Toby Alington: ‘These are a few of my favourite things…’

Everyone has their favourite tools, and the arguments between engineers over the supremacy of their chosen equipment, microphones or software bear witness to how important the synergy with these things is to those who care about their output.

I work mainly in live music broadcast, including post-production in both stereo and 5.1 for CD, DVD, TV, radio and cinema. As budgets have crept down over the last two decades, so has the amount of time available to us to make something sound as perfect as possible. I am normally given around four or five days to mix, edit and master a two hour concert, which is quite tight if you include bits of tuning and fixing before getting stuck into the mix. Consequently, I need my tools to be fast, reliable, instinctive, and to give me exactly the sound I am looking for as quickly as possible.

This time-and-motion challenge means we have to accept compromises between what we want to achieve and what’s feasible in the timescale. We would always want more time to make things perfect, but once it’s technically perfect the rest is simply a race against the clock. There is no time for hardware or software to slow things down – it all needs to be fast, solid and sound great.

I’ve been let down by various bits of kit over the years, and there comes a point where if something continues to eat away at your precious time you find an alternative. It’s also possible to stumble across a piece of equipment in anger, and to be so impressed by it that it becomes an indispensable part of your armoury. Lastly, through the wonders of a Google search, trade-press articles and advertising, recommendation by a colleague or some other route, we find a gadget which does exactly what we’ve been seeking for many years.

So here are a few of my favourite audio tools, discovered through all of the above processes, which allow me to work in such a way that I can achieve what I want in the time available.

Firstly, the music multitrack software. The criteria here are reliability, speed of use and quality of built-in creative tools. Nuendo wins my vote every time, both as a recorder on location and as a studio multi-track for post-production. It’s fast, well written, intuitive and incredibly capable. The built-in plug-ins, and especially the Vari-audio pitching software, sound lovely. It’s informative, in that it will tell you if something’s not right rather than sitting there pretending all’s well when it isn’t. It uses standard ASIO hardware, and you can run multiple MADI cards on one system allowing for huge track counts on recording and playback. I discovered Nuendo through using its little brother Cubase for a quick mix one afternoon, and Steinberg’s support is fast and excellent.

Although we use Nuendo as the music multi-track, I record my mixes into SADiE and do my final mastering on this system. I’ve used SADiE for fifteen years, and for fine-editing and mastering I don’t think there’s anything better out there. It handles picture playback perfectly, and has a number of features which allow my workflow to be totally seamless. We also do all our CD mastering in SADiE.

There are two digital mixing desks, which I rate very highly. One is the SSL C200, a digital desk which feels like analogue, has channel strips with all eq, auxes, dynamics and so on available at all times, so for fast music work accessing multiple channels at any one time it’s a dream to work on. The Floating Earth mobile has one of these installed, and I use this truck whenever possible – most recently on the huge Diamond Jubilee concert. The other console I rate very highly is the Yamaha DM2000. Years ago I used one for a de-rig recording, and within a couple of months had installed one in the studio. It has a few limitations on busses and eq bands (there’s no dedicated HPF, for example), but it sounds great, works very well for 5.1 projects, has a good set of built-in Yamaha effects, great automation, and is totally reliable.

This list could go on for ages, with all the justifications from me as to my choice of toys, but I’ll just mention one more piece of kit which has transformed the way I work: The TC System 6000. This is for me, without question, the best bit of studio equipment ever made. Multi-effects processing, including stereo and 5.1 mastering, de-noising, great reverbs (both for film and music), and an interface, which is intuitive and quick to use. The Icon remote control is a simple touch-screen, small-footprint work of genius. I don’t think there’s a single job I’ve done in the last five years which hasn’t used the TC System 6000 in some way; I don’t think I could replace it with one other device, there would need to be several and I doubt they’d collectively be as good. We have two AES cards in ours giving 16 channels of i/o, allowing for complex 5.1 and stereo algorithms running simultaneously across the four engines.

I’m always on the lookout for new toys, but these key things above make my recording and mixing an enjoyable process and I’ve yet to find anything to surpass them. So public thanks to the R&D people at Steinberg, SADiE, SSL, Yamaha and TC – you’ve understood our challenges in the workplace and made things accordingly. I don’t expect you to agree with any or all of my choices, but undoubtedly these tools helped me win the API Studio Engineer of the Year award last year, so clearly they work just fine for me!

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