Recently we were invited to an event at London’s Strongroom Studios to see and hear Presonus’ Studiolive mixer in use in a tracking session. The event was interesting because the organisers had done exactly what I would have have done if I had brought a compact digital mixer into a studio with a beautiful Neve VR - they decided to compare them!
So Why Did I Prefer Tracking Through The Presonus Rather Than The Neve?
In a word - Headphones. For clarity I’ll explain that while I didn’t personally do the tracking at this session, I preferred the workflow using the Presonus rather than the Neve. So what was the big difference which made me prefer the experience of using a compact digital mixer over a classic analogue console which when new would have cost as much as an entire street of houses?
Headphone mixes are the part of a tracking session, which often receive the least attention. Unlike mic choice and placement, preamp selection, tweaking and committing sounds at the tracking stage, which as audio people, we all love and engage with enthusiastically, setting up headphones mixes just isn’t something we get excited about in the same way. Because of this they are often done in a hurry and this is a pity as a good headphone mix directly influences the performance in a far more significant way than a different mic on the snare ever will.
Tracking At Strongroom Studios Using The Studiolive 64
The idea behind the tracking session was simple, get a band, track two songs. One through the StudioLive into Studio One, the other through the Neve VR in Strongroom Studio 1 and into Studio One via a Presonus Quantum 4848, the Dsubs of which make integration into a pro environment like this very straightforward.
The two songs were very different. The point wasn’t to attempt a forensic comparison of sonic differences between the two tracking methods, the time wasn’t available for that to happen accurately enough for the “test” not to be flawed. Instead it was an exercise in the potential of the different workflows. The results were different but to concentrate on that would be to miss the point that both were good.
With drums, bass, guitar, piano and vocals to track, the channel count was typical of a band session and while the headphone mixes were all analogue via the Neve in the VR/Quantum session, in the Studiolive session the mixes were provided via the Studiolive 64 and recording was to Studio One via USB. As Studio One was being used purely for capture the latency wasn’t critical. Presonus also offer Capture, a stripped down application which prioritises stability over features with multitrack capture of live events with the Studiolive mixers its primary purpose.
In a busy studio, communication can get difficult and with performers in different rooms, possibly with no line of sight to the control room, even with good comms with two way talkback it is sometimes easier to just go into the live area and talk to people face to face, particularly if the foldback or talkback isn’t working for some reason. This is where the advantage of using the Studiolive really showed itself. Using the UC Surface control software, the engineer can remotely control the console from a tablet allowing mixes, preamp gains and anything else to be tweaked while standing next to the performer in the same way as monitor engineers have been doing for years in live sound.
While it would be possible to give the band unrestricted access to the console via UC Surface, the cut down QMix software allows a simplified set of controls to be presented to the performers via iOS or Android. It’s worth saying at this point that Strongroom have a Hear Technologies Hearback system which wasn’t used in this session but this is a good illustration that the benefits of putting performers in control of their own mixes are well known and have largely replaced the previous methods of engineers having exclusive access to monitor mixes. QMix allows a simplified set of controls to be set up with anything from a simple “More Me” control, through to individual control of source channels.
In this case a restricted set of controls was presented:
How Did They Sound?
So which sounded better? Am I seriously suggesting that all the tracking rooms, which currently have large format Neves should get rid of them and get small digital consoles? No, I’m not suggesting that for a second, the Neve sounded glorious. The track that was tracked through the VR was rockier than the more acoustic number which was tracked through the Studiolive. The board was being run fairly hot and the transients were squashed and it sounded big with lots of analogue colour and cohesion. A great sound which many people will pay good money to access and the Quantum 4848 captured all of this flavour flawlessly with 8 samples of latency.
By contrast the Studiolive 64 was crystal clear, with all the transient detail you could wish for and a lack of colour and openness, which only good digital can really deliver. The space in the arrangement was preserved and the piano in particular sounded lovely, so much so that I had to go and lift the blanket covering the short-sticked piano lid and see what I was listening to, I was simultaneously impressed and slightly disappointed to find a rather ordinary pair of 414s. Of course if you want to add some analogue vibe, that is easy to achieve using processing either in your DAW or using the Fat Channel Vintage plug-ins available from Presonus which run in the Studiolive mixers, An added bonus of using these is that native versions are included which can be run in Studio One.
Does Working At 48KHz Matter?
The Studiolive mixers work at sample rates up to 48K, Whether this matters depends very much on who you ask. Running at 48K means that you never have the experience of having half the resources you thought you did because you are running at 96K. My main reason for working at 96K, which I do some of the time but by no means all of the time, is that it halves latency when tracking through a native DAW. latency is negligible using the Studiolive so this isn’t relevant in this case. If 96KHz is a must have for you for sonic reasons then the Studiolive isn’t for you but If you’re one of the many people for whom 48KHz is perfectly acceptable then these mixers offer an awful lot as tools for use in the studio as well as live.