Midas XL8 Digital Live Audio Console

So in our ever continuing search for the “perfect” digital console to replace our aging FOH console we recently looked at the Midas XL8.  We heard from our vender that their pricing had reduced drastically from it’s initial launch.  It used to be a $350,000+ system so it wasn’t something we thought was even in our reach.  After hearing about their pricing changes we set up a on-site demo and we’re glad we did!  The console is pretty comprehensive so I’ll just go over the highlights that stood out to us.  You can really go into detail on Midas’ site.

Midas’ approach on this console is a very analog.  There’s a lot of faders, buttons, and knobs all over the surface.  For example, you get 24 input faders, 12 VCA faders, 16 group/aux faders, 16 matrix faders, and 3 master faders.  That’s 71 faders!  I could count the knobs and buttons too but that would be a lot of work, ha ha.  This allows you to work quickly and without relying on the screens as much as other consoles.  In fact the rep said that as a test on one demo the engineer built his mix without using the screens at all just to see if it could be done.  This is probably the only digital console out there where mixing without the screens would even be possible.

On each input channel strip you have on/off buttons and knobs for just about everything.  This adds to the analog feel.  Need to tweak something on the kick channel?  Well, reach for the kick channel and start hitting buttons or knobs.  Many features are accessed right in the channel strip vs selecting the channel and working in a centralized section (like a Yamaha console for example).

Each of the 5 sections of the console has a screen and an independent set of controls.  Again this keeps you from reaching over to select a channel just to move back to the middle of the desk to tweak.  You’re working right at the channel, again, like an analog desk.  Whatever you can’t do right at the channel strip you can do with the extended channel controls in each section.  Stuff like the complete EQ and dynamic controls aren’t on each fader’s channel strip, it would make the console too large.  Since each of the sections has this master set of controls you can work quickly and without moving around too much.

The input channels show up on the desk in the typical way.  You have 24 input faders and inputs show up 1-24 across the desk.  Instead of going through the 96 inputs one complete layer at a time (1-24 then 25-48, etc.) you scroll left or right through the inputs 8 at a time.  Think of having a 96 fader analog desk and moving left or right down the desk.  So you can have 1-24 up, scroll right once and you have 9-32 up, then 17-40, etc.  Need to bring up channel 84 real quick?  No problem, instead of scrolling type 84 into the keypad on the section you want to bring 84 up in and then that group of inputs with 84 in it pops up.

You can organize the inputs one step further.  Say you want the 16 inputs on the left of the master section to be on channels 1-16 but you need access to channels 41-48 at the same time.  You can set the 8 faders to the right of the master section to area B mode and scroll through inputs independently of area A on the left side.  Any one of the three input sections can be set to area B mode, or you can set two sections to area B mode if you want.  This gives you lots of options beyond the normal layer mentality.

Probably one of this console’s biggest departure from the norm is what they call “pop” groups.  On the XL8 you get 8 pop groups.  These are used to create groups of channels that you want to quickly access without scrolling the inputs.  These groups pop up (ha ha, I just realized that might be why they’re called “pop” groups)  just to the left of the VCA’s by default.

Say you assign your drum channels to pop group 1.  Now no matter where you are on the desk if you need the drum channels you just select that pop group and they show up.  Set up the band, vocals, and whatever else you want quick access to and now you’re not digging for channels, you have direct access to whatever you set up through the pop groups.  You can even assign a pop group to area B to organize things even more and have two pop groups up at once.  So the band stuff could be in area A on the 16 faders to the left of the master section and the pastor’s mic could be in a pop group on area B ready to go.

In addition to those 8 pop groups you have 12 VCA’s.  Selecting a VCA will pop up what’s assigned to the VCA like a pop group.  So with the pop groups and VCA’s you have 20 groups of things that you can have quick direct access to.  We found that with the pop groups and VCA’s set up you’re really not digging through layers very much at all.  This is a really cool way to manage the desk and a very fast way to work.

Ok, so it’s easy to use but what does it sound like?  Midas didn’t skimp or deviate from their analog roots.  Their mic pre’s come direct from one of their analog consoles (I forget exactly which one).  So when you’re at the desk you’re digitally controlling the gain on the analog mic pre.  Going from the head end to the EQ’s, comps, and gates and everything had a good sound and worked like you would expect them to.  The whole console works at 24 bit 96Khz to keep the audio quality as high as possible.

Our head engineer Michael Grosso spent a lot of time on the drums during the demo.  Since drums often require some deep EQ cuts and good, accurate, gating they’re a good test for a console.  We played around with some pre-recorded stuff to get our feet wet on the console.  Then we patched in our drum set on stage and had a drummer play around for a while to hear the real stuff hit all of the mic pre’s.  The results were very nice.  Full and punchy sound, good useable gates, nice EQ and comps, we were pleasantly surprised.  For the first time we felt like we had a console that was easy to use and sounded good at the same time.

Get past the channel strip and there’s room for up to 16 built in effects at once and a whole bunch of 31 band graphics EQ’s.  Accessing the EQ’s can be done from a section on the desk or from a really cool external motorized fader controller that’s part of the XL8 package.  To access external control of recorders or a Waves system there’s a built in 3-way KVM switch.  This keeps you at the desk controlling everything instead of having to walk away to tweak something.

Midas gives you a bunch of I/O options.  There’s two sizes of modular racks that you can populate with with XLR, TRS, AES digital, and DSUB cards.  This allows you to customize your I/O at FOH for instance when you’re interfacing with a variety of outboard gear and outputting to other systems.  For the stage end you could go with the cheaper fixed I/O rack that has 48 XLR in, 16 XLR out.  One way or another you can interface practically whatever you want.  There’s also a really cool splitter that has multiple mic pre’s for larger broadcast or multi desk systems.

We also found out about a cool 96 channel recording system their sister company Klark Teknik makes that allows you to record all 96 inputs and play back to all 96 inputs for virtual sound checking.  It’s the DN9696 and it interfaces with the console through its AES50 digital snake connections so it doesn’t eat up any of your I/O in your racks.  There’s 9 hours of internal storage space.  You can also hook up external hard drives and record to the internal and external drives at once for redundancy.  Since it connects to the AES50 ports the DN9696 shows up in the patching menu like the rest of the I/O so patching is really easy.  In fact if you’re just patching the ins and outs 1-1 it can literally be set up in minutes, pretty cool.

The rest of the outboard gear consists of the routers that connect all of the I/O and the DSP processors.  There are two routers for redundancy and 10 DSP units for redundancy.  Only 9 DSP units are needed for full functionality, the 10th is a hot spare.  You can actually run the desk on as few as 4 if I remember right, you just lose functionality as you lose DSP units.  There’s also multiple power supplies on everything and 5 power supplies on the console, one for each section of the desk.  The desk has a processor for each section so you can lose multiple sections of the desk and still keep going.  Basically the odds of going down completely due to faults in the hardware are pretty slim.

There’s an iPad app if you want to walk the room and tweak stuff or just have some extra faders.  You can preset for a show with their offline software.  The console software was designed from the ground up in Linux so it should be very stable.  We never encountered a problem during our two day demo and everything felt very fast and responsive when loading menus or selecting channels.  The speed is probably part software, part having multiple computers running the desk instead of just one processor.

We really liked this console.  Enough so that after spec’ing out a system based on our needs and getting the price we ordered one for our main sanctuary.  The pricing really has dropped a whole lot from the original price.  They also used to only sell the system one way and now you can custom order the system, that has helped reduce the pricing even further.  The XL8 setup that we ordered is much less expensive than the Studer Vista 9, the Digico SD7, even the SD5 which were all consoles we were looking at, very cool!

To be fair the Studer and Digico can hand more inputs at one time.  The Midas network can handle up to 432 inputs and 432 outputs but you only have 96 inputs on the console at a time.  The other consoles can go well past 200 channels on the desk at once but that’s not really a deal breaker for us, 96 is plenty.  I just point it out to mention that every digital console has pro’s and con’s and you have to learn what those are and see if that’s important to you.

The Midas is a little more stuff to carry around and set up than some consoles.  Not a big deal for an install but for touring it would be something to consider.  A Digico SD7 for example is a super fast setup.  With all the processing and local I/O built into the desk simply power up the desk and connect your stage rack and you’re done.  The Midas has the desk, external processing, external local I/O, external stage I/O, and external splitter racks if you’re using them, it’s a lot more stuff.  When we demo’d the SD7 two road cases were shipped to us, the Midas came in 4 road cases, ha ha.  Again, for our fixed install, no big deal.  Touring setup and it might be enough to sway you one way or the other.

Midas also has several other consoles.  The XL8 is the top of their range but they have six other digital consoles as well.  They all share I/O and they all have the same software.  So if you learn one desk the rest will feel very familiar.  The entry level desks are pretty reasonably priced so quality systems are not out of everyone’s reach.  The PRO 3, 6, and 9 desks are a cool platform.  They each have the same control surface hardware but the software determines the amount of inputs and outputs you have access to.  So you could get a PRO3 and upgrade over time to a PRO6 or PRO9 as needed.

Ha ha, this is getting long, time to wrap up.  The Midas XL8 was a pleasant surprise.  We love the analog feel of the control surface.  It quickly became familiar and easy to use.  We love the sound of the mic pre’s, EQ, and dynamics.  The system offers plenty of I/O options for us to do what we need to do right now and into the future.  And the price came in at a very reasonable number, especially for a high end digital console.  I think that when word gets out about the price you’ll see a lot more of these start to show up.