Touchscreen Mixing in HOW Environments

by Strother Bullins. 2015 marks the availability of a wider, broader range of touchscreen-based mixing products for live sound applications—products especially well-suited for house-of-worship (HOW) applications.
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2015 marks the availability of a wider, broader range of touchscreen-based mixing products for live sound applications—products especially well-suited for house-of-worship (HOW) applications.

Why should touchscreens prove to be especially helpful to HOW end users, you ask? It’s an amalgamation of several factors, including the ubiquitous familiarity of touch consumer products and their prevalence in the marketplace—think tablets and smartphones with their wireless capabilities and evolved GUIs—and the near-limitless possibilities of sophisticated routing and networking features of easily-upgradable modern audio mixing software.

As the editor of Pro Audio Review—now incorporated into each issue of Pro Sound News—I’ve reviewed and researched quite a collection of HOW-friendly touch mixers or mixers offering iOS, Windows and/or Android compatibility. Let’s look closer at the appeal of these now-shipping products and why one of them could be your HOW’s ultimate mixing solution.

PREVALENCE AND FAMILIARITY

The hardware component of Mackie’s latest DL Series iOS-based digital mixing platform, the DL32R. Even more than a year ago—in January 2014, as reported by an official Pew Research Center poll—50 percent of Americans already owned an iOS/Android tablet or e-reader. Considering that a year prior, the percentage was approximately 35 percent, it’s a reasonable guess that a sizable majority of Americans now own devices that can download mix apps from Mackie, PreSonus or others that provide features rivaling traditional analog and digital mixers potentially costing thousands of dollars—just add hardware. Further, touchscreens are found nearly everywhere in the modern marketplace: grocery stores, banks/ATMs, restaurants, etc. Whether they are tablet-based or embedded in proprietary systems, consumers are generally familiar with how to use a touchscreen.

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With this kind of market saturation, non-professional pro audio users—the kind of volunteers that comprise most HOW audio teams—are poised to learn touchscreen mixing techniques and, in many cases, will even bring their work-surface home with them after the service for additional practice and research.

Further, the fact is touchscreen GUIs have been found in pro audio products, especially mixers, for quite a while now—but alongside traditional faders and knobs, too. Only recently has completely touchscreen mixing become a reality, which is what we’re largely addressing here.

FEATURES

QSC’s TouchMix-16 combines an embedded touchscreen mixer with key buttons and faders. From the high-channel count of Mackie’s latest DL Series iOS-based digital mixing platform, the DL32R ($1,999 street), to Harman’s new small, HTML5-operable Ui Series—uniquely allowing app-free mixing on any WiFi-enabled device—options abound. The touchscreen marketplace now more closely resembles the options available to HOWs in traditional mixers, just at a lower price point across the board when considering built-in effects and routing features.

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Still, most pro audio users will attest that using physical faders and knobs “feels right.” That means the challenge faced by manufacturers is to emulate this vibe as closely as possible on a touchscreen interface, knowing that the scale of application, price and details such as the technical knowledge of the user can make a touchscreen model a more viable solution.

That said, a notable (and exceptional) product is QSC’s compact TouchMix Series featuring a built-in touchscreen mixer combined with the necessary I/O, preamp pots, key physical input buttons as well as recording features and comprehensive iPad remote control. When reviewed in PSN’s January 2015 issue, contributor Morten Støve literally hopped around the globe on a pro-level jazz tour while completely depending on a TouchMix-16, “a 16-channel digital console with practically everything you can imagine built-in,” he noted. “For what you get, the Touch- Mix-16’s price [$1,299 street] is amazing. I will be travelling with the Touchmix16 where ever I go from now on.” Notably, Støve used the iPad app in every venue.

Of course, not every live mixer will embrace flat-screen mixing. “Mixing at FOH for a big festival or large venue will not be done solely on a touchscreen anytime soon,” poses Sean Karpowicz, product manager of Soundcraft’s Ui Series, with the recently unveiled Ui 16 ($549 street) as the flagship model. “Faders and pots are what experienced engineers want and need, frankly. You have to be fast and completely in control and touchscreen GUIs, for now, can’t deliver this in the same way faders and pots can. However, we do find that, for some small tours and venues, bands are choosing to mix their own monitors using touchscreen GUIs. Then, as you move away from touring and towards installations to portable PA, tablet mixing gets more acceptable.”

Soundcraft’s Ui 16 allows app-free mixing on any WiFi-enabled tablet. Karpowicz notes that touchscreens are increasingly accepted in HOW-type environments because of the flexibility and portability they provide; that acceptance is also related to modern users’ familiarity with DAWs, tablets and touchscreens, especially amongst millennial musicians and engineers—and those same users’ unfamiliarity with mixing consoles and signal flow. “Because of the flexibility and portability, we see the Ui Series really finding a home where musicians have to do their own sound; they are the big winners with the Ui Series. That’s why we put in Digitech Amp modeling and dbx AFS (Advanced Feedback Suppression) as well. Now those users don’t need to bring along a guitar amp or worry about feedback; ringing out monitors is not an easy thing to do for non-professionals.”

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Such features allow both “portachurches” and smaller churches—those thousands across America with congregations of less than 300 and proportionally smaller budgets—to add more user-friendly products purchased at retail when pro A/V contractors and the products they install are beyond their financial reach.

WIRELESS FREEDOM

In multiple product demonstrations over the past year or so, “wireless freedom” has been specifically referenced as a feature for those wireless touchscreen mixing in HOWs. Wi-Fi in churches is also more of a rule than an exception today, too, so the infrastructure is already in place for untethered mixing.

Even large, well-funded HOWs have notoriously suffered from bad mix positions over the years, as placing the engineer in an ideal spot is often an aesthetic no-no. Now the engineer can sit in an ideal mix position and/or roam to insure good coverage and sound around the sanctuary. Or, as church culture is inherently family-oriented, benefits can be as simple as audio staff members sitting with their loved ones while doing their job.

PreSonus’ RM16AI with a Windows 8 touch CPU—currently the largest surface available for live touch mixing. Wireless mixing also means that the mixer’s necessary hardware—I/O and so on—can reside anywhere, too; most likely, it’s best placed on “stage,” behind the pulpit, or with the praise band. Further, products such as the iOS-dependent DL Series and PreSonus’ StudioLive Series—both the initial “console” versions and the latest touch-controlled RM Series version (RM16AI at $1,399 street) via large screen Windows 8 touch CPUs or iOS—allow the band to mix themselves via free monitor mix software via Apple’s AppStore, too. That’s freedom, indeed.

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SOPHISTICATED ROUTING AND NETWORKING

In review, one of the most compelling attributes of Mackie’s DL32R was in its comprehensive routing and networking features, especially useful for HOWs. Beyond its 32-channel mixes, complete with multi-track recording and playback, up to 10 iOS-device controlled personal monitor mixes, and 6 matrix busses (providing auxiliary mixes for extra listening spaces such as outside club decks, church nursery cry rooms and so on), it provides a flexible patching matrix and AoIP (Audio Over Internet Protocol) capabilities via Dante compatibility.

“There are a couple of immediate benefits, of course,” notes Ben Olswang, Mackie senior product manager of the 32R’s advanced features and their usefulness in a HOW environment. “Any computer on the network, anywhere in the venue, can pop on there and record channels right off of a Dante network. In a church that has a dedicated record room elsewhere, users can record off of that network. Also, this all opens the door for incorporating other new Dante products into an audio system. In a church that has a Dante-enabled amplifier system, the DL32R allows users to link the mixer with those products—the new wireless Dante microphones in the marketplace, for one example.”