If you don't need a large control surface, these two racks offer compact and affordable ways to harness Behringer's X32 mix engine.
Behringer's X32 digital console has been a huge success since its launch in 2012. Our Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns conducted an in-depth review of it back in SOS August 2012 (/sos/aug12/articles/behringer-x32.htm), with Mike Crofts documenting its use in the field a month later. We've also run a feature on its cousin, the X32 Compact (/sos/nov13/articles/behringer-x32-compact.htm). If you're not familiar with the X32, it would be best to start out by reading those reviews, which are freely available on the Sound On Sound web site.
For applications where a conventional physical control surface is not required, there's now the option to choose from the X32 Rack or X32 Core, both of which incorporate the same 'engine' as the consoles but in a rackmount format and with less (or, in the case of the Core, almost no) analogue I/O.However, both can be expanded as required by connecting compatible devices to the Core's or Rack's AES50 digital-audio network connectors.
The 2U Behringer S16 digital snake is the obvious device to use with these mixers, each unit featuring 16 mic/line analogue ins and eight line-level analogue outs. Up to two S16 units can be connected together to provide 32 inputs and 16 returns over a single Cat 5e connection, and each mixer has two AES50 ports, so can accommodate up to four S16s each (though only 40 inputs can be active at a time).
The S16 also has a pair of standard ADAT optical outputs for connecting ADAT-compatible external devices, but there are no such ports on the mixers themselves. I feel that having them on the mixers might have been useful, especially in the case of the X32 Core where there's really no analogue I/O other than talkback, headphones and local monitoring (there's also no S/PDIF present on either mixer). While you can't run long ADAT optical cables in the same way as you can with AES50, there are many applications where the mixer and I/O can be in the same rack, so the ability to patch a couple of ADA8200s or similar into the back of the mixer would have added further flexibility.
Taking the larger X32 Rack first, this 4U mixer can mix up to 40 inputs (32 main inputs plus eight auxiliaries), and has the same 25-bus architecture as the console. Though it has less physical I/O than the large console version (it has essentially the same I/O as the X32 Compact), it is still very generously appointed for its size, with 16 digitally programmable Midas mic preamps, a card expansion slot and eight balanced XLR outputs for the main and matrix mixes, augmented by six aux ins and outs on balanced jacks (aux inputs 5/6 are also doubled up on phonos). There's also a talkback mic input, stereo monitor outs and a headphone jack, and if you need more I/O, you can plug in some S16 digital snakes as mentioned earlier. The inputs and outputs of any connected expansion boxes will appear in the routing page,allowing you to choose from the available sources. The S16s connect using SuperMAC, a low-jitter, low-latency networking technology developed by Klark Teknik.
The X32 Rack also has an Ultranet socket for connection to Behringer's P16 personal monitoring system, and an Ethernet port for connecting a computer or Wi-Fi router. Completing the I/O count are conventional MIDI In and Out DIN sockets. The expansion slot is on the rear panel and enables audio interface cards or digital networking bridges to be added as necessary — the review models came fitted with Behringer's XUSB 32-channel USB audio interface. A piece of computer software called X32 Edit is available free of charge for setting up both versions of the mixer, and both have the ability to be controlled wirelessly from one or more iPad/iPhone remote devices using freely downloadable apps (X32 Q for iPhone and X32 Mix for iPad).
Internally, the system uses 40-bit floating-point arithmetic, which in theory gives a virtually inexhaustible amount of internal headroom.
Pretty much all digital mixers these days come with effects, and those included here are the same as for the console version. In addition to the EQ, compressor and gate available to each channel, a virtual effects rack can host up to eight assignable stereo effects. The first four effects can be configured either as aux send effects or as inserts, while the last four can be deployed only as inserts. You get the expected set of dynamics, modulation effects, delays and graphic EQs, while the reverbs include models that emulate the sound of classic Lexicon, EMT and Quantec processors. The six matrix buses and all 16 mix buses are equipped with insert points,six-band parametric EQs and dynamics processing. Up to eight DCA (fader) groups and six mute groups can be set up. These features are covered in the original X32 review.
The front panel is graced by a modest number of controls surrounding a high-resolution, five-inch, 800 x 480-pixel TFT colour display similar to that on the console version, enabling any operational parameter of the mixer to be accessed and adjusted from the front panel when necessary. Though clearly this isn't as fast or as intuitive as having a dedicated control surface with moving faders, the free Mac/PC/Linux software helps streamline the process, as well as allowing access to the setup options and scene management. Simple stereo recording and WAV file playback are available via the USB 2 port located on the front panel. Above the USB port is a button that, when pressed, brings up the playback/record control screen and a retro cassette-tape graphic. The same port may also be used to store or load scene information from a memory stick and to implement firmware updates.
Six rotary encoders located directly beneath the screen, each incorporating push switches, access and adjust the parameters displayed above them. Five illuminated function buttons on either side of the screen access the menu options for Home, Meters, Routing, Library, Effects, Setup, Monitor, Scenes, Mute Group and Utility, and a four-way cursor pad aids navigation. To the left of the display is a channel level knob (with illuminated rings showing the level of the currently selected channel), along with solo and mute buttons with metering, port status and channel number indicator. A rotary encoder, also incorporating a push switch, moves through and selects the channels or buses. To the right of the screen are button and level control for talkback, plus the headphone outlet and level control, a main level control for the left and right outputs, and a Clear Solo button above it.
Applications for the X32 Rack are quite diverse, with fixed installations being only one example. The XUSB option means it can double as a 32-channel audio interface for working with just about any Mac/PC/Linux DAW (Tracktion 4 is included free of charge), but equally, it has applications in theatre sound or just plain ordinary gigging, where the ability to mix remotely from an iPad means you can forget all about cables linking thestage and the mixing position. For smaller setups the 16 mic inputs may well be adequate, but there's always the option to add a snake later for more I/O.
Powering up the mixer reveals that the display is very clear and high-resolution, though the text and graphics are necessarily small, so you may need to keep your reading glasses handy. Pressing any one of the buttons around the screen brings up the appropriate section — Home, Meters, Routing, Effects and so on — and the left/right cursor arrows can be used to move between the tabbed pages within the active section. By default, the 16 'local' mic inputs are mapped to the first 16 mixer channels, with non-existent local inputs 17 to 32 in brackets to show that they are unavailable, though you can remap any available source as required.
Connecting a laptop running the X32 Edit software shows similar control features and the same general type of GUI styling as the iPad version, but with a slightly different layout and with additional setup options, such as the ability to assign pictorial icons to the channels, the ability to configure the system's settings (such as sample rate and sync), scene copying and so on.
Setting up the Wi-Fi connection for the iPad control software requires that the X32 Rack be connected to a wireless router via a cable plugged into its Ethernet Remote port, so I used the Apple router that I normally use with my Mackie DL1608. Once the iPad has been set to talk to the router, it is then necessary to go to the Network page on the X32 rack to enter IP and submask info as explained in the separate instructions available on the Behringer web site. Having done that, you tap on Connect and off you go. Next time you fire up the system, you only have to point the iPad at the correct wireless network, tap Connect, and you're back in business. Running my MacBook Pro with X32 Edit (also wirelessly) at the same time as the iPad was no problem. For general remote control, the iPad option is extremely practical and, having got used to mixing gigs from an iPad with my Mackie DL1604, I was keen to see how it worked.
The top of the app window is given over to 10 small blocks of eight meters, relating to input channels, auxes, effects, buses, the matrix/main mixes, and DCA groups 1-8. These are essentially the mixer 'layers'. DCA stands for Digitally Controlled Amplifier, the terminology used to describe the fader grouping system used here, where each DCA fader can control any number of channel or group faders, as assigned in the grid-like DCA Edit screen.
Tapping one of the meter blocks near the top of the screen hands its controls over to the eight large faders below, and brightly coloured backgrounds in the track name box area help avoid the situation where you find yourself adjusting aux send levels by mistake rather than track levels. These faders don't move if you run a finger over them rapidly by accident — you have to dwell on them for a moment before they become active, at which point a small box opens above the fader cap showing the attenuation in dB. A horizontal slider control above each fader controls pan, while the mute buttons are below the fader. Right at the top of the screen are navigation icons for Home, Detail, Effects, Scenes, Meters, Recorder, Routing, Monitor and Setup. Once the mixer is set up you'll probably spend most of your actual mixing time in the Home andDetail views, with the odd trip to Scenes. The meters are always displayed along the top of the screen no matter what page is shown below. Where more than one page is needed to access these settings, tabs are placed above the page (but below the meter blocks) for quick navigation. The Home button always gets you back to the large fader view.
You can also get directly to both the pre- and post-fader send levels by tapping the 'Sends on Faders' button from the Home page, and then selecting the aux bus you wish to control from the row of numbered buttons that appears above the fader numbers. Alternatively, you can access all 16 send faders for each channel on one page via a tab in the channel's Detail page. Overall, this approach to GUI design proved to be very intuitive, with most functions being self-evident.
Where you plan to work using remote I/O and remote control, the single-rack-space X32 Core is the most compact and cost-effective way to harness the X32 engine. Internally it is just the same as the Rack and console versions, and has the same expansion ports, but this time around there's no big LCD screen. There are just two TRS balanced jack outputs for local monitoring, and a variable-gain talkback mic input on a balanced jack socket. The X32 Core can also drive headphones, but all other I/O has to be added via the two AES50 Cat 5 connectors (unless you use the mixer only as a USB audio interface), from where it is possible to present up to 96 remote inputs and 48 output channels for selection in the routing page, all controlled and configured via the software or apps.
As the number of front-panel controls is limited for space reasons, Behringer have provided a set of user-configurable controls comprising two large encoders and four buttons, allowing the operator to get directly to the features most important to them. There's another rotary encoder/switch next to a postage-stamp-sized colour display window (and I don't mean one of those special edition Christmas stamps either!). That leaves the Scene/Setup button above the USB port, the momentary (non-latching) talkback button and the 'phones jack with its level control. All the rear-panel ports are the same as for the Rack version, including the expansion slot, which again came occupied by the USB audio interface. It is actually possible to access and solo any type of channel or bus using the tiny display and the Select encoder, where toggling the Scene/Setup buttons lets you select Scenes, though I'd say iPad or computer control is essential for anything other than the type of installation job where the scenes are preset and require little or no further adjustment. The screen is also used to set up the necessary Wi-Fi parameters, and as with the Rack, I had the mixer talking to both my MacBook Pro and to my iPad in no time — which made the mixer feel a lot more manageable.
Both these mixers feel like serious pieces of kit, with robust cases, uncluttered front panels and large, illuminated buttons. While I wouldn't choose to set up a mix from the front panel of either of these rack mixers (though with the Rack, you could), the computer and iPad software feels very stable, it has clear graphics and it is easy to navigate during a performance given the sheer number of facilities available. The iPhone app could also be useful to allow individual performers to adjust their monitor settings. Once you have everything set up, most of the work can be done from the Main screen, where you can jump to any of the layer faders, or the Detail screen, which is essentially a channel page providing access to all the detail pertaining to the selected channel — though there's too much to see all in one go, so you do have to tab through sub-pages to get to the gate, dynamics, EQ, sends, naming and preset sections.
Working with bands using my own Mackie mixer, I find that scenes are of little use for typical pub or club gigs: once I have the balance and EQ set, I tend to stick with the current scene, making any necessary adjustments manually and switching effects as required. Nevertheless,these mixers are versatile enough for use in all kinds of situations, and in theatre work, musicals or for a show that runs over several nights, the ability to save and recall scenes is invaluable. These mixers have enough effects (up to four send effects plus four insert effects) that you could probably set up all the effects you need for a typical band gig as part of a scene and then mix them in as necessary using the effects return faders. I did, however, feel that a tap-tempo facility for at least one of the delay effects could have been built into the Main page display somewhere (maybe by tapping the X logo?), as that could save on unnecessary navigation.
Overall, these are both impressive little mixers with all the key features needed for professional sound work, and the ability to handle 32-channel recording over USB is a big boon. They are also very attractively priced, even when you take into account the cost of one or two digital snakes to use with them. As I touched upon earlier, a couple of ADAT ports would have provided a cheap alternative means to add inputs and outputs, albeit non-remote-controllable ones. Either of these rack mixers, controlled from an iPad, could handle a range of gigs from a few mics and DIs down at thelocal pub to a fairly serious concert or theatre show, so I'll be very surprised if they don't do well right across the marketplace.
Allen & Heath or Soundcraft offer probably the most obvious competitors to the X32 console mixer, which manages to straddle the line between affordable but simple digital mixers and high-end products such as those made by Midas. However, finding alternatives to these two rack versions at this price could be a tough challenge.