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Waves product manager Yoni Zlotkin talks the new plugin ‘modelled on Abbey Road’s Studio 3 sweet spot on headphones’

Yoni Zlotkin, product manager for plugin pioneer Waves, tells PSNEurope about the development of the company’s new Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin

Waves product manager Yoni Zlotkin

Back in July, Waves Audio announced the launch of its new Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin, created in collaboration with Abbey Road Studios and powered by Waves Nx immersive audio technology.

The Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin is designed to bring the acoustics of the Abbey Road Studio 3 ControlRoom to any set of headphones. The Studio 3 control room is Abbey Road’s flagship mix room, designed by the world’s finest acousticians to provide the best possible music production and mixing environment. The control room has been used to mix work from some of the world’s most acclaimed artists such as Radiohead, Amy Winehouse and Kanye West, to contemporary mixes of the Beatles and Pink Floyd, to number-one chart toppers by Frank Ocean, Brockhampton and Florence + the Machine.

In addition, the new plugin also delivers full 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, modelled on the studio’s original surround setup. Users can mix professionally for surround – on any set of stereo headphones. Here, Waves product manager Yoni Zlotkin tells us how the company was able to capture the sonic DNA of such an iconic studio…

Tell us about the development of the new Studio 3 plugin.

We wanted to ‘model’ the sound and experience of listening while situated at Abbey Road’s Studio 3 sweet spot on headphones, in the same sense that we ‘model’ the sound of analogue equipment into a software plugin. The main reason we did this in Studio 3 was to capture and recreate the superb sonic and acoustic qualities of this studio to be used as a mix monitoring reference on headphones. For the obvious physical differences between headphones and speakers, this cannot be 100 per cent achieved, but we wanted to take it as far as we could and see how much we can improve mixing and monitoring on headphones with this tool, compared to just using regular headphones.

This plugin is based on Waves Binaural audio technology, Nx. Under the hood, it uses Nx and Ambisonics algorithms combined with convolution of impulse responses captured in Studio 3. Starting the development, we relied on all our existing technology and experience in these fields and started prototyping and experimenting with how this idea can be achieved.

Success was not immediate. We went back to the drawing board more than once, went back to the studio several times and went through countless iterations of testing, listening sessions and experiments with the Abbey Road team, external and internal testers, as well as revisiting and improving the basic methods and algorithms we were using.

How close was the collaboration between 3 Waves and Abbey Road?

Waves and Abbey Road have a long-lasting and close relationship. We have created many products together in the past and continue to do so today. Mirek Stiles, head of audio products at Abbey Road, is our main point of contact. He is the one who signs off the product, giving Abbey Road’s stamp of approval after reviewing it with the studio’s house engineers. I was in close contact with him during the entire course of development from the first initiation stages up to the final release. Constantly exchanging ideas, discussing the problems and solutions in detail, getting feedback on plugin revisions and working together with him towards our goal. He is in the details of this plugin as much as any of the Waves development team members.

How did you capture the essence of Studio 3?

Put simply, the essence of the studio was captured through the magic of impulse response recordings. But more specifically, Ambisonics impulse responses, which unlike standard impulse responses that represent a single direction or a stereo sound field, the Ambisonics impulse responses represent the full 360 sphere around the microphone. This enabled us to recreate the sensation of listening to a speaker in a room, where the speaker is positioned at one specific direction, but the reflections envelop you from all the other directions at the same time. So, as you hear the left speaker to your left, you hear its reflections all around you. The same principle is applied to each speaker from its position in the room. This creates the realistic sense of depth, positioning, and enveloping room ambience, as well as recreating the time response of the studio control room, which is how certain frequencies decay over time. This is a very important factor of a good sounding control room and in Studio 3 it is very well defined together with a controlled time response.

Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin

What features set this plugin apart from others?

Plugins that are meant to help monitor and mix on headphones are gaining popularity, as more and more home producers and mixers revert to mixing on headphones for practical reasons. Different plugins tackle different problems associated with mixing on headphones. Some try to fix the frequency response of specific headphone models; some plugins try to fix the ear separation problem by introducing cross talk. This plugin aims to provide the complete solution to bridge the gap between headphones and speakers in a room.

The main features that set it apart from the others are: 3D head tracked binaural audio, and the precise and realistic 360 control room acoustic response. We see these two features as the basis for bridging the gap to mixing on headphones. These two features give the headphone-sound a precise direction in a neutral and nondestructive way, and then envelop it with a true control room acoustic response which reveals how the mix would react in an acoustic space.

Just EQing the headphones does not fix the main difference vs speakers, which is complete lack of direction and space. Introducing just the cross talk is the first step in creating the sense of direction, and it still doesn’t address the lack of acoustic space. This plugin addresses all these issues and more.

Tell us about the features offered by the Waves Nx immersive audio technology?

Waves Nx is the name for our binaural processing technology. Its main feature is creating an immersive 3D audio listening experience on headphones from any existing content, whether stereo or surround and for gaming applications. This means you can play stereo music though Nx and it will process it in a way that, on headphones, will sound in front of you like it would on stereo speakers. Surround content will be processed similarly so the surround speakers would be virtually positioned in front, as well as behind you when listened to through headphones. One unique feature of Waves’ Nx technology is its ability to receive head tracking data from a motion sensor or a camera and apply them over the simulated audio direction in real time. This feature accurately simulates how you hear audio directions in the real world.

Nx technology was developed with the needs and standards of audio professionals in mind, meaning it needs to sound realistic and flawless. But then the same algorithms and sounds were imported to consumer audio applications for everyone to enjoy. Today you can find Nx technology built-in on headphones, in mobile phones, on laptops. The list goes on.

The latest development for Nx is now with the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin, where for the first time we achieved the goal of combining the Nx algorithms with the captured sound of a real acoustic space, recreating it virtually on headphones, meeting Abbey Road’s quality standard in doing so, with one of the most prized control rooms in the world. What we learned and developed in the process will in the future find a way into additional Nx applications, further enhancing the virtual sound headphone experience.

Just how big a launch is this for Waves?

This was definitely an exciting and significant release for Waves. Firstly, the technological achievement is a source of satisfaction, as we successfully managed to reach the goal that we set out to accomplish.

But the most vital aspect is that it is a milestone in Waves’ ongoing commitment to better our users’ workflow and creative capabilities. With the release of the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin, we have climbed yet another notch in catering to the new breed of music producers, by enabling them to mix their tracks in an environment that was until now, accessible to only a few: one of the best sounding control rooms in the world, Abbey Road’s Studio 3 – and they can do so anywhere, any time and at an affordable price. This alone, opens a whole new way of mixing, offering a trusted and reliable environment within their headphones, regardless of location or budget.