I was an analog snob. Having fallen foul of a few ADATs back in the day, I badmouthed the sonics of digital: the crispiness, the sterility, the lack of depth, etc. In the last couple of years, however, I began to relent as I found myself enjoying and admiring more and more records that were recorded digitally. Still, this change of heart didn't mean I wanted to let go of my analog rig or could afford to suddenly buy thousands of dollars worth of converters. Further, even if I accepted the premise that digital can sound good, that didn't change my hatred of virtual knobs.
However, in January, my band played a show with a real hero of mine, Swervedriver's Adam Franklin (Tape Op #66), and I had to rethink my studio. I've known Adam a long time, and he asked me how my studio was doing. What I wanted to do was tell him how it was ready and waiting for him, but instead I had to hem and haw. My Otari MTR-90 had some bad cards, and I know the heads are slowly going, and here in Washington DC, I no longer have a tech I could afford. Needless to say, I was crestfallen. That same night, Nate Frey from the excellent DC band Detox Retox (and Last Tide) came up and asked about recording with me. When I mentioned the cost of tape, he balked. I was 0 for 2, and it was only January.
I got home, and a quick search online showed that both Allen & Heath and PreSonus had 24-channel analog/digital boards coming to market, with the PreSonus due imminently. I owned a PreSonus M80 (Tape Op #26) about 10 years ago, and I did not like it, so I wasn't exactly in the market for PreSonus goods, but this here magazine's had a lot of good things to say about the company during the last few years, so I asked reviews editor Andy Hong (maybe you've heard of him) if the 24-channel version of the PreSonus StudioLive might be available for review. It wasn't, but the 16-channel version was, so I figured it would do for a preview.
When the board arrived, it took me mere minutes to get it and the accompanying software, Capture, set up, and I was immediately impressed when my voice sounded good through an SM57 jacked into the preamps. The above-mentioned Detox Retox agreed to be guinea pigs, and I went from unmic'ed instruments to a ready-to-record band in two hours. I dunno about you, but for me, that's really quick. The PreSonus lived up to the digital recording industry's marketing claim that what goes in comes out, and that was fine by me. I wanted fast, punchy drums so the kick and snare went through my APIs. I wanted present, rich guitars so they went through my Neve Porticos, and I mic'ed accordingly. Everything else went through the board's preamps.
About the preamps - they're quiet, and they're good. They remind me a little of the old Great River MP-2 (the ones
without transformers) - bear with me. I'm not a huge fan of those Great Rivers; they're a little too vanilla for my taste. The PreSonus is a similar flavor of vanilla; it doesn't have the depth of the Great River, but it has more presence and the overall vibe is somewhat reminiscent of the MP-2. That may not be a ringing endorsement, but keep in mind I'm talking about console preamps costing, say, the equivalent of $100 a pop; I was thrilled by the cost-performance ratio (and had no complaints even taking the preamps at face value). Further, when A/B'ing vocals, I found the PreSonus made more sense for a mix than my beloved Porticos.
During tracking, I was really pleased by the sounds I was getting from Detox Retox, as well as the performance. However, on playback, issues cropped up in the form of pops and clicks. Ultimately, we had to abandon the session, and PreSonus started helping me troubleshoot. We determined that the problem was with the FireWire chipset in my laptop, and the issue was mostly one of communication between gear on playback. First, I tried using an ExpressCard that was a FireWire adapter, but that didn't work for my particular configuration.
Because I was so thrilled by the initial sounds I got, I decided to go laptop shopping. I went to a local computer superstore and not one of the 18 laptops that were equipped with FireWire had a compatible chipset. Not one. As far as I can tell, this is a broader issue with FireWire audio; most current laptops use cheaper FireWire chipsets to keep costs down, so if you want a laptop that can handle the StudioLive's 58 channels of audio without dropouts, your garden variety Dell, HP, or other superstore brand will probably not cut it. If you're interested in the StudioLive - and spoiler alert, you should be - this is a big issue. There are ExpressCards that will work, so your best bet may be to pick up a computer that doesn't have FireWire but does have an ExpressCard slot.
Ultimately, my solution was to buy an older iMac. Problem solved. By this time, Detox Retox was no longer available so I invited local supergroup Dot Dash in. Again, I went from collapsed mic stands to first takes in about two hours. To be fair, I didn't get too fussy with the mic'ing; part of the purpose of the session was to see what I could do with the board's processing - not my typical approach, but useful for the purposes of this review. Similarly, although analog inserts are available on every fader during tracking, I relied upon the board's processing so I could test the functionality. (You're welcome).
[As an aside, the fader inserts, as you would expect on any digital mixer, are pre-A/D conversion, so they are unavailable during mixdown. There are workarounds, and the manual explains how you can use an Aux bus to route to an analog device during mixdown, for example. The general strategy is to send the signal out of a post-DAC analog output - without assigning it to the Main L/R bus - which you then feed to your processor and back into the mixer through an input which is assigned to the Main bus. -AH]
The instruments sounded good, but the kick was a little anemic. I wound up adding a little more than a dB at 62 Hz and was surprisingly pleased by the results. This isn't a sweet EQ, as on my Harrison board, or even a (noticeably) smooth EQ, as provided by my Speck ASC (Tape Op #26), nor an aggressive one, a la API - you get the idea; it's invisible. I applied the EQ fairly liberally (cutting and boosting) to the bass on a few densely arranged tracks to ensure Hunter Bennett's wonderfully busy parts still cut through, and neither I nor the band had any complaints about the results. That said, I never liked the EQ with the hi-Q function engaged, but I'm unable to verbalize why; it basically just came down to feel. Fortunately, I never needed hi-Q, so I wasn't overly concerned. I am curious to hear the parametric EQs on the StudioLive 24.
Generally speaking, the LED metering on the StudioLive, which show you the position of the rotary encoders, is coarser than the actual functionality, meaning slowly turning a knob will enable you to find intermediate settings between any two values indicated on the meters. You can see these settings at full resolution on the Virtual StudioLive computer screen display, but that requires looking at the computer; if you trust your ears, you'll be OK. Setting the onboard compression was easier than I'd anticipated, and not having to bend over to my rack while tweaking was a big boon, particularly on a few tracks where I wanted to tame the mighty ring of drummer Danny Ingram's snare; various combinations of gating and EQ'ing always got me where I needed to go, and I didn't have to keep popping my head back to the sweet spot to adjust. The dynamics aren't sexy, but they work, and work well. Once again, I find myself struggling to place this flavor of vanilla, but I'll try: not as thick as, say, a dbx 160XT; and not as tight and aggressive as, say, an FMR RNC ( Tape Op #13); to say nothing of an API. For my purposes, invisible processing is just fine.
Dot Dash has two guitarists: Bill Crandall and singer/songwriter Terry Banks. It turns out Bill is a tone god, and I was thrilled with the results we got out of his Rickenbacker and Vox amp (and my collection of Solid Gold FX pedals) going through a Royer R-121 (Tape Op #19) and one channel of my Portico 5012 (#49). Terry is a songwriter whom I've admired for 20 years, and a very good guitarist, but I've never known him to have a signature tone, which left me a little wiggle room but also a little directionless. While mixing, I found his complex chords as played through another Ric and then, later, a Gibson hollowbody were getting lost in the mix. As a result, I wound up adding a surprising (for me) amount of compression and EQ to Terry's guitar (recorded with an old U 87 through the other 5012 channel), and the results were always very effective. I was surprised by how much top-end I was able to comfortably add to Terry's humbucker-equipped Gibson. That said, we've agreed on our next session he'll try some chimier single coils.
The StudioLive's dynamics and EQ are all controlled by a single set of controls - referred to as the Fat Channel - that are laid horizontally above the faders and can be applied to any and all channels. Select the channel and set the parameters; select another channel, return to the Fat Channel controls, and set the new parameters. The board remembers both sets of settings and applies them to the appropriate channels. The Fat Channel can be applied in this way to virtually every output simultaneously. I was concerned that I'd get confused as to which channel I was tweaking when, but either the board is really well labeled or I'm not as dumb as I think. (I suspect it's more the former than the latter.) Fat Channel effects can be "printed" to your DAW during tracking and/or mixing, or just routed to headphone mixes, which can be set up via the four aux sends or subgroup outputs.
Regarding latency - it was a non-issue. The mixer is bundled with Studio One Artist software, and it's easy to set latency values as needed on the startup page; Studio One will then automatically adjust for latency with each recording pass. I monitored the live feed when doing basic tracks, and because the board's FireWire and analog signals are set up in kind of an in-line configuration (each channel can be switched from one signal to the other), I just had singer Terry monitor his performance from the console while listening to the backing track via FireWire. Although routing from input to any of the subgroup or aux outputs is implemented digitally - and therefore requires A/D and D/A conversion - the delay from input to output was, for all practical purposes, imperceptible.
When it came time to mix, the board's fader recall worked wonderfully. Mixes can be named, saved, and recalled. When recall is activated for a given mix scene, dynamics and EQ settings are automatically restored, and fader positions are indicated by each channel's LED. Using the LEDs as a guide, you simply move the fader until the LEDs indicate you're in place. I've seen people online complaining about the lack of flying faders on this board, and I just can't sympathize. It took me about 30 seconds to manually recall any given mix, and I was thrilled to have that functionality without having to pay for motors to do that work for me.
While I did 90% of the mixing for Dot Dash using only the board's effects, I imported tracks from Capture into Studio One, and using some of that program's processing features, mixed from there before sequencing and, yes, mastering the project. The StudioLive comes with Studio One Artist, but PreSonus sent me Studio One Pro (Tape Op #76), which includes several mastering tools.
Sure enough, using virtual knobs drove me insane; if I hadn't had the board's processing for EQ and compression, digital would still be a nonstarter for me. Now, if you have another physical controller, you can get around this problem when using Studio One. Maddeningly, StudioLive cannot be designated as such a controller. That said, for mixing, I'm not convinced the dynamics and effects available via the software are actually better than the console's onboard effects. For example, the reverb contained in Studio One didn't actually sound any better than the StudioLive's onboard reverb. (Neither set blew me away, but both sets were totally effective.) However, I did have some fun with the analog delay simulations, and the tools offered by the mastering suite were handy.
As you may have guessed, I was really impressed by the StudioLive, and I didn't necessarily expect to be. I thought I would find 48 kHz sampling (I tracked at 24-bit) wanting, but I didn't. At no time did I feel the sound was inferior to what I've gotten from 2'' tape via my Harrison, and the digital rig is a lot quieter (not a big deal to me, but credit where credit is due). In general, it was easier to get good snare sounds and a little harder to get the kick sounds I wanted, but in the case of the latter, I wasn't too exacting during initial mic'ing, as noted above. I was thrilled by the guitar sounds I got with Bill - which is to say my Porticos and his rig made the leap to digital intact - and the functionality, particularly the recall and the ability to tweak compression while keeping my head in the sweet spot, really shouldn't be underrated. Having gates and compression on every channel was a luxury that I wouldn't necessarily have asked for but am thrilled to have; I look forward to hearing the StudioLive 24's gates, which have more features.
Gripes: I have a few. Rather than have an onboard talkback mic, you need to provide your own, although the console's talkback mic preamp is the same as on the channel inputs and can be routed as another input. Additionally, I would love a mono option for monitoring.
I also wish that physical FireWire connections in general could be more secure. Speaking of that, although the board felt solid, it was hard to imagine using it as a live rig
(a purpose for which it is definitely designed); the ergonomics were nice, but I wouldn't say the board itself felt tough. That said, I did not conduct a Samsonite test on the StudioLive, though, so my concerns about its durability are purely speculative, and PreSonus reports that the StudioLive is being used live all over the world, in a wide variety of situations, and based on repairs and reports from the field, the mixer is holding up very well.
I would say the above nits are scarcely worth picking. The StudioLive works well and sounds great. If you want to reap the benefits of mixing in the box, this piece of gear may not be necessary, but if, like me, you're motivated to make the leap to digital, you need a great-sounding front end to do so, and you don't want to spend all your time in the box, I think you (and I) are in luck. I ordered a StudioLive 24.4.2 while finishing this review, and Andy has already asked me to send in my thoughts once I've had time on it.
Hybrid mixing is here to stay. (Required reading: "What is Stem Mixing?" [Tape Op #87]) This may explain why our friends at API Audio, with their rich history in analog gear, have "thrown-in" to the...