This has been one of the hardest reviews I have ever had to write – where to start? I have reviewed (and predominantly bought with my own hard-earned cash) many awesome pro-audio products, but none has left me with such a complete sense of “this is where it is at, this is where it is going and I want one NOW!”
The Slate Pro Audio Raven MTX is by far the most unique and paradigm-shifting product I have ever tried. The Raven puts the fun back in pro audio and makes me want to reach out and touch, mix and consequently enjoy my work so much more. I think this product does for audio what the iPad has done for the internet. It has rekindled (excuse the ‘tablety pun’ here) my audio creativity. So what is it about the Slate Raven that has got me all frothy? Read on...
The Raven MTX is a 46in state-of-the-art, touch-sensitive high-definition LCD screen-based multitouch, user-customisable, virtual 32-fader sound mixer, with built in monitor controller (stereo or surround) and a thoroughly useful iPod dock. There is also a Raven MTI (27in) version with no monitor controller available.
It is ergonomically ideally shaped, so that everything is reachable from the sweet spot (your chiropractor will hate you for this as he cancels his holiday in Tobago). Apparently the Raven has even been designed with acoustics in mind – for minimal reflections to avoid that comb filtering of the lower mids that other desk designs can suffer from. So it feels good and sounds even better.
The Raven generates virtually no radiated heat (due to cold LED backlighting) and therefore has no noisy cooling fans. The 1920 x 1080 HD display (2K) will be easily upgradeable to 4K and higher resolutions when they become more widely available (bring on the new Mac Pro and 4K gfx outputs!). The bespoke touchscreen technology is not based upon capacitance or resistance but on a grid of infrared beams, which can detect 12 simultaneous touch points. The 5ms response time to touch and Nano-glide surface gives a truly smooth and instantaneous high-resolution feel. There is no detectable parallax error (once calibrated) and the viewing angle is huge, giving a sharp and bright but not fatiguing display.
The Raven runs on Mac OSX Lion or Mountain Lion and ideally on 2.4Ghz i7 (or Xeon) processor and upwards with a 1GB gfx memory (so post-2010 Mac Pros are ideal – although MacBook Pros and iMacs of a similar spec should be fine).
To connect the Raven to the Mac, it’s a DVI and a USB cable. Next, run the Raven installer that installs the software driver and calibration software. After restarting, run the screen calibration software to ensure best results.
To connect the Raven to Pro Tools, launch NeyFi (the clever control software licensed from Paul Neyrinck that is used in Neyrinck’s V-Control). This allows OSX and Pro Tools to become multitouch, via the Raven software layer. Next, launch Pro Tools and go to the Setup > Peripherals menu and follow a few instructions (similar to setting up a Pro Control or a MIDI controller). This setting is retained by Pro Tools for all sessions. Once set, after opening any Pro Tools session the Raven software will sync with your current session. Welcome to the world of touch audio! Once you have tried this you will be smitten. Incidentally, the OSX desktop is now a total touch experience (although not multitouch like the Raven). Imagine the fun you could have with applications like Video Editing or Photoshop…
The Raven is available as a 7.1 surround or stereo version. The surround upgrade can be retrofitted by the user and just requires sliding in the Surround Module to the main chassis. The monitoring section of the Raven is a 100 percent digitally controlled analogue circuit of pristine quality. The sound is clean, clear, and articulate, and measurably exceeds most (if not all) external monitor controllers. Steven Slate is reassuringly very discerning about audio quality.
The analogue monitor controller section is mounted in two of the four integrated rack spaces at the rear of the desk. Other modules include the Raven Aux I/O Module (includes power, meter bridge, iDock, DAC inputs, and talkback mic connections). For stereo operation the Stereo Module has main inputs (from Pro Tools I/O on DB25), stereo speaker outputs on DB25, and cue outputs on DB25. For surround operation, the stereo 8-way main input becomes surround input 1, and on the surround module there is a DB25 connector for surround source 2. The surround speaker outputs are on a further DB25 connector. It should be noted that the Raven has been cleverly configured so that switching between stereo and surround and using the same LR speakers does not require re-patching at all.
The left control module on the Raven is for headphone selection, cue and studio selection, stereo and surround speaker selection and mute, and lighting, metering, and talkback controls. The monitoring section appears to have been very cleverly thought out and, for something so powerful, it is relatively straightforward to use. A momentary press on a speaker output will mute the speaker, whereas a two-second hold will solo it. And colour-coding has been employed to indicate modes and sources for this and on the meter bridge.
There is a built-in talkback mic in the meter bridge, two up-facing headphone sockets far left on the underside of the front of the desk in the iDock section with a good array of sources to choose from, plus iDock and mini jack connections.
The right control module on the Raven is for stereo speaker selection, source inputs, and talkback selection.
In stereo mode, the monitor section has three speaker output pairs: A, B, and C, and an additional built-in laptop reference speaker set in the meter bridge. Speaker C output can optionally act as a subwoofer and be paired with Speaker A, B, or both. Multi-Source Mode in stereo is as easy as simultaneously pressing the inputs you wish to monitor at the same time.
The Raven cue system is easy to understand too. There are eight cues: Cue 1 is always fed from Mix1 (typically the DAW main stereo outputs). Cue 2 is switchable between four stereo sources: Mix 2, iDock, Digi or Aux. Cues 5-8 are four mono cue outputs.
The Raven Mixer exists as a ‘third screen’ for Pro Tools. You can touch your Pro Tools mixer on-screen, but only one fader at a time; the Raven Mixer has 32 on-screen faders (with no motors to wear out, or rubber bands to break, or coffee cups to spill when the automation kicks in) together with automation mode selectors, send and pans, mutes, solos, track arming, and plug-ins – all the usual desk culprits we are familiar with.
One of the best things about the Raven is that the mixer is highly customisable. The faders, plugs and mutes etc are in a different part of the mixer to the sends and these sections are drag-able around the screen to your heart’s desire. The sends or the fader part can even be removed from the screen to allow the Pro Tools edit window to poke through. One function needed in post is the ability to see the edit window as a preview screen, but still have the faders visible for mixing. This software enhancement has already been implemented for release.
The Raven Mixer has customisable tool bars that contain the fader banking, transport controls, screen switching, editing modes and functions. All these are drag-able and arrange-able to your heart’s content in storable banks. There is an unlimited array of macro keys that can be stored, really making Pro Tools sessions even more productive.
The Raven Mixer allows the use of pictures to aid as channel identifiers. These will be initially a preset collection (somewhat music biased) but will in future, I believe, be user importable (which would be great for post!).
One thing I did find odd was that I expected to be able to swipe across the faders with three fingers to scroll the banks of tracks, but I was disappointed. I believe Steven and Alex at Slate have this already in the works.
Hardware aficionados need not feel left out here. When you use the ‘plugbot’ to open plug-ins from the Raven Mixer, the plug-in opens at virtually 19in rack size allowing you to touch the controls as if they were in a rack. Although most plug-ins are not programmed for multitouch yet, I did not find this a train smash at all, as often with plugs, one is adjusting one parameter at a time. I can see multitouch really taking off here though…
When using the Pro Tools surround panner, it will auto follow the selected channel, which is a feature sadly lacking in Pro Tools itself.
Introducing The Nav Pad
In the tool bar is the mini Nav Pad, and there is a floating semi-transparent larger version. This allows two-finger swipes for waveform zooming, track scrolling, track banking and most importantly scrub and shuttle of audio. This is where you can reach out and touch your audio in the edit page. You can drag fades, swipe to make selections, and so on. I invited Supervising Sound Editor/Mixer Mike Wabro to get his expert feedback. “Touching audio is surprisingly fun and inspiring. Yes, you really can fine edit dialogue! Like any new technique or interface, there is a slight learning curve which is to be expected, but it is surprisingly quick to adopt.”
I think the Slate Pro Audio Raven is a revolutionary product. Originally conceived in a music context, its application has been rapidly maturing into post production too. It is comfortable, customisable, software driven, a complete joy to use, and very affordable.
Inventors Steven Slate and Alex Oana at Slate Pro Audio are justifiably very excited about this product. Just think how great the future is for ‘soft desks’, the sky is the limit with future features – it’s just code. This desk is planned to work in future with all major software DAWs and seems therefore to be a great investment.
Slate is very responsive to user feedback and I have enjoyed meeting such positive and proactive people. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the whole interaction with this virtual console and the reignition I felt in my creativity. Doubters really need to sit down and try it. With the new features in Pro Tools 11 and the Slate Raven, we are entering a fantastic new era in pro audio and it is very exciting as a mixer to be part of it. A total must. This is going to be huge!
Mike Aiton was weaned at the BBC. But after breaking free nearly 25 years ago & becoming one of London's busiest freelance dubbing mixers, he can mostly be found in his Twickenham dubbing suite, mikerophonics. In his spare time he takes therapy for his poor jazz guitar playing and his addiction to skiing and Nikon lenses.