Recording

The Console-Workstation Interface

Is the All-In-One Workspace on the Horizon 5/01/2004 8:00 AM Eastern

As mixers, our dream is an all-in-one system that allows complete bi-directional control of workstation and console functions in real time. And we know mixing console functions can be achieved within a workstation, but most workstations lack an assignable control surface for mixing. It's not surprising when you remember that workstations and mixers do not share a common heredity. Digital audio workstations (DAWs) evolved from tape- and then disk-based recorders, while mixers have grown in complexity and operational depth as audio production became increasingly complex. And because the underlying technologies are radically different, it's no surprise that there are few, if any, manufacturers offering both types of products.

However, there are several ways in which a DAW's Mix Engine can be controlled while adjusting channel levels, routing, pan, EQ, dynamics and other parameters. The easiest way is to route playback outputs at a fixed level to an external analog/digital mixer and then control the parameters there. Problem: We now have two sets of functions to deal with: the workstation's track assignments, built-in static processing and plug-in values, plus the conventional mix/EQ/dynamics automation data from the console.

The second technique might be to develop a MIDI-based external controller that issues commands to the workstation via standardized commands running at MIDI's relatively slow data rate. But we still need to deal with the MIDI commands and the DAW settings for full recall and reset. A good example of this approach is Yamaha's DM2000 Assignable Digital Console. As Marc Lopez, DM2000 product manager, explains, “With the strong trend in using a DAW for recording and mixing, most engineers feel they still need tactile control to improve the computer-centric workflow of a DAW. The DM2000 integrates tightly with [DAWs] to create a complete production and mixing environment.” External DAW control is via multiport USB I/O, using a single MIDI port per bank of eight channel faders. (Yamaha's 02R96, DM1000 and 01V96 also support these protocols.)

“Extensive support for Digidesign's Pro Tools provides full control of mixing and processing, as well as transport/track-arming control and access to editing functions directly from the DM2000,” Lopez continues. “Advanced support for Steinberg's Nuendo DAW is also under development.” The Nuendo Virtual Channel Strip, available in the DM2000 Version 2 software's Advanced DAW Support feature, enables users to control Nuendo and Cubase EQ, stereo and surround panning, and aux sends from the DM2000's Virtual Channel strip. These are controllable functions that vary depending on the DAW software being used. Version 2 also offers surround panner control for Pro Tools.

And let's not overlook Loud Technologies, whose Mackie Control, HUI and Baby HUI systems provide MIDI-based control of a number of popular DAWs, including MOTU Digital Performer, Steinberg Nuendo and Cubase, Soundscape (via Mixpander), Digidesign Pro Tools and PT LE, Cakewalk Sonar, Emagic Logic, Magix Samplitude and Sequoia 7, Adobe Audition and RML Labs SAWStudio. (The firm's dXb and older d8b Digital Production Consoles also feature Control and HUI modes to control Pro Tools, Logic and many other DAWs.)

The new Tascam US-2400 Control Surface is also pre-mapped for any DAW software that supports HUI or Mackie Control protocols. The unit features 24 touch-sensitive moving faders, rotary encoders with LEDs (remappable as 4-band EQ sections, for example) and a joystick controller. Bank switching enables access to 192 DAW channels. A transport section features a jog/shuttle wheel.

DAW COMMAND


The third scenario would be to develop a dedicated set of commands that a DAW could recognize; arrange for them to be sent at a sufficiently rapid rate so that we can develop medium- and large-format console topologies; and store all of the frame-accurate settings within the DAW. Instant recall of every parameter is now possible, along with the availability of familiar designs of control surfaces. A number of manufacturers, including Euphonix and Fairlight, are developing such capabilities and their motivation is pretty obvious: Euphonix, like other makers of large-format digital consoles, has obviously seen the writing on the wall — Big is Expensive. A great deal more functionality is now available from DAWs based on commodity processors, and the only serious drawback has been how to control all of this power.

Euphonix's EuCon object-oriented Command Protocol allows a mixing console to control third-party DAWs, special-purpose DSP hardware and software plug-ins. “Existing command-based interfaces were not up to the task,” says Martin Kloiber, Euphonix executive VP of technology, “because they were either too rigidly limited in their format or put too much programming burden on the developer, or both.

“An object-oriented interface is a good choice because mixing consoles and audio processors fit neatly into the object paradigm,” Kloiber continues. “Channels, buses, faders, knobs, meters and such are all easily comprehended as discrete objects. Also, consoles typically have a hierarchical design that lends itself well to object modeling. For example, a console includes many replicated channels, each channel including a fader that has a level control slider, mute switch and so on.”

EuCon is currently being used to control the Euphonix System 5 DSP Engine from the S5's (and post/broadcast variants) assignable control surfaces and within the new MC Intelligent Application Controller. “The [EuCon] architecture will allow several DAWs to be controlled from a System 5 for film-dubbing applications,” offers Kloiber. “The operator will be able to bring each individual track from any of the DAWs up on the System 5 control surface, as well as handle all audio patching between systems.” In addition to conventional fader, knob and switch commands, EuCon includes instructions for DAW plug-ins and other functions relevant to edit functions. A prototype of the MC Controller was shown at the New York AES Convention last fall; production versions are expected to be unveiled at the upcoming San Francisco Convention in October. “The MC is a DSP-less console,” Kloiber emphasizes. “All of the control takes place inside the workstation. EuCon can also act as a hub to translate different protocols between different systems.”

Euphonix is closely working with Steinberg and other DAW manufacturers to enable full MC control. At recent trade shows, Euphonix demonstrated work-in-progress with Nuendo and is in discussion with other DAW makers. “Our philosophy is to enable users to utilize the best class of products in an integrated environment,” Kloiber stresses. “EuCon is ‘DAW-agnostic’.” MC provides high-speed control of not only EuCon-aware applications, such as Nuendo, but also any PC application via keystroke commands. The unit includes a 5.1 monitor section, twin trackballs, a QWERTY keyboard, eight programmable knobs, four moving faders and 56 programmable LCD SmartSwitches.

“In March [2004], we released an SDK [Software Developers Toolkit, a set of utilities that allows programmers to include high-level routines into existing software applications],” Kloiber concludes. “The SDK will reduce the time it takes for a DAW maker to add EuCon command to six to eight weeks using the MC Controller's physical controls. Programmers can use command sets already available [within the SDK] and translate them to the specific DAW.”

With a foot in both the digital control console and DAW camps, Fairlight has an inside track on connectivity, at least between its own products. Unveiled at last fall's AES Convention, the Dream Constellation large-format digital console now offers control of external workstations via the firm's RAPID Protocol Sharing Initiative. Dream Constellation is powered by Fairlight's QDC engine and a Binnacle control surface that supports up to 144 channels, 48 buses and 32 mono multitrack buses. According to Fairlight CEO John Lancken, “RAPID — Remote Application Program Interface for Dream — was developed [as] an open operating platform that enables automation, disk recording, editing, plug-ins, SFX, video and all other elements to be stored and controlled from a single control surface.” Because RAPID is already implemented across the Dream product range, external PCs can be used as clients with Fairlight products. Video editing functions are also included.

Like EuCon, RAPID SDKs are now available from Fairlight. “Being a small API, compared to something like Windows, [RAPID] is generic and easy to implement,” Lancken adds. “The SDK contains a document, sample code and information on how to use the API.” Fairlight has also set up a Website that supports three levels of implementation: bronze, silver and gold. “Bronze-level implementation covers transport only,” Lancken says, “while silver handles transport and mix functions, including dynamics. Gold includes the silver-level functionality, plus editing and automation. The forthcoming platinum level will handle all of that, plus plug-ins and video.”

LARGE-FORMAT DIGITAL CONSOLES

Unlike EuCon, RAPID isn't a control protocol. Instead, a dedicated PC gathers all of the various data that comprises a complete music or post project and allows the stored data to reproduce the same time-dependent environment. “This data will be DAW-specific, but once the software is implemented, a ‘sniffer’ program detects the nature of data being passed backward and forward and stores changes,” Lancken continues. “Upon playback, RAPID simply re-creates the changes it detected during the original session.” In this sense, RAPID is more like AAF than EuCon, for example, in that it monitors real-time changes in a project rather that the commands it follows on a communications channel.


Across the Atlantic, a duo of UK-based console manufacturers has also given serious thought to workstation control from a central mix location. As Niall Feldman, Solid State Logic's director of product management, offers, “SSL has some history with developing integrated workstations and mixing consoles; products such as Scenaria and Omnimix pioneered this ‘third generation’ more than 10 years ago. Our experience in that development path was that one editing solution didn't fit all applications, and editing methods and platforms were a significant product development challenge in themselves.

“In both our XL 9000 and C200 consoles,” Feldman continues, “there is control integration for DAW systems. In the C200, there is also the ability to control DAW processing/parameters from a central, assignable plasma display.” A large-format digital console, Feldman reasons, “has more processing horsepower and can therefore process more complex algorithms on many channels simultaneously. The processing and performance aren't being compromised by the scale of what you're trying to do, which is sometimes the case in a complex DAW mix.”

SSL currently supports MIDI, USB and RS422 serial data. “Our systems support other protocols such as Ethernet,” Feldman adds, “and therefore, we have several development options. We try to use standardized protocols wherever possible, as this provides the greatest flexibility. At a professional level, Pro Tools is the predominant DAW we encounter, though we have many consoles that have integrated Fairlight control. Emagic Logic is also popular.”

As Mike Reddick, AMS Neve's editorial products manager, points out, “From the early '90s, [we] recognized the importance of editor/mix integration. This was the thinking behind the Logic 1, the world's first integrated editorial workstation. Even back then, [the system featured an] integrated project format allowing audio, EDL, console configuration and automation to be stored together in one place.”

THE OTHER END OF THE TELESCOPE: DAW MANUFACTURERS

At the NAB 2004 Convention, AMS Neve was scheduled to unveil the latest element in its integrated solution. Workflow is the firm's approach to post work as it flows through a facility via a StarNet network. “To this end,” Reddick says, “the solution integrates editorial, mixing, DSP processes [plug-ins], control by and of third-party systems [via TCP/IP], networking, secure storage and nonlinear picture playback.” Workflow and StarNet enable virtual object — oriented mixing, “allowing any element of the project to be changed at any stage, and for these changes to be visible and accessible at any other,” Reddick concludes.


If digital console manufacturers are actively pursing the potential of controlling external workstations, then what of the DAW makers? For example, Steinberg continues to work with Euphonix to refine EuCon functionality. But, according to Martin Stahl, Steinberg's project coordinator for post-production, the firm offers MIDI- and USB-based external control of Nuendo from such devices as Yamaha DM2000 and 02R96 consoles, and has just released its own dedicated control surface. Developed with German company WK Audio, the USB-based ID Controller enables real-time control of more than 128 Nuendo playback channels. (The target is 340 channels, according to Stahl.) The ID control surface features 12 assignable faders and rotary controls, plus a separate editor section with jog wheel.

In terms of EuCon-based controllers, Steinberg senior product manager for pro audio, Lars Baumann, explains that Nuendo has basic connectivity available now, but that a public release is not planned before more functions are added. “Upcoming versions of Nuendo will offer a new feature set that we will open for control using our own protocol — and be compatible with EuCon — but will allow us to control our own destiny,” he says. Currently under final development is a Hardware Controller SDK that will allow third-party vendors to develop suitable solutions. “We decided to develop our own protocol, as well as continuing to support EuCon and MIDI, simply because we don't want to [favor one manufacturer over another],” says Baumann. “We are currently adapting to many brands of hardware controllers, [but] would like to redirect this effort to the manufacturers and keep our focus on the software. With the SDK, we can develop a means of Nuendo control via Ethernet, FireWire, USB or any other I/O that maximizes Nuendo's user-friendliness.”

SADiE has experience in DAW/console integration, having co-developed a system four years ago with Soundtracs. But the experience was not too thrilling, as managing director Joe Bull confesses. “Part of us won't go there again,” he recalls. “Innovation can be [troublesome], because it is often difficult to get a mixer manufacturer to completely comprehend the intricacies of DAW technology. We had a great solution that responded very well, but then Soundtracs went off on its own.”

Bull is quick to point out that current-generation DAWs offer powerful mixing functionality: “It's a matter of developing a means of controlling those capabilities,” he rationalizes. “Mixing is a more linear function, and it takes focused design to appreciate the differences. Our R&D department is currently asking a number of pertinent questions, including ‘What do users want the system to do?’ ‘What protocols are available?’ We have looked at EuCon, but if we go down that route, what about rival manufacturers like SSL and AMS Neve? Are we painting ourselves into a corner?

“We have looked at integrating SADiE's workstations with large-scale consoles,” Bull concedes, “but most customers want a choice of control surface for their chosen DAW. If we lock into one solution, we may compromise some features. And there may be situations where we sell a DAW system to a facility that is more familiar with a mixer that we don't support. Personally, I'd like to see the AES [organization] develop a standardized protocol between DAWs and assignable control surfaces.

“In reality, for smaller installations, we currently support MIDI control from Yamaha's DM2000 console or [Mackie] HUI Series. But what do customers need [in terms of mixing functions]? An SSL? A Euphonix? Or maybe the [Sony] DMX-R100 or DM2000 [medium-format] console might represent a larger market? What does the ‘average’ facility or studio want? That is the crucial part of the equation. Is the market too small for bipartisan development? And music, broadcast and post are looking for different solutions.”

Merging Technologies' sales and marketing manager Ken Barnsley also stresses the importance in considering current-generation DAWs as combination editor/mixers and not just editing stations. “Pyramix with Version 5.0 software has a 128-channel digital console with assignable buses, I/O aux sends, et cetera — a real live mixing desk, it just doesn't have any metal in front of it,” he says. “We already support MIDI, UI and Yamaha protocols, but believe we must take this much further to a multifaceted and multilayered control, protocol-specific Pyramix.”

The firm is currently developing an advanced protocol that will allow a digital console to control Pyramix and create additional layers of mix capability even to smaller digital console configurations. Barnsley foresees initial applications within film dubbing and is in active discussion with three major console manufacturers specifically for this application. Recently, Merging Technologies issued an SDK to the initial console makers involved in the project.

Pyramix can internally mix up to 128 channels and offers up to 128 outputs. “These can be configured as individual internal mix layers with discrete outputs to create single or multiple premix output layers,” Barnsley says. “In effect, Pyramix can supply any number of discrete premix outputs from the same system or even multiple systems, which is usually the case. If the console has control over Pyramix's virtual mixer, I/O routing, processing functions and each mix layer, the premix process can be achieved from the console but without the need to destructively mix down.”

The leading DAW manufacturer — in terms of installed systems — is Digidesign, which has developed a number of proprietary control surfaces for its Pro Tools Series, ranging from the entry-level LE Music Production System through Pro Control and Control|24 to the new D-Control Audio Worksurface. [See “Technology Spotlight,” Mix, April 2004] “Control surface solutions complement rather than replace the Pro Tools software interface,” says David Gibbons, Digidesign's marketing manager.

Stan Cotey, Digidesign's senior product manager for hardware, offers that over time, workstations' internal mixing capability has become an important addition. “Often, the amount of power available for mixing was in contention with the editing features, graphical user interface updates, OS overhead, et cetera,” he says. “Digidesign's offering during this time used the same host computer for editing and automation, while offloading all of the intensive audio processing to a built-in, high-quality DSP hardware accelerator system. This allowed integration between audio and automation data, and the ability to save one session file that contained all of the automation data, audio edits, routing, system settings, et cetera.”

Perhaps an intermediate generation can be thought of as involving data interchange between systems, Cotey considers, “allowing automation data from a console to be affected by the editing done on a DAW [and] also network interchange between two different DAWs. This led to the emergence of widely adopted interchange standards for groups of related files — like OMF and AAF — but didn't lead to a real-time control parameter standard other than MIDI.” Cotey allows that new standards may emerge over time, possibly including EuCon.

“In most cases,” Cotey concludes, “supporting these interactions comes at a great cost to the alternative feature development we would like to do within Pro Tools. When we choose not to support something, it's usually because the burden of maintaining the support is too great, considering the demands we are trying to meet from users for other features. It's sensible for us to wait to see if a new standard will be widely adopted before moving to support it.”

Of course, Digidesign's new ICON eliminates the need for a separate analog or digital console because every Pro Tools function — including plug-ins — can be mapped to faders, knobs or switches on the control surface via a high-speed Ethernet connection to the host Mix Engine. But there are no plans to make the connection protocol available to third-party developers. “Our protocol remains proprietary,” Gibbons stresses. “It is simply a matter of available resources. Currently, we have a team of four in-house developers that support our plug-in program. If we tried to create and publish a control surface protocol, we would need an even larger team to provide technical support to OEMs. While we understand the market's needs, the amount of resources we'd need to provide would not be viable.”

MIDI still provides an easy-to-implement control of Pro Tools functions from an external console or control surface, says Gibbons. “[MIDI] might not be the best solution [in terms of speed and depth of control functions], but it gets the job done. And it's an open standard that everybody understands!”

All of which makes sense. Digidesign is both burdened and blessed with its acknowledged success. A large installed user base means that control surface developers, including makers of large-format consoles, are eager to tap into an existing market. However, for Digidesign to spend the time and dollars to innovate or accommodate a new protocol that provides access to every element of its powerful mixing and processing engine makes miserable commercial sense. Great to play nice-guy, but are there better ways to make friends and influence their key customers? Yes, indeed.

Digidesign is not inattentive to the control surface paradigm — witness the new ICON and ongoing success of ProControl and Control|24. While ProControl and Control|24 may arguably lack all of the bells and whistles of offerings from SSL, AMS Neve or Euphonix, many music and post users are using them day to day. And several console manufacturers are actively considering protocol schemes like EuCon and RAPID, which can add a level of connectivity and system integration that is needed by the growing breed of audio engineers for whom the distinction between editing and mixing seems arcane and unacceptable.

A major unknown on the immediate landscape remains Apple Computer, a company that certainly possesses the resources to develop a fully integrated solution and one that will find immediate appeal to the project studio, sound editorial and musician user. Logic is a popular production tool and could benefit from an Apple-developed control interface. It remains to be seen whether Apple will consider this a viable proposition — and with sufficient ROI.

One thing is certain: While Apple remains pre-eminent at dominating its target markets, and is winning hearts and minds in the Windows community, Digidesign's business model is now based on a closed architecture that requires customers to purchase proprietary Digidesign hardware to run the firm's software. In contrast, Apple is offering standard software with an open plug-in architecture and an open hardware interface, a paradigm also supported by Steinberg and other DAW makers. All of which opens the door for other companies to develop solutions — including full-capability console control surfaces — that plug into the Apple-innovated hardware and operate within an Apple software architecture. Truly, we live in interesting times.


Mel Lambert heads up Media&Marketing (www.mediaandmarketing.com), a full-service consulting service for pro audio firms and facilities.