All words thrown about by juiced up marketing departments at launch time for a variety of products. They are also phrases that reviewers become immune to, to be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism, but I think it's fair to say that the new Line 6 StageScape M20D Digital Mixer is worthy of these kind of words. The rulebook has been tossed out of the tour bus window and the concept of a live mixer has been somewhat redefined. Whether or not that is a complete success, we'll see...
The M20D is a 20 input digital mixer with a 7 inch touchscreen, 12 rotary encoders, 5 mode switches, two mute buttons and a large volume knob. It's not what you’d call familiar. Under the hood, there’s twenty channels of DSP, four effects, four monitor sends and a recording system.
I has 12 combi inputs, four line inputs, Aux in on minijack, media player (wav/mp3). Outputs: four balanced outs for monitor sends, L+R Master output, headphone output and USB to host, plus USB drive and SD card inputs. Finally, theres an L6 Link for hooking up your StageSource speaker systems which gives you access to additional DSP functions from the MS20D.
Concept The concept is for this mixer to be used quickly and easily without the need for deep understanding of live sound, but with great results. There are features such as Trim Tracking - which monitors channel inputs and rides the trim to avoid clipping on input, Feedback suppression (FBS) - 12 bands of seek and destroy feedback elimination per mic channel. It should be possible to drag your band onto the stage (virtually of course), get them to play, have the M20D to assess the input gain needed and also to work out the FBS (feedback issues) and suppress, then just throw a few monitors into the mix and you’re good to go. Any further tweaks can be saved for later recall. While your doing the gig, you can also record each input plus the stereo mix either for virtual soundcheck at another gig, or for the live recordings.
Drag n Drop Instruments and sources are dragged onto the stage from a large selection of predefined channel strips, with up to 6 DSP modules for each - including: Gate, compressor, dynamic EQ (an interesting threshold based EQ), 6 band EQ, Limiter, Sub Bass andDe-esser. These DSP chains are predetermined from a number of presets, but cannot be edited.
In practice, this does sound pretty good and excellent results are possible. The four effects are traditional 2x reverbs, 1x modulation, 1x delay. There is no sign of the Line 6 heritage of amp and stomp emulations in there, which is kind of surprising.
Monitors Once the basic setup is ready, you can again graphically drag monitors into the mix and send pre or post fade to each of them from each source including effects, all with clear visual representations. Each monitor can also be treated with EQ and limiter, or if you have any of the StageSource intelligent speakers, control the 31 band graphic EQ for further ringing out.
Mutes and groups are also possible, with the Mic Mute Button you can assign any set of channels to be switched off when this is hit, the Mute All - just kills all the outputs. For grouping, just double click on any empty channel then add members to the group, though any additional processing is not available as insert processing.
All is not rosy in operation though, in a number of cases I found essential functions - especially muting a single channel, to be fiddly when using the touchscreen. I think a bit more thought into the user experience would be a Good Thing - those clickable rotary encoders could be given a mute mode for instance. But it's also possible to stick in a wireless dongle, and float about with an iPad app for larger screen control and editing. - alas this was not available to us at the time of review.
Recording This is the jewel in the crown for me, with a USB port for drives and an SD card slot, it is possible to record all inputs discretely, PLUS the main mix, then play back through their repective channels - this not only gives you a discrete multi-track and reference mix for use in your DAW, but as all recorded signals are dry (apart from the mix output) and allow you tweak on when playing back - great for virtual soundchecks. In USB mode, the M20D can be interfaced directly to your computer for recording and playback.
Tweaking This has two levels - the Quick Tweak which gives you simple X/Y pad control of various channel or effect parameters - Tone, Compression, reverb type and length etc. Hit Deep Tweak - to get stuck in and mess with the familiar elements of the compressors, EQ effects and other elements etc. Actually pretty instinctive in many ways and good for quick visual adjustments. Swipe your finger to between dark or bright or warm and you get the corresponding EQ curve - it's actually pretty intuitive - hit the Deep Tweak button for the access to all parameters, though there’s no sidechaining or processing of groups.
Click One Two There’s no doubt that it is easy to setup the M20D, there’s a large number of preset channel strips included and they do sound pretty good. I was also pleased with the mic preamps - the SeEelectonics Voodo VR-1 ribbon mic didn't show up any lack of gain and sounded as good as I would hope for. The footswitches also helped when using solo and allowed me to playback music or backing tracks to accompany my awful guitar playing. Though It would be nice to have some more serious footswitch action - perhaps a MIDI footswitch would allow for some truly creative uses.
Where I did find issue was when working with a live signal where stuff happens and you have to deal with it sharpish- while it's great to have a preset for everything, the thing about any kind of mixing desk, is it's flexibility - with the M20D, whilst it can be very quick to create a setup and store for recall, some operations feel unnecessarily complex, one or two clicks more than they could be. For instance, mutes is one area where I want high speed response and status visuals, also configuration of the rotaries - as it is, you hit menu > select > (trim, level, pan, FX1-4 send), where it should and could be a one click job - there is room on the screen for icons to allow this. Additionally, things like effect muting - whilst configurable via footswitch (there are two - assignable to scene change, media player start stop and track select too), plus by using the single hardware Mute Mics button, I would rather assign effects to a group - which IS easy to do, you can then mute the group via the touchscreen, but I would much rather click on the rotary encoder to mute/unmute the group - as it is the click is not doing anything so why not?
These are the kinds of small details, which worry me a little for when I’m working in a stressful live situation, there isn't time to think, you need to instinctively know what button to press.
However, the quality of the sounds and DSP processing and nifty record function, does give you a whole load of positives too. And the ease of setup and the hands-free operation will certainly appeal as a concept to many gigging musicians, who just want it to work and sound good.
I know part of our job here is to advise on whether this might be right for you, but with something this ground-breaking and different, you’ll really need to get some hands on time with the M20D to see if it can do what you need in the way you want it to.