PreSonus' attempt to make digital mixing feel like analogue pays dividends in this new flagship model from the popular StudioLive range.
PreSonus' StudioLive range of mixers have been updated and upgraded to 'AI' versions, and are, as before, available in three sizes with either 16, 24 or 32 mono input channels. The name 'StudioLive' illustrates its dual mission in life as a live-sound mixer and recording mixer/interface, and the new AI designation stands for 'active integration', which describes how hardware and software design has been brought together to take advantage of all the available processing, recording, distribution and wireless/network control options. The StudioLive 32.4.2 AI is a major redesign and step up from the previous top model, the (non-AI) StudioLive 24.4.2, and incorporates a more powerful CPU and significantly increased memory, and employs parts of the Presonus Studio One DAW audio engine.
Although this is clearly a product with a wide target audience, my objective was to have a look at the StudioLive AI from a hands-on, live-sound point of view, so that's what I have focused on here. There is an abundance of information about the StudioLive AI's extended capabilities on the PreSonus web site, and I'd definitely recommend downloading the user manual, which is very well-written and provides a lot of relevant technical information about some of the processes and techniques used. There's a complete and comprehensive software package bundled with the StudioLive AI, and much helpful online support available.
My first impression upon opening the box was of a neat, reasonably compact console with an attractive design and layout. It's easy on the eye and, for a 32-channel desk, easy to lift and move around single-handed. There are no integrated handles, but the StudioLive AI's low profile makes it possible to simply pick it up by gripping the end panels — this may seem like a trivial point but it does make a big difference when you're having to set up in a hurry on your own.
Switch-on was a noiseless affair and the StudioLive AI booted up quickly and without fuss. I like to deliberately break the 'golden rule' about switching on the mixer first and the power amps/speakers last just to see what happens, because no matter how careful you are, sudden mains power loss or other mishaps do sometimes occur, and in this case the StudioLive AI fired up (and down again) without sending any spike through to the outputs — nice one, PreSonus designers, and my speakers thank you for that.
Having deliberately not read the user manual or anything about the StudioLive AI before trying to use it, I was initially surprised to find that there is one major difference between this and many other compact digital desks: the faders are not motorised, and are therefore not multi-functional. On the StudioLive AI the channel faders do one thing only and that's to act as channel faders, which is very much part of the design philosophy — to provide an authentic analogue-style working surface, but with access to the expected sophistication and functionality available in a powerful digital audio engine.
In terms of overall format, the StudioLive AI has 32 mono input channels assignable to four sub-groups and/or a stereo master out, all accessed by XLR connectors on the rear panel. The three AI models provide a generous and useful number of aux outputs too: no fewer than 14 of them on the 32 channel version. My only complaint here is that the aux outputs are on balanced TRS jacks, not XLRs, which means that I'd have to use adapter tails or converters on my monitor returns — and as I rarely use more than six foldback mixes for live shows I'd really prefer a few XLRs on the panel, even at the cost of losing a few physical aux outputs on the console. The back-panel layout is, however, neat and clear, and connecting inputs and outputs is simple. There is no internal routing or mapping to worry about (other than four output sub-groups), as input socket 1 is always connected to mixer channel 1, controlled by fader 1, and so on. Every mono input has individual XLR or TRS line inputs (which interrupt the XLR) and an insert point, and there are three additional stereo inputs (two aux inputs on balanced jacks and a 'tape' input using unbalanced RCA phono sockets) that are controlled from the main surface. The talkback mic input has 48V phantom power permanently enabled, and is equipped with a small level control right alongside rather than on the top deck — which is fine by me as I don't generally need to tweak this once it's initially set. The main left/right outs and the (very useful) summed mono output also have these small rotary controls, so that the final output levels leaving the mixer can be adjusted to suit the downstream gear if needed, or used as safety stops in a multi-user install.
Many digital mixers pursue ambitions of replicating an analogue 'feel', which I have always assumed is aimed at potential users who are still using analogue mixers and don't want to introduce unnecessary complication into their lives, or perhaps for community applications where more than one person will drive the desk and simplicity of operation is essential. It's simply not practical, however, to include all the signal processing expected from modern digital mixers whilst retaining a 'one knob per function' approach, as digital mixers now incorporate everything that would previously have been in a very well-equipped outboard rack, multiplied by the number of input channels and buses on the mixer! This means that a compromise has to be reached, and different manufacturers achieve this in different ways. It is increasingly common for the channel faders to be used to control a number of different processing parameters, for example, and the more functionality the mixer provides, inevitably the more complicated it becomes to drive.
With the StudioLive AI, PreSonus have adopted a different and unusual approach, which really does have 'one knob per thing', as far as mixing inputs to outputs is concerned. The channel faders control only the channel levels sent to the main bus (or subgroups) and do nothing else, and all the aux output masters are presented in a row of dedicated rotary controls across the top of the surface, so that — just like on an analogue console — all the channel and bus levels can always be directly accessed at all times. Of course, some controls have to be shared, or have more than one function, and each channel has a rotary encoder that is part of the processing 'Fat Channel', but which performs different functions according to which operating mode is selected. And as we've mentioned the Fat Channel...
The StudioLive AI follows the digital convention of providing a single set of processing controls that are active on the currently selected input channel. Here, they consist of a variable high-pass filter, polarity switcher, compressor, limiter, gate/expander and four-band parametric equaliser. What is really neat is that these functions are, where appropriate, also available on every bus as well, including the effects buses — and all the processing is constantly running at full speed, which means that no matter how much DSP is called into use on any or all channels, buses or effects routes, there will be no change in system load or performance. This group of processors rejoices in the name Fat Channel and is home to all the processing goodies you'd normally expect in a digital mixer. It's fairly easy to use, and doesn't depend on the use of screen menus — you simply select the required channel or bus and turn the knobs. I like the hands-on control provided by the Fat Channel, as opposed to menu choices, but the use of vertical LED ladder displays for things like EQ frequency (which I tend to picture on a conventional horizontal axis) took some getting used to. One extra little feature is the ability to create two completely independent Fat Channel settings for any channel or bus, and flip between them using the Alt button for A/B comparison — which is also useful for in-show changes, for example when an instrument solo kicks in and alternative DSP settings are required at the tap of a button.
The 'channel' meters are very much multi-functional, and operate in several different modes. Pressing a single button labelled 'input' makes them display the incoming levels to each channel in the traditional way, but choosing 'output' switches the metering point to the channel outputs (ie. what they're sending to the main mix bus). There are also metering options for gain reduction and aux bus masters — all you need to know to keep the mix sensible and instantly accessible. When any of these meter modes is running, adjusting any Fat Channel control makes the metering flip into DSP mode for a while before returning to the previous state, and whatever mode the meters are in, the red overload segment at the top is always active for channel input.
The meters are large, clear and bright; I tended to have them working in input mode all the time as that's what I'm used to, and I do like that they're located in the middle of the surface and therefore easy to visually relate to the channel fader below and the trim controls above.
The StudioLive AI has four internal effects processors, two of which are reverb-only and the other two are delays. A library of preset effects can be recalled and the parameters edited, or you can set your own up, and this is one of the few times the LCD screen and menu access is used. The reverb presets cover a useful range and should provide a starting point for most applications — I particularly liked the small hall presets and plate options on solo vocals. As well as the four-band parametric EQs on the channels and buses, there are 31-band mono graphic processors for each of the aux buses, and a stereo 31-band graphic for the main output (the mono output is a sum of left and right and therefore doesn't need its own separate graphic). These are adjusted using a 'sends on faders' method but, of course, in this case it's the Fat Channel rotary encoders, not the actual faders, which are used for control; the relative encoder setting is shown on the meters and the parameter values are written in the display screen. Once again, this feature is easy to access and adjust, and I found the process intuitive and quick.
One of the most useful aspects of digital mixing for live shows is the potential for storing and recalling settings, for example when soundchecking multiple acts before a concert, or when working on a stage show that requires quick and often complicated changes between or during play scenes. The StudioLive AI does incorporate scene memories, which include all the necessary level and effects values, but the absence of motorised faders means that although snapshots can be easily stored, recalling them can be a little more involved depending on the situation. When a stored scene is recalled, all the included desk values are instantly applied to the programme material, but the faders don't actually move and the channel meters change into a fader locate mode — a single LED segment lights up to show where on its track the fader should be, and you move the fader until its physical position and the target LED are aligned. It's actually a bit cleverer than it sounds, as the fader doesn't have any effect on the signal level until it has caught up with the stored position, at which point it becomes active and the 'find me' indicator disappears. The main problem I found was that if I accidentally pushed a fader past it's stored point (it works in both directions) it resumed manual control but was then not sitting at the stored location; the trick here is to recall the scene again (it will still be stored in memory) and move the fader to the exact spot. It's easy, it works, and I suppose it has reliability and price benefits, but I'd find this a bit of a drawback for mixing theatre shows.
Setting up the StudioLive is very easy indeed, and I can't think of any other digital mixer whose basic mix functions are as obvious or accessible. Once the Fat Channel resources, effects and group destinations have been applied as needed, driving the console is as easy as it gets — everything you need for a basic show mix is right there on the surface, with dedicated controls and no need to look at the LCD screen. The StudioLive is unusual, and the folks at PreSonus have clearly decided where its priorities lie; it's a good-sounding mixer with nice, easy effects control and plenty of capabilities — including free-download control apps to keep the wireless guys happy for ages. The lack of motorised faders doesn't cause any problems for basic mixing, and the ease of use and 'analogue feel' outweighs any disadvantages in most situations. I like the no-nonsense surface design and the full complement of DSP on all the buses, and I like the big bright metering. I'm not so keen on TRS aux outputs, but if I can keep hold of the StudioLive for a week or two longer I have live gigs in the diary where this mixer would be the perfect tool.
I have only covered the most basic mixer functions, and there's more under the hood than I've had time to use or recount here — but I really do think that this desk will find much favour in community, school, dry-hire and house-of-worship applications, as well as with gigging bands and in the recording studio. I like the fact that the StudioLive AI brings a distinct feature choice to this market, and that it's a bit different.
The most obvious contenders are Soundcraft's Si Expression 3 and the Allen & Heath QU24.
- Dead easy to set up and mix on.
- Closest yet to analogue driving style.
- Nice signal path and processing.
- Lots of extension and control options.
- Would much prefer aux XLR outputs, even just a few.
- Scene recall using manual fader locate won't be ideal in all situations.
This console has all the benefits of digital mixing, but with a familiar, easy-to-use analogue-style interface.
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