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Digidesign Product Manager Live Sound Sheldon Radford On The VENUE Live Sound Environment

Daly City, CA (September 16, 2004)--Digidesign’s VENUE is the culmination of nearly three years of intense research and development, and represents a strong commitment to furthering the state of the art in live sound utilizing a systems-oriented approach. We are using the term "Live Sound Environment" to describe the various "building blocks" that make up this system, and envisage ongoing development of a series of products that can be interconnected digitally in larger systems and other applications in the future.

Daly City, CA (September 16, 2004)–Digidesign’s VENUE is the culmination of nearly three years of intense research and development, and represents a strong commitment to furthering the state of the art in live sound utilizing a systems-oriented approach. We are using the term “Live Sound Environment” to describe the various “building blocks” that make up this system, and envisage ongoing development of a series of products that can be interconnected digitally in larger systems and other applications in the future.

VENUE consists of the D-Show mixing console with its expandable digital mix engine, an embedded computer running custom D-Show control software, a multi-channel digital snake, and remote-controlled, stage-end inputs and outputs. The system is further complemented by a number of options and accessories, including fully integrated Pro Tools recording solutions. The various pieces of the VENUE system can be used separately (in future applications) or work together as a tightly integrated live sound mixing system.

Far from being a simple re-work of existing digital workstation and control surface technologies, VENUE was purpose-built to address the challenges inherent to live sound, often requiring the development of new technologies in order to achieve the desired level of sound quality, reliability and affordability.

During VENUE’s development, Digidesign conducted extensive interviews and focus groups, and also garnered direct feedback from key sound reinforcement professionals using prototype systems in order to ensure that we fully addressed industry concerns about what was required from a live mixing system.

In talking with industry professionals one is often left with the impression that digital mixing consoles involve a trade-off between flexibility and sound quality. For example, the ability to recall an entire console’s worth of settings at the touch of a button might outweigh a less than stellar EQ or dynamics section. In designing VENUE, the focus was on delivering all of the convenience and flexibility of a digital mixing system, while providing the best possible audio performance and fidelity, in both the analog and digital domains.

This commitment to quality sound starts on stage with a high quality, remote-controlled mic preamp based on the input stage of Digidesign’s acclaimed PRE peripheral for Pro Tools|HD. This design was further enhanced to protect against the unpredictable mic split and phantom powering arrangements often encountered in a live setting, and each balanced input is hand-trimmed during manufacture to maximize common mode noise rejection.

The analog signal is captured using the latest, low-latency A/D converters and passes via a digital snake to D-Show’s powerful DSP mix engine. Internal 48-bit processing throughout the signal path offers maximum resolution for channel EQ and dynamics functions, and uncompromised headroom for mix busses. The built-in EQ is switchable to a special “analog” mode, which accurately emulates the sonic characteristic of a renowned live sound console.

The D-Show console’s mix engine is unique in that it directly supports the use of software DSP plug-ins, which can essentially replace racks of traditional outboard processing with custom algorithms and hardware emulations. The plug-in DSP architecture is nearly identical to that used in Digidesign’s Pro Tools|HD system, allowing the mix engineer to use many of their favorite Pro Tools|HD Accel plug-ins. This makes it easy to faithfully re-create unique studio effects in a live setting and allows third party developers to expand the platform with new and creative tools specific to live sound.

As the path from microphone to speaker becomes increasingly digitized, latency (the processing delay inherent to digital signal processing) becomes less of a buzz word and more of a real concern. After evaluating a number of commercially available multi-channel audio protocols it was decided that a proprietary digital snake solution was needed in order to meet the stringent demands of low latency and high reliability.

VENUE’s digital snake system uses proven technology from the telecom industry in conjunction with a custom FPGA (digital logic) design to transport up to 48 channels bi-directionally between the stage and the mix position. Latency due to snake transmission is less than 100 microseconds (millionths of a second), with an overall system latency from input to output of only 2.3 milliseconds for a typical 48-channel system. The snake uses small diameter co-axial cable and BNC connectors for a reliable, cost-effective, and field-serviceable solution. In the event of a catastrophic cable failure, the system instantaneously and inaudibly switches over to an optional, redundant cable.

Speaking of reliability, in the unlikely event that the D-Show console’s control computer needs to be restarted, VENUE allows the mix engineer to maintain full control of all channel faders and mutes at all times – this is a unique feature that can make people a lot more comfortable about moving to a digital system – we make sure that you never lose control of the mix.

Considering the costs involved with rehearsing and staging a modern production, overall system reliability and stability become key factors when selecting equipment. A proven means of improving system reliability and “up” time is to adopt a modular design approach, creating a large, complex system from multiple smaller subsystems. By minimizing dependencies between these various subsystems, portions of the system can fail and recover without taking down the entire system.

VENUE-specific hardware examples of this modular approach include: I/O cards which can be easily swapped or replaced; optional redundant power supplies for all major components; and a flexible mix engine design which allows DSP cards to be repurposed from plug-in processing duties to core mixing functions in the event of a failure. Even the D-Show mixing console is modular, allowing inputs to be re-assigned to the remaining channel strips should a portion of the control surface fail.

For any piece of live sound equipment to be considered roadworthy it must be able to stand up to the daily rigors of travel, load-in, set-up, and tear down. To better understand these stresses and operating environments a data recorder was mounted in a 19″ rack panel and sent on tour for a month with a leading touring act. The resulting shock, vibration, temperature, and humidity data was analyzed and incorporated into extensive environmental testing prior to sending prototypes out on the road for real world abuse. Interestingly, the data recorder experienced its roughest handling not at the hands of a local crew anxious to finish the load out, rather prior to the tour’s start when it was shipped cross-country with a well known courier company!

The D-Show control software was developed exclusively for VENUE, and was architected from the start to make extensive use of modularity. The various software tasks (on-screen graphics, control communications) are each treated as separate processes and can fail and be restarted automatically without disrupting the audio path.

Much of the appeal to using digital consoles is their ability to do more than simply process audio, and features that improve workflow are especially welcome in a time of shrinking production budgets. VENUE’s innovative Personal Q (PQ) system consists of wired remote controllers which communicate directly with the D-Show mix engine, allowing performers to adjust the relative level and stereo placement of elements in their monitor mix. In situations where the gig doesn’t support the luxury of having a separate monitor mixer, the front of house engineer simply sets up the starting monitor mix and is then free to focus on other tasks while the performers fine-tune their individual mixes. .

Digital consoles are becoming commonplace in live sound, and it’s apparent that the divisions between traditional mixing functions, speaker processing, system analysis, recording, and show control are beginning to blur. The future is exciting indeed, and Digidesign is dedicated to furthering this vision while maintaining the highest possible standards of quality and reliability.