PreSonus knows what producers want, and with the new Series III StudioLive, is very much trying to put it all in one box. Andy Jones opens it up…
StudioLive 16 Series III key features:
- 32-channel mixer and 38×38 USB interface
- 17 touch-sensitive, motorised faders
- 32 input channels, 16 with XMAX Class A mic preamps; 16 more via USB
- Other inputs include 2 stereo Aux, 1 Talkback Mic In and RCA In
- Outputs include 10 FlexMix outputs, stereo tape RCA, 2 TRS monitor and XLR main
- Each channel includes filter, gate, compressor with sidechain, 4-band parametric EQ on input, 6-band on out; several vintage EQs and compressors
- 7-inch touchscreen
- Big bundle of software
As great as mixing in the DAW has become, nothing really beats getting your hands dirty with real knobs and sliders, with hands-on action and the tactile feedback that you get from a proper mixing desk. And with a resurgence in music-production hardware, led by modular synths and keyboards, the hardware mixer is most definitely back in vogue.
Today’s mixers are now much more fully featured affairs; units that have to sit side-by-side with a computer-production setup, work well with it, or replace it. The latest PreSonus StudioLive Series III is a new instalment in a group of mixers/interfaces attempting to do all this.
The new series III
There are several models in the StudioLive mixer range, which is now at Series III. There’s the 16 (on test here), the 24 (actually 25 mic ins) and the 32 (over twice the physical size and with 32 input channels). They look very similar in terms of controls and screens. The PreSonus website also notes the older StudioLive RML32AI, one I’ve previously tested, as still being still available; and the 32.4.2AI is also still around and is a fully featured bigger, older brother. According to PreSonus, all three Series III mixers “provide exactly the same mixing capabilities internally”.
It’s only those different ins and outs that really separate them, so looking at the 16 should give us a good taste of the range. As I’ve hinted at, the StudioLive series works seamlessly with a DAW setup – you can even use it as a control surface for PreSonus’ Studio One software (and I suspect other DAWs will be included in firmware updates).
What sets it apart from some mixer/interfaces is that you can also use it as a standalone multi-track recorder – via an onboard SD drive – so it can replace your DAW. This is great for live gigs especially. There are even some network recording features, which I’ll touch on, but the focus of this review will be very much on StudioLive III’s studio features and DAW integration – in the box, there’s a lot to bolster that side of things, with a multitude of recording software included.
PreSonus clearly sees many people using this mixer/interface alongside their chosen sequencer or, better still, being tempted to jump ship to that excellent Studio One DAW I mentioned, the Artist version of which is included.
You also get PreSonus’ UC Surface software for controlling the mixer, and QMix-UC, which is control software for iOS and Android and allows people to control their mixes via their tablets and phones. As we’ll see, the mixer also has Capture software built in, too, which gives it a deeper integration with Studio One – which in practice, is quite a big advantage.
Do I really need this?
If you’re happy with your mixer or interface, then there’s probably not an enormous need for this, but if you’re thinking of upgrading, or wanting to start music production from scratch, then this gives you almost everything you need. Because there’s a version of PreSonus’ Studio One included, too, you’ll only need some monitors to start recording – and PreSonus isn’t without expertise here, either…
I had an older StudioLive and can instantly tell that this is an easier beast to master. There are logical and functional blocks on the front panel that make it look less daunting than others. Dominating the top left is the Fat Channel, essentially one set of channel-strip controls which you can apply to each input channel.
Press the Blue Select button above each fader and within the Fat Channel, you’ll see what its input source is (USB from your computer, analogue or from the SD card or network). You can then apply everything you would expect (pan, preamp, limiter and loads more) to each channel individually.
What stands out are the compressors and EQs you can use on each channel. You get a standard one of each, on each channel, but can change these to emulations of classics such as the 1176 and LA-2A, plus vintage Neve and Pultecs. These are just some of the big updates to the Series III StudioLive, along with the effects – again, more vintage emulations, which I’ll come to later.
Across to the right is a touchscreen that allows basic tapping and selecting to highlight certain parts. I found myself not really using the touchscreen too much at first – and the UC software offers a much better iOS and Android experience, if touch is your thing. Instead, I would say that the (a little too stiff) dials in the Fat Channel and their lovely LCD displays will probably be your main friends when you start out with StudioLive 16.
Scribble strips and screens – an LCD sound system
1. Choosing your audio, Midi and plugs
The screens in the Fat Channel almost make the main touchscreen redundant… at first, anyway. Once you get used to it, you’ll very likely use both.
2. Channel-strip screens
These are great digital Scribble Strips that show you the name and pan position of the input. We’re recording Music on 1 and Tech on 2, as you do.
3. The main touchscreen
You might not be able to click and drag like on a tablet – as you can with your iOS and Android – but the main screen is clear and incredibly usable.
The editing experience is fantastic with these smaller screens and the combination of using them in tandem with the touchscreen is great, with the latter giving handy visual feedback. These same types of LCD display make up the lovely Scribble Strips-type screens on each channel, too, offering you an editable name plus pan position. PreSonus has always made the StudioLive series of mixers colourful (and great to use in a dimly lit studio), but these are the icing on the cake for me.
NI did these screens incredibly well on the first Komplete Kontrol keyboards, but these are right up there with them. Is “I love a good LCD” one of the geekiest things I’ve ever said? Yes, I think it really is…
There are also 16 FlexMix buttons to store sub-group mixes, monitor mixes, or any kind of snapshot. FX A to D allow access to four different effects which can be applied per channel or overall, each with adjustable parameters – again, either by way of the touchscreen and single dial, or the Fat Channel dials and screens.
These can be accessed beneath the screen as Master Effects and here, you’ll also find master controls for saving scenes, transport controls for the onboard recorder, the SD card holder for that, global controls and levels for monitor and headphones. All in all, I’m not sure you could make it any more logical than it is. If you’re upgrading from the previous series, or any other StudioLives, you’ll love the simplicity. The manual is excellent, too, and offers bonus mixing advice.
There are three ways to record multi-tracks. You can record to USB (your computer DAW), the onboard SD reader or via an ethernet network to an AVB-compatible computer. This is one with an Audio Video Bridging interface – a high-end one that allows a lot of data to be transferred. It’s set up using the FlexMixes I mentioned above. The SD card is also an interesting recording option. On a very basic level, you could take one live mix setup on one StudioLive and easily transfer it to another; great for setting levels up quickly on tour.
However, better still is that Studio Live III has PreSonus’ Capture software built in, which uses the same sound engine as Studio One. So everything you record – track names, the mixer-setup information, plus other settings and your effects – can then be loaded up into a Studio One session.
All effects, plus the channel and master effects, will open in Studio One as standard plug-ins, so you can take live mixes and work on them later in the box. It’s a level of interface-and-mixer integration that’s pretty much unheard of and you’ll be pretty tempted to get that version of Studio One that is included in the bundle up and running just to see the two in action.
Back to using StudioLive with Logic and Live, I’m obviously not going to get all of these advantages; but I was quickly able to plug in and have all the extra input channels – each with an excellent XMAX mic preamp – at my disposal. The UC Surface software is excellent when setting up the mixer and controlling it via the Touch software, but I did find it unnecessary in my standard DAW mode. I often find the extra interfacing software you sometimes need as a distraction at best, an annoyance at worst.
StudioLive 16 Series III overview
1. Change your parameters part 1
The eight fantastic LCDs only show the available parameters to you and are controlled by the knobs beneath
2. Fat channel
The star of the show on StudioLive is the Fat Channel. Here, you can make all of your tweaks per channels to everything, from pan position to tweaking the parameters on vintage compressors, such as an 1176 emulation
3. Change your parameters part 2
Or you can select and change them by touching the screen and using the single knobbeneath. Choices, choices…
4. The master control area
There are options for saving and recalling scenes, global parameters and for recording and playing back multi-tracks. You also get access to the four main effects and grouping options
5. Fader layers and banks
Select what the faders control here in terms of Aux effects (16), input channels, custom options and groups. You can also select the next or previous 16 input channels (plus two Aux Ins) with the left/right buttons
16 buttons that essentially allow you to store mixer settings for other mix scenarios, including monitor mixes, Aux mixes and sub groups
7. Motorised faders and channels
As all of your channel strip settings – pan, effects, EQ, compression and so on – are handled by the Fat Channel, you don’t need all of that per channel, so the fascia looks slick and clutter-free
8. Live recording
You can record multi-track live performances to the SD card and play back previous multi-track recordings for a sound check – both great features for a live scenario. The UC Capture software allows these sessions to be dropped into Studio One.
It’s studio and it’s live
There are enough features to satisfy both studio users and live venues (or bands who want to take the mixer with them). The SD recording feature is rather dominant, so perhaps StudioLive does lean more to live than studio, but those excellent built-in compressors (Standard, and Vintage Tube and FET) and EQs (Standard, Passive and Vintage) come in handy whatever your recording leanings. The effects are great, too, the Vintage Plate and 335 Digital reverbs being standouts. There could be more of them, but these could probably arrive via firmware.
I’ve only covered a fraction of what StudioLive 16 can do. The routing options are so many and varied, it would take a week to go through them all (although, again, the PreSonus designers haven’t made it too complex to investigate them via the Fader Layers) and I’d like to spend longer with the integration between this and Studio One, since being able to transfer mixes to the DAW environment isn’t something I thought I needed, but could be essential, now I think about it.
The highlight with this latest StudioLive incarnation is simply the ease of interfacing and mixing with it. The fantastic array of LCDs make the mixing process a joy. The touchscreen less so, but only because I’m used to more touch action; and I’m not going to criticise that too much, as UC Surface will give you some of that on your mobile devices. As an interface, too, it just works.
It does push you towards Studio One as its best partner in crime, so as an owner of other DAWs, you may have to wait for the surface control and you might be waiting even longer for that UC Capture integration. However, it does work perfectly well alongside other DAWs; you just don’t get all of the benefits.
If you’re thinking of upgrading to a project-studio setup and want a bundle that does everything, do consider StudioLive and these new Series IIIs. Just add speakers and a DAW (or not, if you don’t want to!) and you’re away.
Allen & Heath
QU Series £Various
We’ve given consistently good reviews to the QU range over the last few years. They’re great mixers/USB interfaces and packed full of features, but perhaps a little trickier to use than the StudioLives.
A different kettle of fish, but still a great mixer and interface with a similar channel spec, although you only get the interface part in hardware as all of your mixing is done remotely
over a network. There’s also a similarly specced 12-input Ui12 model.