Representatives of the world's tech press — not just the recording and music technology media, although we were all there too — gathered in Studio 3 at Abbey Road studios in North London late on July 10th to see and hear a most interesting new mixing-related product in action.
Although Studio 2 is rightly renowned worldwide as a recording space, Studio 3 is Abbey Road's all-time favourite when it comes to mixing.
Comprising a small live recording space and the renowned control room, Studio 3 has been used over the years by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, Kanye West, and Florence and the Machine, to name a few.
A collaboration between the studios and plug-in manufacturers Waves, the new Abbey Road Studio 3 plug-in is a monitoring tool that accepts audio from your DAW in stereo or 5.1 or 7.1 surround and outputs stereo audio that, so Waves claim, sounds exactly as though you're sitting in the sweet spot in front of the SSL 9000J console in the control room at the legendary Studio 3, derived from 360˚ impulse-response measurements taken from that very position with an Ambisonic microphone. You have a choice of virtually monitoring through three monitoring systems, which the plug-in simply labels 'near', 'mid' and 'far' but which are based on measurements taken with the three monitoring systems most commonly used in the Studio 3 control room: respectively, a pair of ATC SCM25 nearfields, B&W 800D speakers in a switchable 5.1 or 7.1 configuration, and Studio 3's famous Quested Q412 system.
There are some caveats to mention. The most important one is that the plug-in works on headphones only — it's based on a refined and updated version of Waves' Nx binaural room simulation software (reviewed in SOS in January 2017) and, as with that software, the new plug-in uses psychoacoustics — the science of how the human hearing system perceives and localises sounds — and modelling to place the sounds in a seemingly realistic, immersive three-dimensional space around the listener. However, binaural sound only works if the left and right channels are coupled directly to the listener's ears, as when listening on headphones — so you can't use the plug-in with your favourite studio monitors (or if you do, don't expect the realistic binaural effect that is promised).
It should also be understood that Waves have not physically modelled the response of the entire Abbey Road 3 control room from every possible listening point, just the sweet spot — so you can't virtually 'stroll around' the control room or 'check the mix from the back of the room'. However, as with the original version of Waves Nx, if you wear a head tracker and turn your head from side to side while mixing, the audio being output by the Abbey Road Studio 3 plug-in changes to mimic the differences you would hear if you really were monitoring in the control room's sweet spot in Abbey Road Studio 3 and turning your head from side to side. If you find wearing a head tracker too distracting, the plug-in can track your head movements if you give it access to your computer's camera, or you can rotate an on-screen representation of a head from a 360˚ wheel on the plug-in's GUI instead. The final point to emphasise is that in a professional audio context, Abbey Road Studio 3 is a monitoring aid, not a mixing plug-in — it is designed for users to monitor with and to arrive at mixing choices while listening through it, but is supposed to be turned off or removed from your signal chain before mixdown itself.
As with the technology behind the original Nx software, which was first introduced in a pro-audio product but then found its way into consumer technology, the potential value of this technology is immediately obvious in the consumer domain, for listening at the very end of the audio production process, which is presumably why such a cross-section of press were invited to the launch. Indeed, some of the assembled tech press were audibly excited at the thought of being able to dial up the sound of one of the world's finest professional monitoring environments when simply listening to music on headphones at home or from a phone or iPod when travelling. The pro audience (including several SOS editorial members) were keen to know more about the potential use of the plug-in when mixing in a reference monitoring environment — one of Waves' main suggested uses. After all, everybody responds slightly differently to binaural audio (the effectiveness of which is dependent on many factors, including the shape of your outer ears and the size of your head), and one of the aims when mixing in a pro context is to craft a final master that will sound equally good to all listeners, and translate well on many possible playback systems. Another attendee was concerned about the effect of the headphones being used to listen to the output of the plug-in, and clearly, the ability of a 20-dollar set of headphones to recreate the sound of Abbey Road's multi-thousand-pound monitoring system will differ from that of a pair costing 500 dollars.
Waves have obviously thought carefully about pro concerns like these: EQ profiles for several common studio headphones can be applied to the output of the Studio 3 plug-in (and it's promised that the list will grow over time), and users can personalise the response of the plug-in to some extent by adjusting setup parameters such as listener head circumference and the ear-to-ear distance around the back of your head (average settings are used by default). It's possible that adjusting these parameters could run the risk of making mixes sound great to you on your specific headphones at the expense of translating to other people or systems; we'll let you know when we can give Abbey Road Studio 3 a full critical assessment, which we look forward to doing in the near future. For the moment, it's a fascinating idea with a lot of potential, and one that could be expanded to cover other famous monitoring environments in the future. Some of the engineers who attended were also very excited about the possibilities the software could afford those who are always mixing in less-than-ideal acoustic environments, for example in untreated rooms, on trains, planes, or indeed in live venues. However effective the plug-in proves to be, it could well offer an improvement for these users.
The other major positive is the price. There have been many attempts over the past 30 years to virtually model three-dimensional environments for mixing, and many attempts to make mixing on headphones as reliable as using reference monitors in a neutral, well-controlled acoustic environment. Many of them required machine rooms full of air-conditioned processing, cumbersome, weighty hardware, the outlay of sums of money equivalent to multiples of your annual earnings — or all three! Waves's Abbey Road Studio 3 by contrast, is currently available for $99. At that introductory price, or even the full retail of $199 to which it will eventually return, it's almost worth trying it as an impulse purchase to see how well it works out...!
Abbey Road Studio 3 is available for download now, costing $99, in all the usual formats: AU, AAX, VST and VST3. Waves advise that the option of 5.1 and 7.1 operation is only supported in certain hosts, currently Pro Tools HD, Logic Pro X, Digital Performer 9 and 10, Nuendo and Cubase, and Reaper.