This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column in which different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought process behind creating their products of note.
As I was approached by ProSound News to compose a manufacturer focused article on the birth of a new or challenging technology, it immediately struck me just how far we’ve come at Avid with a product concept called “Unified Platform.” As with many concepts in product manufacturing, ideas as broad and sweeping as Unified Platform are often times driven out of necessity, but also fueled by a vision of a better experience for everyone involved—manufacturer, reseller, vendor and, of course, end user. Unified Platform certainly fits that billing, but many times, it was a long and storied journey, fraught with a lot of risk not only to the product line, but to the company as a whole while on the path to arriving there.
To fully grasp the depths of what the heck “Unified Platform” actually means and it’s stated goals, you have to revisit and ingest some product history at Avid in order to effectively connect the dots to today’s offerings. In this case, we need to unwrap the history of the “VENUE Live Sound Environment,” which made its debut under the brand name Digidesign.
Given the meteoric rise of the VENUE product line over the past 16 years, it’s easy to forget what a longshot the product’s success was in the beginning. After a protracted five-year development cycle, the “VENUE Live Sound Environment” was set to debut in 2005. The name alone was a revelation in that it was the first time a live sound mixing product spoke to the idea of an “eco-system” made up of a single version of software while supporting multiple, interchangeable control surfaces, engines and I/O components. Believe me, I had to answer the question “what the heck is a Live Sound Environment?” countless times in the early days of the products release.
It was a very forward-looking concept, and like most progressive ideas, it was filled with challenges and road blocks, not the least of which was that Digidesign (now Avid) had zero legacy or brand equity in the live sound market. In hindsight, I would readily confess to you that the thought of an unknown company offering the finicky live sound industry a brand-new set of workflows with an untested product for “on-air” mixing was an incredibly lofty goal—and especially so for a new company entering a well-established, very competitive market. If it failed, it would surely mark the end of Digidesign’s future in the live sound market. But hey—“go big or go home,” right? It was a bold, courageous move by anyone’s definition, and it worked out in a really wonderful way.
History will certainly show that the VENUE Live Sound Environment was industry-shaping in its success and it redefined what future live sound console systems would offer going forward due to its highly lauded ease of use, third-party plug-in processing and multi-track recording for archive and virtual sound check—all brand new concepts to live sound users.
In the end, the complete vision of the eco-system was not fully realized in that first-generation attempt at a “Live Sound Environment.” There were simply key technologies central to the eco-system that were yet to be developed and realized, not the least of which was networked audio transport. But what the massive success of the VENUE Live Sound Environment quickly taught us was that if it was fully realized and executed, the live sound eco-system would be transformative for not only the live sound industry, but also for Avid the company, as well as its model for manufacturing and developing all audio products going forward.
The first steps in that transformation were taken with Avid’s acquisition of Euphonix in 2010. The decision was made to continue the development of an upcoming Euphonix hardware concept and deploy it as the core design for Avid mixing consoles. This approach would provide the means to a singular line of Avid mixing console hardware that, under discrete software control, could address the major audio markets—recording, live sound and broadcast. By taking this approach, a level of development and manufacturing efficiency would be possible that previously had not even been considered. For the first time at the company, a centralized group of engineers and specialists would provide direction for all audio mixing products developed and released, all using a common hardware design.
The concept centered on taking a singular design of a fader module, a knob module and a master module, and then allowing workflow-specific software to dictate the workflow a given console assembly would address, supported by unique silk screening of the surface. Assembling any combination of these core modules would make the end control surface easily scalable as long as the overall design could stay within the pre-determined fader, switch and knob hardware-manufacturing boundaries.
The end result is the S6 line of DAW control surfaces and the S6L line of live sound console systems. The key thing to realize in the S6 and S6L control surfaces is the fact that under the hood, they use the same fader topology, the same switches and assemblies, and the same OLED hardware and interconnection concept, all in a common modular form factor. What results is a unified design process, meaning that the company can design, engineer, manufacture and QC one thing – and then assemble it into different console and system sizes across a broad swath of markets.
Contrast this to the historical model where every new additional console to a “line” of products would require an entire concept, engineering, prototype and test cycle. For products as complex as mixing consoles, this can take years for each new offering, often times requiring dedicated human resources working on it through to completion. With product line development cycles lasting that long, sometimes the final product added to the line can be approaching obsolescence just as it releases to the market.
With Unified Platform, that process is done once, by one team. Then numerous products are simply “assembled” and rapidly released to the market, extending the life span in the active market for the entire product line. It also allows for true “ala carte” system design by end users, in that any control surface works with any engine and any I/O device. A unified manufacturing process, followed by a unified user experience in terms of common operation, and just as importantly, identical sound quality across the entire range products, is a first for the professional audio industry.
Okay, now for the challenges. While this sounded ideal and looked fantastic on paper, there were some immense challenges in deploying this concept successfully. One that may not be obvious to an outsider, but one that was right in our grill during development was this: ICON and VENUE had been incredibly successful products. Historically, for next generation products, the mindset would be, “Hey, don’t mess with success.” Just expand on the previous product’s capabilities and keep on selling them.
But now, here we were with an entirely new technology from the Euphonix legacy that would be presented as a next-generation product for both ICON and VENUE. Aesthetically, it looked nothing like the previous ICON and VENUE products. As such, we were faced squarely with an incredibly broad and challenging dilemma to ponder and solve: Do we eliminate VENUE and ICON and simply replace it with an Avid-branded Euphonix product? Or, do we take Euphonix hardware and develop it into VENUE and ICON? The decision was made pretty early on—and with some real skepticism, I might add—to push the VENUE and ICON workflows “into” the Euphonix hardware.
Under the circumstances, it seemed like the best risk/reward. For the ICON side, it seemed like more of a “sure thing,” in that you were essentially building a control surface for an already established DAW—Pro Tools, which Euphonix had been doing quite successfully with the EUCON control protocol in its products for quite some time—so the extension of that felt relatively natural.
With VENUE, however, the situation demanded that a previously purpose-built product—VENUE—would be supplanted with a next-generation product with an entirely new look, feel and hardware architecture, including mix engine. That meant the new product’s user interface—the control surface—might completely disrupt the user’s comfort in terms of muscle memory and eye geometry. This is especially challenging for live sound consoles where users often gravitate to what they are currently fluent, contrasted against many times having to step up to a console for the first time “under fire” during show conditions.
We knew from the onset of development that there were two “go/no go” obstacles we would simply have to conquer in order to ensure success:
1) The VENUE software would have to serve as the anchor of familiarity for the existing user base, but would also offer dramatically more capability than the first generation version.
2) We had to convince users beyond any doubt that the new product was indeed, regardless of the new control surface aesthetics, operationally speaking still VENUE—and, as such, everything they had learned on the previous systems was still valid and transportable to the new product with very little reorientation.
It’s not hyperbole to state that the future of the Avid’s entire live sound product line was at risk and was placed squarely in the hands of those of us tasked with transforming a Euphonix hardware design into a VENUE mixing console. I’ll give away the punch line and tell you, it was the most challenging work of my career to date. I felt confident we were on the right path when the entire VENUE design team embraced the pre-defined Euphonix hardware form factor as an opportunity as opposed to a limitation, and what sprang from it was truly groundbreaking for a live sound mixing system.
In the end, this new product manufacturing and deployment concept arrived as advertised. It was transformative not only for Avid, but also for the live sound industry. The live sound eco-system would be fully realized with the emergence of the “VENUE S6L Unified Platform.”
The results simply speak for themselves. Within 24 months of its launch—less than the traditional time needed to conceive and bring a single mixing product to market—the platform launched five different control surfaces, three different mix engines and multiple I/O offerings that included numerous expansion cards and even the inclusion of the first third-party hardware with the addition of Waves Sound Grid Servers to the Unified Platform menu. The systems also fully embraced open-standard AVB networked audio, allowing 128-track Pro Tools playback and recording for all systems on the platform via simple Ethernet connection.
The benefits of Unified Platform to the resellers, the end users and the manufacturer are multi-fold:
For the resellers, upon launch, they immediately have product offerings that span a wide breadth of pricing and capability without having to wait for additional products in the line to trickle out over extended periods of time.
For vendors, they can have incredibly flexible inventory that will have a much longer lifespan, challenging traditional expectations for obsolescence, and which all exists under a single upgrade path for hardware and software.
For end users, they have incredible flexibility in terms of scaling and rescaling their systems, eliminating the concept of console “classes” or “tiers” in that, with Unified Platform, there is zero difference in build quality, sound quality and user interface for hardware and software.
For Avid, as the manufacturer, the myriad benefits are in operational efficiency by essentially designing something once and then constructing multiple products from that core build. This means one hardware engineering, QC and tech support effort, dramatically streamlining all staff training and orientation demands.
Also as mentioned before, when improvements are made to one product via a software or hardware upgrade, the entire line is improved in one fell swoop, as was recently experienced with our landmark VENUE 7 software release. There’s now a singular path of development as opposed to multiple teams developing multiple tiers or classes of consoles. One team with one focus on one product can offer consistent capability and results over a very wide breadth of users and situations.
The market has responded very positively to the model, with S6L surpassing the original VENUE revenue numbers within just a couple of years in the marketplace. Of course, the final validation for the Unified Platform is in witnessing competing manufacturers adopting the platform concept in their language and their product releases, much as they did with plug-in processing and multi-track recording—all hallmarks of the VENUE legacy. What a ride it has been. Now, what’s next?
Robert Scovill is a multi award-winning concert sound engineer and senior live sound specialist at Avid Technologies.