ALLEN & HEATH SQ SERIES DIGITAL CONSOLE
The SQ is less like a Qu upgrade, and more like getting a chunk of d-Live for a steal.
Review: Mark Davie
When Allen & Heath entered the Battle of the 32s with its Qu-32, it did so in a real Allen & Heath way. Behringer had made its play with the X32 — stuffing every ounce of processing into a package fronted by a crowded screen. Then Behringer’s now-sister company, Midas retooled much of that tech with a ‘Bentley-designed’ chassis that didn’t make huge strides in operability, nor did it turn it into a ‘real’ Midas.
All of the 32s were ‘bridging’ consoles. Fully digital desks, with a full complement of onboard analogue I/O. That way, anyone with existing analogue infrastructure didn’t have to rewire a single cable, drop box, or core if they didn’t want to. They could simply replace their analogue console with a digital one, and lose a rack of outboard gear in the process.
Knowing this, Allen & Heath straddled this analogue/digital divide on the Qu-32 surface side, too. You still had to get out the white ‘lecky’ and chinagraph to label up your channels, it had big buttons on its touchscreen, loads of colour, and there weren’t too many layers to get your head around. If you came from an analogue console background, this was about as ‘at home’ as you could feel on digital.
NEXT IN QU-EUE
The Qu series was a raging success; not only was it easy to use, but it had plenty of clarity, too.
In the meantime, Allen & Heath overhauled the top end of its digital range with the D-Live series; introducing 96k sampling rates, almost doubling the channel count of iLive, and building more professional interfaces and touring packages. It also split the range into two surface ranges; the touring-spec S-Class, and the install/smaller rental house-spec C-Class, which comes with a few less knobs and buttons, but still operates the same engine and racks.
There was, of course, a huge gap in the middle. A console that could still drop-in as a replacement for an analogue console, but make use of some of that d-Live tech.
The SQ series is it.
Like the Qu series: each console has a healthy collection of I/O on the back; the processing engine is onboard (not housed in the I/O rack); and it has a similarly user-friendly interface.
On the flipside, like the d-Live: SQ runs natively at 96k; the channel and bus-processing count doesn’t change with the size of your surface (you can operate the 16+1 fader SQ-5 surface and still have the same 48-channel/36-bus architecture as the 32+1 fader SQ-7); it’s got multi-colour LCD scribble strips; fully-customisable fader banks; an LED light bar; as well as dLive multi-colour knobs, and customisable soft rotaries.
Besides the different core architecture, Allen & Heath has upgraded every key area of the SQ, when compared with the Qu. There are now eight onboard FX engines, instead of four. However, only the first four have dedicated FX sends as well as returns. The last four have dedicated returns, but you have to give up one of the 12 auxiliaries to access the other four, or use them as inserts. The touchscreen size remains the same seven inches, regardless of the console size. The onboard USB recording and playback has gone up from 18 channels to 32. The mute and DCA groups have been doubled. The 32-fader surface has 16 soft keys instead of 10, as well as eight soft encoders. The fader layers have been upped from three to six, and they’re all now fully customisable thanks to those LCD scribble strips.
One change some may not prefer is the fewer number of encoders dedicated to the parametric EQ section. Rather than discrete Gain, Frequency and Width knobs for each of the four bands, there’s only one set, with buttons to switch bands.
Also, while Virtual Soundcheck can be implemented, it’s limited to the 32 x 32 SQ-Drive recording and playback; you don’t have access to the full 48 channels. On the connectivity side, Dante is a great addition and the flexibility of S-Link is excellent if you’re mixing and matching Allen & Heath consoles. However, the lack of any MADI integration or an optional AES expansion card might be limiting for some scenarios. Given all those protocols are available as option cards on the d-Live, we might see them filter down to SQ, as well.
At present, there are two 96k stage boxes available for the SQ series — the DX168 and DX32 expander rack with four available I/O slots. I was sent the DX168, a 16-in, 8-out unit. Because it was built as an extender for the dLive system, it has the same preamps as the main rack. There are marginal spec differences between the stage box preamps and those on the SQ console itself, and they also have the same gain staging.
In its natural form — like Allen & Heath’s 48k AB128 — it comes with a metal handle at one end, with all corners protected by chunky rubber bumpers. It can also be rack mounted with an optional kit. There are red phantom power LED indicators located next to each input XLR, and green LEDs for power and connection status. There’s no ‘on/off’ switch, and it’s powered via a standard IEC power cable. There are two DX Link Ethercon ports on the side. For a standard single-box operation, simply plug into DX Link A. You can easily expand your remote stage box I/O count to 32-in/16-out by linking the DX Link B port to an A port on another DX168, and switching it into Cascade mode. The other mode is a Redundant mode, but is only applicable to the d-Live series for now, no word on whether Allen & Heath will add redundant looping when an optional S-Link card is added.
If you want to add the full 48 input channels via remotes stage boxes, you’ll have to add the optional DX Hub. It was designed to split the d-Live’s gigaAce protocol into four 32 x 32 DX Link ports, but you can also use it to split the SQ series’ S-Link protocol into four DX Link ports.
FIRING IT UP
Having gotten along well with the Qu, I was eager to boot up the latest from Allen & Heath.
While the SQ series can interface with the 48k AR series of stage box extenders, TAG supplied me with a 96k 16-in/8-out DX stage box. At our local church, I ripped out our trusty Digico SD9 and D-Rack, and hooked up the 32+1 fader SQ7 and DX rack.
Being used to the soft power delivery of the SD9, I’ve become a little lazy with my boot up order. Obviously, amps should be turned down when you power up your desk, or powered up last. They weren’t in this instance and I got a bit of a fright when the SQ7 fired up with a bang. The next time,
I was more prepared.
The first thing that became apparent was the size. The SQ7 was almost half the depth of the SD9 (which has dLive-sized touchscreens), making it look like a child swimming in the oversized pants of our AV desk. You could save a lot of room with this console; it’s smartly packaged.
Operating on it isn’t at all claustrophobic. Losing the full set of EQ knobs frees up a lot of room around the screen, and the symmetrical knob layout feels spacious.
As far as I’m concerned, the more colours the better. I never feel like I suffer from over saturation. I’d argue we could use even more differentiation within the major hues. The new d-Live knobs are spectacular in that regard. The central LED illuminates in a colour specific to the function, which is of great importance when using the eight customisable soft rotaries.
These are defined by a three-layer system. You start with the Function, e.g. Send Level Fader, or Compressor; then you specify the Channel, e.g. Kick; then the specific Destination of Parameter, e.g. Aux 1, or Threshold. However, in the above example, the display will show ‘Kick’ for both rotaries. It’s the colour LED on the knob that gives away the Function, e.g. light blue for Sends, and orange for Compression. It could do with a third level of detail in those cases, but it’s better to have them than not.
The Allen & Heath digital look is well and truly alive. If you’re familiar with a Qu, you’ll have no trouble jumping onto an SQ. Big buttons in well-spaced layouts, and a plethora of options made simple to navigate.
Your local and remote I/O is all available in tabs on the Routing page. Within each tab is a matrix, allowing you to assign, for instance, Input 1 on your DX168 stage box to Input 13 on your console. Your sources are laid out along the top of the matrix, with console input destinations down the side. Outputs are on a separate page, keeping routing nice and tidy. With the matrix, it’s also easy to send the same stream to multiple physical outputs. I sent the Master LR mix to a foyer send with zero effort.
Once you’ve routed all your I/O, it’s time to customise those fader layers. In the setup section, there are two lanes. The top one contains your available inputs and busses, and the bottom lane shows your selected fader layer. It’s as easy as dragging ’n’ dropping any available channel — whether an input, FX, aux, etc — to the fader layer below. If you want to leave a gap or delete a channel from your fader bank, simply flick it away with your finger and it will disappear from the layer.
DCA assignment is similarly easy, all done from a single screen. Just select your DCA and hit the Routing button to add and subtract channels.
Ganging channels into stereo pairs is done on the Mixer Config page, where you can switch pairs into either mono or stereo. When in stereo, it combines them onto a single fader. There are also loads of options for stereo imaging, whether its just switching the left and right, or phase flipping one side, mono-ing the feed by sending both left and right to each side, or decoding M/S streams to output M+S/M-S.
While you’re assigning channels, you can also set up a full 48-channel auto mic mixing setup. Either in two separate groups of 24 channels, or one huge auto mix. It’s not a feature I often use, but the absolute right tool for certain scenarios. It’s a huge addition, especially given it’s part of the basic package.
PROCESSING CHAIN LINK
Each channel has a typical processing strip. At the top is the preamp section, with a gain knob, meter and the usual suspects like +48V phantom (hold down to turn on) and phase flip. Gain goes from 0-60dB in 1dB steps, with a digital trim of ±24dB for plenty of flexibility when gain sharing for monitors. Allen & Heath is also giving away a tube-style preamp emulation to add a bit of drive to your input stage.
Next is a readout for the fixed-slope HPF, which is also displayed in the parametric EQ section.
After that is a functional gate section, which was dead easy to operate. It has your typical attack, hold and release parameters for dialling in a natural-sounding response. Threshold and depth (0-60dB) controls complete the gain reduction picture. As well as red meter showing its action, there’s also a 12-second histogram graphing out its signal reduction in realtime. You can also side-chain the gate to another channel, as well as engage a high-pass, band-pass or low-pass filter for your key.
Next in line is the insert, which can be fed to and from any number of analogue and digital I/O, including one of the internal FX engines. There’s an operating level option, and the ability to turn the insert on or off, but wet/dry mix is left to your effect unit.
The four-band parametric EQ is also quite smart. The physical knobs give you broad control over frequency settings, and you can use the Touch ’n’ Turn knob to more finely dial them in. Despite the broader control when using the main knobs, the frequency choices do smartly snap to ratios and octaves of the other bands. Often when cutting out a problematic frequency, there can be a resonant harmonic in the octave above; this feature makes it fast to get at.
You can only access the shelf settings in the high and low bands by winding the Q all the way out with the Touch ’n’ Turn knob. This keeps users from accidentally turning a bell into a shelf when trying to widen a band.
The last processor before the pan control is the compressor. The only thing it’s lacking is an auto makeup gain control, and it’s also not multi-band. Other than that, it’s richly appointed for an onboard compressor. You can choose between peak and RMS detection modes, hard and soft knee, a side chain, and filter settings including a bandpass for use as a de-esser. While you can drop the filter in and out, it would be handy to have a key listen feature, especially when trying to dial in a de-esser setting.
A big feature is the parallel compression path, with independent level setting for the dry and wet signals. While it takes a bit longer to set than a single Wet/Dry control, it does allow you a different perspective when you’re able to leave your dry signal at full level while dialling in the wet, rather than chasing a ratio. It’s much of a muchness, just more control.
If you need more processing power, Allen & Heath has also announced an optional Waves Soundgrid card, for 64 x 64-channel processing.
MONITORING NEW FEATURES
While reviewing the SQ7, it was up to firmware version 1.2. Just recently, Allen & Heath released a 1.3 update. It was too late to really test out the new features, but they’re worth mentioning.
Allen & Heath has spruiked the SQ7 as a do-it-all console; equally at home at monitors — with its 12 stereo mixes for in-ears — as it is for FOH. However, there was no dedicated level control for an engineer’s cue wedge. The new firmware will allow monitor engineers to assign the master fader to that role.
This lack of monitoring control was also apparent on the FOH side, where the only outputs for the PAFL were the headphone output and the RTA. Occasionally you want to PAFL to your main system, or at least a pair of monitors on your bridge. This has been addressed in the latest revision.
There have also been additions to what you can add to your scenes (snapshots), as well as the ability to save your own channel processing libraries. A big one is the addition of more plug-in choices from the d-Live stable, available for purchase.
On the mix bus masters, you lose the gate, but get a 31-band graphic equaliser, as well as the parametric EQ. There’s a flip fader to GEQ button on the console for easy access. There’s no 0dB detent on the fader (either for the GEQ or in normal fader mode), but the select LED lights up green when you’re at 0dB, and you can hit the select button to zero out the fader.
There’s an onboard 31-band RTA, which follows the PAFL selection. If you plug in a measurement mic, it can help tune a room, with prominent frequencies displayed in red.
There’s plenty of onscreen bar graph level metering throughout the console screens, including a dedicated Input Meters screen and a small meter attached to every processing section of your channel. There’s also a multi-segment LED meter that follows your PAFL or defaults to the main LR mix.
For physical monitoring at the fader, Allen & Heath has opted for two LEDs. There’s a red Peak LED, and a multi-colour LED for Signal level. You can customise the dB levels at which different colours come on, or stick to the defaults which will light up from green-y blue, to green, yellow, and orange, depending on how hot your signal is.
DOWN TO THE MIX
Mixing is a pleasure on the SQ, and yards ahead of the Qu thanks to the customisable fader banks and LCD screens. You can easily access the four dedicated FX sends and each of your 12 mixes (which can be configured as groups or auxes, pre or post) by hitting the buttons spaced down the side. While there’s no LCD screens to name your mixes, there’s enough space to lay down some electrical tape and label them up. The Main LR mix button is indented from the rest of the mix button row, unfortunately the button is the same colour and size as the rest. With so many available mixes, it’s not hard to adjust the wrong mix layer when you’re finding your way around the console. A bigger button, with a different coloured LED would have helped.
A really handy feature is the ‘CH To All Mix’ button. With a channel selected, holding this button down attentions all its associated auxes, groups and effects into one fader layer, so you can adjust the level of each in one place. It’s momentary, not latching, so you have to hold it down with one hand while you adjust the faders with your free hand.
Getting around the console is dead easy, and the onboard effects sound stellar. There was the occasional parameter I couldn’t assign to a soft button or rotary — mostly to do with FX — but they were arguably more scene-specific controls anyway.
Overall, the console sounds great. The punchier top end was immediately noticeable after switching out the SD9, which runs the D-Rack stage box. The Audix D6 has a reputation for being a quintessential modern scooped kick mic, but I always found myself winding in more top end click on the SD9. On the SQ7, I ran it flat. Same kick drum, same mic, totally different results. Likewise, a typically muddy rhythm guitar sound cut through with ease on the SQ.
I was shocked by how different the two systems sounded, and grappled with the differences during my first mix — feeling like I’d lost a little of the relaxed glue I was used to — but settled in from then on.
One of the benefits of Digico systems is their ability to musically handle clipping. Turning it into a pleasing saturation rather than a blemish. The SQ7 was forgiving in this regard, too.
The SQ series is really well thought out, and while it looks like the next step up from a Qu, it’s really much more like getting a huge chunk of the d-Live system for a steal. The SQ series can be coupled to a d-Live-derived stage box. Sure, it’s not the big DM48 touring rack with all the redundancy features, but it has the same pres. Onboard, the SQ has the same XCVI core with 96-bit accumulator headroom as the d-Live, the same <0.7ms latency, the same 96k internal processing, it also has the same FX, the same DEEP processing preamp capabilities and will have the same plug-ins available. You’re getting flagship sound in a package that starts under $8k (SQ-5 and one DX168).
TALKING ALL TALKS
Admirably, while Allen & Heath seems to debut a new Ethernet connectivity protocol with each new series of consoles, the SQ console-specific S-Link protocol speaks all of the other Allen & Heath languages, too. It has no trouble conversing in dSnake with the 48k AR series of stage racks. It can even plumb directly into a Qu console. Likewise, at the other end, it can attach to a dLive’s gigaACE network.
There is one S-Link port on the back of each SQ console, but you can add another with the optional S-Link Card. It opens up all manner of setup schemes. You can pull in an extra 128 channels from a dLive gigaACE network, run three DX168 stage boxes off one port and an ME-U personal monitoring distributor off the other. You are still limited to a total of 48 input processing channels, but it does mean you can get them from more places.
The best part is any 48k Qu or AR add-ons are all upsampled to 96k; the native sample rate of the SQ.