Tech Focus

The Way Forward: Thoughts On System Processing & Control For Live/Touring Applications

There are some very interesting and helpful tools that have come onto the market over the last few years, so what's the next big thing?
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I’ll be honest, I’m pretty jaded when it comes to DSP (a technically-not-super-accurate blanket term that we often use as a catch-all for system processors, matrix mixers, and the like). Front of house control racks in the live/touring world continue to be dominated by the venerable Lab Gruppen Lake with some Meyer Galileo thrown in for good measure.

Despite its age and the relative fussiness of the accompanying software, Lake remains a staple because it can do things that no other platform can – virtually unlimited filters and layers, and the ability to EQ groups of otherwise-unrelated channels – think of it like EQ applied to a VCA. The ability to hand visiting front of house engineers a “clean slate” overlay of their own to adjust the tonality of the system to their liking, without exposing the existing filters used for alignment. Helpful routing and redundancy/failover options. It “solves problems” in a unique way.

Next Big Thing?

Yet I’ve been wondering for a while – as the Lake platform ages, what’s the “next big thing” in system processing and control?

There are some very interesting and helpful tools that have come onto the market over the last few years, certainly. The XTA MX36 console switcher is a compact, powerful, and very well thought-out utility for summing and switching multiple consoles at FOH, bringing the classic APB Dynasonics MixSwitch unit into the digital era, and with all the requisite options for Dante, AES, cascade, and failover. The unit is so handsomely designed that I strongly (and perhaps irresponsibly) considered buying one, despite the fact that as a freelancer I’m rarely charged with handling console-switching duties using my own equipment. I fully expect to see these units popping up at festivals in the near future.

Another interesting product is the Outline Newton. This FPGA-based processor is an extremely capable system switching, routing, tuning and control solution, with the ability to accept sources via analog, Dante, MADI, and AES, with 15 different options for clock sources, unique WFIR filters, a flexible and powerful software interface, and slick Smaart integration. It’s a processing powerhouse that I unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to work with firsthand (yet!).

One unit that I have recently become acquainted with is the Allen & Heath AHM-64. It’s a matrix mixer, but calling it a matrix mixer is almost unfair considering the sheer amount of processing power under the hood. Like the Newton, it is FPGA based (and, if I’m not mistaken, the same chip that lies at the heart of the Avantis console). 64 ins, 64 outs, and I don’t just mean IO addressable by the unit, I mean simultaneous processing. Yeah. 12 by 12 local analog IO plus SLink (Allen & Heath’s point-to-point protocol that can connect with their line of stage boxes and the SQ and Avantis consoles), plus an array of available expansion cards for Dante, MADI, Waves, and more.

The software interface is one of the most approachable I’ve seen – you can expect to be up and running on the unit inside of 10 minutes. Some of the tricks up its sleeve: Control Groups (think VCAs) that can set level/mute status for inputs, output, or even matrix crosspoints. Automation and recall-scope filtering on par with a mixing console – the ability to go super-granular with which parameters are affected by a scene recall means that the automation system becomes a powerful platform of its own, allowing the user to configure all sorts of presets to accomplish specific tasks without disrupting other work.

And the ability to route output zones to other output zones (think bus-to-bus routing on a console) means very high levels of flexibility with routing and processing tasks. Take your sub zone out and route that to two separate zones for left and right for easy tuning, or for multiple additional zones per side for beamsteering subwoofer arrays, while still retaining a master fader/mute/delay/EQ for the sub array as a whole…

Whatever You Want

This zone-to-zone ability and powerful automation system combine to offer a lot of the flexibility that I would typically associate with a free-wire DSP product (Symetrix, Biamp, QSC product lines are staples of the installed audio world for this reason – simply put, you can design them to do “whatever you want” between the input and the output). But the AHM-64 can do this and adapt to changes in real time without ever interrupting audio or pausing to “push” a config file. This is just about as close to “best of both worlds” as one could reasonably ask for.

I recently used the AHM-64 for an installation project and purchased one for myself with the intent of using it for live events going forward. I’m excited for what the future holds – thanks to the super-powerful chip inside, firmware updates could bring major enhancements. On my wishlist are automated failover/redundancy and the ability to add an EQ layer to a control group (here’s looking at you, Lake). Think about that one for a second and you’ll realize how powerful that could be.

I suppose we’ll find out in due time.

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