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The Story Of The Midas XL3

Midas Touch By Jon Burton

The Story Of The XL3

We follow the journey of one plucky British analogue mixing console, from its birth in a shed to the heart of a museum exhibition and a place in the history books.

It was three years ago that I first met National Science & Media Museum curator Annie Jamieson at a coffee shop near Olympia in London. We were both there for the Pro Light & Sound Show, and an introduction had been made between us as, apparently, I was a good person to ask about old live–sound equipment. Annie, a passionate enthusiast of all things related to sound technology, was trying to correct what she perceived as an imbalance in the museum's collections. At the National Science & Media Museum in Bradford, Annie had access to an amazing collection of photographs, cameras and assorted broadcast and recording studio artifacts, from the experimental television receiver used by JL Baird in 1926, to the original BBC Neve DSP1 digital sound console — a dazzling collection from the history of modern media. But of live concert sound? Nothing.

It dawned on me how much Britain was responsible for many of the great changes and innovations in my industry, an industry that was really only just over 100 years old. As we sat sipping our lattes we made up a wish list, predominantly from the last 50 years, of objects of significance. It was exciting and challenging to try and pinpoint things that had made a difference: the innovative, the novel, the important.

Fast forward a year, and I got a call saying there was now an official Sound Technologies collection at the museum, and that the hunt was on for a significant object to fly the flag for live sound. I think it was Annie who said it was a pity I wouldn't sell one of my old consoles...

I have to explain at this point that I am still very much an active working sound engineer. I no longer own a whole PA system, but I do own mixing desks, effects units and various bits of audio equipment. All this equipment I use in a touring capacity and at the heart of my setup is an analogue mixing desk: a Midas XL3.

I bought my first XL3 10 years ago, when they were already out of fashion and becoming unpopular, from John Tinline of Encore PA Hire in London. It was a very old desk then in audio gear terms, but in reasonable condition. It immediately went out on tour with me and the Prodigy (see SOS October 2010). As to why I chose that desk, I'd always fancied a Midas. I looked at the more recent models, like the Heritage 2000 and 3000, but it's a bit like when you buy a classic car. You can afford the one with the rubber bumpers, and yes, it's an MG — but it's not the MG!

So, would I go for an XL4, world famous as the flagship Midas? I almost did, but they're problematic: they're expensive to run and to maintain, and basically enormous. So, I settled on a Midas XL3, and the first one I bought was John's, serial number 003.

I think it was the appeal of the serial number and the name that sold it. It was also a desk I already knew; I had mixed on it several times already, and the price was right as long as it went to a good home. I actually found a quote from John in about 2001 saying he would never part with his pair of XL3s, which is ironic as I have since bought both of them from him, saying I wouldn't part with them either!

When Annie called again, my first thought was that the museum should buy an XL3. And that they should buy mine. I had just bought another smaller, newer XL3, and number 003 was being put into retirement. If I was going to let her go, it had to be to a good home.

Golden Age

The Story Of The XL3Initially manufacturing transistor amplifiers and speaker cabinets, Midas were founded in 1970 by Jeff Byers and Charles Brooke at a time when music was changing, and equipment design was trying to keep up with the needs of the groups that were using it. In 1972 they moved to premises on Stanhope Street near London's Euston Station. By chance, or maybe design, they were next door to Dave Martin's already established speaker company, Martin Audio. Martin had already started making inroads into the ever-expanding touring market, so it was almost inevitable that Midas would become involved in Martin's work, and indeed throughout the '70s the two companies became synonymous in the minds of many of the sound companies and engineers of the time. It was out of this link that Midas developed their first console.

The early '70s were notable for the development of the Midas Pro 4, presumably paid for out of the company's association with one of the most successful touring acts of the day, Supertramp, and their sound rental company Delicate Productions. Their client list around the mid-'70s reads like a Who's Who of the day: Elvis Presley, Yes, Billy Joel, the Beach Boys, and many more.

The original Midas factory in Stanhope Street, London.The original Midas factory in Stanhope Street, London.

Custom desks were also being made for a wide range of clients and situations. Frank Zappa was a big fan, even appearing in adverts endorsing his new Pro 5. The consoles were also finding their way into the West End and Broadway, being specified for shows like Cats and Evita.

The next step was the Pro 40, the first Midas I ever mixed on back in 1983. This was modular, and could be specified with different options and frame sizes. Midas were coming of age and it was time to launch a new range.

In New York in 1986 the XL range was revealed. However, the development of the range had proved costly and an overstretched Midas were wound up in December 1987, the assets purchased by Klark Teknik.

Klark Teknik, despite their Teutonic–sounding name, were based in Kidderminster and formed by two brothers, Phil and Terry Clarke. Having spent some time in Australia they had returned and were making waves in pro–audio circles with a selection of groundbreaking products like the DN27 graphic equaliser. Their acquisition of Midas was to lead to one of the company's greatest products.

The XL series had stalled, but in 1988 under the brand's new owners, the XL2 was released. It didn't set the world on fire, but it was a good workhorse desk. There are still a few around and they are nice–sounding boards, but in retrospect will mainly be seen as the stepping stone for what came next.

The use of a separate desk to go at the side of the stage to mix the band's foldback speakers — a monitor desk — was increasingly becoming the norm. Many of the designs were adapted FOH consoles and very few dedicated designs existed, although Midas had already produced several designs under the Pro 4/40 moniker. A young, fresh-faced designer was despatched to knock up a new desk.

Andrew Grayland was an enthusiastic musician who also dabbled in live sound. He'd mixed shows and had a keen understanding of engineers' needs. What he designed came from this background, along with input from a few of the desk's first purchasers. Tim Boyle of Concert Sound remembers early conversations where he explained what they were looking for. Andrew went on to develop something that ticked most of the boxes, and also had a few extra tricks that Tim didn't see coming. The fact was that Andrew was developing a desk that could be used on monitors, as well as FOH, and could also satisfy the needs of the many theatre clients Midas had acquired. This was going to be one hell of a desk.

The XL3 had a number of innovative advances. Having a standard 40 input channels made it larger than most production desks at the time, but it was the 16 auxiliary sends that made it special.

From Shed To Stage

Designed, by all accounts, in Andrew's shed over a very short period of time (four months, apparently), the XL3 had a number of innovative advances. Having a standard 40 input channels made it larger than most production desks at the time, but it was the 16 auxiliary sends that made it special. This was a huge number of outputs, and meant that, including its stereo and matrix busses, you could send any mic to 20 different destinations. Add to that VCA control of the inputs, and eight mute groups, and you had a beast of a mixer, but one that was easy to control, as long as you understood Andrew's eccentric idea about routing...

By the end of the '70s, Midas had amassed a prodigious client list, including Frank Zappa.By the end of the '70s, Midas had amassed a prodigious client list, including Frank Zappa.

By being able to route the auxiliaries to the stereo bus you could use them as effect sends, monitor sends or subgroups. There were even two extra VCAs that could be used to control the auxiliary busses. Extra bus inputs meant if you did run out of channels you still had some extra inputs you could use to route effects, tape machines or even a second desk into the master busses. (Monitor engineer Chris Trimby remembered having three all daisy-chained together to do the TV show The White Room in the '90s — over 100 channels of pristine Midas audio!) This was unparalleled flexibility.

However, I know people who, even after using an XL3 for years, still don't know what all the faders do. The flexibility may have been bit overwhelming and, to be honest, if the desk had been sold on its routing system alone the XL3 would have been dead in the water. The bantam jack bay on the back, when everybody else was switching to quarter–inch jacks, didn't help either!

What the XL3 did have was an amazing sound. You stick a mic cable in, plug a mic on the end, leave the channel flat, maybe just roll off a bit of low end or add a bit of high–pass filtering, and you have it: a great vocal sound. Just push up the faders and mix — it's a dream.

I did a quick poll last summer of all the engineers I bumped into at festivals, asking them about their favourite desks. They all have their opinions, but mention EQ and only one is ever mentioned: the Midas XL. Speaking to Andrew, he is understandably proud but also tight-lipped about what makes this desk's EQ special. But it is. On drums, pick where you want a bit of thump, dial it in and you're there. Need to add a bit of bite to a guitar? Easy. If you look at most engineers' mixes on an XL3 not much is happening — if you want extreme EQ settings look elsewhere — but they just sound fantastic.

XL3 designer Andrew Grayland today.XL3 designer Andrew Grayland today.Photo: Jon BurtonPrototype EQs were built at the design stage and given to engineers to try. Of all the different designs, 90 percent of the engineers preferred just the one. "That was when I realised that sound wasn't completely objective," says Andrew. "There is a right and a wrong way to do things."

Tasked with selling the desk was Midas' General Manager Bob Doyle, who maintains that the design still exceeds the quality of most desks on the market. "It sounds much better. It uses twice the components and costs more, but we knew that people expected a first-class EQ, low noise floor and a great mic amp."

Past Imperfect?

I have had the pleasure of mixing thousands of shows on Midas desks, and the XL3 is the one for me. It has its frustrating features though. It has this splendid detachable meter bridge which has some of the fiddliest, most annoying fittings you will find. They also cunningly used the same connector on the meter bridge as the power supply. This gives you the opportunity to blow up the desk with ease just by letting a novice plug it up unattended!

Among the XL3's many innovations was the inclusion, as standard, of VCA faders.Among the XL3's many innovations was the inclusion, as standard, of VCA faders.Photo: JG HardingThey also designed the flight-case so the meter bridge fitted in the lid. This made the already difficult–to–lift lid a virtually impossible one, as Annie and her colleagues at the museum will attest.

The desk also came with two major booby traps. One lurked under a safety cover, the other did not. The SIP or 'solo–in–place' button was also known as the P45 button. It was a feature more often found on studio desks. It routed whatever you were listening to to the solo bus, muting everything else. Fine in a soundcheck; not so good during the gig. At least it was made to flash in warning.

Another design flaw was the proximity of the PFL button to the insert in/out button on the output groups. One is used to listen to channels on your headphones, the other engages anything inserted via the patchbay on the outputs. When using the desk on monitors this was invariably a graphic equaliser, which would have been set to provide attenuation at all those problem frequencies, reducing feedback and providing maximum gain for your singer in their wedge monitors.

You only ever pressed the wrong button once. I did it during a Cocteau Twins tour and almost killed Liz Fraser as I swiftly removed all the well-crafted EQ that was preventing her wedge from descending into a wall of feedback.

Still, I love the XL3, and I still tour two. I have a 48–channel, a 40–channel, a 32 and a baby 16. They keep my repair man Martin busy, but they are all still serviceable and still working. Even if you have never mixed on one before you can walk up to it and get a mix going almost straight away. The layout is clear and the colour coding makes sense: you are well signposted! As long as the stereo buttons are in you can see what is going on clearly.

It is the speed and ease of operation that sold this desk to many engineers. And it was its dual–purpose nature that sold it to many companies. It was a great FOH board, and it was a great monitor board. Although as a FOH board it was eclipsed by the magnificent XL4, it remained the monitor engineers' mixing desk of choice until the coming of age of digital.

I spoke to some engineers who got quite misty-eyed talking about the XL3 as so many engineers of my age have toured with one. Desk number 003 didn't need to retire, she needed to be seen and appreciated. She is part of a long line of British innovation, and from her battleship–grey livery to leather armrest, she is every bit a flagship.

Jon Burton with XL3 number 003, at a Prodigy concert at Milton Keynes' National Bowl, 2010.Jon Burton with XL3 number 003, at a Prodigy concert at Milton Keynes' National Bowl, 2010.Photo: JG Harding

Heritage

There's so much history that needs preserving with live sound. We need the WEM mixers, the Martin speakers and the Klark Teknik equalisers to be preserved because they represent something that is important. They represent British innovation in a field in which we were the leaders. If you look at the great live mixing desk manufacturers of the last 60 years, the major names, with the exception of Yamaha, are British. The Austrians, Germans and Americans may have the mic world covered, but from the '60s on the rest of the signal chain would most likely have been British! This history needs documenting and preserving, and this lovely mixing desk is a great place to start.

Midas XL3 serial number 003 entered the National Science & Media Museum collection in 2018, and was named the top new acquisition across the whole Science Museum Group for the year. It's attracted lots of attention and envy when Annie has spoken about it at conferences in the museum world (in fact, her role at the museum has recently been upgraded to specialist Curator of Sound Technologies, and the XL3 probably played a part in that). It has already been on temporary display for several events at the museum, and hopes are that it will play a key role in future exhibitions at the museum in Bradford, and maybe beyond, along with other live sound artifacts.

Serial Number 003

The Story Of The XL3Serial number 003 marked a transition point between the prototype and the first production models, and as designer Andrew Grayland remarked, "It's amazing it's still going, as I hand wired some of it myself, and I was never the best at soldering!" Of number 001 nothing is known; 002 is reputedly in France but in poor repair. 003, however, despite having a hard working life, was fully operational when it was retired from active touring duty. This is quite impressive for a desk that had been in use for almost 30 years in arduous circumstances.

The desk has had two owners. Bought from new by John Tinline at Encore, a London–based sound company, the desk was initially used for touring work. Notable shows include the legendary Happy Mondays gig at Elland Road, Leeds, in 1991, at Earls Court for Prince and James Brown at Wembley Stadium, also in 1991. In 1996 it was installed in the Forum, Kentish Town, London, where it was the inhouse mixing desk. Between then and 2010, when it was removed, it was used on artists including the Who, Kings Of Leon, Madness, Motörhead, Foo Fighters, Björk and Robbie Williams, to name a few. I bought it in 2010, and have used it on James Morrison, Bombay Bicycle Club and the Prodigy. It has been used and remembered by many key figures in the live music industry. Quoting John Tinline, the original owner, "If I said most bands you have ever heard of have been through that desk, it wouldn't be far from the truth."

The Story Of The XL3Big Mick Hughes, one of the world's most respected live–sound engineers told me, "The varied list of acts and engineers that have used it is quite amazing. Quite possibly it's the most used XL3 that was ever made."

003 has, as mentioned, had a hard life, including several near-death incidents! It survived a riot, when rap artist Busta Rhymes was due to play at the Forum but didn't show up, and the crowd — already in the venue and waiting for the show to start — reacted badly to the news, ending up with the XL3 being trampled! However, it's a very sturdy thing and, after the boot-prints had been cleaned off, was found to be in full working order.

On the Prodigy's Invaders Must Die tour in 2009 the desk received a direct hit from a full pint of beer at Newcastle Arena. Despite making a huge bang and losing one side of the main outputs, the rest of the desk kept working until the end of the show, albeit with the system in mono. It left the tour the next day to be cleaned and partially rebuilt by Midas.

Since then it has weathered rain, dust, snow and searing heat at festivals around the world. It has found a fitting resting place at the National Science & Media Museum, where it can remain as a reminder of the golden age of analogue.

Published December 2019