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Audio and broadcast components – back to the future

Feature

By John Hall, Managing Director, Cliff Electronics

The live-music field has always required rugged, high-reliability connectors – and not much has changed in 21st century. The only notable difference, however, is the rapid growth in applications where these humble components are needed. From simply connecting an instrument to an amplifier, live events now also require effects pedals, sound desks, communication systems, loudspeaker connectors and much more sophisticated connection than a simple ¼-inch jack plug and socket. Jack sockets have evolved to offer switching contacts, stacked versions that need less space in sound equipment, and multi-pole connectors to combine audio and switching functions.

And, Cliff Electronics was enabling electronic music from the very beginning, when in 1964 the company started making jack plugs and control knobs for musical instruments and amplifiers.

New types on the block

With the growing sophistication of stage and studio equipment, new connector types have emerged, the most successful being the XLR type. Offering balanced connections to minimise interference and a locking mechanism, these are favoured for low-level signals, such as mixing and lighting desks and amplifiers, as a generally flexible and reliable connection solution.

Components for event and studio mixing desks have also changed greatly. Gone are rotary potentiometers for controlling levels; slider controls were developed for visual indications of levels, in addition to on-board metering. State-of-the-art mixing decks are now computer-controlled, and slide potentiometers are motor-driven, demanding more sophisticated control options, with the latest being conductive knobs that, when touched, activate the slider’s motor control to allow manual control.

Further implementation of digital technology has seen rotary encoders replace analogue potentiometers. In addition to lower noise, increased setting accuracy and repeatability, rotary encoders may be programmed to perform various functions, which simplifies operation, shrinks the control desk and reduces component-count. A recent enhancement to rotary encoder design is the inclusion of an LED-illuminated shaft, further reducing the complexity, and hence cost, of the desks by removing the need for separate function indicators and their mounting process. The rapid adoption of LED-illuminated encoders has created a new market for translucent knobs to allow the illumination to be seen. For non-illuminated encoders, encoder knobs are now available with ergonomic inner and outer finger dimples for fast and slow rotations, offering a choice tactile “weight” to create a specific feel for an application.

Going back in time

Whilst new technology places ever more complex demands on components, there is a steadily-growing market for retro-technology. Many ultra-modern products are being packaged to reflect their manufacturers’ heritage. This is leading to an increased demand for retro-styled control knobs, such as skirt-less designs and the “chicken head” knob found in Bakelite and phenolic materials. These vintage-look knobs are designed to match original designs of guitars, amplifiers and foot-pedals and are available with or without a marker line on the “Beak”.

As equipment becomes smaller, more portable and rechargeable, even simple technology like DC input sockets have had to change to allow for improved and more flexible connections, such as higher current capacities, and innovations including dual-gauge sockets. The latter allow either 2.1mm or 2.5mm plugs to mate with a single socket, thereby helping to relieve the modern curse of numerous power supplies with differing connectors.

Where conventional power sockets do not have sufficient carrying capacity or enough poles, manufacturers now offer 4- and 8-pole locking connectors with current capacity of up to 20A per pin, and safety features, including earth pins that connect first yet break last.

Pressure on equipment size and the importance of cost reduction has led to a wide range of audio, optical, HDMI, USB, RJ45, BNC and terminal posts being made available to fit in the industry-standard 24mm-diameter XLR panel cutout, to simplify panel design and manufacture. Systems integrators are also discovering the benefits of factory pre-assembled panels that can be specified to meet their exact requirements.

Suddenly, “it’s new” again!

Like many other innovations, it is often surprising how many features that have always existed are “suddenly” rediscovered and brought back to market as “new and improved” when, really, it is just a case of reinventing the wheel.

It seems the past is still with us and continues to add value to markets that are seeing rapid technological advances.

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