Mackie’s engineering team had a tantalizing challenge staring them in face: Create a system for live sound designed to seamlessly combine wireless mixing with hardware controls.
That called for designing a hardware control surface that would converge seamlessly with their popular DL32R 32-Channel Rackmount Digital Mixer and Master Fader control app – and give birth to something even bigger and badder in the process.
On the surface, the AXIS’ immense visual feedback grabs eyes with large, high-resolution screens and the ability to use up to three iPads via Mackie’s SmartBridge design. Under the hood, AXIS features flexible 32×32 recording, a wide selection of powerful DSP, and full Dante audio networking protocol interoperability, for a massively flexible modular mix experience.
Together, Mackie’s Ben Olswang, Senior Product Manager; Kent Swendseid, Director of Industrial Design; and Graham Jordan, Digital Engineer Manager and their team were taking on a big opportunity with live mixers: To better inform ergonomics, creative and sonic possibilities, while providing the essential capabilities of wireless mixing in the process.
Even better, they explained their decisions along the way to SonicScoop. To see why live sound is the arena where audio technology and cross-platform integration is accelerating the fastest, read on about AXIS.
Starting from the 10,000-ft. view, how does Mackie decide what new products – hardware and/or software – to develop?
Ben: All new products start with the user: Who is it for? What are they trying to achieve? What are the problems they encounter when using the currently available gear?
If we don’t think we can make a meaningful improvement to the user, we keep looking. We do this by watching and asking a lot of questions. Of course we’re all engineers and use the gear ourselves, but it is incredibly important for us to talk to customers, watch them work and listen to what they have to say.
What did you hear from those users that made development of the AXIS Digital Mixing System a priority for Mackie?
We learned that many of the digital mixing systems out there were delivering lots of features, but making them difficult to use and slower to mix on. We also learned engineers are incredibly diverse, each with their own desired workflow that often changes depending on the event.
So, we wanted to make a system that was incredibly intuitive and focused on allowing the user to mix as quickly as possible. We improved their workflow through increased visibility and customization, allowing them to configure the console as needed for a particular show.
How do you see the needs of live mixing professionals changing, from an ergonomic, creative and sonic standpoint?
Kent: Live mixing professionals are still concerned about the same things they’ve always been concerned about. However, digital technology allows a conceptual shift from the paradigms of the analog realm into newer and evolving models of human hardware interaction that will inform ergonomics, creative and sonic possibilities.
The ability for an engineer to make changes from anywhere is especially powerful. Any engineer that embraces wireless mixing never looks back. We wanted to design a mixing system that incorporated wireless mixing from the beginning.
How did this evolution lead to the initial vision for AXIS – what did you see as the big technical opportunities that would result from a modular system such as this, that integrates the Mackie DL32R digital mixer with the DC16 control surface?
Ben: Modular systems deliver incredible benefits to the user. Most importantly it allows them to place the I/O at the most opportune location for patching while placing the control surface at FOH or MON as needed. This removes the need for an analog snake, as you can simply patch directly to the I/O on stage. Eliminating an analog snake removes a large expense and improves audio quality, as you have none of the sonic degradation inherent with long analog audio runs over copper.
And by utilizing Dante as our digital audio network, it opens up our system to integrate easily with the hundreds of other Dante products available, giving the user the flexibility to route audio digitally between all their Dante devices.
Another benefit of our modular implementation is based on where we put the DSP processing. Many modular systems put the DSP in the control surface, which turns the I/O into a simple digital snake. We chose to instead put the processing in the I/O and make our control surface a controller with some local I/O. This allows the user to use the system without the control surface if desired.
This provides incredible flexibility for production companies as they can size their system as needed for a particular event. For example, if they are running a festival, they can take the full AXIS system (DL32R mixer and DC16 control surface). But for a corporate event where the client would prefer to not have a FOH for aesthetic reasons, they can simply bring the DL32R and mix wirelessly from the audience. This gives them more utility than a standard all-in-one mixer or conventional modular system can provide.
Conversely, what did you identify as the most significant challenges you would face in realizing that vision?
Graham: Designing the DC16 and AXIS system as a whole for the required functionality was a big challenge; from the hardware architecture using multiple processors, to the distributed nature of the software in the system.
Making the controls and displays on the DC16 work seamlessly with the Master Fader control app, so the user can work effectively with both simultaneously, took a lot of work. In order for the control surface to efficiently handle so many screens and faders, plus direct iPad connection, required partitioning the work across multiple processors to meet user interface response and functional requirements. The design and implementation of the firmware required was a significant challenge, with the opportunity to take user experience to a higher level.
The AXIS SmartBridge design allows for unique customization of iPad views, including a “follow” feature where the screens follow you as you work, so the last few adjusted channels are always visible for quick adjustment.
This feature is amazing, and was a great opportunity to do something original — yet it required a lot of effort and iterations to work as we wanted. It’s a feature where there’s a lot going on “under the hood” to make it simple for the user.
Please describe the major stages of the design process – what had to happen in order for the AXIS system to move from concept to prototype to finished product?
Kent: The initial research phase starts with data gathering where we investigate the market, the users, new technology and set the foundation of the problem we need to solve.
In this case, the problem or opportunity was the creation of a hardware control surface that would pair with the DL32R and the Master Fader control app. That is to say we approached the next phase philosophically looking at the DL32R, Master Fader, and control surface as a system that, when combined together, would be greater than the sum of the respective parts.