Many Hands Make Light Work
Nowadays, the computer is your ever-present audio production assistant. One major benefit is its ability to record our actions on a mixing console control surface and to repeat them at the right moment. One of the key criteria of a state-of the-art console automation system
As recently as the late seventies, mixdown was still an entirely manual process. With the number of tracks constantly increasing, mixing was becoming an activity demanding considerable concentration and dexterity. More often than not, it was »all hand to the pumps« and all the musicians and engineers present at the session were pressed into service to help move faders and press buttons at the appropriate times. One slip of the finger – and it was back to the top for another attempt. Many schemes were proposed to put an end to this mixing misery including some Heath Robinson ideas such as taking a literal »snapshot« of the control surface using a special camera/projector system.
It is no surprise that one of the first recording studio tasks successfully undertaken by computers was the automation of channel faders and cut keys. The ability to dynamically automate the two key channel controls against a time reference from the multitrack tape completely revolutionized the entire field of multitrack production. Indeed, many current techniques were only made possible by dynamic fader and mute automation.
Truly comprehensive automation systems, capable of capturing every console parameter, have only been possible since the digital audio era dawned. The ability to store settings and automate controls was one of the key arguments in favour of using digital audio. This technology has been at the heart of all STAGETEC systems from the very first. Only digital technology could enable every console setting to be reproduced without spending hours manually restoring switch, fader and knob positions. This made it viable to work on many projects in parallel. An incredible economic advantage! Not only that, but there are artistic benefits as well. With a powerful automation system the engineer can explore new creative possibilities, such as editing individual settings in succession to fine-tune the mix, step by step.
In essence, there are three different generally accepted methods for capturing and reproducing console parameters: snapshot automation, scene automation, and dynamic automation. The latter is the most complex to implement. Obviously, all AURUS parameters can be dynamically automated. However, this simple statement does not say much about the quality of the automation system. As with so many sophisticated technologies, the devil is, as always, in the detail. Probably the most critical aspects of an automation system are speed and accuracy of reproduction. In these respects, AURUS automation is blazing a trail. Every mixing-console parameter change is captured and reproduced at 10 ms intervals, an extremely short time grid, no matter how many parameters there are. Compared to conventional dynamic automation systems, with only single frame accuracy (40 ms at 25 fps), the AURUS offers four times better resolution. Again, this extremely short response time is completely independent of the number of channels involved – no matter whether five or 200 signal paths are automated.
To achieve this level of resolution, the automation data must be loaded very rapidly into the console’s DSPs and surface displays. Fast load speed also ensures that a STAGETEC console user never has to wait for the system. The automation data is always accurately reproduced and without any time lag when changing the transport position – even in shuttle mode.
Reliable synchronization with the master machine in both forward and reverse modes utilizes another AURUS feature. Apart from resolving timecode, the console can also interpret serial machine-control data (Sony 9-pin P2 protocol) received from a connected recorder or DAW. This enables AURUS to know which direction the master is currently running in. One further benefit: Timecode can also be read in stop mode. This can be helpful for enabling the write mode of various functions at a specific time position after adjusting controls to new values. A user determined tolerance ensures that the stop mode is not unintentionally canceled even when minor position changes occur, for example, when a helical scan tape machine loads or unloads a tape from the drum. AURUS supports the 9-pin protocol and the various dialects understood by common machines; an extra synchroniser is only required for more complex configurations with chase sync. In large installations, the AURUS system’s integral NEXUS router also handles timecode setup. A dedicated timecode matrix can be defined within NEXUS. The timecode inputs and outputs of every machine in the facility are connected to the NEXUS via the XTI transparent interface board and can then be used at any place in the system. Any machine can be selected as a timecode source – without the need for laborious cable bashing.
In an automation system, signal quality is at least as important as speed, especially when it comes to fades and crossfades. STAGETEC always uses complex smoothing curves and ramp functions, requiring considerable computing power and these have been further optimized in AURUS. This precision, in conjunction with the high resolution read/write rate, means that the movements of the automated faders are a perfect reproduction of the original moves, without inaccuracies leading to jerks and noise.
Although the automation system architecture is indeed critical, coherent ergonomics are also essential to success. This is demonstrated by careful attention to the details with the object of reducing the number of button presses in everyday operation to the bare minimum. Heading the list is visual feedback: The more console parameters that can be automated the more important it becomes for the operator to be able to see what is happening at any time. The AURUS is the perfect match here too, with its complement of motorised faders, TFT displays on the meterbridge, and LED arc indicators for each of the 22 touch-sensitive encoders per channel. All this is complemented by clear, interactive interface dialogs, displayed on the master panel of the console.
For example, the Mix Path window where the different passes of a mix are clearly listed and managed in block diagram form. To store a mix pass, just press the »To Keep« button; the pass will immediately be listed as a new block in the diagram. This ensures that the hierarchy of the stored versions of the mix is transparently obvious at all times. Motorised faders are without doubt the most elegant solution for channel level setting and display. However, this is only true if a professional solution is found for fader control. Otherwise, the noise made by faders thrashing about is a nuisance. The AURUS secret in this respect is the combination of high resolution over the entire adjustment range and above all, the elaborate control algorithms. On the one hand, the fader must be fast, but at the same time, it must move towards its target setting asymptotically to prevent overshooting. Not a trivial matter!
Automation in Use
Christoph Gronarz, production engineer at the WDR broadcasting service in Germanys western Metropolis Cologne, has known the WDR studio in the Philharmonic Concert Hall since its opening 19 years ago. This studio which had already entered the annals of audio history with the very first large digital console, was completely revamped last summer and is now home to a STAGETEC AURUS console. Gronartz’s opinion on this investment decision: »I am convinced that the AURUS is the most up-to-date digital console currently available on the market«.
Other benefits in the STAGETEC consoles favour were the exquisite 28-bit AD converters and the automation. When we visited the studio in spring, the mixdown of an SACD production of Richard Strauss’ »Daphne« performed by the WDR Symphonic Orchestra and conducted by Semyon Bychkov was about to start. The AURUS dynamic automation was an indispensable creative element of this extensive project with up to 44 tracks, since the AURUS joystick has been used to retrace many of the soloist’s moves
The Perfect Partner
Fast, communicative, and accurate – AURUS console automation brings all the desirable characteristics required for a perfect partnership in the control room. Not to mention its phenomenal memory. Every engineer dreams of an assistant this talented!