This attractive desk, crammed with technology gleaned from A&H's flagship iLive consoles, goes straight to the top of our live sound engineer's wish list...
The GLD80, from the well-respected Allen & Heath stable, enters the compact digital mixer arena with a great pedigree, and the reputation of a company whose history is very much focused on mixers. The company's flagship iLive system is now well established and has sold well around the world, and now the GLD has been developed to offer the benefits of digital mixing to those prospective users who don't require the full-blown feature set of a high-end system.
The best way to regard the GLD80 is as the heart and control surface of a complete digital mixing system, rather than a mixer on its own. Unless you want to hook it up to an existing iLive console (using the GLD80 as a monitor mixer, for example), you're almost certainly going to be buying this mixer complete with one or more of Allen & Heath's digital stage boxes, the AudioRack GLD AR2412 and GLD AR84.
Having said that, the GLD80 will function as a stand-alone piece of hardware, with eight physical inputs and 10 outputs on the rear panel, plus a networking card slot. But the AudioRack units are really an important and integral part of the package if you need higher channel counts, so for the purposes of this hands-on account, I will consider them part of the deal.
In terms of basic functionality, the GLD80 can control up to 56 inputs to the mix, including the internal effects returns. There are no fewer than 30 buses and 20 possible mix outputs, and of course all the usual DSP is built in, rendering the use of external processor racks largely unnecessary in many live applications. The 'digital snake' part of the system (which is, by itself, a huge reason to consider going digital, especially for portable live sound rigs — more in a moment on this) is achieved with either of the two AudioRack stage boxes, which handle the conversion from analogue stage sources to digital mix inputs and digital returns to analogue line outputs, and provide all the necessary connectivity in a single rackmount unit.
The AR2412 is the standard stage box, and it offers 24 balanced mic/line inputs and 12 returns on XLR, all connected to and controlled by the GLD80 via a single Cat 5 cable. The smaller AR84 expander has eight inputs and four outputs, and connects to the AR2412. One thing I really like about this system is that although the AR84 would normally be used in conjunction with an AR2412 (together providing 32 inputs and 16 outputs), it can be used alone if a more compact setup is required. A second single AR84 unit can also be connected locally to the GLD80 itself, bringing the total number of mic inputs up to 44.
On first unboxing the GLD80, I noted its attractive, no-nonsense styling. I have always liked the layout and ergonomics of Allen & Heath mixers, and the company's uncanny knack for producing something that doesn't compromise on features or user friendliness yet is unexpectedly compact (I used to have an analogue GL2400, which was a 32-channel desk yet took up less space than any of my 24-channel mixers).
The GLD80 looks the business, with a black surface design, black faders and black rotaries, and despite its modest footprint, there is plenty of space around all the controls — I can't imagine anyone finding this difficult to use. The whole thing is dominated by a large, high-resolution LCD touchscreen in the upper right-hand area, which provides parameter display and gives direct touch access to many control functions. It also displays the status of all system functions at all levels: everything from detailed processing channel parameters to patchbay settings, system setup and user preferences.
The surface follows the convention of having a single set of 'channel strip' processing controls, located in the upper-left quadrant, which become active for whichever channel is selected. Here, the basic parameters for each channel's preamp, filter, gate, compressor and parametric EQ are set.
The lower half of the desk is taken up by the faders, which are arranged in two banks separated by a vertical column of other controls, including assignable encoders and buttons, copy/paste functions and so on. The left-hand fader bank (Bank 1) has 12 faders, equally spaced but separated by simple panel markings into three groups of four. Bank 2, on the right, has a further eight faders in two similar groups. The two banks each operate in four layers (A, B, C and D), and Bank 1 is 'layered' independently of Bank 2, giving 16 possible choices of fader-surface configuration.
The extreme right-hand side of the board is home to the remaining desk functions, including talkback and headphone control, twin USB ports, and a long strip of soft keys which can be assigned to various user-defined tasks. Located just above the fader banks is one of the GLD80's most user-friendly features: a large, bright, LCD 'scribble strip', which shows useful information about the channel, including its name, which can be typed in using the touchscreen.
On the rear panel of the desk are eight local audio inputs: four balanced XLR mic/line ins and two pairs of stereo RCA inputs, which are designated as input sockets 41 to 48 but can, of course, be assigned to any fader. There are also 10 audio outputs: four XLRs, a stereo RCA pair, and two stereo digital outputs (one in S/PDIF format via RCA, the other an AES3 XLR). The all-important 'D Snake' link is where the Cat 5 cable from the AudioRack units is connected, and alongside is another Cat 5 socket for connecting an additional AR84 expander unit. Either or both of these connections can be used with up to 120m of good-quality Cat 5 cable.
There are MIDI ports, an Ethernet port (simply described in the literature as "for future use”) and two large fan openings, which expel air quietly enough for live theatre use when operating within the auditorium. For more advanced connectivity, there is an expansion slot that will accept various option cards and facilitates for I/O expansion, recording, linking the GLD80 to other systems, and for networking. The cards, priced between £600 and £1700$700 and $1600, include Dante, Aviom, MADI and Waves SoundGrid options.
I suppose everyone has their own way of setting up their live-sound systems, and when it comes to digital mixers, the first thing I want to configure is nearly always the patchbay side of things. This is probably because my live work tends to be quite varied, and includes theatre shows, corporate events and live music stages. Consequently, I often need to completely rearrange my control surface, depending on the requirements of the job in hand.
Most compact digital desks do a great job of handling inputs and creating a decent-sounding mix once you get used to the internal processing and EQ characteristics, but there is a fairly wide variation between different manufacturers when it comes to how the mixer can be set up. On the GLD80, there are numbered physical inputs on the AR2412 and AR84 units, and on the surface itself, and these can be patched to processing channels which in turn are controlled by the desk faders. The same applies to the mix buses and internal effects returns, and what I find truly excellent about the GLD80 is that not only can these inputs and mixes be freely assigned across any fader bank or layer, and in any combination, but the method of patching them is by simply dragging and dropping audio sources to faders using the touchscreen. The large LCD strip is also very easy to use, and it automatically follows the control channel if its assignment is changed to a different fader — it really is very easy to keep track of all the audio sources, no matter where you assign control.
I must admit that, at first, I thought that only having 20 faders on the surface would be a limitation when it came to operating the GLD80, especially considering its potential level of audio performance and processing power, but in practice I didn't come across a situation where this was the case, nor can I think of one among all the regular shows which I do over the year.
So, starting from the mixer's factory default state and following a respectable boot-up time of around 35 seconds, I selected the setup screen using the dedicated button next to the main display, and chose the 'Control' option from the tabs along the top. Then I needed 'Fader Assign', which shows all the available inputs and mix sources in the upper part of the screen and all the faders below, laid out exactly like the physical fader banks. Having made sure that Bank 1 and Bank 2 were showing the first layer ('A' in each case), I simply put my finger on the inputs and dragged them down to the appropriate faders, which then changed, both on screen and on the LCD strip, to reflect their new assignments. The sources are also selectable in blocks, so if, for example, I want to assign inputs 3-6 to faders 1-4, I simply tap the 'Block Select' option on screen, then touch the first and last input required (which automatically selects everything in between), and drag them as a single block to the target faders where they are assigned in the proper order. It's a very quick, easy and reliable method of patching, and the changes are confirmed as you go when the fader information is updated. There are one or two expert tricks that can be performed, such as undoing drag changes and auto-assigning to 'vacant' targets, but I didn't explore these myself.
With all my inputs patched to the faders, and with a selection of mix buses assigned to the right-hand bank, I moved on to naming them on the LCD strip. This can be accessed in a couple of ways, but the easiest way is to display the channel properties on the screen and tap the channel name in the top-left corner. A full-screen touch keyboard then appears, and the desired name can be typed in and the background colour chosen. Once this is done, this channel will always take its LCD display with it no matter which fader (in any bank or layer) it is moved to, and I found this to be invaluable when operating in more than one layer.
With the GLD80 all set up, I saved the entire configuration as a show using a USB memory stick (only as a precaution, as the settings remain in memory anyway when the unit is powered down), and took the system out on a couple of band gigs. Rigging was quick and straightforward, and as we didn't need to use the AR84 expander, there was only a single box on stage, a single Cat 5 cable running to the desk, and in this case no other outboard gear at all. I had assigned all the stage sources onto the first fader layer by using all of Bank 1 and part of Bank 2, with the four right-most faders controlling three monitor sends on auxes 1-3, plus the main stereo mix. The band members were mightily impressed with the LCD strip, especially as I had used their own names, and I reckon this would be a gig-getter on its own!
The audio processing facilities within the GLD80 are comprehensive, and offer all that is needed for a mixer of this size. It is well equipped with a range of internal effects, including over 40 reverb presets and 10 delay settings, together with various ADT, chorus, flange and sub-harmonic generator functions, and the user editing facilities are very good — there's not much you'd wish for as extra outboard.
All the functions within the 'channel strip' section are easy to monitor and control, and the audio performance is, as you'd expect, very good indeed, with an impressive clarity coming through in the mix. All EQ designs take some getting used to, but the GLD80 certainly suited my ears from the outset. It's easy to look at the EQ display on a digital desk and convince yourself that you're hearing exactly what you see, so I generally use the EQ 'blind' at first until I'm used to it, and I can't offer any criticism at all about the EQ's level of scope and control.
For the band gig, I hadn't pre-set anything other than the strip assignments, but it took only a few minutes to achieve a good starting point using the channel EQ and filters. Adjusting the EQ on the fly is intuitive, and I liked the combined rotary, which adjusts the centre frequency of each band and, when pressed, also controls the Q factor. The EQ display is excellent, as good as any I've seen, with colour-coded frequency bands for easy and fast setup.
The parameters can also be adjusted using the touchscreen, by dragging the mid-point of the curves in any direction. In general, I found that where the touchscreen and dedicated panel controls can both control the same function, they follow each other and changes made using one method are tracked by the other — very neat. There are no EQ factory presets, although you can, of course, store your own and build up a library, and the same applies to the channel dynamics processing.
The degree of control available on all processing functions is excellent, and the corresponding displays are large, clear and show exactly what is going on. At one point I was using the compressor and gate settings on screen to illustrate to someone exactly what these functions were for and how they affected the audio signal — a kind of built-in teaching aid!
I used the GLD80 on a second live event where I had two bands playing, and, apart from using the scene-store function to save the settings for the two bands and extending the number of stage inputs by connecting the AR84 to the AR2412 box, I set up and operated the system in the same way and with equally pleasing results. Again, the wow factor of the LCD strip and fast rigging of the digital snake impressed the clients, and I began to feel very much at home with the GLD80.
For my third and final road test, I intended to use the GLD80 for a run of 17 pantomime performances, where I would need to control 17 radio mics, a six-piece band, off-stage announcements and some sound effects. This relatively complex mix would not present a control problem for the GLD80. My plan was to have all the radio mics, the sound effects, a fader for the house music and the master L/R output bus on one layer, with the band mics and a band DCA on layer two, along with the off-stage mics.
The GLD was a pleasure to configure for this mix, and everything slotted into place just as I had intended. I even used the copy and paste function to arrive at a basic channel setting for the radio mics, which I would then fine-tune in the theatre, and I experimented with the GLD's 'ganging' function, which makes it very easy to link up channels in any combination, not just adjacent pairs.
All was going well, but when I came to programming in my sound scenes, I discovered that I had made an assumption about the GLD80, namely that I would be able to programme one of the user-defined soft keys to recall and load the next scene from the memory using a single button-hit. Unfortunately, this didn't appear to be possible, and with over 60 instant scene recalls required as actors ran on and off the stage, I couldn't do the show on this desk as a result. But when I spoke to the technical experts at Allen & Heath, they told me that the next firmware release included this very function! They were kind enough to send me a pre-release version, which I loaded up, and, sure enough, there are now options for scrolling through scenes and loading them in the softkey menu. I have since tried this and can report that it works perfectly. The only thing I would suggest as a further development is to also offer a one-button option to load the previous scene, because if you jump to the next scene too early or hit the button twice by mistake, it would be really useful to step back one scene with a single hit.
As well as a number of changes to the scene memory and show-template features, the new firmware release features other significant enhancements, including support for the new ME Personal Monitoring System and the forthcoming iPad wireless control app, a major upgrade to the graphic EQ section that introduces a choice of four EQ models (similar to those introduced in a recent iLive firmware release), and a frequency response curve and RTA (Real Time Analyser) display of the selected PFL/AFL signal directly on the graphic EQ screen. Also included in the new firmware are user access to I/O expansion card settings, MIDI control of monitor mixes and effects send levels, and some refinement to the way in which the drag-and-drop strip assignment works. Full details of the new firmware will be available on the Allen & Heath web site by the time this is published, and would be well worth checking out.
As far as the general operation of the GLD80 is concerned, I have to say that this is a lovely piece of kit to use, and after a couple of hours with it, anyone used to an analogue mixer should be able to use it to good effect in a live-sound situation. The motorised faders are fast and smooth (although they don't very much like being moved together when linked or ganged, when it's best to just push one of the pair or group). The surface itself is very well laid out and I didn't notice any awkward or annoying design features, although I'd prefer the headphone socket to be a little more out of the way, so that the cable wouldn't cross the desk surface (the socket is on the right-hand side of the desk, and headphone cables usually enter by your left ear).
The pleasing low profile of the GLD80 means that the (excellent) main screen sits at a flat-ish angle and is best viewed when you lean forward over the surface or stand above it. Personally, I'd have liked it to be tilted up a little more sharply, or even at an adjustable angle, as I do most of my shows sitting down and slightly back from the controls. The LCD strip, however, is very clear from this position, and is a first-class piece of design. As with every product I have used from this manufacturer, there is a good deal of attention to detail, and the GLD is extremely well constructed, with a metal top surface and rotary controls mechanically secured in place with proper nuts. The unit as a whole is mechanically rigid and doesn't flex when lifted from one corner, which bodes well for a long and trouble-free operational life, especially within the rental market. It's also easy to pick up and carry about, although I'd definitely protect my investment with a good-quality transport case for mobile use.
The GLD80 has to be packed up and returned to Allen & Heath tomorrow morning, and I shall be genuinely sorry to part with it. I have only used the system in a couple of very basic live-sound applications, and I would have liked to spend more time exploring and no doubt enjoying more of its finer points, but after only a short acquaintance I am left with an overriding impression of quality, flexibility and confidence. Future firmware releases will ensure that the GLD80 remains a thoroughly modern machine, and the great thing about an accessibly priced mixer from a major designer and manufacturer of high-end mixers is that you can benefit from some very expensive research and development without having to find your way around a premium price tag. There's a lot of quality packed into the GLD80's modest size, and I've been very impressed by it in all departments. When it comes to replacing my current digital system, this one will be on the list for sure.
Obvious contenders include the Soundcraft Si Compact 24, Roland M480, Yamaha LS9 and the Behringer X32.