Is surface-based mixing the way forward?

Sound engineer and tour manager Paul Nicholson reacts to the arrival of new surface-based mixing solutions and ponders their potential impact on the live sound sector.

Back in 1964 Bob Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changing. Fast forward to 2001 and I’m at a Dylan gig staring at an Innovason digital console. Those prophetic words really hit home that day. His FOH engineer’s much-loved XL4 had been replaced with a small, lightweight, truck-friendly desk with a row of faders, a screen and just a few encoders. “Look what they’ve given me!”

This was a massive change and quite naturally a lot of people around that time were dismissive of the digital mixer concept saying it would never catch on. I also remember Christian Heil being told the very same thing a few years earlier when he launched the modern line array concept. Go back to France was one of the politest comments I seem to remember.

So there we were shivering under the storm clouds gathering over Stirling Castle with one of the first digital desks and by comparison with the norm back then, a diminutive [L-Acoustics] V-DOSC system. It was a great sounding show by the way.

Fast-forward again to 2016. As we all know, digital mixing and line arrays are now the industry standard and are here to stay. As an industry, the touring fraternity is one of the most dynamic and inventive collectives on the planet. You just have to look at the incredibly high level of infrastructure that goes into creating and sustaining a modern festival, tour or show. Therefore, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone somewhere is secretly designing an arena sound system that fits into a Transit van, but perhaps the next fundamental shift in digital mixing is already here?

Remote control

I mentioned in one of my recent pieces for AMI that I’ve been mixing on an iPad, not just for sound checks and setting up monitors, but also at FOH during shows. It was a strange experience, not least because the console was parked at the side of the stage 30m away from where I was sitting, but also the fact that the control app was limited in functionality and relied on a WiFi link to work. Both were big concerns. Luckily everything held together, the shows went well and I proved a point if only to myself.

However, what if this method of mixing could replicate or even surpass being behind a physical console? After all, most people are used to touchscreens. Would you really prefer to go back to a Bakelite phone with a dial? No, it would be impractical and would look a bit daft sticking out of your back pocket.

So, welcome to the future, one where we’ll all be using control surfaces made up of multi-touch screens. Like it or not it’s already happening and there are several digital software mixer systems already on the market, but I believe the Waves eMotion LV1 (pictured) sets the current benchmark standard.

I’ve been looking at the Waves system and others in some detail, but has it convinced me to seriously give up real faders? Let’s take a look at what you typically get.

First off, you’ll need one, but probably a couple of dedicated ‘clean’ computers – one for processing the applications and the other for multi-track recordings, should you wish to run virtual sound checks from a separate machine. So, no change there from a standard digital desk. Then comes the brain of the system where all the processing takes place, namely a rack-mounted server. Same story. Then an I/O stage box, gigabit switch and Cat5/6 or fibre snake. Finally comes the big change, as out goes the physical tactile surface and in comes a multi-touchscreen. Basically, it’s a digital console stripped out into its component parts. Fair enough, and perhaps also easier to provide backup redundancy in the event of hardware or software failure.

Seeing the benefits

So what other unique selling points does surface mixing offer the user over a standard console-based setup? Apart from price and portability, I think the answers really lie in the look and functionality. A number of manufacturers already provide plug-ins that can be used with hardware from Yamaha, Roland, Digico, Allen & Heath, Cadac, Midas etc. but what if I want to get away from the physical constraints of a console? This is where the move to a screen-based system really comes into its own.

One of the issues with standard desks, despite all of them having offline editors, is that their standalone app, PC or Mac software cannot replicate the real show. Waves for one has fixed all that. At long last you really can sit at home, on the bus or plane and work on your mix, as your desk follows you around in your carry case. Try doing that with a conventional console. XL8 anyone?

Using a touchscreen takes things to a whole new visual perspective, and when a product looks good it usually is good. If the mixer functions are completely intuitive then anyone used to conventional digital mixing and tablet functionality will be able to navigate these systems comfortably within a few minutes. It’s an immersive experience and, for me, brings the fun back to mixing.

I’m convinced this is the way forward and undoubtedly lots more manufacturers will be producing software-based mixers very soon. However, will this new approach gain wider acceptance and become the new standard? Eventually I believe so, but for now the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…

Paul Nicholson has been a sound engineer and tour manager for 30 years and runs Salisbury-based Midas ProSound. He also worked at L-Acoustics UK from 1998 to 2008 and continues to specify and use festival systems on a regular basis.