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Old 18th February 2003
Lives for gear
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There are quite a few boxes around now that give you 8-16 inputs with or without volume and pan for summing DAW mixes, don't know if you'd want to build a "me too" product.
In the large format market, you're competing with an increasing amount of used desks at decreasing prices. Tough to compete with the perceived value of these 10-20 year old desks, even if they will end up costing more maintenance-wise, the "buy-in" price is alluring to people.
The middle ground has remained empty despite many proposed designs from various "boutique" manufacturers. That says a lot about the difference between the perception of a middle market and the reality of it's existance. There are still major Neve/ SSL rooms making money, and plenty of records are being made on computers in bedrooms, but is there any money in building for a middle studio market? Selling clients on the idea that mixing on a big SSL isn't that hard, especially after they've heard a few of their buddies' PT LE mixes, but will they be sold on mixing on a compact Smart Research console?
Obviously, if you can keep the price low enough to appeal to more home recordists, selling them on the idea of a big desk sound in a small package wouldn't be that hard, especially with Smart Research's reputation already established for building a better version of the most popular mixing console's 2-bus compressor. The trick would be to incorporate enough features to broaden the mixer's appeal beyond the simpler summing boxes, without driving the price out of reach of home recordists. Tough trick at that.
I'd say forget modularity unless buyers are prepared to spend $500/ channel. That's $4k for 8 channels, so kiss the home recording market goodbye.
So a one-piece front panel lets you keep all the channels on one PCB. Forget mic pres or EQ, they'd actually be considered a drawback to people who see them as a duplicated expense on top of their outboard. Functionally, this lets you start the mixer at the insert return point of most desks and saves a lot of circuitry/ cost. So each channel would have just a line input and a direct out. How many channels? Well, there's no getting away from 19" racks if you're relying on outboard pres/ EQs, and the smallest channel spacing I'd be comfortable with is 1.5". That spells 11 channels in a 16.5" wide chassis, which could be conveniently aligned with API's 10 spc. rack for intuitive channel flow when stacked. I'd stay with 8 input channels as that corresponds nicely with about every converter/ interface on the market as well as offers a good modular building block for a multiple unit mixing system. The other three spaces I'd allocate to 2 stereo groups and a stereo master. One feature a lot of the compact summers are missing is sub-groups. These would need an insert point for processing, which could also be used as just a stereo return instead of a subgroup. So 8x4x2 or 12x2 would be the base unit configuration, expandable to 18x8x2, 26x2, or 22x4x2, etc. depending on how you set-up the second unit. The stereo master on the second unit would be configured as a stereo return.
So that just leaves what controls are needed. I'd say 4 stereo sub-group assign switches, half of which wouldn't be active with just one unit, plus a stereo master assign. A pan pot for bus selection and a rotary level control. 100mm faders would be great, but I'd prefer them to be on an outboard fader pack that would plug into fader patch points via a multi-pin connector. Quality faders would drive the cost through the roof and there's no reason to keep them in the same frame, as they're chassis mounted passive components that don't need to be directly coupled to the PCB.
So that's two knobs and five swiches per channel so far, plus we need a big mute button and a solo switch. That leaves just the aux sends, where I think four would be the minimum, with pre/ post switches for each. These could be concentric pairs to keep it to a four knob total footprint, plus it would be cool if adding the fader pack turned the rotary fader into a fifth post fader send.
The stereo subgroup sections would require a pair of rotary faders, pan pots, stereo bus assignment switches, and solo switches. The stereo master would require a ganged rotary master fader, ganged rotary control room/ solo fader with 2 track input selection, and two concentric aux send masters with solo switches. That would make 11 rows of 4 knobs each, plus 11 switches for each input channel, 2 for each submaster, and 5 on the master section. 4RU should accomodate that, with a rear-panel talkback input for an external mic/ switch/ level accessory.
Opamps for most functionality would be required to keep it reasonably priced, probably just an input buffer and line amp for each channel, plus a summing amp, return buffer, and line amp for each bus. The master section would use 6 more summing amps for the sends and stereo solo bus, plus the control room line amp. Obviously, the sound of the mixer would hinge on the quality of these 12 summing amps, but if it could hang with the 9098i and 9000j sound-wise, being based on similar components wouldn't hurt it's pedigree much. If it could do that while staying in the $3k range, I think it could still have mass appeal.
The passive fader pack would be the same size, but run around $100/ fader or half the price of the base unit total. Similarly, an aux send expansion unit that taps the direct outs for double the post fader sends could be built in a 2RU package for half the base unit price. The idea would be that you can start with the $3k base unit to go with your Digi 001 + 8 channel premium converter set-up, then expand to 18x8x2 for another $3k, add two fader packs for another $3k, double the sends, etc. Making each part of the system affordable enough to be slowly accumulated makes a huge difference to the mass market, but only if it's fully functional, if on a smaller scale, from the first purchase. The API 4 bus, 4 send modules look great, but $10k for 4 channel modules before you even buy a master section? The old MTA Intermix system looked cool, but you had to buy all the different 16 channel modules to get basic mixer functionality. Modular systems are great, but they cost.
What do you think? Can it be built for that kind of money? Would anybody here consider getting one if they were?
I've got a name for it too. The TMC console. (Too Many Cooks...)