AVID PRO TOOLS S6 CONTROL SURFACE
While the S6 killed off Avid’s own Icon control surfaces, the company’s complete embrace of Eucon sees it go DAW-agnostic.
Review: Brad Watts
Many moons ago I was afforded the privilege of penning the first review of the Euphonix System 5 mixing console. At the time there was nothing that came close to the console’s incredible feature set and vast reserves of DSP power. The System 5 interfaced with pretty much every ‘professional’ DAW available, and went on to become the darling of many high-end broadcast and mixing facilities. Australia’s Opera House installed dozens of the things, where they were used for both tracking and mix duties. What made the system so versatile was its use of standard TCP/IP protocols and connectivity, which, at the time was quite a new approach to console interconnectivity.
Come late 2010, and Euphonix was absorbed by Avid. The acquisition would allow Avid to build upon an already extremely capable platform, alongside its already well-established Icon mixing surface range. Icon joined the ranks of the discontinued in September 2013, but support is slated to continue through to 2018. Of course, there was a swathe of technology held in Euphonix that has become integrated into Avid’s own product offerings — a culmination of the two well developed control surface platforms; Icon and System 5. Part of that technology is Euphonix’s EuCon controller protocol, and it’s at the core of Avid’s most recent control surface, the S6.
BLACK ON BLACK
Before jumping into the technological features, we’ll have a look around at some of the physical aspects of the S6. In a break from both the Icon and System 5, the S6 is unapologetically black. Black upon black, with a black leather-ish padded arm-rest. Adding further to the blackness is the use of OLED displays across the modules. These are incredibly inconspicuous until information is displayed, then it’s as if the information appears from behind what looks like black polished glass — extremely discreet and exceedingly legible, even from extreme angles. When opting for the more capable M40 engine-driven S6 systems (as opposed to the lighter-on M10 engine), the console includes TFT screens which sit across the ‘meter bridge’ section of the console. These display metering amongst other visual feedback, and actually utilise built-in processing in their own right; but more on these later.
CHOOSE YOUR ENGINE
First, a bit more on those two S6 base variants. M10 systems are aimed at the budgetary and space-constrained installations, and can only be built up to 24 faders, and five knobs per channel strip. The M10 systems also don’t support the use of display modules (the TFT visual monitoring displays mentioned earlier). These are predominantly preconfigured systems with limited avenues for customisation. Where the more powerful M40 systems are required, the entire gamut of bespoke customisation options is possible, such as: TFT monitors, nine knobs per channel strip, up to 72 faders, and the ability to simultaneously access up to eight DAWs, as opposed to the M10 system’s ability to access only two DAWs simultaneously. That said, standard base configurations with as little as eight faders and five knobs per channel can be ordered straight off the shelf starting at around the $26k mark. Step into M40 waters and 16 faders, five encoders per channel, and two display modules, will set you back around $74k.
The unit I was entrusted with for a time was an M40 system with TFT displays, and incorporated 24 faders across three fader modules, with a 25th master fader housed in the central master module. With this module layout the system sits at approximately 126cm in width, and 93cm deep — pretty much the size you’d expect with a professional 24-fader console. Of course, this configuration isn’t set in stone as you can preconfigure an S6 to your requirements with up to nine fader modules for a 72-fader span of 2.74m. The system also scales vertically, with the option to include sets of five or nine knobs per channel. A bespoke ‘Producer’s Desk’ is available to support the console, along with specialty leg assemblies to suit the configuration you settle on. It really is a case of rolling your own setup with the M40 lineage, in much the same fashion as the Euphonix System 5 could be configured to the umpteenth degree.
There’s also a swag of accoutrements you can add to the surface such as blank module panels, VESA arms to mount displays, sliding keyboard and script trays, even a speaker bridge mounting system for perching your nearfields on. It’s a far more comprehensive package than previous Avid control surfaces.
MODULARISE TO SIZE
When it comes to stringing together a bespoke S6 system, there are a variety of individual modules that can be integrated into a complete control surface. The mainstay module of all systems is the Master Module. This is the central nerve centre of any S6 setup, and includes the main processing engine of the controller. It runs on the Windows 8 operating system with appropriately scaled processors for the M10 and M40 style units, the M40 being an i5 processor as opposed to the M10’s Celeron (remember the M40 can access a far greater number of modules). Both Master Module types incorporate a vertically mounted and tiltable 12.1-inch multipoint touchscreen. The screen will accept up to 10 touchpoints so it’s amenable to your (assumed) complete quota of 10 digits. Via this screen you can access various mix parameters such as which tracks are represented across the physical channel faders, metering options, solo and mute of tracks, record enable, with all the same track colours from the Pro Tools session reflected via the touchscreen. This track overview is extremely intuitive, and enables swift organisation of which tracks correspond with the physical faders. A quick touch selection of particular tracks in the touchscreen’s overview assigns them across the S6’s faders. Focussing on an individual track reveals an exploded view of all its parameters. It’s fast and ultra intuitive.
Processing functions can also be accessed and edited via the touchscreen. To the left and right sides of the touchscreen are four encoders (eight in total) which can take on any processing parameter you choose. When assigning a processing parameter to an encoder, the touch sensitive encoder will take on an associated colour: blue for panning, magenta for EQ, and orange for sends for example. These colours are dyed into the operating system by the way, so panning will always be blue, regardless of which S6 system you’re working from.
This functionality becomes greatly expanded within the exploded track overviews. Here you can drag ’n’ drop parameters from the track’s entire processing arsenal and assign individual parameters to any of the eight encoders. It’s simply a matter of touching on the parameter you want to adjust, and then touching an encoder. The right side could be EQ, with dynamics on the left, or sends on two encoders and compression ratio and gain on another two, with the rest assigned to EQ. The permutations are as numerous as you require, and all without the debilitating constraints of a mouse and menus.
Below the main touchscreen and encoders is a further space for the inclusion of an Automation Module. This module is included on all preconfigured systems but is an option when configuring a bespoke system. However, as Avid point out, you’ll want this module included regardless as it incorporates a master fader, transport controls, and a rather weighty jog/shuttle wheel. This can be assigned to a host of other functions such as vertical and horizontal scrolling of your Pro Tools edit window, page scrolling, and the ability to move selected clips. The transport buttons are eager for a good whacking, and feel definite and solid, and an OLED counter display reads out SMPTE, beat/bars or time according to your choice.
Two smaller OLED screens above the transport section are flanked by 24 configurable soft keys. These keys are initially configured to access automation procedures and setups, but can of course be assigned to anything. Then they can be set to reflect groups of differing editing functions. As of the more recent 1.3 firmware, macro-style sets of DAW keyboard commands can also be assigned to these keys. To the right of these are control room monitoring controls, with facility for multiple sets of monitors, talkback, monitor level dimming, and, wouldn’t you know it? Monitoring level. Monitoring functions will require the additional installation of an appropriate Avid interface.
FADING ATTENTION SPAN
Next up in the hierarchy of import is undoubtedly the Fader Module. This module consists of eight motorised faders along with tri-colour LED metering for both levels and gain reduction running parallel to each fader. The faders themselves are super-fast, and feel incredibly smooth and precise — without the slightest hint of stepping. The immediate impression with these faders is that they’re borrowed from the Euphonix System 5 — only they’re better! Smooth, silent, and staggeringly fast.
Above each fader is an ‘Attention’ button. ‘Attentioning’ a fader brings that track’s parameters into full view on the central 12.1-inch touchscreen, along with delegating that track’s control to the master fader on the centrally located Automation Module. This is a perfect feature for pulling a track’s parameters and controls to the operator’s primary position. Superbly ergonomic. It reminds me of the Smart AV system of allocating a focussed track to an immediately available fader. Yet, in the case of the S6, Attentioning brings that focus to a regularly used master fader at a central position of the surface rather than any chosen fader. Attentioning a channel strip/fader is also possible via the master module’s touchscreen.
Above the Action buttons are Trim mode and Automation mode buttons, dedicated mute and solo, along with dedicated record enable buttons. Above the menu buttons are the previously mentioned OLED displays which relate the track name and number, automation status, input and record status. Being OLED, these displays are easily read, even at extreme angles.
Heading down to the base of the faders you’ll notice a button which alters its colour to reflect the track colour within Pro Tools. This feature is brilliant as, for example, grouped tracks will take on the same colour, providing instant and intuitive confirmation of your fader assignments. By the time you’re 10 per cent of the way into a mix the particular track colours are already committed to memory. These buttons also double as modifier keys for DAW operation, so in the case of Pro Tools, option/alt and a record enable button will throw all tracks into record. In other words, total control from the S6 surface rather than flitting back to the mouse and DAW keyboard.
HOB KNOBBING ABOUT
As mentioned, there are a couple of options for adding rotary encoders to the S6. The greater of which is affectionately known as the ‘Knob Module’, the other being the ‘Process Module’, which I’ll get to shortly. The Knob Module provides four rotary encoders along with four associated OLED displays. The knobs themselves change colour according to the assigned parameter, and stick to colour regimes as I mentioned before; blue for pan, magenta for EQ etc… These knobs alter their colour courtesy of RGB LEDs. They’re quite incredible, at least I thought so. The thing is, the colours really do provide immediate recognition of the assigned parameter — such an effective, yet simple method of interfacing with the user. And, they’re shaped like real knobs — not some Dr Who-style mushroom shaped thingamajig. The OLED displays inform you of the knob’s position and the parameter it’s adjusting clearly and precisely, and most importantly, swiftly. Alongside each knob are two LEDs signifying whether the knob is reading automation, in write automation mode, or when both LEDs are unlit, automation is set to off.
With the M40 systems, two Knob Modules are installable for a total of eight knobs per channel. That figure comes to nine knobs per channel strip with the standard inclusion of the Process Module, which itself incorporates a single encoder. Process and Knob modules work hand-in-hand, as the Process Module allows assignment of functions to the Knob Module, toggle them in and out, and control a single parameter from its knob section. By default the Process Module’s knob is set to pan, but can of course take on all other available parameters. Intrinsic to the Process Module are dedicated buttons for instigating EQ, dynamics, sends, pan, and a user-selected processor. Grouping procedures and inserts are also instigated via this module. Remarkably, editing of audio tracks and clips can be attacked via the Process Module too. With audio tracks, clip gain, move, trim back, trim front, fade out, fade in, nudge amount, undo and redo all accessible, while instrument and MIDI tracks can be edited with move, trim back, trim front, nudge amount, undo and redo commands. Sure you can do all this via your DAW’s screen, keyboard and mouse or trackpad, but the beauty of the S6 is just how far you can drag yourself away from that DAW monitor, which is where the Display Modules come well and truly into play.
TO THE BRIDGE
The S6 Display Modules are a sight to behold. These eight-channel, high-resolution TFT displays mount across the bridge section of the S6 and provide scads of visual feedback, including audio metering, channel names, routing, groups, the affiliation with a particular DAW (remember the S6 can integrate with multiple DAWs), and most impressively, waveform and clip displays. This is where editing tracks and clips in combination with the Process Module negates the need for referring to the DAW’s software interface for many mix-intrinsic functions — crossfade, splicing, no problems. What’s impressive is how the clip information is a direct representation of the information within the DAW. The Display Modules incorporate their own processors to assimilate this information, and unlike similar systems from the likes of MCI and SSL, don’t require a pass through to glean this waveform info. It’s all created via the display information from the DAW so is therefore immediate — what you edit via the S6 is reflected in the DAW and vice-versa.
Various display modes are possible, including large meters, large waveforms, meters and waveforms, meters and function, waveforms and function, waveforms and dual function, and waveforms and dual function plus routing. Each display layout shows the track name, input, and automation status at the bottom. As with all the S6 functionality, Pro Tools track colours are mirrored in the display module. In the ‘large waveforms’ and ‘waveforms and function’ modes, a single meter displays the track’s maximum channel level. All other display layouts can show 7.1-channel meters. As mentioned, Display Modules are only compatible with M40 systems. But as the Avid folk who installed the rig for me pointed out, once you see these displays you’ll gladly stump up for an M40 S6. They’re simply that good.
INTEGRATION ÜBER ALLES
Because of the Eucon underpinnings of the S6, multiple DAWs can be accessed via the S6. M40 systems can simultaneously access up to eight individual DAWs, while M10 systems can access only two. What this means is a session can incorporate tracks from various DAWs into the one cohesive mix session. You could incorporate a Pro Tools session with a composer’s Logic Pro session and bring both session’s tracks up on the S6 side by side. Being Eucon, there is a huge range of compatible DAW platforms including Pro Tools HD 9 through to 11, Media Composer, Adobe Audition, Apogee Maestro, Apple’s Final Cut Pro 7, Logic Pro and Express 9 upwards and Soundtrack Pro, Sonar X1 onwards, Magix’s Sequioia, Merging’s Pyramix, MOTU’s Digital Performer 7 and up, and Steinberg’s Cubase and Nuendo platforms. That’s pretty much the entire pro audio editing and composition field sewn up — there’s not much left that can’t play with the S6, and if it can’t, it isn’t a professional product.
In use? Frankly I’ve not come across a controller that left so little needing to be referenced via the DAW’s main user interface. The use of colour coding seems such a simple interfacing feature that it’s a wonder no manufacturer has done this before. But then again, without the relatively recent technology behind electrical components such as RGB LEDs, this concept simply wasn’t possible. The other tantalising aspect of the S6 is how quickly it operates. Booting up a session in Pro Tools has the S6 ready to mix in six-10 seconds with everything online and ready to roll. Add to this the ability to run concurrent sessions from multiple audio workstations side by side on the same control surface and it’s difficult to imagine a facility opting for anything other than the S6. Truly remarkable and definitely a marked evolution in control surface technology.