Photo: Marsha Vdovin, snapped for CDM in the mood lighting of the Line 6 press room at the NAMM show.

Few things are as essential to music making as the experience of a live show. So it’s about time someone took some risks to see if there’s a better way to run live sound. Line 6′s new StageScape M20d is important because it does just that – it finally says the mixer as you know it doesn’t have to be sacred, and tries to build a better one. Traditionalists might be skeptical – and with good reason, as we see if this idea works in practice – but it features some bold ideas worth considering.

Centered on a touchscreen interface, the StageScape mixer eschews traditional channel strips in favor of images and virtual touch controls. Want to tweak your vocalist’s sound? Instead of remembering which channel she’s on, tap the picture of the singer. StageScape brings up an elaborate array of processing options, all performed behind the scenes by Line 6′s DSP tech. You can even store in internal memory twenty seconds of a band playing, then adjust multitrack audio after the fact until it’s right, wandering around a venue using an iPad as a remote control. From processing to preset settings, control to sound experience, StageScape is completely and totally digital. It even “knows” what kind of input you’re using when you plug in the jack.

The solution is radically different than what we’ve seen before. It’s likely to scare away some users, and we’ll have to see how it works in practice. But coupled with some sophisticated sonic capabilities, it just might win over new users and adventurous live sound vets. Here’s a first look, after CDM got to meet with Line 6 at the product’s unveiling.

A Better Mousetrap

For the most part, all mixers are designed with the same basic assumptions in mind. To connect multiple microphones and instruments, the mixer presents a series of columns that represent “channels,” and lines up parameters for each of those channels. To amplify and treat the sound of a singer, then, you connect the vocal microphone to a channel number, then adjust the settings for that particular channel. The challenge is, you are restricted to the knobs and faders on physical hardware, so anything you do is limited to a fixed number of controls – and you have to remember the abstraction of which instrumentalist is associated with which channel. Just writing this out seems redundant and obvious; we’re so used to the arrangement that it’s hard to even think about it. But if you do think about it, there is a layer of abstraction between what you’re doing and the way you’d think about the actual musical ensemble.

Adding a touchscreen interface means these kinds of abstractions don’t have to be there, but most software simply recreates the same setup. It may be easier to label channels once you have a display, but otherwise digital mixers have generally replicated the same setup. And even software has generally aped the lineup of channel strips, rather than design a visual metaphor more closely tied to how we think.

StageScape tosses all of that out the window.

It starts from the moment you plug in a cable. I/O jacks on the back, featuring combo Neutrik connectors, “know” what sort of cable you’ve connected. So, for instance, plug in an XLR, and the mixer guesses you’ve got a mic. Add a 1/4″ line jack, and it works out you’ve connected something that’s line level or instrumental. (I’m still researching just how much the auto-sensing considers, but it at the very least knows which connection you used.) The feature works with both input and output, and sets paramters like channel gain, EQ, effects and routing.

Live sound has already benefited from going digital. Having hung out front-of-house with the rival Avid Venue system, I can already tell you live sound engineers adore the change. Let’s assume you have a lineup of three bands. Already, the ability to label channels for those three different ensembles, set levels, and then store presets for instant-recall of settings for each is huge. In fact, I’d wager almost everyone reading this has been in a live situation – front-of-house, onstage, or both – where the show didn’t sound right because some setting from soundcheck was lost in translation. Digital presets are already a breakthrough.

What’s different with StageScape – apart from the fact that it’s far cheaper than something like Venue – is that the whole process is instantly focused on players, and it’s visual. Got a singer? You place a picture of the singer on a virtual stage on the screen, dragging their position in place with your finger. Got a guitarist? Drag a picture of a guitar. (Note that this view is called Perform Mode – you can also see more traditional views if that’s more convenient.)

The same graphical workflow applies to tweaking sound. X/Y pads take a bunch of DSP functions and label them in everyday English, so instead of adjusting a bunch of EQs and dynamic controls, you drag to settings like “punch” or “bright.” Line 6 emphasized that this will help folks who lack audio engineering backgrounds, but it might be useful to experienced users, too. Dynamics, equalization, and effects are also available as a separate, traditional “Deep Edit” view. Multiband compression and multi-point parametric EQ naturally benefit from touchscreen interfaces, since you can manipulate these graphical views directly. But you can also create your own X/Y presets, so when you need to make quick adjustments, you can quickly navigate favorite settings.

Of Touchscreens and iPads

It’s worth noting that the interface on the SoundScape mixer isn’t an iPad. Various vendors at the NAMM show last week had iPad dock solutions, but there’s an advantage to using a custom touchscreen. What’s wonderful about capacitive touchscreens (like the iPad and iPhone) is the instant response you get from a feathery touch. What’s terrible about capacitive touchscreens is that a feathery touch can quickly screw up your settings in a live show. That’s bad.

Photo: Marsha Vdovin, CDM.

Line 6 joins a number of other music products in instead using a resistive screen. This technology requires some pressure before it senses your finger, which makes accidental touches less likely. It’s also less susceptible to, for instance, sweaty fingers.

Instead of making the iPad the main interface, Line 6 employs Apple’s tablet as a remote control. There, it makes far more sense than locked into a dock. You can wander around a venue and control the SoundScape mixing settings, hearing how they sound in different spots. (Especially useful: those 20 seconds of multitrack recording can be looped, as Line 6 showed off in a press conference featuring Colbie Cailet. It’s a simple thing to pull off, but so badly needed in live sound, it was met with enthusiastic cheers by the gathered crowd.) You do need an optional USB WiFi adapter to enable this functionality.

You’re also not without physical controls. Endless encoders, color-coded to match on-screen controls, provide physical, hands-on control. I don’t think anyone is going to like this arrangement quite as well as motorized faders (or faders, generally), but it does mean you get tangible control. (It’s also not hard to imagine Line 6 offering a motorized fader module if this box is a hit. In fact, I’d very much love to see a USB input on there, unless I missed one.)

Recording and Sound Processing

In addition to being a mixer, the SoundScape M20d is a multi-track recording device, so it can capture the same performance it’s mixing – perfect for preparing downloads of a live show. It records 24-bit lossless WAV to SD card or a connected USB drive or computer.

You also get various effects – no surprise with a Line 6 product – including:

  • Parametric EQ
  • Multi-band compression
  • Feedback suppression
  • Studio reverb
  • Delays
  • Vocal doubling

These in turn are bundled into channel effects.

I/O

While it eschews the channel strip metaphor, the M20d is otherwise a conventional mixer under the hood:

  • 12 digitally-controlled mic/line combo ins (using that auto-sensing feature mentioned earlier)
  • 2 digital inputs from computer, USB, or SD
  • Stereo line inputs
  • 4 monitor outs, 2 mains, each with auto-sensing on balanced XLR

Line 6 also has something called L6 LINK, a multi-channel, digital networked format via an XLR plug that allows you to connect and intelligently-configure Line 6′s own speakers. At NAMM, they were showing off their own StageSource speakers and subwoofer. They sounded terrific, though I am a little sad there isn’t a standard protocol employed on the mixer that would allow you to choose vendors.

What it’s Not

As part of the “let’s put an iPad in everything” trend at NAMM (which included almost everything but a harpsichord dock for your iPad), Mackie launched the DL1608.

In fact, the DL1608 basically is the Line 6, conceptually speaking, but minus all the critical refinements I mentioned – made more obvious when you look at images of these two units side by side.

  • It immediately reproduces a virtual mixer screen on the touchscreen, which has the effect of demonstrating … why physical faders make more sense when you’re trying to reproduce physical faders.
  • Using an iPad as a primary touchscreen saves some scratch, but then your iPad is stuck in your mixer, you have a capacitive touchscreen that can be too touchy when used live, and you have annoying things like notifications popping up while you’re trying to mix.
  • You don’t get a fully-integrated system.

Correction: Like the Line 6 offering, the Mackie supports multiple iPads (up to ten) via wireless connection. Also like the Line 6 kit, you need extra hardware to support that — in the case of the Mackie, you need a connected router. I’m not sure with either how the mixer handles multiple people controlling the same parameters / how it deals with conflicts.

So, sorry. If I’m going to save money, I’ll just buy one of Mackie’s (excellent) non-touchscreen mixers. I think we have to see how touchscreens work for mixer in general, but if I were to go touch, the Line 6 product looks both more practical and better-equipped to actually innovate with the concept.

Mackie DL1608
Via SHOCKLEE blog

They do have a cute video, at least.

Stay Tuned

No official pricing or availability has been announced, but early numbers I heard made this sound accessible. Update: Street appears to be US$2500. That’s steep for the same band who’s just starting out and has no one doing sound (especially if they want to buy the PA, too), but it’s quite reasonable for people looking for a digitally-automated mixer for a home studio or live – and even more so given the DSP and touchscreen and iPad remote control options packed into this product.

To me, the big question will be who actually uses StageScape. Line 6 kept talking about bands who lack their own live sound person. But while the idea of a band running their own sound is appealing, that means the same band who couldn’t afford a tech now are buying and lugging around this PA system – possible in some cases, but surely not in all. Someone, it seems, is sure to buy it: venues, perhaps, and certainly academic and institutional settings where its user-friendly features are doubly valuable.

Once in place, we’ll see whether the “magical” interface can really replace a traditional mixer. I can certainly see some live sound people very badly missing the ability to hover their hands over physical faders. Oddly, the folks who might appreciate this most are the people who do live sound, and find its preset storage, built-in processing, and seamless configuration appealing in the field. I look forward to when we get to try it out.

But I applaud Line 6 for rethinking the mixing interface itself. The company certainly has a track record – co-founders Marcus Ryle and Michel Doidic gave us ADAT and then single-handedly popularized digital DSP for guitarists. We’ll see now if this is their third grand acheivement in transforming the business. In the meantime, this could easily be, amidst an avalanche of new gear, the most daring and promising new music product announcement this year.

http://line6.com/stagescape

  • junity0507

    I thought the Mackie one supported like 10 iPads at once.
    Did I miss read??

    • peterkirn

      Sorry, you're exactly correct. You do need to connect a router first, but then it works. I still prefer the idea of a dedicated resistive touchscreen in the unit, though, for the reasons I list above. On the other hand, we have yet to learn pricing and the difference in pricing.

    • junity0507

      OK. Just thought I was too drunk when I read the release.
      Line 6 one looks cool and innovative, but as far as mixers go Mackie has a good history so curious to see how they pan out.

  • Ted Pallas

    Hi Peter/CDM - 

    This is interesting – I pay my rent by supporting sound and video designers as a production consultant, and when I'm working on a sound system the console is the pulsing heart of the whole rig.  They're something we spend endless amounts of time learning, working towards mastering, debating the finer points of, and generally nerding out over – never mind the fairly large investment that comes with most of the products that see professional use.

    Before I get to the thoughts on this desk I'd like to point out that while we're all totally willing to accept that digital tools are a cemented part of our workflow, the overwhelming consensus isn't one of "this is the best thing since sliced bread."  Consider, for example, the Studer Vista System – this is a big, crazy, infinitely routable from anything-to-anywhere however-you-want-to-do-it name-your-flavor sort of console.  It's the kind of thing you'd put at a giant conference that in addition to being amplified in the hall(s) was also being delivered to broadcast trucks via translators in 24 languages, with all distribution being handled from the main mixer.  You also might use one as the hub for a complex recording/monitoring rig – if you were multi-tracking an orchestra and wanted to give each section their own Aviom feed, this is your guy.  When something like this gets implemented on a show it doesn't just get "rolled out" – it gets stress-checked, programmed (and probably learned), configured, loaded in, and then hopefully doesn't crash.  On the other hand, this question – how do we get all of our noises where we want them to go? – isn't a new one.  There's an analog solution that is 100% as effective, doesn't generally need a lot of programming time, works in a generally standardized way and is almost 100% of the time something that couldn't crash if you wanted it to.  Of course, this analog solution involves 14 racks and 7 miles of cable.  One way is not better, and most tools are wonderful, but none of them come without their price – I'd say that's what engineers are really conscious of.

    These desks are both interesting.  Touchscreens on a mixer is not a new idea – Yamaha's M7CL has had one for a number of years now.  The general feeling from people who ONLY mix shows, day in and day out, is that it's generally great to NOT have to dig through layers to react to what you're hearing.  The Line 6 desk, for example, looks like you hear something, then poke it, then spin a knob or two to get it where you want it.  On a traditional desk when you hear something, you reach for it with one hand, while the other is probably still reacting to your last impulse.  It's a very quick thing, and the successful control surfaces make this process easier.  Putting NEW walls between people and sound isn't necessarily moving forward in a way that solves old problems.  Personal Opinion – I could never spec one of these for a client without seeing them add at least a few dedicated controls, even if they're pots.  I always want to be able to mute, even if I'm just trying to puzzle out who the f***'s feeding back.

  • Ted Pallas

    I agree with all of your points concerning why shoving your iPad in a mixer was an odd choice for Mackie to make.  Where they got it right, I think, was in giving you all those knobs up top.  They're not quite what I'd want, but if my iPad goes down (which will OF COURSE not stop the mixer from passing audio, right guys?  Right?  Guys?) I can still sort of mix my show.  That's really important.  If the Line 6 goes down – which their stuff has a tendency to do, more than, say, Yamaha – so does my client's show.  That's one recipe for a bummed out loft party that doesn't seem worth the risk.  Never mind the odd budget choice of buying an iPad 2(sure) dedicated for mixing (ok, I'm with you) to shove in your Mackie (nope.)

    But, all that said – I had to acquire an iPad for a gig last summer, and I'm very much excited by the ways it's made dealing with computers easier.  Yamaha, for example, has written what are more-or-less SysExOverIP control interfaces for most of their digital mixer line.  This is very useful – my mixer can go walk away from his desk to tune the room, which will make that process take much less time, and less labor.  I'm also excited by the TouchOSC and Control apps – I like that I can roll out useful little interfaces very quickly, letting us continue with what we were actually doing in a small amount of time.  They're great.  Using touchscreens in the way illustrated in this post, though, feels a bit like reinventing – or straight uninventing – a wheel who's methodology is understood by basically every audio professional and hobbyist around the world, without actually giving me a benefit in exchange.

    There's lots of other fun happening in the digital console world – the DigiCo line has been expanding in fun new ways, and the Avid system you mentioned is becoming an industry favorite.  But then, just like synths, there's a reason to stay analog too…

    Create Digital Media is fantastic – I use your site and it's articles as references for people I'm working with on a pretty consistent basis.  Thanks for giving some coverage time to an underdiscussed part of how we make noise.

  • peterkirn

    Well, precisely. To me, it was the most interesting thing I saw at the show — but not necessarily because I think it'l work. Having to switch modes in this way, as you say, rather than have dedicated controls, could slow you down rather than speed you up.

    What I do think is, if you're going to go with a touchscreen, it makes sense to be this bold.

    What I'm not sure of is whether the touchscreen works at all. And I wonder if this wouldn't benefit from adding dedicated controls once you did go in and tweak, etc.

  • http://chokingsun.com dj_mosquito

    the mackie does support multiple iPad connections. i thought i heard a total 11 were supported in the unveilment i saw via youtube. that would lead me to believe that its one attached and 9 wireless.

    i do think the line 6 approach is innovative and interesting, but the interface is a little too much like a fisher price toy. at least its NOT using an iPad. its nice that they are making mixing more accessible, but having mixed my own sound from on stage, there is a huge difference between how a room sounds with no one in it during soundcheck compared to once people fill the venue. i'd be interested in knowing how well its constructed as well since lately the pod floorboards quality has gone down. they don't feel anywhere near is rugged as they use to be.

    the removal of so many physical controls is equally frustrating. i have had limited success with any touch screen (iOS and android) being as responsive as faders and pots on physical hardware. in fact, if you want to bring up multiple channels (say 8 at once), good luck. i would hope in the future both markie and line 6 support control surfaces. the behringer bcf2000 would be the perfect addition to both to provide back the loss of physical controls.

    i must say i'm extremely disappointed with namm this year and the massive infiltration of iPads/iOS into professional music gear. so much so that i posted my thoughts here: http://goo.gl/T7Rzk most of it is about all the issues i see coming up as a result of this horrible shift to using iOS devices, which are meant to be disposible.

  • Dumeril Seven

    As a gigging band guy, I like the Line 6 concept a lot. But Sweetwater is listing them at $2500 which seems awfully high for the target market. And the channel count is low enough that you're probably talking about the low end of that market.

  • peterkirn

    Right, that was my concern. Now, $2500 is stellar for this kind of equipment. The problem is, it's not clear that there's a market that lines up with the price. It's a poor man's Venue, in some ways, but it's potentially too limited for the higher-end market and too rich for the *genuinely* poor musician. Still, I'm not totally certain who the user is … and I will say, in terms of sticking to the concept, I think they did a great job. So if there is a market, and if it works in practice, it could be a hit. It's nothing if not a compelling concept.

  • http://chokingsun.com dj_mosquito

    Mackie is targeting the $2k digital mixer. no doubt they opted for the iPad to lower their own costs. but i'm with @Ted's points. i look forward to the day someone has their iPad crash and their mixer stops working. and i absolutely LOATH having to punch through screens to get at stuff. that's why the mixer interface is so effective.

  • Ted Pallas

    This is a bigger question, I think – how bold do you want to be with your mixer?  I want to be exactly zero percent bold with it, so that I can always know that no matter how bad the band is we can hear them, without technical or operator error interfering.  Innovative?  Sure.  Refined?  Yes.  "Bold" implies something new and untested and groundbreaking.  In applications like mixers (and microphones, and headphones, and other bread-and-butter goods) I don't really see new ground to break, and it's even harder to see what I gain by going there.  It certainly won't sound any louder, better, clearer or danceable if you simply swap out what you've got for this little Line 6 unit…I'd sooner see that R&D time going towards a solution that augments an existing workflow, especially when you look at the way people buy gear nowadays, piece by piece…

    I'm a fan of hybrid systems.  I want to have a touchscreen so I can navigate menus faster than I can with a keyboard so I can spend more time mixing, or I want to be able to work on-site but away from the control surface.  Faders are, in a professional application, non-negotiable.  So are mutes.  Those are necessary to ensure a solid performance, with the ability to react to the dynamic world of live sound.

    I also don't want to be hiring engineers 15 or 20 years down the road that won't be able to use a piece of equipment from 2004 – I think it's important to maintain the mix metaphor.  It's like an open-source standard we all agreed on, and haven't really messed with since the late 50's.  Imagine if the MIDI spec changed in 1999 – a whole bunch of gear wouldn't be able to talk to that sweet, sweet touchThing.  I know I can walk up to any mixer anywhere and I know that the knobs above a fader will almost always do things to that fader.  I can then take read those knob labels, and work it out very quickly.  So can someone from Germany, China, or the Caribbean.  We can all share desks – it works.  I can't imagine very many units moving that can't offer that sort of workflow, especially since the rental/studio/install market makes up such a huge percentage of retail opportunities.  

    I'm not concerned about having to use this $2,500 desk, and I can see it working for someone out there very, very well. I'm preemptively questioning their $7,500 desk with 48 inputs, flexible routing and insertable or bussable effects, plus per-channel dynamics – that's a lot to think about in an environment where everything is in constant flux, and it should all be on the surface when workable, like a synth.  On the other hand, this Line 6 device looks like just the thing to replace the Yamaha 01V96 as the cheap studio automation desk of choice, with some tweaks…in a studio I have the time to really work through some menus in the hunt for the right sound, and I might even prefer it that way.

  • jengel

    A great soundperson is the difference between a great gig and a s****y gig. That said, having played at many venues with god awful sound people (the majority of low to midrange venues (~100-200 people)), I welcome technology that bars will buy to help a horrible soundman work like a decent if only ok one. 

    • peterkirn

      I agree, absolutely. Like I said, I'm thinking more that this is something that would be useful to people who *do* know what they're doing. ;)

  • enomis

    For a while I gigged with a band and ran the live synths and electric bass through a laptop running Ableton.
    Laptop + audio interface + 8 channel snake adds up to $2500 or more. Having one compact piece of hardware that takes care of the hardware and software seems like an interesting way to go. On the flip side this doesn't seem to offer the sound sculpting and live control capabilities offered by using Ableton or any other DAW for that matter with a good audio interface and controller. Maybe I'm mixing apples and oranges though.

    Is the Line 6 intended as hardware that bands can add to their arsenal or as an alternate to a small venue's mixer? As bands include more technology in their rig they start blurring the lines between writer/musician/engineer. If a band uses a DAW as part of their writing/sound sculpting and recording process it makes sense that it will start showing up in their live setup as well. Interfacing the setup with proper amplification/mixing/final EQing is the trick.

    How about a piece of hardware that is dedicated to running one's favorite DAW and interfaces well with both the live (and non live) instruments as well as a venue's mixer and engineer rather than something that doesn't seem to quite do either.

  • http://chokingsun.com dj_mosquito

    i really don't see any venues swapping out consoles for either of the above. line-6 has the issue that they are really just entering into this realm and frankly, anyone getting it on release is going to get to experience all the bugs. also, since the touchscreen is integral and required to control the mix, the moment that thing fails, there goes the mix. there might be a handful of clubs out there that would look at the mackie, but i'm with @Ted, direct fader and mute access is a requirement. the mackie limits you to 8 channels at once. so if you start getting feedback (which they both claim to be able to suppress for you), having to page over then mute is the time it takes to pretty much kill the entire audience's ears.

    but again, i struggle to think of a venue that would use either of them. 16 inputs? yeah that's not going to cut it. maybe some small bar, but a bar that small is going to stick with the gear they have (outboard compressors, etc) rather than grab one of those as it renders all that external hardware useless (i don't see fx sends, returns, or inserts on them).

  • Zayn

    that has got to be one of the worst ads ive ever seen.

    • David

      Absolutely. And so in utter dissonance with what I thought was Mackie's brand identity.

  • Terrible

    Peter,

    I’m not sure I would describe this as doing away with the channel metaphor – from what I see here and what you’ve written, it’s still using the idea of channels as the central organizing principle. Couldn’t we describe the icons at the bottom of the first 3 images as a list of channels? Don’t they directly correspond to inputs and parameters, each separated? In fact, it seems it has added an extra step to access some aspects of each channel. Interesting, yes; but I don’t think it’s as radical as your first paragraphs imply.

  • trauma norms

    this is all flashy nothing fluff – mere stepping stones towards a goal no ones even sure of. Im with Ted, racks and cable and consoles while being heavy, cumbersome and laborious, is just solid straight up reliable tools with everything where its needed and nothing less (u did say all that didnt u ted?) i know ur blog is to push the future and cutting edge of creating digital music, but seriously, so much of this stuff is just whack.

  • Sendthistojp

    helpful

  • http://chokingsun.com dj_mosquito

    i've been blown away with the bcf2000. the only thing that would make it a dream device would be to have something like novation's automap. i've set up mine before so that each program allowed me to jump by groups of 8 faders at a time. i'd just rather that if i page over with the launch pad that the bcf2000 also did it.

  • vanceg

    Yes, but you KNOW how to use a mixing board. It seems to me that the idea here is to enable people who do NOT know how to use one and who find it cumbersome to figure out "what knob do i turn to make the bass sound more 'punchy'" or "how do I eliminate that feedback I keep hearing". I mean, there is a simplified X/Y pad control for the EQ and Compressor to do just this…whereby you move your finger to the upper right for "more punch" or to the lower right left for a "Pillowy" sound. (I forget what the exact terms were…but you get the idea). My point is that this system is decidedly NOT aimed toward you. Or me. It's designed so that we, or other people who really know how to operate a mixer and the plethora of processing that often goes with it, don't need to be hired for every gig.