I recently received the call to visit Westover Church in Greensboro, North Carolina and get a first hand look at the first-ever, fully-digital mixing system from Midas, so I immediately loaded up the iPod and headed east. The Midas XL8 is not a simple dip into the digital pool to check the water; it is the result of a three-and-a-half year project blending Midas' renowned live sound history and pedigree with the latest advancements in digital audio technology. It is a complete system designed to take signal from the source, convert it, split it, route it, and process it without ever having to use one single piece of third-party equipment.
Westover Church's XL8 is the first installed anywhere in the world (serial number 1001). Westover Technical Director Danny Slaughter considered many of the high-end digital consoles currently available, but upon learning of a digital Midas in production, he made the long trip to the other side of the pond — Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England, to be exact — in order to experience this system first hand.
Throughout this review, I will reference Slaughter's insight, expertise, and experience with the XL8 system. Also, I should note that at the time of this review — as with many innovative and all-new products such as the XL8 — some of its features are TBA and forthcoming in future software upgrades.
Live sound, sound reinforcement, installation
Modular system; separate I/O box; up to 96 mic inputs; 96 kHz sample rate; Klark Teknik Rapide EQ; onboard DSP; delay; Ethernet; USB; MidasNet
- Complete digital system
- Infinite flexibility combined with ease of use
- Comprehensive redundancy
- Full scene automation
- 24/7 worldwide support
- Lack of onboard DSP libraries
A well thought out modular digital console that has enough features and inputs to fit most jobs.
A Standard XL8 System
- One XL8 Control Centre
- Ten DL471 DSP Engines
- Two DL461 Audio System Signal Routers
- Five DL451 Audio System Modular I/O
- Four DL431 Audio System Input Splitters
- One DN9331 Klark Teknik Helix Rapide
A Typical Configuration
- 16 Mic/line auxiliary inputs (giving a total of 112 mic inputs as standard)
- 32 aux/group buss outputs
- 16 matrix (main) outputs
- 1 stereo main output
- 1 mono main output
- 2 stereo local monitor outputs
The XL8 system backbone of data is referred to as MidasNET. MidasNET incorporates digital audio using the AES50 protocol, control data, and standard Ethernet traffic bidirectionally via a single CAT-5 for local (24-channel) connections and a single CAT-6 (or fiber-optic) for a digital snake equal to a 384-channel analog multicore. This enables the XL8 system hardware to interface on RJ45 connectors.
In the background, the system is monitoring data, temperature, or anything that could cause system failure, preemptively communicating with the user prior to any audible problems. The system does all of this with a 96 kHz sample rate and a latency on each network link of only 70uS, with total system latencies at 2mS. Management of all delay points is provided including compensation for any outboard DL451 modular system used for external sources such as insert points. All network connections are duplicated for system-wide dual-redundancy.
ON The Facility
Together for Westover's 3000-seat sanctuary — a theater-like room with traditional church appeal — Audio/Acoustical Consultant Armando Fullwood of Design 2020, Integrator Tim Owens of Audio Ethics, and Danny Slaughter chose to include nearly all Telex-oriented components. The Electro-Voice 108-enclosure/70-amplifier distributed delay system comprised the majority of Westover's product list. This PA features EV X-Array 1183 and 1123 enclosures and EV Xsubs for house mains alongside an all-EV selection of front-fill, balcony, surround, and wedge enclosures, the total of which are fed by EV RL Precision amplifiers. On stage, an Aviom personal monitoring system provides all monitor mixes for Aviom and Shure 600 IEMs.
The Midas XL8 (app. $340,000) core is comprised of four primary components. The first of these is the primary method to bring analog audio into the system via one of the four 24-input, 96kHz shared mic/line splitters — model number DL431 — totaling 96 available inputs. All inputs and outputs are interfaced with the system via XLR connectors. Each DL431 requires six rack spaces to house the 24 inputs and 96 analog outputs to interface with other analog systems. There are three independent preamps supplied for every input; Preamps 1 and 2 (with analog outputs located on the back of the unit next to the inputs) have separate local and remote gain controls while the third (located on the front – very handy for quick access to the split outputs) is the broadcast transformer-isolated input with a fixed gain. The two preamps with independent gain control also have their own set of ADCs, allowing the two preamps to be routed independent of gain settings and can then be routed digitally via AES50.
The DL431 is a well-conceived, full digital/analog splitter with local metering, power supply indicator lights on the front panel, and an indicator light next to each XLR input. This corresponds to the Check button on the XL8 controller which, when pressed, will automatically light up the corresponding LED located next to the XLR input on the splitter. This is extremely helpful when troubleshooting if an input is not working by having someone at the splitter while the engineer presses the Check button to verify that the cable is plugged into the correct input. If it is, then the engineer can immediately check whether there is an internal routing issue. With 96 possible inputs, this is a great feature to help expedite troubleshooting any signal issues.
The DL431 is also equipped with a local headphone jack that allows a user to monitor any input chosen on the front panel. A small LCD screen provides local configuration of the DL431 including phantom power, adjust local preamp level reflected by the onboard metering and enable the built-in 30Hz filter. Also on the back of the unit are Ethernet ports for standalone remote control and USB connections for tunneling third-party data; each DL431 is equipped with dual integral power supplies.
Yes, the DL431 will serve any show well for interfacing the system with the stage, but what about the need for interfacing analog or digital gear with the system from an external source? Saloon doors fly open — in walks the five DL451s.
This is the XL8's modular I/O in a 3U rackmount unit. The DL451 can support up to 24 I/O per unit and can be configured in combinations of eight XLR panels in the rear of the unit. Five DL451s are shipped with the system to be placed at different locations, at the same location with different configurations, or a combination of both. Analog mic/line In, Out, and AES/EBU are the three configurations available. The only cable needed to interface the DL451 with the system is a CAT-5/6 cable sent to the router. Multiple DL451s can be used with the system. In this scenario, Westover purchased additional units to use throughout their facility to allow for flexibility and future expansion.
Once analog audio is converted to digital, it is sent to the router (DL461) via AES50 on CAT-5 cable. The DL461 is a 3U rackmountable unit and is the sole link between console, routers, processors, and the control surface and acts as the AES50 traffic cop. All delay compensation for output timing and phase coherency is handled from within the unit. Two of these are shipped with the XL8 configuration and — like many of the XL8's well-thought-out design behaviors — the DL461s are setup as a fully duplicated network for redundancy. A quick glance at the series of LEDs — logically laid out on the front — indicate the system's current status. The rear of the unit consists of a series of AES50 connectors; Ethernet and USB for third parties; and BNC and AES3 word clock interface for external synchronization.
Handling all DSP for the XL8 system is a bank of 10 1U units: the DL471. Nine of the processors are actively in use, while the tenth is on standby and ready to jump in should one of the nine fail. LEDs are on the front of the panel to indicate status and a small screen and quad buttons are available for system diagnostics and configuration. The DL471 rear panel is equipped with AES50 and Ethernet connections.
Let's move on to the control surface. High-end digital systems can all route signal virtually everywhere and anywhere, have built-in DSP, can handle more inputs than the footprint reflects, and so on. But in actuality, the key factor is how well they perform these features, the ease of navigation, and — of course — how the system sounds.
The first element of adapting to a digital console is the virtual knob, where a knob's function changes based on the page or function that is currently chosen. Midas stays close to its analog roots by avoiding this problematic design.
To facilitate the one-knob-per-function design, the work surface is separated into bays with each bay having set areas referred to as “zones.” The five main bays are broken into three-input bays — one mix bay and one output bay. Looking at the console from left to right, the bays are laid out as follows: input, input, mix, output, and input, allowing for a total of 24 inputs available. These inputs do not have to be consecutive, but do have to be laid out within standard banks of eight. The control surface itself measures just a hair over 68 inches x 54 inches and offers plenty of knobs and buttons to make even the most adamant analog engineer at least partially happy — the board has a great analog feel. But make no mistake; the board is absolutely digital — the five well-lit, daylight-visible DVI TFT display screens emphasize this fact.
The input bay has a Fast Zone that includes the most common “must-have” controls available to the engineer. The controls are laid out in a logical order and include monitoring input level, gain reduction and gate monitoring, and a link button for stereo inputs. Moving down the Fast Zone is the gain knob, phase, and phantom power followed by the direct output assignments and mute option for the direct output. The Dynamics section is next with the basic control of threshold for compressor and gate as well as an enable button and listen monitoring. (More advanced control for the DSP is explained later, highlighting the Input Channel Strip, as is the need for external inserts, which is dealt with by offering an insert button and corresponding LED indicator.)
EQ LED indicators follow, each of the four bands; treble, hi-mid, lo-mid and bass accompanied by a red light to allow with a quick glance to see what EQ is currently engaged, and a Master EQ On button. A pair of auxiliary knobs — which can be quickly scrolled through to adjust gain, engage the aux, or assign the pair post/prefader — are next in the chain with alphanumeric indication of which pair is currently selected. The section is also accompanied by AFL monitoring and a store button. Next is the mix Buss B section with the standard gain, Stereo/Mono/SIS assignment, and rotary knob level control.
One of the main features that make the board so easy to navigate is the ability to name and color code all of the inputs in the computer for quick identification: basically, this is a next-generation scribble strip. These LED backlit buttons are followed by the red backlit mute button and indicator LEDs for mute and auto safe lights. For engineers who still need a good Sharpie and board tape to jot down notes, there is still adequate space for that before reaching the fader section, which houses the Solo B, main solo, and the newly ergonomically-designed, conductive plastic touch-sensitive moving faders.
For detailed control, each of the three input bays has one Input Channel Strip located at the right of the bay. Here is where the engineer can perform tweaks to the onboard processing. This section includes full control of the direct outputs with level, solo, mute, and pre-assignment. The safety section is a series of switches for EQ, Automation, Mute, Dynamics, Mic, and Fader that will allow any one or combination of these sections to be put into safe mode. When an engineer dials in the perfect EQ and wants to be sure it does not accidentally get tweaked, he should simply depress the safe button for the EQ section.
A series of LPFs and HPFs are next with a controllable frequency and slope. Remember the feature I noted earlier on the DL431 (A/D input section), where the engineer can press a button on the board to light an LED on the splitter to verify that the input is plugged into the correct XLR jack? That button is located right next to the set of filters and the gain control for the main input at the A/D. Also available is a fixed 30 Hz filter, which is directly linked to the input to the splitter. A changeover switch to swap the dynamic/EQ sections follows.
Now let's delve into the meat and potatoes of those sections. In accordance with the one-knob-per-function design of the XL8, the dynamics and EQ sections have fixed knobs in this area, allowing for full control of their respective DSP functions. The ability to side chain from any other input on the board is available, which allows for a de-esser or some other type of side chain compression and gating. Parametric EQing follows with a set of knobs shared between the different frequencies and well-lit LEDs to assist the engineer in identifying what frequency is being modified. One of the four bands can be modified at a time and each band has the ability for different curves and/or shelving EQ.
Each XL8 system is also capable of 31-band graphical EQ via a hardware controller, the Klark Teknik Rapide. At the time of the review, the Rapide software was not yet functioning (but should be by the time you read this), but the ability to control the graphic EQ with the use of the mouse was. The auxiliary section follows with four pair of color-coded knobs, each with a designated On and Pre button. Scrolling through banks of eight is accomplished by choosing the Scroll Through 8 function, or by choosing any of the designated bank of eight buttons including any of the 32 auxiliary sends or the 16 available Matrix sends.
Wrapping up the Input Channel Strip is a Scroll By One function to easily call up the next or previous module. The screen located at the top of the bay visually represents anything selected within the bay and does a good job of representing the entire module overview. With one glance, the engineer can see the full layout of the module with well lit color-coded representation of levels, metering, switches, and DSP. Each Input Bay has an Ext Screen selector to bring up an external video source and an onboard mouse pad, which can be used to control the entire bay, if needed. The input pad selection resembles a calculator and allows the engineer to bring up any input to that module by entering the number and pressing Enter. These are always brought up in banks of eight. For instance, if the engineer enters 52, the bank then shows inputs 49 through 56. There is no option to have different inputs show up in the same module using this method, but that is easily remedied in the next bay. Banks can also be locked into a bay so the most critical inputs are always available.
The Mix Bay is the next section in line and takes the worry of technology out of the picture completely. Due to the intuitive design and layout of the XL8, the Mix Bay allows the engineer to focus on the mix. This all starts with the main screen, which — like the other screens — will reflect what is selected in the bay or can be switched to an external source. The home base for this bay is the master status screen. This screen shows every channel's level, gate, dynamics, solo, and mute for quick visual indication of the entire board.
By holding the pointer over any of the channels, a small window pops up with the name of the channel and the input number. One feature that would be handy is the ability to then click on that meter and have that channel appear in one of the input bays. As it stands now, the engineer would have to punch in that number or bring it up in one of the groups and modify from there. Having a “selection-by-click” feature would speed up that process.
The Auxiliary master faders take up the top third of the Output bay, each with their dedicated talkback button and dynamics and EQ available. These also have the expected mute and solo options, safe modes and the well-lit, color-coded scribble strip listing the names of the channels. The flexibility of the XL8 is realized in the Output section via the 12 VCA (Variable Control Association) and the POP (Population) groups. Each of the 12 VCA groups can be customized by name and color. When a VCA master fader is selected, all of the channels assigned to that group will appear in a bank and reflect the color-coding of the VCA master. For example, if group one consisted of drums on 1 - 10, percussion on 22 - 24, and timpani on 49 - 53, these would all show up in chronological order on the modules to the left of the VCA when that master was selected. The eight POP groups work the same way, except that they do not have a master fader associated with each of them, so when the POP button is selected, all associated inputs appear for ease of individual editing and/or mixing. The two combined allow for up to 20 groups, which is more than enough for even the most intricate shows. A channel can be assigned to multiple groups and the color of that channel will reflect whatever group is currently active.
The output bay houses the L/R/M and 16 matrix output faders, and — as with every output — each have their own dynamic and EQ (graphic and parametric) assignment switches. Eight user-assignable switches are available, but at the time of this review, they have not yet been implemented into the software. I predict these will be great assets for quick modifications to onboard effects, which are currently handled by the onboard trackball.
In addition to the pink noise and 1kHz tone generator is a sweepable 50 Hz to 5 kHz tone generator, which can be routed to outputs of the console. Two USB ports are available — a must have for backing up critical data such as shows, presets, or automation. The console has a comprehensive onboard talkback system with variable gain and limiting available for the onboard or external microphone. Closefield monitoring is available via one of the two monitor feeds: Monitor A, which is controlled via fader, and Monitor B, controlled via rotary knob. Solo and the multitude of routing options are housed in this section, all with well-lit dedicated knobs/switches. The main base for controlling the Output and Mix bays is located at the base of the console and houses two custom trackball mice and a series of quick navigation buttons to pull up common views for the main screen and a roll-out keyboard underneath. This screen has a built in three-way KVM switch.
The XL8's great layout and navigation is not worth the paper this review is printed on without redundancy. Redundancy is absolutely critical for digital systems and Midas spared no expense in taking every precaution necessary.
For starters, the XL8 control surface has separate power inlets for each bay with their own PowerCon connector - allowing the engineer to get power for the board from two different sources. Each bay is equipped with a dedicated power supply and switch, and the design of the system allows the engineer to take over any bay from any other bay for full control should a bay ever fail. The system DSP is virtually unlimited and is powered by a dual, ultrahigh-speed, contra-rotating data loop for direct processor-to-processor communications. This aggressive design is to allow for headroom in processing and redundancy. Each of the units are linked to the one before, and — after it is in the chain and if any unit should fail — the processing load is immediately handed off to the next processor in line, allowing for a continuous data loop. All of the components incorporate fault detection to immediately notify the user if an error is detected which allows the user to decide whether to switch to the backup system components. Support for the Midas XL8 is 24/7 worldwide; the factory and all offices support the equipment, regardless of where it was purchased.
For me, the highlight of the onboard DSP was the compressors. There are four flavors of compressors with RMS, Peak, Limiter and Vintage compressor algorithms. Each compressor sports a sleek layout on screen and offers a full palette of sonic characteristics.
Equalization was equally as impressive, with two of the four-band parametrics offering three different shelving types and very detailed, accurate control for precise equalization, yet it was still exceptionally easy to dial in the right sound. The graphic EQ is based on proven Klark Teknik parameters. Sixteen different stereo effects are available for the system including reverb (based on the KT DN780), EQ, auto-pan, and variations of delay. The major (but reportedly temporary) downside with all of the DSP is the lack of ability to save presets to a library and assign them to other channels automatically; this is slated for a future software upgrade.
Also, with the entire system built on Linux, it is limited to incorporate any third-party plug-ins because most companies do not have their plug-ins written for the Linux OS. However, I must say that the trade-off for stability is well worth it. It is easy enough to bring in outside DSP processing via AES or analog and the KVM switch allows the XL8 screen, mouse and keyboard to be used to control the third party product. With all of the onboard DSP being proprietary, the need to tie in external processing is likely.
Where this console really shines is when the use of the scenes and automation is fully utilized. Virtually every control can be programmable per act/per scene and only the active controls for that preset are available. For instance, if there are six inputs used for a particular preset, that is all that will be available during the time that preset is active.
For further insight on the XL8 presets in use, I spoke with Wallace Flores, Associate Sound Designer for the “Sister Act” show on Broadway. Flores has been working on the production team and has first-hand experience with the XL8 in a professional theatre environment. His assessment of the presets was that the XL8 was unparalleled in the ease of setup, flexibility, and use.
So — what about the sound, you ask? Danny Slaughter explained that Westover had a Verona at front-of-house in their new sanctuary while they awaited the arrival of the XL8. The system sounded great, but when the XL8 arrived, “everything completely opened up,” so much so that they had to retune the room and adjust for the clarity of the fully digital system.
I can attest to this as I had already noticed the fine acoustic detail of the seven-piece band and choir during the church's Sunday service. I especially enjoyed the use of the matrix outputs to feed the choir into the surround speakers hung around the perimeter of the sanctuary. This gave a fairly modest-sized choir a huge sound while not taking away from the worship experience. The output timing and phase coherency was spot on with the XL8, automatically doing all of the calculations and adjustments. At Westover, this included the interface of analog feeds from the primary DL431s and DL451s handing additional inputs (both from analog and AES) that included audio from sources sprinkled throughout the sanctuary.
The XL8 is a comprehensive system that has been well thought out and was designed to mix the best of analog “feel” with the flexibility and control of a digital system. At $340,000 retail, the XL8 is not for the faint of budget. However, this price may appear higher on the front-end since the XL8 is shipped with all necessary cabling, hardware, and road cases; just add amps, microphones and something to mix, and enjoy creating an audio masterpiece.