By Raúl Marín
It is becoming increasingly difficult to define what a mixing console really is, as they are involved in so many different applications in one way or another. Perhaps we need to go back in time to find the answer.
It would be virtually impossible to speak of an inventor so-to-speak of the mixing console. Instead, mixing consoles are a technological concept that has evolved over time, from the first solutions implemented at the BBC or Disney, through the successive equipment of Universal Audio/Urei, Telefunken, RCA, etc., to the present day.
From the 1950s onwards, in a growing audiovisual industry, a good mixing console design became an essential part of the increasingly sophisticated needs of studios (more channels, more integrated processes, better signal preservation specifications, etc.), all of which were still based on vacuum valves. This was the case until the appearance of the first console based entirely on transistors, designed by Rupert Neve. Everything started to go very fast from here on. Many companies appeared here and there, bringing new concepts and defining the different characteristics to be implemented in various situations (direct, studio, radio, television…). Solid State Logic, Yamaha, Calrec, Trident, Soundcraft, API, AMEK and Focusrite are some of the names.
The digital changeover began at the end of the 1980s. First, digital signal processors (DSPs) were developed, which were initially used in the audio world as independent processors but were later integrated into more complex systems, including the mixing consoles themselves and the newly introduced DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation), which combined recording, editing, processing and mixing, all based on another new player: computers.
Given the exponential nature of the development of these new technologies, the rules were written over and over again, and new developments kept appearing faster than you could say Jack Robinson.
Nowadays, to speak of mixing consoles is, in fact, to talk of a conglomerate of very diverse technologies, each with their own developments and following their own paths, but which converge in common points to respond to the changing needs of everything related to the audiovisual world. Of these technologies, we could highlight some that are quite relevant:
Classical topologies are disappearing in the face of the waste of connective possibilities that we have today. The evolution of the current multichannel transmission formats, together with the efficient management of the signals that travel through them, make the current mixing consoles a true matrix with a multitude of available formats.
The incorporation of the MADI or the subsequent development of the Audio IP formats (Dante, Ravenna, AES 67, etc.), have opened up the possibilities of these systems enormously.
One of the peculiarities of digital systems is their modularity. For example, in the case of a DAW, with just one stereo input, we could record hundreds of tracks independently that could then be routed internally to dedicated channels. This essentially means that only two good “physical” system inputs are required (in the past each channel had its own input). This “virtualisation” also lets us mix with multiple “ghost” summation buses, which are converted to physical format exclusively through the control room and a dedicated programme master. We can also have multiple split points without using connections up, etc.
The great advantage of these connectivity systems is, without a doubt, the economic one. We can transport hundreds of channels through a common computer network, even redundant. What used to take thousands of metres of cable, splitters, patches, etc. is now resolved with common computer equipment. We can interconnect rooms directly with each other, without the need for dedicated matrices or any other device other than the consoles themselves. We can also handle multichannel signals seamlessly (5.1, 7.1, Auro, Atmoss…) or integrate communications and the control room with unprecedented levels of sophistication.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE DSP
The technology required to process audio signals has developed exponentially into spheres that were simply unimaginable just a few years ago.
On the one hand, this evolution happened in hardware. Initially, to achieve the power required to run the multiple algorithms to process the various signals of a given project, ‘DSP farms’ were available, which were no more than a cluster of dedicated signal processing chips. The balance between the computational capabilities of those early Motorola or Analogue Devices chips and the processing demands of those algorithms made this equipment very expensive and unique.
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