The Quest For The Knob

t goes without saying that the most important thing about an audio workstation is that you are able to hear what you are working on. This often leads to the continual quest for the best sounding speakers and headphones. The question that those of us who work in the sound field don’t always think about is “What is the best mixer to use?”

A standard Pro Tools system has 8 outputs. (Yes, the HD hardware can output up to 16 but often on a standard editorial system, people only use 8.) The various flavors of the Mackie 1604 has been the work-horse of mixer setup.

However, ever since Pro Tool 5.1, the software can be configured to handle an internal surround mix and output in 5.1. With this change editors using workstations that are configured to monitor in 5.1 really only need to use 6 outputs. So on the mixer side of things, you need the 6 or 8 inputs from Pro Tools and probably another 2 (stereo pair) for the Mac speaker. Sometimes you might have other gear like a DAT or video deck that you want to monitor independent of Pro Tools, but often you just need the 8 or 10 mixer inputs to handle everyting.

The problem comes with the outputs to the speakers. The easiest way to deal with a 5.1 speaker setup is to assign each bus out to a speaker. So you need 6 buses to handle the outputs. The Mackie 1604 only has 4. You can make use of the Aux Sends for the two additional outputs but it’s not configured as nicely. So now you’re looking at jumping up to an 8 bus mixer and that’s starts getting much more expensive.

And really when it comes down to it, if you’re setting up a 5.1 workstation, you don’t need or want individual EQs on every channel. And individual volume controls become a big hassel. After spending a long time calibrating the Sound Pressure Level of the room, you want to lock those faders down so that the relative volume from one channel to the next is aways the same. What you really need is what I’ve been refering to as “the box with the big knob” for a year now.

Let’s face it, consumer surround receivers have it right. Plug your 6 channels from a DVD player into the receiver. Six cables from the receiver go to the home theater speakers. And there’s a big knob on the front to adjust the level of all speakers up or down. That’s the idea we need to recreate in the professional sound editor market.

I have yet to find a good solution to this but at the NAB show in Las Vegas, I did see a step in the right direction. Mackie has just released a new mixer that they call surprisingly enough “The Big Knob“. (Mackie, feel free to put a check in the mail made out to me–oh yeah, I never filed a copyright on that name. Damn!) I was so excited when I saw that thing in their booth. No individual channel faders, just a big knob in the middle of the board.

Unfortunately, it’s configured for stereo pairs. It does have 6 ins and outs (3 stereo pairs) but you can only tweak levels on two channels at time. This might not be a problem for Left / Right or Left Surround / Right Surround, but the Center / Sub pair could be a little hairy. It’s possible though that with a little level tweaking on the Pro Tools interface, this mixer could me made to work with a 5.1 studio. I told the guy I talked to at the Mackie booth that I thought it was a great piece of gear, they just needed to get cracking on a true 5.1 version.