Byline: Bruce Borgerson
“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” said Mark Twain in an epigram that could just as well apply to analog mixing consoles.
Although digital technology now largely dominates audio recording and signal processing, the bulk of the mixing console market – for live sound applications in particular – remains firmly planted in the analog domain. Thus far the greatest relative penetration of digital consoles has been into high-end touring and Broadway-style theater applications, in which the appealing option of resetting everything – effects, dynamics, EQ, and mutes – for best results on every song can be easily accommodated with the push of a button. That ultimate level of programmability, along with lower weight and a far smaller footprint per input channel, makes digital consoles worth the extra cost and extended learning time in such particularly demanding situations.
In other areas, however, analog consoles continue to hold the edge. Certainly you can get more inputs and outputs per dollar with analog. Many would argue that, given equivalent R&D funds, a skilled analog console designer still can come up with better overall audio performance. But in the end, analog’s trump card still seems to be that comfortingly familiar work surface with its rows of dedicated knobs and switches: one control for one function, always at your fingertips.
Because it’s a mature technology, don’t expect anything dramatically new. In fact, if any trend could be identified, it could be summarized as “more of the same for less” or “the advance of trickle-down technology.” Essentially, customization of consoles is a thing of the past, except for small concessions at the high end. To accommodate the efficiencies of mass manufacturing, console makers are simply packing in more features at ever-lower price points, whether you need them all or not.
One clearly identifiable trend is toward dual-function (also known as “swap or “flip” mode) consoles that can switch from front-of-house (FOH) to monitor duty by assigning aux sends to the group faders. Piggybacking on that trend, in midrange consoles on up, is the increasing availability of facilities to accommodate in-ear monitoring: paired sends switchable for stereo, inserts for protective dynamics processors, and room ambience inputs. Such flexible facilities – coupled with the rapid penetration of digital into the high-end monitor market – may signal the early demise of dedicated monitor consoles.
Otherwise, the overall trends reflect steady downward migration of features and technologies into ever-lower price regions: voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA) groups, programmable scene mutes with MIDI and external computer control, parametric equalizers, built-in dynamics, external linking facilities, and perhaps most dramatically, more inputs per dollar. One trend just now peeking over the horizon is the predictable emergence of digital interfaces: five major console manufacturers have licensed CobraNet technology, and Mackie’s recording-oriented FireWire option in its new budget mixers may be a harbinger of what’s to come.
In the following summaries, consoles are lumped into three price groups with somewhat arbitrary boundaries: budget ($1,200 to $6,000), midline ($6,000 to $40,000), and high end ($40,000 and up). Except as noted, prices are MSRP; these figures should be seen as broad guidelines only and are, of course, subject to change. Because covering all analog consoles in even skimpy detail is impossible, discussion will be weighted toward more recent product introductions. Powered mixers, BGM/paging mixers, and dedicated monitor consoles are not included.
ALLEN AND HEATH
This venerable U.K. console maker regained its independence three years ago, after nearly a decade of ownership by Harman International. Released from the possible constraints of dovetailing with a sibling company (Soundcraft), Allen and Heath now is blanketing its target markets with product offerings ranging from sub-$1,000 MixWizards up through the fully loaded flagship $25,000-plus ML5000, and the company has staked out a healthy share of it.
For nearly a decade, the company mainstay has been the widely accepted GL Series, ranging from the nicely featured but few-frills GL2200 (16-, 24-, and 32-input frames) up to the enhanced GL4000 (24-, 32-, 40-, and 48-input frames) with its eight audio groups, automated scene muting with eight mute groups, balanced inserts, and sophisticated pre/postfader listen facilities. Combining a solid build with prices starting at less than $3,000, the GL2200 staked out the lower end of the school and church markets, and the GL3300 and GL4000 moved up into larger worship auditorium, club, and corporate applications.
But the GL boards were lacking features that have since become essential for more sophisticated production applications, primarily LCR panning and VCA groups. Allen and Heath remedied that deficiency with the introduction of the ML line, which is broken down into three series (ML3000, ML4000, and ML5000) distinguished primarily by the number of audio groups, aux sends, and matrix outputs available. In addition to the standard LCR panning and VCA groups (eight available), all ML Series boards are dual mode and equipped with 128 snapshot memories, eight mute groups, and comprehensive channel EQ, including variable highpass filter and variable Q on the two midrange bands. The microprocessor-controlled mute and VCA functions are accessible via MIDI or external Windows computer.
With 24-, 32-, and 40-input frames offered at prices in the $6,000 to $10,000 range, the ML3000 is aimed squarely at the sweet spot of the lower midline market. It has only four audio groups (as opposed to eight on the 4000 and 5000 series), but the eight aux sends and the 8-by-4 matrix offer sufficient flexibility to cover a broad swath of moderately demanding applications.
Audio Toys (ATI) is the U.S. distributor of two high-end live sound consoles, the U.S.-made Paragon and the British-made Audient Aztek.
As the name implies, Paragon is a no-holds-barred, premium analog board designed for very high-performance applications in touring or performing-arts venues. Fully modular and essentially hand-built, the Paragon Production II model offers patented dynamics processing circuitry on every channel (including fully parametric gates), moving fader options, and the capability of creating four audio LCR subgroups. Balanced buses and high-voltage rails assure premium audio specs for those who are willing to pay the price – starting at about $120,000.
For those who want a fully modular, touring-friendly console at about half the cost, the Audient Aztek is worthy of notice. Also a fully modular design, the Aztek is distinguished by its external tubular aluminum frame. With prices starting around $50,000, the Aztek comes equipped with sophisticated parametric EQ facilities, 12 each of both aux sends and VCA groups, a 12-by-8 matrix, and a stereo ambience input for use with in-ear monitors.
Justifiably known as the Rolls-Royce of console makers, Cadac has cornered a secure share of the high-end analog market by concentrating on exceptional audio quality and features important to its core clientele, which is historically the elite of the theater market. Recently, however, Cadac has stepped down a notch in size and feature sets – though, it insists, not on quality – to serve the needs of smaller venues and the corporate AV market. With prices starting at a modest (for Cadac) $25,000, the new S-Type comes in 12-, 16-, and 24-input frames, each equipped with 100 mm P&G faders. Unlike nearly all other compact mixers, the S-Type is fully modular, allowing custom configuration with different mono, stereo, and master module options. For many applications requiring exemplary audio quality in a small footprint, it’s worth the extra money to “have it your way.”
Years following the much-ballyhooed corporate acquisition by Peavey, Crest has retained both its own identity and New Jersey manufacturing facility. The company maintains a broad line of console products, though in recent years, Crest has been shifting resources lower in the market. Sales of the flagship V12 have been damped by fierce competition from both analog and digital consoles, as well as slow market growth at the high end. As a consequence, Crest is turning to the greener pastures of the burgeoning upper-budget and midline markets.
At the upper end of the midline, Crest pioneered the concept of bringing high-end features to a lower price point with its X-VCA. Starting at less than $20,000, the X-VCA offers not only VCA groups and microprocessor/MIDI mute groups but also LCR panning, and – still an exclusive in this price category – built-in dynamics processing on each input. The balance of the X Series fills in the rest of the midline and carries down into the budget category. The X-Four and X-Eight Series boards offer a variety of frame sizes, rackmount versions, and dedicated monitor configurations.
In an effort to open a lead in the “more for less” competition, Crest’s new HP-Eight is loaded with some features not previously seen in the lower price group. A dual-function board made in the United States, the HP-Eight boasts eight audio subgroups, ten aux sends (with two pairs switchable for stereo operation in Monitor mode), 100 mm faders, 4-band EQ with two swept mid-bands, and four scene mute groups. The master module includes five stereo inputs, and mono inputs can be added in blocks of eight for frame sizes from 24 to a whopping 56 inputs. With prices starting at $3,600 and topping out at $5,900, the HP-Eight makes sense when basic features, sturdy build, and a lot of inputs take precedence over more advanced (and presumably unneeded) feature sets.
Beginning with the fabled Tapcos of the early ’70s, mixers designed by Greg Mackie have garnered a reputation for screaming-is-no-problem headroom, savvy features, and solid construction. The self-named company he founded in the late ’80s has gone through a number of changes, but Mackie bloodlines remain evident across the product range.
The earliest mixers from Mackie were smaller, multipurpose units tilted more toward recording than P.A., though they found their way into countless live sound applications. Responding to the particular needs of live production, Mackie later introduced its dedicated SR line of mixers in both 4- and 8-bus versions. The 8-bus and larger frame sizes have since been discontinued, but Mackie continues to offer both the midbudget SR32-4 and SR24-4 models, starting at about $1,700. These well-built and stylish mixers offer Mackie’s proprietary high-headroom/low-noise XDR mic preamps, 3-band EQ with swept mids (four band fixed on stereo channels), six aux sends (two prefader, two postfader, two switchable), and summed mono output.
Mackie’s new Onyx line of mixers is worthy of note, though you have to look at the top-of-the line 4-bus 1640 to boost yourself out of the “sub-budget” (less than $1,200) category. Listing at about $1,500, this worthy successor to the legendary 1604 series mixers offers similar features but upgraded technology, including new mic preamps, 4-band EQ with sweepable mids, six aux sends with individual pre/postfader switching, talkback section, and the familiar rotating I/O pod for desktop or rackmount use. For another $500, you can add FireWire I/O, which could prove handy in applications in which simultaneous digital hard-disk recording is desired.
Just announced for shipping in mid-2005 is the Onyx 80 Series with 24-, 32-, 40-, and 48-channel versions.
Although merged into the U.S.-based Telex group at the corporate level, Midas has maintained its image as a solidly British enterprise. The company is now leveraging its sterling reputation as a high-end touring supplier into an expanding slice of the midline installation market, with an early foray down into the budget regions, as well.
Midas is still best known for consoles like the high-priced, heavyweight XL4, back by popular demand, and its successor-in-waiting, the Heritage 4000. Both are packed with a plethora of high-end features: full parametric equalization, motorized VCA faders, powerful dynamic and snapshot automation, and sonically pristine mic preamps. If prices starting well over $150,000 are too steep, Midas still satisfies most big-name tour tech riders with its Heritage 3000, which manages to cut the price tag essentially in half. The next step down, appealing to regional sound companies and upper-end installations, is the Legend 3000. Semimodular design further trims the cost ($32,000 to $44,000), but the Legend retains key features like the XL4 preamp circuitry, XL3 equalizers, and a full complement of 12 aux sends.
However, the big news for the installation market is the “Italian cities” series, which launched a few years ago with the Venice. This daring entry into the high-quality, compact 4-bus market is offered in 16-, 24-, and 32-input frames selling in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Although the feature set (four stereo inputs, six aux sends, and 4-band EQ with swept mids) is hardly exceptional at the price point, the attention to sonic detail and the trademark Midas work surface (with its multicolor screenings) have lifted the Venice just above the crowded field jostling below it.
With the Verona, Midas is making a strong push into the upper midline. Nestled between the Legend and Venice, with list prices ranging from about $11,000 to $24,000, the Verona comes in six frame sizes (24 to 64) inputs in banks of eight, with each including a bank of eight green-fadered stereo “multipurpose” inputs. Midas apparently made a conscious decision not to “down-market” its VCA control, as many competitors have done, perhaps assuming (with justification) that many users at this level don’t use it or misuse it. Instead, the Verona focuses on the proven company strengths: excellent audio quality, easy-to-navigate work surface, solid build, and flexible circuit architecture. Along with eight each group and aux buses, the Verona offers group inserts, LCR panning with the proprietary Spatial Imaging System, a 12-by-4 matrix, 4-band sweepable EQ, and a dual redundant power supply on the larger frame sizes.
The purchase of Crest by Peavey has not, as some had speculated, resulted in a wholesale merger of the two console lines. Rather, Peavey has retained its own branding on low to midlevel budget mixers, ceding only the midline and upper market to Crest. The main Peavey brand goes through MI outlets, and the Architectural Acoustics division distributes a limited range of mono/stereo and 4-bus mixers in the $1,200 to $3,000 price range. At the top of this line is the AAM 3243, which features 32 mono inputs, four group buses, sweepable midband EQ with variable low-cut filter, and six aux sends. A distinct feature is the availability of soft-knee compressors on each group bus, linkable for stereo operation and patchable through inserts into any input channel.
The Peavey formula for success is based on developing product features that appeal to a broad but well-defined market and then marketing that product at a highly competitive price point. Case in point: the Sanctuary S-14 and S-24. Targeted at churches with nontechnical operators (or no operators at all), the S-14 and S-24 feature four channels of automatic microphone mixing, built-in compression on both the automix channels and music groups, proprietary Feedback Ferret autosensing notch filters, and a novel midmorph EQ that cuts low-mids (to remove muddiness) or boosts mid-highs for added vocal presence. These uncommon features may prove initially confusing to some audio novices, but Peavey assumes that quick mastery is possible, and after that it’s clear sailing. If the Peavey hunch is right (again), at a list price of $1,200 and $1999.99 respectively, the S-14 and S-24 could sell by the truckload.
While Allen and Heath was tucked under the same corporate umbrella, Soundcraft seemed to concentrate more on high-end touring, recording, and broadcast applications while at the same time creating a separate identity – Spirit – for the budget-oriented line. Recently, however, the company has made several notable midline introductions, and the Soundcraft logo is starting to reclaim the upper budget lines from the Spirit moniker.
Soundcraft retains a firm foothold in the sub-$100,000 high-end market with its Series Five desks, and the newer MH4 multipurpose desk bridges into the midline with sophisticated production features (16 aux buses, 20-by-4 matrix, VCA groups, automation, and so on) at prices from $24,000 to $48,000. From there it was a big step down to the K3 theater, which sported a far more limited feature set but was tagged with prices starting at less than $13,000. That left a niche to be filled, and Soundcraft has plugged it nicely with the new MH3.
Also a dual-purpose FOH/monitor desk, the MH3 comes in frame sizes from 24 to 56 mono inputs, with four stereo inputs standard. Eight group buses are available for FOH mode, and the 12 aux buses allow 12 mono mixes (or 8 mono and 2 stereo) in Monitor mode. Other attractive features include eight mute groups and eight VCA groups, snapshot automation, LCR panning, and 12-by-4 matrix expandable to 12-by-8 with optional module. Prices start at less than $16,000 and go up to about $26,000 for the 56-input frame.
For budget applications, there’s the brand new LX7ii, now marketed under the Soundcraft name. (The first LX7 carried the Spirit logo.) Although still in the budget category ($1,800 for 24 inputs, $2,500 for 32), this upgraded version shows mettle worthy of the parent company name. A new preamp design claims improved performance, and the 4-band EQ with sweepable mids is based on the MH3/MH4 circuitry. The 7-bus design includes four groups as well as stereo and dedicated mono/center main outputs.
After carving out a major chunk of the digital console market, Yamaha had people speculating as to whether it was still interested in making a new analog product. A definitive answer came earlier this year with the introduction of the highly impressive PM5000.
This new desk builds on the solid success of the PM4000, retaining much of the familiar work surface and operating architecture while adding new features and upgrading performance. Versatility is the watchword here. This is a fully modular board, which means mono and stereo modules can be swapped. Four stereo channels are standard, with current frame sizes accommodating an additional 24, 32, or 48 mono channels. A total of 35 mix buses are available, with 12 VCA groups and a 4-mono/8-stereo matrix. Automation facilities are extensive and include 990 scenes with instant recall of mute, bus assignments, and position of the motorized faders. Other top-line features include 12 aux buses, LCR panning with center-side ratio control, and 4-band fully parametric EQ with high and low switchable to shelving. As always Yamaha engineers paid meticulous attention to details like grounding (through a seamless 3 mm copper plate) and assuring generous headroom from mic preamps through summing amplifiers. Prices are understandably somewhat higher than the PM4K, starting around $74,000, though that’s hardly out of the neighborhood.
Below the new flagship, Yamaha continues to offer a full line of products suitable for all levels of sound installations. Working down from the still-current PM4000, Yamaha offers the PM3500 Series with many of the same features but with semimodular construction for cost efficiencies (about $37,000 to $55,000). The M3000 Series ($11,000 to $17,000) is Yamaha’s entry into the midline VCA competition, offering 128 scene memories, 4-band sweepable EQ, and Yamaha’s G/A system for flexible reassignment of 8 (out of 16) mix buses to either group or aux function.
Priced between $7,500 and $13,000, the M2500 Series consoles forego the VCA facilities but still offer MIDI mute groups along with LCR panning. The GA Series mixers, as the name implies, offer the group/aux reassignment feature in either 24-inch ($2,700) or 32-inch ($3,300) frame sizes.
THE SUB-BUDGET MIXERS
Often dismissed as throwaway mixers, this less-than-$1,200 group is flourishing in the MI marketplace and now is making inroads into the installation market. Although generally substandard for professional FOH applications, those products nevertheless are doing yeoman’s work as outboard submixers, as remote auxiliary mixers, or as limited-duty main mixers in noncritical applications. (The fellowship hall of a small church comes to mind.)
There are far too may offerings in this category to detail. Most are multipurpose mixers, suited for basic recording or P.A. use, which can make operation somewhat confusing for novices. The great majority are made in Asia, though with cost-efficient manufacturing, both British and American makers are represented, as well.
Of the companies covered already, Allen and Heath, Peavey, Mackie, Yamaha, and Soundcraft’s Spirit have mixers in this group. Other suppliers worthy of mention – and this list is not exhaustive – include Alesis, Alto, Behringer, Crate, Nady Systems, Phonic America, Inter-M, and Samson. Note that in some cases, the larger frames in these “supereconomy” series may creep above the arbitrary $1,200 line, but only slightly.
Evaluating these units for use in a particular application is both easy and difficult. Inputs and features are easy to compare, but trying to match performance specifications often results in apples-and-oranges assessments. Some critical specifications, such as input overload characteristics, are often incomplete or misleading. A test session in the shop is highly recommended before any installation.
Although the throwaway appellation may seem derogatory, the hard fact is that any repairs outside of externals (pot caps, outboard power supplies, and so on) simply are not cost-effective. Because repairing a customer’s unit essentially means replacement, manufacturer warranty periods are well worth investigating. One year has been the norm, but a few makers – including Crate, Nady, Samson, and Inter-M – are wooing the market by extending warranties to three years or longer.
In the final analysis, it’s a matter of matching mixer to application. A $399 mixer would be spurned on Broadway, but the purity of a Cadac would be irrelevant in an elementary school gymnasium when put between a $35 microphone and a $200, 15-and-a-horn. To each mixer its proper place.
Bruce Borgerson spends a few hours on most Sundays behind a veteran British console mentioned above. On weekdays he is sole proprietor of Wavelength Communications in Ashland, Oregon.
For More Information
Allen and Heath www.allen-heath.com
Nady Systems www.nadywireless.com
Phonic America www.phonic.com
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