Mixing and matchmaking
A new generation of digital consoles is sweeping aside old limitations and preconceptions. Among them, Calrec’s Apollo and Artemis are setting new benchmarks in broadcast
The tentative steps that accompanied the development and uptake of early digital consoles echo quietly now, as the they have turned the corner from the dimly-lit backstreet of ‘If’ to the highway of ‘How and When’. Fundamental questions of reliability and fear of unfamiliar mixing surfaces have become secondary to specifics of implementation and processing power. The digital desk has come of age.
Further proof, if it is needed, takes the form of the new round of consoles that are now coming to market, for these are taking giant leaps both in terms of the technologies that have become available and the confidence of users in every field from project room recording to ‘mission critical’ applications such as live sound and broadcast. With these enabling forces at work, console manufacturers have been given an unprecedented opportunity to explore the greater possibilities of digital mixing – and to accept the challenges presented by the newfound confidence and demands of a digital-savvy industry.
Among those pioneering the possibilities of digital broadcast desks is long-standing UK manufacturer Calrec. With its analogue consoles deeply rooted in many of the world’s most prestigious broadcast operations, the arrival of digital desks and younger companies bent on changing the professional broadcasters’ landscape could have left Calrec in the slow lane, however, tied to traditional technologies and a dying market sector. But that would be to underestimate the company’s intelligence and that of its R&D staff.
Released at the world’s two leading international broadcast shows – Las Vegas’ NAB show from back in April and the recent IBC in Amsterdam – Calrec’s Apollo and Artemis consoles demonstrate the freshness of the company’s thinking and the prevailing demands of the world’s broadcasters.
Apollo and Artemis represent Calrec’s second generation of digital broadcast consoles, following the Alpha, Sigma, Omega and Zeta: ‘We launched the Alpha as I was joining the company about 11 years ago,’ says business development manager Henry Goodman. ‘The technology was cutting-edge then, but it took us four or five years to get to the point where we could launch the Alpha console and so the technology is actually getting on for about 15 years old now. To get that length of life out of a single technology is pretty good, but we are coming to the point that the technology is limiting us in terms of what operators want to do – and a lot of that is to do with the development of technology and how the pick-up of digital consoles has happened.’
When the Alpha console was launched, the industry was making the transition from analogue systems to digital systems – including a lot of Calrec’s own users. ‘Because of the nature of broadcast, a lot of them were at very different skill levels,’ Mr Goodman observes. ‘They were working in environments ranging from live sound to freelancers in broadcast trucks, so a low learning curve was very important – we made the control surface very familiar in order to help that transition to be as smooth as possible.’
Today, however, people are more familiar with digital technology and are more used to digital consoles. ‘Actually, they are pushing the envelope with what digital consoles will do, and what they want to do with them,’ Mr Goodman counters. ‘Shows are getting larger, numbers of inputs are increasing, and people want to be able to handle more complicated shows in more flexible ways. So we needed to develop a control surface that took us on from the Alpha technology – that was a good transition between analogue and digital – that would give the flexibility that more sophisticated operators are looking for.’
If there was a critical learning curve for operators of early digital consoles, then there was also one for their designers and manufacturers. The conventions that had served them so well in the world of analogue desks needed to be revised, as they were quickly to appreciate: ‘Over the years that Calrec has looked at digital technology, we have made some mistakes,’ Mr Goodman concedes. ‘One of the things that we learned early on was that when you are designing a digital console’s architecture and structure, you have to start with the most powerful one first and move down, rather than starting with the smallest one and trying to move up. That can be done in analogue world where you are dealing with discrete circuits – there are issues, but fundamentally, if you start with a single analogue channel strip, you can add and add and add. But with a digital console, if you start off with a 24-channel engine, there is no guarantee that you get 500 channels out of the same engine.
‘We launched the Alpha as the top-of-the-range desk knowing what we could achieve, and scaled it down to make a range of products at different price points. Initially, we had probably three consoles in mind for the earlier range. It’s a historical thing – before that, we had a range of analogue consoles at different price points and hitting different aspects of the market, and we effectively tried to have digital equivalents of those with strategies for each part of the market.
‘I think we originally envisaged Alpha, Sigma and Zeta. The Omega wasn’t in our thinking until we released our Bluefin technology. Once we had that we were able to produce Alpha Bluefin, which over-doubled the amount of DSP processing capability, and then took a similar approach to Sigma. We also took the same approach to Zeta, which was the bottom of the range, but instead of calling it Zeta Bluefin, we made Omega. But it was the power of Bluefin that enabled us to offer that level of performance at that price.’
The Apollo platform sees development in three core areas of technology – the DSP system, I/O and the control surface. ‘In many ways, the DSP is the least big step,’ Mr Goodman reveals. ‘It is basically the same core FPGA technology as in the Alpha Bluefin, but advances in terms of the chips that are now available mean that we can get much more processing power. As bigger and faster chips become available, we are able to take advantage of them because FPGA technology is very scalable.
‘FPGA technology is off-the-shelf,’ he says. ‘We buy our chips from Altera, that’s no great secret, although there are other suppliers. What is unique about our use of the chips is using FPGA to do DSP – Calrec is the first company to be able to do this. That was the quantum leap we made from the SHARC-based processing we were using before Bluefin, and we were able to do that because our R&D guys recognised that it had become possible. And the reason that they were attuned to that was the use of FPGAs in some of the mixing systems in the Alpha – the Madi interface uses FPGAs as well.’
In terms of I/O, Apollo, Artemis and subsequent systems are also able to take advantage of the Hydra2 routing system. ‘We now have DSP and a router that can be linked in a much more flexible way than was previously possible,’ Mr Goodman explains. ‘We can link multiple consoles together and even have the router elements configured as a star network with consoles connected to the central star. So the router side is a bigger development than the DSP in many ways.’
Scratching the surface
And then there is the console surface… ‘We have probably spent more time finding new technologies and developing stuff that we didn’t have before,’ says Mr Goodman. ‘We are using OLED technology for the displays on the surface and a lot of TFT not only on the screens, but over the OLEDs to give “touch OLEDs” in effect. That’s all technology that we didn’t have before.’
We’ve seen OLEDs on phones for some time – they are bright, have a wide viewing and will carry a lot of graphic detail. ‘As we were moving from a console that was basically a dual-layer concept to one that uses multiple layers, visual feedback became more important to the operator,’ Mr Goodman elaborates. ‘We wanted to make better use of the displays on the console surface, and we felt that OLED technology was ready – and we’re obviously not alone in that. A console surface is of limited size and there is only so much display technology you can throw at it. Apollo, for example, uses up to 24 layers of faders so anything that can help give more information to the operator is vital to the new designs that we are coming out with.
‘Another area that we are very happy with is the use of colour. We have been able to use tri-coloured LEDs to shine light through the control knobs, which enables us to differentiate different controls by colour. It doesn’t even look like it’s a light technology, the top of the knobs simply look a different colour. Another area of concern is the reflections you can get from having TV monitors positioned above the desk making the controls difficult to see. We spent a lot of time looking at that, and trying to get optimum angles for the consoles and the displays.’
Using a desk that is a very ‘soft’ control surface with displays that are very flexible, raises the question of what to include and what to leave off the console – flexibility in configuration allows a broader range of applications to be addressed more simply. ‘And that can be taken a step further,’ Mr Goodman argues. ‘Where operators have assistants to help them, we can segment the console to separate areas for different operators with independent monitoring. That’s another advantage that technology has given us that we didn’t have before. Presently there is a maximum of three operator areas per desk and it can be made remote using Cat6 or fibre.’
As well as control, technology is also opening up networking possibilities. ‘We are looking at OB systems where the I/O routing of the desk is becoming more important because it enables studios to manage resources more efficiently,’ says Mr Goodman. ‘That is a very clear direction we are moving in – making more use of router technology to give people the flexibility to manage their facilities in ways that will save them money
‘It’s about footprint, it’s about DSP, it’s about power consumption,’ he adds. ‘We sell about 50 per cent of our consoles into trucks, so power consumption is a big issue on a number of fronts. Obviously there is the cost of the power but there is also the cost of cooling that necessitates. So, if you can make any piece of equipment smaller and cooler, it requires less space and less air-conditioning. Everything gets cheaper and you can get more functionality in a given space. With Bluefin we have halved the space and quadrupled the power.’
The first Apollo installation is at Fountain TV in London, where it will be used on a talent show that requires 90 to 100 mic sources in addition to pre-recorded material from VTRs and servers. ‘They are not handling 5.1 at the moment, but when you move into 5.1 you have an awful lot of channels that require DSP from the desk,’ Mr Goodman warns. ‘Some of the large trucks doing sports coverage in the US also have a large number of mic channels because they are already working in 5.1 – upwards of 90 mic channels from the venue alone. In Australia, the trend is very much along the lines of what is happening in the US and UK, but with the exception of Japan, elsewhere in Asia they have yet to start using such high channel counts. Japan is also interesting because they often have dedicated audio and video trucks in order to be able to get them around the narrow streets and park them up.’
And with the 1,020-channel Apollo and two variants of Artemis – Artemis Shine and Artemis Beam offering 640 and 340 channels respectively – out in the open, Calrec’s next step seems clear as Mr Goodman readily concedes: ‘It doesn’t take a genius to realise that we are probably going to be bringing a lower-cost console out in the not-to-distant future…’
Published in PAME November-December 2009