PreSonus StudioLive 24.4.2 Mixer
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Digital mixing boards have come along way since the market for small format digital mixers exploded, fueled by early products from Yamaha and Tascam that broke through the price/performance barrier. And today, thanks to the success of Avid’s ICON series of mixing boards, digital consoles are at the heart of thousands of larger recording studios, and the related VENUE line of digital consoles are almost a standard buy for large-scale production companies looking to record on the go. But where are the products that bridge the gap between extremely pricey consoles and the smaller, singularly focused digital boards like those early innovators? The chasm is thousands of dollars wide.
For many studios and music venues, there is no bridging the price gap, thus analog mixing boards still reign supreme. And in the professional project studio or small commercial facility, there is probably no more ubiquitous mixing board than something from the Mackie SR series, used on more recordings in the past decade or so than anyone could possibly keep track of. The variety of mixing boards installed in live venues is an enormously diverse list far too great to mention.
When PreSonus introduced the StudioLive series of mixers two years ago, we were blown away by the combination of features suited to both recording and live performance (hence the name) — at a price point that seemed ridiculously low for what you were getting.
The subject of this review, the flagship StudioLive 24.4.2 console, delivers so much good stuff on so many fronts that we can say without hesitation that this mixer is going to do for the small pro studio and live venue today what the Mackie SR series did over a decade ago: reinvent what is possible with tools that used to be available only to people with extremely fat pockets. We’re so convinced of the merits of this board that we have built the next generation of the MusicPlayers.com testing, performance, and recording studio around the 24.4.2.
Why all this excitement? Sure, there are plenty of four-bus consoles out there, but with ten sends? Holy cow! A small club can run as many as five stereo monitor mixes, and in the recording studio, large music groups can have easily customized monitor mixes to improve the tracking experience.
Want to record? The twenty-four XMAX preamps have good headroom and are very quiet, and there is a FireWire interface for direct connection to your computer. Besides some excellent DAW software products from PreSonus (like Studio One, discussed later in the review), Avid’s Pro Tools software finally supports running on third-party hardware — a game changer for so many of us who rely on this industry-standard DAW platform. Pairing a StudioLive 24.4.2 mixer with Avid’s Pro Tools 9 delivers an unbeatable value for studios looking to build an all-digital Pro Tools environment at a fraction of the price of Avid’s more costly hardware solutions.
This review is something of a departure for us because we tend not to include so much reference to other companies’ products, but the StudioLive 24.4.2 finds itself in a unique position as the best hardware solution for a project studio or small commercial Pro Tools-based studio.
The StudioLive series also makes a very unique product for the live sound market, especially in clubs that feature live music but lack the space for proper placement of the mix desk at the rear center of the room. Besides a host of features well suited to a live board (not counting all those sends), this board can be operated remotely from an application running on either a laptop computer or an iPad.
For every band that has had to play a gig at a club that is forced to place its mixer somewhere on the stage due to space constraints, it’s time to rejoice. A sound engineer can place the StudioLive (with a laptop connected) anywhere convenient for patching instruments and monitors, then just step out front and center with a mobile application on his/her iPad to dial in levels, effects, monitors, and more.
Throw in some included software that makes it a one-click effort to multi-track record the evening’s performance and you start realizing just how powerful a solution this mixer can be in a wide range of environments.In short, this mixer needs to be at the top of your list whether you’re retrofitting your recording studio, rehearsal studio, or live performance venue. It works well in both environments and really lives up to its moniker. And if your budget or input needs aren’t as grand, PreSonus has a few smaller versions of the StudioLive described at the end of this review.
The PreSonus StudioLive 24.4.2 is a four-bus mixer equally suited to the recording studio and the live venue. Rather than give you the complete laundry list of details, we’ll focus our discussion on items of specific interest and excitement:
PreSonus really incorporated just about everything we could ask for in a board. However, we want just a hair more, greedy engineers that we are. Since this mixer can easily become the heart of a recording studio, we would have liked to see a basic MIDI interface (included in the recently introduced StudioLive 16.0.2) so that we could attach a keyboard controller for use with virtual instruments. Certainly this is hardly a showstopper since you can get a MIDI interface for $25, and it is of no consequence to the live sound engineers who will also embrace this board.An ADAT Lightpipe interface would be a cool bonus feature, too, but we found our external preamps worked just fine via analog connections. All current generation Macintosh computers feature FireWire 800, and PreSonus thoughtfully include a 400-to-800 adapter cable. However, if you have faster FireWire 800 hard drives, be sure to connect them directly to your computer on another chain and not to the pass-thru FireWire 400 port as you won’t get the drive’s maximum throughput. While we’re busy ratcheting up the price of this mixer, let’s throw in some automated faders just for kicks, too!
The Fat Channel concept is beautifully implemented. Rather than cover the board with hundreds of knobs, launching the price into the stratosphere and increasing its physical presence, the middle section of the mixer, from left to right, provides one “fat” channel strip. Just press the Select button above any channel’s fader and all of the controls across the midsection of the StudioLive reflect settings for that channel, and of course are immediately adjustable. Besides the Select button being illuminated on the active channel, a bright LED display shows the channel number that is presently selected.
The faders are light to the touch — our only complaint about the feel of this board, which is otherwise very solid. The buttons and knobs are extremely sturdy, and they respond quite nicely to the touch. It was easy to drag our hand across a row of buttons to mute or solo multiple channels quickly without having to press each button individually. This might seem trivial, but there are engineers who need to move fast, and this board won’t slow you down.
Each section of the fat channel can be hard bypassed, so if you want to use the gates on some drum mikes but not the compressor or EQ, no problem. Once you set up a channel just the way you like it, copying settings to other channels is simple. Just hit the Copy button and the Select button on all other channels start to blink. Press the Select button on each channel you want to copy your settings to and then hit the Load button.
We appreciated that by default, the StudioLive’s 31-band EQ was assigned to the main out but not to the control room outputs. This made it easy to dial in the EQ going to our P.A. system without impacting the sound going to our studio monitors. If you’re using the mixer in an environment with both live performance and recording, this is just one of the many little details that make working with the board very easy. On a related note, there are actually four dual-mono EQs (eight channels total), and they can be assigned to the mains, subgroups, and auxes as needed.
Want to dial in a custom monitor mix for someone on stage or in the studio? Just hit the Mix button below any of the ten Aux controls and the twenty-four knobs running across the fat channel become level controls for sending any of the 24 channels to that Aux output.
Plugging into the line inputs instead of the XLR jacks bypasses the XMAX pres, and we had no trouble connecting some external preamps to the StudioLive when we wanted to impart specific coloring during our recording sessions.
Other nice details include a scribble strip above the faders made to work with grease pencils. There’s also plenty of space below the faders to apply a strip of tape for labeling a session’s track list.
In the live venue, onboard delay and reverb effects give you one more reason to leave the outboard gear at home. We were able to run two effects concurrently, and the interface made it just as easy to assign the effects to specific channels as it was to set up custom mixes on the ten aux sends.
The Software Applications
Virtual StudioLive: Universal Control
Adjusting settings on the mixer was instantaneous, and although the faders aren’t motorized, the StudioLive handled remote changes like this elegantly. When we hit the fader Locate button on the board and selected a channel that had been updated from the software, the meter above the selected channel became an indicator that showed us how far up or down to adjust the fader to align it with the software setting — without making any audible change to the level of the signal on that fader. This was very cool, since it would work in a live setting rather than the settings just jumping to wherever the physical fader was positioned as soon as you touched it.
PreSonus thoughtfully included numerous channel strip presets suited to a wide range of tasks — miking toms, tracking a soprano female vocalist, an upright bass, and so on. The interface was fantastic: drag a preset onto the virtual fader and the entire strip was loaded with various settings, but when we dragged a preset onto just the specific section of the channel strip’s compressor, for example, only that component of the preset was loaded.
We would love to see the next generation of StudioLive mixer include a USB port to facilitate wireless USB network adapters (or just build wireless Ethernet into the mixer) so that small venues can really stick the mixer anywhere and not worry about someone running off with the laptop you’ll undoubtedly connect to the mixer in order to take advantage of remote control.
During a performance, you can drop song markers into the session while it’s tracking, and after the set is finished, you can export the session as multiple files, split at the break points you identified. We were also able to drop markers into the session file after the performance just by looking for gaps in the performance between songs.
Studio One Artist
Studio One is large enough to warrant a dedicated review, so we won’t go into many details here. But for the uninitiated, it has full VST and AU plug-in support, comes with numerous great plug-in effects and virtual instruments, and is a worthy DAW to consider if you’re not already married to another platform. After spending a few months working with Studio One as a front end to the StudioLive 24.4.2, we found numerous features that streamlined the entire recording process and made us routinely say, “I wish Pro Tools did this.”
If you’re building your first computer-based recording studio at home or in your band’s rehearsal studio, a StudioLive mixer and Studio One software is all you need to start tracking great sounding recordings, assuming you don’t suck, of course!
For those of you who fear a digital console will sound cold and sterile, fear not, as the StudioLive demonstrates no such behavior. We were immediately at home with the sound delivered by the mixer compared to the sound of our departing analog board (you can probably guess the brand for yourselves). Nobody listening to our recordings would hear anything that makes them say “Oh, that’s a digital console.”
We tested the StudioLive 24.4.2 both for live performance use as well as by tracking an actual EP with an internationally recognized progressive rock band. Featuring a massive drum kit, two electric guitars with wet/dry/wet configurations (mono and stereo), fretted and fretless bass, loads of keyboards, and multi-part vocal harmonies, we were able to put the sonics of the board to the test in both the live and studio settings.
The EQ and compressor worked particularly well. The compressor was transparent enough when not pushed to its limits that we used it throughout vocal tracking to provide some consistent input levels to Pro Tools.
Although the gate lacked side-chain abilities, it was still extremely useful on drums for live sound mixing, as well as for quieting an unruly high-gain guitar amp, and the fully parametric EQ let us dial in some very robust drum tones.
The biggest question you’ll face with the StudioLive is whether or not you want to commit the board’s Fat Channel settings to your recordings or rely upon your plug-ins and outboard gear for sculpting. There are inserts on all twenty-four channels, though we think you’ll find very limited need for them once you settle in with the mixer.
The high-pass filter has a range from 24 Hz to 1 kHz, and having this available on all twenty-four channels was extremely handy. We didn’t have any noise issues whether using this or the parametric EQ.
One fear we had initially was using our prized external preamps with the StudioLive. Historically, we connected preamps to our Pro Tools studio via an external A/D converter running into an ADAT Lightpipe interface on our Avid/Digidesign hardware. In the absence of Lightpipe, we connected our preamps directly to a few channels on the StudioLive 24.4.2. The ¼” inputs bypass the XMAX preamps, and we enjoyed the specific coloring of our favorite preamps (like the fantastic ADL 600) without introducing any unwanted noise into the signal chain.
If you were to purchase a conventional analog mixing board and recording interface, you wouldn’t come close to the functionality included here.
If you don’t need twenty-four channels but still want the capabilities and pro audio specs of the StudioLive 24.4.2, check out the StudioLive 16.4.2, which has nearly identical features in a smaller footprint (sixteen XMAX preamps, six aux sends) for only $2,000 street.And if you only need a board for your project studio and have no use for the four-bus architecture, PreSonus recently introduced the StudioLive 16.0.2: twelve XMAX preamps, four aux sends, and yes, a MIDI interface! $1,300 street sounds oh so sweet!
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