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Not so long ago I could have pointed you in the direction of several products with which you could add automation to your existing console, but apart from some high end products they seem to be disappearing from the catalogues. The tendency these days is for console manufacturers to collaborate with software companies to produce console specific automation systems, which in some cases can be added to an existing console as a retrofit. Adding automation nearly always involves taking the console apart and rewiring, or even replacing, the faders.
The sound quality of a moving fader automation system will not be in doubt, but lower cost automation systems use VCAs as the level controlling element. Even though VCAs can be of very high quality these days, remember that unless you use a separate preamp for recording the signal will pass through a VCA at least twice in the multitracking process, multiplying any deficiencies. Things to look for are the noise and distortion. Test for undue noise first by setting the monitor volume using a music source, stop the music and route as many channels as you expect to use to the mix, with about half of them at 0dB and the rest at lower levels, simulating a real mix. If you dont mind the noise level you hear now then noise is not going to be a problem (but bear in mind that EQ will bring up noise in any console). To test for distortion select a CD with a good clean sound that you know well and listen very carefully The system must please your ears.
One problem which is intrinsic to automation systems is zipper noise, which is caused by quantising the level setting into too few steps between fully off and fully on. Bear in mind that having too few steps is one way to make a cheap automation system. Test this by applying a lowish frequency sine wave to a channel and moving the fader quickly. You may notice either a noise similar to a zip fastener in operation, or that the change in audio level lags behind your movements. If you dont notice either then you have a good system in front of you!
The Soundcraft Spirit Studio is a great little desk at a reasonable price, and if you have a bit more cash to spend you can get it in an automated version, the Spirit Auto. The only difference youll see on the top panel is a button marked Snap and a red LED called RCVE (Receive). The VCA system works in conjunction with Steinbergs Spirit Automation software running on an Atari or Mac computer. Mute and fader settings can be recorded from the console or directly into the computer, and using the Snap button you can record all the current fader and mute settings at any point in the mix. Its interesting to compare the audio specifications of the auto and non-auto versions of the console: according to Soundcrafts measurements the only differences on the negative side are the mix noise which is up from -80dB to -77dB and distortion which is up from 0.006% to 0.035%. The maximum fader attenuation is actually up from >86dB to >100dB, which can only be a good thing.
Mackies popular CR-1604 console is automation ready and can be retrofitted with extra VCA hardware to convert it to an OTTO-1604 with mute and fader automation. Controlling the system is a Mac running OTTOmix software, which will actually handle up to three OTTO-1604s for 48 track automated mixing. The software emulates the look and feel of the console itself and provides features such as unlimited subgroups, so you can set the relative levels of a drum kit say, and control the whole lot from one fader. Scenes or snapshots can be captured for mutes and faders, and fades can be done manually or automatically by the computer to eliminate any jerkiness the hand may induce. The software is processing intensive and does require a powerful Mac. Dont try running it on your Mac Classic!
The Soundtracs Solo Logic differs from the Soundcraft Spirit Auto and Mackie OTTO-1604 in that it requires no external computer. Everything happens within the console itself. The system is VCA based and incorporates machine control so that the console becomes your studios control centre. Fader and mute automation uses an internal processor and Soundtracs claim that because all data is handled inside the console there is no delay in fader change information due to the limitations of MIDI. Muting on all channels, monitors, effects returns and auxiliary master is automated to an accuracy of a quarter of a SMPTE frame.
The Soundcraft DC 2000 is rather more expensive than the other automated consoles mentioned here, but that is because it uses moving faders. A moving fader is a pretty pricey component so there is no point in using them on a budget console. Like the Soundtracs Solo Logic, there is no need for an external computer, and it uses a touch sensitive LCD screen to view and edit mix parameters. The DC 2000 also offers machine control so it becomes the studios centre of operations. All large input faders and the master fader are automated, and mutes are automated on channel and monitor paths, aux sends 1 and 3, all aux masters, groups and stereo returns. There is an internal floppy drive, with optional hard drive, for storing mix data such as project and title information, cue and MIDI event lists.
A number of sequencers now provide mixer screens which can automate various devices via MIDI controllers. Any automated mixing console that can accept MIDI controller messages will be compatible with such software. If this is the case, you will be able to automate your console from your favourite sequencer running on your favourite computer. Bear in mind however that MIDI controller software designed for general purposes may not be as good as dedicated mix automation software. In particular you may find that update or trim modes are not provided. Check out the software carefully before deciding to go along this route.