Suppliers of OB Audio Consoles See the Playing Field Leveling Out

The predictable trends in OB-audio-console design continue: consoles are getting smaller, lighter, and more powerful. But the context has changed: more players want larger pieces of the market, and they believe that the leveling nature of digital technology, a new generation of mixers accustomed to the multilayered-GUI concept, and the demand for more, less-expensive mixing surfaces for B units for the burgeoning academic and regional sports markets will help them achieve that.

“The layered approach is new, and it’s the only way to have lots of channels on a console that costs less then $100,000,” says Chris Fichera, marketing manager for Group One Ltd, which distributes UK-made DiGiCo consoles in the U.S. “The layered approach has to be accepted on the lower end of the scale for sports mixers, and it is becoming more accepted,” particularly by younger mixers, he adds.

With up to 24 layers of signal-path control versus the two layers offered by their predecessors, the new Apollo and Artemis consoles from Calrec, which dominates the OB market in the U.S., are considered by some competitors as establishing multilayered consoles as the standard GUI for the future, thus leveling the playing field.

“If the user interfaces use a similar method of operation,” asserts Stagetec President Rusty Waite, “it gives broadcast mixers more choices in terms of what products they can use.”

However, Henry Bourne, a product manager for Calrec, points out that “Apollo and Artemis, while they appear strikingly different at first casual glance, have been designed to operate in a very similar manner [to other Calrec consoles], keeping this operator familiarity.

“Calrec consoles have had access to two layers of faders,” he continues. “This was a very simple setup, which provided good visibility for all the paths on both layers and allowed quick access to them when required. Apollo and Artemis take this further by providing 24 layers, if you want to use them. If you don’t, then you can ignore them and work in the same way the previous generation of desks worked with the two A and B layers.”

Bourne notes that other design aspects were influenced by OB factors. “The fader pitch on the Apollo surface is 30 mm to allow for as many faders to fit in as possible,” he explains. “There are also almost no gaps between faders on different panels in the desk. Having access to as many physical faders as possible is so important to a lot of operators that we have developed a dual-fader panel specifically for space-limited OB situations. This drops in place of the ‘standard’ Apollo fader panel but provides two rows of physical faders, giving you immediate access to twice as many faders.”

Dave Roman, who runs DiGiCo’s technical sales and support, says another key attribute for remote mixing consoles going forward is connectivity on a network: “Whether it’s MADI on copper, Cat 5 or optical, networking multiple consoles is very important.” He notes that up to five of DiGiCo’s SD10 desks can be daisy-chained on a network to increase channel counts for complex broadcasts.

Waite says the integral router that Stagetec’s consoles use is there for exactly that reason. An integrated router will add to the overall cost of the console but offers more flexibility, he points out.

Not surprisingly, Waite is also an advocate of the layered GUI as the logical way to compensate for the additional space that an integrated router inevitably brings. But he also says the concept is making inroads among even the most veteran, analog-raised mixers.

As that evolves, he adds, other things will be necessary to differentiate consoles, including their sonic qualities; he underscores the Stagetec Aurus’s mic pre-amps, for instance. But he acknowledges that, for sports, instant familiarity with the work surface and confidence that the signal is flowing remain the sports A1’s primary concerns.

Vista 9 is Studer’s new flagship broadcast audio console, but its Vista 5 is the slimmer, lighter OB workhorse. The technology strategy, says Product Manager for Broadcast Katy Templeman-Holmes, has been to develop unique features for the Vista line, such as the HISTOGRAM event-memory capability, which gives mixers a look-back to find glitches in a live mix, allowing them to do a quick fix when putting a package together during a break, or FaderGlow, which lets mixers assign groups color codes that are easy to track in low-light conditions.

These features are bookended with strategic relationships, such as the Vista series’ integration of a card to accommodate Riedel’s RockNet audio-distribution network and the use of various generic control protocols, such as Monitora and ProBel. “The idea is to keep the console as functional and flexible as possible and have it compatible with as many other systems as possible,” says Templeman-Holmes.

DiGiCo’s Fichera says the expanding nature of sports broadcasting argues for more consoles and more connectivity. “ESPN alone does 3,500 shows a year. That’s how many a day that someone’s mixing audio for?” he asks, rhetorically. “The market that we’re seeing long term is the guy working a game in Kansas or Alabama for Speed TV,” as well as submixes for major-league games and sporting events.

These expansion markets are far more budget-conscious than the major networks and are creating a market for consoles priced in the $30,000-$60,000 range, he believes. “The reality is, cost will come into play,” he says. “The good thing is that the power of digital is allowing the features to stay even as the prices drop.”

Waite points out that the submix part of the market, which has become a key target for companies like his, needs a more sophisticated console now than it did even two or three years ago. “The networks are looking to enhance the dynamics of the games, so the submix is no longer just a 24-channel console,” he says. “They have to be able to handle a lot more.” He observes that the submix Jonathan Freed did on a 96-input Aurus console for the NBA finals in Dallas and Miami last week used between 60 and 80 inputs.

Now that the multilayer approach has become fairly ubiquitous, the generational change in console design is largely complete. The manufacturers are hoping they won’t have to wait for a new generation of broadcast mixers to expand the market’s console choices.


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