Flying Faders: The Untold Story
Joe Martinson - President of
Article summary: The development of Flying Faders. Key events, insights, and people that shaped the leading moving fader automation system.
On June 14, 1999, the clock ran out on AMS Neve's exclusive control of Flying Faders marketing, freeing Martinsound to sell, manufacture and improve the system independent of Neve. Since December 1998 marked the tenth anniversary of the delivery of the first and second Flying Faders™ fader automation systems to Powertrax Studios in Hollywood and Groovemasters in Santa Monica, I thought it might be fun to tell the Flying Faders story.
Looking back at the ensuing years, we are very pleased by our customers' continued enthusiasm for Flying Faders. As President of Martinsound, I want to give credit to some to the key individuals who labored for years to take the hassle out of automation. Now, you have a chance to get to know the history and people of the Flying Faders Just Mix development team.
The foundation of the Flying Faders system was actually developed during Martinsound's work on a virtual console with digitally controlled analog, similar to today's Euphonix consoles. As a development tool we built a 32-channel control surface with moving faders, LCD displays, digital rotary pots and a wonderful high resolution video display. Our work on VCA and MDAC gain control devices gave us the tools for building digitally controlled equalizers and signal routing.
The first person I hired for the project was Dale Manquen, a tape recorder designer best known for the 3M Model 56 16-track recorder. Dale came on in 1985 as a consultant. Dale would later join the company full time and served as Product Manager for Flying Faders for over a decade. I first met Dale in 1972 when he was a Product Manager at Ampex for the MM-1100 Multitrack recorder. I purchased one of the first MM-1100s and went up to Redwood City to pick it up in a VW Microbus, being too poor to pay for freight.
Dale helped load the machine and then helped push-start the Microbus (it didn't have a starter). Needless to say, I made quite an impression! Despite first impressions, Dale befriended me and was kind enough to spend time mentoring me. I took his tape recorder class over 20 years ago and it was a life-changing event. Dale is still teaching. His tech training classes at California State University, Northridge are outstanding. EveAnna Manley tells me that Dale's classes are the best thing that ever happened to her techs.
In the early days, Dale worked on many forms of input and display devices, including 'tank tread' endless belts, motorized rotary pots, and motorized linear faders trying to find the perfect input device. We knew that the user friendliness of the controls could make or break the virtual console project. We finally selected the motorized or moving fader as the perfect input device because it acted as both the control and the display
Previous motorized fader designs had a bad reputation for feel and reliability. We went through almost a dozen different designs before we settled on the version used to this day in Flying Faders. We wanted to have good access to the motor and drive cord so we put all of the drive components on the side of the fader rather than inside. We experimented with several types of drive cord before choosing a unique cord that has a glass core for long-term stability. (Even the early prototypes are still 'up to spec.' after 12 years.) The manufacturer of our motors kept pushing us toward their least expensive motor, which has since become popular with other fader vendors. We stuck with a larger motor with a much stronger shaft and an expensive ball bearing rather than a sleeve bushing. The nearly flawless performance of the beefier motors has given our customers years of trouble-free service.
Our early work in human interface design convinced us that the technology we had developed would make a superior moving fader automation system. In January of 1988 we put the console project on hold and put all of our efforts into Flying Faders. Needing more help, we added David Wood to the development team. Dave was a college student who interned with us and then hired-on full-time. Dave and I created scanning and communication circuits that allow Flying Faders to scan every fader, switch and LED in the system 305 times per second. (The early systems have each scanned over 100 billion components since they were installed.)
We spent a lot of time on developing hardware that was reliable, easy to repair, and cost less. But it soon became apparent that it would take more than better hardware to make a great automation system. I started spending time with Shawn Micheal, Martinsound studio's chief recording engineer, to get his opinions. And boy, did I! Shawn is one of the most irritatingly opinionated people I have ever met, but brilliantly so. The reason he is so irritating, it turns out, is that the equipment he is forced to work on is poorly designed, both sonically and from an operator's perspective. So I added him to the design team.
Shawn's fingerprints are all over everything great that Martinsound has designed like Flying Faders, MultiMAX and the MSS-lO mic preamp. Not only does Shawn know how equipment should work, but he can also hear incredibly well. It's a great combination when developing audio equipment. Today Shawn is Vice President of Product Development at Martinsound.
To round out the development team, we brought in Morgan Martin, another very opinionated person. Morgan was the former Western VP of Neve and George Lucas' Droidworks. Not only was he a Necam (Neve's earlier moving fader automation system) expert, but also understood the strengths and weakness of all of the competitor's products.
The three of us became the product specification team. Our first step was to look carefully at the systems offered by the entrenched competitors. We concluded that we could make major improvements in operational features while maintaining a top-level simplicity that would make the system very 'user friendly'. We started out by carefully examining the existing benchmark automation systems, NECAM and GML, to see where we could make improvements. We soon realized that the biggest flaw in the other systems was that they were a hassle to use. We wanted to make a system that you could "Just Mix" like you would without automation. We wanted to marry power with simplicity We would hash out operating specifications during the day, and then I would work from 2 a.m. until midmorning to implement the functions. Each function was then immediately tested and reviewed to find any weaknesses or opportunities for improvements. Considering the complexity of the task, the development moved along at a brisk pace with this 'two shift' approach.
Once the core functionality of the automation software was developed, we hired two brilliant students from Cal Tech to flesh out the design and make it user friendly. Ron Goodman specialized in the Motorola 68000 code that runs the automation functions while Ed Nanale built a C-based Windows interface on the PC for easy operation. The pair worked closely together to optimize the communication and assignment of tasks between the two parts of the software. I continued to serve as the system architect for the hardware and software.
As we were developing Flying Faders, we invited prospective clients, both OEM's and individual studios, to preview our blossoming product. Morgan introduced me to Barry Roche, President of Neve US. Barry took an exceptional interest, even though Neve had fairly recently introduced Necam 96. I imagine their big concern was automation for their soon-to-be-announced VR console series. Neve had been negotiating with George Massenberg to include GML automation on the VR, but the deal fell through.
Barry believed enough in our development team to give us a chance. Once he was convinced that Flying Faders would live up to our promises, he signed up to distribute the systems worldwide with an option to manufacture systems.
Neve demanded that we change and add features to meet some of their advanced requirements such as tape machine control and channel button events control. We created versions of hardware and software specifically for Neve V-Series consoles. Their extensive experience with automation and their rigorous testing of our software and hardware made Flying Faders a much stronger product at introduction. Roger Camron and Dave Close came over from Neve UK and spent 6 months assisting us in debugging the system. After this intensive test/improve/ test/improve cycle, we had a system that met the requirements of both sides and one that we were, and still are, extremely proud of.
The first delivery of Flying Faders on a Neve console was to Rumbo Recorders in March of 1989. And then it was 'off to the races'. The launch of the product was so meteoric that we had a hard time building systems fast enough. By the end of 1989, only 9 months after starting deliveries to Neve, we were shipping one system a day! By the end of 1989 we had already built 85 systems!
Then everything changed. Neve purchased the rights to manufacture Flying Faders themselves along with the exclusive marketing rights for 10 years. When Neve's Kelso, Scotland plant took over the majority of the manufacturing of Flying Faders systems for V-Series consoles, Martinsound switched from high volume manufacturing to designing and building customized systems to fit a variety of other consoles including vintage Neve, API, QuadEight and film dubbing consoles. Neve, then AMS Neve, maintained the exclusive control of the worldwide marketing, sales, distribution and service of Flying Faders for a decade.
Martinsound's dedication to the advancement of Flying Faders remained strong during this period. We continued to write software enhancements for Neve. The initial V1.2 software was followed by V2.0, V3.0 and finally V3.1, the current version. Features included requirements for the film industry and other enhancements. We were careful not to destroy the simplicity of the system with the addition of new features.
We created new fully compatible hardware including a 'double density' dual fader module, servo rack expansion to 128-fader capability, two versions of automated 'sidecars', and control of external relays. We also developed a custom product to expand consoles equipped with Flying Faders. Our ACX Automated Console Expander is a compact 'sidecar' of up to 32 full-function input channels with Flying Faders.
For the past ten years our Flying Faders activities have been limited by contractual agreements. But we have always assisted customers by offering numerous technical training seminars covering preventive maintenance, troubleshooting and repair of Flying Faders systems. Dale Manquen, in an effort to improve the dissemination of information, started the Flying Faders Users' Group, which distributes news of interest to Flying Faders owners, tech and recording engineers. Martinsound continues to support the users group with Shawn Micheal acting as Martinsound's sponsor and host of the FFUG website.
the expiration of the Neve Contract, things have changed
again. Now we can sell, manufacture and improve the
system without Neve's involvement or approval. So what
does that mean for the future? Set free to enhance the
product as we see fit, we will continue to develop
improvements that will keep Flying Faders on the cutting
edge of automation for years to come.
We have also been listening to customers. User requested features will include automatic backup of the RAM-based mix data to the hard drive and the ability to store the entire mix/pass tree. We will also be adding modes to trim faders without timecode running, some new muting modes that will make vocal comps easier, and we will be 'Y2K' compliant. Actually, the existing code will run fine next year. Only an unnecessary clock window will fail to display the proper time and date after the New Year. If you have suggestions for the next release of Flying Faders, please send them to FlyingFaders@Martinsound.com.
The Flying Faders Just Mix technology has earned a warm spot in the hearts of both recording engineers and maintenance technicians. The popularity and durability of the system has convinced studio owners that Flying Faders is an excellent long-term investment with a very low total cost of ownership. There are a large number of studios that own multiple Flying Faders systems and continue to buy new systems to replace other brands of automation because Flying Faders draws customers.
Even though 10 1/2 years have passed since our first deliveries, Flying Faders is still the yardstick by which fader automation systems are measured. In fact Flying Faders, our trademarked brand, has become a generic term used to describe any motorized automation system. Move over Kleenex and Band-Aid, Flying Faders is here.
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