Sound Devices has built a strong reputation throughout the world as a leading manufacturer of high-quality audio field recorders and mixers renowned for rugged reliability, operational flexibility and pristine audio quality. While our users are quite familiar with our folks in sales, marketing and technical support areas, they may not be aware of the experience and talent behind our design, engineering, testing and production teams, who played an enormous part in our expansion into video. This article provides a behind-the-scenes look at how we listened to our clients’ needs and transformed Sound Devices into an important equipment provider for both field-production audio products and high-performance, portable external video recorders, through the development of PIX.
Team Work: Setting the Stage
Sound Devices’ design and engineering department is headed by Matt Anderson, co-founder of Sound Devices. While I cover marketing and tech support, and Jim Koomar handles sales, Matt is essentially responsible for the group of engineers who design all Sound Devices products. He is surrounded by many highly skilled mechanical, software, PC-board layout and test engineers in our Wisconsin-based facility. Libby Koomar heads Sound Devices’ production department. She is responsible for all of the manufacturing, testing, purchasing, inventory and production control. These areas are critical to manufacturing the cost-effective, world-class-quality products that Sound Devices develops, right in the heart of rural Wisconsin.
The Building Blocks of PIX
Sound Devices’ industry heritage lies within its production-oriented field mixers and audio recorders. As portable field-audio recorders transitioned from analog to digital-tape-based and, finally, fully file-based workflows, the Sound Devices 7-Series played a big part in completing that transition for production audio. Through five years of experience building file-based audio devices, the engineering team gained an abundance of user and product insight, preparing the way for the development of PIX. In video, file-based video for post production has been in place since the 1990s. Video production has now too become file-based, thanks to the rapid evolution of digital cameras and their myriad of formats. These cameras, combined with the introduction of production-grade video codecs that work across multiple editing environments, paved the way for Sound Devices to create an external video product that works with a wide range of cameras while delivering “standard” file types.
The Video Connection
PIX was born as an offshoot idea for the 788T audio recorder. A few users and dealers had mentioned to Matt that it would be beneficial if the 788T had an SDI input to stream audio channels into the recorder, since an SDI stream carries both audio and video. As we investigated this idea, users also suggested that if SDI was already coming in, then perhaps we could make it possible to record the video signal as well. This would allow a sound mixer to take a video feed and record it for his own use—to see if a boom mic got into a shot, for example. The idea was to record all the high-quality audio channels along with a lower-quality H.264 stream for on-cart consumption, much the same way a video tap used to shadow a 35mm camera for film production.
This idea continued to develop, and before long the definition of PIX changed from an audio recorder that also recorded video to a video recorder that also recorded audio. In the meantime, the engineering group brought on several video industry veterans with substantial experience in designing video products. By the end, the audio circuitry from the 788T remained in the product, but the video portion was upgraded to record with Apple’s ProRes and Avid’s DNxHD codecs, with the addition of full scaling, frame-rate conversion and a fully integrated time code generator, courtesy of Ambient Recording in Germany.
Running the Course
Once the determination to move forward was made, the realities of design and production kicked in. Sound Devices’ mechanical and test engineers put the prototypes of the PIX recorders through demanding tests. The units went through many drop tests, vibration cycles and extreme-temperature and humidity testing. These tests resulted in the final design, which is constructed of molded carbon fiber (MCF). Sound Devices had previously pioneered the use of MCF in the industry with the 552 Production Mixer, and was confident that it could be used here as well. The resulting panels have the equivalent strength of magnesium, but with less weight and more durability.
Simultaneous with the design of the recorders, Libby was directing her groups to make sure that the PIX recorders would launch on time. One of the things that many people don’t necessarily think of immediately is the number of individual parts that need to be brought in to build one unit. The PIX 240 has a large number of unique parts, and each one of these needed to be purchased, tracked, accounted for, inspected and inventoried. Libby’s staff handles all of this, while at the same time tracking the continuous changes from engineering as the product approaches availability.
The manufacturing area was another challenging aspect of the birth of the PIX recorders. It was estimated that production of the PIX recorders would be a higher volume product than Sound Devices had undertaken in the past, and the manufacturing and manufacturing test areas would have to be ramped up to accommodate the expected demand. Libby headed the effort to bring on more assembly workers as well as get all new video-based test stands in operation.
One of the most difficult areas in the development of the PIX recorders was the coding and testing of the software that runs the product. This code is a specially designed lightweight kernel that controls all aspects of the PIX operation. This hand-crafted code was designed to be robust and efficient, requiring a lot of effort from Matt’s software engineers. The testing was especially difficult because of the sheer number of variables, including the types of camera being used, the codec being used, the time code setting, the scaler setting, etc. Several field testers were used to make sure everything worked perfectly in real situations.
Our PIX 220 and PIX 240 video recorders add QuickTime recording using Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD to any HDMI-or HD-SDI-equipped high definition video camera. The portable PIX 220 (HDMI-only) and its sibling the PIX 240 (HDMI and HD-SDI) record QuickTime files to CompactFlash cards or removable 2.5-inch solid-state hard drives. As Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD video formats have emerged as industry standards, these I-frame codecs offer the best choices for picture quality, processing efficiency and data-storage requirements. They are ideal for editing, on-the-fly color grading and video processing. Files recorded in the field on a PIX recorder are ready for the most popular editorial workflows.
A PIX-elated Future
We are seeing a clear industry trend where the high-end professional market is creating more and more prosumer-savvy equipment while consumer technologies are steadily moving toward the professional market. We created PIX to fulfill a need in the production space for an all-in-one audio and video recorder that is compatible with cameras ranging from small DSLR-style to full-sized, high-definition production cameras. We also place a priority on software updates. Efficiency, workflow and cost are hot topics in the industry right now. Through software updates, we can further deliver new functions and features without requiring our customers to purchase a new piece of hardware. This gives us the ability to respond to input we receive from the field and redefine a product that a customer already has in hand, all with a free software update.
Conclusion, But Not the End
The PIX recorders were born with all the advantages of Sound Devices’ audio product expertise applied to video. The PIX 220 and PIX 240 have been one of the most successful designs and launches in Sound Devices history, thanks to the many people “behind the scenes” within the company. At the recent 2012 NAB show, we launched the latest product in the PIX line, the PIX 260. Based on Sound Devices’ field-proven PIX 220 and PIX 240 recorders, the rack-mounted PIX 260 is a file-based video/audio recorder/player that seamlessly replaces tape-based video decks in production and post-production environments. Also using the Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD codecs, the PIX 260 records and plays files up to 220 Mbps in high-quality 10-bit 4:2:2 video, as well as 32 tracks of 48 kHz audio. Files from the PIX 260 are ready for direct import into Avid and Final Cut editing environments, eliminating time-consuming transferring and transcoding. Files can also play out of the PIX 260 for real-time applications. Sound Devices’ excellent sales, marketing and tech-support groups now carry the baton, promoting and supporting the groundbreaking and growing PIX line of recorders and associated accessories.