BY Bill Evans
For those of you who are just getting started in the world of music and audio: you have no idea how good you have it. The amount of power and the level of quality available in even an entry level PA rivals what arena touring bands worked with two decades ago.
We have arrived at a point where sound quality and processing power are so cheap and easily available that to really stand out, a gear maker has to take it beyond just parts and pieces and create a complete system in order to really stand out.
The “big boys” of concert touring and theatrical audio have taken steps down that road.
Most pro speaker companies offer some form of a turnkey rig that integrates speakers, amps and processing into a single package, but those packages do not include consoles.
Music Group owns Midas on the console end and Turbosound at the speaker end; but, at least as of yet, there is no system integration between the two ends of the snake.
Harmon owns companies that make stuff for every link in the chain and with their HiQNet and System Architect software provide true system solutions, but they have met with some resistance among companies that may already have large investments in non-Harmon gear. Plus, Harman does not offer a recording solution.
Yamaha comes the closest: On the speaker end, they own Nexo. Their new CL mixing system and the Nuage recording system both use the same I/O boxes…and because they own Steinberg, they have Nuendo which is one of the top recording DAWs in the world.
But all of those are in the tip-top high end of audio.
A full-on system from any of them will cost you the same or more than your average house.
In the band/musician/local sound company/smaller house of worship/small venue worlds, there was no system approach.
And the irony is that while some high-end pros fight “plug and play” systems because many of them want to be able to spec specific items at different points in the chain. The smaller venue market is the one that really needs a system approach just due to the lower lever of experience and audio knowledge among many operators.
It is somewhat ironic that even with corporate giants who make everything at every point in the signal chain dominating the audio world, it took a company no one expected to create the first system that is engineered to literally do it all.
PreSonus has been moving in a system direction for a while now.
First came the StudioLive console, which without a doubt opened the door to the glut of entry-level digital mixers on the market. This has made it actually difficult to stick with analog because the value provided by digital is just stupid.
Today you can choose from a half-dozen brands that offer up to 32 inputs and all the digital bells and whistles you can name in the range of around $3K. But make no mistake; half a decade ago, Presonus was the ONLY company offering anything close.
Since then, it has been about adding capabilities via software while others were playing catch-up developing hardware.
Capture added the ability to record your show with ease that was only offered at the high-end by Avid with their combo of the VENUE mixing system and Pro Tools. But the StudioLive/Capture combo did it for pennies on the dollar compared to the touring rig.
Studio One added a DAW and the ability to mix your show or use that StudioLive mixer as the heart of a project recording studio.
Integrating NimBit added distribution and marketing tools. At that point, PreSonus offered something no one else in the industry came close to: a way to perform, record, mix master and release music with just a mixer, a laptop and software that was free with the mixer.
Last year, PreSonus added integration with SMAART, the live sound industry’s standard tool for measuring and tuning sound systems. Once again, it was free with the purchase of a StudioLive console.
So, unless you were not paying attention or were blinded by other brand loyalties, the direction has been pretty obvious. More power, more options, more integration all in one package…
Which brings us to the 2013 Winter NAMM show back in January when PreSonus unveiled AI–Active Integration.
Way More Than Meets the Eye
When we agreed to go to a special event the day before the show opened, we knew there was going to be new stuff. And we assumed it would be a 32-channel StudioLive mixer: Which we got.
Powered speakers were not expected. Subs. Top boxes. A couple of different near-field studio monitors.
But PreSonus was far from the only company at NAMM introducing a lot of new stuff.
In fact, the day-before-the-show, we were all actually juggling between competing events from PreSonus and Behringer. And the other event featured so many new products I lost track.
It was easy in the fog of NAMM to finish up and think, “Oh, yeah. PreSonus. New 32 channel version of the mixer and some powered speakers.”
And we did that. It took a while for everything to settle in to really understand that a higher channel count and live gig speakers with buckets of power and cabinets tuned by loudspeaker legend Dave Gunness were a very small part of the story.
The real story is the ecosystem. It is the fact that PreSonus has taken the approach they applied to StudioLive, pumped it up with massive audio steroids and created the first live sound AND recording system where everything talks to everything else seamlessly AND can be controlled from the same device.
Let’s take a look at just what that means.
First up, the AI line has expanded much further. We thought that one would have to go with the 32 channel StudioLive console to get the advantages of Active Integration.
But PreSonus just announced that the entire mixer line is getting the AI treatment. So you will be seeing 16 and 24 channel versions as well; which makes AI attainable in a lot of different price points.
(PreSonus WILL continue to make the non-AI StudioLive 16.0.2 which will continue to serve as the entry point into the StudioLive ecosystem.)
Second, is the heart of the system: All of the AI stuff sports the same processor.
The OMAP L138 processors is basically an entire computer on a chip. These 32-bit, 96 kHz multi-stream CPUs operate at 350 MHz and include an operating system, 100 Mb Ethernet communications, USB 2.0 and 1.1, and a bunch of high-speed RAM. And that chip lives in every piece of gear in the AI ecosystem.
Why is that important?
…because it allows PreSonus engineers to work with a common foundation; which means that there is a lot better shot of everything working together seamlessly.
Having the chip inside the powered speakers means that all of the processing one would use a stand-alone speaker controller for–EQ, limiting, delay for time alignment, etc–are handled inside the speaker.
Having the chip and OS be the same as what is in the console allows for control of both ends of the snake with an iPad using apps that have a similar look and feel and it results in a much less steep learning curve.
The chip also does direct Ethernet and USB communications. This is going to allow PreSonus to take one expensive part out of the equation when it comes to wireless control.
With AI, you can do it all without a laptop. (Well, almost all of it. You still need a laptop to take advantage of the SMAART integration and of course if you want to record you need a computer.)
For today, the mixers and the live speakers are the only parts of the overall puzzle that take advantage of the power inherent in the AI approach, but PreSonus also makes a lot of other stuff: Rack and portable recording interfaces; Studio monitors; Mic preamps…
Will these pieces eventually join the AI/StudioLive ecosystem? No telling. At least not yet. But you will know as soon as we do.
Cutting the Cables
While PreSonsus was way ahead of the curve in terms of iPad control of the console, getting that control was not the easiest thing in the world.
It meant connecting a FireWire enabled computer to the console, putting that computer on a wireless network and then using the iPad to actually control the computer which, in turn, controlled the console. No more.
All of the AI stuff ships with a USB wireless dongle that turns every link in the chain into a wireless “device” that can join an existing wireless network. All you need is an inexpensive wireless router that everything can connect to.
The console itself will ship with a FireWire 800 connector, wired Ethernet and S/PDIF.
But you will notice those connections are on a removable card. By the middle of 2014, there should be both Dante and AVB audio networking and ThunderBolt options for those slots.
This is important. PreSonus VP of Sales Rick Naqvi calls it “futureproofing.”
More than one live sound engineer found himself flailing around for solutions when Apple stopped including a FireWire connector on the latest MacBooks and iMacs earlier this year.
“With the card approach,” Naqvi said, “customers using the AI consoles will be able to have confidence that whatever the latest, greatest, high speed connection is a year or two from now, there will be a simple card exchange option that will allow them to connect in the way that works best for them.”
Side note: The Dante card will support both the standard Dante protocol as well as the still emerging AVB standard. More choices.
And the live speakers will be able to take the same card, which will mean both control AND audio running on standard Cat5/6 cable. We are talking about true audio networking in a system you can buy at Guitar Center.
Stop and let that sink in for a moment. The implications are nothing short of stunning.
And let’s not forget that PreSonus has pioneered an iOS app that allows musicians onstage to have basic “more me” control over their own monitor mix from an iPhone or iPod touch.
The performers demand of more me is now as close as the iPhone in their back pocket.
This “make it powerful, make it usable, make it simple” approach is not an accident.
The folks at PrsSonus take that approach because they have stayed connected to what the people who use their products actually do. Virtually everyone in the brain trust still plays music in a live setting on a regular basis.
When we set up a Skype conversation with head of marketing Rick Naqvi, his examples of how everything works together started with words we hear way to rarely anymore: “When I get to a gig…” (Check the attached videos for some further thoughts form Rick about the AI ecosystem and where all of this is heading.)
“Here is how the workflow will go,” Naqvi said. “I get to the gig and i set up my speakers and i set up my console. Everything scans the room and finds the network.”
“Once everything is on the same network, moving between control of the console and control of the speakers is just a four-finger swipe on the iPad. When i am talking to a specific speaker cabinet, a light on the front comes on so i know what i am talking to. I can make adjustments. I can set up groups of speakers that i can control all at once. I can save the settings into a venue file so when i come back there for another gig, i don’t have to do it all again. I just call up the preset.”
“We have always been the kind of company that believes that our customers want to be able to do a lot with their gear.”
“That want to be able to easily set it up to play live. They want to be able to easily record. They want to be able to edit.That is why we include so much software–Capture, Studio One, SMAART–with our products. But what Active Integration does is allow us to make that tie between hardware and software even tighter which will allow users to do more and do it more easily than ever before.”
As much as there is here, there is a lot more to the story that we will be covering via reviews and how-to pieces over the coming months.
We have not really even talked about the just announced version of the Studio One DAW or how all of the included software including what runs on the StudioLive mixers themselves are essentially on the same platform.
That means that when you take a session you recorded at a gig with Capture and open it in Studio One, all of your settings including channel names, fader values, effects and even Fat Channel settings automatically load into the Studio One mixing session. It is a level of integration between live mixer and DAW that is not even available on the most expensive rigs out there.
When we started to do this piece, we knew it was not about any specific piece of gear, but rather about how PreSonus is using the power of the AI hardware and tightly connected software to create a true audio ecosystem.
But even knowing that going in, we had no idea just how deep it went. Hang on, it is going to be an interesting 2014 for sure.
– Rev. Bill