pro Tools screens etc. we can do it all with the quality of audio that is required for our industry, and that same audio quality can be shared remotely, back and forth between students and staff, so the level of interaction and collaboration genuinely rivals what you would get out there in the physical world.

As an outsider, it’s interesting to see how you are integrating so many different technical innovations – some specific to the Audio industry, others from the broader Tech/Comms world – and how it’s all coming together to allow for a study method that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. It must be a massive eye-opener seeing what can be done remotely, and the rapid growth in the space.

JT: Absolutely — and even as staff, it’s really changed the way we approach things as both teachers and engineers. It’s funny because our staff meetings have almost become loudness wars unto themselves with all the new plugins and limiting!

Being an Audio degree, you have a staff and student body that are already on the tech-ier end of the spectrum, so it’s amazing to see how things just naturally escalate and get more sophisticated as the technology is normalised. We already have students on Zoom chatting through vintage tube mics with nice pres. I don’t think Zoom meetings were ever meant to sound this good!

It’s hilarious but also quite remarkable: the combination and integration of all these technologies and seeing it in practice. When we first started figuring out how we were going to do this, we didn’t know if it was possible. Now that we know the level of education we are able to deliver consistently to our remote students, it’s something we want to share with everybody.

Collarts is renowned for its incredible Dolby Atmos facilities, giving students a hands-on experience with this powerful and exciting new format. Can you talk a bit about the unique set of challenges that came with translating the Dolby Atmos experience into the remote learning environment and how Collarts have been able to navigate this transition so seamlessly?

JT: I think that was the next level of thinking for us as in ‘How do we translate the more sophisticated campus experiences into the online space?’ Students generally aren’t going to be able to have a Pro Tools HDX rig with a Dolby Renderer and 30:1:6 JBL Atmos monitoring setup at home (at least I would think not!), so what can be done to translate as much of that experience as we can?

That’s when we started looking at the higher end Remote desktop options which have proved a lifesaver in terms of illustrating concepts like the Atmos workflow in Pro Tools and helping students navigate the software side.

One of the biggest strengths with Dolby Atmos as a format is that it downmixes like a genius, giving it a surprising amount of flexibility in terms of teaching it remotely. When you think Atmos, you immediately think of a room full of speakers but it’s actually amazing to see the quality of the projects turned in by our remote students and how well their mixes translate onto big speakers.

The fact that Dolby Renderer allows for Atmos to render binaurally creating a simulation of Atmos that can then be worked on from home, is just an incredible development and has really gone a long way to allowing us to teach Atmos remotely.

Since moving online, we have not had a single student fail the Atmos unit, and their projects have been almost perfect across the board. The standard of work has been incredible and is a testament to how much the students really love working in Atmos as a format.

What about the stuff that can’t always be replicated digitally? How do you guys go about things like mic/preamp selection, directing session musicians and all those classic elements of production?

JT: This one normally depends on the student and their situation. So many of our students are musicians themselves (often with their own recording equipment), so they are free to record themselves and use their own hardware and we can connect with them via Zoom and guide them through as they go if that is their preference.

Other students might live nearby, but might not have the necessary equipment, so they can come in and we are able to lend them what they need for the project. Some students might be non-musicians, so they might want to come into campus and use the on-site facilities, which they are more than welcome to do (provided it’s not stage 4 lockdown!)

For our interstate and international students, they can actually remote in and control the computers and chat with an engineer on campus via video link, so they can essentially be a producer from home, with multiple cameras, multiple audio feeds, remote DAW and fader control.

A student can literally listen and direct the onsite engineer and talent in real time via video link, all whilst being able to see and control the Pro Tools session and console faders from home! It’s almost like a video conferencing version of the classic talkback mic, but with the ability to connect anywhere in the world!

Head to Collarts to find out more about what’s on offer from the institute, and stay tuned to see more from our Isolate and Innovate series soon!