October 10, 2013, by PSW Staff
Until just a few years ago, I never would have imagined that many of the current smaller format digital consoles would be able to take the place of the larger frame analog consoles that my shows and events required. (Well, still require.)
While the input count at many of these events, usually corporate/industrials, is generally minor, the routing requirements can be quite complex, and only larger analog boards offered the necessary bus count and matrix routing.
The initial digital consoles were usually larger and thus provided much of the same capability (and often more), today many smaller consoles are outfitted with the feature sets and routing capabilities to handle sophisticated, multi-faceted productions. Event planners love these consoles because they reduce the footprint at front of house, and my crew (and I) love the fact that we’re not moving bulky, heavy units.
In addition, digital really shines when it comes to live recording. It used to be that making even a simple 2-track board tape required a dedicated outboard recording device and patch cables, and multi-track recording was even a bigger deal. You either needed a split snake (preferably one with transformers to eliminate noise) or a ton of patch cables so to take direct outputs from the channels.
Now many digital mixers offer 2-track recording to USB, allowing the user to simply plug in a standard thumb drive. For multi-track recording, in some cases it’s as simple as plugging in a computer or hardware recording unit into the digital data stream and pressing the “record” button.
Suffice to say that there’s a lot lurking just under the surface with smaller digital consoles. I decided to take a look at the current crop to put a spotlight on some less-than-obvious capabilities.
Measuring 11.75 x 41.5 x 26.25 inches, the CL5 is the largest frame size in the series and packs a lot of features. It offers the ability to mix 72 mono and 8 stereo channels, with up to 8 FX units available. Remote Rio stage boxes expand input and output connections, augmenting the 8 onboard inputs and outputs. Three Mini-YGDAI expansion card slots allow numerous option cards, including Lake processing, Dugan auto mixing, Waves SoundGrid, Aviom A-Net, CobraNet, Optocore, EtherSound, Riedel RockNet, and more.
Yamaha CL with Nuendo Live
One thing that really stands out is multi-track recording with the included Nuendo Live DAW application, which can be accessed and controlled via the touch screen. There’s also 2-track recording to USB. I also really like the gain compensation feature that works when more than one console is using an input source. It ensures that when the analog gain stage is adjusted from one of the consoles, corresponding compensation is automatically applied at the digital stage, so that the level sent from the I/O rack unit to the connected CL consoles remains constant.
Allen & Heath Qu-16
The recently introduced rack-mountable mixer occupies just 7.3 x 17.3 (19 with optional rack ears) x 18.5 inches and includes 16 mono inputs, 3 stereo inputs, 12 output mix buses and 4 stereo FX units. The surface may be compact but it offers 17 motorized faders, a color touch screen and user assignable keys. The mixer can be connected to the AR2412 and AR84 remote audio rack stage boxes using the built in dSNAKE port allowing remote placement of inputs and outputs via Cat-5.
Allen & Heath Qu-16 USB recording
The Qu-16 is also compatible with the company’s ME-1 personal mixing system. It’s amazing how easy it is to do multi-track recording with the console. It has a built-in interface that streams channels 1 through 16, the main L + R, and 3 selectable stereo pairs to a Mac computer.
If you don’t use a Mac, or simply don’t want to mess with interfacing the computer, it also has an integrated 18-channel multi-track USB recorder that offers 24-bit/48 kHz recording and playback to and from a USB hard drive.
Soundcraft Si Expression 3
It’s the largest of the three consoles in the series, but with a size of only 6.7 x 36.5 x 20.5 inches (h x w x d), it still falls into the “compact” category for sure.
The Si Expression 3 offers 66 inputs to 32 mix channels as well as 4 layers and a color touch screen. Twenty aux buses, 14 mix buses, and 8 matrix provide lots of routing options, and the 4 multi FX units present a variety of processing.
The 32 onboard mic/line inputs and 16 outputs allow connections at the console and additional inputs and outputs can be interfaced by using the ViSi Connect stage boxes that allow remote placement of ins and outs.
A really handy feature is the Direct Out Gain Stabilizer, which prevents manual change of a mic gain affecting direct output levels when two consoles share a stage box, or when recording the channel direct outputs.
Soundcraft Si Expression FaderGlow
Another aspect of this console that makes a mix engineer’s job a bit less stressful is FaderGlow. It illuminates the fader slots according to function, making it easy to tell what function is currently assigned to each fader.
And, an Si BLU link option card provides a convenient interface with the dbx PCM personal monitoring system.
Looks can indeed be deceiving. While measuring a miniscule 9 x 19 x 22.7 inches, the SD11 has tons of features often seen only in a larger frame size. It offers a large 15-inch, full-color TFT LCD touch-sensitive screen, 12 full-length motorized faders, along with 32 processing channels and as well as 8 full Flexi channels and 12 Flexi buses. There’s also the ability to simultaneously record up to 56 channels direct to multi-track software or DAW.
DiGiCo SD11 Waves SoundGrid capability
With 16 mic/line XLR inputs and 8 XLR outputs onboard, the SD11 could be used as a stand-alone console or can connect to any of the DiGiCo remote stage racks for additional inputs. The Optocore option allows the connectivity with the DiGiCo racks in a redundant loop for extra reliability.
I also really like the ability to integrate plug-ins by using the optional DiGiCo SoundGrid module linked to an external PC server. This provides the user with instant access to 16 low-latency Waves stereo Multi Racks, each with the ability to have up to 8 plug-ins per rack.
Making its debut just a few months ago, the SL3 is an extremely compact rig comprised of three units: an HDX-powered processing engine running AAX plug-ins and VENUE software, a compact control surface, and a scalable remote stage rack.
Avid S3L networking, AAX, and 2-track record/playback
In addition to all the input and output connections on the stage box, both the processing engine and control surface provide a variety of analog and digital ins/outs giving the user lots of interface options. The control surface measures 2.8 x 28 x 14.3 inches but still manages to offer up a lot of control options, including 16 motorized faders in 6 bankable layers and 32 touch-sensitive rotary encoders.
The S3L allows up to 64 input channels, 24 aux buses, LCR main outputs, 8 mono matrixes and 8 VCAs. Again, recording and playback stand out, with up to 64 channels of audio over an AVB network without the need for a Pro Tools interface, and 2-track recording and playback over USB also supported.
At approximately 11.5 x 30 x 28.5 inches, this is the smallest console in the company’s digital lineup, but it’s certainly not lacking in the features department.
It includes 24 XLR inputs and outputs on the rear, and with up to 48 input channels available, input counts can be increased by connecting Midas digital stage boxes.
Also notable is the ability to connect multiple stage boxes allowing for point-to-point routing of audio to up to 100 inputs and 102 outputs within a network.
The PRO1 also offers 27 output buses, 12 multi-channel FX engines, 8 VCAs and 6 POP groups that provide primary access to multiple channels. Offline editing software is available.
Midas PRO1 POP groups
Adding the Klark Teknik DN9650 network bridge allows the console to interface with MADI, Dante, Aviom, Ethersound and CobraNet networks.
Roland Systems Group M-200i
This is an intriguing mixer. It can dock an iPad, which can be used the main operation touch screen, but the user can also access all functions without docking the tablet. (There’s also a small screen onboard.)
The M-200i measures just 7.8 x 19.3 x 19.3 inches but provides 32 mix channels, 4 matrixes, 8 DCAs and 8 aux buses, as well as 17 motorized faders on 5 layers, 4 multi-effects engines and 8 user-assignable buttons.
Roland M-200i operates with and without docking an iPad
It can certainly be used as a stand-alone console, offering 16 XLR mic/line inputs and 12 outputs on the rear. REAC stage boxes can also be interfaced for up to 40 additional remote inputs. This mixer also provides 2-track recording via USB and multi-track recording via the REAC port to the company’s R-1000 48-track recorder/player or MADI bridge.
PreSonus StudioLive 32.4.2AI
Presonus debuted this larger StudioLive console earlier this year. Of course, larger is a relative term, with the 32.4.2AI coming in at only 7 x 31.6 x 21.3 inches. It provides 32 input channels and 4 stereo FX engines, with the surface sporting 32 faders and offering up 4 subgroups and 14 aux buses.
PreSonus StudioLive 32.4.2AI with Smaart
A cool feature is that in addition to an iPad app, there’s also an iPhone/iPod Touch app called QMix that allows performers to remotely control their own monitor sends onstage. Recording is available via the built-in FireWire interface. The unit ships with Capture multi-track recording software and is also compatible with many other popular recording DAWs. And, StudioLive software incorporates Rational Acoustics Smaart measurement technology to provide an assist in system tuning.
Solid State Logic SSL Live
This year the company entered the live market with the SSL Live, and that’s intriguing in and of itself given Solid State Logic’s pedigree in the recording market.
I’d classify the SSL Live as a “mid-sized” console, and it offers the ability to handle up to 976 physical inputs and outputs.
Further, 144 fully processed mix channels are available along with an additional 48 “dry” mix channels. Up to 96 effects processors can be used at one time.
A 32 x 36 output matrix can handle to most complex routing assignments.
With 14 inputs and 12 outputs onboard, the SSL Live could be used as a stand-alone mixer, and a variety of scalable remote stage boxes foster increased input counts and remote placement of them.
SSL Live facilities
Recording is accomplished via the MADI SSL Live-Recorder option, a rack device that can record 64 tracks at 96 kHz continuously from the console’s input stage, with playback through the channels in Soundcheck mode.
CADAC CDC Four
Included are 56 mix channels, 8 VCAs and 15 buses in a rack-mountable frame that measures just 19 x 24.5 inches. While optimized to work with the CDC 3216 and CDC 1608 remote stage boxes, there are 16 onboard mic preamps so the unit can operate as a stand-alone mixer on smaller shows.
CADAC CDC Four preamps
In addition to using the onboard controls, the CDC Four can be controlled via the Cadac Remote Audio Android and iPad apps, and multiple tablets can be connected simultaneously to allow different operators to control different functions at the same time. A port accommodates either a FireWire expansion card enabling the streaming of input channels to a computer for recording and playback or a MADI interface card that can connect the console to a recording unit or to the CDC stage box.
The company created quite a stir a couple of years ago with this mixer, and at only 3.9 x 11.5 x 15.5 inches, it’s barely larger than the docked iPad that it uses for the control surface.
Recording to iPad from the outs on the Mackie DL1608
Mackie has managed to squeeze a lot of features into the package, including 16 mixing channels, 6 aux sends and 2 effects engines. Up to 10 iPads can be used as remote wireless controllers.
Performers can access their own monitor mix wirelessly via an iPhone or iPod Touch. There is a 17th channel that can play back audio from a docked iPad, and the user can record directly to the docked iPad from the main outputs. I also really like the look and operation of the software and how easy it is to get around on.
Craig Leerman is senior contributing editor for Live Sound International and is the owner of Tech Works, a production company based in Las Vegas.