Emmy award winning engineer Justin Fraser on loudness and dynamic range

For many audio professionals, Grammy-nominated and Emmy award winning engineer Justin Fraser needs little introduction. In addition to his prolific career as an independent audio engineer, re-recording mixer, and consultant, Fraser is one of the world’s leading Pro Tools instructors and arguably the leading authority on all topics related to Pro Tools audio post-production. His studio credits include some of the most recognizable names in the business, such as engineer and technical assistance for the legendary music producer Trevor Horn. Fraser is also an accomplished sound designer and dubbing mixer for film and television, with recent credits including audio workflow consultancy for NBCs broadcast of the London Summer Games in 2012 and this year’s Winter Games in Sochi.

In addition, over the past decade Fraser has worked as an educational consultant for Avid and served on the faculty at Alchemea College of Audio Engineering, a leading audio education provider and certified Avid Learning Partner based in London. In this interview, Fraser talks about the influence of loudness regulation on the audio industry and the innovative ways he’s worked loudness into his educational curriculum.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the music and audio landscape over the past few years?

The biggest change for the music industry has been the decline of the big-studio recording model. With the Internet revolution and the rise in consumer devices that enable people to purchase music electronically by the song vs. by the album, music is no longer the valued commodity it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In those days, bands went on tour to promote albums; now, an album is a promotional vehicle to sell tickets to shows and drive online sales of singles. Budgets for making records have decreased dramatically and, sadly, we’ve lost some great rock and roll recording rooms in the process.

The growth of loudness regulation around the world is another important development and one that I very much welcome. In the broadcast arena, engineers have traditionally focused on mixing peak levels for delivery, which too often has meant mixing with minimal dynamic range in order to drown out the competition (AKA the loudness wars). In my opinion, audio that is simply loud just doesn’t have the same impact as audio with a wider dynamic range; in fact, more often it makes listeners turn the volume down, change the channel, or simply press the mute button.

By providing a standard by which we can normalize the mix to actual perceived loudness, new regulations such as EBU R-128 are giving us latitude to increase dynamic range and contrast while staying compliant. These regulations have been very cleverly conceived to tie into previous standards and to enable broadcasters to move towards compliance in stages that suit their equipment and operation. This evolution is making the dynamic range of programming more applicable for a wider range of media and deliverables beyond that of broadcast and DVD.

How have these dynamics affected career mixing professionals?

The audio landscape is constantly shifting under our feet, and sound professionals know they need to adapt their skill sets in order to make a living. In general, I believe the film and broadcast industries have been more forward-thinking than the record labels in terms of approaching new media outlets as additional revenue streams and how to protect intellectual property. As a result, a lot of the training I do now is focused on engineers who need re-skilling to help them move into broader audio post-production roles. A critical re-skilling requirement is understanding loudness for broadcast and cinema; learning to mix to dynamic range while still creating a compliant mix. This is good news: with the pressure off mixers to make the audio louder than everyone else’s, they have freedom to explore more creative avenues.

How do you incorporate loudness metering into your Pro Tools training, and what metering tools do you use?

Loudness metering is a key topic in many of my courses, and I stress the importance of tools for clear, intuitive loudness metering and correction such as NUGEN Audio’s VisLM, LM-Correct, and ISL plug-ins. I use these tools extensively in my loudness curriculum.

Last year Alchemea launched a new four-month diploma course for audio post-production and game audio, and for that I deliver a week’s worth of lectures on mixing standards and deliverables. VisLM is our go-to visual metering tool for that course and we also use LM Correct as an analysis tool for mixes to show students how far out of spec they are and help them focus their attention on improving future projects. In addition, with use of the systems NUGEN Audio has supplied, I’ve developed a two-day short course on surround mixing, loudness standards, and deliverables. It’s a technical overview that includes showing students how loudness plug-ins fit into the task of dubbing and re-recording mixes, and includes a group mixing project to put the concepts into practice.

I think of ISL as a bit of a secret weapon. It’s incredibly useful for re-purposing programming from one standard to another, and for limiting erroneous peak levels on audio mixed to a specific dynamic range. I really appreciate how accurate and transparent the tool is for ensuring audio quality. It is primarily geared towards working to current broadcast loudness standards which is one of its many strengths, but I also recently used it on a music mastering project to tame any potential inter-sample peaks that would have otherwise ended up compromising the CD. Students are always impressed with ISL’s ease of use and transparency. 

What else is special about the NUGEN Audio tools?

Through my career, I’ve used a lot of metering tools from various manufacturers. Once I was introduced to NUGEN Audio’s VisLM, I sensed it would quickly become my meter of choice. The amount of visual feedback it provides at a glance is incredibly useful when you’re mixing to average loudness specifications, and it also helps my students break down different elements of the specs and draw parallels between them.

Compared to its competitors, NUGEN Audio stays on top of the evolving loudness standards and continually develops its plug-ins to accommodate new iterations of the various specifications. For instance, NUGEN Audio added a dialog gate option for LM-Correct and VisLM for automatic measurement of average loudness in dialog sections of source material essential for feature work, along with recently adding the relative gate functionality to the evolving ATSC A/85 standard presets. This adds a lot more flexibility for offline loudness measurement and automatic compliance with many international standards. Also, these tools allow you to ‘dial in’ previous iterations of standards to accommodate facilities that are taking a tiered approach to adopting the EBU R-128 or ATSC A/85 loudness standards.

The NUGEN Audio tools are ideal for me and for engineers that place a high value on mixing with dynamic range vs. to peak levels. For music projects, I can use VisLM to mix dynamically and, if required by the client, bring up the level without necessarily compromising the overall dynamics. It’s so important to be aware of the potential true peak level on the consumer’s playback device, because ultimately it’s the consumers that are the true critics when it comes to an enjoyable listening experience. The true peak metering in VisLM and the limiting capabilities of ISL are critical for achieving a good, approachable mix that’s also loudness compliant.

It’s clear that loudness metering is a part of the audio landscape that’s here to stay. With loudness standards continually evolving and consumers demanding high-quality audio across so many different devices and platforms, it’s critically important that mixers have an easily comprehensible set of tools with which to evaluate their work, and that these tools will also evolve with them. NUGEN Audio tools are my choice for delivering fast turnaround work that is absolutely on spec, and for educating the mixers of tomorrow.

Courtesy : NUGEN Audio

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    Abhishek Bhalerao
    Abhishek Bhalerao

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