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Assignable consoles have been an awful long time coming and there still arent that many about. Perhaps the problem has been defining the situation where an assignable console is absolutely necessary, rather than being merely an interesting technical development. Console size is, for the BBC, the vitally important factor.
When we were first in discussion with Calrec, who began the project, about assignable consoles it was true to say, and I think it still is true, that the only way you can get faders as close together as you ideally want them is to have most of the other controls either somewhere else or hidden. The faders on our AMS assignables are at 25mm pitch, which means we can get a lot of faders within the reach of an operator. Seventy-two on the consoles in the Television Centre studios, which are indeed within reach. If we had 35 or 40mm modules the desk would be enormously bigger and not really be within the reach of anyone. Also, if the faders are that far apart its very difficult for an operator who needs to control a large number of channels simultaneously to get his hands spread across them. This happens particularly in the more complex talking head shows. If you have eight or ten people doing a simultaneous discussion then you need to have your fingers across all the faders controlling them, riding them all the time. Thats very difficult when the faders are 40mm apart because not very many people have hands that big! Programmes have become more complicated in terms of numbers of sources. Even talking head programmes which we once would have covered on a couple of booms or a few stand mics - now everybody has a personal mic. That makes life very hard for the operator.
As an aside to the discussion of console, I asked why this was so. Its the producers choice. It looks cleaner to them if there are no stand mics to get in the way and they have got used to it, and the presenters have got used to it. It does mean that you can work in busier, noisier circumstances without having too much background noise as well. Because of the number of other activities in the studio these days and the number of other people working its difficult to keep the background as quiet as you would like. Life is harder now than it used to be for the person whos mixing. Anything with music in it is also much more complicated now. When I first started mixing, the keyboard player played a piano. Nowadays he wants a mixer all of his own because hes got so many outputs all in stereo. If that sort of thing happens everywhere, everything needs more and more inputs, so you have large consoles. The only way you can get that many faders that close together is to have an assignable desk with fewer controls to accommodate.
Having said that, a number of other advantages come with it. In particular, the architecture of the desk is held in temporary software so you can configure the desk anyway you like, and also you can interrogate the desk and ask it questions like, What auxiliary outputs is this channel feeding?, and it will show you that it is feeding Auxiliaries 1 and 2. You can ask Auxiliary 2 which channels are feeding it and it will show which channels are feeding it. So you have an instant check if things go wrong. If you get a call from the floor saying, Why is the bass guitar on foldback?, you can find it very quickly. That sort of thing is very useful, and a third level of usefulness is that because you can store desk setups on a floppy disk, once you have more than one of these consoles you are in the very happy position where a Sound Supervisor can do a very complex setup in a few milliseconds. He walks in the door on a morning, switches on the console, places the disk in the slot, calls up whatever setup he wants on the particular disk and hes all set ready to go. That used to take hours of careful checking that every knob was zeroed and then set to where you want it. It also saves a lot of time at the end of the day when people who are kind to their follow-on colleagues can zero everything on the desk quickly so as to leave no nasty time bombs.