Why Are Our Mixing Tools So Bad?

A couple of days ago I sat beside a friend while he did a one-day temp mix on a Pro Tools. We were shoulder to shoulder in a small room and that gave me a chance to learn a lot about how PT works.

Over the years I’ve been struck by how many feature and TV editors refuse to use Avid’s volume graphing features. Instead, they simply make add-edits in audio clips, set levels on the clips and connect them with a dissolve. I use keyframes and can’t see why others don’t. I recently debated this with a friend and she focused on how you change a volume graph. And she made some good points. In fact, it is easier to move a series of volume changes when you do them with add-edits and dissolves — you do it by slipping them.

I was thinking about all of this while watching my friend mix. It turns out that Pro Tools has a whole host of mixing features that I’d kill for in my Avid. There’s a reason that so many people use this program.

For example:

  • Waveforms are on all the time, they’re very detailed, and there’s no performance penalty for looking at them. Why have we waited so long for this?
  • Background saves. You can work all day and never see the system saving. But the saves are happening, and at any time interval you like. You get the PT equivalent of the attic, too. You just don’t have to wait while the save takes place.
  • As many tracks as you like. No artificial limitation.
  • The ability to easily mute a clip.
  • The ability to “nudge” a clip. Want to move something a frame to the right? Just select it and tap the arrow key. (Final Cut has this feature, and muting, and unlimited tracks, too.)
  • You can “spot” a clip into position by just typing a timecode onto it.
  • You can mix and handle a stereo pair (or a 5.1 mix) as a single object with one set of keyframes. You don’t have to laboriously create (and adjust) two separate volume graphs.
  • You can raise one or more keyframes, very precisely, by dragging them with the option key.
  • You can grab a whole series of keyframes and move them up or down by dragging, and when you do it you see a clear numerical display showing you what you’re doing in DBs.
  • You can move a group of keyframes in time (left or right).
  • Keyframes can be created automatically. In the Avid, to lower a section of music you have to create four keyframes and then move two of them. That’s a lot of clicks and drags. In Pro Tools you just mark two points and drag the line between them.
  • You get a separate graph for panning. So you can pan something just by dragging the graph and you can move a sound from one place to another easily.
  • You can route (bus) all your dialog into a single track and mix that track as a whole with a single volume graph. You don’t have to individually manipulate the volume of every single clip.
  • You can copy automation and filters — everything — from one clip to another. So if you carefully mix a piece of music against dialog and then need to replace it, you can keep your mix and just change the cue.
  • And — eureka! — the timeline is live. You can scroll it vertically or horizontally, change magnification, change views, all while your sequence continues to play.

Avid has focused much of their development effort in the last decade on visual effects, while the audio interface has largely remained untouched. Today, our sound tools just don’t reflect the kind of work we’re routinely asked to do, and they turn temp mixing into a real chore. Meanwhile, the upgrade rate in LA has been glacial. Bringing over only a few of the features listed above might just get the attention of a lot of editors.

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3 Comments on “Why Are Our Mixing Tools So Bad?”

  1. L.R. Pebler Says:

    Unlike Apple, Avid has always been very reluctant to upgrade their products with new features unless forced to by outside competition.

    And they own ProTools-maker Digidesign, right? So, sadly, I doubt an Avid sound UI overhaul, however sorely needed, will be happening anytime soon.

  2. christopher Says:

    not being familiar with it im amazed avid doesn’t have those features – especially since i thought that was one of the reasons they wanted to accquire pt back when they did.

    i actually met peter gotcher years ago when i worked for a small audio software design company doing pt plugins. smart guy. so smart he dumped most of the stock avid gave him for pt almost immediately. a year later their stock was a shadow of it’s former self. why has this company always been such a monolith?

  3. editblog Says:

    I do think the Avid audio tools could use a nice revamping. But they really aren’t that far behind what FCP has to offer. The waveforms in FCP take a lot of time to load and draw as well. Keyframing and rubberbanding in Avid audio has always been clunky. You can get there is just takes some effort. That’s why I often still use the old add edits, adjust level and throw some dissolves on.


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