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Home | Library | Articles | Just Mix

Just Mix

by Shawn Micheal - VP of Product Development
Shawn has been intimately involved in the development of Flying Faders, the MSS-lO, and MultiMax.

Article summary: Bad design makes ugly technology. How our Just Mix philosophy makes Flying Faders a joy to use.

Featured in Audio Horizons Fall 1999 PDF 520k | Newsletter List
Flying Faders Product Information

In the beginning the Powers-That-Be in Japan said, "Let there be VCRs." And VCRs appeared. And they were ingenious for they allowed a person to record their favorite TV program and then watch it at a more convenient time. And the Powers-That-Be in Japan said, "It is good." But the people complained saying, "What if we aren't home to press the record button when our favorite program starts?" And the Powers-That-Be in Japan said, "Let there be timers." So the designers installed clocks, programmable timers and channel changers into the VCRs. And the Powers-That-Be in Japan said, "It is good." But the people whined saying, "It's too expensive." And the Powers-That-Be in Japan said, "Let the price fall."
So the designers removed anything and everything that wasn't necessary in order to drop the price. And the price plummeted. And the Powers-That-Be in Japan said, "It is good." And the people bought millions of them. But when they got their VCRs home they realized that it was next to impossible to program their inexpensive VCRs, let alone set the clock. So they just pressed the record button when their favorite show came on or didn't bother to record it.
But the people didn't complain, because they had been given exactly what they had asked for! And the Powers-That-Be in Japan said, "It is very, very good."

We have all joked and laughed over the flashing clock on many people's VCRs. But think about it. It's really not a laughing matter. What we are evidencing is extremely poor design. Design that makes a device affordable even if it's barely useable. When an average citizen is incapable of setting a clock (we're talking about a clock here!) it demonstrates the complete breakdown of all design principles.

Likewise, when a device that is meant to shorten your workload, requires more time to learn, set up and manage than the job it's supposed to accomplish, then the designer forgot what s/he was trying to accomplish.

The three main reasons why people allow technology in their life are greater convenience, precision, and entertainment. If any or all are present then a higher degree of productivity, profitability, and/or satisfaction is accomplished. Productivity, profitability, and/or satisfaction are the main reasons people buy technology.

So what does any of this have to do with fader automation? Well automation is technology! Studio owners understand that the ‘Big Boys' require automation for their project to duplicate the moves over and over until it's perfect (productivity). So the perception is that automation is a necessity (‘Big Boys' means profitability). But what is not well understood is that automation is as diverse as automobiles… there are Mercedes and there are Yugos (satisfaction factor).

What makes one automation system superior to another? Answer: Simple, effortless control. Mixing should not require a degree in computer science. Think about that VCR clock. How many people would opt to purchase a slightly higher priced VCR if setting the clock or programming the record times were a snap. Currently, high end VCRs can automatically pull the time off the local PBS channel. They can also be simply programmed by punching in a code from the TV guide. People love that. They are no longer victims of technology, but are power-users. So it is with fader automation systems. All systems move levels up and down, but it is in effortless simplicity that the superior systems shine, making mixing an unencumbered joy and not a dreaded headache.

Back in 1989, Martinsound took fader automation not just to a new level, but to a whole new dimension with Flying Faders. Ingenious computer programming resulted in a product whose many innovative features are still not fully duplicated or even understood by other automation manufacturers. Unlimited Undo and Redo was available on the very first release of Flying Faders. How many other programs of any type give you this feature even today? Another clever feature was taking the ubiquitous offset LEDs one step further and adding the ability to remove that offset with the push of a button. Again, because of programming ingenuity and sophisticated hardware, the fader does not just move from where it's at to where it needs to be, but instead the fader plays the underlying play pass moves while removing the offset across a user specified time interval. These are a couple of examples of the immense thought that went into Flying Faders. But the real strength of Flying Faders is the simplistic and effortless control of its very powerful features. It reflects a design philosophy that we at Martinsound call Just Mix.

Just Mix means exactly what it says. Its entire design was built upon the concept that people simply want to mix while having the automation assist them and remember the moves. This is in stark contrast to other systems that require you to operate automation in order to accomplish a mix. This may seem a trivial point, but the difference is profound. With a minimum of instruction, a novice can mix a project on Flying Faders without needing an assistant standing guard to keep him or her from ignorance, idiosyncrasies, inconsistencies and crashes.

Automation in its basic form is simply the programming of actions for a repetitious chore. It accomplishes the tedious task the same way every time. But fader automation is completely different. Contrary to popular belief in the pro audio industry, the real job of fader automation is to duplicate a mixer's moves, not change levels. In other words, fader automation's primary concern is programming ease! Except for the few moments when a final mix is transferred to the master media, the automation is constantly being reprogrammed. But you don't want to be a computer programmer. You want to mix!

To move you from programmer back to mixer, a major rethink needed to occur on the principles of automation. After decades of mixing lots of phenomenal records with just manual mutes and fader moves, it was ludicrous to assume that engineers couldn't mix without automation. What engineers wanted was the ability to have their moves recorded so that they had a ‘second chance' to improve upon what they had mixed. But there is an important distinction here. They don't want to record moves, they want their moves recorded. The first involves learning a whole new process, the second support working in a natural instinctive way.

Learning a whole new process wouldn't be so bad if there was a protocol that manufacturers agreed upon. As there is no such protocol, you are forced to learn from scratch every time you encounter a new fader automation system. This means that engineers tend to gravitate towards what they are familiar with to ensure that they look their best. That is why when Martinsound designed Flying Faders the highest priority was to eliminate any and all unnecessary learning curves.

Three different user profiles were considered to determine what level of complexity and what level of user friendliness would need to be incorporated.

The first profile was the power user. This is the mixer who has extensive experience with mixing and automation. Their knowledge means that their demands on response time and feature sets are high. The need for the automation to conform to their preferred style of working is just as important as its ability to jump through hoops when demanded.

The second profile was that of the mixer with little or no automation experience. This is the person who understands that automation can be of benefit, but is concerned about the learning curve and also appearance in front of the client.

The third profile was that of the non-technical music professional. In other words, the producer who insists on personally tweaking the mix until it's right. This type doesn't want to learn how automation systems work; they just want a great mix. They tend to get a bit unpleasant when the engineer asks them not to touch the console otherwise they will screw up the mix. What the engineer meant of course was the automation.

Fortunately, we had all three types of profiles working in the Martinsound Studios during the development of Flying Faders. Satisfying the power users was easy, because they were willing to wade through unnecessary levels of complexities until they hit paydirt. The mixers who were still new to automation weren't difficult either, because they were willing to learn a system when they saw how much it could help them improve the mix. But those nasty producer types made things maddeningly difficult. They forced us to simplify our way of thinking about automation until it no longer interfered with them achieving their magic in the mix.

It was the producer types that caused the light to go on in our collective heads. Automation cannot create or improve a mix. It can only duplicate a mix so that the engineer and producer can improve upon it. With this in mind, Flying Faders took on a whole new direction. It had to be secondary to the mixing function itself, instead of replacing the mixing function. Automation must enhance, not impede the mix process.

Understanding of Flying Faders had to be ridiculously simple. Controls had to be intuitive with no confusion. Mode and function buttons were placed at the faders to minimize distracting your attention from the mix to a computer screen. Unlimited Undo and Redo was incorporated to eliminate the fear of losing magic. Dedicated offset LEDs were implemented for the first time into a moving fader automation system providing the user with necessary feedback as to what was going on with their mix. The now infamous ‘Match' button was introduced, allowing the user to instantly get faders back to the play pass while recording moves. Changes in nomenclature were made to assure a lack of confusion. Clever use of the Mute button allowed the changing or erasing of mutes and unmutes in a musical way right at the fader, instead of constantly resorting to an Edit List. Tools that emulated well-known mix tricks were implemented, such as Global Match to give ‘razor blade accuracy' to get back to known mix balances.

More than anything else was the novel approach that with a minimal amount of verbal instruction and the push of a button, an absolute novice could mix with minimal if any difficulty. This was the secret ingredient that turned Flying Faders from an automated mixing system into the Just Mix automation system. Through the last 10 years great care was taken to ensure that product enhancements and added features never undermined this basic philosophy.

During this past decade we have observed the success of Flying Faders' Just Mix philosophy. With the conclusion of the 10 year marketing agreement with AMS Neve, Flying Faders is back under the control of Martinsound. You can be sure that we are dedicated to not only preserving your Flying Faders investment, but also to keeping you on the cutting edge.

We have had many internal discussions on how we can make Just Mix even easier and more powerful, and I can say with confidence that the automation revolution launched by Flying Faders in 1989 is going to see profound evolutionary advancements over the next few years.

These changes will cause the entire audio industry to rethink the real purpose of automation and to realize why most automation is such a pain. The goal of Just Mix is to make mixing with Flying Faders a lot easier than setting your VCR!


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