Solid State Logic Axiom Review
SSL Axiom Artwork FIELD TEST:
Solid State Logic
Digital Post

Reviewed in
September 1995
by Mel Lambert

If you will pardon the unintended pun, it's axiomatic that recording and production engineers are, by their very nature, conservative in taste and outlook. New systems are often complex to learn and, at first sight, can be intimidating. If a career has been built on a person's expertise in achieving the intangible -a Platinum-selling mix, or an Oscar/Emmy-winning soundtrack -with the impenetrable, it's hardly surprising that many of us are reluctant to extend the creativity envelope into unknown territory.

   Solid State Logic has a well-earned reputation for building sophisticated analog mixers, as well as digital production systems. When the time came to develop an all-digital console, the firm was faced with some difficult decisions. Digital brings with it the ability to re-map the control surface in a myriad of ways; the question remains, however: How will the industry react to a new user interface?

   Without a shadow of a doubt, the new Axiom will not intimidate even the most conservative of engineers. It looks and behaves just like a conventional analog board, but with some blindingly elegant extras. That appreciation, however, really is only skin-deep. I found that to fully understand how Axiom will revolutionize recording, broadcasting and production facilities, it is necessary to forget the physical layout of the control surface, and delve just a little deeper into the underlying system topology.

System Topology: Assignable Resources Management

As can be seen from the accompanying graphic, the Axiom control surface connects via a high-speed communications link to a central area referred to as the Resources Manager. It is here, utilizing some of the most sophisticated programming and hardware innovations I have yet encountered, that Axiom software models the various I/O cross point connections which represent the signal flow from console input to output, and then performs the various level, EQ and dynamics calculations necessary to implement the types of signal modifications we have asked for via the front-panel buttons, switches and knobs. All front-panel controls are capable of being scanned and updated either statically -as system snapshots -or dynamically against timecode; reset time is a fraction of a subframe.

   In other words, the control surface layout and panel layout simply represents the way in which a customer needs to access the various functionality offered by the Axiom design. Post and film-dubbing facilities now have the choice of an application-specific control section, which offers a familiar bank of PEC/Direct switching and group masters for dedicated music, effects and dialog sections, plus individual transport control and joysticks. In addition, the Axiom Film Dubbing System offers panning, output and monitoring for DTS, Dolby SRĄD, Dolby Surround, SDDS and other surround-sound formats.

DiskTrack Random-Access Record/Replay Functions

But real-time DSP and mixing functions are only half of Axiom's story. In addition, the system incorporates up to 128 tracks of integral DiskTrack random-access record/replay functionality per operator position. Systems can also be supplied with integral VisionTrack instant-access video record/playback. System sample rate is fixed at 48 kHz, although outboard sample-rate converters are available. The user has a choice of 16- or 20-bit resolution to DiskTrack; correspondingly longer record capacity is available with 16-bit files.

   The Axiom mainframe accept between 48 and 96 channel strips in blocks of eight. Upon system boot the available DiskTrack storage -a disk drive per eight channels of user control -is pooled and assigned as one track per channel strip. In this way, each mixer channel can replay a hard-disk track, and sources are available for multi-channel recording. (Users can also upload and download from hard disk to an external multitrack.)

   DiskTrack adds an entire dimension of user-friendliness to Axiom. Instant access to any part of a project obviously saves spooling time and enables storage of multiple takes. Editing of different takes is also feasible, using a simple-to-grasp layering concept, thereby eliminating the need for an external editor. Fundamental to Axiom is the concept that tape is not required for the duration of the production process. Since digitized audio is stored within the system itself, there are no repeated passes over tape heads, which can result in HF losses. Furthermore, once digitized, signals within Axiom can be routed to several destinations or reintroduced into the system without degradation, while simultaneously recording direct to disk.

   Concurrent access to DiskTrack also means that you can simultaneously record and replay from the same track, which greatly simplifies drop-ins or pick-up recordings. Since drop-ins/outs are non-destructive, they can be moved even after a recording has been made. A "Free Play" function enables audio to be replayed instantly by simply opening the corresponding channel fader -a very useful feature for looping solos and background vocals during music sessions, let's say, or as an effects playback track in post applications. Data can also be streamed to Exabyte or MO in background, to dramatically reduce inload/off-load turnaround between projects

Comprehensive Input/Output Options

Axiom is available with a variety of I/O configurations, dependent upon the customer's requirements. A typical recording configuration might comprise a 48-channel command console; 48 tracks of DiskTrack; 56 analog I/Os; 24 AES-format I/Os; and 24 remote mic pre-amps with integral A-to-D converters. (Both analog and digital I/Os are expandable via additional Remote Input/Output stations, or RIOs; mic pre-amps/ADCs are also expandable in blocks of 12.)

   One or more Axiom systems can share digital-audio storage and I/O resources, thereby reducing the cost of multi-room configurations. The Axiom Resource Manager will also share resources with SSL's new SL-9000 J Series analog console, and import J Series fader automation. In addition, the new Axiom Preparation Station (APS) provides shared access to Axiom's DiskTrack for recording, editing and pre-lay. APS can select up to 24 tracks from the maximum 128 available with DiskTrack; the remaining tracks continue to be available to Axiom. APS can also share Axiom's I/O resources, removing the need for expensive duplication of inputs and outputs

"One control per function; One function per control"

Unlike other digitally controlled analog or all-digital designs that offer a high degree of assignability, SSL has adopted the simple philosophy of "one control per function; one function per control." The result is a panel layout that is extremely easy to follow -no "layers" nor EQ assignment panels to call up to change system parameters -and one that very closely mimics an analog console. All user controls are totally re-settable, and feature circular LED displays to show current settings of each knob. Color schemes and channel strip layouts closely mimic that of existing SSL analog boards.

   Each Axiom channel strip provides dedicated controls for a four-band Parametric EQ Section; eight Auxiliary Sends; a Dynamics Section with gating, expansion, compression and limiting; Digital Effects Processing (built-in reverb, delay and ambiance programs); plus full panning between up to eight output busses. A pair of Pan Controls can be remapped via system software to provide either stereo, LCR, LCRS, or more complex panning functions; users can modify the pan laws and output bussing via simple configuration changes.

   The EQ section provides four identical bands that can be set to high-pass, low-pass, high-shelf or low-shelf profiles, a deep notch, or to one of four fully parametric settings. All bands function between 5 Hz and 20 kHz. The EQ is very powerful, and extremely easy to set up and operate. The provision of one dedicated set of controls per channel certainly speeds system operation.

   Although it might not seem obvious, the provision of Axiom's integral DiskTrack hard-disk recorder/editor opens up a variety of creative possibilities. Now, by recording the input signals -either analog or digital -directly to hard disk as 16- or 20-bit files, but while simultaneously monitoring them through the EQ and DSP sections, users have the ability to re-apply a completely different series of DSP profiles at a later date. In this way, you are not committed to a type of EQ, for example, during tracking or overdubs; the entire arsenal of choices will remain available through the final multichannel mix. A remarkable development, and one that will offer a great deal of creative potential.

   For rapid changes in configuration between projects, Axiom provides user-definable reset memories, in addition to macro functions and total dynamic automation. Integral serial machine control for up to four external VTR/ATR transports is also provided. The optional VisionTrack random-access digital video system eliminates tape spooling or lock-up delay, and adds the creative advantage of non-destructive video recording and editing.

   I/O resources such as mic pre-amps can be located more than 80% feet from the Axiom processor rack, and connected via a simple coaxial connection. Since each signal is digitized and source gain plus other system parameters implemented remotely, signal degradation is dramatically reduced. Input channels are also time-aligned and phase coherent, regardless of processing changes. A proprietary A-to-D topology offers a quoted dynamic range in excess of 100 dB.

   A total of 64 Small Universal Bus (SUB) sub-outputs are provided for mix-minus/mix-plus applications. SSL's Bay SubMix (BSM) system allows eight submixes to be created per bank of eight channels. In this way, a large number of discrete submixes -up to 96 on a full mainframe Axiom -can be created for use as auxiliary sends, submix stems, musician foldback, or as clean feeds, etc.

   The main multi-channel mix can be partitioned to form up to four separate Mix Stems, which can then be summed and mixed to form a multi-channel Master Mix output. Each Mix Stem and the Master Mix is assignable to user-selectable digital or analog hardware ports, or to a hard disk track, as required.

Axiom Project Files and Automation Data

Set-up and session information can be saved as a Project File that holds data relating to both internal system settings and external routing. All automation data can be freely edited using Axiom's built-in VDU, which displays time-dependent fader levels and other system data, or via PC-compatible files on an external computer. Import/export of material to Axiom is via EDL conforming and reconforming utilities. A further level of open media interchange is achieved by importing audio files in a variety of formats, including Pro Tools (SD2), Lightworks, Waveframe, .AIFF and .WAV. Used together, these capabilities provide a highly practical method of project interchange, utilizing universally accepted formats and file structures

In a Nutshell

All in all, SSL's new Axiom Digital Production System is a remarkable achievement, and one that I predict will dramatically impact the way we work in the recording, broadcast and post-production environment. The high degree of fixed-mode functionality, allied with flexible control customization and the fully integrated DiskTrack system, places Axiom head and shoulders above the current competition. Axiom combines the highest degree of fully integrated digital signal processing and recording functionality that I've yet encountered. The system was rock solid and extremely stable during my extended evaluation sessions, and produced outstanding audio results. Axiom truly is the digital console system for all reasons.


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