Truck Audio Consoles: A Category in Transition

As much as audio loves analog, the reality is that the future is digital. Chris Fichera, VP of audio at Group One, which distributes DiGiCo consoles in North America, says he has been told that it’s less love of analog’s sound than concern over digital’s costs and often steep learning curves that keep some regional remote-production vendors from moving to digital.

“There are just some companies out there that are not ready to make the jump [to digital],” he sighs. “There are definitely the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ when it comes to being able to afford a digital console.” He notes that DiGiCo’s broadcast models — SD9B, SD10B, and SD11B — range in price from $25,000 to $100,000, price points the company has tried to tailor to the small-truck market. But, he says, even when a digital console fits a budget, it may still seem technically daunting to some users.

At Solid State Logic, according to VP of Broadcast Sales Steve Zaretsky, digital consoles can be costly compared with analog desks: the company’s C100 broadcast console costs several hundred thousand dollars, depending on channel numbers and configuration.

However, he points out, digital is an umbrella technology that encompasses far more aspects than simply mixing audio. He points to the C100’s integration of MADI audio-signal transmission and control as an example of how a digital console takes on functionality beyond mixing. He also notes software additions (the company calls them Production Assistants) that integrate such functions as automated 5.1 upmixing and C-Play, an embedded dual-player playout system.

SSL includes the developing college broadcast markets in its strategy, Zaretsky says, adding that he views the use of analog consoles as an “iteration” in the course of a longer developmental time frame that will inevitably lead to digital work surfaces. “All the trucks are going to have to eventually move to a digital platform, to remain interoperable with the rest of the industry.”

For the Regional Market
Denver-based Mobile TV Group is the largest single entity servicing burgeoning regional sports production, fielding 27 trucks covering more than 4,000 regional MLB, NBA, NHL, and other sports nationally. According to founder/GM Phil Garvin, the company began its shift to digital consoles in 2003 to accommodate 5.1 audio and greater versatility.

The change took place first with the main console, with Euphonix digital consoles installed (the brand was acquired by Avid in 2010) and used for the home portion of dual-feed games. The other feed, sent to the visiting team’s broadcaster, would often be mixed through an analog console, such as a Yamaha. Most recently, he says, the home consoles in the MTV Group’s new mobile units are Calrec boards, whereas he has acquired six Studer Vista 1 digital consoles for the visitor-feed desks.

Garvin has noticed a significant difference between the original migration to digital and this second acquisition cycle: “When we first made the transition, between 2003 and 2005, A1s needed to learn digital.” Now, he adds, they have to learn a wider range of user interfaces.

Another issue, he points out, is that digital consoles are developing at different rates: some can use embedded audio natively, others must have the embed/de-embed process handled externally. Until this year, the MTV Group used the digital-audio mixer’s internal router as the truck’s audio router. However, with the transition to embedded audio, the newest mobile unit in the fleet, 33HDX, will use an Evertz audio/video router. Garvin hopes that, eventually, audio consoles will natively handle embedded audio, with internal embedders and de-embedders, and MADI.

“Embedded audio has dramatically increased our ability to easily handle six to eight channels of audio, which is now required for our regional-network clients,” says Garvin, “and MADI has made connecting multiple audio consoles to the router much easier.”

No Analog Here
Of course, at the top of the remote-broadcast food chain, analog is almost quaint. “Not a single one” is how Paul Bonar, VP of engineering at Game Creek Video, describes his inventory of analog audio consoles. However, he is finding that, while the migration to digital desks set off an arms race to add features and capacity, which is running into the spatial realities of the confines of a remote-broadcast truck.

“Sometimes,” he says, “a console with all of the features and all of the faders that a customer wants just isn’t going to fit inside the space that we have.”

He notes that the Calrec Apollo is an in-demand console because of its dual-fader configuration. Freelance A1s like its because of its tactile aspect and ability to handle up to 144 faders, but the space available often results in the choice of a smaller console.

“Clients understandably are looking for the biggest, most powerful consoles that they can get, but that runs into issues of space and cost,” Bonar contends. “And the equation in choosing a console isn’t just size and cost; it’s number of inputs versus number of channels versus processing power versus space versus price. It’s complicated.”

It’s a peculiarly digital problem: analog consoles generally topped out at 48-56 inputs and, that created an implicit limit for years of truck audio-rooms design. Digital brought more-muscular processing, which increased the size of mainly rack-mounted engines, as well as such advances as touchscreen interfaces. At the same time, the size and complexity of the shows produced were growing, demanding more and more audio inputs and processing. That pushed digital broadcast consoles into the multilayered work surfaces, something that has not sat especially well with A1s accustomed to having all faders and channels available all the time on one surface.

The Calrec Apollo’s dual-layer design, which keeps a large number of actual (as opposed to virtual) faders available on the work surface, has helped keep it the front runner in the main-console competition. Henry Goodman, Calrec’s head of sales and marketing, points out, “With regards to physical size, there is clearly a limit to the number of faders you can fit across the width of a truck, which we have maximized on the Apollo with a dual-fader version, typically 144 faders. The art is to make all channels easily available to the operator, which is achieved in most consoles through fader layers. Calrec’s Bluefin2 consoles have 12 virtual layers but also a dual-layer system, which are all physically available to the operator.”

For the submix role, the shift to multilayered surfaces created an opportunity for a number of manufacturers to enter the upper reaches of on-site broadcast. Bonar says it’s common at this level not to specify a particular console for a truck’s effects-submix section, with the client instead renting whatever console the effects submixer prefers. That’s created incentives for manufacturers to court mixers and provide hands-on training to familiarize mixers with their boards. Studer, SSL, and other manufacturers have mobile or satellite locations that bring their boards to the freelance A1 community for training and to build brand awareness.

As truck-mounted consoles become increasingly an integrated part of a larger digital-signal–transport proposition, designs will continue to evolve.

“Most broadcasters are looking to leverage any efficiencies they can, which means OB companies looking at all aspects of their truck designs,” observes Goodman, citing Calrec’s Hydra2 8,192-squared router integrated into the Apollo and Artemis consoles, allowing all audio routing to be handled within the console, thus saving space, weight, and power consumption.

“Remote companies,” he says, “are responding by paying much more attention not only to the physical aspects of trucks but also to the workflows and staffing required to meet the needs of production environments. System power consumption, physical footprint, and weight are all key factors in running costs, and, as trucks are worked harder and setup times are minimized, workflows that contribute to rapid deployment are considered carefully.”

A  console is no longer just a mixer; it’s now part of the bigger workflow equation on the road.

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