NDR Radio Station Invests in Pro Tools | S6 to Be Used with Third-Party DAW, Sequoia

By in Audio Post, Music Creation, Pro Mixing

The Avid Pro Tools | S6 console supports an intuitive and complete mixing workflow. The ergonomics and immediacy of the S6 are appreciated by modern mixing engineers worldwide, especially by those mixing complex projects. The S6 is also the only console worldwide that allows users to select the recording and mixing digital audio workstation (DAW) that matches their personal preference. With the EUCON protocol, the S6 works in perfect partnership with all professional applications, including Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, and others. The regional broadcasting station in Hanover, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR, Northern German Broadcasting) was looking for a console for radio feature productions. Because the Sequoia DAW is the broadcast standard for the ARD (the consortium of public broadcasters in Germany, of which NDR is a member), this was a case for EUCON and the S6. We met with the Music Production team leader Ingo Schwarze at the Lower Saxony regional broadcasting station in Hanover, and from him learned all about the installation and the S6 workflow with Sequoia.

Music Production team leader Ingo Schwarze at the new S6 workstation

What exactly happens in this studio and at this workstation? Here we are in control room 3 of the Lower Saxony regional broadcasting station, one of four locations of the NDR – in the cultural broadcasting area Welle NDR Kultur. This studio is mainly concerned with producing feature productions, short radio plays, readings and audio books. Thus, everything is very word-oriented. This means that we have a straightforward recording phase with one or more actors, and then extensive post-production. For post-production, in the previous studio we had already learned to value controller-based work: It is faster and more effective, and can be called up again after a lengthy period. In those days, we used a mixing console with a Mackie HUI protocol. Two or three years ago, when a renovation was pending, we began searching, and looked at what others were doing. In principle, there are two factions: One approach is to take a large production mixing console and to connect it with the DAW via audio and timecodes. We always found this a bit cumbersome. The other approach is to mix more or less in the box. Particularly for radio plays, there are many ambient sounds and Foley effects that the director may not add until production. Here it is quite easy to open a set of tracks and put the audio effects into them. At the controller, I immediately have the track available as a mixing channel, and do not need to use extensive routing to the audio mixing console. These are really great advantages.

Sequoia and the S6 – room for expansion

How does a radio play comparable to a film in terms of production? It is a major production, just like with film. Yes, one thinks in terms of scenes. The director’s script is similar to a film screenplay. Specific spaces are described that must be made audible: From the bedroom into the kitchen, then outdoors, and into the great hall. Everything must be represented without images. For this purpose, a lot of work is done with sounds, and with spatial and directional effects.    The DAW of your choice is Sequoia. Why, and how long has this been the case? Our experience with Sequoia dates back to the year 2002. This area of NDR was digitized at that time. Since the end of the 1990s, we already had a large content management system, the dira! system from SCISYS. It has its own editor which, however, is not suitable for such productions. Since the recording and editing medium was formerly a two-track analog tape, we had to decide on a new direction, and took a look at all the workstations of interest to us, including Pro Tools and Cubase. In this area, at the time ultimately version 3 of Sequoia could do much more than all the other workstations: An example is the crossfade editor, which for a long time was the domain of a single company by the name of Sonic Solutions. In addition, there was the fact that we have always cooperated well with the Magix development department, which demonstrated that it was very open to our requests. As far as I know, over the years this product became established as a multitrack system in the entire ARD radio area. There was always a collaboration between Pro Tools and Sequoia, where Pro Tools was often used in the realm of acoustic design – for jingle production and the like – and Sequoia was used more as an editing system for music and words. That was in fact the role of this product. For the renovation of the production complex, we considered what hardware we could combine with Sequoia. This coincided with the first presentation of the S6. In 2014, I was at the Musikmesse trade show, and Eric Horstmann (Avid Solution Specialist) gave me a short demo of the console. I actually thought then that the S6 was precisely what we were looking for. The fact that the interface could be used to operate not only Pro Tools but also other DAWs was very, very interesting.

Here, genuine live production is still, or again, taking place: Different walking surfaces

What exactly were you looking for? We were looking for something that would allow us to mix in the box, more completely and comprehensively. We had also done this previously, but now wanted to make it physically tangible. That meant: Operating controls for everything which we otherwise handled in the software mixer, with the mouse. We wanted excellent feedback from the hardware; in other words, naming, the display of parameter values, and very good resolution – better resolution than that of MIDI – and the S6 promised all this.   And several parameters can be controlled simultaneously… Exactly! In radio play productions, the mixing is very dynamic. In fact, there are always many parameters which change simultaneously. For example, if someone walks across a room, the volume must be changed, the panorama altered, and the reverberation modified. With a mouse, this is achieved in several steps. However, it can be managed much better and more easily if my fingers are on the faders and are turning the controls, so that I can guide it with my hands, so to speak.   Almost like a live mix… Yes, and nuanced volume changes can be achieved better with the fingers than with a mouse.

Almost like live mixing – radio feature production

How did the process evolve, and when was the decision made in favor of the S6? We have worked satisfactorily and successfully with Sequoia for a long time. Finally, we wanted to integrate a controller-based workflow with our systems. For this purpose, first there was a two-year period of becoming familiar with Avid and bringing together the 2 companies Avid and Magix. We met once at the Magix premises in Berlin. There, for the first time, we were able to see the console with a rudimentary integration of Sequoia, and to provide feedback and make our requests to both companies. Then three or four months passed, and we met here at our premises once more, to see further developments both in the S6, and in a beta version of Sequoia. A steady increase in functionality was apparent. Finally, last summer we were in the tendering phase, specifically focused on the new studio. We had to decide if we were courageous enough to follow this path. We met once again in Berlin, and the overall concept of the S6, plus the audio hardware of another manufacturer, plus Sequoia gave us the impression that we could safely proceed to an implementation phase, where we knew that we were acquiring something that would serve its purpose here for the next ten to fifteen years. The confidence that we were getting a system that was obviously stable and functioned well – that was the decisive factor. We put the studio into operation in March, following a long training phase. Eric also instructed the operators and service personnel here. That was a phase where colleagues could become familiar with the environment here without the pressure of production. We have been in productive operation since the end of April, and have now already made several productions. Of course, there are still a couple of things that could be better – that is a work in progress – but in fact with the first production, we immediately perceived and implemented precisely the advantages we had desired. Our vision has thus been realized. Does the console provide better support for the creative element? We can implement director requests much faster and present a result. This adds vitality to the entire production process. It was already evident in the first production that without using a mouse, all parameters can be affected in depth which otherwise would have to be found in the menus, and then perhaps nevertheless omitted. Everything that is a bit complex in the software is deployed much more naturally, because it is brought to the fore and incorporated into the hardware. This functions very well.

To what extent have soft keys been set up? We have done this in the meantime, but quickly noticed that we do not need many. We did not need to spend weeks searching for menu items that we would like to assign to a hardware button. In addition to pure transport field operation, there are a couple of markers and special functions that can be handled very well at the console level without a mouse. In order to make it still better, a missing feature to be added is a mapping capability for plug-in parameters, for example corresponding visually to the plug-in. At present the parameters are widely scattered and difficult to locate. For instance, my output encoder is in one place for one plug-in and in another place for another, and I constantly have to look to see what I actually need to turn. Then I must reach for the mouse. However, at least it is planned that this mapping feature will be included in one of the next S6 updates. Once again, this will help us a great deal and will be a significant enhancement.   Was the configuration carried out according to your specifications? We put a lot of thought into this in advance, playing with the modular capabilities and spreading large sheets of paper out on the table. During the entire planning phase, we allowed ourselves the freedom of not carving anything in stone. We specified only a framework, in order to be able to decide after six months whether the configuration of the modules is ideal in practice. That is a major advantage of this console. In this kind of work there are always two approaches: The mixing console in the middle and the DAW on the side, or the DAW in the middle and the console divided and on either side. We are keeping both options open. As can be seen: In addition to the actual console modules we have blank panels, and can thus go two more levels outward with the console and make space in the middle, if it becomes evident that this workflow is better than sitting centrally in front of the mixing console. In this regard, we are currently in a experimenting. We have taken a close look at the ergonomics: How can I operate the mixing console most effectively? This is related to arm length and the accessibility of operating controls. A customized feature is the elevation of the rear modules. We sat in front of a flat surface and looked at the modules, asking ourselves: At what angle can I actually read the parameter values in the OLED display, without the encoder in the front blocking my view? Or how long is my arm? Where am I able to reach? An unusual element in the configuration is the touch module, for instance. Usually, it would be positioned further back. There it would be difficult to reach with my outstretched arm, but I often have to use it. We have configured everything so that we can work as ergonomically as possible. A small detail which we had installed is the custom-designed trackball that is now positioned in front of the touchscreen. This setup is not yet available from Avid yet. Perhaps it is something that they can develop in the future … Of course, it should fit in visually. It is proving itself, because when I need the capabilities of the mouse, I do not have to move out of reach of the mixing console. I use the central trackball, and can take care of the things that I would have had to do with a mouse.

Trackpad integrated into the console workspace

There are 24 faders and the encoder module for plug-ins: Have you left the possibility open of working with more faders, or can you navigate well as is? We have that option, since we have prepared for a maximum expansion. Beneath the panels, connections for more modules are already in place. The maximum would be 48 faders. But how far can I stretch my arms, to be able to work effectively? Everything else is made possible by the mixing console itself, because I can bank channels. I can thus stay on the same work surface and can load other channels onto the surface. This is achieved very well via layouts, zones, and further banking of the DAW channels. I think this is actually a good level of expansion, where we seldom feel a lack of faders. However, a project with several people sitting at the mixing console would be a different story. Each person needs his or her own working area. However, I don’t see this for us at the moment. In really big surround film mixing, one often sees several workstations at a single mixing console, but that is not the case here.   Can you describe the first two productions? I did one production this weekend, for a nationwide competition. The NDR provided the technology, so that selected school classes that had submitted a radio play could record and produce it. Yesterday and the day before there were 15 students here each day with teachers, a director and an assistant director. On each day, we recorded a short radio play and then finished producing it the same day. The other production was a feature for the program NDR Info.   We have already discussed one feature request. Another was the waveform display, is that right? Exactly. Magix is currently working on the waveform display, which is not yet available as a feature for customers. In any case, once again it is a step forward, especially for post-production, for isolated things with short sounds that appear only once on a track. One should also be able to recognize these visually when looking at the desk. In addition to metering, the waveform display would be running, and I would immediately recognize: Here comes the sound on the track! I would no longer have to look at the DAW to orient myself, but would be able to focus on the position where I hear the best, and nevertheless see what is coming. Naturally there are many other small details, which cannot all be itemized.   What plug-ins do you use? In the “Feature / Radio play” area, which is very much concerned with the virtual representation of spaces, there are a couple of outstanding plug-ins, one example is Speakerphone from Audio Ease. This plug-in can be used, for instance, if an actor is speaking on the telephone, or is standing on a railway station platform and an announcement is heard in the background. This greatly facilities the workflow. One just needs to be careful not to use only the presets, because then the product would be recognizable in every radio play. However, everything can be adapted well so that, all things considered, a wonderful world of sounds is available. Another example is the Altiverb plug-in for representing spaces, including those that might not be required in the musical realm: A forest, a bedroom, or a kitchen. For radio plays, and certainly also in film post-production, Altiverb is a useful tool, because many parameters are already there, which would be complex to create from scratch. This makes the workflow significantly faster. We wrestled for a long time with the question of whether we can execute a project without the customary audio connection. This was usually a broadcast audio mixing console which, in addition to extensive audio, also handled intercom, source monitoring and control for us, and was what we were accustomed to in other projects. In principle, that is part of this project: Decision-making concerning the AX32 product and considering what audio technology is of essential importance to us and what can be dispensed with. One can sometimes complicate things, depending on the possibilities. We also considered for a long time how commands should be handled. Do we really have to be able to address all spaces individually? Is it not just as effective to have a general command that goes to all pathways and can be called upon by the places? We examined all the possibilities of the AX32 and ultimately fully utilized them, and at the moment we are not missing any functions.

Individually ergonomically adapted, for a comfortable, fatigue-free workflow

What audio hardware is used? For the audio, everything is based on two DAD AX32s, which provide us with the entire audio and control structure here in the room. We have 24 analog microphone connections divided between two rooms, the multichannel audio digital interface (MADI) connection to two Sequoia systems, and routing of individual AX32 signals to the Dante network, also for headphones. Incidentally, this is the first time we have used Dante in productive operation at our facility here. We have also cross-connected the two AX32s with the MADI, because we need to send the signals of both to other equipment. As well, it should be noted that the two AX32 systems are also designed to provide redundancy. We have equipped them so that we can compensate for the malfunction of one system by reconnecting cards in the AX32. This also applies to the two Sequoia machines. During recordings, we always run both systems, so that we have the recording available on two separate hard drive systems. Nothing is worse than when the actors have left the premises and the audio is gone! We also have a pool of spare parts for all the central elements of the S6, that we keep here on the premises.   Do you occasionally use several DAWs simultaneously since the S6 is capable of this… In principle, we already work with a type of combined operation for recording, where we put the hardware controls of the AX32 on the surface and in parallel, via a layout, position the corresponding Sequoia recording channels alongside. That is a great advantage for us at this workstation. Both Sequoia systems are connected to the S6, which means that I can choose between the two systems while working. We have three screens, and have to toggle on the keyboard so that the DAWs are visible; and on the S6, to call up the operating controls of the other machine.   With this installation, you have attracted considerable attention in the ARD… As far as I know, we are the first to implement this concept. In the past two months, we have received positive feedback from many ARD facilities, and some colleagues wish to travel to Hanover to look at the system and consider whether it meets their requirements. An adaptation would not be suitable everywhere, but for our needs the setup here functions very well. Everyone in the ARD who is presently dealing with this issue is eagerly observing the setup here, and for everyone this is one of the options that can currently be considered. The company Qvest Media made an excellent job of the technical and mechanical implementation of our plans. We were very fortunate with the people involved. We could see immediately that they understood us and that they contributed extensive experience to the project. In terms of furniture construction in particular, we had very good experiences with the relevant companies. With regard to the two companies, Magix and Avid, it was very gratifying to feel over a period of months that they had the will to find solutions, to take an active role, and to work together at a very good level. That was super! When different professions are involved, it can also happen that they always shift the blame. That was not at all the case here. Even problems that arose from time to time were addressed openly and solved!

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Thomas Wendt is a producer and engineer turned journalist and marketing expert. Since 1998 his company Integrative Concepts serves A-List clients from the MI and Pro Audio industries with communcations and marketing services.