Fixing Audio In Pro Tools - The Case For And Against

03-07-2014 10:27 AM

Have you ever sat in a session with a Pro Tools engineer going through a piece of audio meticulously to make changes? This may be to the timing, tuning, de-breathing, or trying to change the audio becuase the Eq was recorded wrong and they now need to go through and notch their way through the performance.
Sometimes it is necessary, so here is the case for and against.
Fixing Audio In Pro Tools - The Case Against It

  1. Performance Is Everything
    With the invention of modern DAW based audio editing and plug-ins to change everything from pitch and timing to breath and intonation, many people have become confused. Perfect audio is not the same as a great performance, either in music or picture. There’s a lot you can do to enhance a great performance with a great edit and mix, but there’s little you can do with any technology to make a sucky performance sound great. As the expression goes ‘you can’t polish a turd’ and the retort is ‘yes but you can roll one in glitter.’ The first job of recording is to get a great performance and you can’t fake it in the mix or in post.
  2. Record It Right
    Which leads me to my second point for the prosecution. Make sure you use your skills to get the audio down right in the first place. Take time to choose mics and outboard (if necessary) to get the best out of the performance and then create an environment where the performance will flourish. Recording is 50% technology and 50% psychology, both matter so take care of making sure both your tech is good and the environment to capture the performance is right too. Fixing in the mix is a phrase that sums up the problem of the prevailing attitude, because you only fix things that are broken. If it’s done right in the first place then it shouldn’t need to be ‘fixed in the f****g mix.’ If you think music is bad then spend some time in a post house, as the cost of making films and TV have dropped through the floor there’s now a whole generation of film-makers (I’m using the term loosely) who capture everything they can and then dump all the assets on the poor post house (who have the smallest part of the budget) and expect them to perform a minor miracle. It seems the concepts of planning, data and asset organisation and a clear brief for the final product have all gone out the window. Done right, all of these things ensure that when a performance is captured that it’s pretty close to end result.
  3. If It’s Not Right Then Do It Again
    I don’t subscribe to the production style of getting an artist to go through a part line-by-line or even word-by-word and dropping in. Punching in is a technology to assist us in putting right a mistake or dropping in on part of an average performance, used sparingly it is a god-send. If it is abused then it is self defeating, it creates a ‘perfect’ scrapbook of a part but it doesn’t give a fantastic performance. What I do subscribe to is ensuring that the best performance is recorded, this may be the first or may be the fifth, but I also think when it comes to retakes there is a law of diminishing returns. This is where play lists are a gift from God, record everything, even the scratch stuff. A couple of weeks ago I was with a top engineer working on the latest album for a Grammy winning artist. He told me that they had spent 3 days on the vocals using an AKG C12, custom pre-amps and the works, they also had scratch vocals thrown down with an SM58 straight into the desk. The SM58 is the on the album, not because it’s better than an AKG C12 and a shed load of outboard but because that’s what the best performances were created with. When it comes to gear versus performance then the performance should always win!

Fixing Audio In Pro Tools - The Case Against For

  1. Shit Happens!
    A strong case for the defence, things go wrong. There’s a drop-out in the audio, the AC kicked in and no one noticed until the artist was 3,000 miles away, the new costume drama you are doing dialogue on has been set at a beautiful old house under the flight path to Heathrow Airport. If this is the case then you need to fix it - you have no choice.
  2. You Have Audio From Multiple Sources
    An equally strong defence and this one is mainly for those working in picture. Sometimes most of the time the audio for picture is made up from multiple formats, or uses different mics such as lavalier and boom. In this situation then a sound engineer has to use their skill to make sure the sound is as good as it can be and that requires a LOT of fixing in post.
  3. You Have Sync Issues
    My third point for the defence and another one for the post world, but it sometimes also happens in music too. The audio has sync issues, normally caused by incorrect setting of sample rate and/or frame rates. Again the only solution is for the audio to be fixed. Sometimes it can be as simple as using format conversion or time-stretching, on other occasions it can be major surgury if the audio is from multiple sources.
  4. It’s A Minor Issue
    My final case for the defence is one of the use of reasonable force. This is where judgement comes into the equation, some audio issues are so minor and the engineer is so talented that a minor fix on perhaps a phrase or a bass note is acceptable and takes nothing away from the performance, on these occasions the Pro Tools is being used as it was intended.

Fixing Audio In Pro Tools - Conclusion

I think the real issues is not the use of the amazing tools that we have at our disposal, but their overuse. Pro Tools is supposed to be our slave and not our master, it’s also meant to make the skill and craft of a sound engineer even more useful, not to simply be some kind of magic cut and paste wonder-tool so that a cat can create hit records.
Too many people already think that creating great music, film and pictures is easy and is a con that relies on making anything, however badly it started off, sound or look good. When we create art with the minimum of effort by the overuse of audio editing or sloppy use of autotune or other effects then we simply re-enforce this wrong view.
To have the tools we have at our disposal and never use them would be a crime, equally to use them to cover up for talentless performances or poor quality and sloppy work is in my view an even bigger crime. So members of the jury you have heard the case for and against. Discuss.