I reviewed the Aviom A320 & A360 Personal Mixer system [Tape Op #108] (quite glowingly) on these pages four years back, have been happily using that system ever since, and have been recommending it to anyone would will listen since then. However, I recently stumbled across a press release for Digital Audio Labs' Livemix system, and thought maybe it was time to check in to make sure the Aviom system still felt like the best fit for my studio workflow. Since I did a lot of A/B'ing between the two systems, parts of this review run the risk of becoming a contest, which I normally try to steer away from in reviews. However, it's inevitable since the systems are so similar – so that's that, and away we go.
The Livemix system, like the Aviom system, distributes its signals around your studio (or stage) over cheap, easy to find (or make) CAT5e or CAT6 "Ethernet" cables. The first box in the chain (if you are coming from an analog source) is the AD-24, a single 19-inch rack space unit that converts 24 channels – entering via either TRS or DB-25 connectors into 48 kHz 24-bit digital audio that runs over a single Ethernet cable to the next box in line, the MIX-16 (or MIX-32), another single 19-inch rack space unit that then can distribute the digital signal to either 16 or 32 separate personal mixers. You can also enter the whole system digitally using Dante via an optional card, but I didn't test that capability. An important distinction between this and the Aviom system is that the Livemix system can feed both audio and power to two daisy-chained units (or one two-user unit) per single Ethernet line, whereas the each Aviom box requires its own direct power source.
Once the 24 channels hit the personal mixer, you add a single-user CS-SOLO or the tandem CS-DUO box. These satellite modules can either sit on a tabletop or make use of the optional, extremely sturdy MT-1 stand mount, which is far superior to almost any other type of stand mount I've used for studio accessories. You can either mount it on the top of a standard mic stand, using the included 5/8-inch threaded nut, or use an integrated clamp to mount it extremely securely on the side of any extended stand or boom arm. The MT-1 screws onto the bottom of the CS unit via two large thumbscrews, which stay attached to the mount, and therefore don't get lost!! There's no adjusting the viewing angle once it's attached to the stand, but the angle seemed good for most seated or standing positions, and you can flip the mount 180 degrees and/or use a boom arm to get the exact angle you like.
As far as features, the CS-SOLO and CS-DUO modules are almost identical. Since the CS-SOLO is more basic, I'll start with that. There's a small color touchscreen taking up the upper half of the sleek, robust, rectangular metal housing, whereas by comparison, the Aviom boxes feel lighter and cheaper (being made mostly out of plastic). The Livemix CS-SOLO's screen is where you can select, solo or mute channels (in two banks of twelve), and otherwise delve into some pretty serious monitoring control. I won't go into too much detail here, but I'll say that if you're willing to spend a little bit of time poking around on the screen, you'll have a huge amount of control over the sound of your mix. Of course, the drawback is that it's a touchscreen, and don't we already have too many of those in our lives? The benefit is that you have all that control in a very compact, uncluttered space. Once you get the box configured how you like, you can operate it (for the most part) by using only the main screen and the three hardware rotary encoders. The first encoder is for the Master Volume of the whole mix. You depress this to enter a Master Setup window on the screen, where you can set a high-pass filter, EQ, compression, or reverb for your entire stereo mix. (This is a local setting, whereas other functions, such as channel naming and per-channel processing, are global, meaning they "swim upstream" and affect the given channel in everybody's mix.)
The middle encoder is a dual-purpose Volume and Pan knob, and you depress it to switch between the two functions. It affects whichever channel (or group of channels) is selected on the touch screen. The third knob is the Me knob, which can be assigned to any number of channels to have easy and quick control over whatever the operator is performing. This is convenient and easy to use for anyone, but especially for musicians who are less technically inclined. The engineer can configure the unit so that the only two controls "The Talent" need worry about (in order to get the balance between themselves and everybody else in the right spot) are the Master Volume and Me knobs. For quick access to grouping, depress the Me knob, and a screen pops up where you can choose stereo grouping, the Me group, and one of any of five other custom groups. One slight drag in the grouping function is that you can't assign a given channel to more than a single group – meaning you can't have a pair of channels that have been stereo-grouped, and then also assigned to the Me group for example. In practice this doesn't matter much, because once you deselect it as a stereo group and add it to the Me group, it functions the same – that is, the volume of those channels track together, with whatever offset was present when grouped. Since volume is the only thing that is actually grouped, this works out fine. The other, more annoying inconvenience is that assigning two adjacent channels to a stereo group doesn't automatically hard pan them left and right – you still have to manually do that on every unit that you want the channels grouped on (because grouping is a local function). However, if you start with a MirrorMix push, it'll have grouping and panning already set up for all users; see below. There is also a USB port on each personal mixer, which is handy for saving and loading mix settings to and from a thumb drive – you can also save to the internal storage of the mixer and load firmware updates onto the unit this way. Note: I'm excited to see what other features the Livemix engineers develop for future firmware updates.
There are a handful of operational differences between the CS-SOLO and CS-DUO. On the DUO, which is physically the same depth and about half again as wide as the SOLO, you have to decide whether the touchscreen controls are being operated for the A user or B user by pressing a small color-coded button. (The knobs stay dedicated to each user, so both musicians can be adjusting their Master Volume or Me group simultaneously). It's a really helpful feature that all of the shared controls change color depending on who has current access to them, which decreases the chance of accidentally changing your neighbor's mix. One of those shared functions, unique to the DUO, is the bank of dedicated buttons at the bottom of the unit, which allows for quick, non-touchscreen access to any of the 24 channels. You don't get a digital scribble-strip down there to help you remember which channel is which, but it's still quite a bit more tactilely convenient than using the touchscreen. Since the CS-DUO is only $100 more than the SOLO, it might be worth getting a couple more DUOs than you think you'd need, just for the physical buttons.
I will now give you more or less a laundry list of pros and cons of the Livemix system versus the Avioms. Really, the main con with the Livemix system is that I've found the visual of the touchscreens distracting, in what I have otherwise gone out of my way to make a highly cozy studio live room environment. You can dim the screens in a number of different ways, which is really nice, but still, having any screens at all in the live room is something I've been super-reticent to add. The good news is that I think I'm much more uptight about it than any of my clients – who almost exclusively have been undaunted by the screens. The benefit of of the screens seems to outweigh the drawback, since you can do so much to tailor your mix exactly as you want it, despite their small size and required precision to operate.
What I love about the Livemix system is the digital channel naming, as opposed to the Sharpie and console tape method for required for the Avioms (and most other personal mix modules). It would be even better if I could name the channels from my DAW (which you apparently can do with a Dante setup), since using the touchscreen for naming can be a tad tedious, but if you keep a spare CS-SOLO by your side in the control room (always a good idea for troubleshooting), you can rename channels on the fly and update everyone's units instantly. This leads me to another con: there is no rack-mount version of the CS-SOLO as of this review – I've grown really fond of having the Aviom A-16R next to me in the rack while sitting at the control room desk.
There are three more simple features I really dig on the Livemix boxes that the Avioms don't have. The first is a stereo 1/8-inch aux input jack, for blending in a phone, laptop, or other playback device, so you can reference a song in your cans without swapping anything around. This can either just feed your own mix, or everybody in the system, via a menu option. The second is an onboard metronome that can be used to give everybody in the system a quick BPM check, or even serve as a click through a performance if you don't want to record it. The third is the Intercom button. This is a little switch that when depressed (after a short lag) activates an internal mic in the box that everybody else on the system can hear. The switch can be configured to be momentary, latching, or always on from the touchscreen menu. This is fantastic for musicians who don't have mics in front of them, or for a loud drummer whose mics' preamp gains are set too low to function as " listening" mics from the live room. The onboard microphones also serve a second function that allows the user to blend in a stereo "ambient" signal. For the record, the Aviom A360 personal mixer also has such a feature. I found that by adding just a hair of what is happening in the room around the performers helps their headphones feel less "stuffy". This function betrays the fact – if the brand name didn't clue you in already – that this system was designed with live monitoring in mind, especially for such things as musical theater or other large-band ensembles where most of the musicians are stationary. Another clue that this system was designed for live performance is the optional FP-2 footswitch, which I didn't test, that allows the performer to select channels, change volume, or activate the intercom switch all while keeping their hands on their instrument. I really didn't find any circumstances, however, where the Livemix system didn't seem well suited for the studio environment, despite its live-leaning feature set.
One last feature that's really worth mentioning – and not available in the currently available Aviom system – is the ability to monitor and control another box remotely via what Digital Audio Labs calls MirrorMix. On the surface, this seems to defeat the purpose of giving everyone a dedicated personal mixer, but there are just going to be those people who simply cannot get their own mix dialed in to their satisfaction. This feature is a number of notches above just sending them a stereo mix straight off of your DAW or console's auxes, since they can take over and tweak it themselves once you get them started. It allows you to send anyone (or everyone) a starting mix, including grouping, panning, and master output settings. You can also quickly audition anybody's mix from your own mixer, which is extremely efficient for troubleshooting headphone woes from your working spot at the desk.
I managed to get this far without mentioning the sound of the Livemix system, but here's what you need to know: it sounds really, really good, with indiscernible latency. And its extremely clean, with a noise floor that is almost nonexistent. That's a large contrast to the Aviom system, that does sound quite good – musicians are constantly commenting on how easy headphone monitoring is at Figure 8 Recording – but has an annoyingly loud noise floor, especially on the A320 box. Initially, I was under the impression that the Livemix system only had 1/8-inch jacks for the headphones, but then I figured out that the 1/4-inch jack on the back could feed either stereo headphones or a balanced mono monitor speaker/wedge. It's obviously better to have both sizes, eliminating the need for adapters for your earbuds or other 1/8-inch headphones. Silly me, Digital Audio Labs seems to have thought of everything.
Couple of tips if you buy this system: firstly, I wouldn't buy their CAT6 cables; you should build your own. Their cables are fine, but you'll get a much better quality cable by purchasing your own ruggedized CAT5e or CAT6 cable (such as Redco's DURACAT-6), and your own RJ45 connectors and crimp tool – don't forget an Ethernet cable tester, a whopping $9 online. Plus, you can make them to your own exact length specs (up to 100 meters)! and the cabling components are so cheap (and light! and skinny!), which is one of the obvious huge advantages of this type of digital system. Note: Digital Audio Labs recommends using only shielded cable, but I didn't have any issues using the unshielded DURACAT cable myself. YMMV. Second tip: if you need to have the MIX-16 in your control room or live room, you'll want to open it up and disconnect the internal fan. It was easy to do, and the engineers at Digital Audio Labs gave me the go-ahead, saying that you'd really only need the fan if the unit was surrounded by a bunch of other hot gear. The fan is prohibitively loud to have in a sensitive environment, so disabling it is essential unless you're lucky enough to have a dedicated machine room, in which case you should just leave the fan hooked up.
So I'll just say it: I'm buying this system and selling my Aviom system, at least for my home studio. At Figure 8 we're a little more hesitant, since our engineers and clients have grown so familiar with the Avioms (which are certainly still a very good monitoring solution). We'll probably wait a bit and make sure I don't uncover any hidden bugaboos in the Livemix system over the coming months, but having used the Livemix system for a few months at this point, I don't expect to. I think it does what it sets out to do with flexibility, grace, ingenuity, impressive engineering, future-proofing, and, oh yeah, excellent sound.