October 17, 2011, by Ken DeLoria
Not so long ago, mixers had six channels, round knobs, and green paint. Next came a parade of large-format mixing desks, weighing hundreds of pounds.
Later, the first digital consoles appeared, also weighing hundreds of pounds. (Is there an echo in here?)
Finally, second generation digital consoles emerged as smaller, lighter, and less expensive versions of their predecessors, some with surprisingly advanced capabilities including really useful on-board effects, choice of EQ types, optional plug-ins, and much more.
Whether you love, like, or hate them, digital consoles have forever changed the way that business is conducted in pro audio.
Today a similar technology transition is taking place that’s likely to become a full-fledged revolution in the not-too-distant future. While we strongly suspect that some of the leading console companies are already working along these lines, it’s no secret that a small innovative company based in Las Vegas, called RML Labs, is leading the thrust into this new frontier, in much the same way that other companies took the leap of faith to transition from analog consoles to digital formats, some twenty years ago.
RML Labs, the creator of the Software Audio Console (SAC for short), is a software development company that has turned a Windows PC into a powerful virtual live mixing environment.
“It all started because I was tired of humping heavy consoles into venues and I decided to do something about it,” explains Bob Lentini, inventor of SAC and owner of RML Labs. “As I began working on the initial concept, I quickly realized that a host of other advantages would become even more important than simple weight reduction.”
Lentini came to this realization quite early (“bleeding edge” being close to the mark), having introduced SAC as a proof-of-concept way back in 1992 at an AES convention in New York City. Now, nearly 20 years later, SAC has proven its worth on thousands of shows mixed by a regiment of front of house and monitor engineers, who weren’t afraid to try something out of the ordinary.
“First and foremost, this new approach, centered on digital technology, would have to sound exceptional - not just good - with respect to the best analog consoles of the day,” Lentini notes. “Making great digital sound takes meticulous care in programming, and that doesn’t happen overnight. The variables are immense.”
After two decades of work, he contends, “We’ve been able to achieve sonic properties that match, or perhaps exceed, the offerings of even the largest and most well-funded companies.”
While researching this story, the author spoke with numerous users who are as passionate about SAC’s sound quality as Lentini himself. One is Steve Emler, long-time front of house mixer for Tesla. Elmer told us, “While the other aspects of SAC are useful and intriguing, if it didn’t sound as good, or better, than anything else I’ve heard, it wouldn’t fit my needs.”
That says a lot. Elmer’s comments indicate that it’s not just about convenience, as valuable as that may be, but about sonic excellence which is something that all conscientious professionals continually strive to achieve.
Bear with us. A key attribute that enhances the sound quality of a SAC system is it utilizes linear integer processing with hexi-decimal extensions that eliminate fractional values when digitizing audio.
With other digital audio formats, their mathematical calculations of audio are summed primarily in fractional values - and these must ultimately be interpreted to 1 or 0 (binary code). Such interpretations are made randomly and result in inherent inaccuracies.
SAC, on the other hand, does not round-off ones and zeros arbitrarily. The greater accuracy of these proprietary algorithms result in audible improvements that not only emulate analog, but perhaps even improve upon it, in terms of reduced noise floor, lower distortion, and increased resolution.
That’s a mouthful, to be sure. For those of us who do not design A/D and D/A chip sets for a living, or spend our time writing hexi-decimal code, the simple explanation is that SAC provides a level of audio purity that goes well beyond the norm.
Users passionately agree that Lentini’s algorithms provide an audible improvement that’s not only significant when analyzed scientifically, but clearly audible as well. It seems that the topology and component selection of the analog portion of the pre-amps plays a smaller part than might be expected, when the digitalization is so well executed.
To the uninitiated, this may well seem like a complete reversal of the established standards that have prevailed since the dawn of analog electronics. Let’s explore further.
Of significant importance, SAC is written in assembly language. A declining art in these modern times, where C++ and other high level languages are the norm, assembly language is low-level and close to machine code - and therefore highly efficient.
Events happen extremely fast in assembly language because processing overhead is very low. An old 486 processor running assembly code can beat a new multi-gigahertz CPU that’s running a high-overhead language. What’s fascinating, and very important, is that the results can be heard, not just benchmarked.
A screen shot of the current Software Audio Console (click to enlarge).
While a SAC license can be purchased directly from RML (and a free demo is available at www.softwareaudioconsole.com), software alone does not a system make.
And while a small-business software developer needs to stay very focused on, well, software, which is what Lentini loves to do, numerous other bits and pieces are needed to make a real-world functional system…and they must be carefully integrated with expert knowledge and care.
This is exactly why Value Added Resellers, or VARs, play an essential role in completing the picture. One leading VAR interviewed for this article assembles a full working system (pun intended) to ensure that all aspects are sorted out and ready to use “right out of the box.”
Based in the beautiful mountains of Lake Tahoe, where “getting air” is a common event during snow season, the principals of AIR Consoles (a.k.a., Audio Integrated Research) have an intense vision of their own: changing the world of large-format mixing desks as we currently know them.
Their version of getting air has to do with the mobility of the control surface, not just jumping off mountain tops… which they also excel at.
AIR Console’s president Damon Gold, and vice president Glen Campbell (no relation to the singer), share a mission - along with a handful of other VARs and integrators – to supply the hardware, education, and services that give SAC the fuel that gets the job done.
An AIR console consists of a one or more banks of microphone pre-amps (usually 8 channels per bank that normally include output channels), plus one or more PC tablets for remote control. Options include a touch screen controller (up to a 32-inch screen with 50 touch points), and all other supporting hardware that brings the whole system together.
An AIR console can be as small as 8 x 8, or as large as 72 x 72 – and 128 x 128 will soon be available for mega-events.
Presently, various commercial preamps can be utilized - and often are - but the company is headed in the direction of developing its own optimized I/O product that will talk directly to the assembly language code that SAC is based upon, thereby providing what might be accurately called a “super-interface.”
SAC working with an AIR package. (click to enlarge)
The range and depth of possibilities that an AIR Consoles package brings to the table is considerable. Much like the introduction of the early digital consoles – long after the world became comfortable with analog desks – an AIR console is best utilized when the engineer fully embraces the new approach that AIR is capable of bringing to the workflow - rather than trying to merely emulate a physical console of the past.
A good example of this new workflow is the way that multiple monitor mixes are handled. While traditional methodology demands a large number of Aux sends to provide a large number of individual mixes, an AIR console takes a nearly opposite approach.
At first blush, AIR’s six stereo Aux sends would seem to fall far short of the number needed to accommodate today’s big productions. But delve a little deeper, and you’ll quickly find that there are 24 additional virtual consoles, each with their own six stereo Aux sends (yes, that’s 24 virtual consoles).
So instead of tweaking Aux sends all night long to keep the performers happy, each monitor mix has its own virtual console. The Auxes can now be utilized as effects sends, instead of the backbone of the various monitor mixes.
What’s more, none of the virtual consoles interact, in any way, with other virtual consoles, except to share the same head-amps.
It would be entirely feasible to have 24 separate operators - each concentrating on a single monitor mix – if that’s what’s needed for a given situation.
The same scenario can be used for other applications as well, such as when many different zones require different balances.
Consider a complex AV system that encompasses numerous rooms, or even numerous geographic locations. Each location might have sources that are both local and remote. In this scenario, all virtual consoles would share all inputs from all locations (or just accept stems, if that’s preferred). The individual location engineers can then balance the global inputs (or stems) against their individual local sources, thereby providing the appropriate mix for the room they’re serving.
While this is a concept that could be executed with conventional hardware, the complexity and cost would be prohibitive for all but the most exalted events, bearing the highest possible budgets, and unlikely to happen except in the most rarefied of circumstances.
A recent medical conference, taking place in several countries simultaneously, did exactly that. Orchestrated by Lee Pepper, who could accurately be called a super-user of Lentini’s original Software Audio Console, the convention included real-time surgery performed on live patients in numerous locations at the same time. SAC provided the ability for the attending doctors to interact with one another, via Internet connectivity, during these mission critical procedures. It’s a brave new world.
AIR president Damon Gold deploying SAC on a touch screen.(click to enlarge)
Freedom To Move
Though there’s no requirement that an AIR console be controlled by a wireless tablet or wireless laptop, (you can always use an Ethernet cable, if you like), it can be highly advantageous to do so. The ability to roam freely throughout a venue and tweak zone levels and zone EQ on each of the 72 outputs, gives the engineer a whole new palette of capabilities. For the first time, he/she will really know what’s going on throughout the venue during the show, instead of having to rely on comments from others.
Freeing up valuable seating space is another attribute, and one that’s bound to make promoters happy. Not only is it possible to reclaim seating space taken up by the console itself, but eliminating the security barriers and security guards that are normally needed to surround the house mix position, can represent a significant cost savings.
An AIR console footprint is insanely small: two shoes walking. And because audio never passes though the laptop or tablet, the remote devices merely communicate control signals. Therefore, a failure in the wireless link will not bring the system down - it will always remain where it was last set.
And in lieu of tablets and laptops, AIR makes various sizes of touch screens available – up to 32 feet - for those who wish for more tactile control, or who may not benefit from the ability to move throughout the venue. Shows such those that take place in TV studios, or a theatrical environment, are two of many such examples.
One comment that came up repeatedly while researching this article: performing artists absolutely love having their monitor engineer walk on stage and stand next to them, tablet in hand, to adjust the stage monitors to their individual taste and satisfaction.
And from the monitor engineer’s perspective, he/she can finally hear and experience exactly what the artist herself is experiencing. As hard as you try, second guessing the effect of a Marshall Stack behind the guitar player, is a guess at best. Hand signals are no longer needed, so sound checks move along faster and with far better results.
While cabling is still required to connect microphones to the head amps, which typically will be located at the side of the stage adjacent to the monitor engineer (if a monitor engineer is present), there is no longer a need for expensive splitters and multi-core cabling. This aspect alone saves hundreds of hours of labor over the course of a tour; reduces the size of truck space (or even the size of the truck itself); and eliminates tens of thousands of dollars of rental or purchase expense.
Band On The Run
Every AIR console comes equipped with Bob Lentini’s award-winning SAW (Software Audio Workstation), which works in the background to capture the inputs, the groups, the outputs, audience reaction mics, or whatever else you tell it to, up to 72 tracks.
The resultant recording can be used for a virtual sound check at the next gig, or it can become a full-fledged album release in its own right. You can overdub flubbed vocals at a later date in the studio, use an auto-tune plug-in, or leave it as raw as you wish. And speaking of plug-ins, the SAC platform supports VST, which means that a vast range of effects can be applied to one, or as many, virtual consoles as desired.
While the band’s en-route to their next destination, the engineer and producer can be busy mixing-down last night’s performance for Internet release, archival purposes, tomorrow night’s virtual sound check, the next day’s radio broadcast, or any other artistic or commercial requirement.
Those who desire physical faders instead of virtual ones, can interface an AIR console to a wide selection of commercially available control surfaces. Up to 256 faders, buttons, and rotary controls can be mapped to inputs, outputs, Aux sends, EQ and so on. Future AIR products will include dedicated fader banks that can be combined with PC tablets, bringing the best of both formats to users.
Though initially it can take some effort to get one’s head wrapped around the new concept of an AIR console, the payoff is likely to be worth the learning curve. The issues are no different than when the first wave of digital consoles originally entered the market.
Leading companies like Yamaha, Digidesign, DiGiCo, Soundcraft, and others, quickly realized that the key to selling their products was to help users become as comfortable as possible with the new paradigm of digital workflow, in as short a time as possible. AIR consoles realizes this as well, and has built its plans and has followed suit.
“Training is of paramount importance,” AIR’s Glen Campbell notes emphatically. “In this early phase we still provide hands-on assistance to every customer. This is essential for us to help our customers get up to speed as rapidly as possible, as well as for us to learn exactly what’s needed among our clientele, while we seek to broaden our scope of activities.
“In the near future, we’ll be introducing a variety of educational media, while we continually add product specialists and support personnel to our staff. Our customers must have a clear path available to them, in order to realize the full potential of this unique technology,” Campbell states. “This is essential for them to take full advantage of the unique capabilities that AIR consoles provides,” he concludes.
Ken DeLoria is senior technical editor for Live Sound International, and at one point during his highly accomplished career in pro audio, he served as worldwide director of live sound to launch Avid’s VENUE digital console.