Have live‑sound legends Midas brought their golden touch to bear on the hybrid analogue live/recording console?
Midas is a name that will be familiar to every live‑sound engineer, as their flagship analogue consoles have been mainstays of the high‑end music touring scene for many years. Not only are Midas analogue desks reliable and ergonomically friendly, they also have a reputation for great‑sounding preamps and EQ. When Midas came to design a compact, lower‑cost analogue mixer, the Venice, they used the circuitry of their existing models as the starting point. The original Venice model quickly gained a lot of fans, but in this new version, which has comprehensive Firewire audio facilities for multitrack recording and mixing, the engineers at Midas also decided to make significant updates to the original design. The result is the Midas Venice F mixing console, which is available in 16, 24 and 32‑input frame sizes. We had the 32‑input model for review.
The Venice F's format makes it well suited both to live‑sound applications where simultaneous recording is required, and to the computer‑based recording studio, whether for recording or mixing. The general layout of the 32‑channel console comprises 24 mic/line mono input channels, each with a direct out and an insert point, plus a four‑band equaliser stage with two fully parametric mids flanked by variable-frequency high and low filters. The remaining inputs are made up by four surprisingly versatile stereo channels, each with a fixed four‑band EQ section, and again with the choice of mic or line inputs. Unusually, the mic and line inputs can be used at the same time if required, courtesy of some nifty switching.
There are four main routing buses in addition to the main stereo mix bus, six aux sends (two designated as monitor sends) that can be individually switched pre‑ or post‑fader, two stereo returns and two mono matrix channels. Such matrix channels are a common feature on live‑sound desks, and in this case they can be used to set up a monitor mix fed from a mix of the four group buses and the main stereo bus. There's also the option to split the stereo main bus feed so that only the left channel contributes to matrix one and the right channel to matrix two. This is a feature many live sound engineers rely on, but it could be equally useful in the studio for creating additional monitor mixes.
In total, then, the Venice F allows the user to route the inputs to any of 13 possible main buses: the six auxiliaries, the four groups, the stereo left and right buses and a mono mix bus. On top of this, there's the two matrix outputs, plus both AFL (after‑fader listen) and PFL (pre‑fader listen) buses. As you'd expect from a professional console, all the main ins and outs are fully balanced, and are presented on XLRs or TRS jacks as appropriate, and the internal switch‑mode power supply is of the 'universal' type that can work off mains voltage worldwide without the need for manual switching. Unbalanced RCA phonos are also provided, for the easy connection of consumer playback devices.
Each Venice F model's Firewire audio input and output capability matches its channel count, so the 32‑input desk we had for review can send and receive 32 discrete channels of audio over a basic Firewire 400 (IEEE 1394a) cable. Because of the bandwidth requirements associated with streaming 32 channels of audio in both directions, only sample rates of 44.1kHz and 48kHz are supported. There are rear‑panel LEDs on the digital I/O card to show whether the converters are operating at 48 or 44.1 kHz, as well as to indicate whether it's using the internal clock or an external clock source (an option which presumably exists to support future expansion, as there is no digital I/O on the desk). The Firewire connector is the standard large six‑pin type but the user is left to source his or her own Firewire cable, presumably because different computers will require different connectors at the other end.
The Venice uses the latest TC AT Firewire chipset, and it can be used with Mac OS or Windows OS machines. The driver software, once installed, simply adds the Venice to your list of available audio devices to be selected in the usual way. Both the documentation for the mixer and the Mac/PC Firewire device drivers are supplied on a USB memory stick, along with a 60‑day evaluation version of Propellerhead's Record DAW software. Updates to the driver software will be available on the www.midasconsoles.com web site. A control‑panel application is installed along with the drivers.
Physically, the Venice is reasonably compact but it is by no means cramped, measuring just over a metre wide, 680mm deep and 277mm high with the end cheeks fitted, though these can be removed to allow flightcase mounting. It has a fairly steeply raked panel, which gives a good view of the controls and creates plenty of rear panel space to accommodate the connectors — plus a couple of four‑pin lamp connectors for adding lighting. It also seems extremely rugged, with an all‑steel chassis and appropriate internal bracing. (A 32-channel Venice F is certainly not a single-person lift, so I must thank the Midas guys who drove the review desk down from Kidderminster and carried it into my studio!) The design is extremely stylish, with futuristically sculpted end panels, a curved arm rest and a distinctive colour scheme, which I can best describe as indigo and dusky aubergine, with a sprinkling of suitably colour‑coded knobs. A quiet cooling fan keeps air circulating inside the case.
Given that this Venice console is a fraction of the price of some Midas touring consoles, it is to be expected that some compromises have had to be made, but these are relatively few. Instead of individual circuit boards for each channel, the console uses one main board for each block of eight channels, with separate boards for the EQ section to accommodate the dual‑concentric pots. Each potentiometer is properly fastened through the front panel by means of a nut, so the circuit board doesn't take the strain as it so often does on cheaper consoles, and the panel legending is gratifyingly clear. The faders, which are smooth‑running 100mm Noble types, and the I/O connectors have their own circuit boards.
No corners have been cut on the circuitry, where the transformerless, discrete‑component preamp is a variation on the circuit used in larger Midas consoles such as the XL4, Heritage Series, Legend and Verona. The designers tend to tweak the preamp circuit for each model, so all these desks use a variation of the same discrete design. The EQ is based on that of the XL3 console and produces the same EQ curves, though there are some differences in the actual circuitry. A quasi‑balanced mix‑bus system uses a single noise‑sensing bus to balance all the main mix buses.
Each mono channel has a rear‑panel XLR input that may be used either for mic or line-level signals — levels of up to +32dBu can be accommodated with the 20dB pad engaged. A further balanced TRS jack socket may also be used to connect line‑level signals, and has the benefit that phantom power cannot be accidentally applied. This jack input is padded down by 10dB, giving a maximum input handling of +42dBu with the preamp's 20dB pad engaged. The input section has the usual gain control with up to 60dB of gain, individually switchable phantom power, a switch for the 20dB pad, a polarity invert button and a 12dB/octave low cut switch operating at 80Hz. There's also an overload warning LED, though these mic inputs are well known for having a distinctive sound when pushed hard, so for some applications you might actually want to see this flashing from time to time!
A green button embossed with the Firewire symbol routes the correspondingly numbered Firewire return from the DAW through the mixer channel, instead of the signal from the mic and line inputs. The Firewire outputs from the mono channels are always active, and a further switch chooses whether each channel's Firewire output and analogue direct output should be pre‑ or post‑EQ. The direct out and insert points operate at a nominal level of 0dBu.
The insert switch directly above the EQ basically activates or bypasses the insert point, so that external equipment connected to the inserts can be bypassed from the console. If the Firewire out is set to pre-EQ, it's also possible to use this button to send Firewire to the DAW directly from the preamp output and to return audio back from the DAW to the same channel, which is akin to in‑line operation, where the input goes into the channel and the DAW output is fed back to the EQ and output section of the same channel.
By the same token, the channel Firewire send and return could be used as a Firewire insert point, routing the audio through a plug‑in processor in the computer DAW while mixing. With this flexibility comes the possibility of creating an audio feedback loop, of course, so to avoid this, never switch the Firewire sends to post‑EQ when you're using the Firewire inputs as digital insert returns!
The four‑band, fully sweepable EQ has an 'in' button with an LED to the right of it, and uses dual‑concentric controls for the highs and lows, which — like all of the EQ sections — have a ‑15dB to +15dB gain range. Their frequencies are variable from 2‑20kHz and 20Hz to 200kHz respectively. For the two mids, a dual‑concentric control allows adjustment over gain and frequency, with a separate control for bandwidth. The upper mid‑range is from 400Hz to 8kHz and the lower mid from 100Hz to 2kHz.
Of the six aux sends, the first two are designated as monitor sends, and have the additional flexibility of being able to be sourced pre‑EQ. The Monitor 1 and 2 buses can be metered individually, and can receive an input from the stereo returns, so that effects can be added into the monitor mix. There are also individual talk buttons in the master section for communicating with the monitors. All six aux buses can be set to pre‑ or post‑fader from the master section. The lower four aux sends, which are wired post‑EQ, can be used for either effects sends or additional monitors.
In time‑honoured tradition, the routing controls are located beneath the EQ. Six individual buttons are used to route a channel to the mono and stereo buses as well as the four group buses. The pan control comes directly beneath and has an adjacent 'Pan to Groups' button, which requires a little explanation. Group routing is post‑EQ, post‑mute and post‑fader but can be configured in two ways. In pre‑pan mode, which is mono, each group is sent the same mono signal regardless of the pan position. In post‑pan mode, selected by pressing the 'Pan to Groups' button, each odd/even pair of groups behaves as a single stereo group, and the signal is steered between them using the pan control.
The mute button has a status LED alongside, as does the solo button. With solo active, the channel signal is sent to both the AFL stereo and PFL mono buses, and left and right local monitor outputs fed from these buses are also available. That leaves the channel fader, which is on the horizontal part of the panel and has plenty of room above for a scribble strip.
Alongside the 100mm fader is a four‑LED signal meter, ranging from ‑18dB to overload. Green signifies a nominal 0dB level, while yellow is a healthy +12dB. Note that the digital output of the mixer has been calibrated so that digital full scale (0dBFS) corresponds to +22dBu, which is just above the analogue clipping point for the console. This leaves plenty of headroom when making digital recordings, which engineers should find reassuring when recording live concerts.
The four dual/stereo channels are each equipped with two XLR inputs and two quarter‑inch TRS line‑level jack sockets, in much the same way as the mono channels, except that the pad and low‑cut switches affect only the mic input, not the line. Polarity inversion is available for the left mic input of each pair, while the gains for the two mic paths are adjusted using a dual‑concentric control, so they can be set differently if required.
A Firewire button selects the dual‑channel input source as Firewire rather than mic/line, though note that to maximise the flexibility of the Firewire routing, some or all of the dual channels are deprived of their Firewire outputs if you decide to route any of the aux, bus, group matrix or master outputs via Firewire using the orange buttons in the master section. The legending below these buttons indicates which dual channels will be robbed, and there are also amber LEDs in the dual channels that extinguish when their Firewire output is not available.
The gain control for the line input comes below the mic input section and has its own solo button, next to which is another button designated Channel/Masters. The stereo line input is normally routed through the channel, and it is mixed with the mic inputs, but if you switch to Masters, the line input instead routes directly to the stereo mix. This is a useful way of providing extra line inputs without taking up a whole channel, as the Mic section of the channel and the EQ section can still be used as normal input channels, while the line input feeds the stereo mix.
The stereo EQ section is a simpler four‑band affair, with shelving treble and bass sections, plus two fixed mids. All sections again have a ±15dB gain range, while the high‑shelf frequency is set at 12kHz and the low at 75Hz. The two mids are centred at 3kHz and 300Hz. Again there is an EQ 'in' button with status LED. The stereo channel aux sends work much like those of the mono channels: stereo signals are summed to mono before being sent to the monitor buses or sends.
The routing and fader section also is similar to that of the mono channels with the expected balance control instead of a pan, except that instead of a Pan to Groups button, there's a Mono Sum switch, which configures the to‑group routing for stereo operation when up or mono group mode when depressed. In mono group mode, the balance control knob acts only on the stereo master feeds, not the feeds to the four groups. As you'd expect, the mono switch routes the channel signal to the mono master bus, post‑EQ and post‑fader. On these channels the meter adjacent to the fader displays whichever channel level is the highest.
Because the Venice F is suited to both stage and studio, there are some features built in that would normally be used only by live sound engineers, while some that might be expected by the studio engineer are absent. In the former category is the aux/group Flip switch, a set of four recessed buttons that allow each aux output to be 'flipped' so that the group output path becomes that of the aux output and vice versa. Note that this operation also feeds the aux signals to the Matrix, in place of the bus feeds. This option lets the engineer control the auxes from what are normally the group faders.
The two monitors and four aux output channels each include level control, mute and solo buttons and global pre‑ or post‑switching, with the option of selecting a Firewire output at the expense of robbing the stereo channel Firewire outputs.
Each of the four group buses has its own fader, solo and mute buttons, level metering, an XLR output and a TRS jack insert point, with the option of selecting a Firewire output, again at the expense of robbing the stereo channel Firewire outputs. Buttons below the group meters switch them to show the levels of Monitor 1 and 2 and Matrix 1 and 2 instead of the group levels.
The stereo returns, which feature level, solo and mute facilities, can each be routed to the stereo master; return one also has a button for routing to groups 1/2, while return two has a button for routing to groups 3/4. There are also two level controls on each return to send to Monitor 1 and 2, for when your singer needs to be able to hear reverb, for instance.
There are two adjacent sets of matrix controls, with knobs for each of the four groups, the mono mix bus, the stereo mix bus and for overall matrix level control. Each matrix has its own solo and mute buttons, and a further button decides whether the stereo mix contribution will be summed to mono before being routed to both matrix mixes, or whether the left stereo bus goes to the Matrix 1 mix and right stereo bus goes to the Matrix 2 mix. There is an XLR output connector and a TRS jack insert point on the rear panel for each matrix output. Again, there is the option of selecting Firewire output, at the expense of robbing the stereo channel Firewire outputs.
A talkback section includes a 1kHz tone oscillator and an XLR input for the talkback mic, with a gain control for the mic as well as a level control and On switch for the oscillator. The talkback mic switch is latching, which could be embarrassing if you're saying bad things about the drummer and forget to deactivate it! Six routing buttons send the talkback signal to the two monitor sends, the matrix mixes, the master mix, the aux sends and the groups. Below this is a Playback control with level, mute and solo facilities for adding an external playback device into the mix. Four RCA phono connectors on the rear panel provide analogue inputs and outputs for stereo audio playback and recording.
Two local monitoring controls are provided, one for the in‑built headphone jacks (one on the panel, one under the armrest) and one for the local monitor output on the rear panel. These have separate mute buttons and share a PFL button that flips between monitoring the AFL and PFL buses.
That leaves the small Masters section, which has mute and solo buttons for both the mono and stereo outputs, a stereo balance control and a 'Stereo to Mono' button. The stereo bus level is controlled by a single fader to the left of the mono fader.
Those familiar with conventional studio desks will notice that the headphone monitoring accesses only the solo buses, which is a common way of doing things on a live desk. On a typical studio desk, there's a Control Room section with source selection switches for feeding both the speakers and headphones from the various aux sends, buses or the master output. Here the solo buttons are used to provide the monitor feed, so if you want to hear the main mix, you simply use the main fader's solo button. Similarly, if you need to check an individual aux send, return or bus, you just press the appropriate solo button. It is a slightly different way of working, but it achieves much the same result.
There's also no direct way of setting up zero‑latency input monitoring if you're recording over Firewire, as this would have required another aux send just for the mic amp section. However, you can use the channel's direct output and patch this to a spare input for monitoring purposes, so pretty much anything is possible with a bit of lateral thinking.
Midas are proud of the common‑mode rejection of their preamps, which at 100Hz with a mic gain of 40dB is typically 90dB. This is particularly important in live situations, where there may be significant interference from lighting rigs and so on. The EIN or equivalent noise of the mic preamps is as low as -128dB depending on the gain setting and the source impedance, which is comparable from what you'd expect from a well‑designed stand-alone mic preamp. The audio bandwidth over Firewire is limited by the sample rate, but is essentially flat within a decibel up to 20kHz.
Installing the software was trivially simple and once done, the console was recognised immediately by Logic Pro, the DAW with which I tested this mixer's Firewire operation. I experienced no interface dropouts, and there was none of the 'not being discoverable without a reboot' nonsense that occasionally happens with some interfaces.
I had an educational time running one of my mixes through the desk and then comparing it to the 'in the box' version of the same mix. I don't know why it is, but mixing in a good analogue console adds a subtle polish that takes away the slightly brash edge of some digital sounds, without seeming to rob them of any high end. At the same time, the sounds seem to homogenise into a more cohesive mix. That's exactly what I found using the Midas: all of my mixes sounded somehow warmer and better integrated, even when using little or no EQ on the desk. At the same time there was no suggestion of anything getting lost or obscured in the mix — it just sounded better. The Firewire side of the desk worked perfectly with my MacBook Pro, using a buffer size of 128 samples, with no apparent background whine or other digital artifacts.
The EQ sounds as a really good analogue EQ should sound. The sound never seems to become overly harsh or muddy, even when you find yourself needing to apply more EQ cut or boost than you'd normally consider decent. There's a useful overlap between EQ bands, so there are no sonic itches you can't scratch, though I did find operating the lower segments of the dual‑concentric controls a bit of a tight squeeze for my fingers.
There's no extra dedicated DAW stereo mix return on the console; the main mix from a default Logic session comes back on channels one and two, but you can usually afford to keep these channels free for that purpose, or reassign the DAW output to come back on one of the stereo channels. The Record software that comes with the package includes a number of useful default templates that are designed to work with the Venice.
It took me a little while to get used to working with a console that has no dedicated control-room section, and that's probably the main thing that highlights the live‑sound heritage of this console. However, it doesn't take long to get used to a very slightly different way of working; the generous Firewire capacity and the sheer audio quality of the desk soon won me over. The term 'musical' is often over‑used, but this desk merits that description. Even the input amps overload gracefully when driven hard. I know that some studio owners will bemoan the lack of high sample‑rate working, but that is a necessary compromise when streaming so many simultaneous audio channels over Firewire, and to be honest, a 44.1kHz session mixed through this console sounded as smooth to my ears as any 96kHz 'in the box' session.
Because of the Midas name and the feature set of this console, it is certainly likely to appeal to PA companies needing a medium-format desk that can also handle live recording, and equally to some smaller venue managers looking to add recording capability to their setup, but it should hold plenty of appeal for the studio user too. No, the desk doesn't have automation, recall or the ability to double as a control surface, but it's perfectly possible to do your automation in the DAW and then let the mixer do what it does best — or even use it as a front end for recording and a 'rack' of outboard EQ for mixing. Now if I could only persuade them to release a Firewire summing mixer with a handful of these lovely mic preamps built in!
There are less costly Firewire‑equipped analogue mixers, such as the Mackie Onyx. The Allen & Heath GSR24 looks interesting but was not yet available at the time of writing. There are also plenty of digital consoles around that offer similar functionality — but not the Midas sound. The Midas F32 is the only such analogue mixer I've encountered in this market sector.