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STUDER VISTA 5 DIGITAL BROADCAST & LIVE MIXING CONSOLE

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2 February 2007

Vista 5 (3283) fg

Specs can be massaged, but great ergonomics are either present or not. Enter Studer’s Vistonics user interface – live production mixing may never be the same.

Text: Paul Mac

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Studer’s HQ in Switzerland for a preview of the latest in the Vista series of digital consoles. The Studer Vista 5 is aimed squarely at the live production sector, whether that be broadcast, outside broadcast, or venue. The omission of dynamic automation is testimony to these clear intentions – a sophisticated snapshot system is all the automation a time-constrained, ‘real-time’ audio engineer requires. The other big difference between this console and others in the Vista range is the fact the Vista 5 is delivered as a fixed frame surface incorporating 32 fader strips – 20 of which are input strips, and 12 of which are ‘versatile’ (more on that later). It’s also the first ‘portable’ Vista. Of course, portable is a relative term, but the Vista 5 has been designed to be easy to set up and take down. Along these lines, it’s also the only ‘legless’ Vista – there’s even a standard flightcase option. Rounding off the key differences, Vista 5 does not have a hefty, high-res meterbridge option – the multi-colour LED channel metering is right alongside the faders.

HEART & SOUL

Like the other Vistas, the 5’s I/O and DSP core are fully configurable and scalable – you can opt for over 1700 inputs and outputs if the application requires it (although the surface will ‘only’ actually control 240 at one time). However, the Studer I/O can also act as your very own broadcast router (complete with Pro-Bel protocol control), so the extra I/O could be a significant consideration for some.

The Vista 5 is the first new Vista to ship with Studer’s updated SCore Live system core and local I/O box, which offers space saving, and raw power improvements over its predecessor (the old core was 9U and needed 20 cards to achieve half the processing power of the nine cards in SCore Live). SCore Live is a 6U rack unit and provides all the slots necessary for the DSP cards, the Bridge card (control and communications mostly), GP I/O cards, and 12 slots for your choice of audio I/O. There’s a healthy selection of I/O cards, including four-channel mic/line cards, eight-channel line cards, 16-channel digital cards, an eight-channel SDI card, and a 56/64-channel MADI card, and most recently, a Dolby E Decoder card.

Further core space is saved thanks to the omission of cooling fans. The cards in SCore Live monitor their own temperature and report to the central processor. If anything goes awry, you’ll know about it. Of course, if you think your work environment will need the extra cooling then optional fan racks can be fitted, but Studer argues that 90 percent of users won’t need them, so why introduce unnecessary noise for the majority of users?

Another upgrade relates to the sync. The old core just had an AES/EBU sync input, relying on external clocking for that format. SCore Live accepts AES/EBU, wordclock, and video reference clocks. Equally, it can provide the clock source with an onboard generator for distribution to the rest of the setup. As with virtually everything else on this console, you can fit a redundant clock, but even if you don’t and the clock disappears, operation will continue until it reappears, and then the system will ‘wheel’ slowly back into sync. One nice touch is the external selector panel option – it connects with one cable and offers ‘remote’ routing and monitoring control. Of course, if you’re using it as a big posh producer switch, you won’t need the cable!

To expand the SCore Live system, you can add more local I/O (3U, 12-slot boxes connect via a proprietary Studer link over CAT-5) or remote I/O, via MADI. The Studer can talk to the remote I/O over the MADI link, so as long as it recognises the interface, you get remote preamp operation and additional control thrown in.

If I had to list all the redundancy measures available to the Vista system, we’d be here all week, so suffice it to say: there’s lots of it – PSU, cards, cabling (and more) are all taken care of in this regard, although some of it is optional. There is ‘self-healing’ in place for the DSP cards but they can also be redundant. All faults in the system are reported to the core software, which in turn alerts the user via a system interrogation screen. Oh, and one last thing… SCore boots up in under 10 seconds.

VISTONICS

Talking to Studer’s Stefan Ledergerber, it’s clear that the Vista 5 emphasis is on ergonomics. Studer considers the DSP and the engine – the brains and guts of the system – as a ‘done deal’, meaning, at this level, customers have a right to expect more than enough power and audio quality to perform the job at hand. However, the real X factor is the ergonomics and usability of a digital console. And with that in mind, Studer has devised ‘Vistonics’.

The Studer Vistonics system is, as interfaces go, one of the best. And the accompanying pretty pictures you see here of knobs and buttons magically implanted onto touch-sensitive screens don’t do it justice – you have to actually use a Vista to fully appreciate what Vistonics has to offer.

The most obvious advantages of Vistonics are apparent when you look at the screen. There are 40 touch-sensitive knobs and 40 push-buttons, all mounted on a high-quality, touch-sensitive display. The upshot of this is that a control’s feedback is represented right where the control is – you don’t need to look at a separate screen to see the effect of your twiddling… it’s right there, in full colour. Filters and EQs are red, dynamics controls are green, pans are yellow, and auxiliaries are orange. If a low-cut is in use, you see a useful low-cut graphic; level controls grow a block of colour from the bottom; threshold controls grow a block of colour from the top, and so on.

There is a multi-functional, touch-sensitive area of the screens below the banks of knobs and buttons. For example, this area shows a graphic for each input channel’s EQ curves, dynamics curves, panning, and details of the channel labelling, ganging, and groups. If you touch one of these, the controls for that section spread across the control section above. If you touch two (not necessarily on the same channel), both sets of controls appear. This is part of Studer’s alternative to the ‘fat’ channel, or detail channel, or whatever other terminology you may be used to.

There are additional channel view buttons as well – they’re on the channel itself, labelled ‘Channel’, ‘Misc’ and ‘Bus Asn’. These also trigger exploded views on the control panel. ‘Channel’ includes most things besides EQ and dynamics (mic gain, digital trim, phase, multitrack sends, and so on); ‘Misc’ shows dynamics, EQ, and pan; and ‘Bus Assn’ shows all available buses that the channel could be routed to.

While the console has VCA-style groups, it also implements ‘ganging’, which is simply a method of grouping channels – creating a gang is as simple as holding the Control key and touching the channels. And, once ganged, it’s a case of ‘adjust one, adjust all’, including the routing additions. You can temporarily un-gang for offsetting.

Studer has achieved a simple, intuitive, and powerful interface where the rules of engagement are, almost across the board, consistent. One button press is much like another when it comes to the response of the system, and that is a good thing. The more time you’re compelled to spend thinking about how to operate your machinery, the less time you spend on being creative, and (in the case of the Vista 5’s target market) the more chance you have of not being ‘required’ for the next gig.

DIGITAL VERSATILE DESK

Of the Vista 5’s bays, the only odd one out is the Control bay. You can put it into Follow mode and use it to mirror the input faders, but it is intended as a more permanent access area for outputs. There are 12 faders here, and a full Vistonics screen.

The function of the external display is determined by access buttons for useful groups such as auxiliaries, aux outputs, groups, masters, direct outputs, bus outputs, or user-defined combinations of those. For example, once selected, meters appear beside each knob, so you can see exactly what’s occurring with the whole of the selected bus type or output range – that’s 40 meters and associated level controls at the touch of one button.

Another useful function is executed by a single button called ‘Contribution’. Here the Vistonics screen will show and allow immediate control of all the ‘contributors’ to a selected bus of the master channel you’re working on. In terms of sheer power and speed of operation, this is an extremely potent feature. If you’re working monitors and the drummer’s mix needs changing, one button – the corresponding output – is all you need to instantly access his entire mix.

Studer’s approach to button latching also demonstrates the thought that’s gone into the ergonomics. Virtually every button on the Vista follows a single, simple rule: if you touch it, it latches, if you hold it, it’s momentary – amazingly simple, yet brilliant. For example, the monitor engineer I just referred to can hold the Contribution button down, adjust anything, then let go, knowing that Vistonics will return to the pre-push state. Don’t just think of it as one less button-push, think of it as halving the total number of button pushes.

GET DOWN – SURROUND

Given surround is becoming ever more prominent in the field of broadcast, it’s not surprising that the Vista series has its own take on multichannel audio – most obviously in two areas. The first is the optional Dolby E decoder card (see box out) and, secondly, the sophisticated down mix processing block.

The actual down mix block is configured at the I/O level – with both inputs and outputs available for routing. For setup there’s a down mixer dialogue box.

One option is a straight L/R down mix, and then there is the simple ITU version (left and right rears to left and right fronts at –3dB, and centre channel to both at -3dB), although you can adjust the summing level. The latter is fine for ‘decorrelated’ surrounds, but when there’s a significant amount of correlation, the level required is closer to –6dB – but then any decorrelated aspects of the mix get lost – such as audience mics. For this, Studer offers 90-degree decorrelation of the rears.

Lastly, there’s a process that Studer calls ‘Logic 7 compatible’. In Studer’s process, the decorrelated left and right rears are panned slightly towards the centre to fill in the gap that that can often be left when the centre channel gets binned.

Hats off, then, to Studer for giving the audio engineer more input into the down mix process by offering the chance to tailor the stereo to the material and the mix style.

UNINTERRUPTED VISTAS

Other highlights? There are 32 monitoring outputs on the back of the surface, with parallel digital and analogue outs, and even a 24V power supply so you can plug your chosen master meter directly into the console. There’s an optional surround panning joystick, although surround panning in Vistonics is very good indeed. There are Isolate buttons for the snapshot system that can isolate individual blocks, whole channels, or global blocks (such as all EQs, or all dynamics etc).

I could go on. In fact, the only obvious omission from the current Vista software is DAW control. I imagine the degree to which people actually use console-based DAW control depends on how full and convenient the implementation is. That said, I’d have thought that the Vistonics interface would be ideal for this kind of control – maybe they’re working on it.

In any case, the Vista/Vistonics package is an awesome combination. Anyone with a vague notion of audio engineering could get a show going without looking at the manual – the surface positively invites you to use it. With some consoles, novelty technologies sit unloved and unused, and only come out as a party piece to impress the impressionable. Vistonics puts itself at the core of Vista operations and works beautifully.

Using the Vista 5 is addictive – once you’ve tried it, you’ll be desperate to find something else to use it on.

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