by Danny Maland
Back on June 14th, my posted blog (“Can't We Part This Out?”) dealt with the troublesome issue of being unable to find a mixing console that was the right fit for my needs. In a scenario right out of “Goldilocks,” every console I looked at was not quite what I needed. Not enough channels, not enough flexibility, far too much money to justify, missing that one key feature...you get the picture. A good visual metaphor would be that of an archer who just can't hit the center of the target. A grouping goes high, a grouping goes low, and a grouping even gets close – but still no cigar.
As this not-particularly-satisfying process of shopping wore on, three viable options emerged. Each option had significant imperfections. One option was the “safe” route. This option would involve the purchase of a single console that did not offer enough physical inputs, and so I wold still be forced to submix for larger events. It would essentially be a lateral move when all was said and done. The upside to this idea was that it had virtually no risk involved, but the downside was that it was really unsatisfying. Why spend the money on what should be an upgrade, but get pretty much no substantial upgrade at all?
A second option was technologically safe, but financially risky. Going down this path entailed cascading two “Option One” consoles to create one large mixing system. The great thing about this idea was that it had all the physical inputs required, was still transportable (especially because it could be broken down into separate consoles), and was a proven solution. The not-so-great part of this approach was that a large chunk of cash would have to paid out in the short term, followed by a period of financing for the remainder. Further, even after cascading I would still have to expand the master console to get the physical outputs needed.
The third option had substantial risk in both the areas of technology and finances, but it also had some interesting potential rewards. This option was the implementation of a mix system that is sold only as software. The hardware components are off-the-shelf pieces that are chosen and assembled according to the specific needs of each user. The technological risk is that of the system being unorthodox, and un-standardized. This isn't a tried-and-true console, or even one of those newfangled creatures that can run plugins intended for recording software. No, this is a solution that trades an integration of hardware and software engineering for a greater degree of hardware flexibility. If the hardware and software don't get along, there's no manufacturer to appeal to about the problem as a whole. What follows from this is a financial risk. If the system is just a flat-out boondoggle, then a good amount of money has been spent on a fruitless pursuit.
If the system does end up being workable, it has some great potential. It costs about as much as an “Option One” console, but requires no expansion or cascading to be sufficient in terms of I/O. It offers all the major features of those hardware consoles, including remote control. As a whole, it is also user serviceable. Anything that wears out can be replaced without a great deal of fuss, and without having to leave the assemblage at an authorized service center.
In a number of ways, this third option reminds me of the “X-Series” of aircraft used by the United States to push the boundaries of aerospace engineering. The potential performance is exciting and powerful, but it's not 100 percent proven. It's entirely possible that the whole thing could reach some invisible tipping point, smash itself to bits, and take its operator down with it.
If you're beginning to think that I might have decided to attempt the third option, then you would be correct. A question that might arise, though, is why any technician who considers himself even partially sane would decide in favor of a risky enterprise.
One part of the answer is that I have moral support and an escape plan. The work that I do most steadily is with a small music venue, and the owners are very enthusiastic about trying this sort of experiment. For them, the potential for an exciting addition to how shows are accomplished is inviting, and worth the risk of some bumps and bruises. The “escape plan” is that, if the experiment ultimately fails there are fallback options. My old console is hardly in an unusable state, and if push really came to shove, we have enough resources to restore our show production to full capability. Sure, there will be a financial hit involved, but that hit can be absorbed without permanent damage.
The second part of the answer takes the form of another question. This is a query that rises and falls in my mind, and usually is brought to the surface when trying to pick amongst a number of options that can't be clearly resolved. The question goes like this: Is this REALLY the only way of getting this done? Can this mold not be broken somehow? (I also tend to ask this question when I'm chafing under somebody telling me that their preferred solution is the best or only solution.)
When this kind of question arises in someone's mind, my belief is that it gives them a kick in the direction of experimentation – and experimentation is where a lot of excitement and wonder lies. I feel that, in almost all areas of audio, video, and lighting, there's this rather sad loss of that wonder and excitement. The tragic element is that the sense of “Wow, that's cool!” is what propels a lot of people to get involved in some part of the A/V field in the first place, and a lot of that initial fire gets quenched if that awe is replaced with an overabundance of calculated caution.
Now, don't get me wrong. Not going out on a limb at every opportunity is, I believe, a mark of maturity. Taking risks and pushing the envelope with no regard for the consequences can be a pretty juvenile thing. It can wreck careers and companies, no doubt about it. What I'm saying, though, is that I admire the folks who can mix “good ol' horse sense” with an ability to prod boundaries, try some things at various levels of zaniness, and just generally not accept that what everybody else is doing is the only way to “get it done.” I want to to be like those people when I grow up. I want to have a mature prudence, but I also want to be willing to accept that you sometimes have to break things to find out how they work.
So – let's have an adventure. I'm going to try building one of these rigs, and then I'm going to put it into the rough and tumble world of live sound reinforcement. By doing this, I'm certainly not endorsing this idea as a solution for your needs, nor am I necessarily recommending that you try this experiment yourself. What I am doing is inviting you along for a ride so you can form your own opinions about whether this whole business is intriguing – or just insane.
Strap yourselves in, folks, we're going for a ride in an X-Series aircraft.