QSC TOUCHMIX-30 PRO DIGITAL CONSOLE
Can you deal without physical faders?
We mixed a deaf gig to find out.
Review: Mark Davie
I’ve used and abused a lot of touchscreen-based mixers in the last two years — from the whip quick Soundcraft Ui series to the disastrously slow Line6 Stagescape. These devices usually go from ‘packed with features’ to ‘packed back in their boxes’ based on how quickly the screen refreshes and how many times you have to hit an onscreen button before it functions.
Either I’m getting more patient, or the Touchmix-30 Pro is fast enough to catch me before my ire is raised. It’s definitely faster than the Touchmix-16 we had in last year, though there’s still a small delay between press and reaction for some functions. It’s mostly contained to flipping between screens, and if the faders lag a millisecond, they quickly pick up your position without having to re-press them. All of the parameter selections are instant.
To make it obvious you’re hitting the right spot, the channel’s background colour turns from grey to blue when selected, and you can drag multiple faders at once. Just don’t expect a quick five-finger grab, to nail the right positions it required the attention of two fingers per hand, which is enough digits anyway.
I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this Touchmix-30, and why is it Pro? For starters, this is a touchscreen-driven digital mixer with an onboard analogue front end. It’s an interesting hybrid, as there are no hardware faders, but there are knobs for gain control on every input. Typically, digital consoles are the other way around, sporting a bank of hardware faders while gain is digitally controlled.
There’s also no stage box expansion, all the I/O you get to play with is on the rear. That said, there’s a lot of it. 30 input channels total; 20 XLR, four combo XLR/¼-inch line, and three sets of stereo jack line inputs, with a mini-jack on the top surface doubling up duties with the final pair of jacks. On the output side, there’s the master and monitor output pairs, as well as 14 mono auxiliary outputs that can be paired — all on XLRs. There are a total of four headphone jacks too. Two of them are standard Cue outputs — one on the top of the surface, and one on the rear — while the other two can be sent signal from aux pairs 11/12 and 13/14 to directly drive IEMs or cans in the studio. Pretty handy.
EASIEST GIG EVER?
I had an interesting gig come up I thought would be a good test for the Touchmix-30 Pro. It was a Hands to Communicate charity event to raise money for the Australian basketball team so they can attend the Deaflympics in Turkey next year. Putting on a gig was a first for the community. Even though the majority of people there had some level of hearing impairment, Hands to Communicate wanted to try something different than the usual deaf fundraiser. Five acts performed throughout the night, ranging from soloists and duos to a full band, each fully interpreted in Auslan.
I know what you’re thinking. Pretty easy gig, right? Well, there’s a variety of ways deaf people can interact with music in rich ways. Check out Evelyn Glennie’s work if you need convincing. Also, if you’ve never been to a gig interpreted in sign language, it adds a very enjoyable dimension. Even if you don’t understand sign language, all the five interpreters on the night were at least twice as expressive as any frontman or woman I’ve seen.
The gig was at 1000 £ Bend in Melbourne. It’s a gallery and event space in the heart of the CBD that’s basically a big brick box. I hired the full production from Technical Events, who sorted me out with a Nexo PS15 point source system, stage and lights and were incredibly helpful every step of the way. Originally I’d planned to use a Yamaha LS9, then decided to bite the bullet and try out the Touchmix. I’m sure it was an odd request going back to Rob at Technical and asking for an analogue multi-core instead of the digital system. However, despite it being the busy season, he managed to unearth just enough channels to do what I needed.
Configuring the network was a breeze with my little Netgear router. The same one I’ve used to test a whole host of touch devices. All I had to do was plug in an Ethernet cable, name the mixer, toggle the switch to wired and it connected in a jiffy. The first time I tried to connect my now ancient original iPad to the mixer, it wouldn’t work. When I went back to look at the Touchmix console it had a dialogue box telling me I’d downloaded the incompatible 16-channel app, not the new Touchmix-30 one. I thought that was pretty thoughtful of QSC, given how obscure an issue that would seem to be. Obviously I’m not the only dill out there.
When a new device connects to the network and tries to access the mixer, it has to be approved by the operator at the console. You can choose between full mixer access or a personal monitor mix controller with loads of options for limiting the amount of parameters the user can manipulate.
The app is almost a facsimile of the mixer’s touchscreen, just with the physical buttons represented onscreen as well. One thing to note is that the console still maintains its place at the top of the pecking order. You have to unmute channels at the console before you can fully unmute them on the app. I ran the network and app all night, and it never dropped out once. It was handy as a second screen, and incredibly useful for tuning monitors.
- PRE PAD — Despite being small, the preamp gain knobs have a nice resistance to them so you’re not going to whack on loads of gain in a hurry unless you’re really trying. They have 60dB of analogue gain, and ±15dB of digital trim. I appreciate the variability of a trim control at times, but most of the time I’d rather just have a -20dB pad I can flick on in an instant.
MUTE GROUPS — There are eight mute groups onboard, with fast access from this button. It’s sometimes a quicker way to get rid of a problem than trying to navigate through the fader banks.
NOT PHASE — This button with a phase looking symbol is actually a ‘zero fader’ command. Beyond the big knob, it’s the handiest hardware control on the surface. It lets you quickly reset a graphic EQ fader, return a fader to unity, or centre a pan control.
BIG KNOB — The large controller can assign to any parameter you touch onscreen. Its standard mode is a coarse setting, but by holding down the knob as you rotate it, it moves in very fine increments. It also doubles as a tap tempo for the delay engine.
Setting up the Touchmix was relatively straightforward. The Touchmix’s Patch Matrix allows you to reassign physical inputs to different onscreen channel numbers. The limited channels on the multicore meant I was short two channels for the DJ at the end of the night. Rather than having to switch out both ends of the multi-core, during setup I was able to mult two inputs that were already in use to the DJ channels, then simply swap over a couple of XLRs at the stage end, unmute and I was away. You can also use the same technique to process the same input across multiple channels for alternative outputs like IEMs.
Copying and pasting is contextual, so if you’re on a channel’s overview screen, it’ll copy and paste everything. However, if you’re just on the compressor tab when you hit Copy, it will only copy the compressor settings. You also can’t copy an auxiliary setting onto an input channel, which is probably wise. The Copy and Paste functions are preset to user buttons seven and eight, but you can change their function if you desire.
There’s a dedicated talkback input, which is controlled by a hold-to-talk button on the surface and routed via a menu. In that menu, you can also set the mic’s level and feed a pink noise generator into the same outputs.
The screen works in banks of eight faders that aren’t freely assignable. That is, you can’t nest a DCA amongst a bank of inputs, or replicate your main vocal on every page. Navigation takes a little time to get used to, but it’s similar to other touch-reliant mixers; it uses a combination of hardware and software buttons to dig in deeper or take you back out to a higher level of control.
Across the top you have tabs for the three mono input channels banks, followed by tabs for the stereo inputs and playback, FX Masters, 14 Auxiliary Outputs, eight Subgroups, and eight DCAs. I couldn’t control subgroups via a DCA — which was a little limiting for parallel compression — but other than that, I could manage everything in a similar way to how I normally operate.
Down the side are more tabs that let you easily flick back to the Main mix, or any of the aux mixes. You can also re-route the first eight auxes into the last six to get some really deep IEM pre-mix control.
You access channel controls by touching the channel name. From there, you have tabs for a fully-parametric four-band EQ with high and low pass filters, a compressor/limiter, and a gate, as well as FX sends for the six onboard engines, aux send level, preset control and a setup page. It’s all neatly tied together on a single overview page with the ability to easily access most controls in miniature from the one place. I generally found my operating style on the Touchmix to be a mix of touching a parameter and using the big dial to adjust it. Operating the same way from the overview page wasn’t limiting at all.
The EQ was very useful, and the compression and limiting were both fairly transparent. I mostly used two delay engines; one for a little vocal slapback and a longer delay when desired. Delay throws aren’t the easiest to control when you’re using a dial, and forget about trying to nail it onscreen. However, other than one overshoot, the effects were fairly smooth. There’s two types of reverb, Lush and Dense, but neither seemed to be based on an algorithm that helped my cause, whether at home testing and setting up, or at the show. I tried to adjust their output, but other than the high and low pass filters on the reverb units, there was only a two-band shelf EQ on the output. Sure you can make a smile to dig out the middle or vocal area and pull the entire level back, but in this case I was really looking for a simple parametric cut. There’s also chorus and pitch shifting engines for some added width. For anyone that wants to freestyle for 10 minutes just like Kanye, there’s also an onboard pitch correction control. Simply wind the speed dial up to Fast for an instant autotune effect. For more polite correction, a slower speed is best, but even with the appropriate musical scale selected the synthetic wobbles of live autotun-ing are inevitable. It’s best suited for use as an effect, or blending in a little with your dry signal for a doubling effect.
QSC has built in a whole cast of wizards to step the user through a range of audio problems, or whisper suggestions into the ear of less confident engineers. There are four wizards in total, all wielding their powers over different fiefdoms of the Touchmix kingdom. There’s a room tuning wizard, a feedback suppression wizard, a gain wizard, and even an effects wizard. If another company didn’t have the rights to Mix Wizard, I’m sure there’d be one in there as well.
The gain wizard is pretty standard, suggesting an appropriate gain setting based on input clipping. The effects wizard just gives you some suggestions based on the type of instrument, and hints on where to send it.
The room tuning wizard is pretty simple and fast to use, with good results. You just stick a measurement mic up in four different positions, then the wizard puts out some noise to sample each spot and gives you a Graphic EQ setting based on whether you want it to sound flat or scooped. You can toggle the correction in and out to pick the difference between your own settings and the Touchmix’s. The feedback suppression wizard does its job, but it can get a little filter hungry. There are 12 filters it can use to notch out problematic frequencies, but if you get to that stage, your output is going to sound terrible anyway. The wizard works by slowly creeping up the gain of the selected output until it detects an issue. It’s a process of inching forward, notching out the issue, then proceeding onwards. It does naturally slow down its efforts a few dB past unity on the output fader, but you may have to intervene before that point to stop it digging holes into your mix. If it does, you have bigger problems to deal with.
In the end, I simply used the six-band parametric over my master output to carve a couple of small notches that dealt with some room build up. I wasn’t going to get too crazy with the output EQ given the room’s natural issues.
I went for the direct to disc option, and carried along a portable USB-powered hard drive to the gig. It’s a simple process of arming each track (you can set a user button to arm all tracks), then hitting record. It happened pretty seamlessly in the background until I ran out of file space. It has to be formatted to a FAT32 system, which limits each file size to 4GB. At the moment, it’s not the smoothest system, as I found the drive didn’t want to begin recording a new file in that moment and there’s not a real file list, only a list of sessions. There’s also no eject function, though the drive hot plugged fine. All things QSC can refine in the firmware. After recording, you can toggle to track playback for a virtual soundcheck with one button press. This is sometimes made a lot more difficult on other, more ‘advanced’ consoles. After using the Touchmix, I’m not sure why that is. The console operates in either 44.1k or 48k sample rates, so you also have to make sure your playback matches the current session sample rate.
TOUCHED BY AN ANGLE
Overall, I found the Touchmix-30 Pro a very usable console, despite not having physical faders. QSC has tried to bridge the gap between novice engineers and experienced users by including all those wizards while still giving quite a lot of control over the mix. To me this is a console more suited to the set and forget engineer who doesn’t need to be riding levels every second of a show. It’s also well-suited to the novice, as the wizards are really helpful and I’d say that the onboard room tuning module is one of the better models out there for ease of use versus results. I could see the console finding its way into loads of installs or for engineers who want a lot of I/O in quite a small package. It’s also a really strong contender for monitor mixing as there are a lot of options in the aux bus and patching environments for that mode of operation.
I can’t say I wouldn’t rather have real faders, but I was able to mix the charity event without any issues. At the end of the night, both deaf and hearing patrons gave plenty of good feedback and Hands to Communicate is already planning to go ahead with a similar event next year. As with any new console, the real work was in setting up the session and making sure I could navigate it with ease. In the Touchmix-30 Pro’s case, I spent a few hours familiarising myself with it and pre-building a session, by the end of which I was fully confident to walk into the show. It sounded great too; the preamps had lots of definition and there was no smudginess across a full band mix. The EQs were as good as you’ll get on any modern digital console, and the visual feedback from the console was spot on. The meters were highly visible, there’s an onboard RTA, and the dynamics sections have some unique graphs worth checking out.
It also has the ability to be controlled wirelessly [see Wireless Operation box], and can record 32 channels either direct to disk [see Recording box], or feed your DAW on a Mac. While wireless operation and the ability to function as a DAW interface are almost standard on today’s digital consoles, the ability to record direct to a hard drive is not. Well worth considering if you don’t want to lug a laptop with you or dedicate a computer to that operation in an install environment.
The QSC Touchmix-30 Pro will do it all. It’s just a question of whether you gel with the touchscreen mode of operation. It’s definitely a unique offering that may slot perfectly into your scenario. If it fits your style, it will likely give you more than you budgeted for.