In this column, we’ll
examine a topic I’ve
for awhile: large-format
digital audio console
surface design; the
problems with it and
why it may be time for
a change. Most console
surfaces remain similar
to the classic design introduced in the
1970s, yet the backend technology supporting
them has changed dramatically.
The standard surface is still made up of
a meter bridge, a section for controls and
a fader area. Modern surfaces are really
more like remote controls, with no actual
audio inside them, while their fully digital
cores do the real processing. Recently,
several manufacturers have deviated from
traditional surface design and given us a
glimpse into the future of console surfaces.
LOOKING AT COST, EXPECTATIONS
Two primary reasons a redesign may be
in order are the cost of the surfaces and
changing user expectations. Large-format
digital audio consoles with many channels,
powerful DSP features and internal routers
are expensive investments for any broadcaster.
Live production consoles are now
typically outfitted with between 300 to
more than 1,000 inputs, with similar output
counts. With new technology introductions
like 4K and budgets tightening for all
but the highest-profile shows, obtaining
the capital to buy large consoles seems to
be increasingly difficult.
|Raven MTX from Slate Pro Audio
Manufacturers tell us the surface of
large digital audio consoles is the most expensive
part of the system, so it just makes
sense to find ways to bring that cost down.
Users are changing as well, with many
younger mix engineers just as comfortable
using mice, trackpads, touch screens and
other types of controllers as they are using
faders and knobs.
I know some sound designers who have
never mixed using real faders, but simply make adjustments in their workstation
and use onscreen faders. Those same mixers
have never had to mix a live sporting
event, however, and the engineers currently
mixing those shows still want faders.
There are other reasons to rethink surface design. Placing a large reflective surface
between speakers and your ears creates
a comb filter right at the mix position.
Mount those speakers on the meter bridge
and they couple to the console frame coloring
the low mid-range of the mix. These
problems are not new, but perhaps it’s time
to think about changing surface design to
eliminate them as factors in control rooms.
Then again, most audio mix rooms now
have so many device screens obstructing
the soundfield that perhaps reflections
from the surface are actually a minor issue
Manufacturers have been releasing a few surfaces that differ from the status quo
by using touchscreens, more screens and
fewer physical controls. The surface with
the most gratuitous use of glass (so far) is
the Raven MTX from Slate Pro Audio. Designed
for recording rather than broadcast, this surface is made up of a 27-inch industrial-
grade touchscreen, running custom
software that allows it to work with digital
audio workstations. There is a small meter
bridge on top and an armrest-style area under
the screen with a keyboard, trackball,
transport and monitor controls, but otherwise
this thing is one great big screen.
After seeing this surface I wondered
what kind of reflections would be caused
by such a large piece of glass at the mix position,
but Slate Pro Audio claims the 40-degree
angle design minimizes comb filtering.
The really intriguing thing about this surface
is that it seems to handle multitouch
extremely well, and all onscreen controls
appear to respond as if they were physical
ones. Making the touchscreen function as
if the onscreen controls are real is essential
for physical control replacement.
To my knowledge, no manufacturer in
the broadcast world has introduced a large
touchscreen surface to rival the Raven, but
the Lawo mc²56, Wheatstone D-8EX, Calrec Callisto and SSL Live are all examples
of broadcast and live production audio
consoles where the surface is more compact;
there are fewer physical controls; and
screens dominate the surface.
While their surfaces still mostly conform
to traditional layouts, all of these consoles
have a considerable amount of space consumed
by screens. The mc²56 and D8-EX
utilize touchscreen controls for key functions,
while the Callisto and Live are heavily
touchscreen-dependent for operation. Since
adding controls and customizing features for
screens is just a matter of writing new code
and doesn’t require new hardware, we’re
likely to see much more screen real estate
on console surfaces in the coming years.
INCREASED PRODUCTION DEMANDS
While tight budgets are one reason for
reducing the cost of the surface, production
demands are actually increasing, with directors
and producers aiming to do whatever it
takes to give their show an edge. This means
more shoot locations, new playback devices
and new graphics elements, all with accompanying
sound. Since sources for surround
broadcasts are six channels wide, the introduction
of each new source can increase
channel count needs quickly.
There is also the need for delivering
content in multiple languages and the desire
to provide surround mix minuses for
archiving and rebroadcast, all produced
live from the event site. Immersive audio
and audio objects technologies for 4K production
will bring even more sources, destinations
and complications to the mix engineer’s
job. Even if surface designs change,
control, monitoring, routing and console
connection needs are likely to increase
and become more complex.
The design changes we’re seeing on
some of the new console surfaces may indicate
that manufacturers already realize
the need to make them less costly, while
retaining flexibility. With an up-and-coming
generation of mix engineers who grew up
playing video games, and the proliferation
of touchscreens in the marketplace, the
possibility to change how engineers use
and interface with audio consoles may be
here, but it’s critical that new surfaces not
lose functionality in the process.
Mixing live television is an increasingly
complex job and doing it successfully
means having a console with the right degree
of connectivity, functionality and control.
As always, it’s important to have the
right tool for the job, whether the controls
are physical or virtual.
Jay Yeary has worked as a live mix
engineer and sound designer and now
spends his days working in the engineering
department of a large media corporation.