Are you thinking, “New Year, New Venture”? Are you responding to possible demand and thinking that you should get into Audio Post Production?
One of the most common questions I get asked, be it by people new to the industry, or veterans suddenly entering the freelance world is,
“What do I need hardware wise to be able to operate a post production studio that can handle professional projects, and most importantly, how much will it cost?”
The Production Expert Team were recently having a discussion about the difference in cost between setting up from scratch, a music studio and a post-production studio. Being that I have first-hand experience in setting up both big facility rooms and small independent rooms, I decided to put together this guide to setting up a post room, on a budget. That budget is £5000.
Compatibility, Compatibility, Compatibility
One aspect that sets Post Production apart from Music Production is the need for industry wide compatibility. No matter how much you would like the entire process to take place within your four walls, in Post Production the simple truth is that this NEVER happens. You are also going to need 5.1 monitoring, a variety of third-party plug-ins and proper (ie not desktop) video playback.
Does The Budget Include The Host Computer?
Unfortunately not. Due to the immense variety in pricing between Windows and Mac, plus the availability of second hand and “pimped” machines, it’s near impossible to put a minimum figure on a capable host computer. What I will do though, is give you my minimum recommended specification, trying to remain as platform agnostic as possible -
Intel i7 CPU - minimum 4 cores / 8 threads, minimum 3.4GHz (preferably non turbo)
Absolute minimum 16GB RAM, preferred 32GB, preferably DDR4
NVidia GTX1050Ti 4GB GPU (or AMD equivalent if on Mac)
M2 / PCIe SSD System drive
SSD Media drives, connected via at least USB3, USB-C, SATA, PCIe or Thunderbolt 2/3.
This may seem quite a high bar, but believe me, surround sound post production puts huge demands on your host system. I’m currently mixing a TV series in 5.1. It’s a relatively simple (sound wise) Teen Drama, but each episode’s first build session weighs in at 25 GB audio and 10 GB video, with over 200 tracks. I’m also playing full resolution MXF pictures, so need fast storage to cope with that and the (on average) ten thousand pieces of audio in each session.
So Where Do I Best Spend My Money?
Let’s cut to the chase - here are my own personal recommendations for someone needing to build a post production studio from scratch. This list is not just based on technical specification, but also on ensuring that your workflow is fluid and that you can operate your rig comfortably and efficiently. In Post Production, schedule actually matters more than budget. (All prices are in UK Pounds and include local taxes.)
DAW - Pro Tools Ultimate - £1007
There’s no easy way to put it - if you want to be able to easily exchange media with other Post Production facilities and freelancers, you are going to need Pro Tools Ultimate. Notice that I’m avoiding using the words, “industry” and “standard” together. This is the subject of nuclear hot debate in the community. All I can present is the evidence - the vast majority of audio facilities are now based around Avid software - specifically Pro Tools.
This is partly due to distributors specifying Pro Tools sessions in their deliverables list. This hasn’t stopped ADR facilities from using other DAWs, such as Nuendo, but they generally only use it for acquisition. Very rarely is sound editing, design or mixing done without using Pro Tools.
Being part of the Avid family, Pro Tools communicates well with Media Composer, allowing real time audio plug-ins to come across in AAFs. Avid’s Field Recorder Workflow - an essential tool for re-linking to the original production recordings, is at time of writing, unique among DAWs.
But don’t panic - just because you need 5.1 and Pro Tools Ultimate, it doesn’t mean that you have to buy into Avid hardware. For most scripted TV, running Pro Tools Ultimate “natively”, without Avid hardware, is often far swifter and easier than say a HDX1 rig. It all depends on the host machine, which is why I set a high bar in my guide specification earlier.
The price listed is for a one year subscription, paid upfront. Alternative ways of paying include a monthly subscription of around £70 or a perpetual licence costing £2099 or £1599 if you are upgrading from any version of Pro Tools 11 or above. Prices as per the Avid Store, January 2019.
Monitoring - Five Presonus Eris E5’s & Temblor T8 Subwoofer - £865
Going beyond stereo at least triples the cost of your monitoring. Presonus come to the rescue here, with their Eris and Temblor ranges of monitors and subwoofers. That figure of £865 for a 5.1 setup is less than you could pay for just a single speaker from the likes of Genelec. But cheap and good aren’t compatible surely? Presonus somewhat tore up those rules with these speakers. The Eris E5 two way monitors sound incredible, have a wide range of adjustment available and are front ported, so more compatible with compact rooms or the necessary against the wall and in the corners layout required for post production.
I use a set of Eris E5’s in my own setup. They are incredibly capable and easily fill my 35 cubic metre room. Where my own setup varies from our recommendation here is that I originally had Presonus E66MTM speakers at the front, which were actually monstrously over-powered for my room. I also have the Temblor T10 subwoofer, which was purely to match the E66’s but which I’ve kept as it’s such a great unit. The Temblor T8 is still a very capable subwoofer.
Interface - RME Fireface 802 + ARC USB Remote - £1210
I tried saving money on the interface before - it cost me in the long run. The amount of time I lost to the interface crashing Pro Tools was getting ridiculous. Then you have to factor in the monitor and ear damage when it crashes and sends full digital level hash out all outputs.
You need a capable interface with rock solid drivers to do Post. The RME FireFace 802 is a solid workhorse. The stability comes from RME’s specific drivers, and versatility comes from the TotalMixFX software, which when linked to the ARC (Advanced Remote Control) can be used as a brilliant surround monitoring controller.
The ARC also gives you a good old fashioned volume control that you can grab in case of emergency - no rapid panicked hunting through apps to find the mute button. The 802 is built like a brick, doesn’t rely on a silly external PSU and comes with a wide range of IO, allowing expansion beyond 7.1. It also has some of the best sounding A to D and D to A converters and headphone amps that I’ve ever heard. This interface may seem to be gobbling an excessive share of the budget, but it is absolutely worth it.
I’ve been running a RME FireFace802 and ARC for four years now, with not a single issue. It is even totally stable when used on a USB switch, through a hub, something most audio interface manufacturers would be horrified by. To clarify, RME do not recommend this either - I’m just reporting that for me, it works.
Connectors - £100
You need to connect all your speakers to your interface, so allow £100 at least. This is for the very cheapest from a famous online retailer, so you might want to consider a higher figure. We’ve all been there at Christmas - the sparkly new toy, batteries not included… Don’t make the same mistake! The same also goes for Thunderbolt - never assume that a Thunderbolt peripheral comes with a decent length Thunderbolt cable or even one at all.
Control - Apple iPad 9.7” 32GB with PT Control app - £320
Nothing beats being able to get your hands on more than one control at once and see intuitive feedback. In Post Production, time very much means money. You need to be able to make the best use of your time, so anything that can enhance your efficiency is a good thing.
I admittedly don’t particularly like using touch screens, much preferring real controls, but within this budget, I would gladly take having the PT Control app running on an iPad, than simply mouse control.
If you already have an iPad - check to see if it can run iOS 12 and install and run the PT Control app, and if it can, you’ve landed yourself a free control surface!
Video Playback - BlackMagic Mini Monitor - £110
The best way to get fully assured video playback with sync stability you can rely on, is to have a dedicated video playback interface connected by PCIe or Thunderbolt. For Windows users and Mac users using VideoSlave, the BlackMagic Mini Monitor offers excellent value for money and excellent performance. The PCIe and Thunderbolt versions cost roughly the same. It should be mentioned that most evidence points towards AJA cards being more stable for Mac users than BlackMagic. However, my article from 2016 proves that this is more down to Pro Tools than BlackMagic, as their hardware works fine on other software such as VideoSlave and Adobe.
Third Party Plug-Ins - Noise Reduction And Metering - £634
RX7 Standard (£320) and Nugen Vis-LM (£314). Both have become “post production expectations”. Any collaborator will expect you to have the latest noise reduction software, as used industry wide. You may not agree that this is the best noise reduction software, but the majority of facilities use iZotope RX. The “standard” version of RX contains most of the modules in common use in post, though it would be worth considering getting the “Advanced” package, if dialogue editing and mixing is going to become something you concentrate on.
Then you also have to ensure that your mixes comply to modern-day loudness and peak level standards. You could get away with using the loudness meters thrown in with Pro Limiter, but unfortunately these have been shown to not be accurate enough. They also do not have the enhanced workflow of Nugen Vis-LM - all the extra features such as the auto updating history and offline analysis import, really save you time, plus the intuitive display helps you MIX your way into compliance rather than having to normalise your mix afterwards.
If you want to save some money, you can get the Signum Audio Bute Loudness Analyser, which has almost all the features that Vis_LM has, for £43 (at time of writing).
Grand Total - £4256
So, we have a little leeway in our budget to push the boat out a bit or adapt to specific hardware / OS compatibility issues. I know a lot of you will be thinking that this figure is irrelevant given that I haven’t detailed the host system, but that nowadays is more down to personal preference than budget. The one thing I would suggest is that you avoid portable solutions for your main host system and also make sure your network is wired, not Wifi and that you have a good data backup strategy.
And this is a very important point. Build into your strategy the fact that post production projects can be drawn out over many weeks, months or even years. Clients expect you to be able to safely store the media you’re working on, safe from loss in any form whether that is from hacking or piracy or data loss from a hardware failure.
The aim of this article was to highlight the vast difference in cost when looking into setting up your own post production setup. If you have any suggestions as to how I could have gone about it differently, please leave a comment below.