Mixing Desks and Answering Machines

By February 24, 2016 Editorial
mixing console development
Whilst at BVExpo I attended a great presentation by Roland Hemming of RH Consulting where he spoke about the product development life-cycle in the AV industry and why he believes that it might, in fact, be flawed.

During the presentation, there were some observations made between the AV and IT industry and how the underlying business models and product development routes differ. One concept in particular which stood out to me was that perhaps the AV industry was in need of an underlying fabric; not unlike the popular desktop operating systems we have today, on which manufacturers can build products upon. Great, but what do answering machines have to do with any of this?

Those of us who are old enough will recollect the physical answering machines which attached in-line with one’s phone and recorded (on cassette!) messages from callers. Indeed, there would have once been various elements of business involved in the design, manufacture and marketing of those devices. I dare say you’d be hard pressed to find one in use these days.

Some will say that the physical answering machine was eventually superseded by voicemail which essentially offers the same functionality, just delivered differently. This is true; however, what happened first was that the answering machine (and the technology within) became ubiquitous. One machine was much the same as another and there wasn’t a lot of ground left for manufacturers to differentiate their particular products. Once it didn’t really matter which machine you had, it became much easier to sell users the idea of an alternative and improvement.

So bringing this back to AV, I began wondering, are we approaching the era where ubiquity is starting to catch up with some aspects of our most loved devices?

Let’s use digital mixing consoles as an example. Now, it would be foolish of me to propose that one desk is much the same as any other – far from it. There is a myriad of options when it comes to specifications such as horsepower, available busses, the number of faders etc. Leaving that aside for a moment; how do those desks actually sound? Can you immediately hear the difference between one and the other? I’m sure manufacturers would contend that you most certainly can, and this will indeed be true depending on which desks you compare, but let’s assume we’re at the higher end of the shopping basket and things are pretty equal, at least sonically.

Digital desks customarily have a split between a hardware and software characteristic. Both contribute to the overall package and final quality, reliability and user experience, but I suspect that as the playing fields of build and audio quality level out, moreover it will be the software which defines a desk. Roland’s idea of an underlying OS made me wonder about a future where desks were sold under a similar model as computers are today. Could we see a time where one could buy hardware from one manufacturer, use the desk OS that comes with it, or choose to buy a license for another vendor’s software and use that too? Likely it wouldn’t strictly be software based; perhaps there might evolve a common engine architecture that accommodates different cards from different desk vendors allowing the switch of OS that way (in much the same way that vendor-specific cards add functionality to today’s desks).

I admit this is somewhat forward-looking and would require a gigantic paradigm shift (not to mention the technicalities), but new technology can sometimes be disruptive and that’s not always a bad thing. Recently we’ve seen DiGiCo, Calrec and Allen & Heath come together. Is it so unbelievable that someday one could run elements of the Calrec interface on DiGiCo hardware?

Think of the live hire company who might invest in some stock configurations of frame sizes, input/output modules etc. and simply load on the software for a particular flavour of desk. There are also many advantages on the hardware support side for said hire company when the software is abstracted and base hardware standardised.

I doubt that manufacturers (desk or otherwise) have any great drive or incentive to abandon the strong and lucrative link between hardware and software just yet, but who knows what rewards await the companies which are pioneering enough to experiment with new possibilities which depart from the tried, tested, and perhaps flawed, cycle of product development.