Consoles and the Human Factor (Part 2)

Choosing A Console 2A good console is not just about networking. Or it shouldn't be, anyway. The last we checked, board ops still have two hands, five fingers each. And in the case of radio, they're still entertainers and not about to win any engineering awards soon. Your next radio console has about 30 seconds to get that right. Maybe less.

Again, that's two hands. Five fingers. One brain that may or may not be paying attention.

In our experience, it's much easier to bend metal than it is to tamper with the human factor. So, when one of your morning jocks wants to line up sources on the console based on the Byzantine alphabet, we're more inclined to give him what he wants rather than argue with him. In fact, we might give him a hand and suggest some presets.

The point is, we often get so caught up in console networking, we sometimes forget who's sitting at the controls. And, these days, there are more announcers sitting at the same console, and different types of uses for that same mixing desk besides. Consoles are more flexible today, true, but in order to make everyone happy in your studio there are certain must-haves on the surface of the console. Last month we talked about networking aplenty (see Today's Radio Consoles, Part I), and now we're going to cover what you need to know about surface features to keep everyone productive.

Get a cue. Not all consoles have it. If speaker and headphone cue is important to your talent – and c'mon, you know it is -- be sure to pick a console that has this. Not all of the networked consoles, or control surfaces, do. On-board speakers and headphone jacks for cue were left out of the first generation of control surfaces and put on the network for technical reasons. We reintroduced speakers and added a headphone jack to our flagship LX-24 and Audioarts IP-12 on-air consoles (the L-8 has talent cue as well, but no built-in speaker). "We figured out a clean way to get those feeds in the console without having to tie up audio outputs in a BLADE (which are similar to network nodes). The IP-12, and LX-24 have built in cue speakers and headphone feeds that get their signals on the same Ethernet jack connection that the console plugs into," explained Brad Harrison, Wheatstone sales engineers.

Making this possible is the direct IP interface between Wheatstone control surfaces and the WheatNet-IP audio over IP network, rather than the CAN bus serial interface predominantly used in other AoIP console systems.

Get more production on-board. Our sales engineers suggest you get some production capability in your on-air consoles, if only for maintenance purposes. With today's consoles, your jocks, who might be dangerous with those extra controls, don't even have to know about them. Plus, these additional features don't add that much to the cost but can add immeasurably to time and dollars saved later on when you need to shift things around in a pinch. We felt so strongly about this that we recently added EQ, filtering and processing to our E-1, a very popular console in countries where they very rarely make the distinction between on-air and production. Look for a mixing desk that has layered controls and access protection for production rather than a console that has everything out front where anyone with fingers can get to it.

Get the big picture. It's easy for us engineers to get distracted by all the blinking lights. But avert your eyes for a minute and consider that you'll need a practical overload meter your talent can see from a good distance, whether it's built into a meter bridge or part of a flip-up or add-on. As always, VU indicators should have good visibility from wherever you stand in the studio, and they should be easy to understand at a glance. We designed large, bright eyebrow meters into the meter bridge of our flagship LX-24 console for this reason. We also added a couple of circular LED displays for indicating auxiliary send levels that are helpful to jocks.

Get an even bigger picture. Now, about those blinking lights. Thanks to today's DSP and flat screen displays able to put up readings, we can monitor all kinds of things we didn't see before: EQ, processing, routing, and other information critical to engineers or power operators like bus names, average/peak or PPM level meters, event timers and the like. We have a lot of monitoring of this type through software GUIs that, let's just say, are good for your talent because they keep them in business. We recently came out with a GUI called IP Meters for putting onscreen up to 60 cells of readings. With this "wall of meters," you can monitor audio peak levels and average levels at selected points throughout the network, including a separate FFT meter for spectral readings plus visual alerts should a channel go dark. Take advantage of all those new blinking displays, but don't expect your talent to notice.

Go for presets and layered controls. Any console worth its salt these days should be able to layer in access with presets that easily recall sources, bus assignments, mix-minus, input mode and pan and monitor configurations for your experienced operators, but can dial back to the minimum to keep the weekend ops from getting into trouble. For example, we put EQ and other sound processing functions on every fader of some of our consoles because this beats having to root around for an outboard unit or go through a software routine to get to it. But you can bet we give you the option to turn that on or off as needed. Controls like this can be dangerous in some hands; some jocks do best with a simple button that switches between "live" and automation.

A word about buttons. All consoles come with buttons, but not all arrange them in such a way that makes sense. Consider, for example, talkback buttons above the faders. That's going to make it a lot easier for your jock to do what he does best, which is talk without having to figure out where his fingers are at all times. Don't forget, too, that your console should have plenty of programmable buttons to handle any macros or salvos you might need.

A word about mix-minus/bus minus. Unless you're broadcasting in a vacuum, you will need a console that can do easy backfeeds and on-the-fly mix-minus. And, one that can auto-switch between off-line mix and online mix-minus, per channel. All of which means your console has to have a flexible, yet easy-to-use mix-minus and bus minus system. For example, Wheatstone consoles make complex mix-minus setups simple using per-channel bus-minus outputs with selectable reference mix and talkback interrupt. Think about that for a minute: mix-minus output from every input channel that can use any console bus as its reference mix. Simple and powerful, huh?

Get good console communication. We promised to not get too deep into the network side of things here, so we'll just say that direct TCP/IP communication between the console and the network can keep your jocks out of trouble. "A lot of the other guys will discount the (console) surface and they'll use CAN bus, but because of our direct TCP/IP connection with the console, the automation system knows what is supposed to be where; it knows if program is supposed to be on fader one or two or three and it knows if the console's on," says Wheatstone Director of Sales Jay Tyler. Not only will you know immediately if a WheatNet-IP console's not on, you won't have to get in your car to find out it's a loose connector, either, all courtesy of direct TCP/IP commands from your laptop. By the way, this direct communication might come in handy someday if you want Wheatstone engineers to troubleshoot a studio issue remotely.

And while we're on the subject of networking, do consider whether or not a PC is required to run things in the background (Wheatstone and Audioarts consoles are independent of PC operation for reliability purposes), and if the settings are distributed across the network (in our case, on BLADEs) so your announcers don't have to feel like sitting ducks when the PC goes on the blink and takes down the studio with it.

Do away with the old way of thinking. We hear it all the time. Broadcasters tell us that they started out looking for a replacement console that they could drop into the studio, and ended up with a new space and a new way of doing things. When you no longer have to keep two or three faders potted up at all times for the automation, for example, you no longer have to tie up one studio indefinitely for that purpose. Digital consoles are more flexible and feeds are now dynamically allocated anywhere in the network, which means you could find yourself with fewer studios and fewer costs. So, in the process of thinking new and different, check out some of our unique console inventions, like our SideBoard that you can rackmount off to the side, for example, or our new TS-4/TS-22 talent stations that are networked control panels for putting mic, volume and sources at the talent's fingertips. We make 26 different console models, each uniquely designed for any studio upgrade.


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