My audio-human mind races when thinking of high-performance, compact, affordable machines.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
“Wait,” you’re thinking, “I thought this site was about live shows. Steam Machines are gaming devices.”
You’re right about that. What you have to remember (or just become aware of), is that I have a strange sort of DIY streak. It’s why I assembled my own live-audio console from “off the shelf” products. I really, really, REALLY like the idea of doing powerful things with concert sound via unorthodox means. An unorthodox idea that keeps bubbling up in my head is that of a hyper-customizable, hyper-expandable audio mix rig. It could be pretty much any size a user wanted, using pretty much whatever audio hardware a user wanted, and grow as needed. Also, it wouldn’t be too expensive. (About $900 per 16X16 channel “block.”)
When I look at the basic idea of the Valve Steam Machine, I see a device that has the potential to be a core part of the implementation.
But let’s be careful: I’m not saying that Steam Machines can do what I want right now. I’m not saying that there aren’t major pitfalls, or even dealbreakers to be encountered. I fully expect that there are enormous problems to solve. Just the question of how each machine’s audio processing could be conveniently user-controlled is definitely non-trivial. I’m just saying that a possibility is there.
Why is that possibility there?
The Box Is Prebuilt
The thing with prebuilt devices is that it’s easier for them to be small. A manufacturer building a large number of units can get custom parts that support a compact form factor, put it all together, and then ship it to you.
Of course, when it comes to PCs, you can certainly assemble a small-box rig by hand. However, when we’re talking about using multiple machines, the appeal of hand-building multiple boxes drops rapidly. So, it’s a pretty nice idea that a compact but high(er) performance computing device can be gotten for little effort.
The System Is Meant For Gaming
Gaming might seem like mere frivolity, but these days, it’s a high-performance activity. We normally think of that high-performance as being located primarily in the graphics subsystem – and for good reason. However, I also think a game-capable system could be great for audio. I have this notion because games are so reliant on audio behaving well.
Take a game like a modern shooter. A lot of stuff is going on: Enemy AI, calculation of where bullets should go, tracking of who’s shooting at who, collision detection, input management, the knowing of where all the players are and where they’re going, and so on. Along with that, the sound has to work correctly. When anybody pulls a trigger, a sound with appropriate gain and filtering has to play. That sound also has to play at exactly the right time. It’s not enough for it to just happen arbitrarily after the “calling” event occurs. Well-timed sounds have to play for almost anything that happens. A player walks around, or a projectile strikes an object, or a vehicle moves, or a player contacts some phsyics-enabled entity, or…
You get the idea.
My notion is that, if the hardware and OS of a Steam Machine are already geared specifically to make this kind of thing happen, then getting pro-audio to work similarly isn’t a totally alien application. It might not be directly supported, of course, but at least the basic device itself isn’t in the way.
The System Is Customizable
My understanding of Steam Machines is that they’re meant to be pretty open and “user hackable.” This excites me because of the potential for re-purposing. Maybe an off-the-shelf Steam Machine doesn’t play nicely with pro-audio hardware? Okay…maybe there’s a way to take the box’s good foundation and rebuild the upper layers. In theory, a whole other OS could be runnable on one of these computers, and a troublesome piece of hardware might be replaceable (or just plain removable).
I acknowledge that all of this is off in the “weird and theoretical” range. My wider goal in pointing it out is to say that, sometimes, you can grab a thing that was intended for a different application and put it to work on an interesting task. The most necessary component seems to be imagination.