Monitor mixing is riddled with compromises, but Allen & Heath hope to change all that with their intuitive ME1 personal foldback mixer.
The introduction of digital mixing systems in live-sound applications has opened up a whole world of options, many of which simply could not have been either possible or practical in the analogue world. One of the main attractions of going 'fully digital' surely has to be the digital snake — the ability to stream multiple channels of digitised audio using network cables, avoiding the need for heavy, bulky multicore and all the associated hardware. I was running the sound at an outdoor music festival just yesterday using my own digital snake system, and during the day two guys asked if they could stand alongside as they looked after the sound for their respective bands. Neither had used a digital mixer, and they were suitably impressed by all the scene recall, on-board processing, moving faders and so on, but the thing which really got them going was that all the stage sends and returns (32 and 16 respectively, in this case) were travelling along a skinny orange piece of Cat 5 cable, and that there was no physical plugging or patching involved. I started to tell them about the ME1 monitor system, but I think that was just a step too far — so I hope that they see this brief review and take a closer look at what's on offer.
The point of all this is that, no matter how much clever stuff is designed into a digital mixer — and even budget desks are loaded with smart features these days — for live sound, I always come back to the practical things like ease of use and setup time. I've used, and purchased, far too many items of live-sound equipment over (far too) many years, and I've at last arrived at the point where my favourite equipment is simply what I use most often. My live-sound work is almost always travelling to one-off gigs, often with performers I haven't previously worked with, and so whatever I spend my money on has to be something that helps to achieve a better result or to make my life easier. I think the ME1 personal monitoring system might just fit both requirements.
Live-sound monitoring is about as long as a piece of string, in that it can be anything from 'not required' to a multi-channel scenario with complex song-specific mixes requiring the services of one or more specialist sound engineers. For smaller gigs, monitoring is often thought of as secondary to the main mix at front-of-house, as what the audience hears is ultimately what the live show is all about, but there are many occasions when spot-on monitoring is needed for the performance to be possible in the first place — so they are both 'most important', depending on your point of view. Outside of professional-level productions most events will use only one mixing desk and one operator to drive it, and they'll be 'on the buses' for the whole show and expected to serve many masters.
So why is monitoring sometimes so difficult to get right? I think the answer is about information and communication. With the main mix, the engineer is usually out front (or can at least get out front), as that's where the mix can be heard. The information you need is simply what your ears tell you, and adjustments are made in real time, whether it's correcting or improving the overall sound, or responding to the performance in some way.
Monitoring is more problematic, because the person at the console can't hear exactly how the monitors sound on stage, and they therefore can't make direct adjustments and hear the effect. It's someone else (the performer) hearing it, and then putting into words what's wrong with the mix and what should be done about it. The verbal feedback path involved prevents direct real-time control over monitor mixes from the desk, so there's always likely to be some sort of compromise. The idea of giving direct control of the monitor mix to the individual musician — the customer, if you will — takes care of all that and should lead to the monitor mix being perfectly tuned and everyone happy! Ideally every performer would have access to every individual source on the mixer (direct out points on each channel input would be ideal), and would also have their own personal mix surface with which they could create their own monitor mix entirely independently of other performers, without needing to communicate with the sound engineer at all. And that is exactly where the ME1 comes in. The development of high-quality, reliable multi-channel digital audio over network cables is what has made systems like the ME1 possible and practical, and now performers really can access everything (up to 40 sources, in this case), and create their own personal mix for stage speakers or in-ear systems.
The ME1 from Allen & Heath is a neat, easy-to-use and expandable system designed to do all of the above, by sending all the direct channel sources and mix buses via Cat 5 cable to an ME1 personal mixer. A number of ME1s can be daisy-chained in a loop to include everybody on stage if necessary. If you own a current A&H digital mixer, the ME1 system can be simply hung onto the RJ45 port — and if you're using one of the QU-series mixers with physical rear-panel RJ45 connectors then there is no need to use a digital snake, or even assign monitor routing at the console, as the default relationship between inputs, faders and monitor channels is fixed.
The ME1 can receive up to 40 individual sources, but the actual number and configuration depends on the connected equipment and protocol used. Each personal mixer has 16 channel access buttons, which are set up to access whichever channels the performer needs, and can also be set up to access groups of channels. The groups are configured within each ME1 unit, rather than having to be compiled at the main console, which is a great feature. By selecting individual channels or groups, the user can exercise complete control over the level and stereo placement in their personal mix.
I hooked the ME1 up to a QU 24 mixer and fired it up to see how easy it would be to use in practice. The QU 24 doesn't have the facility to re-patch monitor channels from the console (though the larger GLD series does, together with automatic assignment and naming functions), so when the ME1 is connected to a QU desk the default is for console channel one to also be monitor channel one, and so on. In other words, it's all very obvious and easy to get started.
The ME1 unit itself is very compact and light, but it's typical sturdy Allen & Heath construction and is housed in an attractive, inconspicuous black steel case — ideal for anything which, by its nature, will be 'in shot' during a live show. It is designed to mount directly to a mic stand, for which there is a standard 3/8-inch threaded socket at the bottom. It can also be mounted off to the side of an upright mic stand using the bracket supplied, or it can be fixed to a flat plinth. A handy headphone hanger is also included in the box, and is a neat and practical solution for somewhere to put your cans or in-ears when they're not in use. Connection-wise, everything is simple and everything fits nicely on the rear panel. There is an RJ45 input socket, as well as a link out (both with standard latch levers), and if proper metal 'XLR-style' shells are used then the connectors click smoothly into place and are easy to remove — provided you either realise or remember that the release latch (hidden beneath the plug body) needs to be pressed before you pull the plugs out. Another thing to remember is that the RJ45 connectors are all the same, so it's possible (yes, I did it) to reverse the in and link-out cables and wonder why it's not working. There are three audio outputs, which all carry the same mix from the ME1: two jacks for stereo headphones or stereo line, and one mono jack for balanced or unbalanced output at line level, which would, for example, be used to drive a local powered wedge monitor. The two headphone outputs can be used at the same time and are both at the same level; one is a standard 6.3mm size whereas the other is a miniature 3.5mm jack. There are two audio inputs on each ME1, one being a built-in microphone, which is used to dial in local ambience (useful when using in-ear monitors), and the other is a miniature stereo jack socket for connecting hardware sources such as portable playback devices. The local inputs only appear in the local stereo output, and don't get into the mix available to other ME1s on the circuit or to the mono line output.
The ME1 is supplied with an external power supply of the plug-top variety, but can also more conveniently be powered via the incoming Cat 5 cable, when used with either Allen & Heath's MEU distribution hub, or a power-over-Ethernet switch (a sort of Cat 5 phantom-power system). This would be a far neater on-stage arrangement, though the PSU option is likely to be useful for most smaller-scale users. A USB port allows data to be transferred to other ME1 units (configuration settings and/or single presets), and it can also accept a USB stick for settings backup and firmware updates.
Although the ME1 doesn't look much like one, it really is a 40-into-2 mixer, complete with EQ, group mixes, mutes, solo, and the ability to store and recall presets. On the top panel, below and around the large OLED display screen, are 16 backlit rubbery buttons for selecting the input sources, a few other mode and control buttons which are used to access all other functions, two traditional knobs for adjusting master out and local mic levels, and a rotary encoder for parameter adjustment and data entry. Up to 40 sources from the main mix console can be received (when using the GLD dSnake, iLive mixer or MEU hub), and channel groups are created using the on-screen mixer display. It's easy to use, and flexible enough to cater for most personal monitoring requirements. In its 'normal' mode, pressing any one of the select keys numbered one to 16 brings control focus to that source channel, and parameters such as level and pan can be adjusted with the top-panel encoders and buttons. The current level and pan settings are clearly displayed on the screen, and it's good to see that there are no menus involved: just turn the encoder to set the output level, and push/turn to pan left or right. When any input source is selected the default is to display the channel number, but this can be customised and the name of the instrument or group can be entered instead, which I'd regard as essential with anything more than three or four active sources, because naming the channels 'guitar', 'piano' or 'Shirley' is a lot safer than hoping the user will remember what '14' represents — and there certainly isn't enough room to go wild with tape and a Sharpie. As a point of interest, if the ME1 system is hooked up to a GLD mixer or fed through the MEU system, these names can be externally programmed and will reflect the channel/group names in the 'parent' device.
I currently have access to a QU 24 mixer, so I connected a couple of ME1s directly to the dSnake port and put some multitrack audio through the desk. The ME1 units powered up quickly and displayed all the correct channel numbers from one to 16 when I pressed the buttons.
The ME1 was extremely easy to operate, and as I hadn't mounted it to a stand or plinth I was pleased that it had enough weight not to be pulled around by the weight of the cables attached to it — this is no flimsy plastic item. The headphone amp sounds very clean and 'hi-fi', and was nice and quiet (especially after I remembered to turn the local microphone level down — oops). The level controls, both for individual sources and the master, are smooth and have an even adjustment throughout their ranges. I like the instant access to the pan control, which means that I could set level and stereo position in a couple of seconds, and picking out and panning individual sources from my multitrack recording and striking a balance between them and a live mic on 'my' channel was very quick.
The built-in mic is normally muted on the mono output, which is what you'd want on a live stage with wedge monitors, but it can be enabled in the setup menu, which I can see being useful when recording, or doing pit work wearing closed-back headphones.
Once the groupings have been set up it's a simple matter to change the level of certain sections of the source material, or mute out groups altogether. Another thing I liked was the natural 'gearing' of the rotary level control, which I found just right for fast, effective volume changes. The large visual level meter also really helps here — in a live situation the particular source instrument or whatever may not be continually playing at the precise moment you can spare enough concentration to adjust it, and the large bright visual is way better than a printed scale around a control, which wouldn't be easy to see under performance conditions. The backlit rubber buttons are also easy to pick out.
There's a lot of flexibility designed in to the ME1 and I think it should satisfy the most demanding of performers. Short of giving each musician their own full mixing console there's not much you can't achieve with this little unit, and one of the most impressive features is just how simple and neat it is, both in terms of appearance and operation. The big question is where and when it would be used, and I can think of several applications where it would be a 'must have'. The obvious ones are wherever the band is resident or the performance area is permanently set up, such as theatres, houses of worship, recording/rehearsal studios and so on. I wouldn't tend to use a personal monitor setup for 'one off' or multi-band gigs, as it would probably just be a distraction for unfamiliar users and potentially create more problems than benefits, but for working bands on the road who take their own sound rig with them the ME1 would fit into an existing digital system very nicely and make the sound engineer's life much easier.
Summing up the ME1, I'd say that it's a well thought-out, well-made, high-quality product that manages to fit a huge amount of functionality into a compact and neat package. It's an easy add-on to an existing digital system, and for some applications I can see it fast becoming an essential tool. If the idea of handing over responsibility for personal monitor mixes to those on stage seems like a great idea in your live-sound application, it's definitely worth checking out the full capability of the ME1, together with the MEU hub, which offers extended integration, parallel connection and remote power options. Used in the right context, the ME1 personal monitor system should lead to happy customers.
Competing systems come from a range of manufacturers, including Hear Technologies, MyMix, Pivitec, Dbx, Aviom and Behringer. You can read our September 2013 feature on personal monitor mixing systems for free online at /sos/sep13/articles/spotlight-0913.htm.
- Lots of functionality.
- Good solid build.
- Easy to use with good user interface.
- Nothing significant!
An extremely well thought-out solution to the perennial problem of monitor mixing.