Can’t We Part This Out?

by Danny Maland

  • I have a number of secret and not-so-secret wishes in my life, and one of those wishes is to be able to talk to gear manufacturers. Sometimes I want to compliment people on products that have really been great performers, and sometimes I want to grumble about a design choice that I can’t quite get my head around. (Really? Putting the handles there was the best choice? Did any average-sized people actually try to lift the prototype before you started the production run?)
  • I don’t know for certain if any equipment manufacturer will ever read this post. If none do, then I suppose there’s still the redeeming element of the rest of you getting an insight into what goes on in the heads of some audio techs. Or, maybe it’s just what goes on inside the head of this audio tech. I could be the only one who thinks this way, although I think there are others who might share my views. Maybe.
  • I have this dream. My dream is of a digital mixing system that is truly modular, and being so, allows me to spend money on only the things that I really want. In my dream, this mixing system has pricing essentially consistent with more commoditized offerings, instead of having costs in line with “vertical market” solutions. In short, I want a mass-market digital console that is super-customizable.
  • Why? Well, let’s have a bit of back-story first.
  • I chose a digital console to be my personal mixing workhorse because of an experience I had at school. The school had a couple of studio control rooms outfitted with large-frame analog desks, and a relatively recent addition of a “digital” control room sporting a pair of pretty-darn-compact digital consoles. I was highly impressed with how well the digital consoles competed with their larger and more expensive analog cousins in terms of functionality. I thought to myself, “this is the future, right here.” Whether or not the digital desks were top contenders in terms of sonic signature wasn’t an issue for me (and still isn’t), because that whole issue becomes a “game of inches” very quickly. At my level and context, tens of thousands of dollars to achieve a sonic result which is a matter of delicate taste is wasted capital, but an extra thousand or two to get big-desk features is a no-brainer.
  • When it came time, I jumped into the digital console revolution with both feet, and I haven’t been sorry. The features and flexibility of my little desk have gotten me all kinds of pleasing results, and I can’t imagine being without them. If my memory serves, the console has been in service for over seven years, and has done enough shows and events that its cost of ownership is under $10/ job. (That seems pretty good to me -I don’t know if anyone else out there would concur.) Because she’s a digital, though, that 7 years means that the ol’ girl’s a bit long in the tooth. My desk was purchased as it was nearing the end of its product life-cycle anyway, and it is a little bit behind in terms of its features. The wear and tear of live-sound work is beginning to show through more and more as the years pass, and the poor thing is starting to get some unsettling quirks.
  • Even if isn’t quite “buying time” right this minute, I decided that it was time to start shopping. This was where the rubber rather suddenly met the road, in terms of a desire for modularity.
  • You see, what I want in a console is present across several desks, but is not fully encapsulated in any of them.
  • One desk has all the channels and physical I/O that I want, but is rather larger and heavier than I need it to be. It also features a lot of proprietary digital I/O and machine control features that I don’t have any use for, and lacks the ability to be remotely operated (which I think is an important function to have). Another desk doesn’t have enough physical I/O without being expanded. Yet another has enough physical I/O, and a great interface, but not enough channels to do everything I want, and no remote control. Another has pretty much everything right, but costs about two and a half times more than what I can currently justify.
  • So on, and so on, and so on.
  • The thought occurred to me that I should look to see what offerings there were in terms of “DSP in a box” sorts of devices that feature I/O cards. I found a few units, but they didn’t have enough I/O to start with, didn’t really seem built around the idea of real-time control, and were at least as expensive as an actual mixing desk.
  • All of this got me thinking about what I really desire in a mixing system, and what it boils down to is that I want everything to be a-la-carte.
  • I want to be able to buy enough DSP to have full featured channel strips for all my inputs twice over (so I can run a virtual FOH and virtual monitor world), as well as for all my outputs. I should probably have an FX unit or two.
  • I want to buy input cards that come in blocks of four or eight. I do want those input units to have line-trims and mic preamps, because I don’t need anything “boutique.” Just give me clean gain, and I’ll be happy. I don’t mind a D-sub connector, as long as the breakout cable terminates in female XLR connectors.
  • I want to buy output cards that come in blocks of four or eight. I want to buy them separately from the inputs, because I don’t need a 1:1 I/O ratio.
  • I want to have remote control over ethernet. In fact, that’s the only control I want. I have no burning desire for a control surface other than what gets presented to me over a computer interface. I can be plenty swift with a keyboard and mouse, and my years on my old console have gotten me into a “one thing at a time” workflow anyway. I understand that some folks want to have all ten fingers on a console at all times, but that’s not how I do things. Hey, people can always buy fader and rotary encoder packs if they want ‘em. (Oh, and yes, the audio engine should still run if the control device crashes.)
  • I want this to not cost significantly more than just buying a “pre-packaged” offering. I want to save money by not buying the control-surface and unneeded I/O. This thing should expand all the way from the “little guy with ambitions” (like me), up to the guy doing big tours. If somebody is dying to spend $100,000+ on a mixing solution, I think they should be allowed. However, I would hope that the rest of us could get in without having to commit to paying something off for a decade.
  • Now then -I can understand some theoretical reasons why we haven’t seen this yet. Doing something like this would be a big risk for the established mixing console manufacturers. Audio professionals are used to more-or-less traditional mixing consoles, and trying to get folks to buy something totally modular might be a difficult sell. The monetary and time commitments to develop something like this aren’t trivial, and you’d have to bet a sizable chunk of the company on an idea like this to even make it fly at all. Profitability...well, that’s not assured.
  • Maybe this is one of those impossible dreams. Then again, some pretty “impossible” things have been done by dreamers with a good chunk of venture capital and a bit of pluck. Maybe this is the niche for a new manufacturer who wants a piece of the pro-audio market.