As more people are familiar with computers than audio mixing consoles, Versonic’s Prodigy is looking to use our familiarity with PC commands to bring us a radically different desk
The Prodigy console story actually starts with the Euphonix System 5. Having won a place in some of the most prestigious recording, broadcast and post studios in the world, as well as in live mixing, the System 5 is among the most capable and popular digital mixing desks currently available.
So why would Jim Miller, who spent two years as a lead developer on the System 5 project, think that there might be another approach to mixing for these applications? The answer is, that if a new mixing desk is to be designed, it should take a radically different approach to
Having grown up playing music in church, Mr Miller was familiar with the frustrations many volunteers face when trying to run an audio system for a church service. They struggled to make sense of the mixing desk – how to get a good mix, and sometimes how to use the most basic of its functions. They need a solution that is simple to use, yet solves problems they routinely face. ‘What traditional consoles offer are settings, not solutions,’ Mr Miller offers. Inspiration struck, and the concept for a new kind of mixing console began to take shape in his mind.
In 2007 he set up Versonic, with partial funding from Singapore’s Media Development Authority under the iJam programme, and from Innosight Ventures, a venture capital group specialising in companies that develop ‘disruptive technologies’, under the iDEAS fund. Versonic’s mission is to develop disruptive and innovative technologies that simplify workflow and resolve the technical problems often experienced in the audio, video and film industries.
Prodigy is the first in a series of products from Versonic, and is regarded as a ‘disruptive innovation’ by the company because it takes a different approach from established mixing consoles and how live sound is mixed. Mr Miller, now chief technical officer at Versonic explains: ‘Most technical developments are minor adjustments that enhance an existing feature or process, and in this sense are simply evolutionary in the product life cycle. We knew we would have to change our thinking and design approach if we were to begin to compete with well-established major players, so we approached the design by thinking through problems and shortcomings of existing mixing consoles. This included problems such as those experienced by church volunteers. By seeing traditional mixing consoles from a different perspective, we have created something that turns the market on its head, and without doubt, Prodigy will to change the market significantly.’
Although the audio technology available today it undoubtedly sophisticated and powerful, it is largely only usable by trained audio engineers – while a potential market of other, less experienced users struggle with sound production and reinforcement. Hindered by the complexity of the technology, how could they even begin to think about sound quality and creativity? The array of knobs, buttons, lights and other controls that delight many trained engineers, often resemble a minefield to the inexperienced or untrained.
A team of specialist designers and researchers was assembled at Versonic, and given the goal of making a console that is easy to use. Also part of the design objective was to address the church volunteers problem – how could people who were not trained in audio engineering easily set up a band or choir and manage that sound and not have to compromise on feature sets of world class audio mixing systems?
If simplicity of use was the first design parameter, keeping the cost down was the second. At the high-end, analogue consoles are expensive because of the size of the mixing matrix, and hence the requirement for high-quality components. Similarly, custom DSP chips are expensive because they require heavy research and development investment.
From this starting point, the Versonic team identified several issues. First, they removed the knobs and faders of the traditional mixing console from the equation and replaced them with a PC. Optimised for touchscreen operation, this interface provides friendliness and versatility, and customisation be built into the system – as can a video training manual. Second, instead of using expensive DSP chips, they took advantage of standardised components for the base system audio processing. As well as being cost-effective, the DSP solution offers processing power on a comparable level to top-end consoles .
The high R&D investment behind digital consoles and the cost bringing such equipment to market have been among the stumbling blocks encountered by digital alternatives to analogue systems. Furthermore, the development and application of audio algorithms, such as for compression and equalisation, call for specialists’ skills. With Prodigy, Versonic effectively killed two birds with one stone. By focusing on keeping the cost down, the team maintains that Prodigy also becomes simpler to use. There is no array of faders and routing buttons, and the way that the console is used is simplified, letting users focus on how the audio is mixed. The aim is for someone who has never managed sound at a live event before to be able do so in exactly the same way as an experienced audio engineer. So, the console has high-end features and sound quality without faders, knobs, buses or auxes. Prodigy also has a unique user interface; a touchscreen with two different available views – a graphically represented stage view and a traditional mix view.
The mix view will be familiar to all audio engineers – it has an array of channel strips like any other console, with the exception that the channels are set up in accordance with the stage layout. The stage view however, allows each channel to be set out according to the layout of the stage – a user sets up the channels by dragging the instrument icon over an underlying photo of the stage and places them ‘on location’ in the order they appear.
Prodigy aims to remove ambiguity and complexity from its operation, and allow a plug-and-play approach similar to GUIs in other areas of CAD. It does not do this at the expense of functionality, however, and supports all the usual processing – equalisation, compression and so on – along with control over each input and output. Settings for groups of mics, bands of musicians, or even individual voices or instruments, can be saved and recalled for later use, with no limit to the number that can be saved. Recalling the settings for multiple individual acts at a music festival for example, is equally simple.
ProFix is a useful and time efficient feature of the console – a hiss, buzz, and feedback eliminator. When any steady-state noise is detected, the system prompts the engineer to eliminate it – rather than doing it automatically, as there are times when desirable and undesirable noise can be confused. Where it s unwanted, however, one touch eliminates it.
Versonic also offers automatic session recording to further ease the audio engineers job. Provided that an SD card is inserted, the system records automatically. The system is capable of recording from any mix bus that a user assigns, and will currently handle 17.5 hours for eight channels of 48kHz audio at 24 bits on a 64Gb SD card in .WAV format. It is only possible to record output channels at present, but card capability is expected to improve over time to allow recording of inputs as well as outputs.
Consistent with the operation of ‘conventional’ digital consoles, Prodigy uses drag-and-drop improvements to workflow, eliminating painstaking copying settings or processes channel-by-channel. Capitalising on PC-style commands, Prodigy has an ‘undo’ feature, allowing settings to be restored.
Unlike many digital consoles, however, where engineers manually assign buses and auxes, Prodigy takes control of assigning inputs to outputs automatically. By default, all inputs are routed to all the outputs, and each output can be used either as an aux send, stereo bus, direct out and so on. Even though all inputs are routed to all outputs by default, they are muted – to enable the signal paths, the engineer un-mutes the particular channel that needs to be heard. This has proved to be a very simple, yet effective and time saving, method to route audio signals within and outside the console.
Prodigy has 24 inputs and 16 outputs, which can be expanded by daisy-chaining an additional unit. All inputs are equipped with mic preamps as standard. Because the quality of sound within the digital domain is critically dictated by the quality of AD/DA converters, Versonic took a no-compromise approach to its design. As a result, the converters used on Prodigy are the same as those found in several high-end, stand-alone 96kHz studio quality AD/DA converters.
Monitor mixes are also approached in a different way to those of a regular console, doing away with assignments, patching and routing operations at the desk. Instead, this can be managed remotely, and an application has been developed allowing musicians control over their headphone or monitor mix via an iPod Touch. In this way, musicians themselves can adjust the level along ‘more me’ or ‘less me’ lines. Because control of Prodigy is managed with a touchscreen, it is possible to have an impressive 42-inch touchscreen, or be totally mobile and walk around with a small touchscreen or laptop. In this way, smaller venues need not be restricted by the need to locate the mixing desk in valuable seating space.
With high-quality sound and a price tag comfortably lower than US$10,000, Prodigy could be a game changer on a significant scale. While it may be viewed with caution by established sound engineers, it is likely to appeal to a wider audience of less experienced users who are unable to operate traditional mixing consoles. Challenging current working methods and technology is the hallmark of a disruptive innovation, and as one of the only consoles that deviates from the current standard, Prodigy’s entry into the market is going to be a interesting moment for the whole industry.
Published in PAME March-April 2010