One year and a major firmware update later, we take a second look at QSC’s flagship digital console.
Since I wrote about the TouchMix‑30 Pro last year, there have been some firmware updates, and the remote control apps have similarly been refreshed with improvements and the odd bug fix. I remember concluding my original review with comments about wanting to have this mixer’s GUI and workflow combined with a traditional hardware surface because that’s what I was used to — I still tend to use consoles with physical faders, mainly because much of my work these days involves mixing musical theatre shows where I often find it necessary to ‘grab‑fade’ a bunch of inputs, an operation which most times just isn’t feasible on a multi‑touch screen, however good. So, on getting behind the TM‑30 for a second time, I found myself looking at the potential of this compact but powerful digital desk from a slightly different angle.
Over the past year I have started offering direct user access to the musicians in the pit: as a matter of course I now rig up a dual‑band Wi‑Fi router and encourage the band members to download the relevant monitor control app so that they can set up and stay on top of their personal foldback mixes. I also make a lot more use of remote access for front‑of‑house and ‘official’ stage‑side monitor mixing, and the QSC TouchMix apps are not only excellent in the way they perform their functions, but maybe they represent the way to go for many applications where the TouchMix‑30 Pro would be located in the stagebox position, with all the mixing done from a remote point. The lack of a dedicated remote stagebox was, last year, something I was concerned about and wished for; however, when you consider that virtually everything the TM‑30 can do is accessible from a remote device, it just leads you toward a different way of operating. About the only parameters you can’t access remotely are the analogue input trim controls, but any reasonable mid‑show level changes can be accomplished via the ±15dB of digital gain adjustment on every input (see my comments about wizards later on).
I found that the touchscreen on my iPad gives slightly smoother fader movement than using the screen on the mixer itself, and also allows more faders to be moved at the same time. (On the TM‑30 surface I can’t get more than four to respond, but the iPad lets me drag all eight together if I try hard enough!)
My take on the TouchMix‑30 Pro has therefore evolved into one where wireless control might be considered the norm rather than the exception, at least where live sound is concerned, or used in an application where direct analogue inputs go straight into the console within an installed system or used stage‑side as a monitor desk. The other huge benefit of using remote control is that you can have multiple users accessing different elements of the mix, eg. musicians managing foldback mixes, front‑of‑house staff managing foyer feeds, and so on, and linking in a tablet at the mix position itself gives you two screens for display and control instead of just the TouchMix’s built‑in one.
Arguably it’s the smaller versions of the TouchMix line — the TouchMix‑8 and TouchMix‑16 — that have benefitted most from recent firmware upgrades, as several of the major TM‑30 features have been rolled out across the range, making the three TouchMix consoles very similar in capability. The version 1.3 system currently driving the TM‑30 has been refined and had minor fixes applied, but is functionally still pretty much the same as when the major upgrade was rolled out last year, and is building a good and growing user base, if my online research is anything to go by.
Among the upgrades available exclusively for the TM‑30 is a new Windows driver (it already had Mac OS core connectivity). The mixer’s digital audio input and output streams can now be connected via USB to a Windows device (Windows 10 is recommended but QSC do say that it will work in a Windows 7 environment), thus making direct 32‑channel bi‑directional audio I/O connection to any PC‑based DAW a real prospect. At the moment the driver is in beta and the DAW application itself will need to be configured appropriately. The release of this new driver should be of interest to studio owners with a Windows‑based setup, as it’s easy to see how a very flexible and high‑quality recording rig could be built around the TouchMix wired directly to a powerful PC.
There’s no on/off power switch on the TM‑30 Pro, you simply connect it to a power source and it fires itself up, taking around 30 seconds to fully initialise. There is a ‘soft’ standby switch on the back that asks for on‑screen confirmation that you’re powering down the console, but so long as you don’t remove the mains power it will instantly spring into life when this button is pressed again, with no rebooting.
My first job on rigging up the TouchMix‑30 Pro was to update its operating system to the latest version. This is an easy job on this mixer, far more straightforward than on some digital audio products I’ve encountered. As is invariably the case with QSC their instructions are clear, unambiguous and supported by very helpful screenshots where appropriate; whoever writes their help notes and manuals always manages to get the directions and explanations across simply without resorting to baby language. Having downloaded and unpacked the ‘.install’ file I copied it to a USB stick, plugged it into the back of the console and followed the on‑screen instructions. (On the TM‑30 you can also format USB drives, and even download and install updates directly from the Internet). The update took something under 10 minutes, and various reassuring messages kept appearing under the progress bar (I like progress bars, because I’m of a generation where upgrading something generally involved soldering or a set of special spanners) until everything was done and the console rebooted, fully up to date and ready to roll. Nice feeling.
I hadn’t used a TM‑30 since reviewing it last year, so I took a few minutes wandering around the interface and getting into the workflow once more. I remember being hugely impressed with the way all the main operational parameters were so easily accessible, and with the logical way everything was presented. It all looks and feels just as good second time around. The ultra‑clean screen layout and superb graphics remind me of advice I was given, many years ago, on an orchestral conducting course where the visiting professor told us to give the musicians “everything they need and nothing they don’t”, which for me pretty much sums up the TouchMix‑30’s whole surface design. One thing I did remember from last time is the slight delay when a new screen display is built for the first time after power‑on, however subsequent visits to that page are almost instantaneous.
It probably wouldn’t hurt to recap on some of the main features, so here goes. The TouchMix‑30 Pro is a 30‑input digital mixer built around a touchscreen control interface with associated function buttons and a large data controller wheel. The preamps are built into the mixer itself and have analogue input trim controls that give the design a bit of a hybrid feel, with actual physical knobs to adjust. The TM‑30 has no physical faders; basic mixing is carried out using the graphical faders on the large 10‑inch touchscreen situated to the left side of the surface. The input count is made up of 24 mic inputs, four of which have combination XLR/jack inputs, and three stereo pairs of line‑only TRS inputs of which one pair also has a top‑surface mini‑jack input. There are 18 XLR outputs: stereo master and monitor output pairs plus 14 mono (pairable) auxiliary outputs.
A nice touch is the provision of four headphone outputs; two are traditional ‘cue’ mixes while the other two are driven by the last two aux pairs, 11‑12 and 13‑14, for listening in to IEM or studio can mixes. Wi‑Fi access to the console (for several devices) is accomplished by connecting an external router, and multi‑channel record/playback is possible either using a connected DAW or direct to a suitable USB drive. There’s no digital snake facility; the TM‑30 has gone down the route of using remote control of the host mixer (or using a multicore) rather than having remote inputs if the mixing has to be done from a distance. QSC make a point of explaining why they have not included a built‑in Wi‑Fi router on this mixer and it’s hard to argue the point that if you want decent ‘pro’ performance then you’re better off hooking into a more robust system than they could realistically incorporate within the constraints of space and street price — indeed, some venues will allow you to use their operational network and you may as well take advantage of the available facilities where possible.
On the DSP side, the TM‑30 is endowed with six high‑quality onboard effects with dedicated stereo returns, and there is a decent preset library to get the party started. Speaking of presets, there are lots more than just those for effects — around 120 channel setup presets are available, with useful settings for common input applications covering musical style and connected source equipment, and these presets include preamp, compressor, gate and EQ parameters, so we can all benefit from the collected wisdom of experienced professionals.
It’s tempting to just carry on talking about what the TouchMix‑30 Pro does, and to describe all the goodies in detail, but I’ll restrict this brief second look to some of the features that stand out for me and my line of work.
One of my favourite features is the provision of not only DCA groupings but actual subgroups that act as in‑line mixes. The TM‑30 doesn’t have matrix mixing as such, but aux busses 9‑16 can be re‑routed back to aux busses 1‑8, and any subgroups can be routed onto the aux busses along with input channels, giving a lot of flexibility in this department. The provision of true, assignable subgroups is something that really adds to the overall flexibility of a mixer, and is something you don’t always find on the current crop of digital desks.
Patch changes on the TM‑30 are easy once you get used to the patchbay layout. Any analogue input can be assigned to any control channel (but not output groups or DCAs), and it’s also possible to mult inputs to several channels — this is an efficient way of alternate‑processing where you might want, say, two different EQ settings for the same mic, to be used at different points in the show. The patching screen shows the input ports across the top and the mixer channels down the right‑hand side, and in the factory default state these are linked to each other in sequence (input 1 to channel 1 and so on). The input/channel pairings are shown as an intersecting grid, and to re‑assign you first select an input then tap the channel(s) that you want to control it. The new control assignments will show up in the ‘home’ screen and remain in place until either re‑patched or the default patching is recalled. There are a couple of things to bear in mind here. Firstly, the actual patching point of inputs to channels has to be applied in the digital domain, ie. after the analogue trim controls — this means that even if you have re‑patched input 1 to channel 7, it’s still the trim pot for input 1 that is used to control the incoming signal level. The other thing to be aware of is that if you have an input multed to more than one channel, it’s the first channel (the lowest number) that controls the phantom power state. If input 1 is connected to channels 1 and 2, and you access the channel 2 settings, you can apparently turn phantom power on and off (the indicator turns red) but the voltage isn’t applied to the input connector — you have to do this from the channel 1 screen. This seems logical, however I did discover that if phantom power is applied to the input channel then a noise spike is delivered to all the multed channels, so they must all be muted (and preferably the master as well) before doing this. I noticed that all multed channels showed a clip state in the Nav Strip after applying phantom, and these can easily be cleared from the mixer setup menu or by just pressing the ‘user 2’ button.
The recording capability built into the TM‑30 was always going to make it an interesting prospect for live users who regularly need to capture their gigs, and the ability to recall complex monitor setups from saved scenes is an attractive option when recording larger groups. I particularly like the ability to record (and replay) 32 channels of multitrack audio straight to and from a connected USB drive without the need for a DAW application — slipping a travelling drive and short cable into the mixer’s road case is no trouble at all compared with bringing and setting up a laptop. The setup for direct recording is, like most ops on the TM‑30, extremely simple, and the relevant control screens are clearly laid out with helpful pop‑ups that appear if you try and do something silly. QSC don’t leave you high and dry with an ‘illegal command’ or ‘ha ha ha’ message, and any message that does appear is informative and useful, and written in plain language. Having selected the multitrack recording mode you can flip every input channel into record or play, and the transport controls appear right there beneath the faders on the screen.
The ability to connect a plug‑n‑play drive and easily capture from and play back to individual desk channels opens up the world of the virtual soundcheck, and it’s implemented very nicely on the TouchMix‑30. All the recording modes seem very stable and this side of things is a real plus point — when the gig organiser comes at you just as the live show is about to start, asking ‘any chance of recording this lot?’ you can smile and nod, and press the red button.
The effects engines within the TouchMix‑30 are easy to use and have appealing graphics. The presets will be useful as starting points in a wide range of situations, and some users will probably never feel the need to stray very far from the factory settings. The reverbs are pleasant‑sounding and all the effects have dedicated returns that won’t use up input channels; the return path EQ is a simple 2‑band shelving type, which is effective enough, but if these ever evolve into parametric controls it would really enhance the capabilities of this section.
My absolute favourite feature of the effects section is the ability to quickly and easily send the effects back into the aux busses: simply tap to access any of the effect control screen, and right there are 14 little faders for sending that particular effect into your monitors, or whatever the aux mixes are being used for. Different makes and models of digital desks achieve this simple but frequently used function in different ways, some requiring a degree of head‑scratching, but the way the TM‑30 does it is like so much of its workflow — easy and obvious!
In a dark and secret place ‘neath the silvery surface of the TouchMix‑30 Pro there dwells a quaternity of wizards; anyone wishing to invoke their powers must perform the ancient ritual known to us in modern times as ‘pressing the Wizard button and following the on‑screen instructions’. If you like setup wizards you’ll love these. There is indeed a Wizard button but it only provides direct access to the Gain Wizard, the Tuning Wizard and the EQ Wizard — if you want to call on the Feedback Wizard you’ll need to use the Feedback button (I told you the TM‑30 is easy!). As you’d expect, all the Wizard operations are very nicely presented on the screen and the graphics will be especially helpful for inexperienced users. And although more seasoned operators will be able to achieve great results without these features you can achieve a workable, room‑tuned setup with input channels ready to go in a very short space of time.
There are some first‑class and highly watchable training videos on the QSC site, and these are a great way to learn about what the wizards (and just about every feature of the TouchMix‑30 Pro) do and how they do it, and when you have absorbed all the knowledge there’s even a test you can take. It’s just magic, really.
If there is a down side to the TouchMix‑30 Pro it’s a very small one — this console isn’t trying to be the same as all the other ‘moving fader/remote stagebox’ designs out there. Instead it approaches the live mixing and recording challenge in a different and equally valid way. Second time around, I appreciate the TouchMix‑30 Pro even more than I did before, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone whose requirements match its capabilities. I should like to see a screen calibration feature included in a future firmware release — even though screen response is good, I had to offset the touch point quite a bit when standing at the console and it would be nice to have a sit/stand option here.
The other item on my wish list is an option to display 16 narrow channels on a single screen instead of having to flip between banks of eight. True, the channels are fully represented with all the controls and metering in place, but there are times when I’d trade that for a stripped‑down fader‑plus‑mute display, especially when mixing simple shows where I’m only using slightly more than eight inputs! Apart from this, there’s nothing to dislike about the TouchMix‑30 Pro — it’s a great practical design and it’s obvious that a lot of live sound experience has gone into the design of its workflow.
One of the all‑new features in firmware version 1.3 for the TouchMix‑30 Pro is an automatic microphone mixer. This auto‑mix function is designed to balance the level of two or more channels for applications such as conferences, panel shows and so on, and automatically controls as many inputs as are assigned to the Auto Mix group. There are two Auto Mix groups available, and all 24 mic channels can be assigned if necessary.
The TouchMix’s Auto Mixer is based on a gain‑sharing design (as opposed to an auto‑gating process), where the overall gain in the system remains the same as individual input channels are dynamically attenuated according to the input signal coming from the microphones themselves. The end result is that when a mic is active, ie. someone is speaking into it, it receives a greater share of the total gain and is raised in the output mix; conversely any mic not being used will have less gain allocated and will be effectively ‘turned down’ according to the way you have set up the system. The main benefit of a gain‑sharing design is that all the mics remain live so you hear a more natural ‘room balance’, and there is no chance of clipping the start of someone’s sentence as they begin to speak.
It’s easy to set up the TouchMix‑30’s Auto Mixer, which is accessed by a separate screen (hit ‘Menu’ then ‘Auto Mixer’ and you’re there) that displays all the channels with slightly smaller faders to make room for the additional auto mix controls. I gave it a quick test and the results are smooth and predictable. I also like the metering options that let you choose to display gain or level and gain, so you can see exactly what the channel is doing. A very important control sits in the lower right‑hand corner of the Auto Mix screen, and that’s the maximum attenuation setting; this adjusts the amount of attenuation that will be applied to any channel assigned to the auto mixer, and affects the overall ambience and balance between prominent and background/unused mics. As with all of the TouchMix‑30 screens, the Auto Mixer is very nicely laid out, with all the functions and controls clearly and neatly labelled. The user manual has been updated to include this new function, and a step‑by‑step guide to setting it up is currently on page 105 if you want to take a quick look.