(click thumbnail)In the heady world of mixing sound for motion pictures, the heavy iron still rules on the Hollywood stages. While DAW-based control surfaces are revolutionizing the workflow paradigm, it's not a solution for everyone. Large-budget movies are finished at one of the high-end dubbing stages that attract top-line mixing talents. And it is SOP for these highly talented two- and three-man mix teams that dictate the hardware choice: large-format digital mixing consoles with plenty of on-surface controls, flexible I/O routing and full recall of all parameter settings.
In this rarefied air at the top of the mixer food chain, there are but a handful of companies capable of producing suitable hardware; amongst them Harrison – this year celebrating 30 years in the business - offers a range of solutions that have attracted a loyal customer base. The firm's latest offering, the MPC4-D Digital Post-Production and Film Console, literally bristles with impressive features, including an extruded aluminum frame with LCD display screens above all faders that display channel name, stem assignments, EQ graphics, dynamics graph, aux sends, input metering and panning. Harrison's innovative PreView waveform display provides a visual representation of the digitized signal flowing through each channel strip; usefully, the waveform is generated and stored in system memory – no external DAW is required - for instant, nonlinear viewing.
The MPC4-D console is based on Harrison's powerful IKIS platform, which is now a standard installation in all of the company's digital consoles. New innovations for the MPC4-D include the Digital Tools Card (DTC), a suite of film dubbing plug-ins. The IKIS Engine incorporates proprietary 40-bit Wide Pipe processing and full 40-bit interconnects between all systems components, including the Engine and I/O router, dramatically reducing headroom issues encountered on systems using 32-bit or even 24-bit fixed-point interconnects typically encountered with MADI-based topologies.
Each MPC4-D supports up to 384 complete channels per engine, with A and B inputs per channel source; multiple engines can be interconnected for larger topologies. A front-end MADI-format router handles up to 2,240 input sources and 2,240 output destinations; all AES/EBU-format digital outputs are equipped with sample rate converters to accommodate a variety of print master/archive formats. Analog I/Os feature 24-bit A/D and D/A converters running at a choice of 48 kHz or 96 kHz sample rates (and even 192 kHz, if you so desire). As I discovered, the console's housekeeping PC runs under a stable BIOS, and uses an industry-standard Linux shell application for screen displays. The result is an ultra-refined operating system whose reliability rivals analog systems.
The console's DSP Core can process up to 256 audio channels via eight SHARC-based channel and companion sum cards that process 32 channels per pair, with larger systems adding up to two additional cages. The initial core cage includes processing for 96 busses (up to 152 optional) and digital PEC/Direct stem monitoring processing. Each DSP Core occupies 12U and is powered by a 2RU external supply. Separate I/O units support two signal converter cards, each of which handles 56 signals (analog balanced signals or AES-format pairs) for a total of 112 possible signals per unit. AES/EBU I/O cards support 28 stereo pairs at selectable sample rates. All sources are converted to a MADI-format data and sent to the router via BNC connectors. The console's elegantly designed control surface provides access to all channel paths via central or local re-assignment controls that bring the target signals easily and rapidly to the operator's position; the entire console can be set of single-man or multiple operators. Each operator's automation controller and files structure is totally separate from other users, and can be run on its own during a mix, or frame-locked via a master timecode source.
Control Surface is Key
There is no getting away from the fact that the MPC4-D's control surface is impressive in every dimension. A customizable design allows virtually any size frame with wing-spans to be fabricated beyond 30 feet; to ensure maximum ergonomics, sections can be fabricated with multiple master sections positioned anywhere. A typical large-scale configuration might offer 24 to 36 faders within the music-mixing section, 24 - 36 for dialog and as many as 80 faders for effects.
All controls are remarkably easy to find, without burrowing down through layers – an essential requirement during a high-intensity dub session, when an effects fader needs to be located instantly to make subtle changes to a complex stem mix, for example, or to equalize a production dialog track against a Walla track to ensure that both elements blend together convincingly. Which can be a major drawback with a small-format work surface being used to control multiple signal sources. Layering needs to be implemented intuitively; otherwise it just gets in the way. Large arrays of assignable EQ and dynamics controllers means that we can see exactly what is happening on a selected track, stem or auxiliary send, simply by scanning the on-surface controls.
Harrison's In-Console PreView display per channel provides a well thought out alternative to hooking up a flat screen display within the mixer's field of vision so that he or she can see where and when tracks will appear. By monitoring the information passing through each signal path, we are presented with a vertical display of modulation that includes a programmable look-ahead section; easy to use and a major advantage when real estate on a big console – even one as large as the MPC4-D – is at a premium. For those of us that miss a built-in workstation, Harrison's optional DTC Card comes complete with a number of powerful film-specific plug-ins, including de-esser, camera noise filter, multiband compressor, multiband expander, telephone filter, dual crossover EQ, dual gated EQ, linear phase EQ, bus limiters, DSP insert point and sub harmonic synthesizer. Phew!
And for users who are looking for direct command of DAWs from the MPC4-D control surface, Harrison recently unveiled IKISdirect, which provides control of Digidesign Pro Tools, Steinberg Nuendo, Merging Technologies Pyramix and other systems via Ethernet protocols. The new automation platform maps and controls channels of attached workstations directly from the MPC4-D's work surface as profile/layers, in addition to controlling conventional channels from the console engine. (By way of a bonus, in-line graphical waveforms of DAW tracks can also be monitored in the console meter bridge as PreView displays.)
As will be appreciated, the MPC4-D is a large-scale, multi-operator console that can be configured with one, two or three operators. A powerful Dynamic Profiling feature - in addition to the static layer controls - enables any channel strip to control any signal path. In addition to mix busses, inserts send/receive and auxiliary busses, the engine supports eight-band parametric EQ and dynamics per signal path. The EQ and dynamics section available per path is impressive in its flexibility, sonic performance and creativity. Each signal path's dedicated eight-band EQ section feature a total of 10 different profiles, including notch, bell, graphic, and HP/LP filters, with 30 dB gain/cut; favorite settings can be stored in user-accessible libraries. Dynamically-automated controls are accessible through every channel strip or via Harrison's assignable Digital Tools control panel – which boasts no less than eight motorized faders - or via the graphics screen. A dedicated compressor and gate is available per signal path.
Dependent upon the bus output format selected for each spinal path, the corresponding Panning Mode offers up to 16-way control per channel for complex multichannel assignments beyond 5.1 and 7.1. A grand total of 176 simultaneous busses is available from a fully-loaded system, including 96 stem busses (per section or console-wide), 32 auxiliary sends (again, per section or console-wide), 32 mix (or re-assign) busses and 16 "listen" busses. For truly flexible monitoring, a separate section provides a 192-by-16 Summing/Monitor Matrix with individual level, mute and solo controls; a 56-way (optionally 112-way) PEC/Direct (or Bias/Tape) matrix also is provided. Two or more PEC/Direct panels may be located in any console section.
In terms of visual aesthetics, the MPC4-D is a revelation. Using a series of two-toned pastel colors and grey shades, the work surface is very easy to interrogate, and all controls are instantly visible even from across its length. The module width is human-sized, ensuring that large fingers do not become trapped between rotary controls, and that a prod of the target button or switch does not activate any surrounding controls. All high-contrast TFT screens can be viewed at sharp angles, and are easy to read in high ambient light levels. A neat feature: Harrison's patented, touch-sensitive joystick panners are fully motorized. And the backlit parameter displays provide a smooth, clean and readable surface; even the input metering is gentle on the eyes, with its diffused LED design.
Having recalled one of the stored system setups - or worked through one from scratch by assigning physical I/O ports to virtual signal paths modeled within the DSP engine under command from assignable on-surface controls - the user can get down to mixing, either accessing all on-surface adjustments or, more likely, on a sectional basis. All MPC4-D channels will pan directly to all console busses via virtual panning modes; a unique Sectional Solo allows each operator to solo input channels without affecting any other mixer. (Of course, it can be disabled to allow cross-section soloing by a single operator.) Dedicated group masters can control up to 48 remote/group faders, and/or assigned across console sections. (Maybe a configuration with 16 remote faders per console section, for example, any of which can be assigned to control any channel or group of channels in any section across the console.) A series of console-wide busses lets the user route any channel signal to any of the MPC4-D's 96 main busses – six sets of 16 stem mixes – or the 32 re-assign busses and 32 auxiliary sends. (The latter can be set console-wide, or eight per operator section, or a mixture of both.)
And with all this sectional control, the console's dynamic automation has to follow each linked or individual function. While a single automation system controls the entire console, sections can be set to function independently of a global automation scheme. In this way, multiple mixes can be open simultaneously, thereby allowing multiple operators to work without affecting each other as they refine critical passes. Since input channel controls or sections of controls can be linked across channels, controls on a target channel serve as a master for all linked channels – a very useful capability for applying EQ or compression, for example, to the components of a multichannel stem mix. In addition, a set of up to eight channel strips can be configured as a "Sweet Spot" monitor/control area.
But if there is one area in which the MPC4-D excels, it is in the flexibility and versitility of the Monitoring System, which is based around a programmable 192-by-16 summing matrix, each monitor source offering level control and mute that can be assigned to a remote fader. Level metering is via tri-colored LED bargraphs that can be set to full-scale digital, upper-scale digital or VU ballistics; zero reference can be relocated according to meter scaling.
Instead of being cluttered by a sea of buttons and switches, the MPC4-D's control surface is very streamlined. A series of Link plus Copy/Paste switches on all channel strips activate a global linking function for the entire console or sections – saving the operator a trip to the center section. Isolate mode allows an offset to be set on linked parameters.
All in all, one comes away from working on the Harrison MPC4-D Digital Post-Production and Film Console with a distinct feeling that the topology was carefully thought out during a series high-intensity mix sessions, and that some sanguine minds have been at work during the system's development period. The result is a device that is humbling in its simplicity - a truly intuitive panel layout with an automation system that virtually preempts your requirements – yet powerful enough to allow creative talent to prepare the high-impact, involving and passion-laden soundtracks demanded by today's motion-picture directors.
My sincere thanks to the technical crew at Universal Post Production Group, North Hollywood, for providing access to the large-format MPC4-D console in the facility's Alfred Hitchcock Theater, and to lead mixer Chris Jenkins and his re-recording team for letting this humble scribe test drive their speedy chariot.
For more information contact Harrison by GLW at 615-641-7200, www.harrisonconsoles.com.