AMS Neve has been in the digital console business for over 25 years. Its first offering was unveiled to the stunned pro audio industry in 1980, and the firm continues to innovate its range of offerings. But there is one market segment that has eluded not only AMS Neve but its competitors: large-format digital music recording. For reasons too varied to be covered in detail here, the commercial recording industry has been reluctant to move from analog to digital. Sure there are a few studios with heavy silicon investments, but because of familiarly with the analog paradigm and latency issues during tracking and overdub dates – not to mention the advent of powerful DAWs with inboard mixing engines – digital music consoles are thin on the ground.
To meet this challenge AMS Neve recently the 88D Music Production Console. It combines the same basic control surface level as utilized on the 88R analog board, with full assignability and layer control utilized on the firm’s range of Capricorn, Logic, DFC, MMC and other digital mixers. So, in a word, the 88D offers analog familiarly with the processing power, assignable control, user flexibility, system integration and full recall we expect from digital architectures. Its modular hardware is fully software configurable and can be expanded to accommodate different projects.
The 88D combines a 40-bit/floating-point DSP engine providing 1,000 signal paths at a 96 kHz sampling rate, with classic-sounding 1073, 1081 and Air Montserrat mic preamplifiers for acquisition, plus a dedicated 7.1 surround monitor section and Encore Plus mix automation that is fully compatibility with DFC Gemini, 88RS, MMC and Libra systems. And, realizing that if you cannot beat them join them, external DAWs can be accessed and controlled directly from Encore – Pro Tools and Nuendo via HUI and Pyramid via Oasis protocols provide an enhanced mix environment. Multimachine control (MMC) also is included. And for enhanced audio resolution, the recently introduced SHD (Super Hi Definition) I/O modules provide 384 kHz A/D and D/A conversion – ideal choices for high-end music recording and mixing, the 88D’s target market.
Of specific note, the 88D includes is a digitally controlled analog monitoring unit that – it can be argued – offers a more familiar sound; either way, the Monitor Facilities Rack offers very flexible stem summing for music for film-style mixing and control of multiple sets of surround loudspeakers. All in all, it’s a console with analog sensibilities linked to digital flexibility; I can see its being ideal for music recording and mix down, plus music production and live-to-air.
Usefully, routing buttons and companion displays are offered on each channel strip, in addition to a central position, so that you can work either way. And when you are working in the sweet spot, a bank of assignable faders within the center section make life a lot easier. The basic topology is fixed at four layers of operation, with snapshots of fader Layouts arranged in six banks; each fader can be operated in mono, stereo or surround mode, reducing on-surface clutter.
The 88D comprises five main components: a mixer control surface, a digital processing engine, I/O racks, a monitor rack and a PC to handle system automation. The basic control surface can be supplied with between 24 and 72 faders; the four-layer topology normally comprised two main layers and two sublayers of system inputs. Each channel strip features a conventional motorized fader plus a Logicator that can be set as small fader for second-layer inputs. A flip switch swaps the second input between the main fader. But, as will be obvious, the layout of signal paths is fully customizable, with channels, groups, aux masters and other controls assignable anywhere on the surface. The resultant six user-configurable layouts can be stored and recalled.
The 88D processing system employs the firm’s XSP modular DSP cards that handle signal processing, mixing and routing, and connects to one or two analog-digital I/O rack via MADI ports. The system can be configured to accommodate a range of formats, including 24-bit mic and line level converters and AES/EBU I/O. The use of MADI dramatically streamlines connectivity via routers, digital multitracks, etc. During system setup, I/O routing can be configured in any combination of analog and digital audio sources and destinations via a built-in digital patch bay. The digitally controlled monitor rack provides stem summing, control of multiple surround speaker sets and return talkback. Encore Plus uses a standard Windows XP shell for project management, console setup and storage/recall of configuration files and automation data.
While all DSP assignments are, by the nature of the beast, totally soft, the 88D ships with basic configurations that set a four-band EQ, high and low-pass filters plus a DRC compressor/expander for all main input channels. I like the full flexibility that the DSP engine can be reassigned on the fly, without full recompile, meaning that channels and outputs – including groups and aux sends – can be modified from mono thru stereo to surround, dependent upon what assets have been reassigned to the surface and I/O topology.
Flexible Control Surface
The 88D incorporates an extremely user-friendly control surface. Channel functions are easy to locate, with plenty of visual feedback of system status. The layering paradigm allows multiple input channels to be commanded from a compact layout – or from more channels if you need a lot of on-surface controls; it’s your choice. The six user-defined desk layouts can each contain up to two main layers and two further sublayers. In addition to functioning as rotary “small fader” to a second layer, each Logicator – a rotary encoder with integral LED position display within the knob body – also can be assigned to any fader-path control, such as mic gain and aux send.
Each channel strip is divided into an upper and lower section. The upper section handles parameter and routing control via eight touch-sensitive Logicators per fader, arranged as two groups of four assigned to the EQ, filters, dynamics, and other processes plus channel-by-channel gain control of I/O, inserts and aux controls. (Usefully, the LED color changes according to the function being controlled.) The routing array handles assignment of channels to Mains, Aux Busses, Groups and Track outputs, multistem routing during surround mixing. All controls are clearly labeled and easy to locate; after a couple of minutes’ use the operational philosophy becomes very obvious, and you pick up speed and agility. (Very usefully, a reverse-routing mode enables the user to determine how the various output busses are being used, and from where.)
The lower fader area contains essential channel and signal path controls plus status displays, ranging from signal present indicators, dynamic metering, cut and solo buttons, pan and a user-definable display strip. Uniquely, the 88D comes equipped with P&G digital faders that feature two scales: a normal level – adjustment scale with 10 dB gain, and a trim scale for creating VCA-style offsets. Companion LEDs indicate the current processing mode being displayed by the channel’s bank of Logicators, and also mono or stereo mode plus selection.
Although the 88D’s design philosophy enables the operator to access routing and processing controls at the channel strip level – great for setting up I/O assignments methodically as you work your way left-to-right (or right-to-left) across the surface, maybe copying settings across multiple sources – there is no denying that assignabliity from a central position is one of the major appeals for all-digital designs. And here the 88D shines. The AFU – or Assignable Facilities Unit, to use AMS Neve’s quaint BritSpeak nomenclature – offers full channel signal processing controls that can be assigned to any I/O signal path. All controls are divided into clearly marked areas, and an alphanumeric display in the middle of the section shows precise control settings and the path name that the section is assigned to. Assignable faders within the center section can be assigned to any signal path, including channels, groups, mains/masters, auxiliaries or track sends/returns. Automation mode switches enable fast access to various options.
Given the increasing impact of surround technologies, the 88D’s multichannel joystick panners and multistem routing system enables the creation of multiple simultaneous mixes, including discrete dialog, music and effects stems, versions for international-language film releases, and in different surround formats – LCRS, Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby EX, SDDS and IMAX. A separate Joystick Module features a pair of independent controls that enables assigned sources to be moved in a horizontal plane around the assigned multitrack outputs; all dynamic pans and simultaneous object movements are automated to sub-frame accuracy. An optional multimachine transport-control option can command six machines directly via 9-pin ports, and expanded to 33 machines using Synchronet ES/2.
The 88D’s output assignments can only be described as comprehensive. As well as conventional output busses, including groups, aux sends and monitors, a total of 48 stem recorder busses are split into six arrays, A thru F, for generating, for example, multiple 5.1-channel dialog, backgrounds, music, hard and supplemental effects submixes. All user controls for setting up stem mixes are easy to develop, and monitoring multiple component M&Es, for example, is a snap.
Talking of the Monitor Matrix, here we see tangible evidence of AMS Neve’s concern about using digital technology where it is appropriate – assignability and total automation – but reserving high-resolution analog for the console’s 7.1-channel monitor sections, which control in-context playback of three surround stems with independent level adjustment. The section offers routing and control for three sets of independent surround monitor speakers, with level and dim; usefully, a single button controls routing of LCSRs surround elements into the front loudspeakers.
For metering, the 88D is equally well-endowed. In addition to signal-present indicators on each fader that also show dynamics activity, a bank of TFT screens display bargraph meters plus graphic displays of EQ, dynamics, surround pan and AMS Neve’s WavTrak – this latter providing visualization of signal status across the entire console. Metering and graphics are provided locally or globally across all channel paths, groups, tracks and mains/masters. The 88D’s Ancillary Meter Display offers instant display of all principal signal paths and monitoring points. An operator can access specific paths either independently or linked to the main console monitoring.
As might be expected, the onboard AMS Neve Encore Plus dynamic automation system handles all mix controls, including faders, panners, EQ, dynamics and aux sends. The firm’s “Menu-Free Mixing” lets you replay the source materials and just mix; the seamless integration of easy-to-find, touch-sensitive Logicator controls and motorized faders streamlines the creative process. From Flying Faders onwards, AMS Neve has enjoyed an enviable reputation for transparent integration of automation, with a long progeny of analog and digital console topologies. Nice to see that the 88D does not let the team down. User modes include Lock Record – controls replay any existing automation while the transport runs, storing a new version of the mix each time the control is pressed – plus Autoglide and Touch Record, the latter being most useful for making smaller changes and fixes to a mix without overwriting existing automation data.
As I discovered, the 88D is extremely easy to set up and master using Desk Edit and Path Edit applications – maybe an unsurprising conclusion, given the design’s previous incarnations and development pedigree. And that is just the beginning. The proprietary Star Command enables automated control of Digidesign Pro Tools and Steinberg Nuendo DAWs (via HUI) plus Merging Technologies Pyramix via Oasis protocol. Under these command protocols, instructions from the 88D’s console surface provide fully automated DAW hardware control, with on-surface faders, Logicators and on-surface switches being used to access parameters, including plug-in settings. Neat stuff, indeed.
All in all, the 88D Music Production Console offers everything that you’d expect from a manufacturer like AMS Neve: a digital console with an analog sound. The British Pedigree is self-evident from the hardware build quality, software reliability and sheer “Get-the-job-done-with-minimum-fuss” design philosophy. A console targeted at the heady world of high-end post and music recording, it cannot be denied, but a digital mixing system that represents the very best currently on offer from any company – a rare presence to behold.
My sincere thanks to Ray Gago, AMS Neve Product Manager, for answering my many probing questions during a fascinating demo session at SAE Institute’s Los Angeles campus.