PRESONUS AR12 USB HYBRID MIXER
Presonus’ new hybrid mixers live up to the StudioLive name.
Review: Mark Davie
I’ve always thought Presonus’ StudioLive brand seems to have its priorities arse-about. I get that LiveStudio doesn’t have the same ring to it, but the consoles also seemed to skew towards a Live-centric mode, with Studio applications coming in a close second. By explicitly specifying that its new StudioLive AR series are hybrid mixers — equally weighted to performance and recording — Presonus is doubling down on the concept.
I’ve been testing the StudioLive AR12 USB, the middle sibling wedged between the AR8 and AR16. On the Studio side of the coin, the AR12 is essentially a 14-in/four-out USB audio interface. It also has eight analogue outs. A pair each for main monitor outputs, control room outputs, a stereo headphone jack and two mono aux outputs. That’s a pretty handy audio interface, especially considering it operates at 24-bit/192k with eight mic preamps.
You can also hot swap each channel to a line input by plugging a jack into the 1/4-inch socket, with the last four channels operating in stereo. On the last stereo channel you can also switch it over to become the 3/4 USB return from your DAW. Handily, while it does bypass the analogue input insofar as controlling it via the mixer is concerned, it still passes the input’s audio onto your DAW for processing. There’s also DI inputs on the first two channels, which you switch over from line by hitting the guitar switch, and inserts too.
It’s a lot of I/O, and I haven’t even started on the ‘Super Channel’, which basically sums up the device’s flexibility. This single stereo channel can accept analogue inputs via RCA and mini-jack, it can also function as your USB or SD card return, or receive a Bluetooth stream — that’s five inputs in one! It’s also probably the best implementation of a USB return I’ve seen in a compact mixer. Sure, digital desks can flip channels to DAW returns and spit each track back down a fader, but with no fader automation that would be daft. A stereo return is good enough, but having the option for two on the AR12 means you can create alternative monitor mixes. Beautiful.
Let’s jump over to the live space for a minute. The AR12 gives you nine channel faders to play with (including the Super Channel), with PFL and mute switching on every channel. You also get pan, two pre-fade aux sends, and a post-fade FX send. The aux sends each have a group fader, mute and an AFL button for monitoring the mix via cans. In the spirit of making this one flexible little beast, even though the FX send is routed to the internal effects engine by default, it also has a 1/4-inch output. By plugging a jack in, you bypass the internal engine and are free to either plumb in an external rack unit or use it as a basic post-fade aux. You can also feed the FX send into the other two auxes to wet your monitors if required.
FOUR A SIDE
The preamps and EQ are split into two camps, depending on whether they’re servicing a mono or stereo channel. The first four channels have 50dB gain (0 to +50dB for mic and instrument, and -20 to +30dB line), whereas the stereo channels have 40dB of gain (+5 to +45dB for mic, and -15 to +25dB line). It’s not a huge difference, but I did find myself at the limit of the gain pots more often than I thought I would. Thankfully, I’ve always found Presonus’ preamps — even on their lower end units — to have a usable gain range that extends to the pot’s maximum, where other units get eclipsed by unusable noise.
The mono channels exceed the abilities of the stereo channels in the EQ department too. While both channels have a fixed 12kHz high shelf and 80Hz low shelf, only the mono channels have a variable mid-band (140Hz–3.5kHz). The stereo channel mid band is set to 2.5kHz. The EQ was handy for broadly shaping sounds, with a smooth quality up top and healthy low-end bump, which is all you want for a desk this size.
My one bugbear with the EQ — and a little hit to the dual purpose mantra — is that the EQ is bypassed by default when recording. I get that you don’t want to bake in the EQ you’re using at FOH when recording a multi-track live gig. However, if you’re using this mixer in the studio, it’d be a useful feature. It would have been nice to be able to switch it in or out of the recording chain. Of course, you can always track the fully EQ’d stereo main mix as well, and the HPF on each channel does get printed.
As I’ve already covered, the aux system is well-featured on this desk. I would typically expect a mixer this size to only have pots for the main aux level controls; faders are a nice touch. The only small issue is that despite having five stereo inputs — including two stereo USB returns — there’s only one stereo headphone output, and a control room pair. A typical interface would have multiple stereo-assignable outputs, usually eight, for individual monitor mixes.
The manual says aux mixes can output in mono or stereo. Not so, the 1/4-inch outputs are balanced mono, not stereo. All stereo inputs are summed to those outputs, which limits the ability to directly monitor channels in stereo. That said, there have been plenty of times when I’ve made do with mono headphone sends and it’s never been a deal breaker.
If you’re looking for an audio interface, and are considering ever moving it off your desk, the AR series is definitely worth considering
Also, when you don’t have any PFL buttons selected on the AR12, the Phones output reverts back to the AFL main mix. It’s not out of line with other standards by any means, but I would prefer to switch the headphone send to a pure Cue output so it doesn’t start blaring content out through my headphones when I don’t want it too. Especially considering unity on the Solo Master isn’t at 12 o’clock, it’s easy to have the main mix crank in at a much higher level than your solo bus.
The internal effects engine is a little better than other reasonably priced desks I’ve tried. There are 16 effects in all, and while most of the reverbs are usable at lower send levels, the chamber is quite nice. However, I didn’t really gel with the sweeping reverb, which just sounds like feedback in a bad room, and the slap back has a bit too much feedback on it for me. The delays are very useful, you can choose between short, medium and long, the tape echo is a bit quicker again, and Spacey seems to have a long echo, with some closer recurring delays. The chorus immediately made me think of Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters, whether or not that’s a good or bad thing I’ll leave to you. It would have been nice to have some basic EQ on the FX return channel, but the ability to feed it into the aux mixes and use it as a post-fade aux is pretty flexible in itself.
I’ve been using the AR12 as my main audio interface for the last few weeks, and it’s been a good reminder of how consoles were designed to serve the audio mixing process and may never be surpassed by a rackmount alternative.
The advantage of having mute and PFL buttons at your fingertips makes auditioning sounds and checking phase much quicker than looking for similar software controls. Also, having everything laid out on a slight incline, rather than in a rack, is obviously easier to access.
In a live scenario, sure the faders are short throw, but I’ve mixed local musicals with 60mm of travel and gotten by. For the majority of uses this desk will operate in, they’ll do. Likewise, for a small surface, the knobs are all generously proportioned and easy to access — no finger pinching placement here.
Bluetooth pairing is super simple to use, just press and hold to pair. The light goes solid blue when it’s ready. I found it to have slightly more level and it seemed ever so slightly cleaner than the RCA input on the Super Channel, so I’d be inclined to use it for music playback when using a phone or computer as a playback source.
There’s also an optional $89 backpack for toting around the AR12 or AR16, making it simple to grab off your studio desktop and carry to a rehearsal or gig. It’s also a serious podcasting desk, letting you capture a stereo mix direct to the SD card recorder.
There are a few options I wouldn’t have minded to see, but overall it’s a hugely capable desk for its size and price. Probably the closest things to it would be Mackie’s Onyx-I series — though the Firewire standard is getting a little left behind now — and Allen & Heath’s ZED series, but you’re limited to stereo recording in most of the smaller models.
If you’re looking for an audio interface, and want the option of moving it off your desk, the AR series is definitely worth considering. It truly is a hybrid mixer befitting the StudioLive name.