Soundtracs DPC-II: LARGE-FORMAT DIGITAL MIXING CONSOLE

May 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Larry The O

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Of all the incredible advances currently occurring in digital audio, perhaps the most impressive of all is in the area of digital mixers. The advent of low-cost digital mixers such as those from Yamaha, Panasonic, Mackie and others is the most visible, but, with the Soundtracs DPC-II, the high end is showing the signs, too.

Long a manfuacturer of analog mixers, such as the Solo line and the more recent Topaz, Soundtracs entered the digital market with 1997's introduction of its Virtua console. Now, the DPC-II shows Soundtracs moving upscale for the second round, from Virtua's mid-size profile and five-figure price up to the six-figure, large-format range of the DPC-II. The DPC-II's $200,000 price range is much less than most other all-digital large-format solutions. What do you give up for the price? Not as much as one would think; high performance/ high value is the key to the DPC-II.

FEATURES AND FUNCTIONS The DPC-II is available with control surface configurations of 16 to 96 faders, in eight in-line channel increments (i.e., 16 faders on eight channel strips in each bank), but any configuration is capable of handling 160 inputs and 40 outputs; a DPC-II with a single fader bank and a master section has the same functionality as one with 96 faders. The DPC-II I evaluated at Sound Lounge in Manhattan was a 24-channel (48-fader) surface.

Each strip of an 8-channel bank has two motorized 100mm faders for the channel and monitor signal paths; each fader is accompanied by solo, mute, and automation record/play buttons and indicators, and an eight-character "soft" scribble strip. Channel names can be any length, but the scribble strips show only the first eight characters.

The two fader sections in each channel are treated in the software as Upper and Lower layers, with 80 inputs on each layer. The 96-channel surface offers 48 faders per layer, so accessing the rest of the channels in an 80-input layer is accomplished by shifting banks horizontally with Left/Right scroll buttons in the Master section. These buttons not only grant access to all of the channels in a layer, but also allow any bank to be brought adjacent to the master section for convenience. On the DPC-II, the scroll buttons see constant use.

Each fader bank also has a TFT (Thin Film Transistor) touchscreen display, in which channel settings are edited, surrounded on three sides by rotary pots and switches, some of which change function depending on the display; others are dedicated to EQ and dynamics control. A joystick for surround panning fills out the hardware in each bank.

There are several ways to switch the display and the shared controls between layers, including using a hardware View toggle button located between the two fader sections, a section of the touchscreen or by simply touching the desired fader.

The master section includes two TFT displays: The upper is flanked by several rows of buttons above and below it, and the lower is abutted by standard master section controls, for monitoring, machine control, etc. The upper display is primarily used for system configuration, while the lower is for bus and output routing, as well as for duplicating the display of the selected channel. The ability to bring the channel display and controls within arm's reach reduces the number of times it is necessary to leave the sweet spot to make an adjustment. Curiously, the knobs for the dynamics features are not duplicated in the master section, although the EQ knobs are; an unfortunate choice. At the bottom of the module are eight submaster faders, the master fader, rotary wheel and trackball. A slide-out drawer just below the console surface holds a QWERTY keyboard.

All of the DPC-II's processing is contained within the control surface chassis (as opposed to being contained in rack modules), so there are quite a few connections on the back panel, including four pairs of MADI I/O on BNC connectors, which connect to the I/O modules; word clock in and out (BNC); AES/EBU and S/PDIF inputs for clocking only (no data is recognized at these inputs); SMPTE in and out (XLR); MIDI In, Out and Thru; video sync in; and RS-422 (for Sony 9-pin communications). Finally, there are connectors for the internal PC part of the DPC-II, including a modem ("so DPC-II can phone home" as Soundtracs jauntily describes it) and an SVGA echo of the upper master display. And, in spite of the pricing, there are useful "mint on the pillow" perks such as 75-ohm termination switches for the video sync and word clock inputs, and level controls on the SMPTE input and output.

ROUTING, BUSING AND DSP I/O to and from the DPC-II is handled by a selection of outboard rackmount modules: analog, AES/EBU, TDIF, ADAT Optical or MADI. The analog, ADAT and TDIF cards each offer eight channels of input and output, while there are three AES/EBU cards available: eight channels of input with sample rate conversion on each input, eight channels of output with no SRC, and a card with eight channels each of input and output, with SRC on all.

DPC-II operation focuses around the fader section controls and the touchscreen, although the trackball becomes necessary for a great deal of the automation work. I find well-implemented touch-sensitive control to be an extremely intuitive and efficient way to work, and the DPC-II's control scheme with its touchscreens and the touch-sensitive faders succeeds admirably in circumventing, or at least mitigating, much of the mental work involved in using assignable consoles.

Once inside the console, input signals are routed to channels and fader sections with the channel touchscreen, using a destination-based logic that rather than directing an input to a channel, asks the user to select the channel and choose an input for it. Inputs are grouped into named categories (e.g., "Mic In 9-16," "Digital FX," etc.). It takes four touches to assign an input to a fader section. In addition to console inputs, buses can also be selected to feed fader sections. Output assignment is similar: Select the destination, then choose the source that will feed it. Outputs include the main outs or buses.

This brings us to one cost-saving characteristic: The 160x40 configuration includes all inputs and outputs. There are no additional aux sends or returns, group outputs or even monitor outputs; all inputs and outputs are drawn from the same pool. This engenders a lot of flexibility to apportion resources according to individual needs or working style, but, in some applications, can result in extra resources being burned. For example, the group buses have limiters on them, but no EQ or flexible dynamics. If you subgroup a number of inputs and then want to EQ or compress the group, you must bring the group back into channels (which do have those features). In this case, both buses and channels are being burned for the group, in addition to the channels used for the member inputs. If you're someone who does a lot of subgrouping, you'd better do the math.

Another consideration is how quickly outputs are consumed when working in surround. For a 5.1 mix, you'll want your Main output to be 5.1, at least two or three buses that are 5.1, and likely solo-in-place, which requires the same number of outputs as the Main. With three 5.1 buses, that's 30 out of the total pool of 40 outputs, not even including aux sends.

Each fader section in a strip features four bands of EQ plus highpass and lowpass filters, dynamics and a digital insert point. The DPC-II offers useful flexibility in the EQ: The highest and lowest EQ bands can be shelving, highpass, lowpass or peaking, and all bands offer full 20 to 20k Hz sweep range. The EQ display shows each band, color-coded to the hardware knobs that adjust the band. No slacking in the dynamics section, either: There are four different compressor/gate configurations, three of which incorporate the highpass and lowpass filters for the channel, removing them from the EQ section. The compressor has a variable soft knee action, meaning the higher the compression ratio, the harder the knee.

The latter capability not only makes frequency-sensitive dynamics (such as de-essing) possible, but two of the configurations put the filters in the dynamics signal path for frequency-selective dynamics (i.e., band compression). The selected band is filtered out of the signal, dynamically modified and recombined with the rest of the signal. EQ settings can be stored as presets, as can dynamics settings. I found the EQ and, especially, the dynamics section to be outstanding examples of the DPC-II's value for the dollar; features like this are powerful at any price.

Analog input modules provide a post-preamp/pre-A/D insert point, which shows up in the channel display when an analog input has been mapped to the channel. Mic preamp gain is controlled remotely from the console surface.

All parameters of a channel except routing can be stored as a Channel preset. All parameters currently on the mixer can be stored as a snapshot, and the current configuration (bus structure, monitoring setup, etc.) is stored as a Console preset.

A channel can be routed to buses or directly to any output socket. There are two kinds of buses: aux and group. Aux buses, when selected, use some of the assignable knobs beneath the display, while group buses use the submaster faders and, as mentioned, have a limiter available.

Fader groups ("control groups" in Soundtracs parlance) can also be designated. The submaster faders are used for the fader group masters when the Control Groups page is active. Control groups are created by making the page active, touching an onscreen button to activate a Control Group, then simply touching the faders that you want to add or remove from the group. Fast, simple, intuitive.

Currently, there is no true stereo linking in the DPC-II; no way to set two (or more) channels such that changing the settings on one-EQ, for example-changes the others. Soundtracs says stereo linking will be offered in an upcoming software version.

THE MONITOR MATRIX The DPC-II's Monitor Matrix system is intriguing and powerful. The first step is to configure sources and map them to the eight Control Room Source buttons. Sources are created according to their monitoring scheme (i.e., mono, stereo, LCRS, 5.1 or 7.1). A signal source is then mapped to each leg of that scheme. For instance, to create a source called "Main Surround," you'd start by making a new 5.1 source and naming it. Moving to the Edit Sources display, you'll find a column with buttons for the legs in the configuration (L, C, R, SL, SR, Sub). Click on one of these buttons, say C, to select it, then select a signal to map to it. Moving farther to the right is a matrix in which you can set the routing for this bus in any monitor configuration. In our example, we would likely route C to the center channel in any surround configuration, to L and R in stereo, and to L for mono.

Once the control room sources are set up, the three Output switches must be defined. Rather than simply being three different speaker switches, the Output switches are complete monitoring configurations, including the ability to have a calibrated output level and to toggle sources on/off when selected. Similar to the sources, an output is defined by its monitoring scheme, then each leg is assigned to a speaker output. A definable, switchable insert point is available for each output, enabling easy pre/post encoding comparison. Finally, the sources are mapped to the outputs in yet another matrix layout. Each output can contain a mix of the eight sources. Additionally, an output can be set up to toggle one or more of the sources on or off when it is selected.

Given that everything in this system carries user-definable labels in menus that never go more than two levels deep, and the whole configuration process is conducted using the touchscreen, setting up the Monitor Matrix is much faster and easier to do than the description above would seem to indicate.

AUTOMATION Automation in the DPC-II is available in an offline edit mode as well as in real-time recording. The touch-sensitive faders allow some excellent options such as touch recording (the channel goes into Record as soon as the fader is touched) and auto-nulling on release (when the fader is released, the channel goes out of Record and fades from its current position to the existing automation level).

All channel and bus parameters can be automated, and automation modes can be set for each channel and each parameter individually. Standard absolute, relative and update modes are present, as well as both snapshot and dynamic automation. Missing from the DPC-II is one of my favorite automation features, where a fader drops out of record when it crosses through the level from which the move started. Auto-nulling-or manually nulling by releasing the fader in Auto null and re- touching the fader to manually null-can be made to suffice, but is not as good when fast moves, which are difficult to finish precisely, need to be made.

Offline editing is done via a graphical display that shows control movements for multiple tracks or parameters of a track. Mutes are shown by color-coding the section of the fader automation display, which lets you easily see the movements that are being muted out. The offline editor is just about the only major part of the console's user interface that requires heavy use of the trackball. Where buttons are touchable in the rest of the DPC-II, they must be clicked in the automation editor. Changing from the touchscreen to point-and-click operation feels like a rude awakening and a step down in ease of use; the touch-sensitivity will spoil you quickly. Soundtracs plans to make more of the automation functions touch-operable in future software upgrades. Nonetheless, the toolset for offline editing is thorough and powerful. In addition to standard cut/copy/paste/delete stuff, there are tools for nudging, fading in or out, "joining" (i.e., crossfading) between levels, and so forth.

Only one mix pass is stored in memory, but up to 99 can be stored to disk. (With a few extra steps, another 99 can be stored, too.) It is not possible to switch between mixes during an automation pass, but parts of several mixes can be combined by cutting to the clipboard, loading a different mix and pasting.

CONCLUSIONS In all, my review circumstances did not permit me to do an extended critical evaluation of the DPC-II's sound quality, but I was able to get a pretty strong feeling for its operation and how a session would flow. Clearly, a lot of market research was done in designing the interface for this console, and Soundtracs listened to the users. There are many, many small touches and organizational aspects that clarify and simplify working on this board.

For example, the color-coding of the EQ bands and knobs is very helpful in keeping track of four bands of full-bandwidth EQ. The system of organizing inputs and outputs into groups speeds routing considerably.

Consideration of the challenges of assignable consoles shows in the way the channel display supports layering: When one layer is selected, the channel display has a small area that shows the label and a very small level meter for the layer that is not selected, enabling the user to quickly scan levels on the hidden layer without having to flip one or all of the inputs.

The lack of stereo linking is a peculiar oversight. Equally strange is the inability to copy settings (EQ, dynamics) from one channel to another. Of course, EQ and dynamics settings can be stored as presets and then recalled on other channels, but that introduces several extra steps to a common function.

Soundtracs takes a novel approach to its software version numbering. Although the DPC-II has been shipping since last year, and is certainly quite functional, there are still features and buttons that are present in the display but, as yet, unimplemented. Most companies designate the software version at a product's release as V.1.0 and increment from there, but, at the time of this writing, the current software version for the DPC-II is 0.84. Soundtracs says that Version 1.0 will represent a full implementation of their feature specification, including the stereo linking feature mentioned previously. Version 1.0 is expected to be released this summer.

All in all, I absolutely love the touch features of the DPC-II, and Soundtracs has done the finest job I have seen in creating a mixing console that takes the greatest advantage possible of touch-sensitivity to increase ease-of-use on a programmable control surface. This, combined with the price, feature set, footprint and quantity of inputs and outputs, puts Soundtracs squarely on the map as a player in the large-format console sweepstakes. The DPC-II offers extensive facilities, ease of use and affordability. If you are considering a large-format console, I strongly recommend starting with a close look at the DPC-II. You may need to go no further.

Mix would like to thank Sound Lounge in New York City for graciously offering studio time on its DPC-II for our evaluations.

Soundtracs USA, 200 Sea Lane, Farmingdale, NY 11735; 516/333-9100; fax 516/333-9108. Web site: www. soundtracs.co.uk.

Unveiled in prototype form at last month's NAB show in Las Vegas, the DS-3 is a new digital console based on the Soundtracs DPC-II architecture, but in a smaller-footprint version designed for medium-sized post facilities and "second" rooms in larger studios. Some details will change before the final release, but as shown, the DS-3 is available in a 48x32 (analog I/O) configuration, with 24 digital I/Os for inputs and buses in AES/EBU format.

Standard amenities include 5.1 surround panning and a 32x8 matrix providing routing of any combination of channels or stems to the buses for flexible monitoring. Supported control protocols include Sony 9-pin, MIDI and all frame rates of SMPTE timecode. Other features include 6-band EQ, compressors and gates on all channels, and 30-segment LED metering. All communication from the controller surface to the I/O racks is via MADI, while all the console DSP circuitry is located close, yet out of the way, within the console stand. The interface follows the DPC-II model-although slightly scaled down-with three high-resolution touchscreens, 24 moving faders and total dynamic automation of all console functions. The DS-3 is slated for a mid-late summer release.






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