The X32 Compact takes the heart of Behringer's flagship console and crams it into a cheaper, smaller package. We put it to the test.
The Behringer X32 has already caused quite a stir in the affordable digital mixer world, not only because of its low price but also the association with, and inclusion of, design and technology from the well-known Midas and Klark-Teknik stables, both of which are now part of the Behringer family. Aside from the original X32 there are now four other variants either in, or on the point of joining, the product line-up: the X32 Core, the X32 Rack, the X32 Producer, and the one that is currently on my desk, the X32 Compact. Anyone involved with live sound is likely to have at least heard of the X32, and the quick way to describe the X32 Compact is as an X32 without the first eight channel faders — although to keep the size down, the control layout has been redesigned (and some controls have been removed altogether), while the number of XLR inputs and outputs has been halved. However, the output busing and master-section functionality from the full-size X32 are still there, just as they would be on the larger unit.
We took an in-depth look at the technical and practical aspects of the original X32 last year (http://sosm.ag/aug12-x32), and it would be worth reading that review as much of the technical detail applies to the X32 Compact.
Just to run down the basic functionality, the X32 Compact has 16 on-board mic preamps and 16 balanced analogue XLR inputs, with six local auxiliary inputs (line level on TRS jacks, with additional unbalanced RCA connectors on inputs 5 and 6 for things like CD players), and a further 16 inputs available via the AES50 ports. Signals are routed using a total of 25 buses, made up of three main ones (left, centre, right) 16 'aux' mixes and six matrix buses, each with parametric EQ and dynamics processors. Bus signals are routed to 16 analogue XLR outputs and 6 TRS jack outputs, with two full-size (6.3mm) headphone jacks located (some would say 'hidden') within the lifting recesses at either side of the board — a nice touch, as you can choose which side you are going to have your headphone cable on.
As with almost all digital mixers, the X32 Compact has a single, comprehensive set of processing controls which act as the 'channel strip' for whichever channel is currently selected, including mix buses where appropriate. Although this is a somewhat unfamiliar approach to anyone who has only used a traditional analogue console, once you find your way around the control surface you can't go far wrong with this because if you attempt an 'illegal' operation (for example, trying to bring up and adjust the EQ on a DCA group), it simply won't let you. All you have to do is get used to where the select buttons are (and read the screen) so that you know which channel or bus you're working with.
Although much of the functionality of the X32 Compact reflects the larger X32, the channel processing controls are grouped into a smaller space and so have a different layout, the most obvious difference being the absence of the aux bus send controls. All the controls representing the per-channel processors are, however, still there — input configuration, preamp, gate, dynamics and equaliser. The pod that houses the main LCD screen and menu buttons has been moved to the right-hand end of the top surface, and as a result the monitor and talkback panelshave been neatly relocated to the top left above the channel preamp controls.
The input channels can only be controlled by the eight faders on the left, and are therefore switched in layers to reflect the X32 Compact's 40-channel input count. Having so many potential input channels to the console and being able to control them with only eight faders across five layers is something I found surprising. I had assumed that I would be able to assign input channels 9-16 to the right-hand fader bank and have all 16 faders controlling my input mix, but this isn't an option. Personally, I'd work around this by assigning inputs above number 8 to DCA groups, which are on the first layer of the right-hand fader bank, with input 9 assigned to DCA 1, input 10 to DCA 2 and so on. The LCD scribble strip still shows it as a DCA, but you can at least add a second line of characters, such as 'Ch9' or the instrument name.
The right-hand fader bank is all about driving the mix buses and outputs. In addition to the left, right and centre/mono outputs, there are 16 assignable mix buses, eight DCA groups and six matrix groups, all accessible from control layers on the right-hand fader bank (the mix buses can also be controlled in groups of eight using the left-hand fader bank, but, like with the channels, you can't control all 16 buses with both banks of faders at the same time). The mix and matrix buses all have the option of inserting the on-board processors, and include a neat 'virtual effects rack' feature, with some desirable hardware simulations including the Lexicon 480L and (a particular favourite of mine) the PCM70. Output connectivity is flexible, with eight XLRs and a further six TRS line outputs, two of which have additional unbalanced RCA connectors — a big convenience, especially when someone approaches you with a portable recorder and asks for a live feed to record their band from the desk.
Trying to configure the input/output assignments, fader control and internal routing on any digital mixer can be anything from an easy, intuitive process to a frustrating "I wish I'd bought the other one” experience. Happily, the X32 Compact often provides more than one way of achieving the desired settings, either through direct surface button presses to access the relevant options on screen or by locating the page on a series of screen tabs. The LCD screen is large, bright and exceptionally clear, and although there's a lot of text displayed on some of the routing pages I found no difficulty in reading any of it. Once I got used to using a combination of screen tabs and dedicated rotary controls I found the configuration process reasonably straightforward and, as with the surface buttons, any unavailable options are either identified (for example, any analogue output above 8 is shown as a virtual output only with no physical output from the console) or simply not displayed, so it's not possible to mess things up too badly. I also liked not having to keep pressing a separate 'enter' button — you just turn the knob to scroll through the available choices and press it to choose the highlighted one.
Just to the right of the screen a bank of eight buttons will jump the screen directly into various display and config modes, and I do like the fact that these are brightly backlit and have nice clear labels which are visible day or night. There are also eight user-defined buttons, which can be programmed to access favourite options. All in all the screen is well laid out and easy on the eye; it also has a good wide viewing angle so that the display is reasonably clear when you sit back from the console — something I appreciate when doing a long sit-down gig, for example a theatre show.
When trying out the X32 Compact for real in a live situation I found that setting it up was easy, and I was quickly at home with all the basic functionality. It's a well laid-out surface once you get used to where everything is (digital desks tend to have more design variations than their analogue counterparts), and I didn't find myself searching for controls when I needed to make running adjustments — the backlit buttons and large LCD screen certainly helped here. Having access to only eight inputs on the current fader layer wasn't my preferred way of mixing the band, however, so I did use the DCA groups as I mentioned earlier. Apart from that, everything was logical and straightforward. I liked how the desk sounded and I had no difficulty at all in achieving the EQ and dynamics settings I needed. I also found the desk's memory feature handy for storing soundcheck settings.
The LCD scribble strip is a nice feature (and a practically essential one when swapping between fader banks), and the small LCD screens are clear and bright enough for daylight viewing. I noted that the scribble strip indicates both the processing channel and its input source. For example, when I patched input 2 to channel 1, the channel screen above fader 1 still says 'Ch1' with 'input 2' in smaller characters below. In other words, the inputs can be re-patched however you like, and the processing channels stay within their original blocks of eight — I couldn't find a way to construct a custom fader layer by swapping channels around. For monitors, I simply used the mix bus outputs and connected the XLR outputs to my monitor system, but the X32 Compact is ready for use with Behringer's own P16 monitoring system, by means of the Ultranet port on the rear.
There are more than enough high-quality internal effects to cope with anything a small-format mixer should need, although I'd have liked a few basic presets to use as starting-points. Pressing the effects button and looking at the home effects screen shows a rack of the eight currently assigned processors (with side-chain options for slots 1-4), then moving across the tabs at the top of the screen gives you access to each in turn. When you get to the last tab you have to click your way back across the screen to return to slot 1, though, and it would be useful to have these tabs on a circular scroll. There is at least a 'home' option on every screen, and selections can also be made using the rotary controls. The effects themselves sound very good and you have detailed control over all necessary parameters within authentic-looking hi-res graphic interfaces, and the input sources are clearly displayed and easy to change from the effects summary page.
The X32 Compact is solidly built, and all the top surface controls operate smoothly and positively. The motorised faders are fast and among the quietest I've come across, and they don't jitter about when required to make fast changes between layers or show scenes. The rotary encoders are smooth and have enough mechanical resistance to make detailed settings without having to turn back-and-forth to home in on the required value, and the backlit buttons are large with a decent positive action. The overall ergonomics work well for me, in that it's grey and black, so fairly low profile, and the whole unit is well proportioned. I remember thinking that the larger X32 seemed a bit bulky when I first saw one, but I have to say that the design and layout of the Compact version have definitely grown on me.
The scene memory is well implemented, and I particularly liked the 'go' button at the right-hand edge of the top panel, which is a step towards making audio-scene recall something like you'd find on a lighting board. Being picky, though, I'd prefer the scene-memory buttons at the bottom of the surface where the mute group switches are. That would be the best place to rest my hand when reading a script and making fast scene changes without being able to look at the mixer surface, and there would be no risk of resting my arm on one of the mute or user buttons.
Despite my initial reservations about the split fader banks I have grown to like using the X32 Compact. It's a well thought-out little console with a lot of processing power and flexibility under the hood, and it undoubtedly incorporates some quality engineering. In the end it all comes down to whether it meets any potential user's requirement, but I'd say that what the X32 Compact does, it does well, and at a price point that is interesting to say the least.
The obvious contenders come in the form of the Allen & Heath QU16, the Soundcraft Si Expression, Roland's M200i, the Presonus StudioLive range and the Yamaha 01V96i.
Like its bigget brother, the X32 Compact has a few tricks up its sleeve. For example, it can be controlled remotely, either from a computer or wirelessly via an iPad. There's also a range of interfacing options available, for multitrack recording to a computer, and it can even work as a control surface, using the Mackie Control protocol. Behringer also make a digital stagebox (the S16) and a personal monitor mixer (the P16M), which can connect directly to the X32 Compact via Ethernet.