What You Need To Know About Today's Radio Consoles - Part 1

Choosing a ConsoleWe know plenty of broadcasters who have nicknames for their consoles. You might be one of them, in which case you won’t hear any comments from us. What you call your board is your business.

We just hope that you keep it respectable.

Because with any luck, and a little respect, that radio console will be around for a long, long time. Consoles are made to last, or at least they should be, and you can expect the good ones to be serviceable for 10 or more years. Probably longer. (See related article Simple Maintenance Tips for Consoles.)

Still, every decade or so it’s a good idea to pop your head up from the controls and see what’s out there. You might be surprised to learn that consoles haven’t changed all that much on the surface. We haven’t forgotten who’s still at the controls -- we know you have nicknames for your talent, too, and we’ll talk about that and some new console features to keep their fingers occupied in the next issue of WHEAT:NEWS.

But, for now, let’s look at some of the changes we’ve made under the hood of today’s board that could make a difference in how big and how cool your next console will be.

Short-loaded boards are so yesterday. “One thing we don’t see much of anymore is people ordering short-loaded consoles,” commented Brad Harrison, Wheatstone sales engineer. The reason is networking. “The fact that you can put any source anywhere at anytime you want negates the need for trying to think ahead in terms of getting a bigger frame and adding faders down the road,” he explained. Anymore, scalability is a function of the network; just add I/Os for sources and destinations via network nodes (or BLADEs, in the case of WheatNet-IP).

The magic number of faders is… Your biggest decision point these days is the number of faders, and it’s an easy decision to make. The magic number of faders seems be 12, with 16 faders a close second. Twelve is just enough faders for the mics – one for a main DJ and another for a guest if yours is a music station, and at least four for a talk or news station – plus four more for the playout server, one or two additional for remote gear, one or two more for a CD player or Internet computer, and a couple of spares. At 12 faders, you have some decent leeway should you want to bring up Skype or YouTube on a fader, for example, or for those occasional sportscasts that need a few more channels. You will notice that console manufacturers, including Wheatstone and Audioarts, give you a lot of choices in the 12- to 16-channel range.

Lots more on the network. The incidentals that might have cluttered up your old console are now on the network – along with all those sources and destinations you no longer have to hardwire into the console. Our WheatNet-IP networked consoles, for example, plug into BLADEs (or nodes) that have built-in intelligence for router control, logic control, gain control, utility mixing, silence detection, and switching. This eliminates the need for (and expense of) a lot of the extras that you might otherwise need in a console, which in turn determines the size of your console (think smaller). We’ll talk more about features next month.

Plays well with others. Anymore, consoles should be able to mix well with others. They should be able to pass event or show presets for sources, bus assignments and settings between them, so you can easily reconfigure the console in studio A exactly like that in studio B. Any networked console these days should be able to shake hands with the popular automation systems, too, generally through an audio driver, and in many cases will hand off signals to the STL.

But, it’s still the centerpiece of radio. The console is still the single most important communication device between your talent and your listeners. It’s the window to your station. You can always integrate telephone hybrids and other equipment into the studio through any number of interfaces. But you can’t easily work around a board that doesn’t get along with your talent. That part hasn’t changed. No other gear is so important that it should dictate your choice of console. Not even the audio over IP system. Yes, we have cool features like virtual mixers that are engineered into our BLADEs and can float around the studio for a number of purposes (e.g. for virtually submixing channels) but none of that trumps the console itself. The console remains the most critical piece of equipment in your studio, bar none.

Digital makes a difference. Today’s digital console looks like its analog predecessors, but it is different in ways that make it more reliable. There’s no audio on board, for example, which means there are no critical electronics beneath the modules of our consoles. These days, the likelihood of an accidental coffee spill taking out a Wheatstone console is slim to none. DSP also makes it easier to design in more customized features along with greater reliability. With all those audio circuits out of the console, much less heat is generated, improving the longevity of the components that remain. Also, instead of a bank of four or six faders, our LX-24 and L-8 consoles let you pop one fader in or out at a time, which can be helpful should you need to replace a fader or add a fader at any time.

Quality counts. Given the mechanical nature of radio consoles and the wear and tear they go through on a daily basis, quality counts for a lot. And, as before, there are no shortcuts to good quality. Even something as seemingly insignificant as how a manufacturer sizes the console vent holes has a direct bearing on the electromagnetic interference created, which in turn determines standards compliance. Manufacturers who have been successfully making consoles a long time (try 35+ years in Wheatstone’s case) will have quality down to a science. We found that by manufacturing everything ourselves, from metalwork to console buttons, we can keep our quality high. Outsourcing creates too many shortcuts that are necessary for the large production runs needed to make the outsourcing arrangement affordable and practical (most of the cost is tied up in setup, whereas in our case, we’re always set up for making consoles).

While we search the world for components with the best specs, continual testing insures the components we use will stand the test of time. A good case in point: faders, the one component that sees more interaction with the operator than anything else. All fader manufacturers state the number of 'duty cycles', i.e. the number of times the fader can be moved up and down over its life. Anyone who has visited the Wheatstone factory lately is probably familiar with a device we use to test duty cycle. It is essentially a lever that looks like an arm with a finger on it to test faders after so many intervals to make sure they track properly and wear correctly in terms of audio quality.

So does support and reputation. There’s a difference between a console that uses cheap switches and one that uses quality switches. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to tell until down the road when the switch fails. So all you can rely on is the reputation of the manufacturer -- good or bad -- when choosing a company that will become your partner throughout the life of the console. “When you buy a console you are entering into a long term relationship with the company whose system you pick. You are really buying a system not a console,” pointed out Jay Tyler, Wheatstone Director of Sales.

By the way, Wheatstone support is still 24/7/365. And in case you’re wondering, you can get the same quality and support in an off-the-shelf console as you do in a custom console. We know. We make both. Audioarts Engineering consoles aren’t custom made like our Wheatstone brand, but they’re ruggedly built and time-tested and have all the features you’d expect of a solid console. The main difference is that they’re made in scheduled production runs so that when a project calls for a console now, it’s available and out the door that day. (Okay, so we couldn’t resist a tiny sales pitch.)

At the end of the day, any console you get should be able to handle whatever radio has to throw at it, day in and day out as well as 10 years down the road. Next month, we’ll talk about how we’ve human-proofed consoles. Stay tuned.

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