Waves bring one of the world's most famous mix rooms into your DAW.
Waves' Abbey Road Studio 3, created in collaboration with Abbey Road Studios, is a system that allows anyone mixing on headphones to feel as though they're mixing on world-class loudspeakers in an excellent control room. Designed by celebrated acoustician Sam Toyoshima, Studio 3's control room is the most sophisticated room at Abbey Road and is kitted out with high-quality nearfield speakers, a superb midfield 7.1 surround system and a large soffit-mounted stereo system. Waves have used their Nx technology to recreate Studio 3's acoustic space, converting either a stereo or surround audio input into a binaural headphone monitoring signal that sounds as though you're sitting in the sweet spot at the console.
To create this plug-in, Waves took precision 360-degree impulse response measurements of the Studio 3 control room for all three sets of monitors. Then Waves' own approach to binaural processing was used to recreate the way the ear perceives sound in a real space: adjusting the frequency spectrum of sounds coming from different locations, synthesizing inter-aural crosstalk, delay and head-masking effects. The icing on the cake is the incorporation of the Waves Nx head-tracking technology, which follows the listener's head movement and adjusts the headphone mix accordingly so that the effect is just like turning your head in real space. If you're working in surround, Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 can operate in 5.1 or 7.1 modes, so if you turn right round, you can focus on what is coming out of the rear speakers, even though you are still wearing conventional stereo headphones. The result, in theory, should be a far more three-dimensional listening experience than a standard headphone mix, making it easier to judge how much front-to-back perspective your mix has, how the reverb sits in the mix and what effect panning has for listeners who use loudspeakers for playback.
The head-tracking aspect of Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 can make use of the built-in camera in any recent Mac OS or Windows computer or the wireless Nx Bluetooth Head Tracker, an inexpensive gadget that clips into the top of your headphones. However, the Nx Bluetooth Head Tracker uses Low Energy Bluetooth 4 so older computers that don't support that will need the addition of a USB Bluetooth 4 dongle to work.
Because no two people have exactly the same size head, there's the opportunity to enter your head circumference and inter-aural distances in place of the default, which is set for an average head size. This fine-tuning can help make the immersive experience more precise, and head measurements can be saved as user presets. However, there's no option to alter the response to reflect the shape of your outer ear, which also has an effect on the way the frequency spectrum changes with angle.
With both the camera (which uses face-recognition technology) and the Nx Bluetooth Head Tracker, movement is tracked in three dimensions so the software follows up/down as well as left/right head rotation. A wire-frame image of your head is shown near the centre of the screen and that follows your head movements. Using the Calibrate button when you are sitting in your usual place sets the head position to neutral.
The Waves Nx application opens or closes automatically when you open or close the Abbey Road Studio 3 plug-in, so you can instantiate the plug-in in the usual way and everything will be taken care of for you. The three plug-in components support the different input channel formats: stereo, 5.1 surround and 7.1 surround. The only visual difference in the GUI is in the number of channels being metered and the Studio Monitors switching, as the option to select different loudspeakers is removed in either surround mode. There are EQ correction curves available for specific popular headphones; if you don't have one of the sets on the list, the default is the safest option. You should use good quality, flat-response headphones, but you don't have to buy anything hugely expensive or esoteric.
I found that the virtual loudspeakers did seem to be in front of me rather than inside my head, and turning the head to localise sounds further confirmed this.
Navigating the GUI is quite straightforward: you see a representation of the studio in the top two-thirds of the window with the input and phones output meters superimposed left and right and the wire-frame head in the centre of the mixing console. Below that is a 'rack unit' with the Near, Mid, Far monitor section on the left, level adjustment on the right and a wheel in the middle that allows you to rotate your view of the studio manually if no head-tracking device is available.
A further 'rack unit' at the bottom of the window has the head-tracking section on the left with headphone EQ and Head Modelling (where you can enter your head dimensions) on the right. While you can use the plug-in without any head tracking, the immersive experience is more convincing with it engaged. The Abbey Road plug-in can either go in the main mix bus or you can set up separate monitoring busses, and if two people want to use head tracking at the same time each would need to monitor their own bus with their own instance of Abbey Road Studio 3 inserted. Clearly, a wireless head tracker would be required for one of two users in a system fitted with a single camera, as camera head tracking can't keep track of two heads at the same time. However, if two cameras are available, there's the option to select which one is being used for each instance of the plug-in, or you can use multiple Bluetooth head trackers.
Once the Bluetooth tracker is paired with the computer and selected in the plug-in, you're good to go, and the same if you opt to use the camera. The main advantage of the head tracker is that it responds a little more quickly than camera tracking, making the audible consequences of head movement feel more real. The camera also has a limited head angle range — the wireframe head is greyed out when the head is outside the tracking range, when there is insufficient light for camera tracking, or when Head Tracking is turned off. Pressing Calibrate sets your current head position as the centre position and the Rate readout shows the rate of head tracking, in frames per second, which when using the camera is normally 25 or 30 fps. A low-light mode can be selected for the built-in FaceTime HD cameras fitted to some MacBook Pros.
There's also a combined Fusion mode that uses both the camera and the Nx Bluetooth Head Tracker for the most accurate response — up to 80 frames per second. Again, this mode can only be used by one listener at a time unless you have multiple cameras and multiple Nx Bluetooth head trackers. Waves caution that the Nx processing can introduce clipping at the output due to level changes caused by head movement, especially when the plug-in is fed with a loudness-maximised signal. If this happens, the output gain fader can be used to reduce the output to a safe level.
As with other Waves plug-ins, the authorisation key can be saved to a standard memory stick so it's easy to move between computers and operation couldn't be simpler. Once set up, which takes very little time, you can go ahead and mix as you would on loudspeakers. If using the plug-in in your main mix bus, you need to bypass it when bouncing the mix but, in all other respects, it is pretty much like working on speakers.
One of the first things you realise is just how clean Studio 3's monitor speakers sound in such a well-designed space. There's a convincing sense of space but no mushy room ambience or excessive speaker coloration to compromise what you are hearing and, having had the opportunity to listen to playback in the real Abbey Road Studio 3, I can confirm that the correlation between the real room and the plug-in is surprisingly close. The sense of spatial perception will vary slightly between different users as everybody has a differently shaped outer ear or pinnae, but I found that the virtual loudspeakers did seem to be in front of me rather than inside my head, and turning the head to localise sounds further confirmed this. When working on surround mixes, I don't think the sense of 'it's behind you' is quite as dramatic as in real life, but again, moving your head slightly to localise the sounds really strengthens the illusion.
If you have good monitors in a well-designed room, then the Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 plug-in may not be an essential aid when checking how mixes will sound on headphones or ear buds — in fact the most useful point of comparison here is unprocessed headphones, as that's what the end user will most likely be listening on. However, if you have one of those small rooms that refuses to give you an accurate bass end or where reflections are messing up your stereo imaging, then the Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 plug-in could be a life saver. It's also a good option for when you're working away from home on your laptop, and even if you are used to working on 'normal' headphones, using this plug-in seems to make listening less fatiguing and more involving. Being able to mix in Abbey Road Studio 3 while travelling by train or plane is seriously attractive.
Human beings have evolved an impressive ability to locate sound sources in three dimensions despite us having only two ears, and there are several mechanisms in play. Every sound we hear in nature arrives at both ears, but there are differences in level, frequency spectrum and time depending on where the sound is coming from. The shape of our outer ear means that the frequency spectrum of the incoming sound changes depending on its direction, and in the case of the ear furthest from the sound source, there will be further frequency spectrum changes due to the acoustic shadow caused by our head. The sound will also take fractionally longer to reach the ear that's furthest from the sound source. Additionally, we tend to move our heads when listening as that can also help pinpoint a sound source and this action is particularly useful in discriminating whether a sound is coming from in front or behind. This is all well understood and is fundamental to an understanding of binaural audio.
Using studio monitors, we still hear the sound from both speakers in both ears, and though sounds that appear to come from between the speakers are phantom images created by adjusting the balance of the left and right signals, it is still possible to recreate a wide stereo soundstage with sound sources apparently positioned across it. Add two or more speakers for surround and the illusion becomes more three-dimensional. The end result may still be imperfect, but it's a way of listening to music that we have got used to.
Unfortunately, many smaller home studios don't provide the environment for accurate loudspeaker monitoring, and we always recommend double-checking everything on headphones in such cases. However, the problem with feeding a conventional stereo mix into headphones is that the separation between the left and right ears is almost absolute. You still get auditory clues from changes in level as sounds are panned across the soundstage but you lose the ability to move your head to locate sound sources (the mix moves with you), the frequency spectrum doesn't change depending on the angle from which a sound source approaches, and because a sound panned hard left only reaches the left ear, you don't get the all-important 'other ear' crosstalk and head-masking effects that are also key in figuring out where a sound is coming from. The result is that you still hear a semblance of a stereo mix but the sound stage often seems to go through or over your head rather than being somewhere in front of you, as would be the case for stereo loudspeakers, and it invariably sounds less three-dimensional too. The end result is that if you mix only on headphones without a tool such as Waves' Abbey Road Studio 3, the results can contain nasty surprises when you do hear them on a speaker system.
- Easy to use.
- Convincing sense of working on loudspeakers.
- Lets you work on surround mixes without a surround monitoring system.
- Older computers without Bluetooth 4 will need extra hardware before they will work with the Nx Bluetooth Headtracker.
This is an impressive and genuinely useful application of binaural audio for studio monitoring over headphones, which is especially useful when working on mixes away from the studio.