The market for compact digital desks is hotting up. Has Allen & Heath's latest contribution got what it takes to fend off the competition?
The small-format portable digital mixer marketplace is currently a healthy and expanding one, with some models on at least their second version and with new models bringing new feature sets. The new QU16 from Allen & Heath has generated a lot of interest in the audio world, not least because of its inbuilt multitrack recording ability, and on numerous occasions I've been asked if I've seen one, tried one or bought one yet. I can now answer 'yes' to at least the first two of these questions...
After unpacking the QU16, I switched it on and was immediately impressed by how quickly it booted up, being completely ready for use in about 10 seconds. In a bit of a departure from my usual method, I decided to read through the user guide before trying anything clever (well, I did plug in an iPod and some headphones just to check it was working), and I noticed that a number of functions were flagged as being unavailable in version 1.0 of the firmware. One of these was the ability to create a custom user fader layer, and when I checked by pressing the appropriate buttons, sure enough that didn't work. So I downloaded the latest version from the Allen & Heath web site and installed it — hello custom fader layers and more! I did have to change my USB stick for a larger one because the QU16 prefers to see at least 4GB when formatting, but after that the whole process was automatic and painless, and the additional features were available as described in the release notes.
First impressions of equipment are important to me, and to those of my customers (and potential customers) perhaps even more so. I had liked the advertising notes and pictures of the QU16 before it arrived, and I certainly wasn't disappointed when it emerged from the box. The QU16 is neat, cute and impressively functional in appearance (I happen to like black control surfaces). And it is also, of course, designed to bolt straight into a standard 19-inch rack if desired. I very much like the way all the input/output connections are on the back panel, which does away with cable clutter on the top surface (especially important for installs), although the relatively narrow panel must be tall enough to accommodate the full complement of I/O, which means that the overall profile isn't as low as many desks of this size. The angle of the front panel makes it easy to see and use the touchscreen when seated behind the QU16, and you don't have to keep half-standing and leaning over to read the control labels.
One of the more confusing aspects of digital mixers is often the signal routing, and because this is the first thing I set up when getting acquainted with a new surface, it's usually not long before I'm into a bit of head-scratching and user-guide action to get all the ins and outs just where I want them. This is absolutely not an issue with the QU16, as it really is a simple, straightforward mixer which is about as easy to use as a teaspoon. There are 16 mono inputs (channels 1 through 16), which are all equipped with both XLR microphone and TRS line sockets, and there are a further three pairs of stereo line inputs (ST 1, 2 and 3) of which two have TRS inputs only, normalled for mono sources on the left jack, and ST3 is accessed via a stereo mini-jack on the top panel and also serves as the USB stick stereo input. To use the main analogue inputs and outputs there's no internal soft patching necessary, and you can start using the QU16 straight away with its factory settings: the hardware inputs are controlled by their respective faders, so it's just not possible to go wrong here. On the output side there are main left and right XLR connectors, and 10 further mix-bus outputs of which four are mono and the remainder are arranged in stereo pairs, again all appearing on XLR connectors. There are also digital inputs and outputs, including bi-directional USB (B type) and a Cat5 dSnake port, for use with Allen & Heath's proprietary digital snake and monitor systems. A standard AES3 digital stereo output is also present, and can be fed by various sources via internal patching. Just because the QU16 is simple to use doesn't mean that it's short on flexibility, and there are plenty of routing options when it comes to feeding output buses, effects engines, digital I/O and so on.
As with most digital consoles, each channel has its own fader, mute and solo/PFL buttons, but all the rest of the normal channel-strip controls are found within the Channel Block, which is used to control whichever input channel is currently selected for processing. The Channel Block contains a comprehensive set of 'one knob per function' controls, which are logically and clearly laid out in a large section at the top of the surface, and they are complemented by and used in conjunction with a large LCD touchscreen to monitor and adjust every accessible parameter within the QU16.
The mono and stereo inputs have slightly different controls, but everything you'd expect to find — or ever reasonably need — is right there. The preamp section allows input trimming, individual 48V phantom-power switching, polarity switch, delay, pairing to an adjacent channel, and the ability to insert internal effects. The screen display shows which input source (local analogue, dSnake or USB) is selected, and this is where input selection is made.
Other functions in the Channel Block include a compressor and gate, which have a single rotary threshold control but with access to more detailed parameter settings via the touch screen. The more I used it the more I found this to be a main theme of the QU16: that the advanced functions don't get in the way of the basic operating controls, but it's all there if you want it. The EQ section is four-band fully parametric, with a really nice smooth feel and sound, and a good clear display of what's going on. The four bands all have dedicated physical controls but can also be adjusted via the screen/encoder function. They are labelled LF, LM, HM and HF but can all be operated across the entire frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz, and all have the same degree of control available — the only difference is that the LF and HF sections have shelf-curve options as well as the variable-width bell curves. All of the channel processing functions work in an obvious and predictable way, and what you hear ties up with what the screen is showing you.
The compressor and gate are very easy to use and I like the way you can see what's going on by viewing the curves and monitoring input/output levels on screen — I was even able to use it as a teaching aid to explain to our newest assistant how the dynamics processors were working.
The input channels are controlled by two fader layers: inputs 1-16 on the first layer, and the three stereo line inputs on the second, together with the effects sends/returns and mix masters. If both fader bank buttons are pressed at the same time you have access to a user-configurable layer, which can be made up of a custom combination of inputs and mixes. Whichever processing section has focus at any time will display and control whichever input channel (or mix) is currently selected, and it's easy to set up one channel, leave the processing screen open and press select on another channel to start working on that one, provided it's within the same fader layer. If you select the other fader layer, the processing module stays focused on the current channel until you press another channel select button. In other words, when you change fader layers the channel select doesn't automatically jump to the other channel controlled by that particular fader.
Input sources can be selected as analogue or digital, either from the corresponding XLR/TRS input on the rear panel or from the USB inputs, by using the touchscreen. In this way you would be able to play several recorded tracks from an external USB hard drive alongside live tracks from stage, and I can think of various shows I've run where that would have been a very welcome option.
The QU16 is well endowed in the mix-bus department, and in addition to the main left/right FOH mix there are 10 other output buses and two dedicated effects buses. Because six of the mix buses are stereo and therefore only require one fader per pair, there are enough physical faders to control the line inputs, effects returns and mix buses all within the second layer, and so once again everything is kept simple and neat. And of course, the master fader is separate and therefore always available, no matter what the other 16 faders are controlling.
A row of buttons down the right-hand side selects the various bus mixes, and brings up each mix in a 'sends on faders' configuration, where the LR master fader becomes the mix fader and the mix inputs are all on the other two fader layers. This is by far the quickest and easiest way to manage the mix buses, whatever they are being used for, but the mix sends can also be controlled on a per-channel basis by using the channel mix sends screen, where pre/post settings can also be chosen. For a basic stereo main mix with a few auxiliary sends, nothing needs to be patched and you can be up and running in literally under a minute, but as ever there are more options available if needed.
Metering is arguably more important on a digital mixer, as the surface can at any one time be operating in more than one mode, and the QU16 provides a simple three-way LED indicator on each channel to show signal detection, signal at a 'good' working level and peak warning — a simple but effective green-green-red system. The main output meters (also used for P/AFL settings) are nice, bright 12-segment ladders and all metering is reflected on the appropriate screen display. There's also an overall meter view screen, which shows all the inputs and mix levels together; I noted that the display shows channels 1-16 at the top with the stereo inputs and mix buses underneath, which is the other way round to the actual surface layout.
As a live sound mixer the QU16 is about as easy to use as it gets, and the provision of a dedicated talkback mic input (with phantom power) means that you don't have to tie up a local input, which is sometimes the case with compact desks. The talkback is of the press-and-hold type, and while it doesn't have a dedicated surface control for level, this can be set within the relevant screen using the encoder.
The QU16 has four independent effects processors, which contain a large array of useful presets as found in the iLive consoles, with detailed editing of parameters available. The effects are stored in a library arranged by processor type (reverb, delay, ADT, chorus and so on), and are recalled from the effects screen. The initial factory presets cover most requirements, but can be fine-tuned as required. Each one has its own distinct graphic interface in the style of the module itself, and a neat feature is the ability to toggle the display between front and rear panel views, where parameters and in/out routing are controlled, respectively. I tried out quite a few of the effects, and although I would never get around to using more than a handful of them, I particularly liked the hall and room reverbs and the symphonic chorus. The attractive individual interfaces can be used to impress onlookers or customers, but they are also very useful in helping you remember what they do, and quickly identifying your go-to modules.
One of the most useful benefits of digital mixers is their ability to store and recall settings within a bank of scene memories, and the QU16 has 100 memory slots which will store every setting on the desk. This is a great feature, and incredibly useful if you are running the sound for more than one act within the same show — just store all the desk settings after each band's soundcheck, and simply recall that scene when they come on stage. The other main use for scene memories is when running theatre shows, and if there are several radio mics and fast changes involved it's almost impossible to work this successfully without a really good mute group function (which the QU16 does have, by the way), or by setting up previously programmed scenes.
The recall function on the QU16 is accessed by means of the touchscreen, which isn't the fastest way of dealing with quick live changes, but recall and 'next scene go' functions can be assigned to the user-defined buttons over on the right-hand side of the surface. Scenes can be named (a neat onscreen pop-up keyboard makes this easy), and various parameters can be excluded from the scene changes. For example, you might want to mute/unmute several radio mics but you don't want any preamp or EQ adjustments you make during the show to be overwritten each time a new scene is recalled.
A major feature of the QU16 is the provision of both a USB QuDrive port (top panel) and a streaming USB port (B-type, rear panel), which can be used to play and record either stereo or multitrack audio to a suitable external drive or Mac-based DAW application. There are as yet no drivers available to interface with a Windows PC (unfortunately for me), but a full 18-channel multitrack recording can be made, and played, using a USB drive (not a stick) which you must format for use with the QU16. This is a massively useful feature, as it enables either multitrack recordings of live performances to be made by simply plugging in a drive, or using the QU16 as the basis for a mobile or studio recording setup in its own right. The user manual suggests that only a USB hard drive can be used for recording, although stereo file playback from a USB stick is possible if you copy WAV files from a computer. I did try recording the stereo output of the QU16 direct to the stick I used for updating the firmware, and it appeared to work and play back without any problems. It will re-record its own playback track, so you could overdub live sources if you wanted to.
The build quality of the QU16 appears to be well up to Allen & Heath's usual high standard, with all the top-panel controls securely fixed directly to the panel and all the rear connections hard-mounted to the casing, with none of those flimsy 'floating' components that rely on their internal circuit board to keep them in place. I really do like the layout, and the controls have a lovely smooth feel to them with just the right amount of mechanical resistance. The faders are fast and quiet, and the rubber buttons have a fairly positive action with a good level of illumination. The Qu16 is very compact and easy to transport (it's an attractive item and I would definitely be inclined to make use of the Kensington lock slot if leaving it unattended), and it represents a flexible and highly practical digital mixer in a small, easy-to-use format.
As always, I have only looked at some of the features and there's more information on the Allen & Heath web site where you can download more detailed information, but better still, try and get alongside one of these in a retail store and see for yourself what it can do. When you consider the QU16's development pedigree, its digital snake options, the potential for wireless remote control, its inbuilt multitrack recording facility, and its price, it's easy to see why this excellent little package has got a lot of people very interested.
The market for compact digital mixers is healthier now than it's ever been, with the obvious contenders being the Presonus StudioLive 16.4.2, Yamaha 01V96i, Behringer X32 Compact, Soundcraft Si Expression and Roland M200i.
The QU16 has an Ethernet network port, which allows computer control over mixer parameters. This can also be used to connect the mixer to a wireless router, for iPad control using the Allen & Heath QU-Pad application. This allows remote control of the desk from anywhere within range of the router, and means that the mix can be adjusted from different listening positions or from the stage if necessary — an obvious advantage for a single-crew operation.