Remote Working in Audio Post Production
Although remote working in audio post-production is not a new concept it has moved firmly into the spotlight as the Covid-19 crisis has developed.
While initially some post houses were scrambling to set up their staff to work remotely, and ensure business continuity, we’ve been operating a completely remote workflow for the past eight years.
Working out of our facility in Brighton, Brown Bear Audio was founded in 2012 with a focus on providing the very best talent and solutions to working remotely. Prior to starting the company, a large majority of my work as a freelance sound editor and mixer was already being completed remotely and as new technology and cloud solutions emerged, I wanted to streamline the whole process to give clients the best experience.
Roll on to 2020 and we now have a network of sound specialists and complete work across all disciplines of audio post-production including feature films, commercials, online content, television and digital.
Having spent the last eight years refining our remote workflow we continue to evaluate emerging technologies to ensure we are giving our clients the best experience and service. In this article I will take you through some of the tools we currently use as well as some best practices when working remotely.
The truth is many audio post professionals have been working remotely for years but it isn’t until recently that technology and cloud solutions have been mature enough to enable a truly collaborative workflow.
Putting together a team of remote audio professionals to operate with the same efficiency and productivity as working onsite is a little more challenging, but with the right tools and management it is completely possible to deliver a seamless experience for clients.
When handling commercially sensitive content ensuring the platforms and systems you use for remote working are secure should be the number one consideration. All the systems we use are protected by enterprise level security at every point and they are SOC 2 Type 2 compliant as well as TPN and MPAA security certified. Data is AES-256 bit encrypted at rest and in transit and there is watermarking on all video files and streams. For off onsite security all our team have a robust firewall and localised data is stored on an external encrypted drive that is password protected and locked away at the end of each day.
In order to upload, share and store project media we use an asset management tool called Frame.io. Frame.io enables the secure transfer of large files and sophisticated folder structures at a speed unmatched by many other cloud services.(we can upload a 5GB file in just a few minutes!) You can manage permissions for the sharing of assets as well as add frame accurate comments and annotations to video files – more of which we’ll cover later. We use Framei.o for collaborating with team members and clients; using the dedicated transfer app along and its integration with all of the major NLEs makes the process really easy. You can also create custom branded portals for each project, so they align with your client’s brand, which is pretty neat.
Remote Review and Approval
Review and approvals are a vital part of creative collaboration and making this process as fluid as possible is something we’ve worked hard to do.
There are essentially two ways to review and feedback on work remotely: Non-real time asynchronous review, which is when a file is uploaded, the client watches it and then gives feedback. And real time synchronous review(streaming) which is when the client is watching the same thing at the same time and giving feedback live.
For non-real time asynchronous reviews (offline) we use Frame.io. This enables review, feedback and approval of files without having to download them first, which can be a huge timesaver with longform projects. You can add notes at precise timecodes-or across a sequence, add annotations to a specific frame and approve files, all of which appear in real time. Comment can then be actioned, and a new version uploaded enabling you to track and trace every version and note. Having a centralised platform like this ensures that all feedback is in one place and everyone (who has been given access) can see and reply to comments, reducing the chance of any feedback getting lost in chains of emails.
For real time synchronous review sessions we use a platform called Evercast. Evercast is an ultra low latency streaming platform with built in video conferencing. It enables you to stream video and audio direct from your DAW to anyone with an internet connection. Picture quality is full 1080p resolution and audio is 320kbps stereo with an average latency of around 250ms. The video and audio bitrate can be adjusted independently depending on the viewer connection speed, which is great when a clients internet speed is struggling.
Unlike other professional streaming services Evercast doesn’t require an additional hardware encoder and instead uses its own EBS software to encode the stream. The stream is sent to a secure viewing room that up too 10 invitees can view using an internet browser. The stream quality and colour are flawless and you don’t get any of the usual sync drift and audio glitches that plague other streaming platforms! We not only use it for live mix sessions but also for remote voiceover, spotting and brainstorming sessions.
Remote Voice-over and ADR
When recording remote voice over and ADR(automated dialogue replacement) where the talent is either based at our facilities or another, we use a piece of software called Source Connect by Source Elements. Source Connect enables a point to point connection between two studios, giving the ability to lock your Pro Tools systems together so they run in perfect sync. You can choose who controls each other’s system depending on who is running the session and it can record at up to 364kbps stereo.
Source Elements make a number of great tools for connecting and collaboration remotely and have become the industry standard for recording ‘down the line’ due to the quality and stability of their software. Their customer support is also second to none.
The environment and way in which clients listen to our work is mostly out of our control. It’s safe to say that they will probably be monitoring on headphones or possible some average speakers in a room that is unlikely to be acoustically treated.
Depending on the budget and scale of a project it could be feasible to send out a set of high quality headphones matching the pair you use in the studio(we use Sennheiser HD650), although monitoring on headphones does bring it’s own set of problems! Alternatively it could be an idea to create a pop up listening room at the client’s offices. This would involve acoustically treating a space and installing a matched pair of speakers (we use Genelec 8030’s) so the client can playback and receive streamed content for review. By doing this the aim is to match, as closely as possible, what you are hearing in the mix room at the clients end so you can be confident any feedback they are giving you is not due to acoustic colouring or speaker response.
Communication & Project Management
When collaborating with a remote team having effective communication channels can help speeds up your workflow and prevent you getting bogged down in long email chains.
For internal team communication we use Slack as it enables quick and easy communication without the formalities of email! For each new project we set up a dedicated Slack channel where all communication about that project are managed. Slack can be fully integrated into Framei.o so you can consolidate all your notes, conversations and feedback in one place, helping to keep everything organised.
For project management we use a tool called Trello, which is essentially a digital whiteboard that can be customised and shared with anyone. We use it for putting together schedules, logistics, budgets, checklists, ideas, client notes and anything else to do with the organisation of a project. Instead of having various documents spread across a number of shared folders this tool has really helped centralise this project information and make it accessible to our remote team. We also share elements such as ideas and schedule with clients so they can keep up to date with progress.
Access to Talent
Over the past ten years the cost of setting up a small to medium scale studio has reduced considerably and with computers now capable of running complex mixes and a Pro Tools system, once a preserve of the high-end facilities, more and more audio professionals are choosing to set up on their own. Using the same tools the major post houses traditionally use enables them to meet and deliver to the same high standards.
One of the greatest benefits of a remote workflow is that it allows you access to a global pool of talent. No longer are you confined by geographical location and collaboration is possible with anyone who has the facilities and an internet connection.
Offering some of the best talent in the industry is at the heart of what we do and depending on the project we put together a team of the most suited professionals, based on their skills.
A hybrid workflow
Depending on the scale of a project (online content or large feature film for instance) it’s feasible to complete all the audio post production completely remotely with reviews, sign off and delivery all done online. As you move up through the scales to specialist areas such as 7.1 feature films and Dolby Atmos mixing, it becomes more difficult to complete these types of projects completely remotely. That’s because it’s critical for you and the client to monitor the final mix in the environment it’s destined for so you can be sure how it’s going to translate. For example, a Dolby Atmos cinema mix requires a certified specially calibrated multi speaker room, which generally only exist in a larger facility. Remote review of this type of format is also currently impossible so the only way for a client to hear the full multichannel mix is by coming into a studio. Larger projects also tend to have more stakeholders involved and the most efficient way to address everyone’s input is to be in the same room working through them until everybody is happy.
For these projects a hybrid workflow is the best approach. Much of the work, such as track-lay, dialogue editing and premixing can still be completed remotely with reviews, final mix and sign off happening at a specialist facility.
In order to complete work remotely you will need a fast and reliable internet connection. You best option for this is a fibre line on a business contract. There are a number of providers such as Virgin, Fastnet and BT but you’ll need to check what’s available in your area. Although business contracts are considerably more expensive than residential packages there are several advantages such as an even upload and download speed, no data limits and no throttling at peak times.
Remote working can be lonely and sometimes isolating so ensuring your mental well-being and that of you team needs to be considered. Positive mental health not only makes you happier but also more creative and having a support network around you that you can rely on will help you stay productive. From experience I know it’s all too easy to fall into an unhealthy way of working so we provide a number of resources and advice for staying healthy. These are all pretty obvious but things we forget about when we’re deep in a project such as taking regular breaks; exercise, eating well and getting good sleep.
Benefits of a remote workflow
Aside from being the safest way to complete audio post production during a global pandemic there are also many other advantages to a remote workflow.
For production companies, broadcasters and post-production facilities there is less capital investments involved, as the purchase and support of hardware, which will eventually become obsolete, is not as necessary. Rents in production hotspots like London’s Soho have also soared in recent years increasing the cost of completing post production in the traditional way. A remote workflow offers a scalable and cost-effective solution to what can be capital intensive and high risk.
For cloud based facilities having the scalability to expand capacity, depending on the workload and project, without carrying the fixed cost of an expensive facility allows them to offer much more competitive rates whilst also being agile and responsive to client’s needs. It also opens up professional audio finishing to all types of production as the cost and access is more affordable.
Commuting and working 10-12 hour days consistently doesn’t help productivity or creativity and will ultimately lead to unhappiness or worse a burn out! Flexible working patterns are a great benefit for most audio professionals working remotely as it enables them to do their job without sacrificing their personal life and mental well-being. This in turn leads to a happier team who will produce much better work as a consequence.
Remote audio post can be a timesaver for many producers as it enables them to complete all their audio finishing without having to leave the edit suite. Producers can still collaborate with the sound team in a fluid way but the time saved travelling to and from facilities can be put into more creative elements. An attended session can take twice as long as an unattended one if you’re explaining to the client how you are doing things and seeking assurance once you have done them!
The pandemic has shifted attitudes toward remote working and provided more opportunity to further demonstrate the viability of a fully remote audio post workflow. As we progress through this unchartered landscape many companies will have embraced new ways of working and experienced the benefits these bring. The technology and tools available will only get better and I have no doubt that leveraging the power of the cloud is the future of post-production.
For any advice or to find out how Brown Bear Audio could help you get in contact.