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Is it time to reinvent the physical mixing console?

Although the mouse and keyboard interface works and is cheap, many of us yearn for something more like the traditional analog console interface. But is it time for a complete rethink?

Anyone who learned audio on a traditional physical mixing console will have a degree of nostalgia for the old ways. There is something very intuitive about reaching out for the control you want and physically shaping the sound, rather than having to precisely position a mouse pointer on an exact pixel and move it up or down, left or right to control the setting of an on-screen representation of a rotating knob.

But the mouse and keyboard interface does work, and can be very cheap - how about a mouse for $4.15 and keyboard for $6.75? These are prices available today from a popular supplier in the UK, translated from UK pounds obviously.

Granted, control surfaces are available that mimic a large scale console - nearly always an assignable console rather than a traditional channel-strip console. But they don't quite seem like the 'real thing' somehow and they are very costly considering that they don't offer any additional sonic capability, apart from maybe having preamps and monitoring options.

So I've often wondered whether the desire for a physical interface is truly justified, and I've made the argument myself that if a physical interface was so desirable, surely there would be one for Photoshop? Google doesn't seem to know of anything specifically dedicated to this incredibly popular graphics software.

But you have probably already noticed the rather striking photo at the top of this article. It isn't a Photoshop console, but it's not so far removed. This is a Baselight system, which is a powerful colour grading and finishing system for film, TV and commercials. Here's a video demonstrating the system in use...

Update - unfortunately the video has been removed. We have no control over this but you can find other demonstrations of this system online.

I'm not so much interested in the software here, but the console looks as though it is precisely directed towards the efficient use of the system, so that the operator can get to the controls he or she needs very quickly, and control the various parameters in an optimised way, rather than with a one-size-fits-all approach.

The thought strikes me that perhaps it's time to completely rethink the way we interface with our DAW systems. So rather than emulate the traditional approach we throw away the accumulated junk of history and find a way to control levels, pans, auxiliary sends, EQ, dynamics, reverb and effects etc. in a way that connects humans with sound in the most efficient way possible.

For starters I would ask the question whether we need to see the traditional row of faders as the most defining characteristic of the mixing console (and DAW mix window)? Wouldn't it be a better solution to have a compact button panel to select a channel, and a single set of ergonomically adapted controls to shape the sound that is on that channel in the most tactile, intuitive and comprehensive way? Maybe take a step further and wonder whether channels are necessary at all? Apple has taken a step away from the channel paradigm in Final Cut Pro X, and maybe there are further steps that could be taken.

I wouldn't pretend to have the answers to these questions myself, but I feel that the time might be right to move audio into a new, bright future and leave the old ways well and truly where they belong - in the past.

By David Mellor Tuesday October 28, 2014