Sound Judgment: A Professional Audio Engineer Pushes Back Against the Podcast Industry’s Perennial Pro Tools Pile-On

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

As most listserv arguments go, the January 4th thread about Pro Tools on the New York Radio Club unfolded in a fairly predictable way: an earnest question about the best way to learn the program, a handful of helpful responses, and then, inevitably, a Pro Tools pile-on.

Some variation of this well-worn thread comes up every so often, and it almost always ends the same. I’ve been tempted on more than one occasion to chime in, if only to question some of the grievances against Pro Tools for lacking specificity: that it’s “unnecessarily complicated” (how, exactly?) or “not quite the right tool for radio/podcast production” (why, exactly?), or even that it’s “freighted with the whole weighty history of commercial music and media production that has so little to do with our profession” (what?).

Eventually, I always decided that any pushback would fall on deaf ears. But now that the story has made it to the pages of Nick Quah’s Hot Pod, as well as The Bello Collective— outlets with greater visibility throughout our industry than a Google Group echo chamber — I feel compelled to speak up. Both of their recent pieces about Pro Tools are seriously flawed, and suffer from one-sided reporting and disingenuous framing, not to mention glaring inaccuracies. But the main thing they have in common is what they omit: the role of the audio engineer in podcast production.

There’s virtually no mention of audio engineers in the Hot Pod article; their very existence is referred to only in passing. The Bello Collective piece doesn’t include the word “engineer” at all. And yet, both pieces uncritically amplify calls for Pro Tools to be ousted as the industry standard digital audio workstation (DAW) without so much as reaching out to audio engineers in the field for their input.

Even the Bello Collective mission statement — “to bring together writers, journalists, and other voices who share a passion for the world of audio storytelling” — leaves out specific mention of the audio engineers whose technical expertise helps make a producer’s hard work sound its best. This may seem like a minor gripe, but I believe the exclusion speaks volumes. It implies a hierarchy in which writers and journalists, who no doubt play a key role in audio storytelling, are unequivocally the ones who should be calling all the shots. Meanwhile, it relegates the contributions of their audio engineer colleagues to the status of “other voices” almost as an afterthought, glossing over the time and effort we have devoted to honing our craft. This dichotomy is indicative of a growing labor crisis within the podcast industry, in which the work of audio engineers is increasingly devalued, overlooked, or outright dismissed.

And this is why these one-sided debates over Pro Tools rankle me. In case it wasn’t clear: I’m not here just to defend a piece of software. Avid isn’t cutting me any checks, and I’ve done my fair share of Pro Tools troubleshooting throughout my decade-long career as a professional audio engineer. But the preoccupation some people have with making this piece of software out to be the embodiment of corporate evil is sorely misguided.

At the end of the day, Pro Tools is only a tool, after all — a tool that is used by a plurality of audio professionals to earn their living. It’s not strictly intended for music production, as both the Hot Pod and Bello Collective articles misrepresent; it’s also the standard in basically every area of audio post production, including sound for film, TV, advertising, video games, and 3D audio formats like Dolby Atmos, as well as podcasting. If there’s going to be a conversation about its viability within our industry, I absolutely expect engineers to have a say in the matter.

Podcasting suffers from a fundamental identity crisis when it comes to clearly defining roles and responsibilities in production environments. Specifically, where does the work of producers and engineers differ, and where does it overlap?

In public radio settings like NPR and its member stations, producers wear many hats. In addition to their numerous other responsibilities when producing a piece, they often create a rough assembly before handing it off to an engineer for additional scoring, sound design, mixing, and delivery to a broadcast loudness target. Mirroring this relationship in the podcast world helps to ensure a more equitable distribution of labor, and isn’t meant to deepen divisions or to consign each group to its own silo. On the contrary, I think it’s perfectly normal, beneficial even, for producers and engineers to have primary expertise in different areas, and to work in collaboration, not competition, to create compelling audio storytelling.

But the sticking point for many podcast producers seems to be when Pro Tools proficiency is listed as a requirement in job postings. On its face, I don’t think this practice is necessarily a bad thing. While I can appreciate that some independent producers may not want (or need) to use Pro Tools in all situations, it’s not unreasonable for a larger shop to expect you to conform to its workflow standards, particularly those of a technical nature. Such standards have likely been put in place by a qualified senior audio engineer or technical director, and for good reason. At the very least, they are to ensure compatibility when sharing projects back and forth between team members, including the engineers who will be the last ones to handle a piece before it goes out into the world.

So, when established companies like Gimlet, Pineapple Street, or Stitcher want their new hires to have a level of proficiency in Pro Tools, it isn’t some diabolical attempt at gatekeeping as a matter of course. Like their public radio counterparts, podcast producers applying for these positions need to be able to cut tape and create episode assemblies. And those assemblies will eventually end up in the hands of an engineer who is highly skilled at Pro Tools, having used it in professional settings for years. Making sure that everyone involved in the production process is using the same DAW is about maintaining consistently high audio standards in every project from start to finish, not “maintaining the industry’s status quo,” as the Bello Collective piece claims.

To be fair, I think this hiring practice can also be viewed through the lens of the aforementioned labor crisis in the podcast industry. Some organizations simply expect too much from their producers. They want a jack or jill of all trades, who can perform the myriad tasks of a producer and use Pro Tools at the level of an engineer. As a result, many producers are stretched too thin — which is all the more reason why engineers should be sought after and relied upon to do what they do best. If a shop has the budget to be hiring producers, it should also maintain a staff of engineers to support them. Clearly defining expectations, such as Gimlet specifying “Proficiency in creating assemblies in ProTools” in a recent job posting for a producer, also helps to ensure that the division of labor is both efficient and equitable.

But with all due respect to job-seeking producers, the solution isn’t for an organization to scale back its professional capabilities simply because they don’t align with your personal preferences. Not for nothing, Pro Tools is the industry standard in audio production. Despite what you may have heard anecdotally, it offers a high degree of stability and versatility for dialogue editing and sound design. In terms of integration with recording studio hardware, it’s second to none. Professional recording studios still play an important part in making podcasts, even if our in-person interactions have become limited as of late; and eventually, we will go back to using studios on a regular basis. In the meantime, Avid Cloud Collaboration makes it easy to share our projects remotely without the hassle of sending audio and session files back and forth.

Most of all, Pro Tools just works. Without a doubt, any software program is bound to have occasional glitches, and this one is no exception. But audio professionals like myself value the fact that, for the most part, using Pro Tools becomes a matter of muscle memory. When I turn on my computer in the morning, I load it up and I get to work. I don’t get lost in the minutiae. It does everything I need it to do and more, but that complexity is not at all a “nightmarish” inhibition, as the Bello Collective piece bemoans. It’s literally not a nightmare for a professional software application to require a bit of work to get your head around it, if indeed this is your profession. And for the record, the user guide for Reaper is over 400 pages; not exactly something that can be mastered in one day. The Hindenburg Pro guide is no slouch either, coming in at 164 pages. Realistically, any DAW that’s less complex than this is probably not adequate for use in professional settings.

The Hot Pod article grudgingly acknowledges that Pro Tools maintains its status in the industry, “at least partially due to [its] merits.” I’m not going to get into the weeds of a side-by-side feature comparison, but Reaper and Audition are fine tools as well. If you like them, use them! Especially if you’re working independently and don’t need to pass sessions back and forth, there’s no reason not to use the DAW you’re most comfortable with. But at the same time, it’s presumptuous to unilaterally call for our industry as a whole to adopt something else in place of Pro Tools without even bringing audio engineers into the conversation.

Fortunately, as many people have pointed out, it’s quite possible for anyone to learn Pro Tools. Online tutorials are a great resource, and a huge swath of them are free. YouTube alone offers hours upon hours of videos to help you learn on a budget when you’re first starting out. LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com) is another option. You definitely do not have to shell out $6,000 for some online certificate program at Berklee, as the Bello Collective article suggests.

But in my opinion, the best way to learn is with the aid of a good mentor. I started using Pro Tools while studying audio engineering at a community college. As I progressed through my courses, I was able to apply what I was learning in school to real-world situations at my first recording studio internship. In both the classroom and the studio, I had excellent teachers, who I stay in touch with to this day. Thanks to those experiences, I firmly believe that mentorship is crucial to the learning process, even as you continue to advance in your audio career. I know that not everyone has the opportunity to follow the same path I did, though, so it’s encouraging to see people — in Radio Club and elsewhere — stepping up to fill the role of mentor by offering their teaching services. A few of them are even generously doing so for free, literally paying it forward.

The idea that Pro Tools proficiency is some kind of dark art, beyond the comprehension of all but a select few, is ludicrous. So, it’s unconscionable when, for example, a disgraced podcaster with a sense of entitlement dangles it in front of a colleague at a party, as though he possessed some esoteric, unattainable talent that they could never have — all because of their gender identity, no less. Along with the obvious (and gross) misogyny at play here, this kind of attitude also represents a profound failure of mentorship, which our industry needs to do a much better job of providing.

To that end, if an organization advertises an open producer position that requires applicants to have familiarity with Pro Tools, it’s incumbent upon that organization to provide training to fill in any gaps in the new hire’s knowledge. Furthermore, if an otherwise qualified candidate doesn’t have Pro Tools experience but has used another DAW at a level comparable to what the position demands, they should without a doubt still be considered, and trained up if offered the role. In either case, becoming proficient in Pro Tools should be well within reach for anyone willing to put in the work.

Yet the mere fact that Pro Tools has a learning curve at all is apparently a non-starter for sources quoted in both the Hot Pod and Bello Collective pieces. For what it’s worth, most professions identify a need for prerequisite, specialized knowledge or skills in order to perform the duties of the job. Some even expect that you pass an exam to become certified before you’re legally allowed to work in the field — teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, architects, plumbers, electricians, hairdressers, accountants, realtors, to name a few.

Podcast producers, on the other hand, are not expected to become certified in Pro Tools to get hired, nor should they be (and nor should anyone else, for that matter). But this is where things start to become a bit like a catch-22 because, compared with some of those other professions, the career path for audio journalism and podcasting can be somewhat ambiguous. Everyone has to start somewhere, but for many companies it’s just not possible to adhere to a strict production schedule while also setting aside the time it takes to train a producer from scratch.

To be clear: shops must be willing to invest in their staff and provide training where needed. But there should also be an expectation that producers already have some basic grasp of audio editing in a DAW in order to perform the duties required by the job. Remember, most jobs at the producer level don’t (or shouldn’t) expect you to be a Pro Tools wizard to cut tape and create assemblies. But a producer is also not an entry-level position, according to the AIR Rate Guide. Therefore, “familiarity” with or “proficiency” in Pro Tools or another DAW is not an unreasonable standard. So, where does that leave us?

This, again, can be viewed as a crisis of labor. If we look back at the public radio model, there are production assistant and assistant producer positions intended for entry-level applicants. These jobs allow people straight out of college or with less than two years of experience, give or take, to be mentored by more seasoned producers, and learn foundational skills that will serve them well one day as producers in their own right — including how to cut tape in a DAW like Pro Tools — all while being paid for their work.

In podcasting, it seems like there are fewer and fewer of these entry-level jobs. Consolidating them into the role of the producer, or dropping them entirely, results in the elimination of a crucial stage of growth in a producer’s career. The opportunity to learn the basics under the mentorship of a more senior producer is lost. So too is an appreciation for the relationship between producers and engineers.

Speaking for myself, though I’m sure others would agree: audio engineers are more than willing to assume the role of mentor to help address this discrepancy. I’m of the opinion that the more people in our industry with a broad understanding of best practices in audio production — not just Pro Tools chops — the better off we all are. That being said, as an industry we need to reevaluate and reorganize the way we define roles and responsibilities, as well as how we’re compensating them. And we need to provide a clearer path for those who want to make a career out of audio storytelling.

Ultimately, Pro Tools proficiency shouldn’t be more of a barrier than any other skill or credential required by an employer, such as a bachelor’s degree or writing and reporting experience. Aspiring producers should have more institutional opportunities to learn audio production skills at a professional level, without having to choose between making rent and paying for Pro Tools lessons. Otherwise, we run the risk of excluding talented new voices from our field, when we should be working to cultivate them.

The issue of cost isn’t limited to just learning to use Pro Tools. Indeed, the program itself poses a prohibitive expense for some in our field. Moreover, this is a barrier that has a disparate impact on people of color. Los Angeles Times podcast producer Shannon Linn, who is quoted in the Bello Collective piece, rightly points out the fact that, “producers of color historically haven’t been given the same opportunities (like working in larger shops that have access to more resources like Pro Tools), and their resumes reflect that.”

With that in mind, the most glaring oversight in both the Hot Pod and Bello Collective pieces is the failure to mention that there’s a free version of Pro Tools, which has been available since 2015. Though limited in functionality (which arguably makes it more accessible to beginners), it provides enough features for producers to learn to use the program before having to pay for it, as well as to create work that meets professional standards.

Certainly, a free version of Pro Tools does not, on its own, do enough to address what is undeniably a deeply-rooted, systemic issue in podcasting. But not acknowledging the existence of “Pro Tools | First” seriously undermines the credibility of the Bello Collective piece. Either the author didn’t bother to do the proper research, or he had an agenda to portray Pro Tools in a negative light from the outset, and bent the narrative of the piece accordingly.

Nowhere is this bias more evident than when the author interviews a labor lawyer and attempts to elicit an opinion that requiring Pro Tools proficiency is a discriminatory and potentially illegal hiring practice. To his credit, the lawyer declined to dispense actual legal advice on the matter, which is just as well, considering he didn’t appear to have all the facts. With all due respect to his expertise in the law, when he suggested that Pro Tools, Audition, Logic, and Reaper are interchangeable, it became clear that he wasn’t fully prepared to take the relevant technical aspects of audio production into account when making his legal analysis.

In any case, I’m not suggesting that the podcast industry doesn’t still have a very real problem with diversity — it does, and the structures that perpetuate this must be acknowledged and meaningfully addressed. Clearly, the author’s heart was in the right place in that regard. What I am suggesting, however, is that simply pinning podcasting’s diversity problem on Pro Tools misses the forest for the trees. It feels like an unserious attempt to solve a serious problem, not to mention a painfully self-unaware cop-out. I mean, let’s be honest — “White Male Blames Software Program for Lack of Diversity in Podcasting” is a truly #notTheOnion take.

Getting rid of Pro Tools will not fix the inequality in the podcast industry, particularly when so many audio engineers still rely on the program to do our jobs. But there are plenty of other creative solutions we should consider to reduce the cost barrier. For example, some of our colleagues are already discussing a crowdfunding program that prioritizes people of color, in which individuals with more stable positions in the field can help offset the cost of Pro Tools subscriptions or lessons for those experiencing financial hardship. Another possibility is to advocate for Avid to offer a discount program for producers through an established organization, similar to what it does with academic institutions. If they were willing to give podcast companies the same deal, producers would be able to purchase a one-year subscription for $99, or a perpetual license for $299.

Side note: if you expect to be using Pro Tools on a regular basis, I would strongly recommend a perpetual license over a subscription. Yes, the perpetual license is a bigger investment up front, but you’re going to get a lot of mileage out of it. In ten years, I’ve only had to pay to upgrade Pro Tools twice — the first time so I could use AAX plugins, and the second time when I upgraded my Mac OS X from Yosemite to Sierra. I’m currently running Pro Tools 2018.12 on a 2011 iMac with zero issues, so the argument that Pro Tools forces you to constantly upgrade your hardware is false.

Without a doubt, access to technology can be a major barrier in the podcast world. Much of the work we do is of a technical nature, and therefore requires specialized equipment: microphones, recorders, cables, computers, and software, not to mention the training required to use it. All of this adds up.

Pro Tools isn’t the cheapest DAW on the market — though to be fair, a subscription costs only nine dollars more per month than Audition. But as I’ve argued throughout this piece, many audio engineers regard it as a worthwhile investment, and integral to the work we contribute to the production process. So while there’s a moral obligation to confront the inequities in our field head-on, we need to be very intentional in our approach. There’s no reason why we can’t mitigate these issues while simultaneously upholding the high technical standards our profession deserves.

Contrary to what some people think, a lot more goes into creating engaging podcasts than just sitting down in front of a microphone and starting to talk. Anyone can make a podcast, but not everyone can make a great podcast. It’s both a creative and a technical process, and it takes a team of talented individuals to pull it off — writers, journalists, editors, producers, production assistants, interns, hosts, and yes, engineers. In order to succeed at audio storytelling, we need to be open-minded and willing to collaborate with colleagues from different professional backgrounds; but we also have to be inclined to trust one another’s expertise.

Broadly speaking, producers and other team members shouldn’t be expected to operate on the same wavelength as engineers with respect to audio technologies. Does that make them inferior to engineers in any way? Of course not. As engineers, it’s our job to constantly refresh our technical skills and stay up to date with current trends in professional audio, so that producers don’t have to. This is yet another reason why division of labor is important: so engineers can focus on the things that might distract from the work of producers. In larger organizations, that often includes implementing appropriate technical standards, such as specifying which DAW everyone on the production team should use.

When people write things like, “Pro Tools, the audio editing software of choice in the podcasting industry, is a piece of garbage,” or, “friends don’t let friends use Pro Tools,” all it does is cheapen the discourse. Sure, these jabs may be tongue-in-cheek, more or less. But there’s always a kernel of truth to every joke, and audio engineers wind up being the butt of this one.

On the one hand, Pro Tools is still just a tool. It’s not synonymous with being an audio professional, and knowing how to use it doesn’t mean that the work you produce will automatically sound good. But the fact remains that many professionals in the podcast world do use it because they believe it’s the right tool for the job.

What’s really troubling about comments like the ones above is the subtext: that all the reporters, producers, and engineers who have embraced Pro Tools are somehow not to be trusted; that they’re willing accomplices in a system whose primary agenda is gatekeeping and upholding barriers around our industry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This line of thinking is disrespectful and, frankly, insulting to the contributions of audio engineers and other professionals to this field. On top of that, it signals to those who maybe aren’t as technically savvy that joining the pile-on will put them on “the right side” of the issue — even though they may not have considered all the facts before rushing to judgment, and even though they themselves have likely benefited from the work of an engineer using Pro Tools at one time or another. All of this points to a larger, even more disturbing trend in the podcast world, in which audio itself is taken for granted.

Good audio doesn’t just happen; it’s the product of hard work and careful preparation. Even seemingly simple two-way formats require an exactness and attention to detail that is often overlooked. “Good enough” should never be a part of our vocabulary when describing the audio quality of podcasts. So, it’s disheartening when people suggest that Pro Tools has “all kinds of bells and whistles that podcast producers don’t necessarily need,” or that it’s only useful for making “sound-rich shows.” I don’t believe that’s true, but even if it were, why let that stop you? With all the podcasts out there vying for listeners’ attention, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of every tool at your disposal in an effort to make your work stand apart?

Podcasts are, fundamentally, an audio medium. This may be self-evident, but it bears repeating — the way people experience podcasts is through sound. And a skilled audio engineer can have a huge impact on the overall sound quality of a podcast.

When we start to neglect the sound quality of our podcasts — or reduce it to a checklist of tips and tricks, presets, or “filters” that can be traded as if they were baseball cards — it undermines not just audio engineers, but everyone involved in the production process. It gives listeners the impression that what we do is less of a profession, and more of a hobby. And unfortunately, this attitude is at times reflected in the very words of our own colleagues.

A source quoted in the Hot Pod article says of Pro Tools, “I liken it to having a Ferrari and giving it to your grandmother so she can drive to the supermarket.” The thing is, even if you remove “Ferrari” (Pro Tools) from the analogy, you’re still left with…a grandmother driving to the supermarket. Meanwhile, the Bello Collective piece attempts to repurpose a clunky comparison between podcasting and putting fish in a can. Is this really the way we ought to talk about our profession, with dubious and condescending analogies? If we don’t take the work we do seriously, then why should anyone else?

The “About” page on the Bello Collective website touts podcasting as being at the forefront of “a new golden age of audio,” and poses the question: “Is it possible [to] talk about audio the way we talk about film, books, or visual arts?” The answer is yes, absolutely — but only if we’re serious about upholding high standards of professionalism in our industry, and that includes giving engineers a seat at the table to guarantee audio of the best possible quality. At the same time, we must also take meaningful action to address the technological barriers that make our industry less inclusive and prevent new voices from being heard. Only by working together to tackle both of these issues can we cement podcasting’s status as a viable creative profession with true longevity, and indeed a respected art form in its own right.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store