Some preamp/EQs circuits are held in such high regard that very few would dispute their pedigree. Midas enjoys one such reputation.
Text: Trevor Cronin
lthough the XL-42 might be a relatively old chip off the Midas XL-4, nowadays it’s the only way to get your hands on this legendary console’s famous front end. Consequently, the XL-42 outboard stereo preamp EQ has enjoyed a renaissance in recent times, thanks to the mass acceptance of digital consoles and the general sensation that digital work-surfaces are somewhat lacking in the ‘front end’. So this issue we thought we’d take a fresh look at the XL-42, given its new-found popularity and highly prized tone. It’s a rare occurrence to get an opportunity like this to spend so much time with a ‘new’ product. In this case, the XL-42 is very well known to me.
There have been quite a few products over the years that have stood the test of time and gone on to become ‘industry standards’. We all have our personal live-sound favourites: The Shure SM57 and 58 microphones, the dbx 160x compressor, Lexicon’s PCM80 reverb, Drawmer’s DS201 noise gate and the Klark Teknik DN360 graphic equaliser, to name but a few. These products have all been around for well over 10 years and still consistently top the wish list on countless production riders.
So how do these products develop such a reputation? Well, it’s pretty simple in the end. They all do the job they were designed for really well, they’ve proven to be ultra reliable and most importantly, we’re now comfortable using them because they’re familiar to us. Recording and mixing sound is a bit like cooking – you throw your favourite ingredients into your trusty old cast-iron frying pan and there you go – another tasty meal, no cookbook required!
This is also the case with the Midas XL-42. Midas has long been regarded as ‘prime beef’ in the world of live sound. The company has, for many years, produced exquisite mixing consoles that many of the world’s top live sound engineers still request at all their shows. Two aspects of the XL-4 console that have developed an almost unrivalled reputation over its lifespan are the microphone preamplifier and equaliser section. Since day one, Midas nailed the quality of this preamp/EQ section, providing a great sounding design that’s easy to use. This is part of the reason the company has been so successful over the past 30 or so years.
In today’s audio market there’s a veritable mosh-pit of analogue and digital consoles available, some of which offer facilities that were apparently drawn from the deck of the Starship Enterprise! And, like much of the latest digital audio equipment, it’s the depth and breadth of these features that makes them both versatile and highly customisable. But for many users (including yours truly), the one thing these mixing consoles can’t boast is superior sound quality. They’re simply not quite as good as the old faithfuls, especially in regard to the front end – the microphone preamplifier and EQ section. As a result of this, live sound engineers now regularly incorporate external ‘front end’ preamps and EQs into PA systems in much the same way as home studio owners, to give them the best of both worlds: high grade analogue front end and digital versatility. It’s for this role that the Midas XL-42 is perfectly suited.
42 GOOD REASONS
The XL-42 is basically a simplified two-channel version of the XL-4 console front end and can often be found in use as a replacement for ‘money channels’ like lead vocals or solo instruments. So what does this ‘cut of beef’ still have to offer that makes it so prized?
The single-rack space, dual-channel XL-42 mic preamplifier/EQ is hand built in England and features two identical control sets, one on the left, one on the right. Housing the electronics is a robust folded sheet metal case painted in the standard ‘Midas Grey’ clobber, the top and bottom panels of which unscrew to allow easy access for changing jumper settings or to perform maintenance.
Key features on each channel of the XL-42 include a high-quality superb sounding mic preamp that provides a healthy 65dB of gain; with buttons for a 25dB input pad, 48V phantom power and phase reverse. There are also rotary controls for input, output and pan (which are handy when several units are ganged together, as this effectively sets up a quasi group that can be fed directly into a console as a summed signal). On the right-hand side of each channel there’s a vivid 10-segment LED bargraph meter that clearly indicates level for each channel, starting at –12dB and ending at +15dB with a red LED. There are also buttons for insert send and return, pan activation and mute.
The four-way EQ is comprehensive – starting with a 12dB/octave low cut filter that sweeps from 10 to 400Hz with an associated bypass button. The low and high frequency bands each have ‘bell’ switches that convert these two controls from shelving filters into conventional parametrics, as per their two midrange counterparts. The four adjustable cue controls range in width from a narrow 0.1 to a wide 2.0 octaves, and are adjustable on the concentric ring surrounding each gain knob. All four parametric bands offer 15dB of cut or boost and have plenty of overlap, each covering half the frequencies of its neighbour.
Round the back amongst the unit’s standard XLR input and output connectors are the slightly more unusual bantam send and return connectors used for the insert section. This is great if you have a bantam patch bay, of course, but a bit of a pain if you don’t. (The insert points are set pre-EQ at the factory, but these can be converted to post-EQ via internal jumpers.)
Two XLR ‘link’ input connectors are also provided on the rear panel, allowing the aforementioned daisy-chaining of multiple XL-42s to create a stereo mixer. When linked together, the combined pans and output levels sum, producing a discrete stereo mix. Also on the rear, a DB-9 connector allows the XL-42 to be connected to an XL series console mute system; DIP switches allow assignment to any of eight mute groups. These features are great if you’re adding to an existing Midas set-up, but not much use otherwise. It would have been great to see a digital output featured in the most recent versions of the XL-42 perhaps, as it would surely make this unit even more versatile. But since the XL-42 is the last remaining analogue Midas XL series product, I guess the company has made the decision not to upgrade it.
Common live uses for the XL-42 are any critical inputs that require EQ, such as stereo lectern microphones or lead vocals. In a two-space case with a good compressor limiter utilising the insert section, the XL-42 is a great piece of touring equipment to have at every show. It has also proven ideal for recording use, giving a great sound with ribbon microphones that require lots of gain. The unit’s quality and available headroom also make it useful for stereo master EQ and level control.
The XL-42 list price is $6299, which is no bargain, but it’s an industry standard that offers sublime build quality and a sound that’s as good as it gets. I have actually owned an XL-42 (bought third hand) for about eight years now and it has been 100% reliable. This is testament to the original design and the components used, which are all top shelf stuff. Any client ‘in the know’ will appreciate your investment.