Just how much does this compact mixer with a built‑in audio interface and effects offer the home recordist?
Gone are the days when, to get started with audio recording, you needed to carefully select each and every component in the recording chain: yes, there are still plenty of options if you want to do that, but in recent years we've seen a glut of well‑specified analogue mixers with on‑board A‑D and D‑A conversion, and either Firewire or USB connectivity — so that they can be plugged straight into your computer without the need for a third‑party audio interface. That leaves you needing only a microphone and a set of monitors or decent headphones to complete a basic hardware setup.
As with any mixers, the quality and functionality varies from one manufacturer to another and from model to model. The quality and quantity of the audio conversion has varied too, with some designs offering up to 16 channels of I/O, and others only offering stereo; and some offering 24‑bit conversion and up to 96kHz sample rate, but more budget models only up to 16‑bit, 48kHz.
British company Allen & Heath are one of a handful of mixer manufacturers who have been consistently among the front-runners in designing small‑format mixers to fit the project-studio budget — Mackie and Soundcraft being the two closest competitors that spring to mind. Their acclaimed ZED range of mixers offers plenty of choice, the latest addition being the ZED10 FX.
As the name suggests, the ZED10 FX is a 10‑channel mixer with onboard effects, but it also includes a stereo USB audio interface, capable of 24‑bit, 48kHz conversion, along with some useful routing options, which I'll discuss later. Also bundled with the mixer is a free version of IK Multimedia's X‑Gear amp and cabinet modelling software, which offers a few very good-quality models, and is arguably a more useful addition than the usual cut‑down DAW software.
The first four channels include mic preamps (the same as those that feature on Allen & Heath's Mix Wizard range), and these all offer 48V phantom power, which is switched globally. The next two input channels offer stereo line/instrument inputs, presented on dual mono jacks, and duplicated on two phono sockets for the first pair. The remaining two channels are another stereo pair that double up as the Aux/FX and USB returns. The four mono and first two stereo channels include gain pots, and on the mono channels these are clearly labelled for both mic and line gain. In fact, the legending as a whole on this mixer is very clear in comparison with that on much of the competition. Finally, there's one more pair of jacks labelled 'Playback In', which I'll discuss later.
Like the inputs, the outputs are all presented on the top face of the mixer. The main stereo mix output comes courtesy of a pair of balanced XLRs at the top right‑hand corner. Beneath these are quarter‑inch TRS jack sockets for the left and right mix-insert points, and another pair for the FX and Aux outputs. A monitor output, for feeding your amp or speakers, is presented on a pair of RCA phono sockets, as is the 'Record Out', should you need to record externally. Of course, most recording is likely to be done via the USB output, which is located beneath the monitor outs. The one remaining output is the headphones socket, which is presented as a quarter‑inch TRS jack.
The Aux doesn't have any dedicated outputs other than the headphones socket, so while it could, in practice, be used to feed external effects units via the headphone socket, it's really intended for creating a second mix for artist monitoring.
It was refreshing to find that power is delivered via a standard IEC inlet on the rear panel, because it means that there are no wall‑warts, and I could power it from my rackmounted power supply without the need for yet another extension socket! The only other features on the back of the mixer are an off and on switch, and a recessed button (accessible by pencil or screwdriver) to switch the output level between 0dBU and ‑30dBU.
The four mono channels include both a low‑cut filter and a three‑band EQ, comprising high‑shelf, swept‑mid, and low‑shelf filters. The mid-range band is sweepable from 120Hz to 4kHz, according to the legend adjacent to the relevant pot, but it seems, in practice, to go further — and, thankfully, far enough to encompass that often‑tricky 4.5kHz region, which makes it that bit more useful for taming nasty vocal resonances. The Q is variable, though not user-controllable: this desk uses Allen & Heath's 'MusiQ' EQ, whereby the Q is 'optimised' according to the amount of boost or attenuation. The aim is to make it easier to get a musically pleasant setting — which is great for beginners, but could prove frustrating to anyone who knows what they're doing when it comes to twiddling the EQ knobs! That said, it does mean that one fewer control is required on the channel strip, which enables a reduction in both the physical footprint and the manufacturing cost.
The two main stereo channels also include EQ, though it's more limited than on the mono channels, with only the high- and low‑shelf filters but no swept mid-band. The remainder of the channels, bar the Aux/FX return, is identical, with pots controlling the FX and Aux send levels, pan position, and 'fader' level.
Beneath the level pot is a tell‑tale sign that there's an on‑board audio interface: a button labelled 'record', with which you can assign the channel's output to the USB output, for recording in your DAW, and, beneath that, a 'listen' button, which similarly routes the signal to the 'phones output (of which more later).
The only remaining channel controls concern the Aux and FX channels. The aux channel, as you'd expect, has a knob to control the level, but no more than that. The FX channel includes both a level knob and, usefully, a tap‑tempo button, as well as up/down buttons used to select the required effect.
Moving on to the master section, things get a little more interesting than on a typical mixer, as this is where the USB send and return to your the computer are located. The USB 'In' signal — in other words, the stereo out from your computer — can be routed to the second stereo channel-strip, or to the 'Playback' input, which has its own dedicated level-control dial in the master section, along with a Playback to Aux knob, but no other controls. This means that you're able to send your computer signal to the second stereo channel, direct to the main mix via the Playback channel, or send it to the Aux channel.
The USB source (in other words, the signal you're sending to your computer) can be drawn from the main mix, should you want to bounce everything down to a stereo file, or from the record bus, in which case you can decide which tracks are recorded: you simply press the latching push‑button on the desired channels and they'll be routed to that bus. Buttons beneath the USB socket on the front panel determine whether you route the record bus and/or the Aux and FX channels to the record bus.
The headphones can also be fed from the record bus or the Playback channel — or any combination of the three sources, each of which has a dedicated push‑button beneath the headphone level control. The one obvious control that's lacking here is a simple mute switch, so you'll have to turn the knob to minus infinity to mute the output.
The monitors can be fed by the main mix or by the headphones mix, your choice being enacted via a single button that appears just before the monitor level control in the signal path. The level is indicated by a 12‑section stereo (so 24 sections in total) LED meter, which is clearly calibrated.
The whole thing feels pretty solid, and all of the knobs seem to be securely fastened to the front panel, rather than directly to the circuit‑board, as you sometimes find on cheaper, flimsier designs.
I connected the ZED10 FX to my MacBook Pro and it was recognised instantly as a class‑compliant USB audio device, so no drivers were required. However, Allen & Heath suggest trying the third‑party ASIO4ALL driver if you're experiencing any problems on a PC (not that you should be!).
I plumbed the desk into my regular monitoring system alongside my current audio interface setup (an RME Fireface 800), which I was able to use as a point of comparison. I first tried playing back a file from Cubase and the sound was nice and clean for a device at this price point — so there are no obvious problems there — and then moved on to testing the inputs.
The mic preamps, which I tested by recording vocals and a miked guitar cab, are pretty much what I'd expected: like Allen & Heath's other preamps, they're clean and capable, and there's very little onbvious noise, which is what you want from a general‑purpose preamp. There's a little less 'depth' than on the Fireface, and some higher‑priced preamps, but I'd expect that at this sort of price, and they'd certainly be usable for tracking duties. In fact, I'd be delighted with them as my first preamps, because if you can't get a good recording using these, it's more likely to be down to you than the preamps! The instrument inputs sound fine on guitar and bass too and, again, there's very little more I can say on this score: they do what they're supposed to do, and while there may be better dedicated DI boxes around, I find these inputs hard to criticise.
The EQ, which seems to be the same as that on Allen & Heath's other ZED‑series mixers, sounds nice and musical. There's enough control over the mid‑range here to tackle most situations adequately, and while I'm cynical in general about innovations like Allen & Heath's MusiQ, in practice I was quite pleased with it. It would certainly make the job of EQ'ing easier for newbies, though I'd really prefer to have a little more control.
The effects section is decent enough, though not really the sort of thing I'd like to use for mixing. The reverbs and delays would be useful for zero‑latency monitoring for the artist when recording: the ability to route the input signal to the effects and to balance the results with the stereo playback from your DAW gets around the latency problems that can irritate a vocalist or musician when tracking. (For details of the effects available, see the 'On‑board Effects' box.)
The routing options caused me a few headaches at first. They always do, though, because I tend to dive in before reading the manual! But I found it easy to get to grips with everything quite quickly, and within 15 minutes or so of use, everything felt like second nature.
Allen & Heath's marketing blurb suggests that the ZED series is 'perfect' for live mixing, and while that might be hyperbole, it would certainly serve well in that capacity, where most of the effects and the tap tempo would certainly come in handy. The level knobs are inevitably more fiddly than faders, though, and I know which I'd prefer to have on a dimly lit stage! However, I think that the primary market for this mixer should be the home studio, and anyone looking to make decent‑quality band demo recordings.
The preamps and 24‑bit conversion allow you plenty of headroom and a low noise‑floor, and the ease of routing any channel to your computer is welcome. Though the EQ is limited in terms of control, it sounds good, and having everything presented in a single package like this is great. The 48kHz sample‑rate limit is perfectly adequate for recording, though it may be a bit of a drag in some situations — because, even though I don't see the need to record at rates higher than that, it means that you can't play back any 96kHz audio that was recorded elsewhere.
This criticism aside, I have to say that I find it very hard to fault this mixer. In fact, I'd thoroughly recommend the ZED10 FX as the ideal starting point for anyone wanting to get seriously into home recording — and if you want to take things out on stage, it offers plenty of options for a small band there too. Just add a laptop, mic and speakers, and you're ready to go.
There are now plenty of analogue mixers with audio interfaces available from the likes of M‑Audio, Phonic, Alesis and others — but in my opinion, they don't quite match the quality of the Allen & Heath. A little higher in price is the Mackie Onyx range, whose feature set is similar. Should you need more inputs, there are many alternatives in A&H's own ZED range too.
The FX in the ZED10 FX's name denotes the presence of some on‑board digital effects, which are primarily intended for live use but would be perfectly serviceable in the studio, particularly if you want a zero‑latency monitoring signal with reverb, for example. The effects are all variations on the usual reverb, delay and modulation themes, with pretty clear names, and the single editable parameter for each effect (tweakable by holding down the tap‑tempo button), is given in brackets:
1. Dly + verb (level)
2. Dly + verb (size)
3. Dly + verb (regeneration)
4. PingPong (regeneration)
5. BeatDly (regeneration)
6. Ambient (echo)
7. SlapVerb (size)
8. DoubleZED (size)
9. Plate (decay)
10. Plate (pre-delay)
11. Plate (colour)
12. Hall1 (size)
13. Hall2 (size)
14. Arena (size)
15. Flanger (depth)
16. Chorus (depth)
Quite who uses the flanging and chorus — or 'Arena' effect, for that matter — from on‑board digital effects sections like this remains a mystery to me. I find them on such mixers everywhere, but to be honest, I'd rather have a couple of extra reverb or delay presets to choose from!