Review: Line 6 Stagescape M20D
Line 6’s take on the digital console screens a whole new way of staging a mix.
The digital revolution continues. It began with products that replaced traditional analogue consoles and racks of outboard gear, but now seems to be moving laterally with the development of remote iPad control devices and different ways of looking at how live sound is managed. The Line 6 Stagescape M20d exemplifies this change by re-defining what live mixers can be. Designed primarily for artists/bands to mix themselves, or for bands that nobody wants to mix, it combines an operating surface unlike any mixer I can think of with innovative connection and control concepts.
IT’S ALL A GAME
The M20d looks like a gaming console, with only the top panel of audio sockets hinting that it’s an audio device. In some ways, it’s both. In ‘setup’ mode, the screen displays a virtual stage surrounded by roughly grouped icons with setup and channel information across the top, and others below the stage that represent common types of band members and instruments, which can be tapped or dragged onto the stage — it’s like audio Sim-City. Below them are 12 labeled controller strips corresponding to the 12 multi-function controller knobs below the screen. The drag ’n drop architecture is markedly different to every other audio console… and dare I say it, it’s fun!
SENSITIVE TO OUTSIDE INPUT
Most of the connections are familiar enough. The M20d has 12 XLR/1/4-inch combo-socket mic inputs plus four ¼-inch line input sockets. All are auto-sensing, as are the four XLR monitor outs and XLR left/right main outs. Individual, switchable phantom power is available on the mic inputs. Two ¼-inch footswitch sockets are a giveaway as to who Line 6 envisions will end up operating the M20d, and can be easily configured to control effects muting, scene changes, media player stop/start/next track or to activate the on-board ‘Quick Capture’ recorder that records up to 20 seconds of all channels to the M20d’s internal memory. Other in/out/record options include an SD card slot, and two USB ports for connecting external devices for either record or playback. There’s a headphone socket with level knob and a 1/8-inch Aux input. The final socket is labeled L6 Link and this proprietary system enables L6 Link compatible products (Line 6 StageSource speakers for instance) to be automatically configured and controlled by the M20d.
The auto-sensing input sockets know when a mic or instrument is plugged in and automatically brings up a generic mic icon. The corresponding level knob lights up and if you turn it and the master level knob up, ta da! You get sound. It’s much easier than most digital desks, where the routing can be like navigating the backstreets of Bangkok for the unfamiliar. The generic icon can be replaced by a preset icon, which can come ready-laden with things like reverb already attached and operating, and level control. And the instrument icons are pre-EQ’d with typical settings; ‘kick drum’ has added low end and compression for instance. Input level (trim) can be set both manually and by using ‘Autotrim’, which prompts you to put a loud level into the mic on cue and the M20d decides the correct level. Setting input gain levels is often confusing for people with limited engineering experience and this is a handy feature.
NEED TO KNOW
Once the instruments/vocals are connected to the M20d they can be individually accessed by entering ‘tweak’ mode, which offers a comprehensive range of EQ/dynamics/effects options. It defaults to the Quick Tweak mode with a ‘tweak pad’ to touch and drag the sound through various EQ/dynamic options that are laid out in simple language. For instance the EQ section has ‘neutral’ in the middle of the pad and the descriptions ‘full’, ‘project’, ‘air’ and ‘clarity’ in the corners. By dragging your finger towards the descriptions the EQ changes to settings that match.
It’s certainly gimmicky but it’s been well-calibrated to ensure the settings are not radical enough to throw the thing into feedback or render the channel unusable. By selecting Deep Tweak’ it’s possible to access the parameters in more detail — or in fact, the detail engineers would be most familiar with — and parameters can be changed by either the touchscreen or the multifunction controllers below
Users who are familiar with other digital consoles will be right at home here but casual users or non-technical musicians will probably prefer to stay in Quick Tweak. Settings arrived at by using the tweak pad can be seen by switching to Deep Tweak, so users have the opportunity to learn while they tweak. A handy educational tool, and perhaps everyone could then speak the same language when describing how something ‘sounds’. The same procedures can be applied to the dynamic processors, although the simple language descriptions in Quick Tweak are not as intuitive as they are for the EQ section, and closer listening is required to hear what the processing is doing. Four effects are available per channel — including two reverbs, modulation effects and delay. The levels of these effects can be accessed in both the setup and tweak modes, and the parameters changed in either of the two tweak modes.
MIXING A LA MODE
Entering record mode allows configuration of the recording and playback options and access to the handy 20 second Quick Capture mode that can be used for grabbing a part of a song and replaying it at soundcheck to check balances, etc. Monitor mode controls the level of each channel in the four monitor sends, and effects can be sent to the monitors if desired. ‘Perform’ mode is for showtime and allows control of level, pan and effects levels. There are plenty of ways of grabbing levels in a hurry if you need to. Individual channels are accessed by touching the relevant channel icon on the controller strips in all modes except ‘tweak’ and each channel’s level can be accessed in all modes except ‘monitor’. Thankfully, the master level control always works.
Wireless control via iPad is possible with the optional USB Wi-Fi adapter and free SoundScape software, and could be used to either set monitor levels on stage or tweak channels from around the room.
CAUGHT IN THE ACT
Acts wanting to use the M20d can set their channels, levels, effects etc, using either pre-set or custom settings, then plug into their own or any other system, set a master level, and perform. Tweaks can be made wirelessly via an iPad or on the unit itself. Settings for different songs can be stored as scenes and activated via footswitch, and settings for different venues can be stored as setups.
It all sounds great in theory but I do worry about a few aspects of bands running their own sound. Static settings might work some of the time, for some acts, but the subtle changes made by a responsible sound mixer following the music is not really replaceable. By contrast, band members with toys are not always subtle; I’m always apprehensive when acts present any devices of their own they want included in the signal chain, like the singer who brings an auto-harmonise device or a distortion pedal. I just know it’s going to sound like crap, cause level feedback issues and impose itself on the sound I’m trying to control. On the other hand if I’m not there I guess it’s up to the band to work out what works and what doesn’t.
The cost is also a consideration. Digital consoles are getting cheaper and it’s possible to buy devices for half what the M20d is selling for. Other consoles may not be as much fun but they provide similar functionality and for the average technically-challenged musician there’s going to be a fair amount of learning required to confidently operate any console. I also wonder what would happen in a situation where a channel stopped working or developed a noise. It takes longer to trouble-shoot menu-driven devices. Using rotary knobs to control levels is another limitation.
It’s OK for set-and-forget situations; the encoders are well labeled and easy to tweak, but when I mix I constantly ride the faders as required and knobs don’t give the same feel or fine control of the level. If a band using the M20d wanted to do a show with a sound engineer, it would be difficult for them to drive it from the knobs. If the M20d had faders I’d use it as a FOH desk for small shows because it’s small, light and has heaps of processing, but without faders it’s less appealing.
Of course my concerns are mainly from a sound mixer’s viewpoint. While I was showing the M20d around I had a lot of positive feedback from artists who really liked the idea of being able to create settings that worked for them and being able to apply them wherever they perform. Acts without mixing people are often in situations where they have to figure out systems themselves. That can be frustrating, and may affect their performance, but if they are using the M20d, they can recall scenes for different songs, and make use of its multi-band feedback suppressor to keep things from getting out of control. The only head-scratching moment might be figuring out how to connect it to the speakers/amps. Though if they subscribe to the Line 6 methodology end-to-end, then the L6 Link connectors and a compatible pair of powered Line 6 speakers will take care of that for them.
The Line 6 SoundScape M20d is fun, it looks great, and it’s certainly a different way of mixing. To my ear the sound quality is not quite as good as the best digital consoles, there’s some graininess and the quality of the delay in particular is only fair, but it’s quite OK for the intended use. There will still be a learning curve for new users but once familiar with the way it works they should be able to make adjustments quickly and confidently. It will appeal to the countless number of acts that don’t want, or can’t afford, their own sound mixer. Or acts that have had bad experiences with sound engineers and prefer to control their own sound. There’s enough channels and functionality for most small bands, duos etc, and some clever design tricks to make life easier, such as the auto-sensing inputs, tweak pad, scene recalls and multi-channel feedback suppression. Its price is higher than some other options, though not so high that it will be prohibitive to those who see the value in its functionality and touch-screen aesthetics.