OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS, Digidesign has focused on creating recording studio tools that have revolutionized the industry and have now set their sites on the live event world. To get a feeling of the philosophy behind VENUE, I recently caught up with Sheldon Radford, Product Manager for Live Sound at Digidesign, and Robert Scovill, veteran live sound mixing engineer and Market Manager for VENUE.
SRO: How did this all begin?
Sheldon Radford: The project started at the executive level in late 2000. Digidesign's current general manager Dave Lebolt had been a touring musician with artists such as Billy Joel and was always interested in live concert technology. We were looking for ways to leverage our control surface and signal processing technologies, and it made sense to explore markets adjacent to the studio business. Also, people were already using Pro Tools systems for playback and recording of live shows and repurposing our studio control surfaces for live applications. The challenge was put forth to offer the audio quality and unique plug-in processing capabilities we're known for in the studio in a package designed for the road.
Robert Scovill: I was brought onboard very early with the question, “Do you think we should get into this?” I was thrilled to see Digidesign considering it. I was an extreme Pro Tools user in the studio but still very grounded in the analog world. For me, digital consoles for live sound had seemed slanted from the design engineer's perspective rather than addressing the true needs of a mixer. On the road, I'd watch my own reactions, trying to come up with tactile design that would enhance what a mixer was trying to do. This was the opposite of what I call “putting the digital handcuffs on somebody,” where somebody gets so concerned in the operation of the console that they forget to mix the show. To avoid this, there was a tremendous amount of effort put into the ergonomics of VENUE's work surface.
SRO: Did the connection to Pro Tools make it friendlier as well?
RS: I think the fact that I was very familiar with the Digidesign product line made the learning curve a very easy transition, especially when dealing with the operating system. You could be pretty confident going in that they were going to integrate the plug-in architecture into the mixing architecture in a very solid, predictable fashion. But in terms of workflow, mixing live versus mixing records are very different from each other. During the mixing phase in the studio, you are dealing with nearly all “constants.” In a live show, there are hundreds of “variables.” Things can and will get away from you at times and working in a heavily layered mixing environment can be somewhat unnerving. There were great strides taken during the design of VENUE to stem that anxiety. The workflow on VENUE is very similar to mixing on an analog console but with all the expanded functionality of a digital platform.
SRO: A huge issue is roadworthiness and reliability. How did you approach this?
SR: We collected data from actual touring conditions and designed, tested, and verified against that. Then we looked at what points could possibly fail in any console. Power supplies are an issue so offering dual redundant power supplies was key. And, we didn't simply build on what we already had in the Pro Tools world. Our D-Show software was built from the ground up as a robust, modular, application-specific environment: Should certain pieces of the software fail, they could be restarted on their own without affecting the operation of the rest of the console.
RS: This was something that was discussed at the very first conceptual meeting that I was in on at Digidesign. I was having the first reaction that a lot of people were going to have: I didn't want Pro Tools to be in charge of my live sound. I told Dave LeBolt that our challenge wasn't to just make the next great console, but to change the mindset of potential buyers and users. On the other hand, it was encouraging to see Pro Tools code writers and mix engine designers working on this product. These writers have a very solid lineage and the success of Pro Tools both sonically and functionally speaks directly to that. The challenge before them was to try to make VENUE beyond stable. Compared to their competitors, Digidesign was going to have to raise the bar for what happens before, during, and after a crash. They have certainly done that in the console's ability to carry on mixing in the event of software reset. To date, we haven't seen a single software failure in the field.
SRO: It appears you've incorporated tiered failure points that allow mixing to continue even if part of the system crashes.
SR: Yes, we've included a back-up mode that's unique to this console. It allows you to carry on mixing with uninterrupted audio while the host computer is being reset. The reason we can do this is that all the processing takes place on separate DSP engine cards. So, if something has caused a failure that requires resetting, the control surface automatically goes into this back-up mode, bypasses the computer, and talks directly to the DSP engine. You don't lose your audio, all your signal processing settings are intact, and even your plug-ins continue their job. You can still bank and adjust faders, mute/unmute channels, and have full output control. And, when you bring the computer back on-line, it picks up from your last move during the off-line period and not from the crash.
SRO: Can you tell me how you arrived at your EQ section design?
SR: It's designed to be very flexible, offering both a digital and an analog mode. We modeled the analog filter response on that of a popular console renowned for its EQ section, and verified via phase cancellation that they did cancel to roughly 60dB. While it's nice to say you've got analog EQ emulation, it's also practical for people wanting familiar shelving filters on the outside and non-overlapping bands in the middle as a compared to the four bands of fully parametric EQ offered in digital mode.
SRO: What about ramp-up time for engineers?
RS: To me, the Achilles' Heel of all digital consoles is the control software. You've got to be able to easily get in and manipulate the software in order to pass audio and get the console ready for an event. I've had a console sitting at my facility for a while and happen to have a good relationship with the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, Ariz. So I've invited in local mixers, both inexperienced and extremely savvy, offered them no user manual, and asked them to get some audio going. It's been very successful. People look at it, the gears start turning, and they get it. That speaks directly to the digital handcuffs being taken off. I'm slated to use it with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers this year and can't wait.
SRO: Are any other tours taking VENUE on the road?
SR: There are a few out there right now with acts like Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, and Nine Inch Nails. The latter group is touring using two of them for front of house and monitors. Trent Reznor is a Pro Tools fiend, so when he found he could run his favorite plug-ins on a live console, he immediately copied over all of his preset files. And the comments back are that VENUE sounds great. That's a point that's often lost when discussing digital boards — sound quality was at the top of the list when we first conceived of this console.
Alex Artaud practices hearing health in Oakland, Calif. He encourages you to follow this link for his earlier piece on the topic: http://sromagazine.biz/mag/price_pros_pay/