Classic, yet unashamedly modern, Neve's latest analogue console promises seamless integration with the software studio.
The market for aircraft carrier-sized studio consoles is not what it was back in the '80s, so most big-name console manufacturers have refocused, either branching out into the live or broadcast sectors, or developing outboard and more compact consoles that meet the demands of the modern software-centric studio. Some of these consoles are fairly traditional designs based on old-school working practices, but most now incorporate at least some level of workstation integration, and a few really stretch the technology to open up whole new ways of working.
Neve's Genesys is of the last type, combining a completely analogue signal path with clever digital control and integrated DAW controls. The original console — still referred to simply as the Genesys — was introduced back in 2007, but somehow managed to escape a review in the pages of SOS. About 115 of these consoles have entered service since then.
A new version, the Genesys Black, has just been launched, and while it shares the same core design and components as the original, it boasts improved DAW integration. At the time of writing, around 10 Genesys Black consoles are already in the field, and AMS Neve's order books are full for several months ahead! Since the underlying frames are very different, there's no direct conversion path from the Genesys to the Genesys Black, although modules from the original could be reinstalled into a Black frame if required.
The design brief for the original Genesys was to make a Neve 88R console fit in the back of a car. The goal was to achieve the same superb sound quality, the same signal-routing flexibility, and the same mix architecture as the 88R, while bringing it up to date with comprehensive DAW integration. Robin Porter, AMS Neve's chief designer, explained that developing the original idea into a working prototype took just 12 months, which I find quite astonishing.
At the heart of the Genesys is a digitally controlled analogue signal path. This technology was first developed in the late '80s by the likes of Calrec (for their VCS broadcast consoles) and Euphonix (CS2000 and CS3000 desks). Inevitably, though, the rush to affordable digital consoles took the focus away from this sophisticated technology and it was largely forgotten. However, Porter recognised that this kind of digital control would be essential in creating an analogue console with the facilities required to work effectively with a modern DAW. The digital-control approach also allows interesting future upgrade and development paths.
The digital control paradigm allows the console to be made much shallower than a comparable analogue mixer, and to have a smaller footprint, because a lot of functions can be operated from a screen instead of requiring physical controls. Digital control also enables the implementation of instant reset and recall features that dovetail perfectly with DAW operations, both when restoring old projects, or for initialising the desk with personal configuration preferences for new projects.
When you have lots of electronic switches and VCAs in the signal paths, as well as digital control signals flying around inside the console, maintaining state-of-the-art audio quality takes an immense amount of effort and design expertise. In spite of this challenge, the Genesys's audio performance is as good as that of any large-format console, and actually approaches the theoretical limits. For example, output noise is around -96dBu and mix-bus noise is -92dBu. With clipping at +26dBu, the Genesys has a potential dynamic range of 122dB, which will give even the best A-D converters a good run for their money!
Another 'old-fashioned' idea that Robin employed is the in-line concept, which was introduced by Harrison in the '70s and quickly became the standard for all big studio consoles. An in-line channel strip combines both a recording channel signal path and a monitor mix path in one physical desk module. Compared with the alternative 'split' layout, with physically separate input and mix sections, this doubles the input count for a given number of I/O modules and massively increases the signal-path flexibility. A Genesys 'G16' console actually offers 40 inputs for mixing (two per I/O strip plus the eight stereo returns), which is a very practical proposition — and the Genesys system can be expanded to host up to 64 I/O channel modules if required.
Maximising flexibility, Porter settled on four mono auxes, two stereo auxes and two stereo cues, and he borrowed another useful feature from the 88R console: a module's auxes and cues can be 'floated off' to feed the subgroups, providing additional send buses where required. Talking of subgroups, the Genesys has eight mono groups as well as a main stereo mix bus. Of course, these groups can also be used as four stereo stems, or for building a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Some of the Genesys's competitors provide 5.1 monitoring, but Porter insisted that this console should have full 5.1 mix capability because of its importance in television, post-production, film-scoring, and game-sound applications. Another inclusion to enhance flexibility is a dedicated and configurable two-track fold-down mixer. This takes the eight group signals and generates an independent stereo output, completely separately from the main stereo out.
Digital control naturally makes configuring desk functions easy, and Neve's Total Recall system resets all switches and digital controls immediately, while also displaying any mismatched rotary controls (mostly aux and pan controls, which are not motorised) on the computer screen with their current and required positions. These controls have to be reset manually, but it's a very quick and easy process. A dynamic automation system called Encore — common across all of AMS Neve's large analogue and digital consoles — is another option, working on the motorised faders and the monitor-path VCAs.
The Genesys works perfectly well as a stand-alone console, and can be used with an analogue multitrack recorder (given timecode for Encore synchronisation), but it has been designed to integrate with professional DAW software. To that end, it includes dedicated transport controls and associated facilities for working with the major DAWs such as Pro Tools, Logic and Cubase/Nuendo, and the motorised faders on the I/O modules can be employed to control the DAW's virtual mixer using the Mackie HUI protocol.
The smallest desk configuration comprises eight I/O modules, each incorporating independent channel and mix paths. Most of the circuitry in these modules has been derived from the company's flagship 88R console. The channel path includes a mic preamp (see below), with its gain controlled by a rotary encoder; its integrated LEDs indicate preamp gain or mix levels, but can also be assigned to display DAW values such as pan settings or levels. Switches are provided for phantom power, pad, high-pass filter, and to select high-impedance or line inputs. There's also a rotary line-level trim facility.
The large, motorised level fader precedes the pan control (which is configurable for LR or LCR) and routing to the stereo bus and/or eight mono groups. In LCR mode, a centre-panned signal will appear in the left and right channels at -9dB, a divergence level chosen to match the sound character of phantom centre images in the LR pan mode. The monitor path has the same routing and panning facilities as the channel path, and shares access to the aux, cue and insert facilities. Most unusually, each I/O module has two insert points, which can be allocated individually or jointly to the channel or monitor paths. This means outboard equipment can be wired into both the channel and monitor paths at the same time, or two separate devices can be hooked into the monitor path for mixdown. The monitor (small) fader is actually a rotary control, but the usual fader-swap functions are provided, along with comprehensive mute and solo functions.
Another feature that's lifted from AMS Neve's big consoles is 'chip-chop'. This allows the channel signal to be split into the monitor path, providing even more signal-routing versatility. This mode is very useful when surround mixing, for example, where the channel pan control is used for the front imaging while the monitor pan handles the rear imaging. In this configuration, the small monitor fader adjusts the front/rear balance. Clear VU/PPM metering displays in the bridge at the back of the console are a smaller version of those in the 88R, and can be switched to show the channel or monitor path inputs, or the direct output signal. The EQ or dynamics controls on the I/O module are limited just to on/off buttons, since all adjustments are performed via the computer screen — but only if the optional EQ and dynamics cards are installed (see below).
The Genesys master section includes four stereo effects returns with width controls, and these can be used to supplement the input count for mixdown. The eight subgroups, separate two-track mixer, aux and cue masters are also controlled here, all with ample metering, and all of the mix buses are balanced to minimise system noise and keep out any digital control crosstalk. The main stereo mix bus and groups have switchable pre/post-fader inserts, complete with a mix-return blend control, to allow parallel processing. Big console-style solo, solo-safe and solo-linking options are provided, and Porter says these are much more powerful than the provisions in the 88R console.
Elaborate talkback, alignment-tone and pink-noise facilities are included, and the very comprehensive monitoring section is capable of driving two stereo and two 5.1 monitor systems (with bass-management facilities), plus a headphone socket under the armrest. An exclusive 5.1>2 (surround to stereo) downmix system is also provided for monitoring checks, along with a button that swaps the front and rear speakers to allow surround rear-channel balances to be fine-tuned without having to turn around! A handy tilt EQ is provided on the cues, which is perfect for dealing with complaints that the cue mix is too thin or dull! The cue outputs can be derived from the cues or aux buses, the main mix, monitoring signal, or external inputs, and when talkback is engaged, the cue signal is attenuated rather than removed.
Analogue audio connections are in the form of XLRs, D-subs and a few TRS sockets — no exotic installation wiring is required — and the system's control computer (running Windows 7) is built in, needing only a small external monitor screen. The console's mains power supply is also built in: an efficient 450W SMPS module powers a 16-channel base frame, and smaller 270W SMPS modules are installed in each extension frame. The system computer monitors the condition of all modules, and faults can be diagnosed remotely over the Internet — servicing is about sending replacement user-installed modules, rather than expensive engineers!
The basic console is a fully functioning high-end desk that can be used straight out of the box (or car!), and is designed to be used with a customer's existing outboard processors, without paying for redundant and unused facilities in the desk. However, the console's functionality can be extended at any time via optional plug-in cards and the Encore fader-automation software. The idea is to provide potential customers with options, so that the desk can be acquired at a low entry price and extended later as the need arises or budget permits, either by adding more channels, or more facilities, or both.
First on the option list is the choice of channel mic preamp. The original desk specification had electronically balanced preamps borrowed from the 88R, but with an option to replace them with transformer-input 1073 'green can' preamps. However, almost every customer wanted the 1073s — so that is now the default fitment, with the 88R preamps becoming the option. Naturally, it's possible to have 88R preamps in one eight-module bay, and 1073 preamps in another, if required. The preamp gain encoder at the top of the input module can also be used to control remote AMS Neve 4081 preamps, which is a useful facility for location recording or OB applications.
The next set of options concerns plug-in cards in a frame at the rear of the console: an EQ module, a dynamics module and an A-D/D-A interface, all three of which cater for eight audio channels. Installing the cards is trivially simple, and the computer automatically reconfigures itself to provide the required control screens and desk signal-path functions after detecting them.
Two EQ variants are available, starting with a version of the 88R console's EQ. The EQ processing is controlled either from the computer screen or a set of assignable encoders in the console's master section; there are no physical EQ controls on the I/O modules, apart from in-out buttons.
The 88R EQ card provides a very transparent-sounding and versatile four-band equaliser with a sweepable HPF. However, where more sonic flavour is required, the alternative option is a card based on the classic 1084 three-band EQ, with two inductors per channel (for the LF and MF sections). Not surprisingly, it's very difficult to introduce digital control elements into an historic circuit like this while retaining the correct function and response, but the AMS Neve team succeeded remarkably well — after a lot of hard work to avoid unwanted thumps and clicks! The EQ frequency selections are achieved via relay switching, while digitally controlled potentiometers are used for the boost/cut controls, making adjustments in fine-step increments.
For the optional dynamics card, a VCA design using a THAT 2181 Dbx-derived chip is employed, borrowed from the 88R and configurable for compressor/limiter and expander/gate modes. The classic Neve compressor circuit is the 'diode bridge', but this wasn't a practical option here due to the size of the required transformers. The dynamics processing uses a 'three-control' paradigm similar to the control provision on the early AMS Neve V and SSL 4000 consoles. In the compressor mode, this provides threshold, ratio and release-time controls, while the attack-time is preset for a fast action and the gain make-up is determined automatically.
Each dynamics channel has its own key input, and if an optional EQ card is installed, the corresponding channel's EQ processing can be allocated to the dynamics side-chain for very powerful effects. A tri-colour LED is provided on the console to indicate the amount of gain reduction (light, heavy and hard!), but a full meter is provided on the control screen, either for the current channel or the selectable set of eight channels.
One major benefit of the digital control system is that the EQ, dynamics and two inserts can be configured in any order (though always pre-fader) with individual and global bypasses selectable on-screen. The system is based around a matrix of analogue switches controlled by a PIC processor on each I/O module, and the signal processing order is stored and recalled as part of the Total Recall system, which makes the desk substantially more powerful than an 88R!
The final hardware option is a 'mastering-grade' A-D/D-A card, which offers a cost-effective and very convenient alternative to traditional Pro Tools interfaces or other high-end converters. The I/O module converter cards provide two D-As, for the channel and monitor path inputs, plus an A-D for the direct outputs. In the master section the converter card provides A-Ds for the aux, group (eight-track), two-track and main stereo mix outputs, plus D-As for the monitor section and effects returns.
The analogue side of the converters connects with the balanced I/O of the console, while the digital side is designed with a modular interface controlled by an intelligent FPGA to provide the required data formatting. Current digital options (any one of which is included in the purchase price) include AES3, Firewire (1394a) and MADI. The Firewire interface has sufficient bandwidth to cope with the complete set of inputs and outputs from a 16-module Genesys console, with the converters running at 192kHz. However, given the finite Firewire bandwidth, accessing all of the I/O in larger consoles may require the converters to operate at a lower sample rate, or some of the I/O may need to be disabled from the Firewire data stream. Thankfully, a very intuitive 'fuel gauge' is provided on the system's configuration screen to help optimise the Firewire data capacity, and various I/O sub-sets can be added or removed easily as required. The current Firewire implementation has been tested and confirmed working with a Thunderbolt-Firewire adaptor on Mac OS X, and Neve tell me that a Thunderbolt interface under development will increase the available bandwidth.
The Genesys console can be linked to a DAW via an Ethernet crossover cable, and the two computers set up as a networking pair. This allows them to exchange Mackie HUI protocol commands for transport controls, fader moves, and so on. Different DAW manufacturers implement the HUI protocol in slightly different ways, of course, but the Genesys software is programmed to optimise the functionality for Pro Tools, Logic Pro and Cubase/Nuendo.
Most of what I've described so far applies to both the original Genesys and the Genesys Black. Yet, there are further differences to highlight, all of which are relatively small but vitally important! The underpinning idea of the Genesys Black was to integrate a DAW screen directly into the console, along with dedicated faders to control the DAW mixer and meters to indicate the native DAW levels. This notion was driven from customer feedback, and particularly by a special customer project to integrate a Slate Raven MTX touch-screen in an original Genesys — something that was achieved very neatly by inserting a modified producer section at the centre of the desk.
The upshot of this is that the Genesys Black is designed around a brand new G16 console frame. This houses eight I/O channel modules and has an expanded centre section, which accommodates 16 motorised faders at the front, a 23-inch, 10-point multi-touch screen (which can be switched between the DAW and the console's own computer displays if required) in the middle, and a set of meters at the back to monitor the DAW tracks directly. The touchscreen angle was perfect for me but it is not currently adjustable, and some way of allowing adjustment is currently under consideration. Installing a multi-touch screen is very forward-looking, not only for the ability to control touch-ready DAW software (few programs are multi-touch ready yet, but Windows 7 and 8 and OS X already support it), but also because several hints were dropped about future touch-control updates for the desk's software. The armrest is also wider on the Black (enough to accept a small keyboard and mouse), while a jog-wheel has also been added to enhance the standard DAW transport controls. As with the original Genesys console, expansion frames of eight I/O modules can be added on either side up to a maximum of 32, providing up to 72 mix inputs. Combine all this with the A-D/D-A converters, and the integration with the modern DAW-centric studio is very impressive indeed.
The launch specification for the new Genesys Black consoles includes 1073 preamps throughout, 88R EQ cards, and A-D/D-A cards on all inputs. The 1084 EQ cards are available as a cost upgrade, as is the monitor-section digital converter card, and the channel dynamics cards. Total Recall software is included as standard, of course, but not the Encore moving-fader automation, because it is assumed that customers will use their DAW automation, with the console serving as a static summing mixer. The recall software is currently stand-alone — you have to launch it separately from your DAW session. That makes sense given that the desk may be used stand-alone, but Neve tell me they're also investigating ways to include automatic save and recall within the DAW project.
Whereas the motorised faders can still be swapped between channel or DAW-control modes, the Black console's dedicated centre-section faders are permanently assigned to control the DAW virtual mixer. This makes the desk easier, faster and more intuitive to use.
Both versions of the Neve Genesys console are seriously impressive pieces of engineering, and are stunningly high-quality consoles — they're the very best of AMS Neve in every way. The use of a digitally controlled analogue signal path provides all (and more) of the flexibility of a large console, but in a conveniently compact footprint, and with the versatility of ingenious configuration options allowing the console to be tailored to meet almost any requirement and budget. The new Black variant is a logical and well-engineered development, with very elegant and future-proof DAW integration features, and seemingly plenty of further improvements in the pipeline. It will undoubtedly appeal to very large market.
Most users will be attracted to the Genesys Black due to the combination of DAW integration, small footprint and the sheer amount of functionality. Judged on these criteria, despite the quality of the compact offerings from API (1604, The Box) and SSL (AWS series), the Genesys Black stands in a class of its own. However, it's also possible to specify a fully featured version of the Genesys Black that would be closer in price to the only other console I can think of to offer this sort of versatility — the SSL Duality.