Al McKinna is the principal product manager on Avid’s Live Systems and Consoles team who oversaw the development of S6L’s VENUE version 5.0 software—a key cornerstone of the new system. I spoke with Al about this enormous engineering project and the team’s design approach to creating the new software for S6L, which provides current VENUE users with a familiar software interface optimized for the powerful system while offering new customers the benefits of 10+ years of road-proven mixing workflows.
DH: So let’s start at the beginning—how did the team decide to build S6L using the existing VENUE software versus creating a new software interface?
AM: First and foremost it’s about familiarity. VENUE has developed over the course of about ten years. So by the time we started developing VENUE v5.0 software for S6L, not only had we built up a huge user base familiar with using VENUE, but we had also engaged with countless engineers over those years, and as a result, have a very good understanding about how they want to work. VENUE has an intuitive UI that is very easy to navigate around—even for novice users—while providing experienced engineers with all of the deep features, controls, and fast navigation they need to handle the most complex shows. We didn’t feel it necessary to reinvent the wheel, when the VENUE software that was already being used was working for a huge user base. By leveraging the existing software, any engineer familiar with VENUE can walk up to S6L—which at first glance doesn’t look like other VENUE systems—navigate the external GUI and start mixing straightaway.
The navigation, the location of all controls—all of that is unaltered. And that means, of course, that if you’re a Profile user, you can immediately go and work with S6L and vice versa. You don’t have to learn everything again. And you can move between systems freely so that you can scale your show up and down, depending on what system you need for the gig you’re doing. It also means that you can use the VENUE Standalone software to learn the software offline and then learn the control surface afterwards.
S6L also offers compatibility with show files created on other VENUE systems, enabling you to easily move between systems. We have a whole community of engineers that have spent years perfecting their VENUE show files from tour to tour on various VENUE systems. Someone that’s been using VENUE over let’s say the last eight or nine years will have their mixes dialed in. We weren’t about to bring out a new system and have these customers have build new show files from scratch in order to make the jump to the new system—we wanted to make that transition as easy as possible. Between the common VENUE software and show file compatibility, the learning curve for jumping onto S6L is minimal.
Show file portability is a very complex thing to design. To take something from a completely different architecture and then bring it across onto a new system that technically runs on a completely different environment is a huge challenge. But when you load a show file from another VENUE system, S6L automatically recognizes what system and version of VENUE software your show file was created on and knows the differences between the processing capabilities it can provide and the processing capabilities that you had before, and resolves these differences, providing you with a list of any aspects of your show file that have changed.
DH: What then was the biggest challenge in updating the VENUE software for S6L?
AM: We knew early on that S6L would introduce a new level of performance to the industry with the huge jump in processing channels. We wanted to remove any concern about having enough processing channels and busses. We wanted to provide engineers with more than enough power to make those questions academic, so they wouldn’t have to worry about specs when choosing the right system for the job. But apart from the significant engineering challenges of creating the new E6L engine, the greater challenge in many ways was how to design a user interface to navigate and control all of this power. If you’ve got 192 input channels, you can’t just have them all sitting in front of you at all times. There has to be some kind of meaningful way that you can get to the things that you need instantly, which is, of course, the requirement of the live sound engineer. So that was the primary UI challenge: how to enable quick access to a specific channel or parameter when you’ve got so many to navigate through. Furthermore, everything needs to be presented in a way that’s simple to understand and provides quick navigation—without having to dive through layers of menus.
DH: Let’s talk more about the relationship between the VENUE software GUI and the control surface touch screens—how are they related?
AM: We could have just incorporated the traditional VENUE software directly into the control surface if we’d chosen to do that, but it was a conscious decision to split the VENUE GUI from the surface screens—we think of them as being two separate areas. The functions that are driven from the control surface screens relate directly to operations you perform on the control surface. You can see and access all of your channel processing and surface navigation—what is displayed almost always relates to something physical in front of you, on the faders or knobs.
On the other hand, the external GUI displaying the VENUE software relates to what’s happening in your wider live sound environment, including functions like Snapshot programming, patching, and other configuration—typically functions that you probably don’t need to access during show time. Walk up to the console, and the screens display everything you need to operate the control surface and control your mix. Turn to the external VENUE GUI, and it’s your window into the wider live sound environment and your system configuration.
DH: Looking at the VENUE GUI, the layout is almost the same but the look has been updated from previous versions—why is that?
AM: The first thing you’ll notice is that the software has a new ID, and that the look and feel of the control surface matches the new look and feel of the software. For example, the way EQ’s look on the control surface screens match those in the external GUI. We’ve also designed the new software to be touch driven, and we’ve optimized the touch zone for the various controls to prevent miscuing. We know the average touch space required for each control, and we’re very careful about what areas of the screen you can touch to actually affect a control to make sure that it’s very difficult for you to alter something that you didn’t intend. When you get on S6L and have a play with it, you’ll see that it is very accurate in that way.
In addition to being optimized for touch, the software has also been designed purposely for the resolution of the touch screen that we’re supporting. So it’s not that we’ve just taken the VENUE software and stretched it for a wider aspect ratio or made it work for HD. We’ve made sure that when a user is operating the external GUI, they’re getting the exact user experience that we had in mind when we were developing it.
You’ll also notice that the VENUE software now sports a darker look to provide better contrast between the elements on screen. This improves navigation, which is now a lot clearer. The UI designers putting together the color scheme were always aware that daylight-readability was one their highest priorities, fully understanding the kind of stark contrast needed, given that S6L would be going out in the midday sun.
We also unified our design approach to consistently present functions in a similar manner to speed up navigation, no matter whether they’re on the surface, a touchscreen, or the external GUI. That applies to consistent use of color as well. You’ll notice that the color scheme that we’ve used for the control surface and in the GUI all aligns with what we’ve always used in the Channel Control for SC48. So EQs are green, compressor is blue, the gate is yellow. And by maintaining these color schemes across the system, it’s very simple to identify these elements quickly. We can also use color schemes to do things like highlighting. For example, we use an amber highlight or amber surround to identify that something in the UI is selected or targeted, and we use bright blue to identify that something is “attentioned” as the globally selected channel. At first you might think about them intellectually, but it quickly becomes second nature to identify these colors with specific operations.
DH: Explain the difference between “attentioning” and “selecting” a channel with S6L, and how does each factor into the software navigation?
AM: There are two interlinked concepts that we use to create the most flexible UI possible and take the greatest advantage of S6L’s multiple touchscreens and external GUI: “attention” and “select”. “Attention” is what we used to call “select” in earlier versions of VENUE, and can be thought of as a single, globally-targeted channel. When you attention any channel (via a surface key, Universe View, or external GUI), it will immediately be targeted to the external GUI, be displayed on the central, master screen of the control surface, and if the user has it configured this way, automatically assigned to one of those two little master faders that we call the Flex Channels for instant control. This allows us to have instant access to a single channel at all times, irrespective of the active bank on the surface. Think of this as a “money channel” that is available on the surface and External GUI at all times.
In S6L “select” refers to something different than with older VENUE systems—“select” is now a local operation that only impacts a specific region of the control surface. This allows us to assign and control multiple channels across various sections of the console independently of each other, which is absolutely awesome and gives us simultaneous control over multiple channels at once—it’s also perfect for dual operator workflows. Just select a channel on any bay of eight channels, and you can instantly access its parameters on the corresponding knobs and touchscreen above.
So rather than just going for a kind of local selection for everything, you can now choose any channel from anywhere across your system—all 192 inputs and 96 outputs—and have it up on the screen at all times without interrupting your control surface workflow, which is something that we’ve never been able to do with VENUE before.
DH: You’ve taken us through some of the cosmetic changes to the software and the touch-optimization, but I’ve noticed that there are several other tweaks—can you talk about some of those?
AM: Although we kept pretty much everything in its original location, you will note a few changes. On the Inputs page, for example, customers have long requested that we present the elements in order of signal flow, so you are now presented with input channel functions feeding into EQ, feeding into the gate and compressor, etc. You’ll also notice that we’ve optimized the way that we present the various inputs and outputs to more easily navigate the huge number of processing channels that S6L provides.
Another addition is that VENUE now offers you tabs with which to switch between channel, GEQ, and Matrix Mixer views for all outputs. This is important, as S6L not only features a seven-band parametric EQ for every output, but it also enables you to simultaneously assign a GEQ across any output. And maybe you also want to access the matrix mixer for the channel—that’s a bunch of different information all relating to that output channel. The tabs allow you to quickly navigate from channel processing (with EQ, dynamics, inserts), to your GEQ, to your matrix mixer.
Another new thing that you’ll see is the significant work done with the Options > Devices page. S6L is a modular, networked system that has multiple components all connected via Ethernet AVB. The new Options Devices page shows you all of the components available on the network, and offers quick drag-and-drop configuration of engine, control surface, stage racks, and attached Pro Tools workstations for recording. Once you pair your control surface with an E6L engine it’ll be paired for life until you un-pair them, and you can name each component so that you can quickly identify what each is for, and your system will automatically boot up in the same configuration every time until such time that want to change the configuration. This page will be especially important when S6L’s I/O Sharing functionality comes into play, and will offer a comprehensive overview of all components across various networked systems. In addition to managing your various system components, this page also displays the processing capabilities of the E6L engine’s HDX cards that run your plug-ins.
DH: I know from the S6L surface workflows that we now have user-definable fader layouts—explain that feature and how does it relate to the VENUE GUI?
AM: At the bottom of VENUE’s Inputs and Outputs pages there’s a little tab labeled “layout”. We first introduced user-definable fader layouts with the VENUE | S3L-X system, and it’s an especially important feature in S6L that enables you to always keep your most critical channels at your fingertips. It allows you to assign any channel—input, output, VCA, group, etc.—to any fader on the control surface, enabling you to create custom layouts for all your key workflows. And the cool feature here is that you can create multiple custom fader layouts and then recall them via snapshots—you can imagine the kind of power you get right there.
When you go to the VENUE Snapshots page and look at the scope section, there’s a new button there that says LAYT, and that relates to the user-defined fader layout. If you scope that as part of your snapshot, then whatever the current assignment of the user-defined fader layout is, that’s what will be stored within the snapshot. So when you recall that snapshot it’ll recall those assignments instantaneously. So for example, you can always have the most important faders that you need under your fingers for each given song based, automatically updating what’s in front of you based on the snapshot recalled.
DH: Finally, can you tell us about VENUE’s expanded Virtual Soundcheck capabilities?
AM: There’s also been a major update to VENUE’s Virtual Soundcheck feature. All of that VENUE Link functionality from version 2.9 on is brought forward to S6L: automatic session creation, naming, patching, etc. But now you also have the ability to run Virtual Soundcheck per channel, which is another feature that we first introduced with S3L. There is now a button for every input channel that toggles the feed of that specific channel from the stage rack input to the associated Pro Tools playback track, letting you select which tracks from Pro Tools you want to play back on a per channel basis. This enables some completely new and very powerful workflows. For example, you can run Pro Tools playback tracks back in through all of your input channels for everything except the vocal, in order to let the vocalist to sing over the Virtual Soundcheck from yesterday. It allows us to have a bass player that couldn’t make sound check suddenly join in with a Virtual Soundcheck to add him back into the mix.
Let’s say that you’re a monitor engineer and you want to work on various different parts of the mix in real time. You can now get individual band members on stage, open up a live mic, and work with them to perfect the monitor mix for each song without needing the other musicians. This is a very powerful feature because you can recreate the exact environment that the artist was in when performing on the previous night, and we’ve already heard from several monitor engineers that this is an invaluable new tool for them to hone their mixes. The added bonus of this new functionality is that it also allows us to engage Virtual Soundcheck without having to change the configuration and reboot the system, it will just do it with a button press and it’s seamless and the audio glitch free so you can just do it in real time. So it’s very, very powerful!