In the August issue of ED, I wrote about the many factors to consider when upgrading your theatre to a digital sound console. I should have noted that, in addition to the all-important details such as audio quality, the key to a positive experience with this technology is customer support. As the Yamaha PM1D turns five this December, I thought that it would be timely to look at the process undertaken by manufacturers when designing a new digital control surface. Companies such as Yamaha, Digico, and Midas have invested a great deal of time and money to ensure that the future marketplace for digital control surfaces is assured. Most of that effort has been expended in the direction of making audio professionals comfortable with the concept of using a digital desk and in following up with generous support. In addition, manufacturers have been astute enough to have identified the need to involve working mixers in the design phase of these trendsetting consoles. For the purposes of this article I would like to focus on Yamaha since their efforts in terms of involving end users in the development of the PM1D exemplify the model.
Prior to the final design stage and subsequent 2000 release of the Yamaha PM1D, Yamaha's Commercial Audio division began to engage in a series of focus groups among all sectors of the audio industry that could eventually benefit from a large digital live audio console. Traditional analog audio markets such as concert touring would be one of the largest user groups of these desks but the advent of digital console technology would open up new opportunities. The broadcast industry, houses of worship, industrials, and live theatre were all given a large say in how the hardware and software would function. Yamaha identified that the theatrical market was a key group of power users who would push the envelope of how the console would be used. As such, many features of the PM1D have come out of the needs of theatre sound. Midas has just completed the first phase of a similar gathering of the minds and is very interested in incorporating features into its new digital console that will appeal to the theatrical market. Digico also sees new opportunities in the theatre market. With the direct involvement of sound designer Andrew Bruce, they successfully morphed their D5 Live console into the D5T, a theatrical version of the D5 Live.
Once the wish lists were compiled, the Yamaha technical teams sat down to look at solutions which would lead to the PM1D being usable by the largest cross section of the audio industry. It is a balancing act to ensure widespread acceptance of the console without favoring anyone too heavily or ignoring another's needs. That consultative process will continue through the life of the product. Via emails and phone calls, suggestions for features are considered so that with each software revision things move in the right direction. In 2001, version 1.00 of the PM1D Manager operating software was released. With the release of Version 2 software this past July, the PM1D has had a total of 14 software revisions. This may seem like a lot until you further examine the conditions under which a digital console is developed.
Unfortunately there is no such thing as a “concert touring or Broadway sound simulator.” Digital consoles and indeed most theatre technology must be tried and tested in the real world. Typically, problems such as software bugs are not discovered until a mixer attempts to do something on the desk in a particular sequence or in a particular manner. It would be next to impossible to sit in a warehouse and envision all of the button presses and knob tweaks that take place in the average show not to mention the rigors of moving the equipment constantly. We have all heard the stories about cataclysmic failures of one brand of digital desk or another, and certainly Yamaha has had some growing pains. One need only consider that half of the PM1D software revisions were bug fixes to begin to realize the complexity of bringing a product such as this to market, and then keeping it at the top of people's wish lists.
With PM1D Version 2, Yamaha has responded to customer input with 20 new features including things like Automatic Gain Adjustment to allow more sensible preamplifier sharing between FOH and monitors. The capacity of the channel library memories has been doubled with this new version and remote control of the PM1D has been implemented allowing an operator to use a smaller control surface in a venue that can't facilitate moving the PM1D from a sound booth or where audience seating is very limited. Catering to theatrical users, Yamaha has re-worked the MIDI Events list to resemble a true cue list structure moving toward the ability to control all aspects of show control via the sound console. I think one of the most exciting developments is new Add-On Effects available for not only the PM1D but also PM5D and DM2000. Complex Rev-X reverb algorithms rival those cherished outboard reverbs. Vintage compressor and EQ emulations are featured in a package called Channel Strip and a very clever modeling of tape-machine behavior is available as the Master Strip. The former sounds as good as many tube units costing thousands of dollars and the latter allows users to add tape saturation or the effect of changing the biasing to get that groovy analog feel. I find this feature very cool and completely in keeping with one of the key functions of a digital desk — to sound as good as analog.
None of the rich feature set available on today's digital consoles is worth it if the desk is prone to failure or difficult to use and maintain. You will be hard pressed to explain to management why the show needs to be cancelled due to a dead sound console when, for years, analog consoles have been so robust and dependable. Although plenty of options exist for adding redundant hardware, some manufacturers fall short when it comes to providing a human being at the end of the phone line. Yamaha offers 24/7 technical support in the United States with two people on call along with 10 sites around the country on retainer providing service and spare parts. For the past four years, Yamaha has been offering a comprehensive two-day PM1D training course. This type of education has undoubtedly reduced the number of calls to the support line, but more importantly, Yamaha has contributed to an industry-wide acceptance of digital sound consoles regardless of whether that means a PM1D or a Digico D5T.
As large-scale digital sound consoles gain acceptance, the Yamaha PM1D along with the Digico D5T continues to increase its presence in the musical theatre market. In this country, vendors such as Sound Associates, Masque Sound, and PRG Audio have multiple consoles on Broadway shows past and present such as Bombay Dreams, Movin' Out, and The Woman In White. The upcoming Disney production of Tarzan on Broadway, with a sound design by John Shivers, will be using PM1D on both FOH and monitors. The PM1D has traveled the country on tour with Mamma Mia!, The Full Monty, Movin' Out, Oklahoma, Blast!, and Celtic Women. On the West End, Orbital Sound has PM1D consoles on Saturday Night Fever, The Big Life, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Scrooge, The Woman In White, and the list goes on.
In much the same way that line array technology stoked the fires of brand loyalty, digital sound consoles have led to strong competition among the various vendors. In the near future Yamaha, Digico, Innovason, LCS, and Digidesign will be joined by players like Midas and Cadac. As this field grows, the real winners are those of us in the industry given the choice of a number of top consoles with ever-expanding features. As manufacturers duke it out for bragging rights, it is thanks to the people in the trenches who are willing to live on the bleeding edge of technology coupled with manufacturers willing to listen to their needs that has allowed digital sound consoles to move forward. As digital surfaces become more pervasive, continue to demand that there be someone out there to answer your call when the proverbial you know what hits the fan.
David Patridge is a sound designer, production sound engineer, and audio consultant based in Toronto. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.