Digidesign Enters SR Market

Daly City, CA (September 14, 2004)--Digidesign shook up the world of studio electronics with this year's introduction of the ICON console system. Now Digidesign is poised to do the same to the Sound Reinforcement marketplace with the introduction of the VENUE digital live sound console.
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Daly City, CA (September 14, 2004)--Digidesign shook up the world of studio electronics with this year's introduction of the ICON console system. Now Digidesign is poised to do the same to the Sound Reinforcement marketplace with the introduction of the VENUE digital live sound console.

David Gibbons, director of product marketing for Digidesign, modestly says that while the 20 year old company is "reasonably well" positioned in their core business of music and post production, Digidesign was "looking for a way to expand and give us a growth path that would take us to the next decade." Of the "multi-adjacent" markets with potential to provide that growth, the live sound business "seemed like a good fit for our technological capabilities as well as the fact that we had a few people within the company who understood the business and the market reasonably well." As the recent purchase of M-Audio by Digidesign parent Avid allows growth in the home recording market, the introduction of the VENUE affords entry into the major touring and installed sound reinforcement console category.

Neither price nor feature set was first off Gibbons lips when he was asked what Digidesign could uniquely bring to the live sound market: "I hope that what we’re bringing is an unmatched sound quality for digital live sound," he told Pro Sound News in an exclusive interview. "There are companies that have done a tremendous job making great sounding analog live consoles and it seems like there’s still a gap in the market, despite the presence of a number of digital alternatives, for a really terrific sounding digital live console."

Distribution of the VENUE, slated to begin shipment in January 2005, will also take Digidesign into new territory. "We are intending to develop a new channel for our live products," says Gibbons, who adds that while there are no other SR products to announce at present, as the line evolves "it will make more sense for us to have an entirely dedicated distribution channel. We still have many details to work out, but we expect to be using some combination of exclusive distributors overseas and possibly utilizing a rep network in the USA. So it will be all new for Digi, as is appropriate considering the new customer base and domain-expertise required." VENUE enters the market at an aggressive price point that begins around $40,000; models with 48 mic inputs on stage can be configured from the low $50,000s.

The VENUE SR desk was developed on a parallel path with Digidesign’s new ICON integrated production console and DAW. "We knew that we’d be able to share some technology between both products since they’d both be large control surface products," said Gibbons. But, he is quick to add that the products are quite independent and different. Unlike ICON, VENUE does not run in conjunction with Digidesign’s Pro Tools software. "We knew that the Pro Tools application was not the right starting point for a product that would make live sound possible," says Gibbons, "and therefore we started from scratch architecturally with a new piece of software that was built from the ground up for reliability and for the kind of functionality that you’d want from a live product." Nor does VENUE use the same hardware interfaces and DSP engines as other Digidesign products, but is built around a dedicated computer running Windows XP Embedded, a customizable version of XP designed for application specific computing. "That gives you the kind of latitude you need to be able to make an extremely high reliability product because you can eliminate parts of the operating system that aren’t essential to the services you’re trying to provide." Gibbons explains. With XP Embeded, Digidesign could control boot time, prioritize processes, and protect the console operation from other software that might run on the system.

Significantly, VENUE’s architecture allows the use of third party plug-ins developed for Pro Tools, with close compatibility to the DAW versions. "We didn’t want to break compatibility for our developer community because that would mean asking them to go back and redo everything," Gibbons elaborates. "So with very few exceptions all those plug ins have installer versions available that are designed to install for live sound." VENUE utilizes the same family of Motorola DSP processors as Pro Tools, with 24-bit resolution on I/O. "Elsewhere within the console, there’s a 48 bit channel path which ensures that you can be relatively careless, for want of a better word, with your headroom…in the studio you have some opportunity to plan your gain structure in the channel, but the opportunity is usually denied you in the live sound world."

The converter and interface package for VENUE were designed specifically for live sound. While the Pro Tools HD interface line is built on separate components, Gibbon says, "We wanted to provide an all-in-one remote control mic pre amp and analog stage plus converter. [Also] we wanted to make sure that we had the right analog front end matched to the kind of performance characteristics that you require for live sound. That means, for example, a greater emphasis on protection from external and unknown voltages, or greater resistance to noise on a ground cable." Combining all the desired functions in a single package also served to save rack space and reduce costs.

Worst case latency on the Venue is expected to be three to four milliseconds. "That would be analog to analog and that includes a round trip from the stage where the remote control pre amps are located through our digital snake system to the mixing engine which is where the engineer would be working and back again," says Gibbons. The proprietary digital snake system runs on coax cable. "We wanted to come up with something that was well suited to the demands of live sound environments, that could handle the sort of potential differences you can get between stage and mix position power supplies, that can reject noise and, in the kind of electrically harsh environments you sometimes find in live sound applications, that give us a low latency, high reliability and most of all, a redundant cable path. So you can join the stage rack to the mix engine with two sets of cables and have it automatically switch over from one to the other if one cable fails."

As for VENUE’s control surface, Gibbons says that people who’ve seen ICON���s D-Control will "spot a few similarities," though the VENUE D-Show surface is purpose designed. "We wanted the control surface to be designed from the perspective of ‘what do people need when they’re mixing live sound?’ as opposed to what would be used in the studio. We’ve spent a lot of time reviewing the design with people who are involved with different types of live sound including theatre and touring, music production and people who do corporate events and fixed installation. I think for live sound the emphasis is very much more on getting an overview back from the console, visual feedback, and making sure that you can kind of tell at a glance that your mix is about right or that things are configured or routed the way that you expect them."

The control surface blends the highly centralized approach of some digital desks with the more channel bank oriented approach of others. "We have gone with the fairly well established model now of bringing the selected channel to a central master section," Gibbons explains, "adding all the parameters for that channel and the master section. Then we’ve combined that, where it made sense to us, with being able to get the kind of horizontal overview that you get from seeing what lots of aux sends on a single aux bus are doing for example. To be able to do that combination, I think maybe that’s where we depart from the others."

Sheldon Radford, Digidesign’s live sound product manager says that the approach "will be very familiar to analog engineers who at a glance want to see what’s going on with their mix. There’s a ton of meters on every input channel just so you can see what your compressor, gates, etc. are doing. We give them a lot of visual feedback as to what’s going on within the channel strip as well as their overall mix."

The console offers a layered topology for the channel banks, with a maximum of four layers deep. The layout is flexible. "You can choose from how deep you want to go in layering versus how much control surface real estate you would want to have," says Gibbons, while emphasizing that the control surface is expandable even after purchase, much as their studio products like ProControl can be reconfigured. The minimum configuration is 34 faders, Radford elaborates, "24 input faders, then there are your eight assignable output faders that cover your groups or VCAs, then there’s a main fader and there’s also a fader for the selected channel. Not only do you get the channel controls, your Aux sends, your EQs, you also get that fader mirrored on the center part of the console as well so you can really drive your mix right from one standing position." The maximum configuration allows 56 input faders accommodating up to 96 mic inputs from stage and 32 additional inputs from internal or external effects. VENUE’s matrixing capabilities include the ability to route any input to any channel, and an input channel can be dynamically remapped to any fader at will.

Automation on the VENUE is "all focused on providing snapshot recall automation, says Gibbons. "We’ve made sure that the snapshot automation system can also send external media messages and receive them to help you integrate them with other gear that you need to use or have it be controlled or triggered by other gear. You can also trigger it from general purpose inputs to allow it to be integrated with lighting or other show control types." MIDI time code cues can be used to trigger snapshots or events, including mute group and VCA master automation, but Digidesign deliberately avoided the depth of automation found in their studio products.

"Our approach is to tread carefully and not assume that we know exactly what people are after and that we know how to provide it for them," says Gibbons, though emphasizing the amount of research that was undertaken. "We did spend a lot of time trying to refine [VENUE] with people to make sure that we had gotten what most people would want from a live product. I think we’ll get a lot more feedback and we’re all ears about that because we’re committed to the marketplace."

As with automation, panning capabilities have been kept conservative, at least initially. " We didn’t fill it up for surround in the first version of the software because the research that we did with theatre people, who are the ones who use surround most, said that they preferred to mix the surround elsewhere--in fact often on Pro Tools--and come up with a matrix input that has the surround that they want. And then they send it out through a pretty nonstandard speaker configuration so they don’t feel like they can be tied down to 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, anything like that. They felt like what they really needed extensive matrix capability and the ability to bring in a pre mix that can then address whatever matrix speaker system is installed for the application. And that’s what we went for. We’ve got pretty deep matrix capability in the products."

The VENUE’s DSP is assignable to some degree, allowing an emphasis on plug-in processing, or using the same DSP to allow more input channels, for example. Additional DSP cards can be added to the system to extend the capabilities. Dedicated channel processing functions is another departure from a Pro Tools style of operation. "When you run a Pro Tools mixer it comes up with channels that have plug-ins capability but they have no inherent EQ or dynamics control," explains Gibbons. "This product is different. Every channel has its own dedicated four band EQ plus the high pass filter and a compressor gate and expander limiter on each channel. That’s standard processing built into the product that can then add up to five plug ins--four software plug ins and one hardware insert."

As for the latencies inherent digital processing, and to the potential compounding delay effects of adding plug-ins to a path, Gibbons says VENUE has automatic delay compensation to "take care of the most frequently encountered problems that people can run into with digital mixing. Hopefully that’ll save people a little bit of head scratching. When you put in plug-ins, the result can be very variable depending upon what the plug-in’s doing. [Sometimes] short enough that it’s kind of hardly noticeable and sometimes it’s long enough that you would want to do something to time align. Every channel has some delay that’s user discretionary so you can decide if you want to time align that channel with other channels on the console." Timing is "a real sound quality issue so we totally wanted to be sure we paid attention to it," he adds.

Digidesign’s Pro Tools is already finding a home in more live sound situations, from concert recording to the playback of pre-recorded tracks. From that experience, VENUE was designed for integration with DAW functions. Gibbons calls it a "potentially huge topic because people want to do so many different things. We wanted to make sure that there was a way for people to connect to TDM systems since a lot of people are actually taking TDM systems on the road to do recordings or to do playback to supplement the performance. We also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t necessarily as expensive as buying a TDM system to get into it. We came up with essentially a two pronged approach.

One is a TDM record link which allows you to plug a TDM system directly into the console and bypass the interfaces that you’d normally go through, so in that case it’s the cable that runs from the console directly to the DSP card fitting in your Pro Tools TDM computer. We believe it’s going to be a 96-channel pathway. And that’s the kind of solution for people who want to capture everything that’s coming off stage, to have a recording they can remix later. The other approach is where you get a laptop or desktop that runs Pro Tools LE and install a FireWire option into the console that allows you to record 18 tracks when we ship the console and 32 tracks later on when we upgrade the software. That’s the kind of board tape solution where you just want to capture some of the matrix mixes or some of the input channels that are important along with some of the group buses. The appeal with that one is you can take the laptop on the bus with an M Box, listen back to it, edit it, make some quick recordings for the band to review, be able to produce a less comprehensive recording but very quickly and inexpensively. For the playback guys if you’re starting from a Pro Tool session, if that’s where the elements that you need to add into your live performance are actually coming from, then it’s real easy to take that Pro Tool session, even if it’s TDM, down mix it and drop out the elements that you don’t need to reproduce and then take that TDM session and play it back into the console over the same FireWire link."

Reliability was a major concern for the VENUE design team, including the redundancy in the digital snake, redundant power supplies for major components with auto sensing and auto switchover and heads up status display on the screen, the flexibility of the processing cards (where the same cards can be repurposed between channel and console processing) and allowing inputs to be redistributed across control surface elements should one element fail. Both the hardware and software were designed from the ground up for live applications. Unlike most other digital control system, Gibbon says that VENUE allows control to continue even in the event of a control computer failure. "Most digital consoles have application software that controls their operations. If the application software fails, then usually the user is shut out from the user interface including the faders and the mutes and the controls on the panel of the console. In our case, we spent a lot of time making sure that even if the motherboard that’s running the application were to completely fail, you can still carry on mixing because the faders and the mutes can communicate directly with the mix engine."