Based in Marcussy, south of Paris, L-Acoustics is a French company with an international reputation for articulate, energetic sound reinforcement. From custom residential sound suites to prestigious public spaces to live performance venues, L-Acoustics has pioneered the use of speaker arrays and digital signal processing to sculpt sensory perceptions. Now, thanks to the L-Acoustics software suite, L-ISA Studio – the same mixing engine behind the clarity and continuity of these speaker configurations – is available to sound engineers on the go armed with just a laptop and headphones. After a few days of mixing in the software in my home studio, I found the room acoustics simulation to be an incredibly powerful and accurate tool. I came away with the following impressions of how L-Acoustics L-ISA Studio can simplify turning virtual environments into real-world experiences.
Getting started with L-Acoustics L-ISA Studio
If you want to take advantage of L-ISA Studio’s hardware routing and implement it in a multi-channel recording studio or live sound application, the software is available to individuals for an annual or monthly subscription price of €290 and €29, respectively ( which translates to roughly the same price in dollars at the time of publication). The scope of this review is limited to The binaural output engine of L-ISA Studio version 2.4which is now available to sound engineers indefinitely for free and requires no additional hardware to use.
This specific control interface allows the software to provide accurate and realistic rendering of a 3D mix using only a pair of headphones, theoretically expanding the possibilities for sound engineers who are used to working in stereo and mixing away from large consoles and purpose – building stations for monitoring. I fit firmly into that category, so I tried using L-ISA Studio to mix the track “Alligator” by Billy Cadden. [Full disclosure: Billy is an established musician who I have played with (I contributed guitar to and engineered his track “One in Control”), but he also works at Popular Science, giving us convenient access to song stems.] Thanks to Apple Music’s embrace of Dolby Atmos-processed tracks, among other factors, “spatial audio” is a major buzzword in the industry, so it felt like the perfect time to explore mixing in every possible dimension.
Installing and setting up L-ISA Studio took a long time and was quite complicated, but a set of short video tutorials provided all the I/O configuration information needed to get started. L-ISA Studio runs exclusively on Mac systems and officially requires at least a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor due to the software’s demanding spatial simulation and powerful 96-source capabilities, but I was able to run my 16 sources through a dual-core i5 MacBook Pro without issue. Since L-ISA is an “object-based” mixing system, referring to its emphasis on precisely placing sounds within 3D space, I found that much of the audio setup and routing process revolved around “transformation” of my remix stems into discrete “sources” for the software to manipulate.
L-ISA Studio comes with a more barebones plug-in to help integrate digital audio workstations – it’s compatible with Pro Tools, Nuendo, Ableton Live, Reaper, Logic and more – but most mixing is done in a separate application called L -ISA Controller. Routing audio sources from the DAW to the controller begins in yet another program called the L-ISA processor, which essentially handles all DSP signal processing and initializes a virtual “bridge” that allows users to send sources, mono or stereo, straight from their DAW to the controller itself. After setting up the L-ISA processor and specifying a monitoring output, users must manually connect it to the controller through a separate setup menu. While this makes sense due to L-ISA Studio’s ability to use multiple processors on different machines in a network, it’s a good example of how users need to tell the software exactly what to do at each step.
Once tracks are sent from the DAW to the L-ISA controller’s inputs, users are required to manually create individual sources in the controller’s application and connect them back to their respective inputs. L-ISA Source Plugin instances must then be placed on each track within the DAW and linked back to their newly minted Source in the controller. At this point, the routing is almost complete and users are left to manually enable binaural monitoring within the controller and route the binaural outputs to the system or headphone outputs of the interface. Then and only then is it time to mix (it took me about 45 minutes to set up on the first try, but it could probably be done in about 5-10 by someone who has done it before).
The L-ISA Controller user interface
Once the somewhat difficult task of audio routing is completed, interacting with the L-ISA Controller’s graphical user interface feels like a breath of fresh air. In it, users can load or create different multi-speaker configurations and intuitively move their audio sources around the modeled ‘place’, adjusting placement, spacing, elevation, width and panning. The Soundscape interface offers a clear view of the 3D space being modeled, along with speaker placement and listener position in both top-down and three-dimensional options, and a number of simple toggles at the top of the window allow users to access the grouping of controller, automation and reverb settings.
“Alligator” is melodic pop-rock noise with slightly lysergic undertones. For my instrumental remix, I sent bass, drums, percussion, acoustic guitar and a number of electric guitars to the L-ISA controller from Logic Pro X and loaded an 18.1.4 speaker configuration into the controller from the preset spaces provided.
Starting with the drums, I isolated each individual instrument and spent some time moving them around the simulated space, adjusting distance and elevation along the way. I repeated this process, slowly adding more elements to the soundscape and making small adjustments until I had what felt like a balanced and energetic mix. L-ISA doesn’t add reverb to your mix by default, so I clicked on the Reverb tab and looked through the available presets before settling on “a little warm ambience.” The distance source parameter affects the amount of reverb applied, so I went back and adjusted my sources until the mix was balanced again.
The L-ISA controller can accept MIDI clock information from your DAW, opening up the possibility of automating source placement changes while your content is playing. Automation can be written directly in the DAW or by using the Snapshots feature, which allows users to create changes to the soundscape at specific moments. Snapshots can also be set to fade into each other, giving the impression of elements moving around the listener’s head in 3D space. When mixing music, this can be a particularly effective creative tool for marking transitions within a song and bringing elements to and from the foreground.
The sound of L-Acoustics L-ISA Studio
Compared to traditional stereo panning, which offers a very limited placement of elements in a flat soundscape, L-ISA Studio and its performance of binaural processing it’s just mind-blowing. Playing everything through the trusty Sony MDR-7506 headphones, I found it easy and intuitive to find natural, realistic-sounding “places” for instruments and other sonic elements to sit in a mix without clashing with each other. Cutting into a traditional mix is often time-consuming and requires everything from EQ settings to reverb processing to get elements competing in the same frequency band(s) to gel properly, but my L-ISA Studio got about 80% of the way there in less than half the time.
Having a third dimension to work with during intuitive mixing makes sense when you consider the way speakers behave in real space, and I was extremely impressed with L-ISA Studio’s ability to simulate this effect in a simple binaural mix. In fact, I found that the once dense mix felt more sparse and spacious through the L-ISA Studio, opening up the possibility of adding even more musical elements to the pleasingly bold Strokes-esque track.
So who should use the L-Acoustics L-ISA Studio software?
L-Acoustics L-ISA Studio is primarily a fascinating surround sound simulation workflow, so while it was informative and inspiring to use the software for basic music mixing, its advanced potential makes it more ideal for live sound. cinema, virtual reality, games and other large-scale 3D audio productions where engineers have time and need the best in spatial acoustic modeling. This is by no means just another plugin you can add to your DAW and integrate with your existing workflow for subtle shifts; The L-ISA Studio requires a detailed setup process and unique workflow that reflect its incredible flexibility and L-Acoustics’ roots in years of psychoacoustic and physical research.
Decades of experience integrating L-Acoustics and its dynamic, distortion-free sound signature – from the generous textural detail of its speakers to reference class in-ear monitors for demanding mix engineers— are definitely on display. The volume of features is only as deep as the volume of space(s) you can design. There are so many options within the software that I haven’t been able to explore with my current mixing station: L-ISA Studio is head tracking compatible; supports routing to up to 12 physical speakers; is compatible with OSC, a network technology designed to synchronize multimedia devices for performances; and the list goes on and on.
All things being equal, though, if you’re a sound designer or audio creator of any kind, L-ISA Studio’s free binaural processing is worth a spin for its impressive 3D spatial modeling alone. It can be used to breathe new life into old mixes or create entirely new audio content with a precise focus on the listener’s physical experience, which seems to be a unique conceptual angle in the world of music mixing. If you’re a sound engineer already familiar with mixing multi-channel content and working with spatial audio, L-ISA Studio’s incredible ability to simulate acoustic spaces makes it one of the best tools for creating extensive mixes in a compact setup.