If the COVID-19 pandemic has any silver lining, it’s the way it has invited the reimagining of entrenched habits. When we all mothballed our tracking rooms in March, we became pretty open-minded to new ways of working. Unattended mixing and mastering could help us survive for a while, but we wanted to make these workflows as vital and attractive as possible to our clients. Here at the Bunker Studio, we’d already been using the Audiomovers Listento plug-in occasionally, but during this pandemic it’s become indispensable. The virtually attended process that this app facilitates may now be my favorite way to mix.
Listento is a subscription-based plug-in that transmits a high-quality (uncompressed PCM 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit float and compressed AAC up to 192 kBps on PC and up to 320 kBps on Mac), real-time audio stream. It’s workable and reliable even for out of the box setups (we stream the output of our mix room’s SSL console to clients around the country). After inserting the plug-in on the track to be streamed (usually the master bus), the transmitting party enters their login credentials once (they’ll be saved thereafter), then clicks Start Transmission in the GUI window. The client can access a stream in two ways. By sending the session’s unique URL (copied from within the GUI), clients can listen instantly in a web-based player (no download or subscription required) or via a free plug-in, Listento Receiver, to monitor (and even record) the streamed audio into their own DAW. Reliability has been stellar. Our computer has a hard-wired Ethernet connection, which surely helps, and I typically increase the stream’s buffer to one second for mixing. Nevertheless, it’s impressive that I have yet to encounter a single failure (despite extensive use at the highest quality setting).
For analog console users, the standard practice of routing the desk’s outputs to a pair of Pro Tools inputs (recording the mix to its own stereo audio track within the session) may necessitate a small workaround. This is due to how Pro Tools HDX/Ultimate handles native plug-ins and record enabling. When an audio track is armed, native plug-ins (like Listento) are automatically bypassed, but there are a few ways to circumnavigate this. My preferred solution is to insert Listento on a new aux channel that’s fed by a pre-fader, unity gain send from my print path. Since Pro Tools requires setting an output for the Listento to pass audio, I route this aux to an unused stereo bus. A simpler solution that also seems to work: Instantiate a DSP plug-in (like Trim) in the first insert slot of the audio track. When placed after a DSP plug-in, the native Listento no longer bypasses automatically when the track is armed.
Once everything is set up, functionality is so seamless that Listento is easy to take for granted. I occasionally forget to open the GUI and click Start Transmission after closing and re-opening Pro Tools, but in this event the client usually just texts an alert that reminds me to begin streaming. Somewhat surprisingly, receiving feedback via text from a client during playback felt productive, collaborative, and natural from the first moment. I was sold on the process right away, and I’ve come to realize that this workflow has several advantages over even a conventional attended mix – the biggest bonus to me being that blind listening removes multiple potential sources of distracting cognitive bias. The client can’t see what gear you’re selecting, what the meters are doing, the position of knobs or faders, or any other visual cues that can distract from the question of whether the mix hits the right artistic note. They’re not going to be inclined to think that the vocal sounds better just because you patched in the biggest tube compressor and got the meter swinging – they’ll need to be convinced with sound alone. Relatedly, when the artist is giving feedback based solely on what they hear, listening seems much more focused. I’ve never gotten better, more insightful notes than when working via a stream. And because the client is monitoring on the sound system with which they’re most familiar, there are likely to be fewer surprises later. If you’re beginning to suspect issues with their playback setup, those can be discussed in the moment (not after they’ve taken your mix home and asked for revisions).
The only challenge I’ve encountered with the current release has been a bit of imprecision in highly-granular communication. I typically interact with my remote clients via text or the occasional voice call, and this can prove difficult if there is, say, one specific snare drum hit they’d like to discuss. This is ameliorated somewhat by a handy Playhead Position counter, displayed within Listento’s web player. While not universally supported, this feature works well with many DAWs (including Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, and Ableton Live).
Integrated chat functionality (along with talkback) is slated for a future release. This will help matters a lot, though I’d love to see the ability to time-stamp specific chat comments. Although Playhead Position does not show up in the current version of Listento’s Receiver plug-in, the public beta (which should become an official release) does display it correctly. According to Audiomover’s Product Manager, the new beta “supports up to eight channels in one stream bundle, and the Receiver has a built-in recorder where you can record the stream, then drag and drop the recorded file to the timeline.”
With New York City proceeding through various phases of reopening, we’re able to host carefully controlled tracking sessions again – for now. However, due to our in-house social distancing mandate, our control rooms, mix room, and mastering room remain single occupancy. Listento allows us to keep working in a pandemic – in many cases just as effectively as before. This is important, as it removes a lot of the pressure we might otherwise feel to bend our own strict social-distancing rules. It’d be far too sensationalistic to imply any sort of literal public health benefit, but figuratively at least, Listento has been a lifesaver. Available in AU, AAX, VST plug-in formats; Mac OS 10.11 (and up) and Windows 8.1/10 64 bit compatible. Seven-day free trial available.