Connor Reviere, Gebre Waddell, and Patrick Moss are Soundways. Their recent plug-ins, the Core Production Bundle, are a new way to help engineers listen, as well as hear details, in recordings and mixes. I met up with them in their hometown of Memphis to learn more about their products and their future.
When did Soundways start?
Gebre Waddell: May of 2016. I’ve been a mastering engineer for years, so I hear the problems that people have throughout the process. A lot of these can’t be addressed in mastering. There’s nothing you can do about it, at that point. The way people are dealing with mix translation now is a guessing game.
Like a mix that’s out of balance with too much low-end?
GW: Absolutely. Especially with bass frequencies. You can adjust the bass levels easily in a clean way, but if the upper bass of something is not present – if you’ve got a bass guitar, or bass drum, that doesn’t translate and the upper bass part of it really isn’t there – there’s no way to bring that out in mastering without bringing up other elements of the mix that don’t need to be accented.
Other sounds that fall in the same range, right?
GW: Absolutely. So that was one of the problems we noticed. I did the plug-in, Refinement [Tape Op #102], that I licensed to Brainworx [as bx_refinement] that we then together licensed to Universal Audio [for UAD-2]. It was the best-selling dedicated mastering plug-in on their platform for the past couple of years.
How did you go about doing that? Do you write code?
GW: That’s right. When I was in high school and college I wasn’t the best in math. Six or seven years ago I never would have imagined doing this, or even that I’d be able to do this. It’s a passion-driven thing. I got into coding purely because I wanted those tools to exist.
You were able to build your plug-in, Refinement, on your own and then license it out?
GW: That’s right. Coded right here in Memphis. Then Connor and I have been working together on the Soundways plug-ins. He codes as well. We’re some of the only plug-in coding game in this entire region. We see that as a calling, and as a responsibility to our area and our region. Memphis has this extreme legacy in music, and we have to find ways to keep this in the present and in the future. There are a lot of musical efforts going on here that we love and embrace, but the technical end is part of the reality of today’s world in audio.
Having licensed the Refinement plug-in, did you want to proceed instead with your own company?
GW: Absolutely. Licensing something to Brainworx and Universal Audio doesn’t make a symbol in Memphis of what we want this to be. We started Soundways because we wanted that symbol in our town.
What was the impetus, as far as the “listening software” orientation of the Soundways brand?
GW: I’ve been a mastering engineer all these years. When we started this process, we went through the accelerator program here in this building to learn how to do all the business reporting processes, as well as how to start a corporation. One of the things we did first was to interview 100 sound engineers and ask them what were their three most painful issues. Over 85 percent of them told us that mix translation was essential. Songs sound one way in the studio, but we take it out to the car and listen on another device; all the sounds are so different. They’re trying to bridge that gap, but it takes a lot of time. It makes them second-guess their work all the time. We created the Core Production Bundle around that in order to solve a problem that we know, with certainty, is experienced out there. That’s the way we want to continue about business. We’re always going to be finding problems, and making sure that our solutions fit together.
Between the three of you, how does the work divvy up?
Connor Reviere: I’m primarily a software developer. I’ve been a musician my whole life. I went to school for music, but this is two passions of mine colliding here. I’m doing customer support and tech support. Most of the emails come through Patrick. He handles most of the customer outreach and marketing.
Patrick Moss: Yeah, I’m the marketing manager. I’ll design ads, edit videos, do a lot of the testing, and I also worked on the manual. I’m giving people resources to understand how to use the plug-ins. I’ve been an engineer for ten years now, even though I look pretty young. I went to school for it, and have been a musician my whole life, so it feels natural coming into this position.
With the Core Production Bundle, do you find that a lot of your work is educational outreach? To try to make people understand what the plug-ins actually do?
PM: Yeah. It’s not a typical signal processor, like an EQ or a compressor, where you slap it on and make something sound better. Low Leveler is kind of like that, but Reveal is definitely a tool that has a certain amount of learning curve to it, and needs some explanation to fully understand why it should be used. It’s been extremely powerful once people grasp it. The Core Production Bundle has definitely made my mixes sound a lot better in the last six months. I think that once people start using this, and realize how it should be used, it’ll have that effect for most people.
GW: It’s not one of those plug-ins you’ll turn on and have a big “wow effect.” You’ll have a wow effect later, when you go to listen on another device, and it’s the first time that you’re not surprised by how it sounds there and about the translation. It’s almost like a torture test for your music. You have the monitor mains in your studio, and listen that way when your clients are there, but then you listen in private with Reveal, where you’re looking under the hood and making sure there aren’t any issues. You can have this new confidence that the songs are going to translate when you deliver the mixes.
How would you guys describe the way to use Reveal?
GW: Reveal goes on the master bus, and you use the top three features – Critical Listening, Passive Listening, and Harshness Listening – to evaluate your mix. Then the second row is a quick check to make sure that your mix will translate to different devices. There’s Quality Review, which is somewhat like a mix cube [think Auratone]. There’s FM Curve, which emulates the way that FM broadcast processors affect audio. There’s Device, so you can do a quick check of how it might translate to a device.
Device? It looks like an iPhone or something.
GW: That’s right. A phone or a tablet. Some sort of small device.
Like on the little built-in speakers?
GW: That’s right. I know it’s terrible, but it’s something we have to consider. More than anything, it helps you get that 3 kHz range right. Mono Elements is just the cleanest possible mono check. Distortion Listening is the old mastering trick of listening to the side channels with the highs boosted a little. It makes any harmonic distortion pop out. So if you’re setting a limiter, or something like that, Distortion Listening will help make it easier to hear, and set, more precisely. Vehicle Analysis is a presentation that helps things to translate to a vehicle. Of course you can’t emulate a vehicle in the studio, but listening to this filtering will help it to translate in the best way to a car.
PM: For me, Critical Listening is what I have on any time I’m doing any kind of EQ’ing or compression. Harshness Listening is good for de-essers, cymbal noises, or sounds like that – any kind of harsh, 3 kHz counter-resonances. Passive Listening is like another version of Critical Listening; it functions similarly.
GW: We view Auratones and [Yamaha] NS-10s as the way the industry has worked to solve the problems of translation, up until now. Those weren’t built specifically for this purpose. These tools were built specifically for, and to address, that problem in an even better way.
What I’m gathering is this is a tool that could be used, not just on the final mix but while you’re recording?
PM: I’ve used it tracking, and it’s helped a ton. I recorded one session that needed barely any processing afterwards, just because I was able to set up the mics using this and get the exact sounds I wanted to.
So what the Core Production Bundle is doing is giving us different sorts of listening filtering in our monitors and headphones. Did you design it to be scaled towards using monitors only, or headphones only?
GW: It works for both headphones and monitors. The assumption is that you have the most linear system that’s available to you. This works along with that.
Low Leveler allows us to go more into the bottom end to see what’s happening on a track?
GW: Reveal goes on your master bus. Low Leveler goes on the bass line and bass drum tracks. Then you turn on Reveal’s Critical Listening. One of the main things you’ll notice when you listen through Critical Listening is not a lot of bass. So you process the upper bass with Low Leveler on those individual bass lines and bass drums, and then it will help those to translate to other systems in a fantastic way.
So Low Leveler is a processing plug-in, and not a listening plug-in?
GW: That’s right. At RAK Studios in London we put the Soundways Reveal plug-in on, and we turned on Critical Listening. In the mix that they were working on, the bass line and bass drum were just totally gone. It’s like they disappeared from the mix. Then we put Low Leveler on the bass line and the bass drum, and we adjusted the upper bass frequencies. The song came back, because it depended on that bass line and bass drum. Then we took Critical Listening off, and we set the low bass with Low Leveler. Then we would A/B between Low Leveler on and off, listening to the full-range mix without Reveal. And on the main monitors you couldn’t even hear that change from the Low Leveler.
It wasn’t like something drastic happened and mucked up the whole mix with these adjustments?
GW: Yeah. And it was something that you would not have been able to adjust, except for listening through Reveal. It was obvious in the room that it was a major change. When adjusting on Low Leveler, you’ll notice that it doesn’t have any numbers or notches. It forces you to set it by ear. They actually had a huge boost that they did in Low Leveler. But you couldn’t hear it in the room.
So is it kind of a crossover and compression type thing going on with Low Leveler?
GW: It’s like the cleanest possible filtering. As audio engineers with filters, we think about Q, gain, and center frequency; but when you’re constructing a filter, there are all kinds of different parameters that affect the way a filter sounds. We optimized these. The architecture of these filters are specifically for this application, and are the cleanest possible for this specific thing.
You’re talking about bass articulation frequencies, like 300, 400, or 500 Hz?
GW: Absolutely. The upper part of the bass. When you listen through Critical Listening, it’s a huge difference. When you listen without Critical Listening and turn Low Leveler on and off, you can’t hear any difference. That was the shocking part of it. We knew that bass was going to translate to all these other systems.
Do you guys get together at Gebre’s [Stonebridge Mastering] and listen?
PM: Yeah, for sure.
CR: It’s just five minutes down the street.
GW: A lot of times when plug-ins are designed it’s almost an academic undertaking. This whole team is audio engineers first, and programmers second. For us it’s very organic. We actually sit in the studio and listen.
What’s the AFMonitor in the Core Production Bundle?
GW: We found from research that if you listen to audio for six minutes, you reach short-term ear fatigue, and after about 12 minutes, you reach long-term ear fatigue. It only takes about two minutes to clear the ear fatigue. This just keeps track of that timing. There’s a very human element to this. AFMonitor is something that you look at when you’re about to make a critical decision in audio. If I’m setting a vocal level, or if I’m mastering and setting up something in the 3 kHz range, then I’m going to glance over to the AFMonitor and make sure I’m not in ear fatigue territory before I make those adjustments. It has the side effect of making you organize your thoughts in that way.
It’s just tracking your session playback?
GW: Any of the playback that comes through, it counts the time that you spend in playback, and if you stop playback, it automatically registers. You don’t have to do anything with it, just glance at it and know if you’re in ear fatigue or not.
Where would you see taking this sort of technology further?
GW: Soundways is about improving the audio quality pipeline, from the studio through to the services and devices that we use to listen to audio. The vision for Soundways in the future is to find solutions all throughout that chain. This one is a tool that will help studios have better translation. In the future Soundways will come up with solutions with those services and devices that will also help sound translate.
How has reception for the Core Production Bundle felt?
GW: It’s been huge. It’s been people telling us that it’s the first time they’ve gone out to the car and not been surprised. Veteran engineers are saying it’s cut a week and a half long session down to three or four days. We’ve heard some incredible stories as we’ve done our interviews to see what peoples’ experiences have been. We’re really excited about it.
Is there a demo period to try out the Core Production Bundle?
GW: Fourteen days. If people don’t get enough time to try it out, we’ll do a one-time extension.
What’s the cost?
GW: It’s $249 for the bundle.
This place you work out of is an accelerator program. How does that work?
GW: They brought in literally over a hundred consultants and advisors so that we made sure we structured our corporation in the right way. Like the legal aspect, the IP aspect, the customer discovery, and marketing aspect – even product development, quality control – all these elements you have to have in order to have a business function at a really high level. We had people who had decades of experience advising us on how to do that in the best way.
Do they own part of Soundways?
GW: Just a very small part. A bit of stock.
That’s pretty cool.
GW: The main thing is that this comes from Memphis. Music is at the center of our culture for us. It’s both a duty and a calling.
PM: Did we mention that the motto is “Serve The Music”? Everything we do is based on serving the music.