Some years ago, I owned an original Allen & Heath WZ20:8:2 MixWizard designed for use with an 8-track. It was a major step up from other small-format consoles of the time, both functionally and sound-wise. I purchased the MixWizard while in the middle of tracking and mixing the compilation CD In My Living Room (featuring Richard Davies, Ida, Mary Timony, Karate, etc.), and the jump in sound quality from a Mackie was immediate. The rackmount MixWizard series is now in its third generation, and Allen & Heath have recently added the new desktop ZED line to its family of small-format consoles. For the past few months, I've had the pleasure of using a ZED-14, the first and smallest of the ZEDs with its six mono faders and four stereo faders.
Each of the mono-fader channels has both mic and line inputs. The mic input goes through two stages of amplification, while the balanced line input goes through only one. On other affordable mixers, it's common for the line input to go through an attenuation circuit (pad) before going through the mic preamp; the ZED's two-stage approach results in less noise and coloration for the line inputs, while still providing a wide range of gain for both mic and line. Indeed, I found the noise levels for both very manageable, especially considering the unit's compact size (and therefore high circuit density); and there is plenty of gain, even when using my Royer R-121 and SE Electronics R-1 ribbon mics on quiet sources. The mic preamp is of the clean and uncolored variety, and it only starts to sound "pinched" when driven into hard overload. Extreme overload causes the channel to "roar" and then oscillate at a frequency that drops quickly (down to single-digit Hz) as the level goes up, and when that happens, the distorted signal bleeds onto the output buses, even when the fader is down. Keep in mind that during normal operation, you should have more than enough clean, undistorted headroom!
Each mono channel has a three-band EQ with a sweepable mid band and a high-pass filter. The low and high bands are like the straightforward bass and treble controls on a nice stereo; they sound smooth with their gentle slopes. The mid band has a wide, fixed Q (1.75 if I had to estimate) that's very musical but not at all surgical-great for recording but not what you want for something like a stage mix. The high-pass filter is 3 dB down at 100 Hz and drops 12 dB per octave-great for reducing vocal tubbiness or guitar wonk. There's also an unbalanced insert (post-filter, pre-EQ). The four stereo-fader channels have balanced line inputs with low and high-shelf EQ only. All ten fader channels have two pre-fader aux sends and two post-fader (which can be internally jumpered for pre-fader operation); a mute button (with a large LED) that cuts the signal to the main L/R bus as well as to all aux sends; a latching PFL switch that sends signals to the headphones and main meters; a peak LED that doubles as a PFL indicator; and a high-quality 100 mm fader manufactured by Alps.
Above the first three stereo-fader channels, there are three additional stereo inputs (with level knobs), each of which can be bused to L/R or to the stereo fader below it. Two of these additional inputs (stereo and 2-track returns) are on pairs of unbalanced RCA jacks, while the third is a host-computer return via a USB jack and an onboard D/A converter. Also via the USB jack and an
onboard A/D converter, you can send to the host Aux 1/2, Aux 3/4, L/R pre-fader, or L/R post-fader. The ZED's USB interface works with standard drivers in Windows XP/Vista and Mac OS X-no driver installation necessary.
The master section includes balanced outputs for the aux sends, L/R, and a mono sum of L/R. Unbalanced inserts are available on the L/R bus. You can assign L/R, Aux 1/2 (one or the other if mono, or both for stereo), 2-track return, or USB return to the headphones; and thoughtfully, both 1/4" and 1/8" headphone jacks are included. I did notice that when the headphone output is turned down and the meters are flying, you can hear some "popcorn" in the headphones, which I assume is crosstalk from the meter circuitry. There's an unbalanced Alt output (with its own level knob) that can mirror headphones, L/R pre-fader, or L/R post-fader; and an unbalanced record output that's L/R pre-fader (but post-insert) is handy for feeding a 2-track. There are individual 100mm faders for L and R, but none for the mono out; personally, I'd rather have a single stereo fader for L/R and a separate fader for mono. The 12-segment LED meters show peak level for whatever is assigned to the headphones (including PFL). Although the meters are small and their labeling is pretty much illegible when the LEDs are lit bright, I still like them because there's no inter-element bleed and the coloring makes it easy enough to quickly gauge levels. I also appreciate Allen & Heath's use of recessed switches (press with a pen tip) for some functions, like the global phantom-power, to prevent accidents.
All the balanced outputs, including the main L/R XLR, are impedance-balanced-not ideal for driving long lines, but good if you're patching and unpatching a mish-mash of balanced and unbalanced gear. The USB 1.1 interface only supports two channels of 16-bit audio at 32, 44.1, or 48 kHz in each direction. It would have been nice to see 24-bit audio with more simultaneous channels to the host, but that would have required USB 2.0 or FireWire, precluding the convenience of driverless connectivity. As it is now, you can carry the ZED-14 to your next gig or practice and connect it to any Win XP/Vista or Mac OS X computer without loading drivers.
The manual, while concise, is thorough. Not only are all the functions explained well (with large text for legibility even in low light), there are well-labeled illustrations throughout (including wiring notes and a comprehensive block diagram). Setup tutorials describe how to configure the included Sonar LE software (a full-fledged DAW) and how to connect the ZED to other gear for both live sound reinforcement and studio recording. Even a recipe for using a laptop as an outboard digital effects processor is included.
The build-quality is best-in-class. All the pots and jacks are attached securely with nuts, bolts, or screws to the top surface of the steel casing. The plastic side trim is shaped to provide handholds when you need to lift and carry the mixer. And a nice selection of colors is employed to differentiate the various controls. Inside, there are individual vertically-mounted circuit boards for all the channels (and the boards are bused together with removable ribbon cables, not soldered lines as they are on the original MixWizards). It takes just a couple minutes to unscrew the bottom panel to gain access to everything inside. The ZED-14 is a real beauty-in a classic way-and it's at the top of my recommendation list for affordable desktop mixers. Check out the Allen & Heath website to see the whole line of ZED mixers.
($399 street; www.allen-heath.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.