Gear Reviews

Exclusive: L-Acoustics L-ISA Studio Review

We bring you an exclusive review of L-Acoustics' brand new L-ISA Studio – the French manufacturer’s immersive mix system which allows for up to 7.1.4 mixing on any set of headphones using only a laptop. And you don’t even need an audio interface.

L-Acoustics is, of course, most recognised for its work within the live sound sector; a leading manufacturer of loudspeakers with a product range that suits pretty much any audio application: touring of all levels, events, install, AV, house of worship – the list is long.

The company has also earned the reputation as one of only a handful of brands to really ‘crack’ an immersive audio experience at a live show via its L-ISA technology (which stands for Immersive Sound Art). Used by a bunch of international touring artists including Mercury Prize-winners, alt-J and US rock band, Soundgarden, L-ISA’s multidimensional capabilities allow creatives to literally shape their own sound at live shows – so what you hear is quite literally what you see.

And it’s not only the huge acts and full-size venues that are benefitting from L-ISA. Headliner contributor, Adam Protz, experienced this first-hand at a Samuel Kerridge show at EartH Hackney back in 2019 - a great little venue fitted out with a full 360° L-ISA setup. He wrote at the time:

“I’m pretty sure my soul has been astral-projected into the next dimension; L-Acoustics 360° technology ensures that every audio vibration pervades the being of the audience from every direction; it’s a trippy experience.”

Recently I was invited to the L-Acoustics Creations headquarters in Highgate to check out the manufacturer’s highly impressive immersive showroom. To cut a long story short, standing in the sweet spot in the centre of the room, and with all speakers engaged (there are many configurations available), I was able to listen to an immersive mix of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android taken from a live show, and my jaw hit the floor. Wherever I looked in the room, I heard – like Adam said about the show at EartH, and like alt-J’s manager told me when he was first introduced to L-ISA.

But then came the really interesting part.

I was taken into the adjacent room - a recording studio, boasting a 23.1 L-ISA setup. In here, I was to witness L-ISA Studio for the first time. Set up with Reaper (my choice of DAW, so further excitement there right away), a full immersive mix project was laid out and ready to demo, and it had been mixed using L-ISA Studio.

Before questions could be asked about the product, I was offered a seat, and shortly after, the dulcet guitar tones of Mark Knopfler were flying from the speakers (quite literally). I sat and listened, turning to face various different speakers as the track played, and the best way I can describe it is that it felt like I was on the stage with the band. Everywhere I turned – you guessed it – I heard.

[L-ISA] Studio Vibes

One week later, I was sat in my mix room with the following in front of me: a copy of [at the time unreleased] L-ISA Studio; a head tracker; and a set of Contour XO in-ear monitors, an industry-first L-Acoustics collaboration with IEM giant, JH Audio. This trio of tools would be the fuel to get me to my first ever immersive mix.

Just to reiterate, I am essentially remixing an existing project that I have already got into a decent place in the stereo world in my mix room, using L-ISA Studio and Contour XO – so I won’t be able to ‘check’ the mix against my original outside of my in-ear mix. I plan on doing so in part two of this review when I return to L-Acoustics Creations to hear my mix in all its glory (I hope!) which will be the real litmus test.

Assigning each of my tracks within Reaper to L-ISA Studio takes less than 10 minutes, then within the beautifully laid-out L-ISA Controller I was able to quickly set up my head tracker via a Binaural Engine to track my own head’s movement. To keep the tracker in place – as IEMs don’t have a headband – I cunningly donned my Stetson flat cap. Other brands are also available, of course...

As I moved my head from side to side, up and down, it tracked the movement remarkably accurately – and if the head tracker slips, you can reset at the click of a button.

Then came L-ISA’s rather magical Audio Bridge – I say this because even with headphone monitoring, using a quality audio interface is imperative. Not here, however. The idea of L-ISA Studio is to enable the user to monitor and mix immersive content accurately anywhere, with great audio – so my IEMs are connected direct into my laptop, and the head tracker is connected via one of the USB ports.

L-ISA Studio has an almost daunting amount of control and flexibility: Binaural Engine, Room Engine, Scale Simulation, a plethora of L-Acoustics’ finest reverb algorithms all right there at your fingertips, and that’s just to name a few of its USPs. But for the purpose of this review, I’ve tried to think as any producer and mix engineer brand new to immersive would and should: get the track into the 360° headspace. Perhaps the truly advanced stuff – no doubt targeted at the FOH engineers and sound designers looking to map out their venues and prepare or tweak their next show – I can dive into at a later date.

For now, it’s 40 channels of audio – a full-band track - ready to find an immersive home.

In The Mix

As I began to ‘move’ tracks within L-ISA Studio’s visually beautiful ‘Soundscape’ I was immediately drawn to the audio quality coming from my laptop. It sounded fantastic. The interface allows for several viewpoints including a full-screen Soundscape mode which, when I started playing with the track and getting to grips with just how wide and far and high you can send audio, I found the most enthralling. After a while I was even comfortable minimising the DAW screen and getting right into the mix using only L-ISA Studio – it felt fresh and exciting.

This song, by the way, has a piano running through it and features a handful of stems created using the Auras sound library by Slate + Ash and Sensel Morph, a highly advanced MIDI controller complete with MPE (Midi Polyphonic Expression) capabilities. Why am I telling you this? Because the sounds within Auras can be manipulated using MPE to change the timbre, pitch, amplitude, and more of each note – so even before they hit the immersive sound field, they were already weirder, wider, and more edgy than most.

Using L-ISA Studio I was able to bring the piano forward, and move each of the Auras stems wide across the soundscape. It immediately offered a filmic quality I hadn’t been able to achieve in stereo. At one point, in fact, I physically turned around in my chair (about 140 degrees) to my left and found myself face to face with one of these Auras stems in a way I have never experienced. It was an ‘is this happening?’ moment for me. But it was. And on that note, a shout-out to Contour XO – it’s an excellent full-range IEM. I did switch to regular headphones for a short period during this mix, but went back quickly such was the difference in stereo (or should that be immersive) width, overall depth of sound, and in particular the midrange really impressed me. The track had more guts when I was mixing with Contour than without, that’s for sure.