This is what “the perfect mixing console” should be in 2022

Mixing consoles have come a long way in the last couple of decades. A lot has improved, to the point where today I think we might be close to what I’d call “the perfect solution”. We’re close but not quite there yet. Here’s what I think is missing.

I’ve been doing sound reinforcement for all kinds of live performances for the last… phew, 15-20 years or so – it certainly feels like its been that long. During that time, I’ve used all kinds of equipment for mixing: I used analog and digital mixers from companies like LEM, Yamaha, Soundcraft, Behringer,… I even had to use my smartphone once (that wasn’t planned but saved my ass, but that’s another story). A lot has changed in the mixing space over these years. A lot has improved, to the point where today I think we might be close to what I’d call “the perfect solution”. Of course, a “perfect solution” is highly subjective. What I consider “perfect” might not meet someone else’s needs at all. You probably won’t agree with everything, but I think I can speak for the majority of small to medium and maybe even some large scale productions. So let’s look at what’s out there and what it needs to become my “perfect” solution.

First, it has to be digital. I’m a digital native and a software engineer. By now I can handle fader banks, layers, virtual patching etc. Nobody wants to carry huge analog consoles, snakes and a truckload of outboard gear anymore these days. Let’s just take that as a given.

Second, I don’t own or work for a production or dry hire company. By that I mean: while not being the only criterion, price is something I have to keep in mind. For the kind of work I do, consoles from manufacturers like DiGiCo or Avid are simply way too expensive. The good thing is that, again, for the work I do, I don’t need such high end consoles. So for me, this rules out high priced solutions. Then there are solutions that are “affordable for mere mortals” but aren’t that great (e.g. I have used a Yamaha TF3 and can only agree with its critics). When it comes to price performance ratio or “bang for the buck” in a price range I’d call “affordable”, there’s just no way around Behringer. While there are a couple of great alternatives from companies like Soundcraft, Allen & Heath or Presonus, it always seems like they’re missing a handful of features or are less flexible when compared to the matching Behringer product, while always being a bit more expensive. Since Behringer (or rather “Music Tribe” as their mothership is called today) acquired Midas and Klark Teknik in 2009, they’ve been able to mix and match these companies’ technologies to bring even more “bang for the buck” and make competitor’s lives even harder. Look, I don’t want to sound like a Behringer fanboy and there are certainly valid alternatives out there. But for me, Behringer’s X32 ecosystem (which is compatible with Midas’ M32 one if I ever need something “more solid”) is the one I went with a couple of years ago. And since it’s the ecosystem I know the best at this point, I’ll take it and its products as examples from here on – knowing that they’re certainly not the “only” nor necessarily the “best solution for everyone” out there. I hope you can bear with me even if that particular ecosystem is not your cup of tea.

After ruling out analog mixers and high-end prices, the next thing to consider is the feature set and flexibility of the solution. Your “required” or “desired” feature set will heavily depend on your use case. Here are just a few things to take into consideration:

  • Quality of available AD/DA converters and Preamps
  • Total number of input channels the mixer engine can handle
  • Number of buses (are they stereo / mono?)
  • Quality of on-board plugins (EQs, dynamics, effects,…)
  • Digital routing flexibility (e.g. can I feed the delay return back into the reverb?)
  • Ease-of-use / flexibility of the available control surfaces (more on that later)

Usually, most of these things are pretty decent these days. One thing that bugs me with the X32 platform is the available number of mix buses. I find 16 mono mix buses somewhat limiting when you consider that you need them for effects, as IEM/monitor mix buses and sub groups. DCAs can avoid the need of subgroups in some cases, but with some projects I like to use group compression or to put a de-esser on a vocal group because of too few FX slots to put them on individual vocal channels. A DCA group just can’t do these kinds of things. Additionally, if I’d like to pan backing vocals or deal with stereo signals in subgroups, a mono bus just isn’t enough… long story short: I tend to run out of mix buses fairly easily. Fortunately, Behringer’s next-gen Wing engine comes with 16 stereo buses, which should make my life much easier – once I’ll be able to use that Wing engine (we’ll get to that later).

Another X32 pain point is the limited routing flexibility. To be fair, this has improved with newer firmware versions: The workaround they found to make the group-of-8 patching more flexible feels clumsy but at least there is one. But besides that, we still encounter seemingly arbitrarily limitations. For example, adding salt to my previous pain point, you can only chose a channel’s pickup point for pairs of buses. Wanna put an FX send bus next to an IEM bus? Well, depending on which bus numbers you have at hand, that might not be possible.

Bus send page of the X32-Edit Mac App

The Wing engine lifts this limitation as well. In general, it allows for a lot more flexible routing across the board than the X32 engine. I heard some concern that this increased flexibility might get some less experienced users lost but as far as I’m concerned, I always embrace more flexibility. Less experienced users can always be guided by a good user interface and this can be improved by software updates. If the engine doesn’t allow flexibility however, that’s a wall that power users are going to hit sooner or later and that’s not solvable by software updates. So well done on the Wing engine for this one, Behringer!

So far I’ve only been narrowing down existing choices and at this point, you might be wondering about the “what’s missing” part I promised. Well then, here it is:

Hardware portability and modularity

Unlike all other areas, it seems this one doesn’t keep on getting better with every new model. There has been some good in the past but also some very bad – even with some of the most recent models.

In the pro audio industry, there seems to be this belief that “to be credible, a console has to be huge and heavy”. Why is that? If I hadn’t already ruled out DiGiCo consoles because of their premium price tag, I certainly would’ve done so now: you need a warehouse to store them and a truck plus a whole crew to get these things from A to B (maybe with the exception of the SD11). Don’t get me wrong though! For large-scale productions, big consoles on which you have a great overview and direct access to as much of your mix as possible are absolutely justified and even desirable (and since that’s what DiGiCo is going for, their big consoles’ size is perfectly justified). However, most small-to-mid sized productions and projects aren’t going to need big control surfaces like this. So making these things huge and heavy should be a thing of the past. Move on, get creative, make things smaller and lighter and save all our backs.

DiGiCo SD7
97OllieB, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This might come as a surprise but when I switched to the X32 ecosystem, I specifically chose against any of the X32 models with a control surface. I chose the X32-Rack and I am still more than happy with that decision. See, at that time, I had (and still have) lots of gigs with recurring performers / bands and I usually have the chance to build a solid console scene in advance. During the event, the amount of tweaking can be kept to a minimum. Also, with one of my projects we regularly perform as one of several acts at shows that are already running when we arrive. On stage, we have to set up a 4-piece band with instruments, backline, microphones, mixer, monitoring and have a 2xXLR stereo signal ready in ~ 5 minutes, all of this with only the musicians and me as the sound guy. Also, I don’t have a fixed FOH spot most of the time so I need to be wireless and able to position myself wherever I want in the venue.

These scenarios led me to go for an X32-Rack as the mixer and an iPad with the M32-Mix app as the control surface. The portability of this solution is stellar: A single portable rack on wheels with a handle that looks more like hand baggage than a flight case (called “Rackbag” and built by Gator) holds the console, a network router with a detachable wireless access point, a power distribution strip and even the iPad itself. When I need the 8 extra inputs, I have an SD8 digital stagebox sitting in a transport bag ready to go. All of this is lightning fast to set up and fits on the passenger seat of any car. I LOVE it, so much in fact that I never want to go back. That brings me to my criteria: the whole mixing solution has to be sized and have a weight such that a single person can carry every individual part of it and the whole solution has to fit in pretty much any regular car – all of this with the equipment safely sitting in appropriate transport cases.

X32 Rack in a Gator Rackbag

You might think that my usage scenarios are corner cases and that controlling even a mid-sized event without a ready-to-go mixer scene and only with an iPad is anything but comfortable – and you’d be absolutely right: I’d never do that. In fact, we only talked about portability until now, but here’s where modularity comes into play. A highly scalable solution would have to separate the 3 elements that make up a modern digital console: the engine, the i/o and the control surface. With “the perfect solution”, it must be possible to mix and match any of them. Having this modularity would help achieving the portability goals pretty easily by the way. In fact, this idea isn’t new. While I was researching for this article, I reminded myself of the Avid VENUE S3L console. With the S3L, Avid did exactly that: they separated the engine from the i/o and the control surface. The S3L was arguably among the most elegant live control surfaces I’ve seen to date. Unfortunately, as said before, that solution was way above my budget, and besides that it seems it has been discontinued in the meantime in favor of, yet again, huge and heavy fully integrated VENUE control surfaces.

Avid VENUE S3L control surface in use
BasshagCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Avid S3 control surface product picture
Source: https://www.avid.com/products/avid-s3

So let’s look at Behringer again. I think we can agree that they modularized the i/o part pretty flawlessly: They have 8×8 all the way up to 32×16 digital stage boxes. If you want even better preamps, Midas has you covered. If you’re looking for personal monitoring solutions, there’s the Behringer P16M or the Midas DP48. I know I sound like a sales rep at this point, but that part is modularized, flexible, compatible and there’s not a single device that doesn’t meet my portability criteria, so hey: thumbs up to that!

Now when it comes to the modularization of the engine and the control surface, things don’t look so good. In fact, I have a couple of projects coming up where I won’t be able to have a ready-to-go mixer scene and where I could have a fixed FOH space in the venue. An iPad as the only control surface doesn’t seem ideal. I’d really like to bring a control surface with me but today’s options are… disappointing. After all the praise I gave to the X32 and Wing ecosystems before, unfortunately I cannot do the same when it comes to modularity and portability of their control surfaces. Yes, there’s the X-Touch family of products that work with the X32 family of consoles. So there is some modularity here, great! However, it seems like X-Touch has been primarily built to control DAWs in the studio. Yes it can control X32 consoles complete with parametric EQs, dynamics, some routing, mute groups etc. but the way the controls are mapped onto the rotary encoder row seem far from intuitive. The goal of a control surface is to be able to quickly reach a setting and tweak it and while I think the X-Touch is a great start when it comes to control surface modularity, it’s not what I’d consider “the perfect solution”. (Also its price recently jumped up despite its age, making it even less attractive).

A Behringer X-Touch annotated to be used with an X32 engine
Source: getlostinsound on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugm2-tLwnnU

Why can’t I have a control surface like the Wing? The Wing’s control surface looks awesome, it has everything I want: a big comprehensive touch screen, a bunch of faders and control knobs – that’s it. Plus, it’s super slim right? Wrong! Yes, the Wing’s control surface (the light gray part) seems really slim. Unfortunately, Behringer decided to attach the “engine” part of the console to the bottom of the control surface. As great as the Wing is, I think this was a really bad decision. I can only guess the reasoning behind it. It’s probably because it’s more ergonomic to have big consoles be pointing at the user at an angle rather than laying horizontally flat on the table. So why not just use that angle and put the mixer engine and some digital and analog i/o there? Well because it wastes an incredible amount of space. Case builders now have to enclose a huge volume of air. The flight case itself ends up so big that it’s not portable by a single person, cannot be transported in a regular car and probably only be stored in a warehouse. Exactly like the original full-sized X32. It’s really a huge missed portability opportunity.

Behringer Wing Console Flight Hard Travel Case by ZCase product image
Source: https://www.proxdirect.com/products/view/Behringer-Wing-Console-Flight-Hard-Travel-Case-Flip-Ready-Easy-Retracting-Hydraulic-Lift-for-by-ZCase-XZF-BWING#largeSlide

How can this be improved? Well, first of all, detach the control surface from the engine. If you really want it to be tiltable, add a retractible mechanism underneath it like you did for its touchscreen. Make the engine a 3-4U sized rack-mount unit that comes with digital and some analog i/o out of the box (hint: just like the X32-Rack). The rest of the control surface could be kept as-is for large-scale events. Personally, I don’t need to mix with 2 engineers and I’d like a smaller version of it: so for “the perfect solution”, make the controls just a bit more compact and shave off some faders and about 1/4 of the “do whatever you want with it” knobs. A slightly smaller Wing control surface could lean towards the Avid S3L in terms of thickness and size and could fit in a perfectly sane-sized, very slim flight case that would meet all the portability criteria above. Just make sure the touchscreen keeps the same size.

With a modular solution like this, I could just take the engine with an iPad for my quick-and-dirty gigs, attach a bunch of i/o if needed and attach a bigger flexible control surface when things get serious. And all of that could be carried by a single person, transported in a regular car and stored in a regular basement. There we have it, “the perf…” – no wait, there is one more thing.

There’s one aspect that tends to be forgotten when it comes to modularizing a digital console: what about the local i/o I do want to have at the FOH? Like a talkback microphone, a pair of headphones or near-field monitors, a CD/mp3/media player of some sort or even outboard gear? All of these could be very important depending on the scenario but now that we’ve separated the control surface from the engine, there’s no audio left at the control surface. That is actually already one of the major downsides of the X-Touch products today: no talkback, no monitoring and no local i/o at the FOH.

Sure, I could place the engine itself at the FOH and use its analog i/o or attach an external i/o box. However, that still doesn’t give us a ready-to-be-used headphone amp and connector. Plus, I could easily imagine scenarios where it would be more suitable to have the engine running on or behind the stage and we want to be flexible after all, right? At this point, we have to ask ourselves the question: how would the control surface and the core be communicating? As it stands today, it seems to me that Behringer maneuvered themselves into a corner here: AES50 can carry audio over a CAT5 (ethernet) cable, the consoles can be controlled via ethernet – but while they use the same type of cables, the protocols are not the same. AES50 cannot be routed by your standard TCP/IP router and can, to my knowledge, not transport remote control data (yet?). On the other hand, regular TCP/IP networks like the one used for remote controlling the X32 from the X-Touch or an iPad are notoriously bad at real-time / low latency multichannel audio (with Dante probably being the best option in this space, but that’s out of scope for the problem at hand). So as it stands today, it seems to me like you’d have to connect the engine with the control surface with 2 CAT5 cables (one for controlling, one for audio) if the latter should have some local audio i/o. Alternatively, Behringer could use their new StageConnect technology to get some audio to/from the control surface. But since that uses a regular XLR cable, you’d still have to run 2 cables and that would still be less than ideal. So this remains one of the problems left to be solved: being able to remote control a console while also sending a bit of audio back and forth using a single cable.

So to summarize: a lot of aspects are very good already in today’s digital console platforms: They are available in all kinds of sizes while the on-board feature sets usually cover today’s needs pretty well. Digital stage boxes – because of their nature – are well modularized already: They’re flexible, portable and are available at different quality- and price levels. What’s missing is modularity, portability and flexibility for the rest of the hardware, especially control surfaces.

My ESC 2011 Top 10

It’s been awhile since I last took the time to write a piece of text longer than 140 chars 😛 So let’s take the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) 2011 as an occasion to update my blog.

Yah, I know, there’s some controversy around the contest, “European Neighbor Contest” etc, and honestly, I hadn’t even planned watching it this year. But what can I say, it got me again. I guess, being a musician myself, there’s no way around the biggest European music event anyway. So I watched (at least a major part of) it live and got myself the album afterwards.

After listening to it a couple of times, I gotta say there were a whole bunch of great songs in the contest this year. An accurate Top10 list is almost impossible to compile, but since Top10 lists are so popular on the internetz, I made an effort. So here’s my personal ESC 2011 Top10 (based solely on the songs themselves, not the live performances nor the YT-Videos):

  1. Coming Home / Sjonni’s Friends (Iceland) [YT]
  2. In Love For A While / Anna Rossinelli (Switzerland) [YT]
  3. New Tomorrow / A Friend In London (Denmark) [YT]
  4. The Secret Is Love / Nadine Beiler (Austria) [YT]
  5. Running Scared / Nikki & Ell (Azerbaijan) [YT]
  6. Never Alone / 3JS (The Netherlands) [YT]
  7. Change / Hotel FM (Romania) [YT]
  8. Que Me Quiten Lo Bailao  / Lucia Perez (Spain) [YT]
    [Strong contestant for the Summerhit-2011 Title btw!]
  9. One More Day / Eldrine (Georgia) [YT]
  10. Da Da Dam / Paradise Oskar (Finland) [YT]

 

I love new media

Still Alive Remixes album cover

Still Alive Remixes album cover

Those who know me have certainly noticed me talking about my love for new media companies (especially Revision3) all the time. Yep, media is changing, no doubt about that. And to me, the increasing popularity and value of video games is part of it.

Remember the old days when you had your small little NES with shitty monochrome graphics and some quirky music banging from the speaker? Well, in case you didn’t notice, those days are gone.

Fast forward to today… in the BlueRay age, we have high definition handhelds and gaming consoles. On a sidenote, I just attached my 360 to the Surround Decoder I bought 2 weeks ago, and it’s absolutely epic 😀 But not only the playback has been improved, distribution has evolved too.

Nice little example happened toady, and let me highlight the elements that wouldn’t have been 10 years ago:

I was watching trailers and in-game-footage from Mirror’s Edge on YouTube. That game looks amazing and I’m definitely going to get it. I could buy it online right now, but I’ll wait until I’ll be in the shop next time and do it old school ;-). On some of the trailers, they had the “official Mirror’s Edge soundtrack” playing in the background while showing off amazingly realistic over-the-rooftops-action from the game (when did games start to have commercial-grade soundtracks again?). The combination of that song with those high definition video sequences instantly got me. As soon as I got home, I fired up the iTunes store and searched for Mirror’s Edge. NOTE: I was looking for music from Lisa Miskovsky, an artist I never heard about until today! Not only have I found the soundtrack, but a whole album of remixes, done (just for that game) by some of the best DJs around… AMAZING! Instantly bought a couple of DRM-Free versions of that soundtrack. Right now, I’m blogging about it, maybe someone will read this article, go check out the song on iTunes or Amazon and buy it there, who knows…

There are days where all that stuff just overwhelms me and I put on my happy pants 🙂

Ok, nuff said, here’s the song I’m talking about:

Lisa Miskovsky – Still Alive (The Theme from “Mirror’s Edge”) [Radio Edit]

The iTunes Album “Still Alive (The Theme from “Mirror’s Edge”) [The Remixes]” is here.

Does last.fm steal iTunes Store logins? – Bad coincidence or scary finding?

Some days ago, I decided to give last.fm a try. Since the website itself is pretty much useless without the standalone “scrobbing” app, I downloaded and installed it. I had iTunes running while it was installing and running it for the first time. To my surprise, last.fm’s Mac client closed iTunes without asking. No matter, I restarted iTunes right away and it was OK. A day later, I decided to quit using last.fm and deleted the app. During all that time, I didn’t close iTunes.

Now to the scary part: a few hours later, I wanted to log into my iTunes Store account to redeem a code and here’s what happened:

Obviously the login didn’t work. I tried a wrong password and got a different (more appropriate) error message so it wasn’t an authentication or connectivity issue.

What might not be obvious for everyone is that the red text references a Java exception and a term used in the Java Virtual Machine (the PermGen space). So far so good but the funny thing is that iTunes is not written in Java! Restarting iTunes solved the problem but thinking about it afterwards made me realize what might have been happening here…

I’m not accusing last.fm but looking at the facts, there’s a slight possibility that their client intercepts iTunes Store logins! (well I guess I might be accusing them somehow now…)

  • Having used the iTunes API myself (on windows), I know it’s not necessary to restart iTunes in order to get information about the track that’s currently being played. However, since last.fm isn’t supposed to do more than that, why in god’s name did it restart iTunes? Not asking for it makes it even more suspect…
  • After uninstalling the last.fm software, maybe some of its Java code from within iTunes was trying to gather my login data, throwing an error because it couldn’t reach the last.fm software for submitting it?!

I insist that this is total speculation, I know the last.fm software is open source and that it claims not being spyware but please, explain to me why some java code has something to do with “FieldName” in the iTunes Store login box?! You’ve got to admit that that’s suspect!! At least suspect enough for me to not use it anymore and to write this article.

Besides, -let’s be really paranoid for a second- even though the “good” source code may be available, nothing prevents them from compiling an “altered” version of their client and providing that for binary download. Most (non-geek) people don’t install from source anyway and, since it’s binary, no one might ever notice any difference. Oh, and did I mention this is still speculation?

Anyhow, the observations are all real and no one has proven the contrary so there is a slight chance I might be right. Now, if anyone has an explanation for this, feel free to reply!

The song I couldn’t get: Josh Harris’ “Too little too late” remix

This is totally killing me! I heard that excellent “Jojo – Too little too late” remix on Energy98 ages ago. I immediately fell in love with the remix (I can’t stand Jojo’s original, it’s too R’n’B’ish for me). Since I want to support artists who make good music, I went to iTunes to buy it. Unfortunately, as all too often, that particular remix wasn’t available on the Belgian iTunes Store. A quick international search indicated that it wasn’t available on iTunes at all.

“Too bad for them” I thought and went to see if I could get it on a p2p network. Unfortunately again, the search results for “too little too late josh harris” were blown up with useless crap MediaDefender style, so I gave up.

Today, months later, I refreshed my search checking Google and Amazon. I had no luck on Amazon, but google brought up this imeem.com result

http://media.imeem.com/m/AM145gGktl/aus=false/

Yesss, this is the song I’m talking about. Now I know I could capture that flash’s output to a file blablabla… hey! I’m an audiophile, so don’t even try to sell me flash quality.

No, seriously, WTF is wrong with media? They’re obviously still not getting it… I’m not a pirate, I want to spend my money on music I like, but they’re still riding their old selective distribution horse “If we don’t think it’s worth it, we won’t distribute it”, well at least not in a way the majority of pepole can benefit from. In today’s petabyte era, why don’t they put everything they can in online stores so people can choose to buy a track even if it’s a couple of years old or if it wasn’t, in their opinion, quite good enough to be put on the physical EP?

I guess I’ll never stop blaming the music industry…

She made it

Trying to do kind of a follow up to this earlier post I made, I’m pleased to report that Kina made it to the very top of the contest, she won it! Currently, she even shows up on the front page of the US iTunes Store, pretty cool, huh 😉

Kina Grannis on iTS Front Page

I immediately wanted to buy the song but, once again, I feel the national barriers of the iTunes Store are a pain in the ass… No “Kina Grannis – Message From Your Heart” in Belgium. The self-produced albums she did earlier are there (guess she must have made them available worldwide), but the contest song, which is produced by Interscope Records is not. Screw you record industry and your national barriers!

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to hear from her in form of new, professionally produced songs.