From Full-time to Freelance: How Audio Post Engineer Damian Kearns Made the Jump with Pro Tools

By in Audio Post, Pro Mixing

My mixing career began in the mid 1990s, when the old DAWs shared one important characteristic: they emulated multi-track tape playback in their user interfaces, along with tape-style editing functions. To this day, this longitudinal display holds fast. Sound unfolds through time so we need a start and an end point, as audio engineers. This linear approach is what shaped my present use of digital audio workstations.

I’ve been working with Pro Tools since version 3. Since 5.1, I’ve made Pro Tools my primary surround mixing DAW. It’s helped me push ahead in my career in post audio and you might say Avid and I have evolved alongside each other.

Prior to my life as a freelance engineer, I worked for over 15 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  I still clearly recall when the department moved to Pro Tools. The sound quality of the audio interfaces was way better; the editing and mixing functions pushed me well ahead of anything I could do before. In 2001, I started mixing on Pro Tools 5.0, but 5.1 was coming soon and would change everything. That was the year DAWs started becoming real workstations.  The machine control, the synchronization capabilities, the plugins! I mastered the automation functions easily and read and reread the manual until I was a shortcut wizard. I still regularly use OPTION+COMMAND+/ to write my automation through selections.

I work a lot in Trim automation mode which probably stems from the time I spent using automation on large format consoles. I tend to like to write and rewrite levels incrementally. With Pro Tools, unlike some of the tape-based automation programs I had used, I didn’t have to worry about my automation slipping in time after multiple rewrites of the same automation so Trim Mode was and is still my favorite automation mode. Another one of my favorite features came with Pro Tools 10: Clip Gain. If you’re reading this and don’t know all the SHIFT+CONTROL keystrokes, you are running at less than half speed, my friend!

During a weekend shift with two other mixers on a tight turnaround airdate, I had to premix an hour of sound effects for a documentary. I didn’t touch a fader once. SHIFT+COMMAND+ UP ARROW or DOWN ARROW trims the gain on selections or selected clips by the value set in the Preferences/Editing Pane. The default of 0.5dB worked well enough in this case. It only took three hours to premix an hour of sound effects and I was even editing replacements in as I went. The post supervisor was so impressed she asked me to teach the other engineers so they could pick up speed. Best of all, when the lead mixer received my tracks, all his faders were at zero, so he had an excellent starting point.

In March 2013, I went freelance and shortly afterwards, landed a 13-part series contingent on me having my own Pro Tools rig. That July, Avid released Pro Tools 11 and I made the decision to build a 5.1 surround mixing system. As I was assembling my rig, I discovered The Channel Strip plugin and the DownMixer plugin. These features, along with the surround mixing capabilities, put me to work immediately. I didn’t know it then, but the Pro Tools HD Native system would change the way I, and everyone around me, would be working from that point onward.
A month later, I began work on the 13-part series. They gave me three days to edit and one day to play back. They also needed voiceover recorded before the playback session. Since I didn’t have a booth of my own (yet), we did our recording and playback session downtown to facilitate the VO sessions.  By the end of that first day, my clients were in shock.  They’d never voiced and played back a single episode inside an eight hour day, let alone two episodes. The next series I edited and mixed on my system for them, Undercover High, was nominated for an International Emmy.

I soon added Avid’s Pro Compressor and Pro Limiter to my configuration because of their low CPU load, clean sound, and multichannel functionality. My rig was becoming truly powerful. After discovering Window Configurations, my templates all possessed an assortment of easily recallable (PERIOD+NUMBER+*) window configurations, often with audiosuite plugins tweaked beforehand to my desired settings.
As word spread about my work, frankdigital.ca, a full service video production studio and post production facility in Winnipeg, brought me in.  I’d never been there, so I was thrilled to take a plane to my next gig! The studio provided me with a set of speakers so I could work out of my hotel room with the portable Pro Tools rig I’d brought from home.  My mobile rig meant there was never once a studio scheduling issue. If all else failed, I could head back to the hotel and keep editing using the HD TV in my living room as a second monitor.  On the weekends, when I wasn’t working for them, I was distance editing for my clients in Toronto.

During my time in Winnipeg, I still hadn’t used the year-old Offline Bounce feature. A quick turnaround documentary changed all that. I was finalizing a mix when I learned playback was in 10 minutes in the video editing suite next door to my room. Six minutes later, I’d completed my first offline bounce to their server. I attended the playback, took notes, and went back to make my fixes.  Another six minutes later, the 45-minute audio track was delivered. I couldn’t believe I’d never again have to print mixes and stems inside my session in real-time. That was a huge paradigm shift.

Another feature I rely on, Clip Effect, was included in last Fall’s release of 12.6 HD and HD Native. I didn’t initially see a use for it, until I had a Foley session where we were performing and recording in the same room. All of the Foley needed a low-end roll-off.  I used OPTION+6 to open the Clip Effects pane, selected all the Foley and assigned the low end filter.Bam! Done. By the end of the mix, I’d opened and closed that window a hundred times.

I’m headed into my fifth year of freelance work and have a fully functional recording booth and 5.1 surround control room in my home.  One of my first mixes there— a Rogers Sportsnet doc called “Roberto Osuna: From Sinaloa to the Show”- resulted in Canadian Screen Award nomination, which validated my decision to invest so fully in Pro Tools. Buying my HD Native rig was the best career decision I could have made.  And after more than 16 years mixing with Pro Tools, I’m as keen as ever to see what Avid comes up with next. The best is yet to come.

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Damian Kearns is an award-winning engineer with more than 20 years of experience in post audio (18 years as an editor and mixer). He was CBC Toronto's de facto in-house Pro Tools trainer for much of the early 2000s. You’re likely to find Damian recording voiceover, Foley, and ADR as you are to find him mixing and training other engineers.