Livemix lets performers craft their own mix in as little or as much detail as possible. From just a bit more Me to delving into the onboard EQ, dynamics and effects via the full-colour touchscreen, Livemix suits everyone.
Review: Mark Davie
You could hear it coming, bubbling up like a slow rising tide, but there was not much I could do. I’d just handed control of an entire stage’s worth of monitoring to a haphazard bunch of musicians, and they were already fighting each other for onstage level.
This was the first time I’d pressed Digital Audio Labs’ Livemix system into service, and it had been going swimmingly until this point. Livemix is a personal monitor mixing system; think Aviom-style personal mixers on the end of an ethernet distribution network. It had been dead easy to set up, only taking me just over an hour to integrate the system into a setup that had previously required mixing monitor sends from FOH. That included: wiring the system between the stage rack and monitors; running ethernet cables; attaching mixer units to mic and music stands; re-building a Digico session to include more aux outputs, re-routing all those aux outputs to the stage rack; pre-mixing drum sends and sending everything else to its own aux; then getting my head around the units and dialling up five individual monitor mix starting points.
Now, Livemix will more likely find a home as a companion to an in-ear system where stage sound won’t be an issue. Even when pressed into this sort of mixed in-ear/stage monitor scenario it does have some built-in measures to stop this stage sound creep. Things like a cap on each unit’s master output level, which I thought I’d set to a reasonable level. Obviously my generosity exceeded common sense. In my defence, it’s hard to predict this sort of psychological push-’n’-pull gain structure until all the instruments are playing, and there wasn’t much time to get that balance just right before action time.
Despite a bit more monitor mud than I would have liked, Livemix’s integration had been a success. The musicians loved the ability to control their own levels, they found it easy to use after just a five-minute walkthrough — one singer, who I know to be a bit of a technophobe, was even schooling others on the system. At the end of the show everyone decided they needed it in their lives. Case closed? Well it’s looking good for Livemix, but let’s get into some detail.
TABLETS: WRITING ON THE WALL?
It’s been a while since Aviom first tried to pry monitor mixes out of engineers’ hands, all the way back in 2002 when it released the A-16. Since then, digital consoles have become the norm in the live world, even in your average install situation like schools and churches. Almost all the new breed of digital consoles also offer tablet or phone control apps, which are not only easily configured as monitor send controllers, but often offer features specific to that task like user lockouts and cutdown monitoring-specific phone apps.
It begs the question, does the dedicated personal monitoring mixer have a place onstage anymore?
A friend of mine who is the audio director of a church with a number of campuses spread around the city framed his situation for me. For them, if there’s a high enough volunteer to churchgoer ratio, then they’ll roster on a monitor engineer with a separate monitor console. For the smaller congregations with less requirements, they’ll typically run a mixture of pre-mixed sends and tablet app personal monitoring control. When I pressed him about potentially needing a more robust solution, he said there’s a hundred other things that are more likely to go wrong and more impactful than losing a wireless connection to a tablet app.
I was wondering if that was the end of it, if the scope of personal monitor mixing was now encompassed by those two scenarios. After all, I’d made use of tablet apps in the same way plenty of times and found them to be pretty useful. However, after just one go with Livemix, I can see why systems of its ilk still pop up onstage.
While tablet apps can technically perform the same core function as Livemix — i.e. crafting a personal monitoring balance — there are plenty of Livemix functions a tablet app can’t reproduce. All of which are due to Livemix being a standalone system.
I’ll paint the picture. When you set up a tablet mix system, it’s just another level of control over your main session. You set up an aux send, then let the performer control the levels of the channels feeding that send. They can’t — and shouldn’t — control the EQ, dynamics, or effect inserts of those channels. A standalone system like Livemix has no such constraints. On Livemix you can EQ each channel with a frequency sweepable, three-band parametric EQ and high-pass filter. You can also add basic compression with three levels of ‘squish’, and add effects. You can do all that on a per-channel basis or globally.
The other benefit of a standalone mix system operating outside of your main digital console session is the ability to save your individual preferences. While you can technically save your last mix balance, it would take more effort than it’s worth to save multiple individual monitoring snapshots for particular songs inside the FOH session, or any level of personalisation that’s a doddle for Livemix. Even though it was the first time he’d used a personal monitor mixer, the drummer was already crafting per song mixes in rehearsal, which would have been a nightmare to snapshot.
Livemix also allows experienced users to control other performer’s units remotely via the Mirrormix function. When activated, it turns the screen orange and lets you help them get in the ballpark and assign groups.
BREAKING MIX INTO COMPONENTS
The Livemix system hub is the Central Mixer/Distributor. You can either plug a Dante option card into the back to feed it 24 channels of audio, or get the Livemix AD-24 24-channel A/D converter which feeds the Mix-16 Central Mixer with a single Cat5 cable. I was operating on a Digico SD9 with MADI outputs, so I opted for the analogue version. As well as ¼-inch TRS inputs, it’s also got DB25 connectors on the rear, so it’s easy to hook up looms of eight inputs from your stagebox.
Dante is a good choice, though it’d also be nice to see a MADI option card. Thankfully, both the analogue input and Dante options are the same price, so you only lose on the cabling side if you don’t have a Dante-enabled console.
The Central Mixer comes in two sizes; 16 channels and 32 channels. They only have eight and 16 ethernet outputs on them respectively, but here’s the kicker, each CS-Duo Personal Mixer — the mixer unit each performer manages — has two distinct mixers onboard, A and B, with their own main controls.
You only have to feed one ethernet cable to each CS-Duo, which carries all 24 channels and power for the unit. You can use any flavour of Cat5 or Cat6, but there’s no Ethercon receptacle on either end, which seems a bit odd for something onstage and priced as a pro product.
Besides that, the CS-Duo is professionally built. Everything else about it seems quality. It’s rugged yet lightweight enough so it won’t make your stand unstable. I secured the clamp to both thicker music stands and thinner microphone stands. You can also screw it onto the top of a spare mic stand if you have one. It has three main continuous knobs for each mixer — a master volume, dedicated Me control, and a volume/pan knob that controls most other functions — that feel solid to the touch and provide a nice range of motion. I did notice one unit’s ‘press to select’ function, which alternates the control between volume and pan, required slightly more determined pushes than its counterparts.
Aside from the three encoders, there’s also a Control button to nominate which side you’re currently adjusting, and also doubles as an intercom button when held, plus 24 backlit push buttons to select channels. While the push buttons are handy, in practise you’re more likely to select functions from the full-colour central touchscreen. It’s resistive, rather than capacitive, which other than requiring a little more pressure is a far more reliable option. You can even use it with gloves on.
Each side of the mixer is colour-coded, blue for A and red for B, with the backlighting following your selection. Likewise, the screen goes red or blue depending on which side you’re controlling. If there’s only one performer per unit, you can alter it so both sets of knobs only control one side. Suffice to say, short of an AI bot slapping your hand, Livemix makes every effort to make sure you don’t alter the wrong mix.
You can also plug in the optional FP-2 two-button footswitch to control channel and Me group levels — tap to level up and hold to turn down — as well as hold both down to activate the intercom.
The last piece of hardware is the DA-816 converter. It reverses the flow, converting personal monitor mixes back from digital to eight pairs of stereo TRS outputs. You only have to feed it one Cat5 cable for all those pairs, and it’s easily assignable via the CS-Duo. It’s built specifically to interface with racks of wireless in-ear monitor transmitters, rather than running analogue cables from the CS-Duos themselves.
The entire system operates at 24-bit/48k, and there’s nothing to complain about in terms of sound quality. The systems are quiet and have oodles of gain, enough that I had to limit the output to prevent potential hearing damage for in-ear users. The 1/4-inch and 1/8-inch headphone jack are linked. When you select stereo headphone output on the unit, both physical outputs are mirrored, and when you choose mono balanced, it disables the headphone output. Presumably so you don’t accidentally plug a loudspeaker into the headphone output, or vice versa.
Having an effects and EQ/dynamics section separate to the main mix is also helpful. Though anything other than mild reverb can be a hinderance when vocalists attempt to talk to the audience; using the ambient mic was a more natural option.
The two main issues I had with the units were to do with the Me group and Intercom.
When faced with the rising tide of stage noise, it got me thinking about other implementations of the More Me concept. There’s two ways you can go about it. The first, and Livemix’s method, is to have it function as a normal group. You assign one or more channels to it, and turning the Me knob changes the level of those channels. The second method is using it as a balancing control, that is, as you turn up your Me group it also turns the rest of the channels down. I prefer this method for personal monitor mixing, as it does what most performers are really trying to achieve — poke their sound above everyone else — without increasing the overall stage volume. It’s not just for wedges, it’s a handy function for in-ears too.
The other feature I’d like to see implemented is assignable intercom mic channels. The intercom mic channel uses the same microphone as the ambient mic channel, it just momentarily boosts and compresses the signal. While the ambient mic is really handy for dialling in a bit of liveliness into your mix, I personally didn’t find the intercom that useful in a live scenario.
Because it’s on the unit, it’s always at least arms length away from your mouth. With a standard shout mic, it’s the proximity and signal-to-stage-noise ratio that makes them effective. If you want to communicate mid-set with other performers or engineer, you have to actually shout over the noise to be heard — not a good look. It would have been useful to include the option for an intercom mic input, or be able to assign any input — which could be your SM58 shout mic — to the intercom channel.
The intercom is really more suited to practise situations. It could be really useful for communication within large ensembles, and is the perfect solution for tracking in the studio. Livemix also has practises covered with its 1/8-inch stereo aux input. You can plug a phone in and show everyone exactly how the middle eight should ‘really’ sound. Likewise, there’s an onboard metronome with a few set tempos and beat divisions which covers most bases. You can’t sync it to an external playback source, but it’s useful for getting those chops dialled in before the gig.
If you’re in the market for personal monitor mixing, there’s still no better solution than a dedicated system. While tablet apps have certainly changed the game by making personal monitoring control more accessible, they still only do one thing — control.
Every CS-Duo has onboard audio features like the ambient mic, intercom, aux input, local headphone and balanced outputs. They’re more than just handy, they make each unit worth their weight. Throw in built-in effects and metronome, and the ability to save multiple monitor mixes separate to the console’s mix session and the value adds up.
Beyond the stage, a Livemix system would make a supercharged headphone system for any studio, letting you focus on engineering. The intercom mic system enhances communication dramatically over shouting into room mics, and the onboard ambient mics can help add a bit of liveliness into the performance.
There’s plenty to set Livemix apart from its competition too, specifically the high number of inputs, dual mixers per unit, and the full-colour touchscreen, which really makes operation a breeze. With a couple of firmware upgrades to enhance the unit’s flexibility a hair, the Livemix would have everything you could ask for, especially more Me.