YinYangI well remember the early days of digital mixing consoles – it’s hard now to appreciate the technical ambition that lay behind their development or the hostility they frequently encountered.

Or the guts shown by their early adopters. I was thrilled by the prospect of a ‘new’ audio technology and the taunt of the possibilities it was beginning to promise, but I was horrified by the resistance those early desks met.

Recently, IBC and Plasa saw several significant new consoles unveiled. The reception they received was a world away from that of early digital desks – and both digital and analogue technologies were at work. Either way, you would have got long odds on that in the early nineties.

According to the Institute of Broadcast Sound, the original research into the application of DSP to audio mixers was carried out by Guy McNally and colleagues at the BBC Research Department at Kingswood Warren in the late 1970s. I missed the initial upshot of this so I called on Prism Sound’s Ian Dennis, who told me: ‘The Neve DSP console was the world’s first commercial digital mixing console – I cut my digital audio teeth on that project, joining in my gap year in 1978 aged 18 as a result of some cheeky cold calling.

‘I still have a DSP processor card, which I liberated at some point – it’s 14 inches square and consumed 3A at 5V, and we used to put 20 in a subrack (300W), with typically 18 subracks in six bays, in a forced-air-cooled equipment room. Sadly, it did slightly less processing than a $10 DSP chip can do today!

‘It was all great fun, but commercially over-ambitious – pioneering digital audio mixing and processing, audio A/D and D/A conversion, assignable control surfaces, fibre-optic interfacing, fault-tolerant routing etc. No wonder we had so many “issues”, even though each console cost about £750k!’

I would love to hear more sometime.

As a pro audio hack, I had a ringside seat when the real wave of digital desks broke. Unsurprisingly, these were aimed at studio applications – where there was usually time to work around their unfamiliar set-up routines and teething troubles. So an invitation to sit in on the live broadcast of the 1997 Grammy awards at Madison Square Garden in New York City caught me off-guard when I learned that the desk in Randy Ezratty’s (Effanel Music) L7 mobile was a Neve Capricorn.

The Capricorn was quite a statement – but it wasn’t intended for ‘mission critical’ live work. And it did crash at the Grammys – several times through rehearsals and the actual broadcast – but it continued to carry audio and the reboot was quick enough to slot in alongside the set-up changes between acts. On top of the pressure of the broadcast, I was impressed by the cool professionalism of Randy and the other engineers. Well impressed.

Was this the reality of digital consoles?

Sony believed not, and set its Oxford team to work on the OXF-R3 that was released in 1995. With this, Sony promised to take a fresh look at how a console could and should operate. I tried to imagine an entirely new console surface… The desk was strangely familiar, fearsomely expensive (UK£0.5m) and has since brought us the Sonnox Oxford line of plug-in processors. Somehow, this wasn’t the plan.

New rules

For the industry at large, it was the Yamaha ProMix 01 that changed the rules in the digital mixing stakes, but for me, it was Yamaha’s DMP7. ProMix showed up in 1994 (I think) with an unbelievably high spec and low price tag. The audio wasn’t perfect but it sent all current and prospective digital desk manufacturers back to their drawing boards at breakneck speed. The DMP7, Yamaha’s very first digital console, had already shown keyboard players a glimpse of the future in 1987. We were prepared. Kind of…

It was 2007 and I was in Beijing the next time the rules changed. SSL’s Piers Plaskitt swore me to secrecy and told me about the imminent release of Duality. OK, so it had the ability to control a workstation, but it was an analogue console – the last thing on most people’s minds at that point. Few saw Duality coming; more thought that SSL had lost the plot. But SSL had got it right.

Which brings us to the recent crop of desks – Midas’ VeniceF, Soundcraft’s Si Compact, DiGiCo’s SD Rack, Stagetec’s On Air 24, Lawo’s sapphire and others – all painstakingly conceived to serve specific markets, and all happy to draw on both analogue and digital technologies as appropriate. The launches were a far cry from the ordeals that met some of their pioneering parents.

Has a lesson been learned? Probably not.

Admittedly, not all change brings progress and audio purists had good reason to question the ability of digital processing to match analogue’s fidelity. Digital has delivered, however, and is finding a friend in its old rival. But may only be a matter of time before we re-run the scene with a few different inputs – audio video bridging, anyone?

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