The Future is Modular

June 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

In the not so distant past there have been major updates to long standing products. If we follow the sound flow from the tip of the boom to the cans on the ears a lot has changed. As we progress with new innovations and ideas we can see more products becoming more modular. It could be an attempt to simplify and cut costs or maybe once a product is purchased that can be upgraded; the manufacturer has you for life.

Let’s have a look at some of the updates in the past few years.

Rycote went modular. Instead of having kits for each specific microphone length they opted to categorize microphone lengths into 8 major categories, and really only 4 with modular extension sizes 1, 2, 3, 4. They dumped the 4 point suspension for the more modular, tools-not-required set up with lyres. The lyres themselves have become ubiquitous across all their setups so that again, it’s easy to see and use the same mount in multiple situations.

In the microphone domain, the Sennheiser ME66 with K6 preamp is also modular. There is also a ME62 (omni), 64 (cardioid), 65 (super cardioids handheld) , and 67 (long gun) to give the user different pick up patterns for each set up required. I know, I know – that’s not a new mic. But the Sennheiser MKH8000 series line up is with the 8040, 8050, 8060 and 8070 being available. Schoeps has always done it with their cmc6 preamps and 18 different capsules. Shure has recently released their new line of VP89 shotguns that come in small, medium and large lengths. DPA is doing it now as well with their 2000 and 4000 series microphones and 3 different preamp options.

On a boom, well, we haven’t seen too many changes here but who knows what the future holds. It’s not that it couldn’t be done. The Ambient QP120 is a slide on extension (read modular) at the bottom of a few of their booms to give you that extra length. Could manufacturers not make a fully modular boom pole and just keep sliding on extra extensions and “grow up” with your boom pole?

Audio bags are kind of a, pardon the pun, mixed bag. Forever, the blue portabrace was seen hanging over the shoulder of a sound person. Their mixer combination bags – one pouch for mixer, one for wireless/expendables was a modular approach. These bags wore out fast, so the solution was to create, well, a big box with, you guessed it, a modular interior. Petrol’s PS series of bags displays this ingenuity beautifully.

Even in the RF world we’ve seen modular approaches. Yes, each individual receiver makes it modular but how about the Lectrosonics VR series? They have individual “modules” that slide in to the unit to give you receivers. Even the Octopack makes a single SR unit into a modular multi channel receiver.

I guess Shure’s new SE series of earbuds are modular in that you can change the buds out for upgrades or replacements. Cables, well, the breakaways are modular as you adapt to different cameras and mixers. The one we’ve left out and arguably the biggest one of all – the mixer and recorder. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Sound Devices 788t – yes, one could make an argument that it is modular. The CL8 gives you a portable mixer whereas the CL9 makes it a desktop unit and the CL-wifi gives you wireless capabilities. You can even add an external hard drive for mirror recording. But, it still limits you to 8 inputs, there’s no way to add more.

Zaxcom Nomad

The Nomad is modular in that you can add the MIX8 to it for desktop mixing in a hardware solution. The Nomad is easily upgradeable via software though. You can add more features and more tracks to the unit by unlocking those features. Of course, the argument here is again, it is modular to its max and works backwards to accomplish its ultimate goal, a relatively inexpensive mixer/recorder.

What’s interesting is the Nomad isn’t all that different from the Fusion. When the Fusion was first released it had a modular software approach to it as well. You could buy a fusion 8 when it first hit the market and that meant 8 inputs and 8 tracks. Fusion 10 and 12 followed which added tracks, inputs (on the 12) and you could add an effects package, again, via software if you so desired. The difference between the Fusion and the Nomad, aside from size and touch screen interface is timing.

When Sound Devices first released their 552 everyone was a roar with applause. A great and trusted mixer that adds the extra channel the productions want and a basic 2 track recorder for back up, perfect. Slowly but surely, despite its proven reliability sound mixers wanted something more. The common complaints were they wanted timecode and iso track recording. The response is the 788t exists but no one needs the extra machine. You could take a modular approach and get a Tascam DR-680 for your iso tracks fed from the direct outs and a timecode generator like a Denecke SB3, Denecke GR-2 or Ambient ACL203 to send timecode in to both recorders (on the audio track for the 680). That might be too modular.

Enter the Nomad. 6 inputs channels, timecode based recorder, small size and – you guessed it – modular software to add recording tracks and other functionality. At first mixers are intimidated and understandably so, it’s a learning curve. It’s different than most location mixers out there, yes, but it’s ultimately what a sound person wants in a standard size shape of a mixer. It’s affordable to start and easy to grow with as you need more tracks. It’s hard that sometimes we feel like beta testers for the development of the product but have you any idea how many developers are working out the bugs in video games? We are all in a niche market. It takes some innovative approaches to try to please the masses.

So what’s next? What does the future hold? Will we see more modular software designs? Is there a future in a modular hardware design? Imagine, if you will, a single “brain” with multi pins on either side. That single brain is a touch screen interface that controls all your basic functions like routing, gain control, output levels, meters, etc. Imagine you could attach individual channel strips via that multipin and infinitely expand. Each strip had your basic controls on the top – fader, gain, pan, roll off, etc. Let’s say there are different output modules on the other side of the brain. You can have a simple L+R and maybe there’s more with two L+R outputs or a variety of mix outs on different connectors? One of those outputs could be a recorder as well! Could be exciting, right?

Or just design a box with simple XLR’s on it, both in and out, throw it in a back pack and allow the user to control everything via a wireless handheld ipad. Sweet, no?

Our market is a funny one and maybe because we’re so niche we have the opportunity to speak directly to the manufacturers. The dealers are professional and care about the product updates. Would a modular hardware interface sacrifice quality and/or perfection? How about all the mechanical pieces that could fail on you? On the other hand, touch surfaces are becoming more sophisticated and so perhaps software is the future. Operating systems become an issue especially with the seemingly infinite amount of processors, firmware revisions etc. It’s hard to guarantee it will always work flawlessly being at the mercy of big giants like Apple, Android, Windows, etc.

I’m only one mind in a veritable wonderland of ideas. What would you like to see from your favourite manufacturers? The manufacturers will listen; they are after all, building these new machines for you. If you could have anything and everything what would it be?