If you buy the wrong headset, you simply replace it. But if you buy the wrong audio console, you affect operations for years to come. As production needs change, so too does the landscape of product offerings in mixing consoles.
But it's tricky for these high-tech manufacturers. While incremental improvements to existing platforms can be made with relative ease, fundamental changes in technology and architecture (such as analog to digital) can take years to properly develop for practical applications.
Flying in the face of this fast and furious rate of tech change is the need for a new console investment to last awhile. Whether for studio, remote capture or post, today's consoles are expected to earn their keep. A purchasing misstep could cost tens, even hundred of thousands of dollars, both in cash outlay and operational productivity. So, it makes sense to look into the future before making a console purchase today.
The future is digital
The first, and most obvious, trend is the move to all-digital consoles. Digital audio has been a viable alternative for more than a decade now. The technology provides nonlinear production workflow, non-destructive electronic editing, ease of transport and efficient storage. While there will always be demand for the warmth of analog inputs, the future of the broadcast signal path is inevitably digital.
One of the chief advantages of digital desks is channel efficiency. Rather than being locked into a channel count dictated by the number of input jacks, digital designs can have an unlimited number of inputs, routed as needed to the physical channel strips.
This efficiency grows in importance as the penetration of HD video is reflected in the need for surround-sound production, from programming to commercials. Broadcasters will need to manage multiple 5.1 streams while still providing viable stereo and mono feeds.
While there are rumblings that Dolby may upgrade its channel count, the problem for broadcasters remains the same — channel density of the audio feed. Using virtual tracks, digital matrix switching and multipurpose control surfaces, a digital approach allows many more input channels and submixes to coexist within a fairly modest footprint.
Powerful processing and cheap memory has enabled vastly improved audio resolution. Sample rates are moving from 44kHz to 96kHz, with 192kHz on the horizon. Software has become similarly more sophisticated, with plug-ins available for virtually every conceivable need.
Hardware meets software
There is another trend in console design — modularity and scalability. Rather than simply buying all the channels that fit into the available space, it will become increasingly common for users to specify the precise, desired layout of their new console. This will allow users to move outboard gear into their “mainframe” audio consoles, as well as pay for what they need today while retaining the option of upgrading in the future.
This leads us to the next trend — open architecture. In a software-driven environment, the need to communicate with outboard production tools, digital archives and other control rooms will require great flexibility. Much like Apple's long-awaited embrace of the PC, digital consoles will be increasingly sophisticated in their ability to interact in a plug-and-play fashion with all the manner of computers, control devices and hardware.
Another implication of the steady growth of surround sound is the increasing need to capture live content in surround. While this capability is already evident in today's large production trucks covering live sports and music in HD, look for ENG crews to add surround sound to their local coverage. This, in turn, means that station production rooms will need consoles that incorporate 5.1 surround and automated downmixes with the same ease of use that today's stereo desks provide.
Topography and work surfaces
One reason console makers are investing so heavily in interface design: Operators need to use multiple new functions quickly, without having to spend weeks learning a new system. This is a major challenge.
Console surfaces that mirror traditional mixers are faster to learn, but comprehensive onboard DSP and total flexibility in mixdown hierarchy requires either too much real estate or less efficient, multistep access. The latter may be fine in large-format production mixers, but not in small, fast-paced control rooms.
Increasingly, a single console will be expected to interact effectively with the entire broadcast facility, including control rooms, studios and maybe even the office e-mail system. For console designers, the key will lie in knowing their customers' workflow and production processes and then creating modular, software-driven work surfaces that are easily configured to those immediate needs and yet still maintain a familiar look and feel.
Eventually, console design may evolve into the form factor of a massive touch screen, with photorealistic icons that react with the same sensitivity and functionality as the hardware we work with today. But fear not! Everyone knows there's nothing like the feel of a high-quality 100mm fader, and these will always be available.
Console design is all about meeting user needs, both at the time of purchase and down the road. So look for control surfaces to be on-demand environments that can change with your needs — but with the physical format and familiar tactile feel mixers prefer.
Finally, as audio increasingly takes the form of data streams, a major driving force in future studio environments will be the security of that data. In fact, the consoles of the future may not even pass audio directly.
As the speed and power of networks increase, mixing desks may evolve into pure control centers, communicating with a master media “engine” that drives the entire production environment from input to output — marrying audio, video, Web streams and metadata and then sending them to the appropriate delivery system on demand.
Your future console will be smaller, smarter, faster, more flexible and more reliable. It will adapt to your changing needs. It will, in short, be exactly what you need.
Jack Kontney is founder and president of Kontney Communications.