Whole Hearted Productions


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Whole Hearted Productions is a DBA of Whole Hearted Pro AV LLC

Serving Southern Arizona from Casa Grande to Sierra Vista

including the  Tucson Metropolitan Area

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Some Digital Console Options for Small to Medium Churches

We compare the Behringer X32, Midas M32, Allen and Heath SQ, Soundcraft SI Performer, and Presonus Series III consoles

 

By Trent Perkins, Whole Hearted Productions

February 8, 2018

 

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Here are some brief thoughts about several popular digital consoles on the market.  It is by no means comprehensive.  We have written another article about things to think about when looking for a new board which you can find hereWe have started to create much more in-depth reviews for several of the boards mentioned below using those 9 standards.  The console title will be hyperlinked to the more detailed reviews when they become available.


All of the boards listed below have moving faders, 8 DCAs (which come in handy when mixing a lot of channels on multiple layers), Mute groups (if muting the DCA isn’t enough for you), significant scene management with instant recall, digital scribble strips, and 16 channel personal monitoring solutions available.  With the addition of a router, all of these consoles can be remotely controlled from a tablet.  In addition, though only proprietary snakes are addressed below, all of these consoles (except the Presonus) have one or more card slots which can provide access to a wide variety of I/O including USB, DANTE, MADI, and ADAT to mention just a few.  Whole Hearted Productions can provide, install, set up and tune any of the consoles listed here, and we would love to help your church continue to improve your worship.


Behringer X32, X32 Compact and X32 Producer


The X32 revolutionized digital mixing at reasonable costs.  At $2,000 for the X32 and $1,500 for the X32 Compact, there was no other board that did anything close to what this did for the money when it came out in 2013.  We do not recommend the X32 Producer.  While it can be rackmounted, it does not have LCD scribble strips which are a serious disadvantage when you are going through 8 layers of fader banks.  With moving faders, a 7” color screen, well thought out layout and design and Midas designed preamps, not to mention some serious processing power with 4 band fully parametric EQs, comprehensive compression and gating and a large number of high quality effects, this board has a LOT going for it.  Once it is set up (we recommend having someone who knows what they are doing do the initial setup for your church so that you can get the most out of it), this board is pretty easy to use.  By using the built AES50 digital snake protocol, you can use this to connect to digital snakes on the stage as well as other X32 family consoles and M32 consoles and snakes (see below), if you need them for separate monitor or video mixing.  The newest firmware release eliminates the former requirement to allocate inputs in 8 channel blocks, which greatly increases the flexibility when fully utilizing the AES50 environment.


Midas M32, M32R, M32C


The Midas M32 has the exact same software and basic design as the X32.  What sets this apart (aside from its $4,000 price tag for the M32, and $2,500 cost for the M32R) is the design, preamps, and components... and a 10 year warranty (vs. the 3 year warranty on the X32).  The M32 has a much more pronounced angle above the faders which makes this easier to see in the sunlight when you are outside and much easier to work with while sitting down inside.  In addition, the M32R will fit in a rack (although depending upon your setup, you will want to make sure that your rack lid has enough clearance), but it still has scribble strips (as compared to the aforementioned X32 Producer).  The preamps sound “cleaner” than the X32 and if you push them hard they reportedly sound very warm and natural (as compared to breaking up as they do if you push them too hard on an X32).  Finally, the components are much higher quality on the M32 to include the buttons and the Million Cycle faders designed by Midas for their touring consoles.  The M32C ($1,000) is a single rack space mix engine with all of the processing capabilities of an M32 or X32, but it needs to be connected to a snake or another console (it has no analog I/O), and it needs to be controlled by an iPad (or other tablet).  This is a great solution for a monitor mix as you can adjust the EQs independently for the stage without affecting the house.  It should also be noted that the Midas DL16 (16x8, $1,250) and DL32 (32x16, $2,000) digital snakes are fully compatible with the X32 and if you are cool with the X32 layout, this may be a way to get the better sounding Midas Preamps and still save some money.  The X32 and M32 consoles are fully compatible with each other over daisychainable AES50, so you can mix and match as necessary.


Allen and Heath SQ-6, SQ-5


This brand new mixer (2018) has the potential to be the next new thing.  Taking the powerful XCVI processing engine from its much bigger dLive big brother consoles, this little guy operates at 96 kHz (as compared with the X32/M32 48 kHz) and sports less than .7 milliseconds of latency (The X32/M32 have .85 ms latency which is still very good).  The SQ6 has a smaller footprint than the X32, but has the same number of sliders as the X32.  The difference is that the sliders are not dedicated as they are on the X32.  This makes the initial set up a bit more challenging, but can potentially offer significant power by being able to mix DCA sliders with single channel and even FX return faders.  With 5 banks of 24 sliders, there are more fader possibilities than there are channels to mix and send.  The 7” full color multitouch screen is very useful, but also necessary to the operation of the board (although enough knobs, buttons and faders are provided to enable a tactile experience while mixing).  With the addition of I/O boxes, this board can access add up to 32x16 additional ins and outs with the ability to process 40 input channels with 12 STEREO mixbusses (as compared the X32’s 12 mono/6 stereo mixes) with a total of 36 mix buses including 3 stereo matrices (6 mono matrix sends may be enabled in future software releases).  And speaking of Monitor Mixes, this board will interface with A&H’s ME-1 personal monitor mixes which vary from the traditional AVIOM model in that each mixer can access 40 outputs from the board independently.  16 channel 96k multitrack recording is available on a surface-mounted USB thumb drive and a full 32x32 96k recording to a DAW can be done over a USB connection on the back of the board.  Bottom line, this is a great sounding board with a lot of capabilities!  However, he very simple looking user interface is somewhat misleading; however, if you are already a user of A&H digital consoles (QU, GLD, and dLive), you will find this system to be pretty familiar.  On the other hand, if you are new to A&H, we recommend getting some help to get this set up initially to optimize the workflow for your congregation.  Because of the flexibility, it will take more work than a fixed fader format (such as an X32/M32/StudioLive board) to get it set up in an ideal way for your church.  The SQ6 ($3,500) only has 24 preamps (mic inputs) built in with 24+1 faders and the rackmountable SQ5 ($2,800) has 16 mic preamps with 16+faders.  Both boards have identical processing capabilities.  The board works with older 48 kHz A&H snakes, but if you want to maintain 96 kHz capabilities, you will need a DX series I/O rack (DX168 16x8 stage box is $1,700).  This board also has the ability to work with their larger dLive systems for things like video mixing and monitor mixing, which means that this may be a great investment if you think your church will eventually invest in a dLive system.


Soundcraft SI Impact and Performer 1, 2, and 3


The boards boards sound good, have a relatively easy to use interface, and a flexible fader layout (like the SQ series), but it has a painfully small touch screen which is necessary for several functions.  Also, it only has 4 FX units built in (which is often enough, but there are no more).  On the other hand, it has a 31-band EQ, parametric EQ and compressor on every output bus, and there are a LOT of them available (31 output buses available with additional I/O).  These consoles have a ridiculous quantity of Ins and Outs.  If the SQ isn’t big enough, but you are not yet ready to graduate to a larger format console, this series may be a serious consideration for you.  The SI Impact and Performer series give you 80 channels to mix and with additional snakes, up to 128 inputs and 96 outputs are available, effectively putting you in a league with some significantly more expensive consoles.  In addition, these boards have up to 20 subgroups/aux buses which can be assigned in stereo to a single fader and sent to any of the available outputs. Even so, the board still sports less than 1ms latency at 48 kHz.  Again, it is well worth your investment to have someone set this up for you so that you can get the most out of your board.  You might look at the less expensive SI Expression boards, but the Expressions don't have scribble strips; multiple fader banks without a scribble strip is a painful experience, and we strongly recommend that you look for consoles with digital scribble strips whenever possible.  The security features on these boards are significant, and if that is a concern at your church, this might be an important consideration.  The Performer Series have 8 1/4" line inputs and and all four boards have 16 XLR outputs on the back.  The SI Impact ($2,300) is only available in one size with 32 mic inputs (eight of which are 1/4" xlr combi-jacks) and 24+2 faders.  Unlike the Performer Series, it does not have DMX capabilities (which typically aren't used on a soundboard anyway despite how cool the idea sounds).  In our opinion, this is by far the best value in the series.  The rackmountable SI Performer 1 ($3,800) has 16 mic preamps and 16+2 faders, the SI Performer 2 ($4,852) has 24 mic preamps and 24+2 faders and the SI Performer 3 ($6,068) has 32 mic Preamps and 32+2 faders.   

 

Presonus StudioLive III 16, 24, and 32


The first digital board owned by Whole Hearted Productions was a Presonus StudioLive 16.4.2.  When it debuted, it was the coolest thing on the market that was anywhere close to affordable.  When the X32 came out, we quickly upgraded because the X32 had moving faders, scribble strips, DCAs, and a much more useful screen.  Presonus held on thanks to its excellent sounding studio quality mic preamps, but it took a big hit from the X32.  However, Presonus seriously narrowed the gap and in many ways, surpassed the X32 when they finally came out with the new III series (they would probably be insulted that the two boards are even compared with each other).  In fact, The Series III was named the 2018 "Best New Live Sound Product" by Sound on Sound. Their new consoles have a color touch screen, moving faders, scribble strips, and multiple ways to set up the board.  They have a whopping 24 DCAs, but only 8 of them are available at a time unless you utilize the custom “User” layer.  They use a nearly proprietary network protocol called AVB which provides access to 16x8 and 8x8 stage boxes and (new in 2018) IEM monitoring solutions.  Utilizing the stage boxes, the board can access up to an additional 56 channels.  It should be noted however, that this does NOT work well with previous mixers or other gear using AVB prior to the Series III.  Where this board really shines is that it is fully integrated with the included Presonus Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software called StudioOne Pro, which is quickly becoming recognized as one of the top DAWs available.  We still find the user interface to be a bit clunky and non-intuitive for live sound (which admittedly may simply be due to limited experience), but many users find them very easy to use as live boards.  Because there are as many faders as there are inputs, you can mix an entire show (including monitors) without ever leaving the main fader layer.  and are reportedly very easy to use as Monitor Boards (similar to the QU boards).  Unlike all of the other boards reviewed here, the StudioLive does not have the capability to interface with other networked technologies with an optional card, and thus when it comes to digital gear, your are fully buying into Presonus.  Under the hood, all three boards are 32x16 channel mixers if you use additional stage boxes.  If you use these in conjunction with the 32R ($1,400 rackmounted version of the board with no user interface) in Monitor mix mode, you can have up to 32 Flexmix outputs when you use the outputs on both the console and the 32R.  The 32 ($3,000) has 33 faders, 32 mic preamps, a total of 40 channels to mix and 16 FlexMix outputs. The 24 ($2,500) has 25 faders, 24 mic preamps, a total of 32 channels to mix and 16 FlexMix outputs.  The rackmountable 16 ($2,000) has 17 faders, 16 mic preamps, a total of 22 channels to mix and only 10 FlexMix outputs.


Bottom Line


We are still huge fans of the X32/M32 paradigm for its ease of use and number of preamps for the money.  On the other hand, if you can afford them, the SQ-5 and SQ-6 are some of the most powerful boards in this category, and frankly, some of the only 96 kHz consoles in this class; but remember, additional I/O is relatively expensive.  If a sheer number of channels to process in and out is a concern for you, the SI Impact and Performer consoles are the clear winners here.  The jump to pro level consoles with that kind of channel count is typically well above the price point for a SI Performer (and WAY above the cost of an Impact!).  With that said, if you don’t need that many ins and outs, we find the tiny touch screen to be less than optimal.  Finally, the Presonus StudioLive Series III consoles are light years ahead of the previous StudioLive boards, and have great sounding preamps.  While we personally are not yet a fan, you owe it to yourself to at least consider this console.  In conjunction with the 32R, you have the potential for more outputs and even the Soundcraft SI series.  With that said, ebfore buying ANY console, carefully think about the cost of additional Ins and outs.  That may not be a huge deal when using your current analog snake  when you are converting from your analog board, but you will want to count the cost, capabilities, and flexibility up front when you think about future needs for additional inputs and outputs.


As you can see, there is a place for everything!  We recommend working with a consultant that can help you figure out what will be best in your actual situation.


Stay tuned for a similar comparison of some larger format consoles.

 

What do YOU think?  Do you agree with our assessments?  Do you think there should be other stand-alone consoles with these capabilities in this price range that we should have mentioned? What has your experience with these consoles been?

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