The amount of processing that’s built into digital consoles these days is staggering. If you look at even the most inexpensive digital mixer, you’ll find EQ, dynamics and filters on every input channel (and probably every output). You’re also likely to find patchable graphic EQs that can be dropped into any output bus. Add to that a plethora of reverb, delay and modulation effects, plus time delay for alignment on the outputs, and you’ve got a lot of muscle in a small box. No matter how much processing may be included, audio engineers want more—and the ability to use their favorite processing that might not necessarily be included on the desk. Where’s my DeltaLab Effectron?
That’s why it’s interesting to see that Universal Audio recently started shipping its UAD-2 Live Rack. The Live Rack is essentially an outboard effects processor that interfaces with any MADI-equipped console. It hosts UAD plug-ins and can process 16 channels. UAD fans will note that this opens up a world of processing that includes emulations of all kinds of vintage gear, which engineers lust after almost as much as a paid vacation. The important point of the Live Rack is that you can carry it with you and use it with any console that has MADI I/O. A Live Rack app manages the effects under Mac OS.
Similar in concept (and arguably the first of the kind) is the Waves SoundGrid system. SoundGrid is actually a network that offloads effects processing to a DSP server so your computer doesn’t have to do the work. SoundGrid interfaces come in a variety of I/O configurations, including MADI, analog I/O, a Dante network bridge, and expansion cards designed for specific consoles. Some of the expansion cards cost more than half as much as the digital desks into which they can be installed.
What we’re seeing is a re-boot of the analog days. Engineers who didn’t have the luxury of touring with consoles sometimes had the ability to bring a processing rack on the road with them, providing some consistency among the ever-changing gear they encountered on a nightly basis. Hardware processors weigh a lot, require cable looms, and can get cranky with age—not to mention the fact that you’d be out of your mind to travel with, say, a real Pultec for the lead vocal channel. Systems like the UAD-2 Live Rack and Waves SoundGrid allow us to travel with pretty impressive emulations of that gear, while eliminating much of the worry.
What I’d like to see is a rackmount plug-in server that’s self-contained. Maybe you use a computer for the initial setup, and then have the ability to program and run the plug-ins from the front-panel without the computer. Hell, we did it that way for years and even managed to survive programming the Lexicon PCM70 from the front panel. Anything else would be cake.