Acclaimed re-recording mixer, ACA leader, and longtime Avid user, Jonathan Wales recently caught up with us to chat about his work and to share his thoughts on Pro Tools 2019.
With an extensive IMDB list to his name, in the past year Jonathan’s credits include Academy Award winning Get Out, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, and he’s currently working on Dr. Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. His journey in audio post production has seen sweeping transitions, from analog workflows in the early 90s to the adoption of full automation in the digital realm, and more recently a shift towards working natively. But throughout, the core objectives of the job remain the same.
As a re-recording mixer, how do you view your role in bringing a film to life?
Ultimately our primary focus is to tell stories. As a re-recording mixer, my job is to bring together the soundtrack of a movie in its entirety in a way that communicates best with the audience and realizes the vision of the director. This means all the dialogue, music, sound effects, backgrounds, Foley, the ADR – all of these elements need to be brought together to create a soundscape that can lift an audience emotionally, excite them, or scare them to death. To achieve this there are lot of people involved—the director, producers, picture editor, sound supervisor, music editor, sound editors, dialogue editors—all are contributing to the end result. Sometimes it feels like a well-rehearsed ballet; sometimes it feels less so. But at every moment the goal is the same – to create a soundtrack that enhances the movie and communicates with the audience on an emotional level. Of course, with all this going on, the stakes are very high with lots of money is being spent, so it’s very important that we can adapt quickly to changes on the fly and that the process is smooth.
That’s where Pro Tools is now so crucial to getting the job done. And we rely on it completely. In my position, I’m always keen to push the limits of what my system can handle. The limits of our capability should be in our imagination not in our systems.
How did you get started in the world of film sound?
I started working on movies in the mid 90s, and at that time it was quickly becoming obvious that an essential part of the future was going to be the digital audio workstation. Back then, music was way in front of post in terms of adopting new technologies. In audio post production, digital adoption in general had been far slower, but as soon as large scale fully automated console and accessible digital workstations came on the scene, post fully embraced the new tech and workflows skyrocketed.
As I grew in the craft, I developed a love for the flexibility of in-the-box workflows. I remember I would get a lot of work because I had my own Pro Tools system and really knew how to use it. I wasn’t scared to push that DAW envelope. Consequently Pro Tools was really at the center of that continuing exploration for me and over the years it has developed and streamlined many things —from enabling quick rapid changes on the fly during a mix, to ensuring compatibility between systems to performing easier conforms to picture, and in general now enabling the use of Pro Tools as the entire mixing platform, rendering dedicated consoles virtually obsolete.
What system are you running these days?
My primary system includes a Pro Tools | S6, an HDX 3, a lot of plugins, and a 12-core Mac Pro that I’ve totally maxed out. On this system, I typically hover anywhere between 400 to 700 voices at any given time, and it obviously goes up if we’re working in Dolby Atmos™. On top of that, I might use additional systems to run music or sound design, etc. Systems vary but to let you in on a secret, the final mix of The Haunting of Hill House was actually done entirely on one HDX 3 system. We still used a second system as a recorder for the Atmos workflow, but it’s this level of mixing capability that really sets Pro Tools apart. Not only does it have to be possible – but it needs to be really reliable. If I’m sitting in a room with a bunch of people and it isn’t working, it’s wasting everyone’s time, which is expensive. I don’t want that happening – and Pro Tools has given me that comfort and dependability over the years.
Looking at Pro Tools | Ultimate 2019, what excites you most—the 50% voice increase?
Well, firstly this voice increase for Pro Tools | Ultimate software and HD Native has been a very highly placed request in the ACA vote. You don’t get close to the top of that vote without it being something that a lot of people are significantly thinking about. For my workflows in post, it opens up far more flexibility where voice headroom is always a consideration.
The biggest deal here is that HD Native and software-only systems can now have parity with HDX with addition of Voice Packs. For the editors creating sound design or music on their laptops with just software, this is huge. Up to this point, the native voice limit has been a real hurdle for collaboration because I could run bigger sessions on HDX than they could on native. Now those same editors already have 50% more voices for free and can add even more extra voices to their systems at a small cost and work seamlessly with my sessions from my HDX rig. So, this is a very powerful improvement.
What other challenges do you see the voice increase solving?
Well, the biggest thing that gets solved very quickly is session portability out of an HDX environment. In other words, now you can very easily take the session from a large HDX environment into a native environment. If you have a session that needs even more voices—say 600 voices—you can tack on a couple of Voice Packs for your native system and achieve a level of parity so that everything just works. Prior to voice packs, you’d have a split workflow where if you needed to work offline, you’d need to deactivate half your tracks and then check for errors later when you’re back on stage. It was just very inefficient.
The other big one is what you might think of as “voice headroom.” In other words, if we suddenly get a curveball and have to incorporate a whole bunch more tracks, the extra voices afford greater headroom to be able to adapt without worrying about needing another system or pushing it so close to the edge.
Speaking of headroom, how will Pro Tools | Ultimate 2019 help address the trend towards larger sessions in the era of Dolby Atmos?
By definition immersive formats tend to increase session size simply because you have a bigger soundscape to create. For Dolby Atmos, we have to be able to feed at least 128 physical ins and outputs into a Dolby RMU. If you are working in the box, up to this point you’ve been constrained by the 256 voice limit on native Pro Tools | Ultimate systems. But now, with the increased 384 standard voices, and more if needed, you can really get a native system to be a legitimate participant in immersive audio. It opens up the world of full on immersive to a native environment which wasn’t really practical up to this point. I can’t wait to put it into practice. Top of the list!
What else are you excited about in this release?
After everything I just said about voices, I actually think this next thing is the MOST exciting aspect of the 2019 release. It’s all about the sheer amount of stuff you can now do seamlessly during playback. Now I don’t have to stop the playback to insert a track, or route a track, or add a plugin, or deactivate a plugin – or hardly anything! Finally!! It’s the biggest speed-up in workflow I’ve ever seen in a single release.
Plus we often work in multi-operator configurations in post with multiple systems joined together on a Satellite Link. If you’re working in this situation, the worst-case scenario is I try to do something and playback stops and everybody else in the room is now just sitting around waiting for that me to be done with…adding a track for instance! You’re just really losing out on the multitasking potential that might have otherwise been there. With the new continuous playback features, I can work away without stopping the satellite bus and do a huge number of things more creatively—while the movie is still playing and everyone else is still able to work.
This also has huge creative potential to capitalize on as well. We all know sometimes you have a great idea but you’re in the middle of something else and then by the time you’re able to stop and do it, you’ve kind of forgotten what you wanted to do. So now you can just go for it when you think of it without stopping. The ability to just act on an inspiration, on what is almost just an impulse, while it is fresh in your mind, is hugely more creative.
To learn more about the latest features in Pro Tools 2019, please visit our What’s New page.