This article is an overview of three, industry-standard consoles: two recent releases from Allen & Heath and Digico as well as the Midas Pro Series, which has been on the market for some time now. Key focuses of this article are patching, user interface and waves compatibility as well as input, processing, and bussing capacity/flexibility. My level of experience with each of these console varies greatly, and the reader may note that my personal knowledge of the Midas consoles is much greater. Whereas the other two consoles I am speaking mainly from research, and a snippet of personal experience (Demos or experience on similar consoles – notably SD12 which I have never physically touched – though it bears much similarity to other SD consoles).
Allen & Heath
The Allen & Heath Dlive consoles are relatively new on the market. With the Allen & Heath name behind it, many are apprehensive of using these machines on higher profile gigs. Hearsay states that the consoles have been making some riders and impressing the A-list communities. This is likely due to the fact that Digico has recently purchased Allen & Heath. This console carries the Allen & Heath name, yet is a product of Digico engineering, so lets take a look.
Overview: The console brags a whopping 160 x 64 I/O capability at 96K with a latency of 0.7 ms. The Dlive series features three sizes S3000 (20 fader), S5000 (28 fader) and S7000 (36 fader). The three surface sizes feature the same number of I/O capability with just more or less fader and processing at your fingertips. While each console features the same channel counts, I/O capability is indeed governed by physical inputs and outputs. This means that you are confined only to the I/O available both locally and on your stage box(s).
Processing/Operability: The S5000 and S7000 both feature two touch screens on the surface. Unlike the midas Pro3/6/9 and Prox, these screens are configured with channel processing on the left, and system config on the right. I will cover the left screen interface (shown below) and channel processing together as they exist in tandem.
Channel processing starts as you would expect it. The select button governs which input or output channel processing is displayed on the left screen. The signal processing overview screen looks similar to the touch screen interface on the Soundcraft Vi series consoles, with the full channel strips displaying visual representations of EQs and dynamics etc. The encoders surrounding the screen are a combination of dedicated and programmable knobs and buttons.
Dedicated encoders include: preamp and digital trim control, HPF and LPF in/out and frequency set, insert in/out indicators, Preset Library access, and PEQ. These are features down the left side and underside of the screen (PEQ under screen). There is always a detailed visual representation of the PEQ displayed across the bottom edge of the screen. There is also a “touch and turn” knob. which will manipulate whatever parameter was most recently selected.
The functionality of the encoders to the right hand side of the screen are referred to by the manual as “soft encoders” whose functionalities are governed by the “widgets” on the left side of the screen. The Widgets section allows you to quickly recall processing to the right hand side of the screen for ease of access to things like EQ and dynamics processing. The widget section has “2 blocks over 3 layers” meaning that you can program up to six different shortcuts that can either follow channel selects, or be dedicated to one channel. This would be infinitely useful having EQ and compression parameters for your lead vocal available, while simultaneously flying through the rest of your mix!
System Config: The right hand screen is the system screen. It features tabs for manipulating and viewing the following: Meters, Effects, I/O, Scenes, Ganging, Mix-rack Setup,Util/Shows, routing and processing (processing only on S3000 – Contains all Channel processing as shown on left screen, as the S3000 only features one touch screen) It also features an additional widgets module, where further processing can be pre-set for quick access.
Patching: Patching is very straight forward and not dissimilar to avid’s grid layout. So no major learning curve necessary there. The 64 busses are all configurable as matrices, auxes, groups and mix-minuses which is extremely useful in the corporate audio world where complicated routing capability is a must! Graphic EQs as well are conveniently programmable to busses without eating up available effects slots, which can be confining on the midas consoles, where you have to sacrifice Effects-rack slots for more graphic eqs.
Waves Compatibility: The Dlive Series consoles include card slots, both on the surface and on the stage racks, which can expand your snake options (fibre etc). These slots can be used with a waves soundgrid server which provides outboard. The connection of which is simply two cat5 connections. One cable each from the waves server and the consoles waves card, with a waves approved gigabit switch in between.
Functionality wise this console seems like some kind of a dream! It also features the card slots which allow for fiber snake, madi, waves, and other options which come in very handy when adapting your console to new show site challenges. It is important to note that, though I did have the opportunity to demo the console in a one-on-one environment, I have not been blessed to hear it pass audio. If anyone has any references concerning the actual sonic quality (straight off the preamp/conversion preferably) I would love to have them.
The Digico SD12 is the latest release from this manufacturer. It features all of the bells and whistles that you would expect to find on an SD series console and operates much the same within a surprisingly compact package (W~4′, D~2’7″, H~1’4″). So here we go!
Overview: The SD12 has an input capacity of 72 channels. Control and routing wise it offers 12 VCAs with fader and mute control, 36 busses plus the master, and a 12×8 Matrix. The console is split into two nearly identical sections consisting of a touch screen and 12 faders each. Faders can be configured flexibly with custom fader layers in any desired order (a notable convenience on both the Dlive and SD12 which the Midas does not have).
Processing/Operability: Channel Processing is very comprehensive and easily accessed from multiple angles from the touch screen, touch and turn knobs, to predefined and assignable encoders. Each touch screen has the same basic control buttons and encoders surrounding. Down the left hand side of the screen are quick select keys.
These work in tandem with the two rows of 12 encoders which exist along the lower edge of the screen. These quick select keys will take parameters such as gain, LPF, HPF, Dynamics threshold, aux sends, and pans and throw them to the faders below the screen, corresponding to the channel strip above. (See right)
The right hand side of the screen features defined encoders which control HPF, LPF, alternate input key (allows a quick swap of physical input for “oh shit” moments that need to maintain the same processing) parametric eq, and multi band dynamics. These manipulate only the selected channel, while the 12 encoders across the bottom allow you to manipulate a single parameter across 12 different channels.
System Config/Patching: The right hand side of the console features the “master screen” button which allows you to view and access the typical Digico system configuration screen with the grey options buttons across the top. This contains your overall system config settings, patching, grouping, etc. I/O patching, much like everything else on this console, is accessible from multiple locations. Input sources can be selected, per channel, within the channel strip by tapping the head amp section of the desired channel. If you so desire, you can do the reverse and assign input channels to physical connections from the Audio I/O page.
Waves compatibility/Card Slots: The SD12 has two slots available for optical fibre as well as Waves. The Waves card can connect to a Waves Soundgrid server via cat5 with a waves approved switch in line between the two. The SD12 and the Dlive both connect to Waves via a similar (if not identical) process and allow waves plugins to be operated within the console software, a convenience which is not shared by the Midas Pro Series.
Overview: Midas Pro Series consoles are known for that beautiful Midas sound. They require a bit of a learning curve to navigate but once you know where you are, and where you’re going, they are powerful audio tools. The Pro6 features a 64 input channel count, 16 auxes and 16 Matrices. The dual screens are capable of displaying all processing/patching/metering etc. Which is convenient and can be frustrating if you do not have an organized work flow. There is a separate track ball mouse for each screen, as the interface does not feature touch screens. Only one screen can be manipulated by the keyboard, and update utilities can only be selected from the left screen.
Processing/Operability: The channel processing on the Pro Series is a pleasure. EQs, Compressors, aux sends can all be brought to the forefront at the push of two buttons (Channel select followed by the view button within the section you wish to manipulate). Pretty much every single channel processing parameter has a defined encoder on the surface (including aux sends) which follows the selected channel. This speeds up workflow in an amazing way, because there is little navigation to do outside of selecting the desired channel for manipulation, once you are in your mix!
Another fantastic feature of the Pro Series consoles are the Pop Groups. The population groups function as custom fader layers. When you select a pop group it brings only the channels you have designated for that group to your surface. The population group is called as such because it deals only with fader populations. There is no group processing, mute or fader involved as in a VCA. The down side to population groups is that the selected channels are still confined to their physical input order. So if you make a pop group vocals and horns (in that order) you cannot make your pop group display them in any order other than their chronological order within the consoles patching page. This comes up drastically short of the Digico and Allen and Heath, which allow custom fader layers with much more diverse layout options. Caveat to that is that the POP groups on the Pro Series are extremely easy to populate. Accomplish this by simply holding the POP Group button while selecting the desired channels on the surface.
System Config/Patching: The patching page (shown above) on the Midas Pro Series Consoles is something that perplexes many veteran engineers, as far as I can tell. Rather than a grid patching bay with physical connections on one bank and virtual connections on the other, it features a two sided page, sources on the left, and destinations on the right. Sources and inputs can be programmed in single mode, sequence mode, and automatic (essentially a cascade function). Much like the rest of this console; once understood, the patching is a pleasure, however it isn’t something you want to walk up to un-patched and unaware in a time crunch.
In the bussing realm, the 16 aux 16 matrix infrastructure is lacking compared to the other two consoles. In a complicated routing situation these counts are very limiting and simply not enough. One notable advantage to the bussing configuration on this console is that individual channels can be sent directly to matrices, which is a unique feature to the Midas Pro Series consoles. The 16 aux busses can be set to operate as aux, group, or mix minus. So somewhat flexible, but not nearly as much so as the Digico and Allen & Heath alternatives.
Waves Compatibility/Snakes and expansion: The Pro6 cannot operate on it’s own – The surface needs a brain, known as the DL371. This remote stagebox contains no physical I/O but is the home of all processing power. The 371 features a series of card slots. Increasing the number of cards increases input capacity. In fact: the pro3, Pro6, and Pro9 are the same surface and brain, but with varying numbers of DSP cards; adding which upgrades the console to the next classification (Pro3 – least number of DSP / Pro6 – the middle child / Pro9 – full I/O Capacity and greatest processing capability). The DL371 can be connected to the console via Optical Fibre or Copper. Fibre is not a card option but is built in and adds no extra cost to the surface, though fibre reels can be expensive themselves. The DL371 has 8 AES50 ports which allows the integration of several stage boxes from the already remote brain. There are also three AES50 ports on the rear panel of the surface which allows for local I/O expansion as well.
In order to connect to a Waves Soundgrid Server, the console needs quite a bit of extra hardware. I’m certain there are multiple ways of accomplishing a Waves connection but the following is how I must connect my Pro6. Waves Soundgrid Server must be operated on a separate computer, connected to the console via the local AES50 Ports. The Soundgrid server does not accept AES50 and thus the signal must be converted to Madi in order to speak to the Waves Computer. This is accomplished through a network bridge and a madi converter. This system has many more connections and is much more finicky than the Digico and Allen & Heath systems, which involve simple cat5 connections. It is also notable that operating waves on a separate computer interface while manipulating your mix on the console can be cumbersome.
While sonically gorgeous, these consoles can be finicky and buggy. The Pro6 has recently been discontinued to make way for the new ProX system. Service quality for this console has plummeted since that discontinuation. About a year out from the death of your warranty, you can expect your stage boxes to fault, and often. Fader motors are easy to replace, and with good reason, because they will go bad. So, to wrap up: this console is a pleasure to operate, when it is in full working order.
Youtube Video Reference: Allen & Heath dLive — Integrate 2015
Personal experience – Demoed in person several months back.
Digico Website SD12 Homepage
Extensive personal experience in operation and configuration.