Brains behind the brains

Tucked away in a leafy village near Oxford, England, Peavey Electronics have squirreled away some serious processing power. For a change we’re not talking about MediaMatrix boxes but instead the R&D team responsible for the product’s ongoing development. Chris Fitzsimmons visited Peavey Digital Research and spoke to Michael Page, Head of Research and Development to learn more.

Michael Page has been working for Peavey since May 2007, when he joined the Digital Research group as a senior hardware engineer. The Oxford office was established in March 2007 under the leadership of Charles Anderson, who led the original Peak Audio team responsible for developing the MediaMatrix concept with Peavey.

When Peavey seized the opportunity back in 2006 to acquire the MediaMatrix source code from Cirrus Logic, they also snapped up Anderson to set up their establishment in Oxford. Following Anderson’s subsequent return to Boulder Colorado in December 2007, Page was promoted to Head of Research and Development and took over the management and leadership of Peavey Digital Research in Oxford.

Page’s own background is in Electronic Engineering, in which he graduated, however he freely admits that even at that stage he subverted his course at every opportunity towards digital audio systems engineering. Along side his studies, he also did a lot of work in the live music and studio recording environments. Indeed, in his first job, working for Sony Pro Audio laboratories, he was developed the SuperMAC audio networking technology, which was later standardised as AES50. He then worked on HyperMAC, its successor technology based on Gigabit Ethernet, before the whole lot was purchased by Midas Klark Teknik. At that stage Michael elected not to join Midas, but instead came over to Peavey.

So what now? “Our remit in the broadest terms is to make sure that MediaMatrix maintains its market leading position. Nion and is a remarkable product and NWare is an extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily deep software tool. However we have inherited this strong position and if we rest on our laurels, other will take it from us.”

The inheritance from Cirrus Logic was indeed a rich one, with MediaMatrix being arguably the world’s most powerful DSP-based audio tool. However it’s not in the DSP that Page really sees the most developments.

“We’ve got almost every DSP tool that a sound engineer could want now, with the notable exception of AEC (acoustic echo cancellation), but even that is coming back very shortly. The really interesting aspects of development are about how you provide very flexible control, which Nion has already, and then interface that sophisticated system with the others in the installation like the life-safety, building management and security systems. We’re already very strong, but we are putting event more effort into developing that aspect of the product.”

NWare is more than just an operating system for Nion, it’s effectively a family of software tools. “On one level it provides an environment for system installers to drag on inputs and outputs, drag on DSP blocks, wire them up and then adjust a little control on the screen, which goes and changes the EQ setting or levels. But on another, the same graphical design tool allows the creation of a GUI in a very flexible and customised way. For example, what a lot of people are doing now, is taking an architectural plan, say of one level of a building, and importing that as a backdrop the a GUI. Then they lay custom button controls in different colours or transparencies over the shapes of the rooms. Where you put this on a touch screen, you can just touch the room and select a push to talk button to page that zone.”

Of course, NWare is also happy communicating with other control systems either via RS-232 or Telnet, so that a more complete building control system can be built using 3rd party AV control systems.

It is the power of NWare that is perhaps its biggest problem at the moment and one of the major developments that Michael was prepared to talk about is planned improvements in control processing capabilities. “At the moment, control programming flexibility is enormous, but the issue is that system designers have access to all these tools and can, and do, create unbelievably labyrinthine control systems, but the Nion processor is already fairly busy just keeping Nion going and doing its DSP jobs. If they then pour in a bunch of scripts, which all interact with each other, then the processing power runs out fairly fast. The way this issue is addressed at the moment is by a third party PC running our Control Manager software. It shows up on the system design as an addition Nion unit with no DSP functions, and all it does is run the control part of the programme.”

Obviously reliance on a third party box is inconvenient to the installer, and also to Peavey as they have limited control over compatibility and so forth. Michael said: “We’re going to provide the whole thing as a boxed product, which will contain the control processor and the DSP all in one. We’re confident that this will be available by early 2009, certainly in time for ProLight & Sound.”

A pair of new features that will be added to Nion and NWare is greater control over the Crest CKi line of amplifiers in version 1.4.3 and also incremental compilation of a system’s control programme.

Whilst the former is clearly a sales driven feature, the latter is in direct response to user feedback. “Currently if you make small adjustments to even a single Nion unit in a system, then to implement those changes you have to re-build the entire design before you can upload it. That means that the engineer on site with his laptop might have to wait ten minutes for this all to happen. With incremental changes, only the unit that has been altered has to be redone. It’s much more efficient,” explained Page.

Finally he made allusions to what he termed “improved interface products” quite what that means Page wasn’t prepared to elaborate on, but he did seem to suggest the possibility of a MediaMatrix branded control device of some sort.

User feedback from designers and integrators is central to the fulfilling of Michael’s goal of maintaining the market leading position, so how is it generated? Page deals very closely with MediaMatrix’s technical services department, who are the frontline support team with a direct interface with the user base. Peavey Oxford’s website also features an active and regularly maintained message forum where people can post questions and feedback about releases. The R&D website also contains an extensive Knowledge base, which is an FAQ type environment along with all the documentation and help files.

It almost seems an extraneous question to ask such an obviously passionate individual what keeps him interested in his work. Yet Michael’s answer reflects what is still great about this industry even when companies like Peavey have grown vast beyond the imaginings of their founders: “It’s the opportunity to invent cool new things that will give us real technological leadership and then implement them. It’s exciting.”

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