In the June issue of Lighting Dimensions, editor David Barbour discussed the lag time between the announcement and release of products in the lighting industry, a phenomenon he referred to as “perpetual anticipation” One of those long-delayed products, Martin's Maxxyz lighting console, has arrived and, thanks to the unique Beta process it underwent, already has a strong following. LD Patrick Dierson, who has specified the board for an upcoming event, says, “Given the economy and the math of a professional production, the stakes are a lot higher; you either have to come in correctly or go home. These guys are coming in correctly — they're not playing games. They listened and they continue to listen.”
This is apparently due to the fact that Martin has put a great deal of trust in its own team, lead by control products manager Michael Nevitt. “Martin as a company has been very supportive of the [Maxxyz],” says Nevitt. “When our team said it wasn't ready to be released, the company said, ‘Okay’. For them to wait a year in Beta testing is a big leap of faith, but they really stood by us. We wanted programmers to tell us what they need; they are the ones who will be using it. That's been our philosophy from the beginning.”
REACHING OUT TO PROGRAMMERS
The Maxxyz console debuted at SIB in Rimini, Italy, in March 2002, but that was far from the end of the story. After last year's LDI, while the rest of us were trapped in the perpetual anticipation loop, an unprecedented number of designers and programmers were invited to be Beta testers for the Maxxyz. Nevitt says the company sent out so many Beta test consoles because “we wanted to get the software and the hardware out there and really let people use it and beat it up. The Beta testers were really important to us.” Rob Smith agrees; according to the LA-based LD and programmer, “Martin really said ‘Work with it, tell us what's wrong and we will change it.’”
The Maxxyz went to work, showing up at WWE's Wrestlemania, a Sting DVD shoot, the Hollywood Bowl, various concerts, and The Tonight Show's summer concert series. Comments started pouring in and Martin was listening. “They really took the feedback and made something of it,” confirms Matthias Hinrichs, a German programmer now based out of LA, who just joined Martin (see pg. 21). Dierson adds, “I am incredibly impressed with the progress they have made on this console. I have never seen a manufacturer so quickly implement the things that people asked for.” New York-based LD Craig Caserta, who used the board all through the Beta test, says, “The R&D guys have been very responsive. You could always communicate with them.”
Martin, with its world headquarters in Denmark, not only has Beta testers scattered all over; its own in-house team is far-flung, as well. Nevertheless, Nevitt says this was not an obstacle: “We have had three symposiums where we got programmers together with the software engineers and had discussions on what should be done. We flew in from Denmark the guys who actually wrote the code, so the programmers could walk them through things. We also have a private [online] forum with the Beta testers and the engineers” Jeff Lloyd, a programmer and board operator, worked the console for The Tonight Show's summer stage and saw the benefits of the communication: “They moved quickly with the software updates and there is still a lot of good stuff happening; they just keep moving along.” Smith says, “There is a team of guys [in Denmark] writing code at a lightning pace.” Hinrichs says, “The progress is really amazing to see. You get software upgrades without getting 25 boxes of hardware at the same time.”
THE WINDOWS FACTOR
Expanding on that last remark, Hinrichs explains the lack of UPS deliveries: “You can work around a lot of stuff as a programmer and LD but you can't work around a board that crashes. The board has proven to be very, very stable.” Martin's code writers have worked closely with the division of Microsoft that deals with embedded programming; Maxxyz has an embedded Windows XP program at its core, which is not the same as being Windows-based, explains Nevitt. “It is a Windows XP Embedded system; it is a program designed strictly for writing other programming on top of it,” he says. “There is nothing else running on our machine; where you get in trouble is when you start loading in a million drivers, other programs, and games. We only have what we need in here and we will close the embedded system when we release Version 1, so you will not have access to Windows. The user will not even know Windows is there.”
Dierson agrees that the use of Windows shouldn't concern end-users. “The difference,” he says, “is that this is XP Embedded. This isn't what you walk into a store and buy. It is the core of the system. It uses only the drivers and processing needed. You aren't going to be loading in all the garbage that causes the conflicts.” Nevitt says, “The Windows-embedded system gives us all the network capabilities. The board is already a network; it consists of two separate computers talking to each other, but also we can plug right into any Windows network.” Both processors are running at all times and, when you move through different functions as you move the mouse, you are actually jumping between processors As a result, if one CPU fails, the other will act as backup to preserve the core functions of the console during a show. This is a feature Caserta loves: “It gives you a sense of security whenever you see the mouse moving from one monitor screen to the other and you realize it is really moving between processors seamlessly; it's wild,” he says.
The Beta testers found many other features to their liking, as well. Among them were the console's built-in 3D Visualizer (which is fully integrated into the console software), direct fixture access, a powerful effects generator, motorized faders, a DVD/CD-RW multi-drive, and digital LCD buttons that allow some flexibility in the layout. That flexibility is very popular with the testers because it translates into speed; Dierson says, “You can set up parts of this desk so they can be where you need them to be and are best for the way you work. Programmers are going to get into a flow on this board that will allow them to facilitate quickly what a designer needs.” Caserta adds, “It has already sped up my programming time, just because it is so graphical, so easy to use. It is such an intuitive desk, it has a very fast learning curve.” This was intentional, says Nevitt: “The Maxxyz is very easy to use for anyone, from a first-time user to a more accomplished programmer. Because of the graphical interface, you get a lot of visual backup to the functions.” Dierson also notes, “They've done the right thing in setting it up to be very intuitive. It has very simple commands, there are very few secret handshakes that you need to know to make it do things.” Smith feels the test itself helped. “Because of the beta process it works the way you really want it to work,” he says. “It got rid of all the stupid things consoles sometimes do because some engineer thought it should work that way. It has all the functionality of an extremely complex console but it is laid out a way to make it easy to use.”
LIKES AND DISLIKES
One much-debated feature is the use of digital belts to replace the parameter knobs of most intelligent lighting consoles. “They are a departure from what everyone else has but we went to this system because you can get more parameters at your fingertips,” explains Nevitt, “Almost everyone who used it at first thought it might not be such a good idea, but, in the end, they realize how nice it is.” Hinrichs says, “When I saw the belts the first time I said, ‘That's not going to work. But I was amazed at how easy it really is. Instead of having the wheels, they give you more control.” Another convert is Smith, who says, “I didn't think I would like the belt drive faders, but I love them now. It requires so much less movement to drive a light or move a parameter then on a wheel. You have to try them to understand it.” Dierson, however, is not yet sold on this feature. “The fader belts are going to be the biggest point of contention,” he says.
On the other hand, there is major agreement on the use of touch screens, because they are bright and viewable from all angles, even in sunlight. Caserta says, “No more cardboard hoods trying to see screens in the sun.” Hinrichs adds, “At the Hollywood Bowl, I was working in direct sunlight but I could always read the screens. These screens have changed how I work.” Smith says the screens “are brighter then any touch screen I have ever seen. Also, on some other boards you often have a lag on the touch screens and you sometimes don't feel they are very precise. These are really well-calibrated. This is the first board I would consider executing a cue off the touch screen.” This was one of Dierson's favorite features: “The touch screens are extremely firm. They feel as if you can tap on them with authority. The calibration of them is excellent. I think it is going to open up a new style of playback because these screens are so responsive The perpetual anticipation is over but, in this case, it was worth the wait according to the Beta testers. As Smith says, “It is the first console that is really built by programmers. It was an extraordinarily different Beta process and it is an extraordinarily different console because of that.”