Designing Avid S3L: Birth of a Concept

By in Live Sound, Music Creation, Tech Talk

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?

As Director of Product Management for Live Systems and Consoles at Avid, I am one of the luckiest guys I know. Every day I wake up, go to work and design live sound consoles for the most talented, creative and driven people in the world.