Another Frankfurt; another swathe of ever-smaller mixers from the big names, writes Phil Ward. DiGiCo unveiled the SD9, its smallest yet following the SD7 and SD8; Soundcraft showed both the Vi1 and previewed the Si Compact, sequential successors to the Vi2 and the Si1; and even Cadac introduced "the first truly compact Cadac mixer" - the Live1. Given the amount of processing power packed into these parcels, a tin of sardines is beginning to look palatial.
The curve appears to be on a trajectory to oblivion. Already there are iPod and iPhone apps for controlling mixes remotely, and Allen & Heath product manager Léon Phillips admits that ultimately the 'board' could vanish altogether in certain situations. "We decided from the outset to keep the DSP in the stage racks and use the surfaces as remote controllers," he points out. "That's stood us in good stead as more and more people have embraced digital mixing with very differing requirements. Some only want small-scale systems, such as churches, schools and AV companies, and this has led to a demand for rackmount solutions. It's all scaleable, on the end of a Cat5 cable, so never before have the precise requirements of the user been so flexibly accommodated."
"It's the attitude of the user that you're addressing," agrees John Stadius, technical director at DiGiCo. "Some want lots of faders in front of them; others don't. There is an ego issue attached to the former, I'm sure."
Early digital consoles were often direct replacements for analogue, carrying full DSP and obsessed with the 'familiarity' of the control surface. Later the burden was lifted by remote stageboxes and mic pres in separate racks, liberating the surface to become, potentially, any shape you like. But the latest generation redefines the idea of 'compact' as an all-in-one solution: as much DSP as possible has gone back under the hood to reduce overall hardware and simplify the systems, although they are of course expandable via optional racks and networking.
"Beyond the usual theatre requirement of freeing up more seats, all sorts of people are becoming customers of smaller, easier to operate mixers," says Stadius. "A lot of the stadiums, surprisingly, seem to have very small rooms from which to broadcast. The SD9 has some restrictions in processing, but that's reflected in the price: it's all about price-performance ratio. It does of course make full use of FPGAs, which are getting more and more powerful. There's no reason why you can't make a console the size of a notebook, if you wanted to. For the live environment, though, I don't really think that's practical at the moment."
"If you save a couple of seats in the theatre, that's $100 a performance," adds Soundcraft's vice president of marketing and communications, Keith Watson. "Two performances a day; six days a week... in no time you've paid for the console, just by making it smaller. In most cases, something like the Vi1 will save four or five seats. It's also a very compact console to go on tour with. We've had people like Gert Sanner of Deep Purple involved with the development of the Vi1. He's an experienced Vi user, and the Vi1 is all he needs now. He doesn't need more than about 28 inputs, even for a band of that size. We also expect the console to go into broadcast, especially cramped OB vans. It's not at the level of the Vista 5 or Vista 8, but it's more than competent in that low-to-mid range of trucks - of which there are a great many."
Both Watson and Stadius make reference to broadcast, a clear indication of future plans within the digital live sound fraternity. Elsewhere other manufacturers in the digi console game are thinking along the same lines and, although they didn't unveil any new products in Frankfurt, the smart money will be on yet more OB-friendly models in the near future.
"Unlike the analogue era, even a small digital console with a good banking and layering system can handle shows of almost any size, and provide an incredible variety of outboard processing options in the form of plug-ins", says Avid's general manager of live systems, David Gibbons. "So long as a rigorously thought-out approach to ergonomic design has been taken, and a diverse palette of processing options are available to insert anywhere in a mix, the sonic results for any size show can now match or exceed what once would have required dozens and dozens of faders, and stacks upon stacks of racks.
"So, decreasing footprints are a key driver of this digital future, together with the inherent adaptability of live engineers to new methods of working. I expect this trend to continue: there are no limits to how much functionality we can cram into a small-footprint live console, other than our ability to come up with innovative designs that ensure that mixing pros can monitor, meter, access and refine all the signals with comfort and confidence. It's an exciting time in digital console design, and Avid is glad to be in the game."
"Saving space on a club tour can have a significant impact on the number of tickets sold," adds Innovason's newly appointed international sales director Marcel Babazadeh, "plus transport becomes much easier. In environments such as OB vans the weight and size are very important. Many control rooms in theatres are incredibly small. However, the demands for highest audio quality don't decrease with the space available, so for operators the main challenge is to have quick access to all of the sound-related controls no matter what size space they work in. The Eclipse is a perfect example of small physical size in harmony with ease of operation."
As well as size, there's weight: aluminium has been used - at slightly greater expense - to reduce the depth as well as the width of footprints left on the floor by some of these desks. One way or another, the industry is beginning to tread very carefully.