It's about time: after being conspicuously absent from the studio recording console business for nearly 10 years, Allen & Heath has introduced the new ZED-R16.
Clearly studio-oriented, the R16 combines a 16-channel analog mixer with discrete mic preamps, 4-band EQ (two mid-bands fully parametric), four auxiliary sends, control room outputs with alternate speakers outputs, two studio monitor feeds, 18 channels of 24-bit FireWire I/O up to 96 kHz sample rate, 16 channels of ADAT optical I/O, and comprehensive MIDI control for DAW integration. In addition, it can also serve as a versatile live sound mixer with the bonus of recording outputs.
Features — Don't Let The Buttons Fool Ya'
While mixers with digital I/O are no longer revolutionary, what sets the R16 apart from the pack is the routing flexibility to and from the computer controlled by the four buttons beside each fader where bus assigns usually reside. One selects whether the A/D converter is fed directly from the mic preamp or after the insert jack and channel EQ. Two other buttons route the D/A converter output either through the full channel path including the Insert and EQ, or direct to the fader. Even when mixing in the DAW, you can route a track out to a mixer channel and back, essentially turning the console channel into an analog plug-in. If you know studio mixing consoles, you'll feel right at home here. When tracking, it works just like an inline console.
The fourth button converts the fader to a MIDI controller. In MIDI mode, the channel still passes audio but the fader is bypassed, creating a unity gain analog summing bus for your in-the-box mix. By assigning the computer mix to the ZED's L/R bus, you can compare the analog summed mix with the digital mix at the press of a button. Main Insert jacks provide one last chance to route a mix through your favorite bus compressor.
The main L/R mix is available to the computer for live-to-stereo recording, but here's one of the R16's few "gotchas" — that stereo pair (as well as the digital input ahead of the master fader) is unavailable at 2x sample rates, so you can't record an analog mix to the computer at 96 kHz. A&H is looking into this and will have a solution with a firmware update. [According to A&H, this firmware update will also remember the clock source once set by computer link — Ed.]
The two line-level stereo Studio outputs are good candidates for headphone feeds, with their source derived from any combination of the L/R mix and Aux sends. Studio musicians can hear a custom headphone mix from an Aux bus, the control room stereo mix, perhaps with some "more me," more cowbell, or a click track. Stereo returns 1-2 include a 2-band equalizer and sends to the Aux 1 and 2 busses as well as the main L/R bus. Returns 3-4 go directly to the L/R bus.
One pair of Tape outputs duplicates the main outputs, but 6 dB lower, which might save your bacon if your stereo recorder's inputs are easily overdriven by the output level of a modern console. Two sets of stereo Tape inputs allow copying from one recorder to another. Either Tape input can be routed to the main outputs for reference listening or intermission music.
Aux sends 1 and 2 are pre-fader, while 3 and 4 are post-fader. Both are post EQ and post-Mute. Two sets of Control Room outputs for main and alternate speakers monitor the main mix, the stereo return from the computer, or either of the Tape inputs.
All of the knobs and faders feel solid and smooth. Ergonomics are excellent — everything is right where you'd expect it to be. My one complaint (in fact, just about my only complaint) is with the color and finish. The panel is dark gray, high-gloss hammertone with white lettering. Under many lighting conditions, glare is distracting and legends become difficult to read.
The case is steel, weighing in at just about 30 pounds.
Under The Hood
The ZED is constructed like a traditional console. Rather than the one large board with controls poking up through holes in the top panel (typical of many modern mixers), each channel is on its own circuit board with signals passed throughout with ribbon cables and plug-on daughter boards. Pot bushings are secured to the panel with nuts.
While this is indeed modular construction, it's no picnic to remove a channel board. Most are partially covered either by the digital I/O board or power supply. Further, a solid wire is strung through all of the modules, soldered to each one, and terminating at the power supply ground point. It's not surprising that the R16 exhibits no Pin 1 (poor internal grounding) problems. The digital circuit board uses surface-mounted components, though with exception of the op-amps, analog boards are all through-hole assemblies. The internal power supply uses a standard IEC detachable power cable.
The digital brain of the R16 is a TC Applied Technologies (TCAT) DICE Jr. chip that handles all of the routing and digital interfacing. Channel A/D converters are Cirrus Logic CS5368 chips. D/A converters are Burr-Brown PCM1404. The main L/R digital I/O is handled by a Cirrus Logic CS4271 codec.
One of the dirty little secrets about FireWire-connected audio devices is that some are fussy about the chipset used in the computer's host interface. While A&H doesn't have a recommended list of host controllers, the TCAT folks have tested their DICE chip with several popular FireWire chipsets and have blessed the VIA 6306 and 6308, TI TSB43AB23, and Agere FW-2306 chipsets. They've encountered problems with NEC chipsets. Forewarned is forearmed.
In Use — The Analog Side
Before checking out the R16's digital I/O capabilities, I wanted to see how good of a mixing console it is. I wasn't disappointed. I was pleased with how quickly and easily I obtained a clean mix of a 16-track project on my Mackie HDR24/96 recorder. The mixer has loads of headroom, and the EQ sounds pleasant and never dirty. On a live outdoor recording, the EQ was effective for controlling leakage without sounding harsh or hollow. The 100 Hz high pass filter effectively reduced wind rumble.
A variety of mics sounded good through the ZED's preamps, virtually indistinguishable from a Mackie Onyx, my benchmark for a modestly priced clean mixer. Maximum gain from mic input to main output with the channel and master faders set to their 0 dB (unity) position is a shade under 65 dB, a bit more than the average tabletop mixer. Actual preamp gain (mic input to insert output) is 60 dB. At maximum gain, the preamp's low frequency response drops about 3 dB at 20 Hz; at 35 dB gain, it's flat to below 20 Hz.
The Gain trim control works smoothly with the most used 20-40 dB range well spread around "noon," without the startling gain jumps at the low and high ends of the knob's rotation that I've observed on a few contemporary mixers.
Mic preamp input impedance is nearly 3k Ohms, a pretty good match for modern microphones, though an SM57 will sound better with a lower impedance load. Phantom power, individually switchable for each channel, is a solid 47.5V with no droop when simultaneously powering a dozen assorted mics. There's no mic/line input switch: plugging in a mic disables the line input, meaning that you can't keep everything plugged in all the time.
Jumping into the digital world for a moment, with the Gain at 1 o'clock, -35 dBu at the mic input equates to -16 dBFS. This is a comfortable gain structure for a reasonably strong singer about six inches from a typical modern microphone.
The main outputs are a cross-coupled balanced configuration, providing the same level into either a differential or single ended input with Pin 3 grounded. Maximum output level before clipping is a healthy +27 dBu.
In Use — The Digital Side
The digital I/O section consists of a set of A/D and D/A converters assignable to logical points in the analog signal path. Purists can record straight off the mic preamps while old-school duffers will appreciate having the excellent channel EQ available at the touch of a button because experience tells us to clean up the noise and leakage sooner rather than later.
When tracking, you'd normally monitor inputs through the direct analog path (really zero latency), though should you want to monitor through the DAW, that's just a button away. With Nuendo 4 in its lowest monitor latency mode, delay from mic in to monitor out with no plug-ins is just over 1 millisecond, low enough to take advantage of true "tape deck style" monitoring if your DAW offers it. The beauty of having a real analog console for tracking is that you can add outboard effects and processors to the monitor mix without adding latency, then use your DAW plug-ins for final mixdown where monitor latency is of no concern.
Software installation was straightforward, but there's no driver disk in the box. The manual directs you to an A&H website for the current driver, bypassing the typical cycle of installing an outdated driver, then learning of an important update. I expect that as the product matures, a driver disk will ship with it, but honestly, I like their direct approach. I used a Windows XP computer for my evaluation, but the driver also works with Vista, and rather than depend on Apple's Core Audio system, there's a Mac driver as well.
The digital path sounds very good, the result of high-quality A/D and D/A converter chips supported by good design. They'll hold their own against all but top-quality standalone converters and add good value to the console.
The converters used for the main mix output and stereo return (a single codec chip) have a bit more noise (hence less dynamic range) than those for the main channels. This, plus the fact that they're disabled above 48 kHz sample rate, seems a bit odd to me since this is essentially your "master" path. When mixing analog and recording the mix back to the computer, you're not using the best converters in the console. Equally important, when mixing in the DAW and monitoring through the console, you're not listening through your best D/A converter. You can, of course, route the DAW mix back through the higher grade channel converters, but that puts the full console in the monitor path, so pick your poison.
ADAT optical I/O is a bit tricky. The console normally uses its internal clock for data synchronization. When interconnecting anything digitally, it's necessary that the word clocks of the devices on both sides of the digital interface be synchronized. Synchronization is simple when connecting the ZED's ADAT outputs to a recorder that can synchronize its clock to the incoming data (such as an Alesis HD24). However not all devices have that capability, or you may only be connecting ADAT outputs to the mixer. Since the ZED has neither word clock input nor output, it's necessary to configure the mixer to synchronize its clock to the ADAT input.
This is possible, but clumsy in the present configuration. The ZED's clock source (Internal/ADAT) is selected via the driver control panel, requiring a computer to be connected. Unfortunately, this setting doesn't stick once you power down the mixer, so you can't work in the field with the ADAT as the word clock master unless there's a computer nearby.
In addition to the 16 main faders that double as MIDI continuous controllers (CC), there are four dedicated CC faders (the ones that look like they should be submasters), 12 CC rotary knobs, 12 note on/off buttons, and five MIDI Machine Control (MMC) transport buttons. Defaults are MIDI Channel 16 and MMC Device ID 127. With some manual dexterity (holding down buttons while pressing other buttons) and the knowledge to count in binary, the MIDI channel can be changed, though the MMC Device ID is fixed.
The ZED lacks built-in support for common control surface protocols such as HUI or Mackie Control, so it's necessary (or call it "flexible") to manually map controllable DAW functions to the CC or note on/off buttons. This is tedious but straightforward using the MIDI Learn mode in Sonar LE and other DAW programs. MIDI control over FireWire is the conventional setup, but there's also a standard 5-pin MIDI OUT, which can be used for controlling external devices such as reverbs.
If I were designing an analog console to integrate nicely with a DAW, it would look and work a whole lot like the ZED-R16. Allen & Heath deserves a big pat on the back for understanding the traditional multitrack workflow model and incorporating it without putting a lot of restrictions on the user.
As a mixing console, it sounds excellent. It is flexible. It is logically laid out. It's all the things you want a console to be. A&H has taken quite a leap of faith that there will be customers for a console at this price point that doesn't have DAW integration as an afterthought. It's a new product, it has some room to evolve, and it will do so if the user base is there.
While I have my wish list of enhancements, my list of quibbles is short and pretty inconsequential. The manual could use some expansion, but there's a growing collection of supplemental material on the website. While the Sonar LE DAW included with the mixer is a little skimpy (limited to eight active inputs), it's enough to get started (if you're just getting started with a DAW, that is).
Give the panel a new matte-black paint job, and I'll take it.
Mike Rivers has a long list of engineering credits with the Smithsonian and is the author of the last Mackie HDR manual.