Under the Hood—The Secrets Behind the VENUE | E6L Engine’s Incredible Power

By in Live Sound, Music Creation, Tech Talk

Since its unveiling at the 2015 NAB and Prolight + Sound shows, Avid’s VENUE | S6L live sound system has been garnering a lot of attention. Central to this new system is the groundbreaking E6L engine, a brand new design that delivers industry-leading performance and unique processing capabilities. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what makes this unprecedented new engine special and why it can make a major difference in how you mix and record live performances.

VENUE | E6L

VENUE | E6L Engine

And so it begins…

When the S6L development team first embarked on developing a new engine for the S6L system, they knew that they needed to build a platform that could evolve and grow over time. An engine with the ability to expand in the future—not just something to solve an immediate product need for the next couple of years. They envisioned an engine that could balance system performance, scalability, and price, providing engineers with more than enough power to face any challenge, as well as a solid return on their investment.

To achieve these goals, the team decided early on to use two parallel technologies in tandem—a state-of-the-art, real-time processing engine to handle all routing, channel, and mixing functions for maximum stability and power, and an HDX-powered DSP engine to manage all onboard AAX plug-in processing.

The need for speed leads to the RTX Real-time Operating System

After researching various processing engine options, the team chose IntervalZero’s RTX real-time operating system (RTOS), which uses Intel-based processors, to handle the S6L’s core mixer functionality. They thought it was simply unfeasible to deliver the number of channels and processing power that S6L would require using standard DSPs or FPGAs—especially when running at 96 kHz. Not only would these approaches be too costly, they would make it challenging to scale up the engine in the future.

With an Intel-based architecture, the engine can take advantage of the industry’s commercial processor trends, which offer a much faster rate of development than DSP or FPGA solutions in terms of processor speed, performance, and power specifications. This architecture offers the greatest possible performance, while taking advantage of the world’s leading processor developers’ latest investments and advances. It also makes E6L as “future-proof” as possible, given the ever-changing technology landscape. And it provides easy scalability, with two engine variants available—E6L-144 and E6L-192—so you can choose the ideal one for your specific needs now, with room to grow.

The RTX RTOS is a proven platform that’s used across a wide range of mission-critical industries, including aerospace, defense, industrial automation, and medical applications. By adopting the RTX RTOS, Avid gains IntervalZero’s considerable development experience and high-quality standards, without having to deal with all of the challenges involved with building and developing a custom operating system. RTX delivers exceptional control, reliability, and stability, and provides integrated routing flexibility to and from a range of sources and destinations, including E6L’s parallel HDX plug-in engine, Pro Tools for recording and playback, various networking and I/O formats, outboard processors, and Waves SoundGrid servers.

The Avid Smack! compressor/limiter plug-in - one of the many AAX DSP plug-ins that can run natively on E6L's HDX engine

Mixing power increases with a dedicated HDX plug-in engine

Since Avid released the D-Show System in 2005, VENUE live systems have been the only consoles capable of running plug-ins natively, without requiring any external processing hardware. Not only does this approach offer unmatched integration with the mixing surface and VENUE software, but it also leverages the vast number of plug-ins available from Avid and our connectivity partners—the same industry-standard plug-ins used on countless Pro Tools recordings. And the S6L system is no different—yet its E6L engine is very different.

Working in tandem with the RTX engine, E6L also features the scalable HDX Plug-in Engine, which is solely dedicated to handling all AAX plug-in processing. This ensures that you always maintain the highest level of mixing performance, no matter how large or complex the production. Depending on your processing needs, additional HDX cards can be installed into a single E6L engine.

VENUE Plug-in Rack

The system supports the latest generation 64-bit AAX DSP plug-ins, which run natively on the HDX Plug-in Engine. This extremely robust, low-latency, sample-accurate, and deterministic DSP environment is optimized for live sound, tightly integrating in parallel with the RTX RTOS engine using ultra low-level drivers. The environment also provides automatic delay compensation for all plug-ins, guaranteeing phase-accuracy—no need to manually calculate delay to compensate for time-shift when doing complex double-bussing or routing.

The plug-ins are fully integrated into the VENUE software as well, enabling automation of all plug-in settings through Snapshots that are stored in the VENUE show file. This makes it fast and easy to perform complex mixing tasks live, and it enables you to transport your settings to any other VENUE system using just a USB thumb drive.

VENUE | E6L

E6L Engine Back Panel

Designing the E6L engine hardware

A lot of thought and deliberation went into the development and design of the actual E6L engine hardware as well. Our team started by looking at what has worked well in our past designs, what didn’t work as well as we’d hoped, and what designs worked well for others in the industry. They also reached out to the VENUE user community to draw on their countless years of collective experience and knowledge, applying what they learned into the new engine design. Our own Customer Care team also provided a lot of insight based on years of supporting VENUE customers—identifying possible issues, challenges, and points of improvement—and all of their feedback fed forward into the engine’s design process.

From the way cards are mounted, to the way they’re inserted, installed, and removed, the team worked to streamline and harden the engine components, keeping the internal cabling as logical as possible. Even something as simple as how you gain access to the inside of the unit was scrutinized—it’s easy; just four thumbscrews and a sliding tray and you’re in. In fact, you can remove the entire unit from the chassis and bring it up onto a more convenient workspace so you don’t have to huddle over inside the rack with your headlamp, looking for something. Even such small details as outfitting the chassis with captive screws means you don’t have to worry about dropping screws into the innards of the engine. Everything’s on a thumbscrew, so you don’t need a whole toolbox in order to access the engine.

E6L features a redundant N+1 power supply design—the same power supply modules used in the S6L control surface. By standardizing on one part, you can carry fewer spares and freely swap power supplies between components in an emergency.

This redundancy carries throughout the system. The engine features redundant fans for cooling to keep the show running in even the most challenging environments, and offers fully redundant connections to and from the Stage 64 I/O racks over Cat5e and/or fiber cables.

Hot-swappable power supply modules

HDX card for plug-in processing - additional cards can be installed to meet processing needs

Keeping cool under pressure

The team also designed both the E6L engine and S6L control surface to meet or exceed a very specific acoustic target—a near inaudible NC20 noise criteria rating—enabling you to use the system in the quietest performance environments. Of course, this made designing the cooling challenging, given the significant power required by the system’s Haswell-class motherboard and significant expansion options.

To meet this goal, the team took great pains to address the thermal issues, developing a design that required fewer and slower fans. They achieved this by optimizing fan profiles under microprocessor control, installing a huge radiator to efficiently dissipate heat, and using fanless power supplies. The result is a massively powerful engine with an acoustic noise floor that is almost imperceptible at room temperatures.

Finally, if you’re concerned about space, you’ll appreciate that the design team was able to pack all of this power—that’s over 300 processing channels and 200 plug-in slots to play with using the E6L-192 engine—into half the size (just 5 rack spaces) and roughly half the weight (only 61 lbs) of the current VENUE FOH Rack.

Yes, good and powerful things really can come in small packages!

VENUE | S6L

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Sr. Marketing Manager for Avid Live Sound Systems and Music Notation. I previously worked at Euphonix and E-MU Systems before joining Avid.