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Avid and Abbey Road fall victim to surprisingly bad web audio

Avid's recent webinar about Abbey Road's upgrade to Pro Tools HDX featured the worst audio I have heard for a long time. Who is to blame?

Firstly I need to express my utmost respect for both Avid's and Abbey Road's achievements in audio, and admit that I've made one or two audio errors in my own time (but surely no more than two...) Secondly, I need to say that this example of surprisingly bad audio was almost certainly down to some third party who, as yet, remains uncredited.

Take a listen to this extract from Avid's webinar of March 14, 2013...

What you are hearing is an interview between Avid in Los Angeles and Abbey Road Studios in London. There are two distinct problems, both of them in the 'OK, what's the worst that can happen?' class.

Resonant echo

'Resonant echo' isn't a term you hear in audio every day. But it seems to describe what happens starting 0:31 pretty well. The interview had been plagued with an echo problem from the start. Sometimes there would be an echo, sometimes not. Why there should be this variability, I have no idea. Where there was no echo, the interview was perfectly listenable (apart from the other problem, but I'll get to that later).

Howlround

At 0:31 in the clip however not only did the echo increase in level, it started feeding back on itself so that there were echoes of the echo. Somewhere in the signal chain was a resonance just above 2 kHz, so the echo acquired similar characteristics to howlround in a PA system.

Asymmetric echo

It's rather odd that the echo is asymmetric. It doesn't go "beep-beep-beep-beep", it goes "beep-beep---beep-beep---beep-beep". My guess here is that there are two signal paths involved. Perhaps the connection from LA to London went a longer route than the return path.

Halting delivery

Another point is the halting delivery of the interviewee, who must have been hearing the echo of his voice. It is very difficult to speak coherently when hearing an echo of your own voice. If you have never tried this, you should set it up on headphones, a single repeat will do. Then try and talk normally. Get someone to film it and post it to YouTube where it will have YouTube viewers in fits of laughter and send your ratings through the roof.

Distortion

The echo problem is interesting. Less interesting, but unexpected in the context of Avid and Abbey Road, is the clipping of the interviewer's voice. It isn't anything that could possibly be called 'mild' - it sounds like it has gone through a guitarist's fuzzbox.

Publicity photo
Photo from Avid's publicity material for the webinar

What went wrong?

Since both Avid and Abbey Road have the capability of working at the highest standards of audio, it is very likely that there is a third party involved here - whoever set up the webinar connection. Audio for communications is a very different thing to audio for recording, PA or broadcast. I would doubt whether either Avid or Abbey Road would have a specialist in communications on their payrolls. And it may well be that this person had the video link of the webinar uppermost in their mind. It always tends to be that when one person handles both video and audio, then audio gets the lesser amount of attention.

The Internet expects poor quality audio

It may be down to expectations. There is so much poor-quality audio around on the Internet that low standards may have come to be accepted as the norm. So if there's a bit of echo, and a bit of distortion, what the hey..?

I fully appreciate that there is a need for 'convenience audio', just as there is a need for convenience food. I don't want to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant every evening, and I don't need full-on hifi 24 hours a day. But really, the faults here are way below the standards we should be entitled to expect, from the Internet, and from Avid and Abbey Road.

Who gets fired?

It's my philosophy that when an error occurs, the cause of that error is tracked down and eliminated from the working process. Simply firing someone (or not hiring them again) isn't going to solve anything because the problem will happen again at some future time if it is not properly understood and resolved now. Mistakes do happen, yes. But they should only happen once.

But there may be firings...

What if someone at Avid, or at Abbey Road, brushes this off as a trivial matter, not worth bothering about? That kind of attitude to audio has no place in anything I would ever want to be involved with myself, and it should have no place at Avid or Abbey Road. Anyone who works in professional audio and doesn't care about achieving high standards ought to resign, and work in a job where high standards don't matter so much. Or get fired.

Conclusion

Avid's webinar of March 14, 2013 had serious audio problems. The cause of these problems should be identified and eliminated from the working process so that they don't happen again.

By David Mellor Tuesday March 19, 2013
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