Audio Consoles Take to the Road

Mobile production units go digital for big performance in tight spaces
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Mobile production units go digital for big performance in tight spaces

NEW YORK

As an indication of the digital audio explosion in high-end mobile production trucks, look no further than National Mobile Television's (NMT) new HD4, now under construction. The $10 million, 53-foot long, high definition, multiformat truck will house an SSL MT+ digital audio console with 284 inputs and 224 outputs in a combination of digital and analog audio, plus a 96-fader control surface.

The truck to be launched this April will serve ABC Sports' HD productions of "Monday Night Football" this fall.

And NMT is not alone. NEP Supershooter LLP installed a Calrec Alpha digital audio console in its SS9 truck, which has been used for CBS's NFL package. A Euphonix Max Air digital console covered golf in a new truck for New Zealand's TVNZ (Moving Pictures), and an AMS Neve Libra Live Series II will be handling much of the February Grammy Awards ceremonies in New York on All Mobile Video's new Crossroads truck.

As shows add more complex production elements, the requirements for audio on mobile units have mushroomed-quite a change from the not-so-distant past when a 24-input analog board was more than sufficient for a mono mix for "Monday Night Football."

"The production capabilities of today's trucks rival many fixed studios in sophistication," remarked Tim Hamill, products specialist with AMS Neve.

AUDIO TO MATCH THE VIDEO

Today trucks handle multiformat audio to go along with multiformat video. More devices such as slo-mos, character generators and other graphics devices that formerly had no audio capabilities are now routinely adding audio effects. And the growth of video servers with eight or more audio channels, more microphones on the playing field, and more special effects adds up to hundreds of inputs.

"The advantages of digital are small size, lower weight, lower cable cost and a less complex installation," noted Dave Hansen, VP of product marketing with Euphonix.

Because all the audio connections are made to a core frame of software-driven electronics, the control surface is just that, with no audio flowing through it with its attendant heavy cable looms.

"The control surface on our 48-fader System 5 doesn't exceed 300 pounds," Hansen said. "That's about half of what a similar featured console would weigh a few years ago."

And in terms of input/out (I/O) density, more channels can be installed in less space.

"Space is at a premium in trucks," Hamill noted. "Neve is addressing this with new 30mm pitch faders for the Libra Live digital console. This will give operators access to more faders." He added that the Libra Live is now outfitted with 40mm pitch faders and that the new versions will be shown at NAB2003.

With the increased I/O requirements, analog becomes less desirable. "The bigger the [analog] console is, the more prone it is to have noise," noted George Hoover, senior VP of Operations and Engineering of NEP.

"This is not an issue for a rock-and-roll board, but when you are on the golf course and have 20 mics open [and] you can hear more hiss than audio, it's a problem." With well-designed digital consoles, noise is no longer an issue.

High-end digital consoles allow for interconnection of remote I/O boxes that are controlled by the board. Connection is usually via fiber or MADI, again reducing wiring and cabling requirements.

Even as more connections and faders are squeezed into digital audio consoles, "We have to come to grips with an operator interface that's intuitive," Hoover said.

That's especially important in trucks where most of the crew are freelancers. Console manufacturers each have taken their own tack in resolving this issue.

FAMILIAR SOUNDS

With software-driven consoles, "You don't have to have a knob per function, but audio mixers [operators] are used to seeing things like high-frequency bandpass knobs in a certain place," said NMT President Jerry Gepner. "We chose SSL because their control surface is very familiar to people who are making the transition from the analog world. Like an analog console, there is a knob per function. An operator doesn't have to know how to utilize all the features to get on the air."

NEP likes the approach taken by Calrec for its Alpha console. "Calrec's approach is to assign knobs to functions that you frequently want to use and have readily in hand," Hoover explained. "Less knobs mean more input channels. The advantage of digital is that it allows us to have a small control surface with a lot of firepower."

Wheatstone Corp. designed its D-5.1 digital audio console with a minimum of layers. "We have only two layers for each input fader, with no restriction on what type of signal can be assigned to each fader," noted Jim Peck, senior applications engineer at Wheatstone.

Fader assignability, snapshots of settings, full system recall, scalability and flexibility are all key features of digital consoles that make them especially important in trucks with different requirements for each production.

Gepner mentioned one of his favorite features of the SSL MT+. "What's cool about it is that it can do simultaneous mixes-5.1 or 6.1 if needed, stereo for most of the country and mono for the international feed, all at the same time." Gepner said that this feature will be fully employed during "Monday Night Football" this fall.

While digital dominates in the high-end trucks, analog still plays a strong role for many of the larger and almost all of the midrange and smaller trucks.

NMT uses a Calrec Q2 on DX10, which was used for Super Bowl XXXVII, and for the 2002 "Monday Night Football" season. "We also like the Midas Heritage 2000," Gepner said. "We used these to replace aging boards on seven of our analog trucks."

NEP has a number of its trucks outfitted with the Q2. "The Calrec Q2 is a big analog desk for our two entertainment trucks, Gold and Silver," Hoover said, adding that there will be a Q2 in use at the Academy Awards, broadcast on ABC March 25.

Hoover said he's using a Calrec S console on trucks for golf, where other Supershooter trucks sport Yamaha consoles.

One reason that analog is still so prevalent in this range is the dearth of mid-priced digital consoles. High-end consoles go for $300,000 and up. A half-million dollars for a top-of-the-line console is not uncommon.

Taking a crack at this mid-range market is Euphonix with Max Air, with versions available from $115,000 to $225,000. "This price range is critical," Hansen noted.

Euphonix is getting some real world road experience of its own with the U.S. Max Air Tour of 37 cities in a specially commissioned demonstration vehicle outfitted with a 96-channel Max Air console and other equipment supplied by the tour's sponsors. Hansen said that the system was designed to simulate a local TV station's digital audio control room.

Hints from other manufacturers about their NAB2003 offerings suggest that there may be more to choose from this year.

"One of the things we are going to show at NAB this year is a new console that we hope will give us a slightly broader appeal," said Niall Feldman, director of product marketing for Solid State Logic (SSL). "It will be lighter with a smaller footprint in a powerful package."

Wheatstone's Peck said that his company has been talking to truck people about the D-5.1, which was introduced last year at NAB. "We are looking for multiple venues for our consoles with the feature sets we deem appropriate for the OB market," Peck commented.

All the features in the world would be useless if the console couldn't survive in the harsh truck environment. Console manufacturers say they pay particular attention to reliability, redundancy and customer support.

As Gepner said, "Next to the trailer, the audio console will last the longest. It's a big investment that will be with you for a long time-15 years if you buy the right thing. So you want someone who will be around a long time."