Technology Spotlight: Digidesign ICON

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Kevin Becka

The Elegant Evolution of Pro Tools


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Hold onto your seats folks, we're about to change the way you think about Pro Tools. For years now, Digi users have been wondering about the next generation of controllers to come out of Daly City, Calif. What you're about to discover will definitely leapfrog any expectations you may have—and then some. Digidesign's Integrated Console (ICON) nicely marries Pro Tools hardware and software into a system that is, for lack of a better word, a console. The new aggregate includes something (relatively) old, something new, something borrowed—and, of course, it's all blue (and silver).


The old is the Pro Tools mix engine, software interface, Accel DSP card and the current HD hardware options; the 192 I/O (analog and digital), 96 I/O and 96i I/O; the PRE (8-channel remote-controllable mic preamps); Sync I/O and MIDI I/O. The new is the sleek D-Control audio worksurface and the XMON monitor system. The borrowed is the concept of the digital console being not one big box like its analog brother, but an integrated system of supporting parts. This system usually includes a control surface, remote mic preamps and I/O, DSP, and most importantly, the ability to seamlessly plug anything from the analog or digital world into it.

D-Control is where users will spend most of their time interfacing with the rest of the environment. Digi general manager Dave Lebolt says that the creation of D-Control was based largely on feedback from high end mix engineers who use both analog and digital desks, as well as Pro Control and Control 24 users. The target audience is high-end recording and post users. “While there are definite differences between post and music mixing workflows,” Lebolt says, “we feel it's possible to address many of these unique needs on the same surface.” Let's take a look.

The D-Control channel strip includes a fader (with six-character scribble strip), six touch-sensitive rotary encoders with LED rings, six-character scribble strip, mode switches and status LEDs. Each channel strip offers two 32-segment, two-color LED level meters on the bridge. Channels function as a group or independently, with modes set either globally or locally. Faders are P&G 1,024-step 3200 Series; rotary encoders have 64 steps per revolution. (Pro Control and Control 24 encoders use 32 steps.)

Each 16-channel bucket has four remote modifier keys for second-layer functions. Beside each fader, LEDs note automation mode status and fader matching, and indicate if a channel resides in a custom fader bank.

Above each fader are the Automation and Trim mode selectors. The next group above the main scribble strip includes Mute, Solo, Track Arm, Monitor and Select buttons. The Select buttons operate in either Select or Focus mode. Select mode can be set so multiple channels can be chosen for grouping, etc., or it can operate in the traditional either/or mode. Focus mode operates exclusively as an either/or switch that brings the selected channel and its plug-ins to the center of the console for editing.


Above the D-Control's fader area, 10 Channel Mode buttons determine the mode of the encoders, displays and switches on the top portion of the channel strip. The first of these include buttons for choosing inserts, sends, pan, mic pre and input. Next, there is an overall Bypass/Mute, and buttons for EQ and dynamics shortcuts that automatically take users to the first parameter page on the first EQ or Dyn plug-in. Lastly, local page-up/down buttons can assign hidden layers to the encoders.

Each encoder has its own Select and B-M-P (Bypass-Mute-Pre) button. This Select should not be confused with the master Select near the fader. This button is used in Assign, Sends and Inserts modes: Pressing it normally takes you to the next level of a function, to plug-ins from a sub folder or to a deeper level of parameters when editing. The multipurpose B-M-P button changes the state of a control/parameter, operating as either a bypass or programmable control for plug-ins, mute or pre/post-control for sends, or various switch functions on the PRE mic preamp.

D-Control's designers created some innovative ways of using this new interface. For instance, when panning a stereo track, the bottom two encoders are employed and the right pan control is placed on top of the left. If a 5.1 bus is used across a mono track, the eight pan parameters (front, rear, front/rear, center percent, front divergence, rear divergence, front/rear divergence and LFE) are placed on the top six encoders and the page-up/down button is used to get to whatever is not covered on the first layer. Although space won't allow a full inventory, features like this are echoed throughout the surface, keeping the user focused on the desk and not on the mouse.


The most exciting feature on D-Control is Custom Faders. Custom Fader banks are autonomous groups of faders set in increments of eight (up to the maximum number of faders in a system). The modes include Masters, Mix/Edit Groups, Plug-Ins or Custom Groups, and are set using the channel strip master section. A blue LED next to each fader indicates if the channel is a member of the bank. Once you determine the width and placement of your bank on the surface, simply pick a mode and off you go. For example, Plug-Ins mode lets you map a parameter anywhere on the desk to any encoder on your Custom Fader bank. This is saved as part of the session and with the plug-in, so porting your specialized setup to other sessions is a breeze. Custom Groups lets you add or subtract any channel or parameter from anywhere on the console, even if it is a member of another mix/edit group.

The concept works beautifully for single or multiple users. Custom Faders is one of those features that is hard to grasp until you see it work, but it's a major plus.

Apart from the expected QWERTY keyboard, talkback, monitor section, track ball, jog wheel and transport controls (one for Pro Tools and one for an external machine), the center section is what jumps the D-Control into light speed.

The most eye-catching features are the dedicated EQ and dynamics editors. The EQ editor supports up to a 7-band EQ, while the dynamics editor sports the usual array of knobs and buttons found on most dynamics plug-ins. Both sections contain a clip LED, input/output meters, dual alpha displays, Select-Link-Bypass button and an Automation button. Other features include Lock and Cycle buttons. Lock fixes the channel to the editing section, no matter which other channels are focused to the center channel fader, and Cycle assigns the editing panel to successive plug-ins on the channel insert.


The Focus channel mentioned earlier is to the left of this section and looks exactly like its counterparts on the channel section. What sets this channel apart is its ability to individually flip each encoder to either the fader or a Flop mode, where any encoder and control set can be flopped to the lowest row of encoders instead of the faders. The soft keys section has 24 mode keys with six soft buttons per mode, each with two six-character alpha displays. The numerous choices include various preferences, faders on/off, smart and trim tool selections and more.

The bridge has five seven-segment displays showing main counter, sub counter, start, end and length. Lastly, a depression with a VESA-standard TFT mounting arm holds up to a 22-inch flat-panel display. Need dual screens? An optional speaker bridge supports an additional arm for a monitor.


XMON is a remote, dual-rackspace analog monitor system, controlled from D-Control, that lets the user access two 8-channel monitor mixes (mono to 7.1 surround), three speaker feeds, three separate stereo cue outputs, a studio monitor feed and a dedicated headphone output. A dedicated port offers external talkback input and two listen-back inputs. The unit can be placed up to 80 feet away from the console and “speaks” to the desk via a single multipin cable. I/O is via rear DB25 connectors.

The D-Control is a beautiful worksurface. Its construction is solid, and the custom-designed encoders, spacing between the buttons, operation and feel of the switches and labeling are all user-friendly. You can even switch the position of the trackball and keyboard to accommodate left-handed users.

The base system starts at $80,000 and includes D-Control (16 channels), an HD 3 Accel system and a single 192 I/O; add-on 16-channel buckets are $29,995. Custom configurations scale to seven HD cards, 96 simultaneous channels of I/O and 80 physical faders. The D-Control by itself is $60,000 (16 channels). Dimensions of the base unit are 65×40×42 inches (W×D×H).

ICON is an obvious but brave step for Digidesign and it will be interesting to see how users embrace the concept. Because of its price point, post facilities could afford to install the same mixing desk in both main rooms and edit suites. For the high-end music producer looking to put Pro Tools into a more integrated setting with a full-featured control surface as the fronts piece, ICON may be the solution.

Pro Tools 6.4: Enhanced for ICON

Kevin Becka is Mix's technical editor.

Rolled out simultaneously with D-Control is the new Pro Tools 6.4 software. Most new changes are only for HD; a later issue promises to support MIX systems. Features include:

  • TrackPunch (record-enable and punch on the fly)

  • Auto Delay compensation (both plug-in and routing delays)

  • An Input button on each channel (allowing switching between input and playback)

  • Enhanced clip indication (clips will show on channel plug-in plates, on the show/hide list and on the D-Control surface)

  • Enhanced plug-in organization through a new folder system

  • Absolute track numbering (forcing an optional absolute track number before each track name)

  • An extra transport bar embedded at the top of the Edit window

  • Input and Record Enable alert lights next to the REC button on the transport

  • The ability to redefine current feet/frames position

  • Support for 23.976 timecode rate

  • An option for having fader gain at +12 dB over 0 dBfs (currently fixed at +6 dBfs)

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