The Big Picture
Amek Big By Langley Mixing Console
With Talking Recall and oodles of features, this top-end mixing desk should satisfy many private studio's needs.
Not only does Amek's Big by Langley mixing desk offer digital control and SuperTrue automation at an unprecedented price, it also boasts some innovative and surprising touches — including Talking Recall. Paul White previews Amek's most attainable professional console yet.
It's generally conceded that all-digital mixing systems will eventually replace analogue, but some current consoles effectively combine digital control with high-quality analogue audio circuitry, to produce exceptional performance at a surprisingly affordable price. The digitally-controlled-analogue Big console previewed here doesn't exactly qualify for the 'budget' price tag, but when you consider that its audio circuitry and automation system compare more than favourably with desks which, just a few years ago, cost upwards of a quarter of a million pounds or so, its £13,500 plus VAT price tag starts to look rather more appealing. Because some of the concepts embodied in the Big are genuinely innovative, and certainly interesting, we felt that it deserved a closer look — after all, how many of these features might emerge in spinoff forms on cheaper desks in the not too distant future?
Big is itself a spin-off made possible by the R&D behind Amek's Angela, Mozart, Hendrix and Einstein consoles, and utilises Amek's SuperTrue automation system, originally developed in collaboration with Steinberg. An optional hardware and software upgrade allows Virtual Dynamics (TM) to be added to each channel in the form of gates and compressor/limiters. The comparatively compact worksurface houses a fully in-line mixing console (not just the in-line monitoring, split grouping we've become so used to), while the addition of an Atari STE computer allows access to the powerful automation system that not only provides control over faders and mutes but also facilitates full recall of virtually all the console's knobs and switches, bar the PFL/AFL buttons. The recall system is similar in operation to that used by SSL, in that the controls have to be manually matched to the stored position of the controls as displayed on the Atari monitor, but as both an aid and a novelty, the recall process is accompanied by a sampled Rupert Neve directing you to each pot and switch in turn and telling you where to set it!
The fact that Rupert Neve is involved in the project at all makes it worthy of interest, but the fact that Graham Langley (Amek's founder and chief designer), was once described by Rupert Neve as the most accomplished mixing systems designer alive today, means that this is no standard console, either in its layout or its circuit design.
Physically, the console is of modular construction, though only two versions are available: 28-channel and 44-channel.
Having being brought up on consoles with split grouping, the Big seemed, at first sight, rather a departure from convention, though after a little guidance from Nick Franks of Amek, the logic became rather more clear. The desk was designed to accommodate the extra signals demanded by larger MIDI systems, and though many other consoles allow you to do this by using the monitor inputs as additional line inputs at mixdown, Big takes the concept rather further.
Each channel strip houses two separate signal paths, denoted CH and MIX, and though it may help to think of these very generally as input and monitor sections, the arrangement is far more versatile than that. The CH section is equipped with both mic and line inputs, while the MIX section has Buss and Tape line inputs, though an input Flip switch allows these input amplifiers to be reversed if required. The routing buttons are located at the top of the channel strip, the Big routing system employing 12 routing busses which are wired to two sets of parallelled output jacks, enabling a 24-track tape machine to be served with no repatching.
One obvious departure from tradition is that the CH path is operated by a level control, while the MIX path is connected to the fader. This makes a lot of sense; fader moves are seldom necessary during recording, so a rotary knob will suffice, but to cover all eventualities, a fader Flip switch is provided, allowing the fader to control the CH section and the rotary pot the MIX section.
Shared between the two channel paths are eight aux sends, which may be used to set up foldback mixes or feed effects devices; to increase their flexibility, sends 3 and 4 may be routed to the 12 routing busses, which provides a choice of 18 destinations. The sends are arranged as dual concentric controls to save space, and may be assigned in blocks of four to either signal path. Usefully, sends 1 and 2 are fitted with MIDI mute switches, allowing certain aspects of effect activity to be programmed. For example, if a send needs only to become active on a single word or phrase, this is easily accomplished.
The actual routing of signals to tape can be accomplished in a variety of ways, the shortest path being to send the signal from a single CH input to the direct output socket on the rear of the console. It is also possible to route channels directly to the Group outputs, in effect creating a subgroup with no master level control, or via the Stereo Input/FX Return modules, which function as stereo subgroups and are themselves routable to the 12 busses. (This will make more sense once the Stereo Input/FX Return modules have been introduced).
While the aux controls physically reside in the CH section of the strip, the four-band EQ is located in the MIX section. As with most serious in-line designs, the mid EQs can be reassigned to the CH signal path if required, where they have sufficient range to cover the whole audio spectrum, the EQ circuitry being very similar to that used in the much-loved (and rather more costly) Amek Angela console.
The low mid is fitted with a Q switch to bring in a higher Q, while the high and low shelving filters have switchable frequency ranges. Hi may be switched to operate at either 6kHz or 12kHz; the Lo control has a 40/80Hz switch and a x3 button giving six choices of shelving frequency. EQ may be bypassed using the In switch.
When the MIX section is switched to Tape, it receives its input from the tape track that corresponds to the channel number; selecting Buss picks up the signal from the routing buss of the corresponding number. Both the CH and MIX sections may also be routed directly to the stereo buss for mixing.
Big 2 is the name given to the Stereo input/FX return modules, four of which are fitted to each Big console. These modules handle multitrack routing, the eight aux sends, stereo effects return with EQ, and double as either stereo line inputs or stereo subgroup masters. The multitrack routing is identical to that of the main input modules and allows either of the stereo inputs to be routed to the multitrack tape machine. This is a versatile arrangement and allows the modules to function as conventional stereo subgroups or to be used to record effects directly to tape. Like the main inputs, there are eight aux sends per module and these may be driven from either the stereo effects return or stereo line inputs — or indeed, combinations of the two. Sends 3 and 4 feature automated mute switches.
To simplify the routing, each of the four modules normally receives its stereo line input from one pair of the 12 routing busses: busses 1 and 2 feed Stereo Input 1, busses 3 and 4 feed Stereo Input 2 and so on. Of course, the stereo line inputs may be used for any purpose, such as effects returns, additional stereo line inputs into the mix and so forth. Though this degree of flexibility might at first seem confusing, it does allow the user to decide upon a method of working that best suits him, something that will be particularly welcome in post-pro or broadcast environments where the requirements may differ from those of recording studio. The external line input is fed via a normalised connection so that as soon as a signal is plugged in, the feed from the buss system is disconnected.
Because of the almost totally in-line nature of this console, the master section is very compact, including Talkback and Osc facilities, Aux Send Masters, Solo, Control Room and Studio monitoring and the Stereo Master fader. There are also trim pots, accessible via the front panel, allowing the buss levels to be trimmed to match the recording equipment being used. The available range encompasses the conventional -10dBv and +4dBu standards.
There is no integral talkback mic, but a front-panel XLR allows any standard talkback mic to be patched in. This may be routed to the Studio monitoring system, the Aux sends or the 12 busses feeding the multitrack recorder. Each of the eight sends has its own master level control and the facility exists to blend together the aux 1&5 and 2&6 outputs, which can help in sending effects to the monitor mix. The console has full LED metering with switchable VU or peak ballistics.
A major problem when remixing songs is not necessarily the fader setting but the settings of all the other controls, such as aux and EQ. The recall system used here relies on the potentiometer and switch positions being read by an electronic scanning system which interrogates the control surface and then stores the positional data via the Atari computer. When the session is resumed, the console checks its own status against the stored data for the last session and then prompts the user to work through the channels, changing the appropriate controls' positions until the previous session's settings have been duplicated. Visually, the system is very similar to that employed by SSL, in that an on-screen drawing of part of the channel strip is displayed, along with the actual and target control positions. However, to save the user having to constantly switch between focusing on the console and on the computer VDU, a talking recall system is available which tells you which channel and which control to adjust, which way to adjust it and when you've got it right.
On the model I worked with, the voice belonged to Rupert Neve! What's more, if you haven't located the control as instructed within a few seconds, a rather irritated-sounding Rupert starts to ask if there's anybody there! Gimmicky though this sounds, it does avoid a certain amount of eyestrain and it guides you through the console setup as quickly as is possible.
I didn't see the Virtual Dynamics working, as the software was undergoing some final tidying up, but it is based on proven systems developed for Amek's more up-market desks, so I've no doubt it will deliver the goods when it becomes available. The upgrade requires additional hardware to be installed in the mixer, providing side-chain control for the existing VCAs, while the software provides on-screen controls relating to the front-panels of conventional gates and compressors. By all accounts, the gates have a very fast response time, due to the digital nature of the side-chain processing, while the compressor sports as many features as a typical hardware equivalent.
The first question with a desk of this type relates to the choice of VCAs over moving faders. I was told that the company had looked into moving faders, but for professional use only seriously heavy-duty models such as those built by Penny and Giles were up to the job. Because of the relatively low price of the Big, it was felt that VCAs were more appropriate.
I have to admit that during the first few minutes, I started to wonder what kind of sadist could have devised such an open-ended routing system, but after the first half hour or so, I began to see the advantages. Admittedly the Big will take a few hours of familiarisation, but after that, you can steer the signals in many more ways than you can using any of the conventional routing systems I've worked with. One word of advice, though — work with your monitors turned down for the first hour or two, because there's a surprising number of ways in which you can route a signal back to itself, with the the resulting howlround.
Sonically the console is as quiet as any mid-price pro console, but the EQ is rather better than most. It behaved beautifully, and though it offers rather more range of cut and boost than traditional designs, I found that most jobs could be undertaken with just a couple of dB adjustment either way.
Superficially, the automation works in a similar way to systems such as Optifile or Tascam's 3700 console, so there's no worry about moving from one system to another, but I feel SuperTrue offers a number of useful additions and enhancements. Though there is no Undo button as such, there is a function called 'forget last changes'. If you make a pass of the mix which you don't like, you can delete it from the memory providing you don't restart in the meantime.
The recall is what sets this desk apart from others in a similar price range, at least as far as its facilities are concerned. The adopted system is simple, effective and initially quite entertaining, and though you still have to move the controls into position by hand, I can't see any alternative to this until we move onto consoles with fully digital control surfaces. And for a desk of this complexity, that would add considerably to the cost.
Though a trifle complex in the routing department, the Big is undeniably flexible and packs a lot of capability into a relatively small footprint. My only negative comment concerning the layout is directed at the ganged pots — the outer knob has no pointer line, and even if it did have one, most of the time you wouldn't be able to see it unless you stood up. This small niggle aside, the desk sounds superb and comes complete with a well-proven automation system, an effective recall system and the option of upgrading to Virtual Dynamics when finances or needs dictate. I feel that Amek have distributed the cost of the mixer sensibly between the audio path and the automation — it can be tempting to blow all the budget on the bells and whistles with nothing left for the audio circuitry, but that clearly isn't the case here. At the time of writing, the SuperTrue software was being fine tuned to make it more appropriate to the Big console, so what I have presented is more of an informed preview than an in-depth review. Nevertheless, with such an impressive pedigree and a price that wouldn't have paid the VAT on its nearest rival a scant few years ago, I feel certain the Big will find popularity in both serious home/project studios and in professional audio facilities.
Big By Langley 28-input version £13,508; 44-input version £18,443. Prices exclude VAT.
Amek/TAC, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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