Paul is an engineer, producer, composer and musician who these days spends a large portion of his working life mixing FOH sound either on tour or in-house at London venues – including the legendary 100 Club.
His studio credits include Lucky Soul, The Hope Rebellion and Nick Evans and he tours with Various Cruelties, Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed & ZZ Ward mixing FOH. He’s also performed on stages around the world and on many recording sessions over the last 20 something years
Purely by chance I was presented with the topic for this month’s column on a platter when the in-house Digidesign SC48 console at a venue where I work didn’t survive a recent power cut and the interim replacement turned out to be none other than the new, and much talked about, X32 from Behringer.
For those that haven’t heard the hype about this desk its features include; 32 mic inputs, 8 DCA’s, 16 balanced XLR outputs, 8 stereo FX (16 mono) and truck loads of dynamic control on input and output channels for less than £2,500 inc VAT. And, if you look hard enough you’ll see it has Midas written on it. More about that later.
I had less than 24 hours notice that the X32 had been put in to replace the ill SC48 and I’d never actually laid eyes on one before. A quick search found plenty of info online and my first thoughts were, “oh, it looks like one of the Allen & Heath iLive series”. And the layout is very similar indeed. The input gain, dynamics thresholds, parametric EQ and bus routing dials are laid out at the top-left of the desk which felt much like the iLive-T112 to use. Instead of using a ‘select’ button to see parameters on the LCD screen Behringer have a ‘view’ button, which was very handy and user friendly.
I was both curious and tentative about using the X32. It’s not very often I get to A – B a mixing desk in familiar surroundings so I was keen to hear the difference, and I was going to work with a diverse range of bands over the 3 different nights which would be an excellent test. The bands ranged from the standard rock band line up, to blue grass, to instrumental electronica. The PA system is a punchy d&b C7 set up with one mid-high and two subs per side, which is ample for the intimate 200 capacity venue. The room is quite dead and one of, if not the best sounding small venues in London.
After mic’ing up the first band, which was a 4 piece rock band with 3 vocals, I began with the usual check on the drum channels. Kick drum, sounded much the same as I’d expect through the SC48. However, the sound of the other parts of the kit are best described as a bit thin and brittle. I was instantly disappointed. The kit sounded very 2 dimensional.
Next, DI’d bass guitar. Sounded fine. Electric guitars. Thin again. Vocals, yip, you guessed it. Thin, but harsh in the upper register.
When the band were all playing together I searched through the graphic adjusting frequencies in a bid to soften up the sound but after a little while it was obvious that I was fighting a battle I was never going to win. No matter what I tried I couldn’t get the richness, or fullness I was used to with the usual SC48. I have to mention at this point that I don’t have any brand loyalty with Digidesign/Avid, in fact they’re not my favourite sounding digital desks, its merely that the SC48 is my point of reference.
During the sound check I was able to do just about everything I needed quite quickly, which is a testament to the layout of the desk. The only function I hadn’t yet found was naming the channels so I resorted to using the trusty tape/sharpie combination.
The following night I had a blue grass band, amongst others, and the X32 fared much better than the previous night. No complaints on the sound. Or was I getting used to it? Probably a bit of both. And, I stumbled upon how to name the channels!
A nice feature of the desk is the option of using icons to ID the channels as well as names. Oddly though, there wasn’t an icon for banjo. I didn’t mention that to the band – banjo players are the butt of enough jokes already.
Comparing the sound of mixing on a X32 to a SC48 is much like comparing the difference between a recording made in a typical home studio to one made with expensive convertors and pre amps. After a while of working on the home recording you get used to the sound of it and think that you’re doing a great job yielding chart topping results. Until, that is, you reference against an expensive recording and yours now sounds thin and shallow.
The third night started with 2 psychedelic rock bands and the headliner played instrumental electronica, with electric bass and guitar. By this time I knew what to expect sonically from the X32 and had come quite used to the layout of the desk. It handled electronic music better than the other line ups and by this time I was navigating around the desk with ease.
My first few times on a SC48 I found quite confusing even though the information on the screen looked familiar from being a Pro Tools user. I’ve used digital desks from all the major brands and for a small format console the X32 is about as straight forward as they get for usability.
As I mentioned at the start the X32 has Midas written on it, because they were involved with developing the X32 – because Midas is, these days, part of the Behringer family. Midas consoles, digital and analogue, are widely considered to be the best sounding desks available. So, how much does the X32 sound like a Midas desk? The answer to this is reflected in the prominence of the Midas logo on the X32. That is, it’s not very prominent at all and in a certain light you wouldn’t even notice it was there.
Sonically, the X32 was a bit of a let down but I did find the layout very intuitive and easier to use than similar spec digital desks, like the Yamaha LS9 32. Although the LS9 gives you access to 32 channel faders simultaneously, which is nicer than flicking between layers, the EQ and dynamics controls are harder to get to than on the X32.
Functionality aside, the X32 is a prime example of a relatively cheap audio product which sounds fine until you ask it to perform to a professional standard, and then it starts to have a negative effect on the sound quality. But what’s a professional standard for a mixing desk? I reckon the bare minimum pro standard is being able to faithfully produce a full band mix at an average of 101dB A weighting. At around this volume the X32 starts to sound very thin overall as well as bightey in the upper vocal range.
In fairness, the X32 and the SC48 aren’t a fare comparison mainly because of the price difference. The X32 is roughly a tenth of the price of the SC48 and while it has many great features and an intuitive layout it does sound a tenth of the quality. And I can’t imagine there are many people who are considering something like an SC48 and then go for an X32 instead. They’re in different leagues.
Is the X32 a giant killer in features and usability, yes. Is it a giant killer in sound quality, no. Will they become a familiar sight in small venues and function band stages? Yes, unfortunately.