Can musicians be trusted to mix their own monitors? If the system they’re using is as intuitive as this one, the answer might be ‘yes’.
Although the basic idea of personal monitoring has been around for a while, the method of delivery is becoming more flexible and sophisticated as more venues and performers turn to digital sound and all the added capability that comes with it. The Livemix system from Digital Audio Labs places control of monitor mixing firmly in the hands of the performers, and adds a few tweaks that most main mix consoles can’t provide.
The system consists of three pieces of hardware. The first unit is the Livemix AD–24, which accepts 24 balanced analogue audio inputs (which can be hardware switched as stereo pairs from the front panel) and a single RJ45 Ethernet–type digital output which carries all the audio information for all the channels. This connects via a shielded Cat 5, Cat 5e or Cat 6 cable to the Mix–16 digital distribution unit, which acts as a hub, providing eight digital outputs for connecting the CS–Duo personal monitor mixers. The Mix–16 also has a digital Ethernet output which transmits the eight stereo mixes. If you are setting up this system be careful that you use the correct external power supplies for the AD–16 and the Mix–16 units, as the DC connectors are the same size, but one operates at 12V and the other at 24V. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that the CS–Duo personal mixers don’t daisy-chain — each must have its own direct connection back to the Mix–16. At first this may seem like a drawback, but it’s actually a safer way of doing things in a live environment as it removes the risk of an upstream disconnection affecting all the connected mixers. It also allows the mixers to be powered directly from the Cat 5 connection, so no individual power supplies are needed on the stage.
Before describing any physical or layout features of the CS–Duo I should point out that it is actually two personal mixers built into a single unit, and is designed to be shared between two performers (or two groups of performers). It takes a single input (24 audio channels) from the Mix–16 but has A and B outputs, each with full mix–control capability. This is an innovative and interesting approach, and has the obvious potential to halve the number of personal mixers — and cables — needed on stage, which not only keeps the stage tidy, but also means that you only need to purchase one mixer for every two performers, making Livemix an attractive option in terms of system cost.
The CS–Duo is an attractive, neat and very compact unit built into a strong metal housing that is roughly the size of a paperback book, and can be mounted on a mic stand using the optional MT–1 dual–position hardware kit, or simply placed on the stage or on top of something else. It is weighty enough to remain in place and not be pulled around by the weight of an ordinary Cat 5 cable, but the bottom of the metal case would certainly benefit from a set of rubber feet.
The main functional ports (Ethernet from Mix–16, and the Mix A and B analogue line outputs, which can be configured as stereo or balanced mono) are on the back panel, together with a footswitch jack and a USB port for updates. The two headphone outputs and an auxiliary stereo input appear on the front in the form of 3.5mm jacks. I can see that using 3.5mm headphone outputs gives greatest flexibility and compatibility with all types of headphones, but I’d much prefer to see the larger and more robust standard 6.3mm connectors.
The main control panel occupies the top surface and is very simple considering the functionality available — whoever designed this layout has done a great job because it’s one of the best and easiest-to-use systems that I’ve come across. All the relevant information is displayed on a colour touchscreen, which I found to be just right in terms of its responsiveness — it responds well to fingertip or fingernail — and although it is only 70 x 52 mm, I found it easy to select and adjust. The ‘home page’ screen displays 12 channels at a time in the form of small rectangles (each displaying the individual level setting). The screen graphics are either predominantly blue or red depending on whether Mix A or Mix B is selected; toggling between the two mixes requires the press of a dedicated button A or B, just like accessing any two fader layers on a full–size digital desk. There are three dedicated controls on each side of the screen — blue ones to the left for mix A and red ones to the right for mix B — allowing adjustment of master and group output levels for each mix at any time, regardless of which mix is selected and displayed on screen. Below the screen are 24 buttons (illuminated either blue or red according to the selected mix) which give instant access to that input source (or group of inputs) for adjusting its level in the A or B monitor mix. As with the touchscreen, the buttons are easy to use — they are nicely spaced, clearly illuminated, and have a rubbery flat top surface.
I won’t attempt to cover every aspect of what the CS–Duo can do, but here’s a brief rundown of the main functionality, which I think covers all the essential ingredients of a personal live monitor mix. The individual level of any input source is adjusted by first selecting Mix A or B, then either touching the channel on screen or using one of the rubber buttons below. Using the buttons is probably easier, as the screen displays blocks of 12 channels so the top–left channel on screen would be either number 1 or number 13. Having said that, the screen characters are easy to read, but once or twice I did hit the wrong one when flicking between the two mixes. Having selected the input channel the volume is adjusted with the ‘adjust vol & pan’ knob, which does exactly what its name suggests (you toggle between volume and pan by pressing the knob down, at which point the display reflects the channel volume or pan setting). I like the fact that when returning to say, Mix A from Mix B this control always defaults to volume even if you were previously using it as a pan control.
As with front–of–house mixing, it’s very useful to assemble mix sources into groups which can be controlled on a single bus or DCA. The ‘Mix Tools’ screen enables four groups to be set up, with any of the 24 channels assigned (or not) to one of these four groups, in which case every time a grouped channel is selected, all of the channels in that group are also automatically selected, and volume settings within that group will all move together. A neat feature of group volume control is that the levels move with different ‘gearing’ or rate of change depending on the level they were at when placed into a group, ensuring that when any grouped channel reaches minimum or maximum, the other channels will still respond to the group control. In addition to the four groups, a ‘Me’ group can be set up which operates in the same way as the others, but is directly accessible via the ‘Me’ knob, without going through any kind of selection process.
One of the issues when sending auxiliary mixes back to the stage from a front–of–house console is that aux sends are usually configured post–EQ (although some mixers can send pre–EQ to the aux buses if needed), which means that the monitor send from any channel may not be optimised for foldback. For example, you may want to achieve a nice fat vocal with plenty of bottom end in it for the audience to hear, but that’s going to be a problem in the monitors. Of course, most monitor paths would include some sort of overall filtering or EQ, but having the ability to adjust EQ on any source, independently of the main house mix or even other sources being monitored, is a significant step forward. The Livemix system allows exactly this by means of a per–channel three–band EQ control, accessed from the CS–Duo screen when in single–channel mode. There are a number of factory preset EQ and compression settings available for every channel, and there is a custom build–your–own option for both EQ and compression. The EQ and dynamics settings made from any CS–Duo will apply those settings to that channel globally, ie. they will be reflected in all CS–Duo mixers on the system. A warning message of the ‘are you sure?’ variety pops up to let you know. When making parameter adjustments to any channel or group, there’s a previous or next channel/group screen press available, which means you can skip along and make quick changes to other channels and groups without having to exit the process first.
EQ, compression and reverb can be applied to each individual mix output by going into the ‘mix output settings’ screen and making adjustments. The EQ and dynamics are the same as for individual channels, but now there’s a reverb option, where you can dial in the required amount of small, medium or large room presets.
Other features include the ability to assign names to channels, feed in a local auxiliary source via the front-panel jack (for example a media player), the option to mix some stage ambience into the output (from the CS–Duo’s built–in stereo microphones), and an intercom facility to enable users to talk to each other. One CS–Duo can be used to control the mix settings on another by using the Livemix proprietary MirrorMix remote control function — so an inexperienced user can be helped out by a more seasoned Livemix operator. When all is working perfectly, the current mix settings can be saved to an internal memory slot or onto an external USB stick for recall.
As with any such system, the main question for me would always be ‘does it fulfil a requirement?’ and of course this depends on what the application actually is. The obvious one is for theatre band pits and house–of–worship installations, where the performing groups tend to remain within the same setup for a number of shows or as a resident band. The advantage of a personal monitor for individual performers is that they can, within reason, have any monitor mix they desire, and can continually make adjustments to their hearts’ content. And, as they have direct access to every live source and pre–recorded material, there is no need for them to interact with the front–of–house engineer. This has obvious benefits for all concerned! No more asking for ‘more this’ or ‘less that’ over the PA during a show, and at last the musicians on stage will (eventually) be able to appreciate the link between turning things up too far and the onset of feedback and associated horrors. For one–off gigs where the band are not used to using a personal monitor rig, there may be problems associated with individual learning curves, and perhaps the last thing I’d want on a busy stage with a new band is everyone constantly trying to achieve their ideal mix. However, as with all technology, if it meets the need it’s a wonderful thing, and I have to say that, despite having steered clear of such systems until now, I was very impressed by the Livemix system. The designers seem to have combined comprehensive functionality with simplicity of presentation and operation, and I really can’t imagine any performers not liking or failing to exploit its capabilities. If you’re thinking that a personal monitor system might be for you, see if you can get your hands on one of these.
Obvious competitors include Allen & Heath’s ME–1, the Behringer P16 system, as well as systems from Aviom, dbx and Hear Technologies.
- Neat, versatile and easy to use.
- CS-Duo mixers are strong and attractive little boxes.
- Good sound quality.
- I think a mic-stand adaptor should have been included with the CS–Duo, as that’s where it’s likely to be used.
A well-conceived and very capable personal monitor system, offering just about every feature your performing musician would need, and with a simple user interface that makes setting up and live adjustments easy.
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