Having mixed more than 100 sound reinforcement jobs last year, I wondered why no one had yet come out with a small-format, affordable, digital console suited for live sound work. At the time, I remembered thinking how handy it would be to be able to save snapshots of bands Iw ork with. Such a console would have to be easy to use and allow rapid access to all those things that can cause trouble during a live show – I wouldn’t want to be scrolling through menu pages while the monitors were howling!
Spirit by Soundcraft must have read my mind when it released the Digital 324 Live console, a four-bus live board, based on the Digital 328 eight-bus recording console (PAR, 7/99, p. 18).
Product PointsApplications: Live sound; fixed-installation venues
Key Features: Comprehensive automation; two Lexicon effects units; two dynamic processors; 16 mic/line (expandable to 32) inputs; AES/EBU, S/PDIF and TDIF digital I/O standard
Contact: Spirit by Soundcraft at 800-255-4363; www.spiritbysoundcraft.com.
+ Numerous standard-equipped analog and digital I/O
+ Excellent user interface
+ Flexible automation and routing
– Could use more dynamic processors
The Score: A well-thought-out live digital console with all the options an engineer could want – standard!
I expected the model 324 Live console ($4,799) to be a thinly disguised 328, but I was wrong. While this board shares many of the same features that appear on its sibling, it is designed for serious live sound work. The feature list is huge, so I will present the critical features of the 324, as well as those features that make it unique as a live sound console.
Basically, this digital board has 16 mic/line inputs (expandable to 32), an intuitive user interface, 24-bit conversion and processing, two built-in Lexicon effects units, two dynamic processors, loads of outputs (analog and digital), 100 user snapshots and automation that encompasses nearly all of the console’s functions.
As mentioned, the 324 has 16 mic/line inputs each with XLR and 1/4″ connectors, an insert point, a gain control, and a 100 Hz high pass filter. Sixteen additional mic/line inputs can be added by purchasing two mic/line interfaces ($1,099.95, each), which are connected via the board’s TDIF digital ports.
These TDIF ports act as digital I/Os when no interface is connected – the 324 comes ready for direct recording/playback with TASCAM MDMs. ADAT users must purchase either the previously mentioned mic/line interface, the RCA analog interface ($399.95) or an after-market TDIF to lightpipe converter. The 324 also has stereo 1/4″ inputs, an AES/ EBU digital input, and a S/PDIF digital input. All of these inputs are accessible on the board’s E-Strip, which offers quick adjustments of EQ, aux, and effect sends.
The E-Strip is the 324’s most astounding feature. It is remarkable for its simplicity and functionality, and it is the key to making this board easy to use in live situations. It has two basic modes of operation, channel mode and function mode. In channel mode the E-Strip acts as a channel strip configured horizontally. By pressing a select button on any of the 32 input channels, stereo inputs, or effect returns, the E-Strip becomes that item’s channel strip. This gives the user the opportunity to adjust three bands of fully parametric EQ, four aux sends, two Lexicon effect sends and panning.
In function mode, the E-Strip becomes a row of dedicated controls for a single parameter. For example, if you select Aux 1, the E-Strip’s rotary controls show the respective Aux 1 send levels for all 16 channels currently selected in the fader bank.
Getting even hipper, if you select level while in this function mode, the E-Strip’s rotary controls will give you access to the level of the hidden fader bank.
If the faders are representing Bank A (channels 1-16) and you want to adjust the volume of channel 32 in Bank B, just twist the E-Strip knob above channel 16. Voilà, channel 32 gets louder. Then, if you select Bank B for the fader assignments, the fader for channel 32 will automatically move to correspond with the rotary change you just made.
The 324’s faders are equally as versatile. The bank of 100mm faders can control one of three assignment functions. When Bank A is selected, they control mic/line channels 1-16. When bank B is selected, they control channels 17-32, which can be TDIF returns, mic/line or analog inputs, depending on your configuration. If the Masters function is selected, the fader bank provides control over the master sends and outputs. When no Fader Bank function is selected, the faders function as 16 programmable MIDI controllers.
When it comes to creating a functional live board, outputs are the name of the game and the 324 is loaded. With respect to analog outs, the 324 has a left/right mix output (XLR), four matrix outputs (XLR), four auxiliary outputs (1/4″ TRS), two floating outputs (XLR), monitor outputs (1/4″ TRS), and a headphone output with its own level control.
The 324 can gain additional analog outs by adding one of the optional interfaces. These can be in the form of four analog group outputs or 16 channel direct outputs. The 324 is endowed with lots of digital outputs as well. There are 16 digital outs via the TDIF connectors that can be configured as either 16 direct outs or four paralleled four-group bus outputs. The AES/EBU and S/PDIF outputs can obtain their source from Main Mix, Aux 1 & 2, Aux 3 & 4, or FX 1/2.
The 324 is equipped with two Lexicon effects processors. These programmable units offer the traditional favorites like reverb, delay, chorus, and flange. The console also comes with two internal dynamics processors. Compression, limiting, and gating can be applied to any two input channels, the stereo inputs, FX returns or the Main Mix outputs.
Unlike some other consoles in this class, you won’t need to spend extra money to get a meter bridge. The 324 comes equipped with full metering of every input and output signal, standard. The 10-segment bar graph meters can display Bank A (channels 1-16), Bank B (channels 17-32), or Group Outputs 1-4, Mono Output, Aux Outputs and Effects Sends. The console also has two 16-segment meters for the L/R mix output. With the push of a button these meters can also act as gain reduction or gate open/close meters for the dynamics processors – very cool.
Automation and recall are perhaps the main reason to consider purchasing a digital board for live sound. The 324 is capable of both snapshot and dynamic automation. The console can store 100 user snapshots or cues, as well as 27 user setups. User setups differ from snapshots in that they store menu settings like clock source and automation setup, as well as mixer parameters.
Snapshots and user setups can be recalled manually or with MIDI time code (MTC). An external MIDI recording device is required for the 324 to perform dynamic automation changes. There are only two parameters that are not in the automated domain of the 324. They are input trim, and the position of the high-pass filter.
There are lots of other handy features on the 324 that are great for live sound work. The console has a security lock that disables controls and there are several layers of lock modes. You can leave the board totally disabled or in a mode that will allow only fader changes.
Another cool feature is the Isolate function. Suppose you have designed snapshots for each song of a band’s set. If you spent most of the first song getting the lead vocal to sound right in the room and it was time for the next snapshot, you would lose your adjustments when you recalled the next snapshot. The Isolate function lets you isolate that track and preserve your changes while still moving on to the next snapshot.
The Clear function is valuable in a live setting. With three fader banks, it is very possible that an engineer could don the headphones and not hear the main mix because a solo button was depressed on one of the hidden fader banks. Rather than surfing through the fader banks in a desperate search for the culprit, just press the Clear button and it erases the offending solo’s activation.
Somewhat related to the clear mode, is the 324’s Query function. This offers a speedy way to detect what functions are active on any of the inputs or FX returns. By pressing and holding down any button in the console’s select panel, you can determine which channels are active with respect to that function. If you wanted to see which channels were routed to the mix bus, simply hold down the Route-to-Mix button, and the select button(s) of all the channels routed to the mix bus are illuminated.
There are more features in the Spirit’s arsenal – pre/post selection for direct outs or aux sends, mute groups, phase reversal, MIDI in/out/thru, channel link, headphone and monitor source selection, 48V phantom power, an RS422 port for software upgrades, several solo modes, and much more.
As is my standard protocol, I used the 324 in a variety of professional settings. My road test included using the 324 with some of the bands I mix regularly, as well as a date doing reinforcement for pop/R&B singer Gary “U.S.” Bonds at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
First, I took the console to a gig I had with a local society band called Time Machine. Having mixed them frequently, I was very familiar with their stage setup. They have five vocalists, a standard rhythm section and a three-piece horn section with three monitor mixes. Using only my existing knowledge of the 328 and the quick start manual that comes with the 324, I was able to quickly get set up and perform a line and monitor check. It was only a matter of minutes before I felt comfortable getting around on the 324. Spirit has designed it for maximum efficiency in a way that is logical and familiar for those who have been using analog consoles.
It was a relief to see so many familiar features that were on my analog console, which was sitting in the truck, just in case. I figured out how to switch Aux 3 to prefader for monitor use, create a mute group and program some custom effects patches, all without consulting the manual.
The manual is concise and thorough with loads of pertinent information. Besides being easy to use, the 324 is sonically competent as well. The EQs are powerful, the reverbs are very believable, and with snapshot automation, the 324 and I really hit it off.
My only complaint was that the board only has two dynamics processors. I had to use an external multichannel compressor for individual dynamics control. I used the internal compressors on the mix bus and found them to be easy to use and effective too.
Several nights later, I used the 324 to mix FOH and monitors for Gary “U.S.” Bonds. After setting up, I recalled a basic snapshot and began tweaking the board. Soundcheck was smooth and effortless and I was on digital cloud nine. Unfortunately, that cloud soon became a storm cloud of digital live sound reality.
A momentary power loss to the AC lines in the room made me all-too-aware of one important rule for using a digital board in live sound work. Just like a computer, the board takes about a minute to reboot and it is critical that you use an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to keep from experiencing audio loss. Bad engineer, go to your room!
Thankfully, the 324 powered back up with all the changes I had made since the last time I stored a snapshot, a most welcome surprise.
Despite this little incident, the 324 was a pleasure to use. The sensible E-Strip allowed me to quickly get Bond’s vocal sounding good in the room. After that, I got a nice, breathy sound on one of the female backup singers and then used the console’s channel copy function to duplicate the EQ for the other two ladies. What a time saver!
Speaking of time savers, my next job with the 324 was where I truly came to appreciate it. It was another date with Time Machine. After setting things up, I turned on the console (plugged into a UPS) and recalled the snapshot named “Time Machine.” A little EQ work and things were ready to go.
I should mention that since the 324 has no easy way to record channel assignment names, you should keep your tape strips (strip names can be painstakingly entered into the main LCD display, however).
It was during this job that I discovered another problematic feature of digital live sound consoles – LCD readability. When working in direct sunlight, it is almost impossible to read the mixer settings for anything but input trim and fader level. This is not something unique to the 324. It is probably a common situation, inherent in most of the breed.
Spirit has created a digital live sound console that is remarkably well designed and effective. It is so intuitive that I would consider the problem of console navigation thoroughly mitigated. In addition, this board has virtually all the live sound staples and then some.
Sound companies, worship houses, theater productions and clubs will all find this console to be a superb investment. The 324 Live is not cheap – in fact, nothing about it is cheap. It is a thoughtfully crafted console that is well worth every penny.