So far, there has been some resistance to digital consoles in live sound, especially at the monitor mix position. However, after using an all-digital console — the InnovaSon Sensory Compact Live — at last summer's Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Ore., I can confidently predict that all-digital boards will soon become a familiar sight on major tours worldwide.
I would compare the move to a digital desk to trading up from a typewriter to a word processor; after a short familiarization period, I found that the Compact Live's range of digitally enabled functions vastly increased my productivity. The ability to reset the entire board at the press of a button, assign onboard dynamic control without patching and copy parameters at will are features that any audio engineer would appreciate. And the sound quality is exemplary — A/D conversion is at 20-bit/48 kHz, audio processing is carried out as 32-bit floating-point calculations, and the D/A output converters are 24-bit. An internal power supply works with any AC supply between 100 and 240 volts, a range that covers all of the international standards.
The Compact Live offers all of the features of the InnovaSon's larger digital consoles (which include the Sensory Grand Live and the Large Scale), and runs the same Sensoft software. All of the Sensory Live Series consoles are based on InnovaSon's Muxipair 64-channel digital snake system, which can be run on a pair of co-ax cables over distances of up to 1,000 feet. Versions of the Compact Live offer a remote 7U stage box that is connected via co-ax cable measuring 450 feet or longer, depending on the wire.
Though Sensoft control software is common to all Sensory Live Series consoles, hardware configurations depend on the model. Unlike the larger InnovaSon boards, the Compact Live can have its input and output cards mounted in the back, making it a one-piece desk. The basic version houses four 8-channel input and two 8-channel output cards in the doghouse, for a total of 32 inputs and 16 outputs. Each XLR input has an LED that indicates signal present (green) or overload (red). In addition, a 25-pin D-connector on the signal processing card can accommodate eight line inputs. There is also a phantom-powered XLR talkback mic input on the back.
For larger stage setups, two Compact Live boards can be linked to create a 64-channel console. A 7-pin XLR cable links the mix buses from the first Compact Live to a second. That, in turn, can be linked to a third, for a total of 96 channels.
To provide digital control and automation features, the Compact Live has an internal Pentium CPU and includes a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive. The board can also be run from an outboard PC running Sensoft under MS-DOS. A keyboard with a built-in trackball pulls out from under the right side of the desk. This might temporarily unnerve a hands-on “analog guy,” but it is only needed during setup. All pre-production can also be done offline on another computer and copied over to the Compact Live, so there is rarely a need to use the keyboard during a show. The built-in, 12-inch, color LCD screen conveniently flips down for storage.
The Compact Live is aptly named — it is only 44 inches long and weighs 77 pounds. Although all of its electronics are built-in, the Compact Live only weighs about half as much as its bigger siblings, the Grand Live and the Large Scale, and is about two-thirds the length. My wife and I were easily able to load the board into the back of my van for the trip to the Britt Festival in southern Oregon, where I served as “house” monitor engineer.
When faced with a digital console for the first time, most of us are hesitant, to say the least, and Britt Festival sound vendor George Relles had sensibly provided a Yamaha PM4000M for the monitor mix position for several years. The 4k not only provided a familiar tool for visiting engineers, but it also acted as a good benchmark for the purposes of this review. Using a second split out of the stage box, I patched the first 32 stage inputs to the Compact Live and routed its 12 aux outputs to the 4k's subgroup inserts. Artists who brought their own monitor engineers used the 4k, while I practiced putting up mixes off to the side on a pair of JBL LSR25s. When I mixed monitors using the Compact Live, the 4k's subgroup inserts provided convenient access to all 12 monitor mixes.
Due to the high demand for the Compact Live, our demo board arrived with a French manual, which proved a blessing when the English version finally arrived. Anyone who has suffered through the English “translations” of Roland documents will not be surprised to learn that the InnovaSon manual is similarly taxing. However, any moderately computer-literate user will find the Compact Live intuitive and easy to operate. I had to refer to the manual only for the most complicated operations. After one day, I felt as if I'd been mixing on the Compact Live for months, and I used it for weeks without consulting the manual.
Much of the Compact Live's operating surface is immediately familiar. There are 32 input and 15 output motorized 100mm faders. Above each fader is a Cue button, a Channel Select switch and a 4-digit display, where a short name associated with the physical input or output patched to each fader is displayed. Above these are mute switches and LED meters for each channel.
The desk initially powers up with the physical inputs and outputs patched to the faders sequentially — input 1 appears on channel fader 1, output bus 1 appears at output fader 1, and so on. Inputs are labeled with the names that correspond to the card's slot letter and the XLR number on the card. These can easily be renamed by selecting each channel, hitting the F3 command key and typing in a meaningful (4-digit) name.
Above the inputs, on the left side of the console, are the controls for the processing functions of whichever input or output is selected: gain, highpass, compressor, gate, parametric EQ and delay. The compressor and gate functions are double-mapped and share controls. The outputs are provided with 8-band parametric EQ; their controls show up as two “pages” of 4-band EQ. This is where an engineer has to make the biggest adjustment from operating an analog console; using the same knobs to adjust parameters for each channel calls for a new pattern of eye-hand coordination. Not moving from one end of the desk to the other to “tweak” takes getting used to, but after a while, I found it possible to work quickly without taking my eyes off the stage.
One of InnovaSon's tag lines for the Sensory digital consoles is “The new way to watch sound,” and it is true that the Compact Live offers a lot of visual information that's not available with analog desks. Changes to processing parameters are instantaneously displayed on the 12-inch color LCD screen. Graphical representations of changes' effects in dynamics and EQ parameters are displayed along with the control positions and values. This visual feedback is both comforting and interesting.
The motorized faders also provide immediate feedback. Select an input and the mix buses that that input is assigned to light up, and their motorized faders move to indicate the input's level in each mix. Likewise, when a mix bus is selected, the inputs assigned to it light up and the faders jump to show the entire mix. It's much easier to scan a row of faders than a row of pots to check relative send levels to an effects send bus or a monitor mix.
The console offers several types of linking functions. Simply linking fader levels makes one fader follow another, with or without a level offset, a feature more or less equivalent to a VCA on an analog desk. Mutes can also be linked so that entire sections of the desk can be switched on or off at once. Channel strips can be linked to make stereo or multichannel controls operate in tandem.
Processing can also be linked across multiple input channels. The processing functions to be linked — gain, gate, compressor, EQ, delay — are simply selected via on-screen check boxes, and links are then made by means of a grid that can accommodate up to 40 links. These links can be made from the keyboard or by pressing the corresponding controls on the console surface. Only one link group per channel is permitted. Output processing can be similarly linked.
Copying one input (or output) to another (or several) is a simple 4-button process: Select, Copy, Select, OK. The range of parameters to be copied is confirmed in a Preferences screen with a check box for each type of control, so that only a particular section of the channel, such as the compressor or EQ, will be copied. The entire channel, including its patch and label, can be duplicated to another strip. The Request key allows the various functions to be visualized for the entire desk; for example, all channels that have phantom power turned on.
A function called OverRam allows changes made to a channel in one memory scene to be written to every song in the set list, useful for tweaking EQ during a song in soundcheck that you want changed for all the songs in the show that day. The system of files and scenes makes it easy to create a scene for each song in rehearsal and then assemble the scenes into a performance order. The desk is equipped for chasing or driving MIDI.
Because the Compact Live is a digital console, the values of the various parameters are not fully adjustable, but are somewhat quantized over the range of operation. For example, the low-cut choices are 40, 80, 120, 140, 160, 200, 240, 280, 300, 340 and 380 Hz, rather than the entire range of frequencies below 400 Hz. In the same way, the fully parametric EQ has a finite set of choices for frequency, cut/boost and width. At first, this seems limiting, but after getting used to it, it makes it easier to quickly make a decision and move on.
A headphone jack appears both on the back and under the armrest, and a flexible monitoring scheme allows the operator several cueing choices. Depending on the mode selected, the monitoring of individual channels can be “piled on” (cumulative AFL and PFL) or not (with Solo engaged or APL). The cue bus can be chosen to either follow the channel currently being operated on, or work independently of the Select function. Another feature is the ability to take the 16th output XLR and assign it to follow the mono master fader, allowing one to send the cue output to a reference wedge. This makes adjustment of a mono mix unavailable from the control surface, but this is an insignificant sacrifice for most stage monitoring applications.
Most Compact Live users will find little need for outboard gear; a few effects and crossovers for the speakers will be enough in most situations, due to onboard EQ, delay, gates and comps. The only drawback is a lack of sidechain EQ on the gate's key. Multi-act venues, especially clubs and houses of worship, will benefit from the ease of operation and resetability. List price of the basic Compact Live is $46,000; a version with the digital stage box option adds $14,000.
InnovaSon is distributed in the U.S. by Sennheiser, 1 Enterprise Drive, Old Lyme, CT 06371; 860/434-9190; www.innovason.com.
Mark Frink is Mix's sound reinforcement editor.