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All About Audio Consoles
Through a greater degree of integration, the console surface can display more information to the operator.
The audio console serves as the central control point for all audio passing through the radio station. Depending on the station's needs, it may be a simple device with only a few controls or a mammoth console with enough controls to make any techno-geek happy. The controls range from simple level (volume) controls to sophisticated response equalization. It may contain controls for multiple auxiliary sends for mix-minuses and IFB. It may even contain the control panel for a routing switcher and on-air telephone system.
The audio consoles of today can be divided into two groups: analog and digital. Analog consoles are popular and are still widely manufactured. Analog consoles tend to be less expensive than digital consoles, but this is changing rapidly. If a need calls for a small console, analog consoles are more cost-effective, and possibly the only solution available. There are few small digital consoles available, and most of those are not intended for broadcast use. As your needs grow into larger and more complicated consoles, the likelihood of finding a cost-effective digital console increases. The primary reason for this is the development cost of new products. Generally, new technology is introduced at the high end of the price range, and gradually trickles down to the lower-priced units as the initial development costs are defrayed. At last year's NAB, prices for high-end digital consoles were just beginning to be cost-competitive with comparable analog consoles. It won't be much longer until digital consoles will be considerably cheaper than comparable analog consoles.
The analog consoles that are available now possess incremental advances on previous technology. While most don't look much different than older consoles, they often incorporate advanced features such as surface-mount components and modular construction. Many of these advances contribute to better initial performance and better reliability. Many are even providing indicators that never need replacing during the life of the console through the use of LED lamps or LCD displays. Electronic switching also helps improve reliability by reducing the problems associated with dirty switch contacts.
A seasoned change
The real changes have been in the area of digital consoles. For the uninitiated, digital consoles accept digital signals or convert analog sources to digital, then manipulate these signals by altering, mixing, processing and controlling them with no degradation (assuming the digital system has been designed properly). With the proliferation of digital sources in the radio stations today (CDs, computers and digital satellites), the digital console has the advantage of not having to convert all these signals back to analog and then to digital again. The digital source can remain digital throughout the entire system, all the way to the transmitter.
A wide choice in digital consoles exists to fit small and large installations.
Digital console manufacturers have opted to follow two design paths. Some have patterned their digital consoles after a typical analog console. These consoles are self-contained with the possible exception of the power supply. The audio (analog or digital) is brought to the console housing and controlled in dedicated console sections.
The other approach provides a unit that houses most of the electronics. The audio comes to and from this central unit, often called an audio engine, which does not have to be at the console operator's location. A control surface is connected to the engine through a digital connection, usually a serial or CAT-5 cable. The control surface issues digital commands to the central unit that tell it what to do with the audio.
All of this wizardry of the high-end digital consoles is made possible by integrating the console with a digital routing switcher. In most cases, the console surface and the router are from the same manufacturer, but there are some choices that combine one manufacturer's surface with another's router. The router capability greatly expands the capability of the console, allowing control of audio from multiple sources and destinations with a limited number of console channels.
As the console is more fully integrated with the routing switcher it is possible to have multiple consoles (control surfaces) operating with one routing switcher, so audio sources can be easily shared among control rooms without the use of additional wiring and distribution amplifiers. The audio source is connected directly to the router. If the source is digital, it goes straight in. If it is analog, it is converted to digital (usually in the router) and is then available to the system. One or more control rooms can use this source at the same time with no additional work, since the router takes care of it all.
Some console designs use video display for system functions and metering. These displays can also be used for other equipment displays, minimizing the clutter in the studio.
The same can be true for outputs from the console. Most consoles have several outputs, usually identified as program, audition, auxiliary, utility, sends and mix-minus. The way in which it is used defines the primary difference between any of these outputs. They are all audio outputs, but the compliment of sources assigned to them gives them greater flexibility. By using a routing switcher to multiply the capability, digital consoles can appear to have more outputs than they physically have.
The addition of the routing switcher has now expanded the capability of the system, making the console a virtual chameleon, able to change character at a moment's notice. This feature alone has made digital consoles more attractive to radio owners with more than one station in a market. Once a system is set up, resources can be shared and the facility's entire operations can be consolidated.
Another new feature available on digital consoles is an expanded display. Some digital consoles no longer use dedicated meters, but use a computer monitor instead — often a flat-screen display — to indicate audio mix levels, the time and count-up or count-down timer. When the auxiliary controls are activated, these monitors will display information corresponding to these controls. Some even show a graphical representation of the equalization or compression settings on the screen. Because all the audio is being processed digitally, this sort of advanced display is a logical progression. When a display like this is used, more monitors can be added for automation and news systems to create a fully integrated appearance in the control room.
Cost and effect
By now you are probably thinking that all of this is going to add up to a lot of money, and you may be right. However, remember that you are buying more than just a console with these high-end systems. You are buying multiple consoles and a routing switcher. When you do a detailed cost comparison, you may find it is less expensive than you thought.
The purchase decision goes beyond price, features and performance. Most manufacturers will provide a user list on request. Manufacturer support is also an important aspect. Make sure the company provides the kind of support the stations need. Look into parts and costs for replacement items, especially lamps and indicators, switches and other mechanical items that will wear quickly.
Don't let the variety of consoles intimidate you. Yes, there are lots of options, but you will quickly find that many are not a good fit for your station. Eliminate them one-by-one and you will eventually come down to a few choices that will be right for you.
Gordon Carter is chief engineer of WFMT-FM, Chicago.
Looking for console manufacturers to help you plan your next project? A complete list is available in the online version of this article at www.beradio.com.
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