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The S3 Control Surface: Seven Design Goals of a Revolutionary Console

Avid S3L

The following is the second of a seven-part blog series from Al McKinna, Principal Product Manager, Avid Live Systems & Consoles, that will provide a look inside the design of Avid S3L.

 

I’m guessing that you were not expecting me to start this blog entry talking about the telephone, am I right? It’s a fantastic invention. It began as two baked bean tins and a piece of string, didn’t it? Product development for the telephone went from two Victorians shouting into tin cans to something the size of a chocolate bar that somehow contains your entire life.

Your telephone is now your camera. That’s bizarre in itself. It’s your TV, your music store, your library, your newsstand. It’s simultaneously the fountain of all knowledge and a place to hang out with your buddies. It’s your doctor, yoga instructor, stock broker, spiritual guru and backseat driver. Hey, some of these telephones even let you make phone calls.

A telephone now looks like a single piece of polished precious stone, fits beautifully into the palm of your hand, and does everything possibly conceivable including some things previously inconceivable. I recently bought a cell phone that’s a million times more powerful than the BBC Micro home computer I had growing up. Now that’s product evolution for you.

The live sound industry is a little like the telephone—it’s also evolving faster than the speed of sound. Blink and you’ll open your eyes to a different world.

Over the last 10 years, we have been lucky enough to pay witness to tectonic changes in our live sound world. We have all seen the large-format analog consoles (whose job it is to mix the levels) being replaced by super powerful, smaller-format digital consoles (whose job it is to mix the levels and do a whole lot more besides). Maybe one day we’ll see a console that not only mixes the levels but also mixes the drinks.

Oh yeah, please email me if you do actually want your live sound console to mix the drinks. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll certainly look into it. I’m pretty sure we could do that with EUCON.

This exciting trend, revolution almost, is entirely analogous to the development of the telephone. As live sound consoles gradually get smaller, we expect them to gradually get more powerful, and recently we have been expecting their functionality to take us vastly beyond the horizons of a traditional analog board. Like the telephone, we want our digital live sound console to do everything.

But why? Well, in live sound, as always, the design is driven by the application.

In my last blog entry, we discussed how consoles need to be super-compact yet highly versatile as space is at an ultra-premium, transport costs are high, and discerning audiences expect the highest of production values. We discussed how consoles need to provide all the signal processing and effects ‘in the box’, as outboard racks are costly to maintain, hard to transport and uncompromisingly consume that valuable space. We discussed how every performance needs to be recorded as audiences (and artists) are beginning to wonder why recordings can’t be made available immediately after the show. This means we need to find ways to record the show, mix that recording and publish it while acts are still on the road. This is where it can get a little tricky.

A few years ago, the introduction of the Avid VENUE Family of live sound systems changed the live recording experience forever. VENUE first introduced the concept of the Virtual Soundcheck and revolutionized the live event industry by replacing the mobile recording truck with two DigiLink cables between a VENUE system and Pro Tools HD. Today, it is expected that every digital live sound console leaving the PA company warehouse comes with some form of recording package, irrespective of the manufacturer.

So we are all recording all of our performances all of the time, but what to do with all this material? We know the audiences are screaming for it, we just need to get it into a nice neat finalized package ready for consumption. We need to take it to the recording studio.

Or do we?

What if the live sound console could also be used for the studio mix? What if a single console could be designed for both applications, uncompromising in its functionality for both? What if a console could be made so super-compact it could be used in the tour bus or hotel room, so lightweight it could fly as checked baggage and is intelligent enough to behave like a live console in the auditorium and DAW controller on the bus when you’re mixing the recording? If a manufacturer could indeed design this console, you could record every show, mix every recording, publish the recordings and generate additional revenue streams for the artist—all from the tour bus.

Yes, I’m teasing. We designed it.

Avid S3L is a modular, networked digital mixing system for professional live sound and studio applications that gives the engineer game changing functionality never before achieved by a live console. That concept we have discussed before. However, it is the capabilities of the S3 Control Surface that enable this very cool dual-application functionality. When first designing S3, if Avid was going to realize this dream and not compromise on functionality for live sound or studio, we were going to have to set some exceptionally stringent design goals. Goals that could end up raising the bar on console design altogether.

Yes, I’m going to list them…

  1. S3 must preserve the modularity of the S3L system
  2. S3 must be compact and portable, but not compromise on performance or versatility
  3. S3 must be built for life on the road
  4. S3 must preserve VENUE live sound workflows
  5. S3 must add Artist Series DAW control workflows
  6. S3 must exceed performance expectations
  7. S3 must look like absolutely knockout fantastic

 

1. Avid S3 preserves the modularity of the S3L system

In order to not burden the studio engineer with the cost of audio engine components used only for live sound applications (in the studio Pro Tools is the engine), S3 must contain only the elements needed for studio workflows—the control elements. By preserving the modularity between control surface, engine and I/O components of the S3L system, we made a highly scalable and versatile live sound system while simultaneously enabling S3 to be a viable DAW controller for studio applications.

2. Avid S3 is compact, portable, lightweight and versatile

S3 needs to be super compact for all the reasons mentioned above; however, that does not mean we should be willing to compromise on its versatility or functionality to do so. This is achieved in S3, firstly by having all the audio engine components in the E3 Engine, and secondly through the layout and functionality of the surface controls.

The S3 Control Surface has 32 touch-sensitive encoders. Each encoder has a high-resolution OLED display, which provides indication of the parameter targeted to it. The S3 Control Surface has few dedicated controls. Instead the engineer is given a range of parameters that can be targeted to the encoders. This is not just limited to channel functions such as pre-amp control, EQ, dynamics and aux send levels, but also mix bus outputs, matrix outputs and VCA masters, all of which can be targeted to encoders to free up more control via the faders.

This concept of moving away from dedicated controls and toward a more fluid, versatile, assignable model enables us to remove unnecessary controls, reduce the amount of overall surface space and keep S3 immensely powerful.

3. Avid S3 is built for life on the road

The S3 Control Surface is designed as a controller for both live sound and DAW applications, but that does not mean some units won’t spend their entire lives in a flightcase touring the world. You can guarantee it. Like the seasoned roadie, the S3 Control Surface must be built to cope with this lifestyle and withstand all the rigors of touring. The Avid VENUE consoles are built for this also, and with nearly 10 years of real world testing under Avid’s belt with these market-leading touring consoles, a wealth of experience was applied to S3L. This is why the environmental specifications and requirements provided for the design of S3L are taken directly from the requirements formulated for all other Avid live sound consoles. The S3L system is tested extensively to meet these specifications.

4. Avid S3 preserves VENUE live sound workflows

All Avid live sound consoles are powered by the VENUE software, Avid S3L being no different. The S3 Control Surface literally targets functions in the VENUE software. For this reason, the workflow employed to operate VENUE must be the same across the entire Avid live sound family. If this is achieved, a user would only need to learn to use an Avid live sound console once and be able to use all Avid live sound consoles. So that’s what we did. Fader banking, encoder assign and Channel Control are brought into S3 from existing VENUE consoles and will be instantly familiar to anyone with experience of operating SC48 for example.

All Avid live sound consoles are powered by VENUE.

5. Avid S3 preserves Artist Series DAW control workflows

When S3 is ready to function as a controller for Pro Tools and other 3rd DAWs, the console will behave in a similar way to an Avid Artist Series controller. S3 has been designed to preserve the VENUE functionality and the Artist Series functionality without comprising the established workflow of either.

 

6. Avid S3 exceeds all expectations of performance

The sheer feature set of both the VENUE software and the E3 Engine is such that Avid S3 needs to be extremely versatile. Fortunately the assignable, flexible, non-fixed design of the control surface, detailed earlier in this blog, enables the user to access the full range of features offered by E3 and VENUE. Don’t take my word for this one, jump on a console and try it out. See how parameters map to encoders and how you can access a whole series of functions across different areas of the board for quick access, fluid operation and maximum control.

An S3 prototype is labeled up, ready for functional testing.

7. Avid S3 looks absolutely knockout fantastic

It’s the little super model of the console industry. I joke about this a lot, but there are some very valid reasons why Avid S3 is easy on the eye. The first reason is that S3 has a world-renowned industrial designer whose creative output never ceases to leave me in awe. The second reason is we removed all clutter. All unnecessary controls, labels, section headers and delineation lines have been removed, leaving the console surface free from chaos. This has resulted in clean lines, well-spaced controls and a low profile unit that literally seems to hover above your flightcase.

The final S3 Control Surface.

This is all good, but what’s the purpose of it? Well, it is not just to make you feel proud to tuck S3 under your arm (although hopefully you are)—the primary reason is to make it simple to use. The less clutter on the surface, the easier it is to find and access your desired function. This is essential for live sound workflows where reaction time is always of the essence.

So, there they are—the seven design goals of the S3 Control Surface. Design goals that resulted in a compact, portable, multi-purpose control surface that is extremely powerful, easy to use and sounds fantastic. But again, don’t take my word for it, try it out for yourself. Avid S3L is now shipping and available worldwide. Call your Avid dealer and organize a demo, and as always, let us know what you think.




Designing Avid S3L: Birth of a Concept

Avid S3L in action

The following is the first of a seven-part blog series from Al McKinna, Principal Product Manager, Avid Live Systems & Consoles, that will provide a look inside the design of Avid S3L.

 

Seven years ago when I joined Avid, VENUE was changing the world. The fledgling VENUE D-Show System was fast becoming one of the most requested live sound consoles for touring on the planet as waves of engineers moved from large-format analog boards to large-format digital boards.

Virtual Soundcheck, a workflow unheard of before the launch of D-Show, now a standard term on roadies’ mouths worldwide, was dramatically enhancing show setup times and production values. Engineers could now refine a mix to their ear’s content while the band was off doing press interviews.

Avid VENUE, Front of House, Glastonbury Festival, 2007

VENUE’s deep integration with Pro Tools HD was allowing more and more productions to record live performances without the need to rent a mobile recording truck, and hey, why not record every show?  We can right? Integrated, onboard plug-in effects replaced costly, heavy, space-occupying outboard gear. It was an exciting time to be immersed in an electrifying live music scene as the industry took its first steps into a positive and progressive state of flux.

Today it’s no different. The live sound industry is still evolving at the speed of a T.I. DSP chip as we all begin to get our heads around just how powerful and scalable these consoles can be. The difference is that the biggest changes are no longer happening at the 20,000-seat arena level; today the biggest changes happen in the 1,000-capacity music venue or house of worship.

Even as I write this, small scale night clubs, houses of worship, performing arts centers, hotels, conference centers, and casinos, (I could go on) are requiring smaller footprint and highly versatile digital live sound systems, but they have absolutely no intention whatsoever of cutting corners when it comes to sound quality or performance.

Audiences attending concerts in large scale venues expect the same production values in smaller scale venues, especially if it’s the same act. A smaller console that fits into a smaller space now somehow needs to do what the big desk does, outboard and all. And don’t forget, that console must be light, easy to transport, and still handle the rigors of the road. Or should that be ‘riggers’ of the road? Sorry, bad joke.

The momentous leaps taken of late in the distribution and consumption of digital media means audiences are now not only screaming for the band on stage, but screaming for the recording of the band to be made available as soon as the house lights come up—and they’ll take that delivered to their cell phones, if you don’t mind. We now need to find ways to record, mix, and publish live recordings while acts are still on the road and at a cost-effective price. The recording studio is not the answer. The answer is Avid S3L.

Avid S3L

Avid S3L is a networked, modular, digital mixing system for professional live sound and studio applications that gives customers game-changing functionality never before achieved by a live sound console. That’s a bold statement, right? Well don’t look at me; it’s YOUR console…

S3L is the direct result of years of research, design, and development by the best audio hardware and software engineers in their fields working closely with the best live sound engineers in their fields. As I said, it’s your console. You make a fantastic product designer. After all, you told Avid exactly what you wanted, we just built it.

You told us that you need a powerful, great sounding console that doesn’t cost the earth. You told us that space is always at a premium so the console should be compact, portable, and versatile. You told us that you don’t want to cart around a bunch of outboard gear—it’s expensive to maintain and transport, and there’s no room for it anyway. You told us that performances always need to be recorded, and that since we’re Avid, the recording experience should be better than with any other system and come as part of the package. You drive a hard bargain indeed.

These design goals, extensive as they are, are realized in S3L through the tight integration of the key technologies that the system is built upon. These technologies, including EUCON for networked control, AVB for networked audio, HDX floating-point processing, AAX plug-ins, and of course, the award-winning VENUE and Pro Tools software applications, bind together in such a way that they establish a unified user experience that is far more than the sum of its parts. This is great, but what does it actually mean for the live professional standing at front of house? Fortunately, it means this:

  1. S3L is compact, modular and portable, space efficient and multi-purpose.
  2. S3L provides simple, reliable network connectivity using open Ethernet AVB.
  3. S3L uses the powerful next generation AAX plug-in ecosystem for infinite sonic possibilities.
  4. S3L provides the most integrated interoperability with Pro Tools—ever.
  5. S3L uses the same VENUE software as all other Avid live sound systems.

S3 Control Surface

E3 Engine

Stage 16 Remote I/O

The compact, portable and multipurpose nature of S3L is owed primarily to the EUCON protocol for networked control and Ethernet AVB for networked audio. When designing S3L, we took the three main elements that make up any live sound system—control, engine and I/O—separated them and then placed them out on a network.

Portable Console

Stage 16 Remote I/O

For those of you unfamiliar with EUCON, it is a high-speed Ethernet-based networked control protocol used by Avid control surfaces. It is EUCON technology that enables us to make the S3 Control Surface just that, a control surface. Using EUCON means control surface elements can be housed in a different chassis to audio processing elements, enabling the S3 Control Surface to exist separately to the E3 Engine. Unburdened by DSP or CPU components, we can make S3 small-format, low profile, and lightweight, while still providing the ruggedized chassis essential for live sound use.

EUCON brings with it other benefits too. Being a protocol that is application-aware, it brings with it the capability for the S3 Control Surface to be not only a console for live sound, but with a little bit of additional development, in the future it will be a controller for Pro Tools too. But that’s a subject for another blog entry in a few weeks.

Network Ports

Stage 16 Remote I/O

Whereas EUCON is concerned with the transportation of control data, Ethernet AVB is concerned with audio. Also an Ethernet-based network protocol; AVB is the audio backbone that binds S3L devices together. AVB and EUCON play together like best friends, coexisting in harmony on the same Ethernet pipe. A single Cat5e cable connects both control and audio between devices, reducing those nasty cable jungles that can occasionally grow and allowing for a fully distributed system of networked I/O. Stage 16 remote I/O units can be daisy-chained and placed anywhere around the facility in whatever configuration required for whomever you have on stage.

The latest software and firmware is installed on early pilot units

Let’s not forget the recording side of it. You said you wanted all the recording features deeply integrated, so deep integration is what you got. Avid S3L connects to Pro Tools, and yes, it’s over AVB too. That’s 64-tracks of record and playback in all, including all that fantastic VENUE Link interoperability of importing patching and naming data from your live console into Pro Tools VENUE snapshots linking to Pro Tools markers and Pro Tools transport control all flying down a single Ethernet cable. Phew!

However, connecting your brand new networked live sound system together is all well and good, but you shouldn’t need a PhD in network engineering to do so. We don’t want anyone using S3L to have to muck around with IP addresses, Mac addresses, or ID switches when they’re just trying to plug in some stage boxes and get some audio up and running. It’s for this reason that we made Stage 16 units plug and play.

The VENUE software makes configuring an AVB network as simple as drag and drop

If you plug a Stage 16 into an E3 Engine, the E3 will instantly know what it is, what you last used it for, and even remember the custom name you gave it. Plug in the devices in any order you like and the E3 will arrange them in the exact configuration you used last time, even if your cabling order has changed dramatically. That’s a clever little box.

An early E3 Engine unit is assembled

E3 pilot units wait patiently for testing

At the core of the E3 Engine is an HDX floating-point processing architecture. Yes, that’s the same HDX engine as the latest generation of Pro Tools HD systems. The same HDX engine used to mix countless high-profile albums and Hollywood movies. HDX, of course (yes, you’ve guessed it), is what allows the E3 Engine to run AAX plug-ins, providing the engineer with all the same effects as used in the latest studio recordings and mitigates the need to cart around  rack after rack of outboard gear.

The E3 Engine in its final form

The fantastic Avid Channel Strip AAX plug-in running in the VENUE software

And lastly, but by no means least, the VENUE software—that beautiful, rich, easy-to-use, tested like crazy, graphical user interface that countless live sound engineers are out on the road with right now. VENUE powers all Avid live sound systems, with S3L being no different. Learn the software once and you are good to go for the entire live sound family and, as an added bonus, you get full up-down, forwards-backwards compatibility between them. A Show file created on the biggest, most expanded, most expensive D-Show system will load directly onto Avid S3L and vice-versa, meaning you match your choice of system to the size of the show.

VENUE 4.0 Software

Oh, and did I mention that it sounds great? I can’t remember whether or not you mentioned that you wanted it to sound great. I think you might have said something along those lines…

So, what else can I say? Congratulations on the console! You did a fantastic job. But don’t just take my word for it, try it out for yourself. Avid S3L is now shipping and available worldwide. Call up your Avid dealer and organize a demo, and as always, let us know what you think.

In my next blog, I will discuss how we designed the S3 Control Surface to operate as both a live sound console and studio controller. How did we make it compact, portable, and multi-purpose and still keep it looking so gorgeous?