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The changing face of broadcast consoles

The broadcast audio console has been going through a period of evolution over the last ten years. While it is unlikely to change out of all recognition, it is undergoing some fundamental rethinking and development

The broadcast mixing console has gone through a series of technological changes over the last 30 years. From automatic recall to full digital operation and automated mixing to the incorporation of networking and routing functions, the result has been something much more than a way to mix. At the same time there have been significant changes in television and radio production, which have put extra demands on equipment and engineers/operators alike.

Back in the purely analogue days the console – often big and with many inputs, outputs and fader strips – was very much a tool of the person using it. The advent of automation and various layers of processing and mixing options was intended to give the engineer greater control and flexibility but, in many instances, turned the tables and made the operator a slave to the technology.

Since then manufacturers and developers have worked to achieve a balance between the two, where the console offers as many features and as much processing power as possible while at the same time being easy and intuitive to use. “If you look at the job of the audio engineer today, it is a lot more than just mixing,” comments Andreas Hilmer, director of marketing at Lawo. “They are responsible for a lot of other things now, such as comms.”

Because of this, Hilmer explains, a major aspect of the modern broadcast console is the ability to integrate with the overall broadcast system. This involves a hardware platform working with different software according to the project, allowing the console to adapt to different environments and tasks. “We’ve seen that in video with the matrix approach,” Hilmer says, “and it’s definitely something we’ll see for audio in the future.”

Your personal assistant

Another facet of the new breed of console is its ability to assist the engineer through automation and recall settings. “There is automated up-mixing and gain control already, which means the operator can concentrate on other things,” Hilmer comments. “It’s not about sacrifices in quality because the console starts assisting the person using it. The automation can take care of some components of the mix while he or she concentrates on the overall production.”

John Davis, technical support manager at Logitek, acknowledges that giving precise control over clean audio remains a primary function of the console but says automated mixing is now more commonplace, particularly in TV where one person is likely to be responsible for both audio and video. “The person behind the desk is now more than ever responsible for multiple facets of the production. Besides riding gain on the audio faders, the operator now is frequently also operating a video switcher and robotic cameras. As a result, we are doing a lot of automation where the video switcher is acting as the primary audio operator and the director is just using a few faders next to the video switcher to get the mix right.”

Live broadcasting involves multiple sources from the studio and outside locations. This means either several operators can be involved on a single production or one person takes care of everything. Either way a clear and established methodology is usually in place so everyone knows what is supposed to happen and when. Which is where one of modern broadcasting’s most infamous buzzwords comes into play.

“The important part of today’s mixing desks is the workflow integration within the individual workplace,” comments Stefan Mertens, managing director of Thum+Mahr. “The workspace physically integrates all the needed external systems within the mixing desk without confusing the operator, so he or she can concentrate on the show and not on the console and its nice features.”

Three into one

Within Thum+Mahr’s portfolio is the DHD range of digital consoles. The 52 Series of mixing and routing systems is based on a modular approach used by many, if not all, leading manufacturers right now. This comprises three components: the console, or, to be more accurate, a control surface; the mix engine; and the audio I/Os. “There is no necessary relation between the size of the control surface, the size of the mix engine and the number of audio ins and outs to the system,” Mertens comments. “All members of the network can share content and control across that network, which is structured and can be connected by CAT or fibre optic cables. Ultimately there can be hundreds of ins and outs on the network available for each mixing system. What this forms is a type of audio and control cloud system structure.”

Nowadays, as Mark Hosking (pictured), global broadcast sales director for Studer, observes, the three parts of a mixing system do not have to be in the same room – or even the same building. “The control surface, the I/O and the mix engine can be thought of as independent,” he says. “There is a move away from big lumps of hardware into more virtualisation. There can be a shared mixing console without a surface that is under the control of the newsroom system.”

Last year Studer introduced two consoles based on the concepts of virtualisation and the networking of remotely located components. The Micro, aimed at TV, radio and news comprises a core processor, graphical user interface and optional fader controller. A key element is integrated audio over IP (AoIP) capability, with the possibility of connecting to a web browser. The Glacier, which is being installed in the new studios at BBC Studioworks’ Television Centre in London, is designed for smaller spaces and has a control surface that can be customised to offer only what features are necessary.

Two worlds collide

Klotz is another manufacturer to launch a new console that tunes into the IT-multimedia influence on broadcast technology. The DC3 was conceived to replace the venerable DC2, which has been used for over ten years in broadcasting, usually with the VADIS router. The first two DC3s have been installed by Chinese public broadcaster Radio Guangdong; a further three have been ordered by Bauer Media Group member RMF FM in Poland.

The DC3 works with the existing VADIS platform and comes in four to 32-fader sizes, combining a conventional fader approach with Klotz’s new Touchstone programmable touch screen technology. “We saw a move to make console surfaces more compact over ten years ago,” comments managing director Thomas Klotz. “We moved away from large drop-in frame consoles towards blade-shaped control surfaces that sat on top of the table. In future we see this trend of reducing the footprint continuing by taking away physical elements and using the flexibility of touch screens to achieve more of the consoles functionality.”

Another part of this evolution, maintains Klotz, will be a move away from dedicated mixing consoles, something he says is beginning to emerge at the moment: “It will be towards a ‘generic’ interface device that could be used on multiple platforms. Touch screens have become so affordable and programming interfaces are readily available to create a universal device that could be programmed to work today as a control surface for a DAW and tomorrow is used to handle an outside broadcast.”

Jay Tyler (pictured), director of sales at Wheatstone, acknowledges this versatility brought by new technologies: “In some instances I’ve heard of the news desk being used to mix bands. That’s because there is lots of capacity and lots of layers.” In some cases this means large, centralised desks but Tyler also sees a growing demand for more compact models: “It’s true there is a combination of mixing and device control in today’s desks. People want more bi-directional control. At the same time consoles are getting smaller. Instead of having parametric EQ, panning and sends on each channel there can be a centralised panel to control all that. They also have layers – which give a lot of channels – and can be connected by CAT5 cable. In effect we don’t make just consoles any more, we make distributed audio systems.”

Keep the customer satisfied

This broadening out of the functions and capabilities of the audio consoles tie in with the current and emerging needs of broadcasters. “It’s about flexibility,” explains Henry Goodman, director of support and market development at Calrec Audio (with an Artemis console at Al Jazeera pictured top). “Broadcasters want to maximise the utilisation of not just the audio mixer but of every part of the production environment they have. We can see this driving not only the flexible surface design but also infrastructure – in other words networking – and how audio processing is delivered.”

Goodman (pictured) adds that touch screen technologies – both in terms of operation and displays – are allowing a single hardware platform to present many operating options. In the future, he says, this will see the working surface develop to incorporate “softer control elements”, some based on touch screens, which can be used to arrange the layout of the controller to suit the operator or a specific production.

Many controls are now arranged in menu layers or as ‘nested spills’, which enable a range of features and functions to be ‘opened out’ and ‘folded back’ according to requirements. This has lent itself well to surround sound processing, which Ian Staddon, vice president of sales at DiGiCo, says very specifically affects the design of many aspects of modern desks. “The channel count of the consoles has significantly increased due to the need to accept multiple sources,” he says. “Operators also need to view the ‘spilled out’ 5.1 channels and have the ability to collapse them into one, as well as being able to monitor and have metering of these signals, along with the ability to mix up and down. Another consideration is interfacing with the video world, either directly or through a router system by implementing different protocols.”

Much of this new flexibility and functionality has been made possible by integrating ‘traditional’ broadcast design and engineering with technology and techniques from the computer world. While this sounds very utilitarian and pragmatic, it does not mean the machines are taking over. “Within five years standard blade servers will run software applications for the mixing, routing and control in a standard IT environment,” concludes Stefan Mertens at Thum+Mahr. “But you will still need a human touch interface to control the mixing system in a holistic and intuitive way. So I guess the console with physical faders will last longer than the engine and functionality behind it.”