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Designing the Large-Format DIGITAL Console

Back in the good ol' days of analog, mixing consoles all shared a common characteristic-the bulk of the circuitry per channel was built into the individual

Back in the good ol’ days of analog, mixing consoles all shared a common characteristic-the bulk of the circuitry per channel was built into the individual channel strip. Hence, consoles traditionally had Trim/Pad, EQ, Aux sends, Cue, Pan, Mute, Solo and Level in an order that was fairly consistent from one manufacturer to another. This facilitated a level of familiarity that enabled mix engineers to migrate from one desk to another without much consternation. A glance up or down the channel strip told much of the console’s story.

With the advent of large-format digital consoles, however, gaining an operational grasp of a board’s layout and design can be quite a bit more challenging. In many cases, the one button/switch per function of yesteryear has been supplanted by a single button or switch that has multiple functions, depending upon the console’s operation mode. While this is typically more cost-effective in terms of being able to offer more features and functions, it generally makes the learning curve more challenging. This is not to say that today’s large digital consoles aren’t intuitive or inviting, but that the approach to mixing itself has evolved.

It is this evolution, both in the design and layout of current and future generations of large-format digital consoles, that makes every mixing professional contemplate a number of questions that may directly impact his or her ability to remain competitive in a field that is changing so rapidly. With nested menus, rotary encoders that have no finite left or right position, and signal routing/DSP options that were unthinkable just a few short years ago, where is digital console design headed? What criteria do design engineers take into consideration as they contemplate the future of audio mixing? How does a design team create an effective user interface that encourages the creative process as opposed to complicating it?

To address these questions, we contacted several manufacturers of these consoles to gain their perspective. Several interesting points emerged, such as the nature of the work environment and the balance between instant gratification and long-term usability.

Two of the most commonly voiced themes are the issues of selecting the right tool for a particular application and ergonomics (commonly, size in relationship to one’s ability to reach the controls). Jason Power, Product Specialist with AMS Neve, offered this perspective: “Digital technology gives us the opportunity to design consoles that help the operator, taking a step forward from the conventional layouts of the 1970s. AMS Neve’s two main goals when designing a digital console’s layout are to enhance the visibility of information to the operator, and to increase the accessibility of controls. To achieve these goals, it is important to recognize that operators in different audio environments work in very different ways. While the majority of the controls and indicators may be the same on an on-air broadcast console and a post-production console, the relevant importance of them to the operator is certainly different. AMS Neve maximizes visibility and accessibility by providing consoles with layouts and operation optimized for specific applications-live, post-production and music.

“Digital console designs may not look exactly like analog, but this certainly shouldn’t mean that they are not intuitive to use,” continues Power. AMS Neve’s design philosophy is simple: Give the operator real, tactile controls and make key information available ‘at a glance’ across the console. The layout philosophy is determined by the application: Hollywood film mixers need large multi-operator consoles and channel strip-oriented designs to control up to 500 paths of audio; while live broadcasters prefer the speed of a central channel strip layout. Whatever the application, AMS Neve pursues a policy of ‘mixing with your eyes shut’-using hard controls instead of screens, and using simple paging of controls instead of confusing multi-purpose knobs and switches to enable comfortable access. If claiming that a design is ‘knob-per-function’ it is important to mean it-the true ‘knob-per-function’ central channel strip on our Libra Post console has 51 knobs.”

Otari Console Products Manager Kris Jackson concurs: “To a certain extent, each industry segment is unique and has specific requirements and preferences for how the product should perform.

“Unlike analog consoles where each control had only one function, digital control surfaces are no longer directly tied to console functions,” says Jackson. “Everything is ‘soft’-meaning that we can now offer modular control surfaces that are general, but programmable and interface software that is much more custom-tailored to specific industry segments. We can change the programming of those interfaces and use modularity to achieve the customer’s goals in terms of number of controls, layers, etc. The otari Advanta allows the customer to design the console layout with respect to layers, number of faders and the type of work surface used. The customer has the ability to design his or her optimal console configuration based on his or her work, or to adopt a general design that has more flexibility.

“We have also opted for two distinct control surface types,” says Jackson. “our Mapped surface is more powerful and virtual, using a bank of 24 encoders and switches. our Dedicated surface uses 96 of our unique Whisper Pots-motorized potentiometers that allow users to re-create traditional ‘strips’ while still retaining the ability to reprogram the controls.”

Size and ergonomics are important issues that every design team wrestles with. According to Scott Silfvast, Euphonix founder and chief product officer, “User interfaces on mechanically-controlled analog consoles are determined by the positioning of the electronics located underneath. Mechanical connections to the audio circuit elements are made using switches or potentiometers. As the user demands more audio processing, the control surface grows to accommodate more switches and knobs. At some point, mixing consoles reach a physical size limit determined by the length of a human arm. Manufacturers find it difficult or impossible to add more audio processing after this physical size limit is reached-unless the switches and knobs are made so small that they are unusable.

“Euphonix has never seen a slowdown in the desire for more audio processing capabilities,” Silvfast continues. “However, the high-end, large-format consoles reached the maximum physical size limit in the mid-’80s. This created a big problem: How do we add more processing without making the console so big that the user can’t reach the knobs?

“We were not satisfied to limit the amount of audio processing because of size limitations. And, as controls other than faders and mutes were mechanically operated, they were difficult to reset and automate,” says Silvfast. “our first-generation digital-control analog consoles set out to address two problems: automating every knob and switch-not just faders and mutes-and adding more processing than was possible with mechanical-control designs.

“Our first breakthrough was a method of controlling all of the audio functionality of an analog console with a computer, which in turn was controlled from a control surface. The physical separation of the control surface from the audio processing core made this approach very obvious. once this important separation is made, any company in the business of building consoles begins with a clean slate in respect to how many knobs, switches and displays can be used, and how they should be arranged. Whether or not the audio processing is achieved in the analog domain or the digital domain, the digital control-surface design process is the same.

“Step number one in designing a digital control surface is to understand the role of the surface as a display-a feedback device for the user to see what he/she is doing,” says Silvfast. “Console operators grab only a few controls at a time, but they need to be able to see how hundreds of controls are set across many channels at a time. At Euphonix, we consider the control surface to be one part control, five parts display. As a result, the design process breaks down into satisfying both display requirements and control requirements.

“Designs that approach one-knob-per-function are always best, because everything is visible and instantly accessible. However, when the user demands more processing than can be delivered with one-knob-per-function, the manufacturer must understand what is important to the operator and then break down and page the functionality in a way that is best for operators-not what is best for design or manufacturing.”

It is this fine balance between display requirements and control requirements that has taken various manufacturers down different paths. Solid State Logic adheres as much as is reasonably possible to the traditional channel strip layout while Sony has adopted a somewhat more segmented approach. Both manufacturers have met with considerable success.

John L. Andrews, marketing director for Solid State Logic, shared his company’s design philosophy. “Assignable control surfaces need digital technology; the converse is not true. All the early digital consoles used assignable controls, and many current ones still do-assignable surfaces are cheaper and take up less space. There’s also the theory that a single design of assignable surface can be configured via software to be suitable for all types of operational requirements. At SSL, we don’t subscribe to that theory.

“Solid State Logic set the standard for in-line multitrack console design with the SL 4000 in 1977, followed by the SL 9000J in 1994,” says Andrews. “The Axiom-MT follows this concept. The only departure from the traditional layout is in the routing, which can be made much more comprehensive and flexible by using a certain amount of assignability. otherwise, there is a familiar channel strip layout with gain, dynamics, filters, 4-band EQ, aux sends and small-fader section. The design criteria we adopted for the Axiom-MT was that anyone familiar with an SSL analog console should be able to operate the MT without having to study the manual.

“Our control surface design is often referred to as ‘knob-per-function,’ which encapsulates our philosophy on nested menus,” continues Andrews. “In practice, varying degrees of assignability have been adopted in certain areas in order to offer more functions without making the surface uncomfortably large. For example, the Axiom-MT has 12 aux sends from both large- and small-fader paths, but only six controls are provided, selectable between 1-6 or 7-12 for each path, and the momentary EQ In switch becomes Reset when held down. The only use of assignability for a large number of controls is in channel banking or layering, which enables all 96 processing channels to be controlled by a 48-fader console surface in situations where space is restricted or cost is an issue.”

Terry Murphy, design engineer for Sony, discussed his company’s approach to making so much information visually accessible while simultaneously expediting access to the multitude of control parameters. “Most of the traditional analog consoles have evolved into a sea of duplicate knobs. Some digital console manufactures have mimicked this idea. If there are eight aux sends per channel, a 96-channel console could have 768 aux send knobs. With a 4-band parametric EQ, you could have 1,152 knobs for the EQ. When you are sliding down this 96-channel console to adjust aux send 3 on channel 9, you may accidentally adjust channel 8’s aux 3.

“With Sony’s oxford digital console, there are 24 aux sends and five bands of parametric EQ. This would be unmanageable with the older knob-per-function interface. In a smaller console this is not a big issue. In a large-scale console you need something else. You need one location where particular controls are located.

“In the oxford, there is one panel for the EQ, another panel for the dynamics, and another for aux sends,” explains Murphy. “You press a solo button and turn the control you want. Your hand goes instinctively to the control-perhaps the mid-frequency boost control, for example. The control is always there. It never changes. You develop what is known as ‘finger memory’: Your hand can instinctively go to the control you want very quickly and reliably. We call this ‘positive assignability’-a careful balance between the one-knob-per-function paradigm and the other extreme of some user interfaces with a small number of knobs and switches to be shared between many important functions.”

The manufacturers of these consoles bear a tremendous burden in terms of making their products “easy to use.” Without careful attention to this design characteristic, many would-be purchasers might simply go with another model they deem more friendly. on the other side of the equation, however, is the equally important need to provide a product offering the depth of functionality that makes it viable over the long haul. With software upgrades, DSP plug-in capability, surround panning control and a host of additional features that may be on the horizon, designers also need to focus on the console’s ability to accommodate future enhancements, as this equipment represents a serious investment for any studio.

Michael Tapes, Studer’s senior product manager, digital console systems, shared his thoughts on this all-important aspect of console design. “In the days when we were designing analog consoles, there was a naturally imposed limitation that a function had to appear on the console surface, or else it did not exist at all. There was no real way to prioritize the weight that any specific function had, with the exception of the location, size and the color of the control. As such, the modern large-format analog console became a sea of knobs and buttons, crammed into ever-narrowing channel strips-not perfect from the perspective of ergonomics.

“In light of the above, creating the modern digital console with a control surface that I like to refer to as the ‘optional remote control,’ we can design a surface that is focused on the creative, yet able to accommodate the repetitive tasks that a mixer must perform day in and day out,” says Tapes. “It is not a matter of setting the criteria that a given control will have only so many functions, or be only so deep. It is a matter of creating a user interface that is easy to understand, but more importantly, one that enhances the long-term operation of the console. Everyone stresses the learning curve of these new creations, and while this is critically important, mixers will face a new console for the ‘first time’ only once. However, these engineers will face the long-term operation for days, weeks or potentially even years. It is critical that a proper balance be struck between the ‘instant productivity’ design that yields ‘I can work this right now,’ and the more-important ‘long term productivity’ design, that after a brief period of familiarity yields a power and depth that is so amazing, the more one uses the console, the more creative, efficient and happy the operator becomes.

“Looking from some other points of view, digital console surface designs can allow us to control large numbers of channels from a small space,” says Tapes. “Where this is a requirement (such as within a small mobile van), multi-layering of controls is a secondary issue-as it is when being able to stay within the monitoring ‘sweet spot’ while mixing is of primary importance.”

Since staying within the sweet spot is such a critical concern for any mix engineer, manufacturers have focused their attention on various means of increasing the console’s operational flexibility to achieve this all-important consideration. Further, the “feel” of the controls and the system’s automation capabilities are equally important.

SSL’s John Andrews notes, “In addition to the obvious features such as total dynamic automation and instant reset, a major digital feature enjoyed by Axiom-MT users is bay swapping. With this feature, any bay of eight channels may be ‘swapped’ with the bay adjacent to the center section, thus bringing all the controls within easy reach of the operator, who does not need to move away from the surround mix sweet spot.”

“Just as with analog designs, the quality and ‘feel’ of a digital console are extremely important,” says AMS Neve’s Jason Power. “All of the mix controls-knobs as well as faders-are touch sensitive, eliminating the need to press buttons and look at screens when making automated mixes.

“If a digital console’s layout is intuitive, the major area for a new operator to learn is the automation system,” Power continues. “AMS Neve is easing this transition by introducing a common automation system, Encore, across our range of digital consoles for music recording, TV and film post-production, and live broadcast. Encore is also available for V Series analog music consoles and will be familiar to Flying Faders users, making it far easier for mixers to move from analog to digital consoles. We also have a family of dedicated music, TV post and broadcast consoles based on the same Libra layout philosophy and hardware, offering optimized solutions for each application while also making it easy for operators to move from console to console.”

Interestingly, while several of these large-format digital wonders have LCD screens to assist the operator with the console’s operational status, these displays continue to play a secondary role in the overall user interface, with touchscreen capability being fairly limited. otari’s Kris Jackson offers his company’s view: “otari is currently not using touchscreens as a console interface. I do not rule out the usefulness of touchscreens in navigating through housekeeping and file management chores, but we are sticking with buttons, knobs and faders for mixing. Advanta does make extensive use of LCD screens for status feedback and integration with outside systems, but without touch operation. on the practical side, we view a mixing console as a tool. on the creative side, it is an instrument and requires much more tactile feedback than a touchscreen offers.”

Andrews adds, “The single screen on the Axiom-MT is used mainly during setup, and may be completely ignored during normal recording and mixing procedures. In our view, the pen and tablet provides a much better user interface than a touchscreen, and also offers an excellent surround panning facility.”

As the various manufacturers enhance existing products and pave the way for future generations of digital consoles, it is important not to lose sight of where we’ve been. In many respects, the standards and conventions set forth by previous generations of mixing consoles will continue to influence future designs. Kris Jackson offers the following: “Fortunately, analog mixing console design is a mature technology. Just like automobile design, the ergonomics have been refined and time-tested over many generations. This gives us a good starting point and imposes some practical limits on how far we can stray from the traditional and still make a successful product. Today, we also have the challenge of integrating nontraditional mixing console functions such as networking, effects plug-ins, hard disk recording and even workstation capabilities into the console itself.

“The good news with digital mixing console interfaces is that we are no longer locked into the limitations that analog circuitry imposed,” says Jackson. “The bad news is that we can now create products that are so nontraditional or different, that people are reluctant to buy them or to change their working methods to accommodate the capabilities of the new equipment. Figuring out how to balance the requirements for innovation, tradition and usefulness is the biggest challenge of digital interface design.”

When all is said and done, large-format digital console design will continue to draw on the experiences of the past while making forays into uncharted waters. As new models are introduced, users can expect to find an intriguing blend of the familiar and not so familiar. Like so many other products in our industry, evolution tends to be the dominant theme in terms of design.

Studer’s Michael Tapes offers this closing thought: “I suggest that we should not concern ourselves initially with how many layers, or how many functions per button, or how many screens, or how many nested menus there should be within a given design, but rather, what is our user trying to accomplish? Within a design, there may be some buttons that have only one function and others that have many. This is irrelevant. The critical question is, ‘Does the design as a whole allow the user to accomplish his or her tasks in an expedient manner, with enhanced creativity and minimum fatigue-all the while producing great sounding audio?’ In creating relevant digital console designs, we must concern ourselves with the sum of the parts, not the parts themselves.”