September 2008 Issue 109
Mark Cunningham takes a pre-plasa look at the Kidderminster klan’s latest offering and asks, is this the console that will finally bring down the curtain on analogue mixing?
Wednesday 13 August 2008... I’m in deepest Warwickshire, the heart of the Midlands, at the very regal Coombe Abbey Hotel — a former Cistercian Abbey, set within 500 acres of garden landscape. The only thing missing is summer sunshine. But this is England and, naturally, a hard rain’s a-fallin’ with monsoon-like vengeance, prompting an acute sense of déjà vu.
The last time Midas held a global press event to launch a new mixing console — the XL8, two years ago — it was greeted by a similar amount of precipitation, and consequently the two experiences appear almost seamless. Only this time, there is the added distraction of field archery with a photo of a certain Dave Robinson fixed to each target. Not to mention a Pop Quiz, compiled and hosted by yours truly in a refreshingly humble manner, it should be noted.
But enough of the trimmings... you want the meat. There have been many introductions of digital consoles over recent years, and all of them have their place. However, few of them will earn the level of notoriety and respect of the new, networked digital audio system that is the Midas Pro6.
If the name sounds familiar, then you’re at least as old as I am. Long before the words ‘digital’ and ‘audio’ were heard in the same sentence, in the ’70s to be precise, the Pro Series was king. And although the name is making a comeback, you’d be hard pressed to find anything retro about this new product.
After 100 XL8 sales, we knew this was coming. At the 2006 press preview of the XL8, managing director John Oakley suggested that within two years, a more market-friendly version of its technology would emerge. However, on paper, this console, more than any other, could well inspire die-hard engineers to finally break away from the ‘comfort zone’ of the analogue world.
Why? It’s simple. Because apart from its compact footprint, it’s what one would expect if the XL8 and the Heritage 3000 got jiggy and produced an offspring.
It benefits from many of the technologies developed (at seizure-inducing R&D costs) for the groundbreaking XL8, but looks and feels as if one is using a direct descendant of a Heritage. No wonder then, that Midas’ marketing motto is ‘Digital, With Heritage’. For once, the spin doctors are on the same planet as the rest of us.
As sales & marketing director David Cooper told us: “The Heritage series has been so popular with rental companies, mainly because its popularity amongst engineers, and the flexibility the desks provide, yield an extremely high return on investment.
“The Pro6 is aimed squarely at that same position. It has all the functionality of a Heritage 3000, and a lot more, plus the sound quality and digital platform of the XL8 — that’s our statement to the concert touring and live events market.
“Although it has less functionality and a lower input/output count than the XL8, the Pro6 is still much more than a digital console. Designed to complement the XL8, it’s a fully networked system, linking sophisticated hardware units [such as the Klark Teknik DN9696 high resolution hard disk recorder or any other AES50-enabled devices] together through the AES50 standard interface for multi-channel digital audio.
“This will mean that as well as touring and live events, the Pro6 is ideal for theatrical installations, conference halls, houses of worship, corporate AV productions and any other performance-based applications.”
UNDER THE HOOD
Although the Pro6 standard system comprises a Control Centre with a footprint comparable to a 32-channel Midas Verona and only two 7U 19” rack units, its diminutive size belies an ability to provide up to 80 simultaneous input processing channels and up to 32 (+3) discrete mixes, all of which feature EQ and dynamics processing options.
It has 16 configurable groups and 16 matrix outputs, allowing 32 mixes in monitor mode, and as with the XL8, one can route inputs directly to matrix outputs and use them as additional auxes.
By adding additional I/O hardware the Pro6’s network can be expanded up to 264 inputs and 264 outputs. These connections can be patched and routed on a scene-by-scene basis, by use of the Pro6’s powerful snapshot automation.
The Pro6’s FX and dynamics algorithms are more than high quality, easy-to-use Linux-based FX processing. They are incorporated within the Pro6’s automatic delay management system, so that wherever they are patched, the audio will be absolutely phase-coherent when summed into the mix. All FX and dynamics can also be re-patched scene-by-scene.
The Midas mic pre-amp has become the benchmark throughout the audio world, and its current expression in the Pro6 sounds better than ever. Still built from discrete components, and based on the designs which were so successful in Midas’ analogue XL3, XL4 and Heritage, the Pro6’s dual (analogue and digital) gain stages enables users to shape the mic amps’ character according to preference.
All facilities within the Control Centre are within easy reach, and the concept of ‘bringing the console to the engineer’ is fully exploited, freeing the mix engineer from thinking in terms of ‘layers’ or ‘pages’. Instead, the Pro6 borrows from the XL8 with its configurable colour-coded VCA and POP (population) groups, which are deployed on to the control surface at the push of a button.
“POP groups enable engineers to create their own sequence of input channels to bring up on the control surface for mixing — just one of the examples of how the Pro6/XL8 architecture assists quick and easy navigation,” explained Richard ‘Fez’ Ferriday, brand development manager.
XL8 users have widely cited this feature as making console navigation faster and more intuitive. Midas has designed the Pro6 Control Centre entirely around this concept, using different colours to navigate input channels in the same way that engineers have traditionally used coloured tape and fader knobs to aid in console navigation.
This is the world’s second live audio console (after the XL8) to feature a unique and comprehensive automatic latency management system which, in addition to managing all internal routing and processing delay, also includes compensation for external analogue inserts. This means that all audio samples are synchronised before summing, resulting in absolute phase coherency at all outputs.
Although TPi has yet to hear anything other than spoken word presentations and a multitrack recording through the Pro6’s circuitry, we are told that the live sound quality is identical to that of the XL8. It certainly feels good and even this non-engineer managed to get some sound out of the thing... and get some effects going.
All variable controls on the console are genuine potentiometers, not encoders. These access the FPGA engine through A-D converters and Midas’ custom interpolation algorithms ensuring a linear, analogue-style, silky smooth ‘feel’ to the mix.
Reliability is a key concern with all Midas products, and all Pro6 hardware elements feature redundant power supplies as standard. The FPGA processing engine is of modular construction, with the option of a spare module which will automatically deploy in the event of an engine module failure (n+1 model)
Digital audio transport uses the international AES50 standard, featuring feed-forward error correction which provides superior protection against lost data packets and synchronisation issues when compared to Ethernet-based systems.
All links between hardware elements support redundant cables for both copper and optical options. The Control Centre houses dual-redundant Linux master control computers (MCs), both running full versions of the Pro6 Linux software. Either one is capable of running the entire system on its own and operation can be switched between the two MCs without any loss of audio.
Requiring only mics, amps and speakers to provide a complete audio system, the Pro6 networked audio system is compact enough for space critical environments, yet can be easily expanded for more demanding applications.
Along with the control surface’s ability to provide dual input areas (with discrete dual solo systems) to easily accommodate two engineers, arguably one of the most practical advantages from an user’s perspective is the ability to load a Pro6 show on to a USB key and upload it to an XL8.
It is also possible, for example, to have an XL8 at FOH and a Pro6 in monitor world, and seamlessly connect the two via AES50. Complementary facilities such as these will no doubt prove popular on the festival circuit next summer.
Upon recently purchasing an XL8, Frederic André, the MD of French rental company Fa Musique, said: “We’d had enough of computers disguised as mixing consoles.” This hints at why Midas took so long to not only enter the digital market, but bring out a widely-affordable board.
Largely credited as the man with the Midas touch when it comes to delivering the brand’s celebrated sound quality, Alex Cooper, Midas’ director of console engineering, was never going to allow a digital product to leave Kidderminster if it fell short of the XL4’s sonic standards.
“There’s a lot to be said for the convenience of digital but if it doesn’t provide first class sound quality, you’re really facing an uphill struggle,” observed Rob Hughes, the former SSE project manager who recently joined distributor Shuttlesound to represent Midas and Klark Teknik in the UK.
“An artist manager is never going to compliment an engineer on the way he uses a special console feature. But what they may do is pat him/her on the back for making their artist sound great. Midas knows this and the Pro6 will certainly meet that demand.”
In his presentation, Alex Cooper said that although good mic pre-amps, A/Ds and D/As, stable clock management, and top rate sample rate and bit resolution conversion are — among many other ingredients — key to good digital sound, it’s experience and good ears that complete the design of a premier league console.
“People have been brainwashed into thinking that digits are pure; that nothing can be lost or gained, and therefore all digital consoles must sound the same. This is not true and a clinical testing device will only tell you so much — and certainly nothing about character of sound,” said Cooper, as he exploded a roll call of myths.
“At the end of the day, we trust our ears. Only when the console sounds good and musical to our ears — and, importantly, the ears of our customers — in the context of a real application do we judge that it’s ready. It’s become apparent that there are some console designers out there who don’t fully understand some very fundamental issues.”
From a distributor’s perspective, will the Pro6 be an easy desk to sell? Shuttlesound’s Rob Hughes thinks so. “Having done a lot of training on other consoles and dealing with engineers and users in my previous job at SSE, this is the desk that a lot of people have been waiting for,” he told us.
“Many of those people were waiting for the first Midas digital desk before they made their first big digital investment, but when it turned out to be the XL8, most of them realised it was outside of their budget range. As for engineers, the majority viewed it as a desk they were never likely to use. However, the Pro6 is most definitely within reach for the majority.
“Most rental companies — especially those who have previously bought into the Midas brand — will want to invest and I believe that’s a given. And as I know that several sound engineers have started a backlash against competing consoles because of poor sound quality or the ability to achieve desired results, I think that the Pro6 will find it has an immediate audience.”
So after all this, you’re probably wondering about the price tag. The thing is, despite our persistent prodding, Midas wouldn’t give us an amount in pounds, dollars, euros or indeed any currency.
What David Cooper did reveal, however, is that a Pro6 (with all the effects, compressors and gates, the flightcased Control Centre, DL371 engine and DL351 I/O, plus the digital snake) will cost no more than a Heritage 3000-48 Touring Package.
Whilst that may be great news for everyone who has aspired to harnessing many of the XL8’s benefits, but how would this be received by anyone who has shelled out for an H3000 in the last week?
Cooper responded: “I think I’d be far more upset if I’d just purchased a competitor’s digital console! Customers who invest in H3000s do so because they continue to fill a role that no other mixing console — digital or analogue — can at present. There are some jobs that seem like they were made for the H3000 and those jobs aren’t going away.”
Thirteen pre-production Pro6s are currently in circulation and full production was scheduled to begin in the first week of September, along with training programmes in the UK, US and Asia.
Already, two autumn tours have been pinpointed for the first on-the-road use of the new console, and TPi will be bringing you an exclusive report before the end of the year.
Want to know more? Stop by the Midas/Klark Teknik stand (J33) at PLASA and ask for a demo. They’re a friendly bunch and they won’t bite.
THE DEATH KNELL FOR ANALOGUE?
The last two months have seen a stream of engineers and rental firms pass through Midas’ Kidderminster HQ to view the Pro6, and according to David Cooper, it has been almost universally been greeted with “jaw-dropping” responses.
“It’s forced many of those rental companies to consider how they should now target their investment funding,” he said. “Most are talking about buying Pro6s but they’re wondering whether they should now move their analogue consoles out of their rental stock, or keep their Heritages and sell on their other digital boards. It’s a strange problem to deal with, and it’ll probably take some time for them to decide.”
So what does this mean for the future of analogue mixing? Could it be that the introduction of the Pro6 will have a damning effect on what is already a steadily-dissolving analogue domain?
“Honestly, we don’t know,” said Cooper. “The industry is obviously going digital, no question, but we have a fantastic product in Heritage whose sales have been very stable over the past five or six years, even with the onset of competitively-priced digital consoles.
“The most important thing for us, and one that we think could revolutionise the business, is providing the market with XL8 sound quality at a Heritage 3000 price point.”
MD John Oakley commented: “We have plenty of capacity to continue manufacturing our Heritage range and our output will be governed by demand. We recognise that analogue still meets certain requirements, but as far as how the Pro6 may change that... we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Cooper was keen to point out that customers who may have sold their homes to buy an XL8 will not be ignored or shortchanged as a result of the Pro6’s launch. “We’re aware of the need to protect their investment,” he said, “which is why we’re developing complementary products like the Pro6, and taking measures such as continuing to improve and update our software every six months — just as we aim to do with Pro6, which shares the same software platform.”