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The end for analogue broadcast consoles?

Sometimes the world changes without people realising - until the fact is pointed out to them. The announcement by Calrec Audio that it is discontinuing production of analogue consoles confirms what has been happening over the past five years, that digital has overcome all the technical and operational objections to become the mixing technology of choice. Kevin Hilton reports.

There was a time when the broadcasting world regarded digital consoles with deep suspicion, if not contempt. During the early to mid 1990s digital was already seducing the music recording and post-production sectors but broadcast sound supervisors were worried that computer menus and virtual layers meant they would not be able to respond quickly and easily to live events. There was also the question of reliability and whether there would be as much headroom available as analogue consoles had to offer. This was all against a backdrop of the move to digital video, with broadcasters adopting widescreen transmission. The BBC was an early convert and began refurbishing Television Centre (TVC) in west London during the early ’90s, installing digital cameras, video decks and cabling in the studios and production galleries. Arrangements for audio were more circumspect. When the newly digital Studio 8 (TC8) was commissioned in 1994 the audio control room housed a 60-channel AMS Neve 55 Series stereo desk. The following year TC4 was re-opened in all its digital finery but with an existing Calrec Assignable digitally controlled analogue board. Today only one analogue desk survives at TVC; a Calrec S Series in TC 5, the Centre’s sports studio. The other studios have succumbed to digital: Studer Vista 8s in TC1, TC4, TC 6 and TC8; a Calrec Omega in TC2; and a Calrec Alpha with Bluefin in TC3. Scott Talbott, craft manager for BBC Studios and Post Production, which runs TVC for the Corporation, agrees that back in the “old days” the great advantage of analogue consoles was being able to grab a fader and the eq control above it. But times have changed. “Programme demands have increased,” says Talbott. “They need a lot more flexibility in a sound desk, including multiple inputs, because a live band, for example, can have up to 20 mics on a drum kit. On a digital desk you can VCA additional channels and send them to a layer on the operating surface. With analogue you’d need extra desks.” This kind of thinking has swung the argument in favour of digital, with TV studios and OB fleets alike embracing the technology swiftly and completely. At one time there was the thinking that OBs would stick with analogue due to the “as it happens” nature of the work (pictured is an analogue Calrec S2 in an old NEP truck). The current edition of the Live Production HD OB Van directory shows that to be fallacious: all but one of the 42 trucks featured have digital consoles. The exception is the Israeli Mizmor OB1, which has an Allen & Heath ML4000. The manufacturer recently discontinued the ML4000 and 5000 live desks but the 3000 is still in production. The trend is mirrored in commercial studios. Last year Fountain Studios in north London, home to The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, replaced the Calrec S Series in its sound control room with the first Calrec Apollo on the market. This shift followed a move to HD video, which called for surround sound capability. “We didn’t consider staying with analogue audio,” technical director Chris Cooper explains. “The move to HD was going to happen and we wanted to have 5.1 capability to go with it, as well as make the transition to digital audio.” Calrec’s sales and marketing manager, Henry Goodman, says that over the past ten years the company, along with its competitors, have responded to the criticism of digital consoles – reliability, operating headroom and control surfaces – to improve what the technology could offer. He adds that many of the people using broadcast mixing desks have different expectations to their older colleagues, who started out with analogue: “There is a new generation of users who are more comfortable with the concept of assignable control surfaces.” Another factor in the decline of analogue is practical – finding components is becoming harder and more expensive. “In some ways it’s a vicious circle,” says Goodman. “Demand for analogue products has fallen so the chip and component manufacturers are reducing the supply or components that go in them, or ceasing production altogether.” Calrec will discontinue the S2, C2 and M3 analogue ranges in November this year but will continue to provide spares and a repair service for another ten years. From the statistics, and the market performance of Stagetec, Lawo, SSL and Euphonix, the decision appears to have been inevitable. “Over the past two years analogue consoles have made up fewer than four percent of our total sales – the rest is digital,” comments Goodman. Studer has also benefited from broadcast studios and OB fleets moving to digital, with its OnAir and Vista ranges used round the world. Fellow Harman company Soundcraft has also seen the swing to digital, with its Vi and Si ranges, but is not yet considering pulling out of analogue. The Soundcraft B800, BB100, RM100, RM105 and Series 10 and 15 are still in production and used internationally, mainly for radio. “The demand for analogue in TV production is relatively low since the big transition to digital broadcast,” explains Keith Watson, vice president of marketing and product management at Soundcraft Studer, “but there are still region of the world, especially emerging economies, where analogue radio production consoles are still requested and do a great job at their price point.” Calrec’s first digital desk was for radio, the X Series, which appeared in 1997. The X2 is still on the market and like the original X1 it is aimed at national, mainly public service broadcasters. This level of radio has moved readily to digital, with Studer, DHD, Harris, Audix Broadcast and the IP networking approach of Axia also redefining the on-air mixer. Ian Jennings, managing director of Audix Broadcast, thinks his last analogue console was produced in the late 1990s. “Our analogue mixers were becoming expensive to produce and the market we serve, the bigger broadcasters, was looking for digital,” he says. “Digital makes sense because, for example, a presenter want a source on a different fader to someone else, it’s easily done with a button press. In analogue that would require a routing matrix.” Analogue desks do survive at smaller radio stations. Andy Bantock of UK installation and consultancy company Station Z says the reasons for this are manifold but that money is key. “Digital radio desks are still considerably more expensive than their analogue counterparts and it’s difficult to justify this to the accountants,” he says. “And there is no ‘customer expectation’ because the consoles are used by employees of the company.” Bantock observes that in the “world of small-scale radio” the Sonifex S2, an analogue desk with digital inputs, and the trusty Alice AIR2000 still reign. “What is likely to happen is that radio will leapfrog AES/EBU and go straight to audio over IP with systems like Axia,” he says. In general digital desks have triumphed over their analogue rivals by, after some trial and error, being able to do the same – only more. “We wanted easy access to the controls and we have that from digital now,” concludes Scott Talbott at BBC Studios and Post Production. “Two years ago I would have had some regret about the move away from analogue but I wouldn’t go back now.”