I don’t think I would be overstating the obvious if I stated that digital audio workstations have come a very long way during the past dozen years. In the early-Nineties Digidesign unveiled the original Pro Tools (derived from the earlier two-track Sound Tools), a multitrack DAW that soon dominated the music and post industries. Fast forward to yesterday and we are in a quandary. DAWs now offer blindingly sophisticated multichannel editing; we now expect that native DSP or plug-in engines will provide EQ, dynamics, mixing and other creative tools. But how to control all of this processing power? While a mouse and/or scrub wheel is a given for sample-accurate editing, running a 96-channel, fully-implemented mixing console is not a viable proposition.
What to do? Digidesign’s marketing department must have pondered. Bolt on a MIDI-based control surface, enable control from an external Ethernet-linked console, or develop a digital console that utilized the unfulfilled power of a Pro Tools? Sitting in front of the new ICON Integrated Console from the Daly City-based organization demonstrates clearly that Digidesign favored Door #3. What we have here is a state-of-the-art digital production environment with full 7.1-channel monitoring, machine control, integrated video control – plus DigiDelivery. And, yes, it also features a multitrack 24/192 recorder/editor, should you need one.
Simply calling ICON a DAW controller is like calling a full-dress Hummer just another SUV. ICON looks like a digital console; it behaves like a digital console; and it will go head-to-head with the best in the world. Don’t listen to anybody who tells you otherwise.
Getting down to Basics:
The DSP Engine and Control Surface
ICON comprises Pro Tools|HD Accel running V6.4x software as its core 24-bit/192 kHz DSP engine linked via a high-speed Ethernet port to the D-Control tactile worksurface; optional modular HD audio interfaces handle analog and/or 24/192 digital I/O. The system will run under Apple Panther OSX or Windows XP Pro; a dual-2 GHz G5 is recommended for the former, and the speediest Pentium or Athlon PCs for the latter. The system will open any existing Pro Tools session – allowing users to start a project, for example, on an entry-level Mbox or 002 system, and then open it on ICON with assignable control for all processing functions, including plug-ins.
D-Control incorporates touch-sensitive controls with innovative visual displays, a dedicated center section and per-channel control over all processing functions and routing, global automation, plus full studio, control room and headphone monitoring. The base ICON Integrated Console configuration – cost: $60,000 (plus Pro Tools Core and I/O) – comprises a single 16-channel Fader Module located to the left or right of a central Control Section; additional 16-channel modules can be added where necessary to provide a maximum of 80 on-surface faders. Six touch-sensitive, multipurpose rotary encoders per channel strip feature 15-segment, multicolor LED rings that display encoder position or metering. Each rotary encoder also features a six-character, multicolor alphanumeric LCD display for function parameters, in addition to a channel scribble strip display.
Internally, ICON can address up to 192 Pro Tools disk tracks and a total of what Digidesign refers to (confusingly, I think) 128 stereo Aux Tracks – I prefer to think of the latter as non-disk Channel Paths. All of these virtual signal paths are assigned to any physical I/O port or track, where appropriate, using a familiar GUI-driven routing array. Being Pro Tools-driven, each signal path features the familiar five inserts and five sends – whose destinations are fully programmable – with outputs routing to a variety of mix and auxiliary busses. A total of 64 mix/routing busses are available, and which can be configured in mono, stereo, LCRS, 5.1 and 7.1 stems and final outputs. Each bus offers 48-bit precision, with a quoted 300 dB of internal dynamic range. And, yes, ICON is directly compatible with DigiDelivery, the firm’s new easy-to-use file transfer technology; an optional server enables secure exchange of digital files of virtually any size.
Assignable Control Elements
In terms of surface controls, ICON is truly remarkable. A bank of six, assignable rotary encoders can be mapped to control EQ, dynamics and other plug-ins, cue/foldback sends, panning and mic preamps; factory setups bring additional functions to the surface, dependent upon the selected chore, with LED rings and alphanumeric displays letting you know exactly what is mapped to where. (In addition, you can set up top-to-bottom swaps and a number of other highly useful custom settings.)
The rotary controls feature a bulbous knob that, at first glance, looks rather odd. But sit yourself down at the control surface, and it soon becomes evident that there is method behind this design; you can see around the knob and view virtually all of the LED ring display. (While adjusting send controls, for example, they simultaneously display send levels and audio metering; a neat touch.).
Channel strip masters are duplicated on the extreme left and right edges of the master section containing Flip buttons which migrate the corresponding rotary encoder controls down to the fader section for more precise, linear control. Dedicated buttons control plug-ins, input/output/send assignments, automation modes, global channel strip modes and much more.
And for simultaneous control, the center section also boasts a dedicated EQ and dynamics section, with clearly labeled rotary controls and companion displays. But what of EQ, dynamics, reverb and special effects TDM/RTAS plug-ins that feature a myriad of controls? Digidesign is ahead of you. Press one button and a Custom Fader mode sets all 48 rotary controls for any of the eight-fader channel banks can be mapped to individual plug-in functions. It’s a level of plug-in control you have only dreamed about.
By mapping to plug-in parameters, the servo-controlled channel faders can also develop a multiband graphic or vocal processor, for example, or a multi-element reverb. Usefully, blue LEDs on the ICON fader section light to designate this enhanced mode; the fader bank can be paged across the available faders, as required. Other Custom Fader modes implement Master Faders, Pro Tools Mix/Edit groups plus Custom Groups. (Usefully, once banks have been assigned to a custom function, the control surface bank switches the remaining channels around the Custom Fader channels.)
The dedicated control/edit sections for EQ and dynamics plug-ins are extremely intuitive to use. The EQ panel features dedicated rotary encoders with ring-LEDs and an alphanumeric display for the respective parameter values. Usefully, the latter display is split to show on the left side the plug-in name and then, when you touch the encoder, the display shows the parameter name, while the right display shows the current or last-touched value. Nice. Also featured are a clip indicator, Compare/Safe buttons, Master Bypass, and a Cycle button that enables the EQ Panel to cycle through any EQ setting on that channel. Two LED bargraphs show input/output levels, with corresponding level controls.
The dynamics panel provides similar controls to the EQ panel, plus controls specific to that function, including an Ext Key button that switches a key input, a Listen button that behaves much like a solo function, plus separate gain reduction meters for compressor/limiter and expander/gate plug-ins and an output meter.
ICON is bundled with a number of plug-ins, dependent up the chosen Pro Tools|HD 1, 2 or 3 package. As well as the standard DigiRack, Music Production Enhancement Suite and additional gratis Bomb Factory plug-ins, freebies include Focusrite d2/d3, Joemeek SC2 and VC5 Meequalizer, moogerfooger Lowpass Filter and SansAmp PSA-1 (HD 1); Line 6’s Amp Farm, Bomb Factory’s BF-3A, Cosmonaut Voice, VoceSpin Voce Chorus/Vibrato and Tel-Ray Variable Delay Virus, plus Access Music’s Virus Indigo (added in HD 2); and Digidesign’s Bruno/Reso, Reverb One, SoundReplacer, Impact, Maxim and D-Fi, Bomb Factory’s Fairchild 660 and 670, Bomb Factory’s Purple Audio MC77, moogerfooger12-Stage Phaser and Analog Delay and Ring Modulator (added in HD 3).
The center section also features an assignable Focus Channel Strip, transport controls, QWERTY keyboard, programmable soft keys, navigation buttons, monitor tray and a space for a future Pan Controller. Metering is via a series of 32-segment/tricolor LED bargraphs located at the top of each channel strip (two per signal path). A comprehensive monitor/communications area includes monitor pots, talkback and listen-back functions, plus solo and programmable dim pushbuttons.
The separate XMON Monitor System provides analog I/Os for a variety of listening devices. The external, rackmounted unit connects to the control surface via a single 15-pin cable, and enable simultaneously monitoring of two separate, eight-channel mixes (mono thru 7.1 surround) as well as four external stereo sources. Inputs are selectable to a choice of 7.1 main, 7.1 closefield or stereo mini-speakers. The system also provides three stereo cues, studio monitoring and a dedicated headphone output.
Up, Up and Away
Getting up and running is a snap. Launch the Pro Tools session and you are faced by the previously stored console mapping and a screen(s) that shows the familiar edit and mix windows – it is surprising, however, how soon you rely on the control surface rather than the CRT/LCD to make system changes. Very usefully, on each 16-fader module are located dedicated buttons for Control, Option and Command modifiers (or their equivalent in Windows-speak). Now, you just need to hold down the appropriate key(s) and the on-surface knobs or buttons take on their normal modified function – couldn’t be easier. And, as would be expected, all parameter settings are stored with the Pro Tools session, and can also be edited off-line. Custom Groups is a neat way of creating preset track layouts on the fly. The user can select any number of tracks, display them in any order and then recall them at the simple push of a button during recording or playback. In this way, it is possible, for example, to display a single track several times, with each on-surface implementation displaying a different set of control parameters associated with that track – allowing you to view and simultaneously edit multiple aspects of a single track, including plug-ins, sends and panning.
All controls fall easily to hand. And high-quality components they are. I spotted high-end Penny & Giles 3200 Series faders – not inexpensive – allied to cherry key switches and a high-precision track ball. Surface treatments and frame construction are first rate; they should withstand a hard life in a commercial or project facility.
My only – admittedly minor – complaint is that the reach to distant controls from a sitting position is pretty long – and I’m 6-1 – but with so much to be packed onto the control surface, it’s hardly surprising that there have to be small accommodations. For a seated position all settings and automation functions are easily seen, and the ability to bring to the central sweet spot any and all controls on the surface is outstanding – more so when you come to Pro Tools from a mouse and monitor background; even users familiar with Pro Control, Control and -24, Mackie HUI and similar MIDI-based surfaces will appreciate the full accessibility of not only mix and monitoring levels but all EQ, DSP and dynamics parameters.
There is no going back once you’ve used Digidesign’s ICON Integrated Console. A thoroughly pleasurable experience, and one that will provide stiff competition for today’s generation of automated digital consoles being used in conjunction with a power-packed DAW like Pro Tools|HD Accel.
My sincere thanks to the staff and crew at RSPE Audio Solutions, a North Hollywood Digidesign dealer (www.rspe.com).
Contact: Digidesign at 800-333-2137, www.digidesign.com.