A few weeks back, we featured how Gorilla Post in Cardiff had chosen to build their latest dubbing suite around an Avid S3 rather than another S6 room, and with other 'sighting' of Avid S3s together with an interview with James Mather Supervising Sound Editor On Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation we asked if more S3s were finding a home in audio post production. In the comments, community member Reid Caulfield asked "what's so groundbreaking? I've been specifying S3's for post facilities in Hollywood for years". So we asked Reid to share his experiences with using the Avid S3 in audio post production and this article is his story, so over to you Reid....
Before I start I just want to ask that you bear in mind that I work in Hollywood and so will write from that perspective, though I expect things are really not that different in London or any other major post-production hub. To provide some background let me explain where I have come from and some of my experiences.
I grew up in post production in Canada in the 1980’s. The first console I ever worked on (as a student) was a classic Neve 8016 built in 1973 or 1974. By the end of the 1980’s as a television mixer, I was using a Studer 24 track and a Sony MXP3036. In other words, I’m a console guy from way back. I like consoles. But by the late 1980’s, with the promise of what we now call “DAW’s”, it felt like, at least for TV work, we might be able to rid ourselves of the burden of large consoles.
TV sound & the suites we worked at it in had always been the poor stepchild to high-end video rooms charging $900.00 per hour. And so when it came time to design a new room in a brand new space for our facility, the powers that be asked if there was any way to make my studio occupy a smaller footprint. Although there were a few interesting technologies at the time in the nascent DAW space, the Synclavier Post Pro was the only viable, tested contender, but it’s price tag forced management to reconsider and so I ended up with a traditional television mix room, console & all. We did, however, have a Digidesign Soundtools system, a precursor to Pro Tools. The die was cast, however. A few days with Sound Tools in my traditional analog mixing room made the path forward very clear and easy to see. Virtualisation and full computerisation of the audio editorial and mixing process was underway, although the general-purpose computer hardware power (e.g. Macs & Windows machines) was still years away from full implementation.
The Death Of The Console (Not So Much)
When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1991, I was shocked to learn that the only real DAW work being done in town was on Synclavier. No one seemed to have been playing with anything else over the past few years - Soundtools, Dyaxis - and so I found even my basic digital editing skills in some demand. Over the next few years, I shed my console habits and worked mostly on Sonic Solutions systems, and mostly in the box, bussing out to an analog console when it came time to mix.
One day in 1992 or 1993, I was invited to SSL’s headquarters in L.A. to see & test their Screensound and Scenaria systems. Screensound was a Wacom-style tablet-based sound editorial system, whereas Scenaria was where I really thought they’d got it right - small, wraparound footprint, 8 faders, integrated Screensound editorial system, SCSI switching - the dream was real! A middle ground between a computer and a console. It was expensive and was really more of a tool for short form work - television commercials - and, at least to my eye, seemed to have been modelled after the Lucasfilm SoundDroid from a decade earlier, but it was an amalgam of what everyone was hoping for. Size, capability, flash, the SSL name. It was buggy, however, largely due to its early disk-based video playback system and it unreliable method of managing storage (hot SCSI switching). I’m not sure what killed it, but these issues probably had something to do with it.
Scenaria, and, later, the SSL Omnisound, demonstrated that this might indeed be the wave of the future. It looked like the dream might come true; no more big consoles, smaller room footprints, no giant piece of metal in the middle of an acoustically sensitive environment, at least for TV mixing. For a few years in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a lot of facilities did try to make this arrangement work, but for various reasons - unions, egos, traditional workflow, client expectations and aging mixers who didn’t want to revise their decades-old tools & workflow - console-less mix rooms didn’t really catch on. Major television & film projects were still mixing traditionally, on single or multi-man large format SSL’s, Neves & Harrisons. I was happily chugging away, console-less, and I was very happy. It’s really only since 2010 or so that I’ve been back on the console train.
Avid Controllers: My Road To The S3
In the early 2000’s Avid decided to get on board the large format console bandwagon in the form of their D-Command & D-Control consoles. Although I was an early naysayer - a giant, expensive mouse, I remember calling it - I came around eventually. Today I rarely mix without using an Avid surface. I still maintain that they are much more that “a giant mouse.” The problem was that the D-Command and D-Control were out of reach for smaller facilities and bedroom operations, in terms of cost and space as well as the infrastructure they require (i.e. XMON). The Artist Series, which came along for the ride when Avid bought Euphonix, is certainly functional and better than nothing, but on the flash scale, it’s a tough sell, unless it’s all gussied up in a fancy desk.
Of course, I understand that function over form is important, but client expectations are also important, especially in the major media centres and even more so when clients are paying real money for sound services. I have specified Artist Series units for a number of rooms in a number of facilities and have always been happy with the results, but durability is important to me, and the Artist Series have always felt a bit insubstantial to me. I like to push a fader and feel a bit of weight behind it, or turn a control and feel a bit of resistance. On occasion, I need to take my various units on location, for me. Mackie controllers are great for this, as are all analog Mackie mixers, come to that, whereas I find the Artist Series are specifically not great at travelling.
So with ICONs a bit big and the Artist Series way too small (at least for my liking), I was looking for something in between, both for myself and for the installation I am tasked with designing.
Enter the Avid S3
So it was Jim Pace, President of Audio Intervisual Design in Los Angeles, who introduced me to the Avid S3 a couple of years back while I was in the process of commissioning a facility for a client/employer. At the time, my main axe was a 24 fader D-Command-ES (the newer black unit), which I designed into a room that a different client/employer had built for me. At the time - 2013 - The AVID S series was not quite ready and hadn’t yet been released. Jim & his team in West Hollywood have introduced me to a lot over the last 26 years that I’ve been doing business with them, and I’ve built a number of facilities sourcing gear & integration from them, so I trust that when they say “Try this”, they’re not wasting anyone’s time. So, what are the S3’s advantages?
The S3’s first strength is its small form factor. It fits on a kitchen table if it must. I know this, because I have done exactly this while remodelling my studio at home. Also, my bulldog Monty prefers that I work in the kitchen on sunny days, as opposed to the dark back room, and it’s hard to say no. The unit looks great in a purpose-built console as well, and I’ve also used them in remote cutting and mixing situations. The small size comes at the cost of housing only 16 faders, but for a great many applications, I do not find this to be particularly limiting.
As for sheer console size, I agree that there’s something powerful and empowering that comes with working on a large or very large surface, so I understand if you need as many faders wide as you can spread your arms, or even more than that. I recently mixed an Oliver Stone-produced documentary at a facility in West Los Angeles on what I have been told is the world’s largest D-Control console. It was for theatrical presentation and so had to be mixed in a large mix theatre. And in a large mix theatre, there’s a lot of space to fill at the operator’s position, often a lot of clients to impress, and usually two or three mixers to accommodate. But really, most of the work was in or around the centre section anyway, and this project was a one mixer job. So this console, in this particular room, was indeed built for feature film & television and is a typical 2-3 person console, and this is expressly not the place for a lone S3. But most of the world’s mix work is not that, and the editorial work that comes before the mix is expressly not that.
In a lot of ways, the newer AVID S6 console - which I have recently specified for my new facility - is perfect for film & television work. You can add or take away modules, elasticising the size of the console for the appropriate application or room. It goes into small rooms or large rooms easily, depending on space & budget. But that’s the thing about the S6 - space & budget. It takes a more space and it’s expensive. In Los Angeles, increasingly, space is at a real premium and client’s budgets are dwindling. Space is usually an important issue in metropolitan centres like New York, London and L.A. When visiting facilities around Hollywood, I am constantly surprised by the ever-shrinking space allotted for sound editorial and, in many cases, for television mixing and film & TV pre-dubbing. It’s not uncommon to find editorial or QC happening in a four square meter closet. Recently, I saw a makeshift Atmos-At-Home QC setup in just such a room with very small speakers. The S3 is perfect for such small footprint situations while feeling more like a real console than the Artist Series.
At around $5,000 retail - and significantly less from a reputable reseller - it’s true that the S3 is not cheap, but it’s not $20,000 either, which is the starting point for an S6 with and S10 frame, which I can also make a strong case for. But for a working facility whose engineers need to move fast when mixing and for which post clients are paying even a nominal rate for service, and for who 20k & above cannot be justified, the S3 is perfect, especially when paired with the optional Avid Dock. I have found that It makes for a viable replacement for single ICON D-Command installations when the time comes to retire those older units, for way less money than ICONs used to cost.
Look & Feel
The S3 is truly an S Series unit. It feels like it’s related to the S6, especially with the optional AVID Dock, which to me is actually not an option at all. To me, the S3 actually feels more solid than the S6, while of course not being as brazenly functional, either. It also doesn’t feel fragile like the Artist Series. It makes me feel like I’m working with a serious piece of equipment. It’s heavy, the faders & knobs that seem to have more substance behind them. Housed in a desk or sitting on top of one, it is sufficiently impressive for clients. Also, mixers like to feel they are in command of serious hardware, because most of us are geeks. And in the S3, that serious hardware doesn’t break the bank, doesn’t take a lot of space and feels like it has gravitas.
Operation & Functionality
The S3 actually has minimal audio I/O on it. Two Mic & Two Line Ins, 2 Main Outs and 2 Monitor outs. The point here perhaps, is that you don’t need an entire Avid (or other) interface to get minimal sound in and out of the unit. This might be nice for location work or last minute touch ups in a makeshift studio/voiceover situation. I confess to not having utilised this functionality as of yet, nor to how routing works in conjunction with Pro Tools, but I can think of a couple of potential uses. There’s a lot of functionality accessible on the unit & under the hood and it does take some learning. In fact, don’t underestimate the workflow changes required for the S3 as opposed to, say, an Icon surface.
The S3’s onboard display feedback is surprisingly substantial for its small footprint, but again, the addition of the companion Dock brings this to another level that makes operation much faster and more facile.
Let me state here that I do believe an opportunity was missed on the S3 with the omission of a display connector on the rear of the unit, but then that cuts into S6 territory, I suppose, and clearly this is the role meant to be filled by the Dock/iPad combination, but still, it would have been nice to be able to hook up a 24” monitor and maybe a mouse for easier navigation around the S3.
Having said that, it’s easy to be fast on the S3 once you get the hang of it. I find that the 16 faders get me most of the way there most of the time, though sometimes I pine for more, but then I pine for more when I have 40 faders at my disposal some days. 8 faders are usually not enough to be fast with when working with 50-100 tracks (or more) on a mix in Pro Tools. Of course, it’s possible to string together 2 or 3 Artist Series Mix units to get more faders, but by the time you do that you’re getting within spitting distance of the cost of an S3 anyway. This again was, I feel, an opportunity missed by Avid. It is specifically not possible to string S3’s together for more faders or bigger, more impressive footprint and more utility. But again, this is S6 territory. I just think that if you can do it with the Artist Series, Avid should have given us the same ability with the S3, but alas, they did not.
I design rooms around the console centrepiece. From client amenities in the room to tables & chairs, outboard gear and the colour of paint on the walls, I design rooms for efficiency, utility, comfort and style, in that order. All of it radiates out from whichever console is going into the room, big or small. I like clients to feel comfortable and secure in the knowledge not only that I am in command of my gear, but that the gear is not getting in my way. The S3 has a bit of Darth Vader/Darth Fader style to it, as of course does the S6. Not so much the Icons at this point in the cycle, 15 years on, and not at all with the Artist Series, which I tend to put into rooms that clients will never spend time in - QC rooms, ingest rooms & assistant’s rooms, mainly. Depending on the job you expect to task the S3 with, I believe it should be on your list for consideration, especially where restrictive room size is a consideration, or when it’s time for D-Command replacement without having the budget for the S6.
I like the S3 for post work a lot, especially in situations where space is at a premium and where clients may be in attendance. Although I do not use the S3 exclusively - indeed, I have found that no console is appropriate for every situation - it does fit a wide variety of recording and mix/predub/QC situations. In fact, I am currently replacing an 8 fader blue D-Command Icon with the S3 for a new facility I’m building in Los Angeles, and I’m sure more will follow as we attrition Icons out of service in the coming months. I am also installing one permanently in my home studio.