Mixing consoles have come a long way in the last couple of decades. A lot has improved, to the point where today I think we might be close to what I’d call “the perfect solution”. We’re close but not quite there yet. Here’s what I think is missing.
I’ve been doing sound reinforcement for all kinds of live performances for the last… phew, 15-20 years or so – it certainly feels like its been that long. During that time, I’ve used all kinds of equipment for mixing: I used analog and digital mixers from companies like LEM, Yamaha, Soundcraft, Behringer,… I even had to use my smartphone once (that wasn’t planned but saved my ass, but that’s another story). A lot has changed in the mixing space over these years. A lot has improved, to the point where today I think we might be close to what I’d call “the perfect solution”. Of course, a “perfect solution” is highly subjective. What I consider “perfect” might not meet someone else’s needs at all. You probably won’t agree with everything, but I think I can speak for the majority of small to medium and maybe even some large scale productions. So let’s look at what’s out there and what it needs to become my “perfect” solution.
First, it has to be digital. I’m a digital native and a software engineer. By now I can handle fader banks, layers, virtual patching etc. Nobody wants to carry huge analog consoles, snakes and a truckload of outboard gear anymore these days. Let’s just take that as a given.
Second, I don’t own or work for a production or dry hire company. By that I mean: while not being the only criterion, price is something I have to keep in mind. For the kind of work I do, consoles from manufacturers like DiGiCo or Avid are simply way too expensive. The good thing is that, again, for the work I do, I don’t need such high end consoles. So for me, this rules out high priced solutions. Then there are solutions that are “affordable for mere mortals” but aren’t that great (e.g. I have used a Yamaha TF3 and can only agree with its critics). When it comes to price performance ratio or “bang for the buck” in a price range I’d call “affordable”, there’s just no way around Behringer. While there are a couple of great alternatives from companies like Soundcraft, Allen & Heath or Presonus, it always seems like they’re missing a handful of features or are less flexible when compared to the matching Behringer product, while always being a bit more expensive. Since Behringer (or rather “Music Tribe” as their mothership is called today) acquired Midas and Klark Teknik in 2009, they’ve been able to mix and match these companies’ technologies to bring even more “bang for the buck” and make competitor’s lives even harder. Look, I don’t want to sound like a Behringer fanboy and there are certainly valid alternatives out there. But for me, Behringer’s X32 ecosystem (which is compatible with Midas’ M32 one if I ever need something “more solid”) is the one I went with a couple of years ago. And since it’s the ecosystem I know the best at this point, I’ll take it and its products as examples from here on – knowing that they’re certainly not the “only” nor necessarily the “best solution for everyone” out there. I hope you can bear with me even if that particular ecosystem is not your cup of tea.
After ruling out analog mixers and high-end prices, the next thing to consider is the feature set and flexibility of the solution. Your “required” or “desired” feature set will heavily depend on your use case. Here are just a few things to take into consideration:
- Quality of available AD/DA converters and Preamps
- Total number of input channels the mixer engine can handle
- Number of buses (are they stereo / mono?)
- Quality of on-board plugins (EQs, dynamics, effects,…)
- Digital routing flexibility (e.g. can I feed the delay return back into the reverb?)
- Ease-of-use / flexibility of the available control surfaces (more on that later)
Usually, most of these things are pretty decent these days. One thing that bugs me with the X32 platform is the available number of mix buses. I find 16 mono mix buses somewhat limiting when you consider that you need them for effects, as IEM/monitor mix buses and sub groups. DCAs can avoid the need of subgroups in some cases, but with some projects I like to use group compression or to put a de-esser on a vocal group because of too few FX slots to put them on individual vocal channels. A DCA group just can’t do these kinds of things. Additionally, if I’d like to pan backing vocals or deal with stereo signals in subgroups, a mono bus just isn’t enough… long story short: I tend to run out of mix buses fairly easily. Fortunately, Behringer’s next-gen Wing engine comes with 16 stereo buses, which should make my life much easier – once I’ll be able to use that Wing engine (we’ll get to that later).
Another X32 pain point is the limited routing flexibility. To be fair, this has improved with newer firmware versions: The workaround they found to make the group-of-8 patching more flexible feels clumsy but at least there is one. But besides that, we still encounter seemingly arbitrarily limitations. For example, adding salt to my previous pain point, you can only chose a channel’s pickup point for pairs of buses. Wanna put an FX send bus next to an IEM bus? Well, depending on which bus numbers you have at hand, that might not be possible.
The Wing engine lifts this limitation as well. In general, it allows for a lot more flexible routing across the board than the X32 engine. I heard some concern that this increased flexibility might get some less experienced users lost but as far as I’m concerned, I always embrace more flexibility. Less experienced users can always be guided by a good user interface and this can be improved by software updates. If the engine doesn’t allow flexibility however, that’s a wall that power users are going to hit sooner or later and that’s not solvable by software updates. So well done on the Wing engine for this one, Behringer!
So far I’ve only been narrowing down existing choices and at this point, you might be wondering about the “what’s missing” part I promised. Well then, here it is:
Unlike all other areas, it seems this one doesn’t keep on getting better with every new model. There has been some good in the past but also some very bad – even with some of the most recent models.
In the pro audio industry, there seems to be this belief that “to be credible, a console has to be huge and heavy”. Why is that? If I hadn’t already ruled out DiGiCo consoles because of their premium price tag, I certainly would’ve done so now: you need a warehouse to store them and a truck plus a whole crew to get these things from A to B (maybe with the exception of the SD11). Don’t get me wrong though! For large-scale productions, big consoles on which you have a great overview and direct access to as much of your mix as possible are absolutely justified and even desirable (and since that’s what DiGiCo is going for, their big consoles’ size is perfectly justified). However, most small-to-mid sized productions and projects aren’t going to need big control surfaces like this. So making these things huge and heavy should be a thing of the past. Move on, get creative, make things smaller and lighter and save all our backs.
This might come as a surprise but when I switched to the X32 ecosystem, I specifically chose against any of the X32 models with a control surface. I chose the X32-Rack and I am still more than happy with that decision. See, at that time, I had (and still have) lots of gigs with recurring performers / bands and I usually have the chance to build a solid console scene in advance. During the event, the amount of tweaking can be kept to a minimum. Also, with one of my projects we regularly perform as one of several acts at shows that are already running when we arrive. On stage, we have to set up a 4-piece band with instruments, backline, microphones, mixer, monitoring and have a 2xXLR stereo signal ready in ~ 5 minutes, all of this with only the musicians and me as the sound guy. Also, I don’t have a fixed FOH spot most of the time so I need to be wireless and able to position myself wherever I want in the venue.
These scenarios led me to go for an X32-Rack as the mixer and an iPad with the M32-Mix app as the control surface. The portability of this solution is stellar: A single portable rack on wheels with a handle that looks more like hand baggage than a flight case (called “Rackbag” and built by Gator) holds the console, a network router with a detachable wireless access point, a power distribution strip and even the iPad itself. When I need the 8 extra inputs, I have an SD8 digital stagebox sitting in a transport bag ready to go. All of this is lightning fast to set up and fits on the passenger seat of any car. I LOVE it, so much in fact that I never want to go back. That brings me to my criteria: the whole mixing solution has to be sized and have a weight such that a single person can carry every individual part of it and the whole solution has to fit in pretty much any regular car – all of this with the equipment safely sitting in appropriate transport cases.
You might think that my usage scenarios are corner cases and that controlling even a mid-sized event without a ready-to-go mixer scene and only with an iPad is anything but comfortable – and you’d be absolutely right: I’d never do that. In fact, we only talked about portability until now, but here’s where modularity comes into play. A highly scalable solution would have to separate the 3 elements that make up a modern digital console: the engine, the i/o and the control surface. With “the perfect solution”, it must be possible to mix and match any of them. Having this modularity would help achieving the portability goals pretty easily by the way. In fact, this idea isn’t new. While I was researching for this article, I reminded myself of the Avid VENUE S3L console. With the S3L, Avid did exactly that: they separated the engine from the i/o and the control surface. The S3L was arguably among the most elegant live control surfaces I’ve seen to date. Unfortunately, as said before, that solution was way above my budget, and besides that it seems it has been discontinued in the meantime in favor of, yet again, huge and heavy fully integrated VENUE control surfaces.
So let’s look at Behringer again. I think we can agree that they modularized the i/o part pretty flawlessly: They have 8×8 all the way up to 32×16 digital stage boxes. If you want even better preamps, Midas has you covered. If you’re looking for personal monitoring solutions, there’s the Behringer P16M or the Midas DP48. I know I sound like a sales rep at this point, but that part is modularized, flexible, compatible and there’s not a single device that doesn’t meet my portability criteria, so hey: thumbs up to that!
Now when it comes to the modularization of the engine and the control surface, things don’t look so good. In fact, I have a couple of projects coming up where I won’t be able to have a ready-to-go mixer scene and where I could have a fixed FOH space in the venue. An iPad as the only control surface doesn’t seem ideal. I’d really like to bring a control surface with me but today’s options are… disappointing. After all the praise I gave to the X32 and Wing ecosystems before, unfortunately I cannot do the same when it comes to modularity and portability of their control surfaces. Yes, there’s the X-Touch family of products that work with the X32 family of consoles. So there is some modularity here, great! However, it seems like X-Touch has been primarily built to control DAWs in the studio. Yes it can control X32 consoles complete with parametric EQs, dynamics, some routing, mute groups etc. but the way the controls are mapped onto the rotary encoder row seem far from intuitive. The goal of a control surface is to be able to quickly reach a setting and tweak it and while I think the X-Touch is a great start when it comes to control surface modularity, it’s not what I’d consider “the perfect solution”. (Also its price recently jumped up despite its age, making it even less attractive).
Why can’t I have a control surface like the Wing? The Wing’s control surface looks awesome, it has everything I want: a big comprehensive touch screen, a bunch of faders and control knobs – that’s it. Plus, it’s super slim right? Wrong! Yes, the Wing’s control surface (the light gray part) seems really slim. Unfortunately, Behringer decided to attach the “engine” part of the console to the bottom of the control surface. As great as the Wing is, I think this was a really bad decision. I can only guess the reasoning behind it. It’s probably because it’s more ergonomic to have big consoles be pointing at the user at an angle rather than laying horizontally flat on the table. So why not just use that angle and put the mixer engine and some digital and analog i/o there? Well because it wastes an incredible amount of space. Case builders now have to enclose a huge volume of air. The flight case itself ends up so big that it’s not portable by a single person, cannot be transported in a regular car and probably only be stored in a warehouse. Exactly like the original full-sized X32. It’s really a huge missed portability opportunity.
How can this be improved? Well, first of all, detach the control surface from the engine. If you really want it to be tiltable, add a retractible mechanism underneath it like you did for its touchscreen. Make the engine a 3-4U sized rack-mount unit that comes with digital and some analog i/o out of the box (hint: just like the X32-Rack). The rest of the control surface could be kept as-is for large-scale events. Personally, I don’t need to mix with 2 engineers and I’d like a smaller version of it: so for “the perfect solution”, make the controls just a bit more compact and shave off some faders and about 1/4 of the “do whatever you want with it” knobs. A slightly smaller Wing control surface could lean towards the Avid S3L in terms of thickness and size and could fit in a perfectly sane-sized, very slim flight case that would meet all the portability criteria above. Just make sure the touchscreen keeps the same size.
With a modular solution like this, I could just take the engine with an iPad for my quick-and-dirty gigs, attach a bunch of i/o if needed and attach a bigger flexible control surface when things get serious. And all of that could be carried by a single person, transported in a regular car and stored in a regular basement. There we have it, “the perf…” – no wait, there is one more thing.
There’s one aspect that tends to be forgotten when it comes to modularizing a digital console: what about the local i/o I do want to have at the FOH? Like a talkback microphone, a pair of headphones or near-field monitors, a CD/mp3/media player of some sort or even outboard gear? All of these could be very important depending on the scenario but now that we’ve separated the control surface from the engine, there’s no audio left at the control surface. That is actually already one of the major downsides of the X-Touch products today: no talkback, no monitoring and no local i/o at the FOH.
Sure, I could place the engine itself at the FOH and use its analog i/o or attach an external i/o box. However, that still doesn’t give us a ready-to-be-used headphone amp and connector. Plus, I could easily imagine scenarios where it would be more suitable to have the engine running on or behind the stage and we want to be flexible after all, right? At this point, we have to ask ourselves the question: how would the control surface and the core be communicating? As it stands today, it seems to me that Behringer maneuvered themselves into a corner here: AES50 can carry audio over a CAT5 (ethernet) cable, the consoles can be controlled via ethernet – but while they use the same type of cables, the protocols are not the same. AES50 cannot be routed by your standard TCP/IP router and can, to my knowledge, not transport remote control data (yet?). On the other hand, regular TCP/IP networks like the one used for remote controlling the X32 from the X-Touch or an iPad are notoriously bad at real-time / low latency multichannel audio (with Dante probably being the best option in this space, but that’s out of scope for the problem at hand). So as it stands today, it seems to me like you’d have to connect the engine with the control surface with 2 CAT5 cables (one for controlling, one for audio) if the latter should have some local audio i/o. Alternatively, Behringer could use their new StageConnect technology to get some audio to/from the control surface. But since that uses a regular XLR cable, you’d still have to run 2 cables and that would still be less than ideal. So this remains one of the problems left to be solved: being able to remote control a console while also sending a bit of audio back and forth using a single cable.
So to summarize: a lot of aspects are very good already in today’s digital console platforms: They are available in all kinds of sizes while the on-board feature sets usually cover today’s needs pretty well. Digital stage boxes – because of their nature – are well modularized already: They’re flexible, portable and are available at different quality- and price levels. What’s missing is modularity, portability and flexibility for the rest of the hardware, especially control surfaces.