Meeting Topic: The Raven Takes Flight - Slate Pro Audio's Raven Console
Moderator Name: Eric Johnson
Speaker Name: Steven Slate, CEO and co-founder of Slate Pro Audio; Alex Oana, Vice President of Creative, Slate Pro Audio
Meeting Location: Sportsmen's Lodge Event Center, 12833 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA 91604
On Tuesday, September 24, a crew of people from Slate Pro Audio, headed by CEO Steven Slate and Vice President of
Creative Operations Alex Oana, came to the AES Los Angeles meeting to demonstrate their latest products, the Raven
MTX and Raven MTi. The MTX is a shipping product and in the first month of sales more than fifteen units have been
purchased nationwide. The MTi was to ship two weeks after the AES Meeting and now should be available for
Steven began his demo and talk by saying, "I want to start by talking about where this product came from, and
it comes from a bunch of guys like Alex and myself. I would classify myself one part musician and one part audio engineer.
The best part of being a musician is when you walk into the studio the final day of the mix, and you listen to your
song, fully mixed for the first time. You sit there you remember that this was a song that you started off with a few
riffs, maybe you were jamming it out with your band, or your bandmates, and you had lyrics on a napkin, and then
you're in the studio and hearing all that come right at you in a song. It's connecting with you, and you start imagining
other people it might connect with. And being an engineer you actually have to have that same kind experience, because
you sit there and listen to that song and you remember, that snare sound took three different snares and we
tried three different mics and different guitar amps to get that sound, we had some problems but we overcame them.
And all of a sudden you're listening to this song which you engineered and that's really the magic of this industry. It's
the end product. It's the satisfaction you get from that end product."
Steven described how their goal as product designers and manufacturers was to create a new way to work
with Digital Audio Workstations that would be easier, faster, more intuitive, and create fewer barriers to creative expression.
In line with so many developments in technology today, they wanted to see if touchscreen technology was
ready for the challenge of a both more direct and less direct connection of the user to the underlying audio hardware.
As Steven noted, "There's some weird things that have happened with the exponential growth of technology in the last
fifteen to twenty years of the audio industry.
What's happened, of course, is that our entire recording
studio is now on the computer screen. I'm
looking here at ProTools, and ProTools right now is
our multi-track recorder. It's our editor. It's our
mixer. It's our effects rack. It's our mixdown deck.
It's our mastering unit sometimes, depending on
who you're talking to. The entire studio is here on
the computer screen. So at Slate, we said to ourselves,
what is the way to get the best control, the
best workflow, the most intuitive workflow if the
entire studio is on the computer screen? So that's
what the Raven is, it's basically the DAW becoming
the control surface." And with that, Steven invited
the AES members to come up and crowd around
him to better see the 46" LCD panel at the center of
the Raven MTX.
Part of the goal of the Raven project was to integrate multi-touch into the device control. The Raven MTX allows 12
different touch inputs through the screen, the Raven MTi allows for 6. The idea was to match or exceed the multiple
simultaneous degrees of control allowed through a hardware-based control surface such as the Avid C-24, S-5,
or S-6, or going back further, such as the Neve analog console.
The first part of the development involved finding the right kind of touch screen. While resistive and
capacitive touchscreens dominate devices such as cell phones and tablets, Slate's initial experimentation showed
their response times, particularly with larger screens, to be inadequate for the demands of audio mixing. Slate's
screen, developed in conjunction with a company that specializes in touch panels for industrial applications, uses a
grid of infrared emitters and detectors around the edge of the screen to determine objects or fingers touching the
screen and provide the X-Y coordinates. There are no detectors built in to the surface of the screen and so the
screen itself will not wear out due to use. They were also able to advance the speed of detection to less than 5 ms,
which is four times faster than the more typical 20 ms response time of resistive and capacitive screens. Steven
demonstrated being able to move multiple faders extremely quickly, with no discernible lags. It did appear that the
screen was fully capable of keeping up with the inputs he was making.
The interconnection of the Raven MTX to the ProTools workstation is accomplished, from the hardware
perspective, by a DVI Cable and a USB connection. In terms of software, they are using Paul Neyrinck's V-Control
technology, and taking advantage in Slate's software of various hooks including simulating keyboard commands.
Currently the Raven is able to work only with Mac-based ProTools, as the software drivers must be written for specific
audio DAW software, but next in line is Logic, followed by, they expect, Cubase-Nuendo and possibly even in
the future Final Cut and Premiere.
Steven claimed that the Raven would help improve the productivity of an audio session by enabling a mixer to make
fine-grained adjustments in track volumes much more fluidly. Many engineers will loop a track over and over again to
make fine adjustments in the mix until they are just right, but are forced to use rather blunt tools to do so — thus the
seemingly endless looping. Part of the virtue of the virtualization of the interface is the ability to switch between
regular fader mode and fine fader mode. In the latter, the moves of the fader are confined within a four to five decibel
range instead of the more common 40-50 dB range. This ability to focus on a much more limited and precise subset of
the range means it's much easier to get the mix the way you want it, in Steven's view. Steven claimed that Mark
Needham said, "Finally I can get back to riding vocals."
The virtualization of the control surface allows for greater organization, according to Steven. You can label
faders with either words or pictures, and group them into any number of groups such, as guitars, drums, vocals, and so
on. It also allows for greater control over various software plugins. The large 46" size of the MTX allows plugins to
appear as actual 19" rack devices with full-sized controls, and they have recoded some of Slate's plugins to allow for
multi-touch interface control. The virtualization also allows you to grab control of a fader at the left of the console, and
while maintaining contact, move the right and grab a second fader with one hand, something that would be impossible
on a traditional hardware-based console. Certain aspects of the layout can also be rearranged and customized to
create a custom mixing environment which again would be impossible with hardware-based pots and switches.
The Raven as an editing console interface is also interesting. Steven compared the experience of using a
mouse to edit, adjust and move tracks to being able to select and manipulate those tracks directly with your fingers. By
all appearances, the latter was much faster and immediate. Hot keys can be created at will to save further steps.
Despite all this, the Raven does not prevent experienced users from using a traditional keyboard and mouse if, for certain
tasks, that seems the preferred input method.
From an acoustic and ergonomic standpoint, Steven claims the large, flat panel surface to be an improvement
over traditional control surfaces, due to its highly inclined 40 degree angle. For the acoustics, the angle prevents the
reflections from audio monitors from reaching your ears, even if you have spent hours in a session and are leaning forward
— Slate claims that comb filtering is not a problem. From an ergonomics perspective, most of the movements
and action you undertake with the panel are at a natural height, where very little interaction is performed above your
shoulders. Because of the quality of the screen and its low power usage due to LED backlighting, the screen remains
cool and easy to touch, even without built-in fans. The glass has been engineered to be particularly smooth, and a
supplied spray can be applied periodically to keep it slick. The screen is a 1920 x 1080 resolution, and Slate's claim is
that at the present development of the technology, this is the best compromise between precision of the display and
fatigue created by a long session of looking at it. Higher pixel density screens right now, he claimed, create a less
pleasing and more tiring experience.
Finally, there are a few more unique features. The Raven MTX includes an analog output section for monitoring,
interfaced through a DB25 connector, but also includes some laptop-style speakers to allow you to reproduce the
experience of listening to a mix on a smaller device, "like today's equivalent of an Auratone." Slate claims the amplifier
section is clean and state-of-the-art, with digital controls and no pots to get dirty and create noise and distortion. The
eight VU meters provide visual feedback of what you're listening to, although he allowed that other meters would be
easy to install if the demand from customers were there. The console also provides USB ports and a smartphone
hookup, to allow customers to have their mix immediately transferred to their preferred device at the end of a session.
At a price of $15,995 for the MTX, and $2499 for the MTi, these tools do seem to be affordable to the professional
(in comparison an Avid S-6 is $21,000). As a salesman and demo artist, Steven Slate is convincing and appealing.
We'll have to see if customers adopt these technologies with the same enthusiasm, but what the AES membership saw
was more than intriguing.
Written By: John Svetlik