Midas Goes Digital with XL8 and Moves into the Systems Business

 

The XL8 console in all its glory with the extremely high definition and clarity visual displays.

Nick Mobsby reports
March 29th saw a revolution at Midas: the world-renowned XL4 is no longer. The last unit of this famous audio console left the factory bound for Italy in mid March! So why kill off what is a market leader? The answer is simple. Midas has gone digital with their new console - the XL8 - launched at the Pro Light + Sound show in Frankfurt.

Talk to most sound engineers around the live music scene about 'mixers' and the name that comes up most often is Midas. For many years the name has been synonymous with leading edge facilities, longevity, quality and reliability. If fact, when I asked some of these audio 'buffs' about Midas a glazed look came over them, and the dreaming of owning or even using one!

Digital consoles are not new. We have seen a number of innovative solutions appear over the past few years; indeed the Midas XL4 used a computer to manage the analogue systems. But Midas has used their extensive market knowledge and position to take a fundamental look at the requirements of an audio control system. Ten million dollars and three years later comes a complete audio system that breaks through a number of technological barriers. The XL8 is not just a console, it is a complete networked audio system that solves problems many manufacturers have looked at individually.

Midas invited members of the press to a pre-launch get together in mid-March, near their base in Kidderminster, where the entire Midas project team responsible for XL8 were on hand. This was billed to us as "a new generation of open architecture, cross platform, integrated audio control and distribution system". Marketing jargon or reality, I hear you ask. As the covers came off it was very clear we were in for a rather special afternoon!

Like all engineers one is always sceptical when such claims are made but as the afternoon demonstration and discussions progressed, and our questions got answered positively, my first impressions were realised and I saw how clever the XL8 concept is. Quickly you realise that this is not just another launch of a digital console. The Midas team have taken three years to rethink audio control from a new perspective, looking to develop a complete solution from the stage box to the mixer to the routing and distribution of signals whilst allowing third party software and other control facilities to be linked easily into the ‘system’. So firstly, guys, congratulations on a job well done and on time; you have not reinvented the wheel but you have thought through the user requirements carefully, built on existing proven technology and used the benefits digital technology brings to take audio control into a new dimension.
Throughout our briefing it was made very clear to us that all the unique and well-liked existing Midas facilities, such as the microphone preamplifiers and equalisation, have been retained, ensuring that existing users of the XL4, Heritage, Verona and Siena can move quickly to XL8 with limited or no training.

The XL8 is a system that comprises the control centre, the input output modules, routing units and the dsp transmission boxes. Simon Harrison, R&D manager, detailed the extensive work which has gone on here to produce a networkable solution that avoids the latency issues other systems suffer from. The Midas network is based on use of the Ethernet physical layer ensuring easy use of to Cat 5e and 6 and fibre optic cable, connectors and other components. However their network does not use conventional Ethernet packages. The Midas system uses a 96kHz sampling rate, primarily to reduce delays on stage monitoring and to avoid latency issues, enabling a 70µS latency time per link to be produced. This allowed Midas to develop a bi-directional ‘local’ 24 channel and a ‘trunk’ 192 channel network that has a full clock based distribution and management system with full phase and sample synchronisation. Total system latency for very large systems is claimed to be only around 2mS.

Alex Cooper, the director of console development and world respected veteran of other Midas developments, led a team of 35 to understand what were the key Midas ‘elements’ and to re-develop these without losing the analogue feel, ensuring that the ‘sonic performance’ matches user expectations. This involved a considerable number of listening tests to ensure that the digital version was equal in all respects to the classic analogue Midas solution. In some cases Alex accepted that earlier designs had been developed that sounded right, and reproducing these digitally proved to be difficult initially. The resultant performance now maintains the Midas pre-amplifier philosophy of plenty of headroom and the over driven capabilities liked by some dsigners. The equalisation system has been developed considerably with much of this now subject to a patent pending application as are seven other areas of the system design.

The design team clearly had to understand that everybody hears a sound slightly differently and that hearing adapts to the environment together with the way that the harmonics can dramatically alter a signal. The team were honest enough to admit that designing the dynamics processing elements was not as simple as they first thought. A research program involving months of listening tests led to new concepts for easy control of complex parameters. This means the XL8 is capable of reproducing the characteristics of a number of “classic” and “vintage” dynamics processor designs. A similar approach to Eq design means mix engineers have a choice of filters, which include the “classic” Midas types.

Midas has formed various strategic alliances in order to complete the development in the three-year time frame and also to improve compatability. Some they are happy to talk about and others they preferred not to disclose. One John Oakley was prepared to talk about and that he saw as a major benefit was the licensed use of the Sony ‘SuperMac’ (AES 50) and ‘HyperMac’ audio network protocol. This format is rapidly gaining acceptance and as a format that has now been adopted by the Audio Engineering Society (AES) will probably see wider usage. Midas did accept that later they may have to provide interfacing from their systems to other formats.

One of the most obvious first impressions of XL8 is of the quality of the daylight visible glass visual displays. The clarity is highly impressive as is the way the information is displayed with graphics being used, for example, its is easy to see how an equaliser is operating. The system constantly provides input and output metering - something the design team felt was essential. A large amount of effort was put in by Peter Sadler, senior software engineer, to ensure that most functions could be displayed graphically to improve user understanding and the speeding up of operation. There is no doubt these are some of the best displays that I have ever seen both for clarity and for providing the right amount of information in an uncluttered format.

I was fortunate to have an opportunity of talking with Alex Cooper over dinner, for someone so unassuming and so commited to the industry one has to admire what he and his team has achieved in such a short time. I asked him if they got it right first time or whether there had been some mistakes that had to be changed. Honest as ever, Alex confirmed that some sample testing with rental companies, mixing engineers and end users had produced some very useful feedback which had brought about over 100 minor changes, one of which was the adoption of the track ball rather than other pointing devices. For followers of fashion these do ‘glow’ a rather nice shade of light blue when the console is powered up! Alex explained that to reproduce the expected analogue style quality took a great deal of listening tests and understanding by the designers of what was really going on inside these analogue circuits. Out of their research, he says, has come a significantly better understanding and knowledge of exactly what equalisers, per-amplifiers and VCAs should do. Incidentally to a Midas XL8 user a Voltage Controlled Amplifier has now been re-named as a Variable Control Association!

Finally, the other area that interested me was the considerable amount of time spent in designing the system to be fault tolerant and the way other controls such as laptops can be easily interfaced into the network. The consideration of potential faults is vital in a live console - otherwise large numbers of festival revellers might well descend en masse upon the console operator. Here great care has been taken to ensure that all major components are fed with separate and dual power supplies. As each control module is linked to next via a network it is always possible to route around a problem whilst retaining operational control. Linking other control devices or the multiple laptops that seem to fill control positions is easy as is adding in hard disk recorders and the like.

With Midas being a company within Telex Communications Group, a huge amount of effort has gone into establishing a 24/7-strong support service operational throughout the world. This comes on board immediately with support centres in the UK, USA, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. This support is clearly well structured under the management of Karl Brant and also provides training for users, service engineers and dealers throughout the world. A dedicated web site for XL8 users is being established. Midas view this all as part of the XL8 system and is another reason why their consoles are sold on their reliability and longevity.

So from a light man congratulations to one and all at Midas, to Alex Cooper and Simon Harrison in particular. If you ever think of moving on to designing lighting consoles please let me know!

www.midasconsoles.com

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