Remote Sound Mixing: How The Pros Are Making it Work in 2020

When California launched its safer-at-home initiative, Hollywood scrambled to maintain momentum on projects in motion. Suddenly faced with the ultimatum to go remote or bust, production companies, post production houses, and sound studios alike hustled to find solutions. We caught up with the team at LA Studios/Margarita Mix, subsidiaries of FotoKem, to hear how they managed the shift: what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what the future may hold for motion picture sound.

Making the switch

“The biggest challenge was getting an efficient workflow in place that felt seamless to our clients,” says Konrad Piñon, re-recording mixer at Margarita Mix. "We went through a big trial and error process.” Working from home, Piñon and his team tested a range of different tools in an attempt to recreate the experience of being in the same room together while apart. The first challenge they faced was erratic internet, and it was a determining factor in finding a solution to carry out mix reviews with creatives and executive producers.

“In my neighborhood, bandwidth was compromised substantially, and the ISP at the time was trying to get everybody up to speed,” Piñon explained. “On Evercast, I was able to grade the playback options. So, I could pull back the video bitrate and upgrade the audio bitrate playback, which allowed me the flexibility, with compromised upload speeds, to play something back for clients and give them a live feel.”

Rand Gladden, SVP of FotoKem, elaborated, “A lot of the people working at home have 20 Mbps up, but come nine o’clock in the morning, that goes down to two. And this is still allowing us to work remotely. So the system’s ability to make that possible is unique at the moment. The other processes out there are not offering that ability.”

Piñon works on numerous animated shows, including “Star Trek: Lower Decks” (CBS All Access) as well as 2020 Emmy nominees “Rick and Morty” (Adult Swim) and “Big Mouth” (Netflix).

“Star Trek: Lower Decks” show creator and executive producer, Michael McMahan said, “When we had to start working remotely, the audio was my biggest concern. Evercast makes it feel like we’re actually mixing in a room together; it’s been beyond helpful.”

Piñon acknowledged the specific challenges for these types of projects: “These shows are heavy with sound effects and music, so you’re always concerned that it’s going to play back properly.” He added, “A lot of people are using headphones to do reviews, so anything we can do to minimize loopbacks or extra communication devices is better for the clients. The next step would be to get clients off of their headphones and listening to these with some good monitors.”

So, it becomes a balance of catering to clients’ needs in the room while gently encouraging small changes that will ultimately result in the best sound mixing experience -- without too much of a lift.

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Getting everybody on board

Finding a solution that works well from a technological perspective is the first priority. But making sure it’s easy and reliable for both the sound mixer/sound editor and the clients participating in the session can make or break the experience. It’s really in the hands of the facility to ensure the process runs smoothly.

Even as production tentatively begins to reopen, having your remote mixing workflow down pat has proven vital for a number of reasons. Veneta Butler, general manager of Margarita Mix, explained, “If we can find a path that allows the clients to have what I call an ‘audible experience without hiccups,’ then that’s going to be something we can use for the remainder of this year, if not even into next year, because a lot of clients are not feeling safe as of yet to go into a studio. They want to know what their options are going to be for the long haul.”

The challenge is not solely in finding reliable technology that gets the job done; lest we forget, there are humans involved, too. If software is cumbersome to use, it’s going to affect the creative process. The reality is that creatives have had to change their routine and have been forced to work outside of their comfort zones, and when a remote collaboration platform requires excessive hardware or a complicated download process, it’s an added waste of time and a source of unnecessary frustration. Not to mention, no industry knows better than Hollywood that time is money. “With Evercast, they’re like, ‘Okay, I just go to the link, put my email address and password in, go live, I’m there.’ And that made it so much easier for them,” said Piñon.

What the future may hold

Mixing is only the tip of the iceberg; chiseling out remote workflows for all aspects of audio production will be the key to success outside the studio. “As we go forward, we’ll look into using Evercast for ADR and for lots of different review processes,” said Butler. “It’s been good to start with everyone stuck at home so we can clearly develop the remote process in general. For example, we’re going out and recording a lot of talent in their homes with a special remote kit that we built.”

Gladden added, “I think remote collaboration and remote working is here to stay. What’s happened has pushed that forward, and like many companies throughout the country (in our business or otherwise), you’re going to see a lot of people working from home because we’ve proven it can be done. When it’s appropriate to be in a studio or in a color room, or whatever the case may be, then that’s where we’ll be. But a lot of the general work is going to be able to be done at home seamlessly, and I think it’s here to stay to some degree. Time will tell how much.”

About LA Studios/Margarita Mix

Margarita Mix is an award-winning sound and picture studio where classic meets cutting-edge. With locations in Hollywood and Santa Monica, Margarita Mix specializes in episodic, animation, commercial audio mixing; editing; ADR; sound design; SFX creation; voiceover; and ISDN remote recording for commercials, video games, trailers, and promos.

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