Important factors when selecting an audio console for live TV Production

November 18, 2008

This article describes the important factors when selecting an audio console for live TV production and highlights the strengths of the Studer Vista 8 console.

With the arrival of HDTV, there has been a re-evaluation of the importance of sound in today’s TV Production. With home cinema systems growing rapidly in popularity, 5.1 surround sound becomes more and more common in the home. With this, there is an expectation from the television audience that HDTV is not only about better quality of picture but also about an enhanced listening experience. With the growing trend in Surround Production, choosing an audio console for live TV production is becoming harder. 

The biggest differentiation between all console manufacturers is the control surface design. For Live TV, ease of use and speed of operation are key elements for an operator to ensure error free productions. Flexibility and functionality are increasing, however the challenge for console manufacturers is to offer a concept of operation that is not only very intuitive but also that can stand up to the constant evolution of new functionality. 

From very early digital consoles, the concept of ‘Central Assign’ became a philosophy that allowed manufacturers to greatly reduce the size and number of controls on a control surface. The idea of selecting a channel to a single panel which offers controls for all functions was adopted by many and it seemed a logical concept, but it comes with many disadvantages. One major disadvantage is the lack of overview of all the settings of the console. Screens can assist this by showing the information, but the problem is that there is constant ‘mind mapping’ to see settings which are not located where the controls are; you may be controlling in one place but having to look in another. There is also the problem of multi-user environments. Unless you incorporate multiple ‘Central Assign Panels’ it will be very difficult for more than one person to work on the console simultaneously.

The Studer Vista 8 does not adapt a central assign concept. The principle philosophy is channel strip operation. Most operators find this very intuitive as one’s instinct is always to go where the channel fader is located to access the functions of it. The Vista 8 utilises TFT screens with physical rotaries and buttons mounted on them. This patented ‘Vistonics’ technology brings the advantage of offering a graphical interface with great overview of the channel settings but also allows the user to control exactly where he is looking. This requires much less thought and is very comfortable for the user; this frees up thought power for the creative and people management role of the mixer. The concept also includes a ‘one touch to access’ rule which means that if you do not have access to a function, it is only one press away. This is essential for the high pressure environment of live TV. There are many other operational concepts which make the console work for the user and not the other way round. Temporary activation of all buttons is good example of this. The concept is similar to how the buttons work on an Intercom panel; touch and hold for temporary activation and toggle for permanent. This feature may seem small at first, but imagine the number of thought processes that are eliminated by adopting this fast and easy concept.

Six banks (or sometimes called layers) are available in the navigation concept. Channels can be drag and dropped anywhere onto the virtual surface using the Strip Setup page (see below). This means there are channel slots equal to over 6 times the number of physical faders. This again provides some peace of mind knowing that as requirements grow, the number of physical faders available will not be become and obstacle.

One major consideration when designing a control surface for a digital console is the need for flexibility to ensure that it is future proof for both manufacturer and customer. This means that the control surface must allow sophisticated software functionality to be added in the future and have a means to provide the controls and philosophies to support this. Audio console manufacturers are rapidly adding more and more sophisticated surround functionality and tools. This is a good thing, but how can one be sure that the investment made in a control surface design will be able to continue to handle the added functionality in a user friendly way and without the continual need for hardware changes or upgrades? By mounting the rotaries and buttons on top of a screen, Studer is easily able to add DSP functionality and map graphics to the relevant controls and maintain the same workflow and operating methods for the user. The Vista control surface philosophy is completely future proof for both manufacturer and customer. A good example of this is the addition of a new 5.1 channel type to the Vista a year ago. The additional functionality of such a channel was not imagined when the Vista concept was first introduced but the ‘soft’ control surface design provides the perfect platform to bring such a radical change without the need for any hardware control surface design or additions. This means that for our existing customer base, they are able to receive new features at no cost and know that their investment in the console is protected; this is so important in today’s fast changing world.

It is a growing trend for broadcasters to use studios for a number of tasks. This means a control room may be used primarily for live productions but when not on-air may also be used for some simple post production work. Large scale broadcast consoles therefore have to offer broader functionality but be suited to all applications. There are a number of areas where flexibility is required. With such a multi-purpose studio, the audio console must be able to offer a changeable channel bus/architecture to fit the different applications. The Vista 8 offers a DSP architecture that can be changed on a session by session basis if needed. An offline configuration tool is supplied that allows the customer to build different channel bus architectures for different projects. It takes approx 30 seconds to load a title with a different DSP configuration that was currently loaded in the DSP core. This flexibility gives the customer the peace of mind that he is able to handle any type of show or application. This flexible DSP philosophy also allows Studer to add DSP algorithms but allow the customer to easily update existing setups with any new functionality. The addition of the 5.1 DSP channel type was not only added without the need for any control surface hardware, but in addition customers did not need any DSP hardware changes. All that was required was a configuration tool software update. As mentioned previously, existing setups could be modified with the new functionality without loss of audio parameter data – extremely powerful. Recent DSP additions included 5.1 to stereo down-mixing capabilities, a new ‘Vintage’ dynamics algorithm as well as a unique and Studer patented stereo to 5.1 up-mixer that is available in every stereo channel. This is an essential tool as it helps with dealing with Stereo playback sources that need to be mixed into a surround image. 

Further tools for surround production include Studer’s patented Virtual Surround Panning. This allows the user to pan mono sources using different methods other than solely amplitude panning. The user has the ability to select different ‘microphone’ simulations to define what aural cues the system should use to generate the panning information. It is possible to choose panning based solely on phase such as a typical stereo AB microphone technique for instance. When panning with this method, there is no level change in the left and right loudspeakers but the listener is given the cues with phase alone. Other options include ORTF and Sphere microphone simulations. These use different combinations of level, phase and frequency to give many more directional cues to the ear than traditional amplitude panning provides. The reasoning for offering this is that it provides 

A full dynamic automation system (host or client to timecode) is included on the Vista 8 with every fader and knob touch sensitive which gives help for post applications. In addition, the next software release will include simple workstation control for Pro-tools.

In the TV environment, system integration of the audio console is becoming more and more important. The Vista 8 D21m IO system offers a completely modular hardware concept that requires no advanced pre-wiring. Systems can be expanded at a later date by adding cards in a ‘plug and play’ manner with no need for pre-wiring at the time of order. The 96 KHz IO system allows Studer to design and add new cards to the system as and when new formats become standard. Recent additions include HD-SDI embedder/de-embedder cards that make system integration very easy and cost effective. It also reduces potential points of failure by eliminating the need for an external solution. Dolby E decoder cards are also available which becomes very space saving as it is possible to have 24 Dolby E decoders in a single 3U frame with redundant power supplies. With the flexibility of the system, more and more customers are utilizing the console internal router as the main audio router of a studio or truck. This again is very elegant from a system point of view as the console router can be controlled by third party video control systems including NVision, Grass Valley, Probel, Leitch to name few.

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