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Audio consoles

It has been an exciting 10 years in the world of consoles. Technology advances opened doors for new, innovative and cost-effective designs. Manufacturers sent their R&D personnel back to the drawing board to brainstorm the best way to mix and match a multitude of new technological possibilities. Consequently, a wealth of new designs flooded in, with each manufacturer presenting its own take on what a modern console should be.

In what could be described as a “war of designs,” users experienced and contributed feedback, patterns started to emerge, and we can now identify a few design concepts considered ideal by many. In other words, one can now easily speculate on what the future console will look like. Actually, a few manufacturers can already claim a product remarkably similar.

But, with common design concepts, expandability being standard, stability a must, and cheap digital technology of matching quality for all, where does the competition lie? The answer is in the way these consoles interface with users, which is destined to become an even bigger player in future consoles and a pivotal part in the way these are built.

The superior phenotype

Some of us have enjoyed them all — the analog console; the layers introduced with early digital consoles; a tiny monochrome screen; a color touchscreen; rear panel I/O card slots; soft patching of I/Os; firmware upgrades; software upgrades; cascading control surfaces; and Vegas mode.

For all the evolution they have been through, modern consoles seem to have found a superior phenotype. It is the digital 3-block design, sensibly combining all the best from past designs. The blocks are not contained within one physical enclosure; instead, they are separate and connected using cables. Such a design removes the physical constraints of a single-box console and means every part of the console is customizable, upgradable and expandable with relative ease. (See Figure 1.)

In this design, the three blocks are categorized as follows:

  • I/O rack (or racks) — These provide a variety of input and outputs, often in the form of rack-mounted units. These can be located either next to the operator or on stage.
  • Core — Another box that contains a computer, a collection of DSP cards, connections to the control surface, and interface cards connecting to the I/O boxes.
  • Control Surface — A surface that hosts various controls (faders, pots, buttons) along with meters.

Of these, the I/O block is perhaps the least likely to evolve much further. If anything, we might see thinner, higher-bandwidth connections to the core unit. But, current protocols (MADI, for instance) seem to do the job.

The core is worth discussion. Most consoles make use of a purpose-built computer, with expandable, specialized DSP cards. The big question is whether personal computers (together with professional consumer products) can replace these purpose-built machines. In order to do so, there are three main hurdles designers will have to overcome:

  • Processing power — The processing power of most PCs is limited when compared to a machine with dedicated DSP cards. The added monitoring latency of any DSP expansion on modern PCs render these unfit for live applications.
  • Latency — The audio buffers, which are processed by the CPU, have to be kept small to reduce monitoring latency. Add to this the varying processing demands of user input handling and graphical display tasks, and the audio engine can become unstable. Zero-latency monitoring and on-board DSP that some audio interfaces offer can only be used if third-party access to control these interfaces is allowed (not common, but possible).
  • Multitude of I/Os — As most consumers hardly have any need for more than the standard stereo input and output, few audio interfaces allow more than 24 I/Os or the cascading of such boxes.

That said, there is some indication that PCs could become the heart of certain consoles (if not all in the far future). To begin with, such consoles already exist, although they are small and provide limited inputs. Then, 12-core machines already provide a respectable amount of processing power, which can be increased using distributed processing (already a working technology on Apple machines). For latency problems, programmers can reserve 11 of the 12 cores for audio only, ensuring stability.

Lastly, certain consumer products already allow 192 I/Os; little should stop this figure from doubling or quadrupling should demand exist.

The touchface

The last block of the superior phenotype — the control surface — is, by far, where the competition lies. The technical specifications of both the I/O and core blocks are equally achievable by all manufacturers, but how users interact with the underlying technology is essentially to become the big selling point.

Cost and physical considerations mean that on analog consoles, controls are not always where or how users would like them to be. Needless to say, once designed and manufactured, one can hardly modify or improve the product. Digital consoles with their hardware control surfaces are largely the same.

Then there's the iPad. A few weeks ago, I witnessed my two-year-old nephew using an iPad as if he already had one in the womb. The iPad has redefined the term “child's play,” and, more importantly, how we interface with technology. A particular application available for the iPad facilitates the control over an audio-sequencer's mixer and its various plug-ins in a way that is more intuitive and productive than a mouse. It is also far more flexible than hardware control surfaces that are twice the price of the iPad itself.

There is nothing visionary here. iPad applications allowing the remote control of consoles and other audio products are now popping up in the Apple Store almost weekly, and some consoles already include a docking station that makes the iPad an integral part of the product. However, beyond these implementations, iPads are unlikely to end up replacing the face of our consoles; touchscreens certainly are.

In the context of a control surface, I will call one based on touchscreens a “touchface.” Again, there is nothing visionary here; touchscreens are already part of many consoles, but the benefits in having them have to be stressed. Touchfaces are completely customizable. They can be tailored to many applications, even per client or per session. Touchfaces can also be easily updated; any improvements suggested by clients can be implemented, tested and installed within days, and manufacturers are free to add features should the core unit allow. This is heaven for both manufacturers and users.

While hardware buttons and meters are easily replaceable by touchscreen controls, the interaction with on-screen faders and pots can understandably be considered cumbersome. So, it is almost certain that future consoles will still have at least two rows of hardware controls — one for faders and one for pots; the function of these will be determined by a quick tap on the touchface.

Software-based beast

I dare to argue we are fast heading toward an omni-console — a highly customizable, expandable and updatable software-based beast. With a reboot, such a product can become tailored for use in broadcast (television or radio), live concerts, recording studios, post production or any other settings. In order to become such, it will need to be mostly bright, as bright as an iPad display.

Roey Izhaki is the author of “Mixing Audio.”