We had not yet seen the Vista X, nor its mysterious processing unit, Infinity Core. It was unveiled on June 18 at a restaurant in Issy les Moulineaux, where the staff of Studer and of Audiopole delved into questions of flavor, aroma and, especially, presentation… the first one in Europe. Here they faced with patience and relish an Infinity of questions about the new flagship.
Vista X served up with 40 faders and lacquered wood sides. Visible to the right is the Studer rack containing the two elements that complete the system, a Core 800 and a D23.
RIP DSP, C++ rules
As we just reported in these columns barely a month ago, the Vista X is the first console to turn to the CPU, walking away without looking back on DSP technology and, in particular, Analog Devices’ SHARC, which has dominated the audio processing field for which it was specifically designed for two decades. The reason is simple, when you put Moore’s famous Law on one side and the DSP performance curve on the other.
Jean-Philippe Blanchard in full presentation – obviously happy to announce the release of a product that will enable Studer to take the driver’s seat in the world of Broadcast.
Jean-Philippe Blanchard, director of the broadcast division of Audiopole, perfectly illustrated this reasoning in this graph from his excellent presentation. It shows the capacity of processing cores to handle channel counts.
On the Y axis, we have the number of channels, plotted against the years from 1992 to today on the X axis.
The curves speak for themselves: the processing power of the DSP has evolved much more slowly. The 120 megaFLOPS of 1992 has now grown to 2.7 gigaFLOPS – 22 times more.
This is a quite respectable growth and sufficient to find happiness with products such as, among others, the Vista 1, which make great use of it, but it is incomparable with the increase in the processing power of the CPU in the same period.
If you were to take the current processing power of a Core 800 and apply the famous law – which has proven accurate – that states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years since 1965, within 6 years, Studer would reach a processing capacity of 3720 channels on a single 64-core CPU.
Today it takes two 8-core processors to reach the already superlative figure of 840. Speaking of capacity per chip, today’s DSP can manage 19 channels in full processing, whereas an x86-type CPU can exceed 400.
Voilà… an FPGA!
We will discuss further on how it is managed in the x86 CPUs – which, however, are anything but designed for audio – but, despite this abundance of power, two operations take place outside of this processor, summing and routing. Because these amount to simple tasks that are always the same, and therefore easy to program, Studer has chosen the reconfigurable hardwired logic of an FPGA to carry them out. They have given themselves a lot of margin with this, as the model they have chosen could handle a whopping 10,000 channels.
A view of the extremely comprehensive display of Vista X with, under each meter bar, a display of a portion of the audio that has been processed through the channel; a big help when the number of simultaneous signals is constantly growing.
The rest of the operations related to audio, such as dynamics processing and EQ, are calculated by the brave little Intel Xeon Cores, for which the Studer algorithms have been rewritten for a Linux OS. On an x86 processor, 7 physical cores take care of audio with two parallel tasks on each core, therefore 14 virtual cores, while the eighth is reserved for the operation of a conventional PC server and all the functions such as communication or routine maintenance that the user cannot touch.
There is a complete disconnection between these tasks and the group of cores that make up the x86 CPU and this is the very cornerstone of the Studer software to avoid interference between the two that could randomly interrupt the audio processing. This proprietary Linux-based operating system required several years of development. The result is that the Infinity “engine” is cheaper and much more flexible, because it is built on standard components that have a much faster renewal than processors with their roots in the little world of audio and, finally, it benefits from programming tools and people capable of implementing them in very large numbers. The DSP and even the FPGA cannot stand up to this.
Fader glow or colorized faders – one of Studer’s previous innovations inherited by Vista X.
5.1 routing, clearly another job for the FPGA.
Two power levels are available: the Core 400, with one CPU, and Core 800 which has two. The numbers in the model indicate the number of potential routes in full processing but with one caveat: we’re talking about channels at 48 kHz and 24 bit; at 96 kHz, divide this by two. Further, for the moment, the Vista X only runs at 48 kHz but we were told that this sampling rate will soon be doubled, or even more – the A-Link card attached to the front of the D23 also displays 192 kHz.
Is there anything under the hood?
The central section of the Vista X control surface. Note the super-complete level display, the controls, the individual bar graphs with no problem showing 5.1 and so on…
As strange as it may seem, the real Studer innovation is the proprietary software capable of managing each individual core of an x86 processor. In the end, looking at the Infinity Core more closely, what we found was almost disappointing, accustomed as we are to densely populated DSP cards.
Once pulled from the front, the drawer of a Core 800 containing all the electronics looks like a server motherboard with two Xeon 8 cores, RAM, two removable power supplies and an SSD; so far, nothing really new.
However, Studer has personally developed the central PCI Express card.
A view of the PCI Express card designed by Studer specifically for the Core and the Infinity system. Underneath the fan, on a blue socket is the FPGA. You can make out on the left one of the two CPUs. All the way to the right, you can see the SSD boot drive.
In addition to the twelve I/O ports for the fiber optic links with the interfaces, it also has and FPGA hidden behind a fan. This PCI card can convey up to 5000 channels to the motherboard. The big advantage of Studer is pushed further by the Vista X, with total freedom to configure the console as you like in terms of input channels, outputs and auxiliaries.
Anything is possible up to the capacity offered by the Core, the sampling rate, and any plug-ins inserted without losing resources due to routing, since the latter task is taken care of by the very muscular FPGA.
A diagram demonstrating the simplicity of the wiring required to deploy Vista X in a redundant configuration, including the Core and two D23 units.
These twelve bidirectional ports convey data in a new language developed by Studer, A-Link, a kind of counterpart to the SSL Blacklight II, which permits the interlacing of many more channels than simple MADI, which suddenly seems quite pokey by comparison.
A standard derived from 3G video, A-Link allows the transport of 1536 channels at 24 bit/48 kHz, probably half at 96 kHz. The interface is optical with an SFP cage, which makes it easy to switch from single- to multi-mode. The links are redundant as standard and the same link carries the clocking signal and the input and output interfaces.
The Department of Redundancy Department
As it is the epitome of a broadcast system and globally appreciated for it, the latest Vista goes even further in terms of its capacity to guarantee reliability under all circumstances. If the connection between the console and the Core is established conventionally using network cables, they are doubled on both networks. Two fiber links connect the I/O racks and CPU. All power supplies are duplicated, as is the fan in the Core. For maximum security, it is also possible to connect two Cores in parallel to the same D23 interfaces through A-Link.
The new D23 interface is designed to work with the A-Link protocol. The new cards are the MADI card and the A-Link HD card.
No need to have specific cards or special routines, D23 automatically switches in less than one sample if one of the two processors were to fail. This means that it is better to keep an eye on the screens to know which processor you are using, as your ears will never know from the sound!
The control surface also features improved redundancy. Where in previous models it would switch to a redundant PC, Vista X is now equipped with two redundant PCs that run in parallel, what Studer calls the Vista Quad Star: four CPUs, of which one handles the control surface, a second handles the display and the other two are ready to take over in case of a crash.
Auf Wiedersehen D21, willkommen D23
Though it is widespread, the D21 is forced to bow out, as it is unable to accept A-Link connections. It is thus the D23 and its 384 input and output channels that takes its place, twice those of its predecessor and really a lot for a 3U rack. Another improvement of this interface is the incorporation of a small CPU which allows it to manage the routing locally and to process audio independently.
Compatibility with the past remains, though, because the D21 cards can be used in the D23. DANTE is not forgotten, either: a module exists that accepts 64 in and out on its Ethernet network through a single RJ45 connector. A final card is proposed to interface two MADI connections, each fully redundant and capable of carrying 64 channels. Two ports are available with SFP cages and, for shorter cable runs, there is a good old coaxial link on a BNC connection.
A slide showing the Dante card in a Studer setup.
The Dual MADI card opens up the proprietary A-Link format to the now widespread MADI.
Plugging into Studer
In front of such an abundance of power, the question arose immediately: Will it be possible to keep some of it in reserve to run plug-ins and, moreover, VSTs or to use the same Studer Vista FX of the rest of the Vista range and its two Lexicon PCM96 engines?
Roger Heiniger, the Vista product manager at Studer, at the microphone with JP Blanchard, who keeps his hand on the knob. They also know how to do sound at Audiopole.
We took advantage of the presence of many members of the staff from Audiopole, but also from Studer Regensdorf, with Vista Product Manager Roger Heiniger to get to the bottom of this.
Regarding the 2U effects rack from Studer, the answer is no, as the HD connections are not present on the new Infinity Core. Concerning VST plug-ins, even if everything is theoretically possible, the risk is too great to run “foreign” dll in the Studer CPU using a wrapper, the crash of a plug-in could jeopardize the very operation of the Core and, consequently, the console.
As Roger says, some VST plug-ins are very stable, others less. This implies strict selection and long periods of intensive testing. We must therefore be satisfied with those from Studer, BSS, DBX or Lexicon, which will soon make their appearance, to guarantee secure and tested operation, especially as Studer will abandon the racks of external effects and delegate all of the work to the Core.
An Infinity of models & brands
The big news is the CPU processing mode and the hardware that goes with it. Studer adopted a name that reflects the future potential and current power: Infinity.
Andrew Hill, Director of Development at Studer, says that this CPU technology will be valid for the next 10 to 20 years and that all other manufacturers will soon go the same way. Jean-Philippe Blanchard, like Roger Heiniger, the Vista Product Manager at Studer, do not hide the fact that this CPU technology will soon be operated by other brands of the Harman group that are more focused on the live market, especially since a Vista X SR version is not on the agenda. However, it is possible to upgrade a Vista 5 or 9 with an Infinity Core, but not Vista 8 because of its analog monitoring circuit.
The Task Force deployed for the first presentation of the Vista X. From left to right: Kevin Renaudier, Audiopole broadcast technical support, Julie Costa, head of Studer marketing at Harman; behind her is Jean-Luc Mazzucco, Audiopole technical support and, all the way in the back on the left, with the blue shirt is “find the intruder” Serge Babkine, who also came to discover the new “Rolls Royce of Studer”, as Karl Chapman is pleased to call it. To the right of Julie Costa, we have Roger Heiniger, Vista product manager at Studer, and Génaelle Testard, Audiopole technical support and maternal support, Karl Chapman, Studer head of sales, and Jean-Philippe Blanchard, director of the Audiopole Broadcast Division, and, finally, Audiopole sales engineers Jean-Luc Gerards and Philippe Delépine.
Coffee and the check, please
The first console will be delivered during the summer to Euromedia, who drew its checkbook faster than anyone else in France and even in Europe, and who, therefore, deserved a healthy round of applause during the presentation.
In an interview with us, Jean-Philippe Blanchard gave the price range in the ballpark of € 200K for a Vista X system with a 40 fader console, a Core 800 and three D23: clearly a broadcast and high-end positioning.