Tech Focus: Audio Consoles, Part 1 — Continued Evolution

The proliferation of sports networks, both collegiate and regional, has been supporting the remote-truck console market with robust sales. With little changing at the very top end of that market, where Calrec remains the dominant player, the middle and below tiers have become busier.

“We’re all making inroads to various degrees in different parts of the broadcast market,” says Chris Fichera, VP of audio at DiGiCo distributor Group One Ltd., of his company and its competitors, including Studer, SSL, and Lawo.

One area that he says has been fertile is a truck’s third console in, after the main mix and submix consoles, which is used to gather the audio for increasingly important ancillary content, such as interview, documentary, and bio packages on-site at events. He cites NEP’s EN1, used for ESPN’s Monday Night Football show, which carries a DiGiCo SD10 desk for local interviews.

“They not only need a separate console for that kind of content, in order not to tie up the submix console,” Fichera adds, “but they need the audio to be of the same quality as the rest of the sound, and they need to move it quickly — all of which argues for a small digital console.”

According to Mike Franklin, Studer’s senior sales manager for the U.S. market, the growth of regional sports networks has been a boon to console makers. In fact, targeting them is a key part of his sales strategy. As many as eight consoles, he notes, have gone to the Mobile Television Group, which operates 25 remote vehicles in the South, West and Central U.S. for such clients as the Big Ten.

“The audio console is one of the biggest audio capital expenditures in a truck, along with the router and the switcher,” he says. “If they go with an alternative [to Calrec] for the main console, it’s going to drive the cost of the truck down considerably, allowing them to recoup the cost of the truck from rentals faster. Plus, the A-1 user base for alternative consoles has grown considerably due to the growth in regional-level productions.”

Calrec’s market share at the high end may be commanding, but the company has been addressing nascent markets with smaller-footprint products, such as Artemis Light and its new Summa consoles. According to Head of Global Sales Henry Goodman, smaller consoles are part of a larger goal of reducing the time and effort needed for setups and breakdowns and, ultimately, overall costs. The broad implementation of MADI has contributed to that end, as will what he expects to be the next shift in signal transport aboard remote trucks: audio-over-Internet (AoIP), which will transform the truck into a small LAN.

“The effort,” he says, “is being aimed at reducing the amount of time it takes to set up and break down, the number of cables, and other things that contribute to operating cost.”

New Technology
Studer has made a significant fundamental shift in its core technology this year, with the introduction of its Infinity Processing Engine in the new Vista X digital console. Instead of the SHARC chips used as the core-processing engine for many digital-console designs, the Vista X uses CPU-based processors to provide greater numbers of DSP channels for large-scale, high-resolution audio processing and mixing. CPU processing, the company maintains, provides a scalable system, faster development of new signal-processing designs, channel counts upwards of 5,000 I/O, full-system redundancy without a single point of failure, and the possibility of running third-party algorithms.

The shift to CPU-based processing moves the audio console closer to becoming a full-fledged computer. Computers, however, can have shutdown problems.

“Console companies have struggled with CPU-based designs,” Franklin points out, asserting that Studer overcame that design roadblock by dividing duties between CPU and Field-Programmable Gate Array technologies. Studer’s CPU uses four FPGA integrated circuits, creating a large-scale router/mixer built into each Infinity processing core. The CPUs focus exclusively on channel-processing tasks, offering redundancy of the control surface with instant switchover between main and standby system without audio break, allowing the mixer aspect of the console to continue working uninterrupted.

Eventually, Franklin speculates, the console could evolve into a node on a cloud-based hub. “That’s a direction it seems to be heading in.”