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electronic MUSICIAN

Review: Allen & Heath Zed-R16 ($3,499.99 MSRP)

October 1, 2009

The ZED-R16 is designed as an analog mixer for a digital world. It’s a deep and relatively complex piece of gear, so if you want to know the details, I suggest going to the Allen & Heath website and downloading the R-16 manual. What we’ll do is present an overview of how the ZED-R16 fits into today’s studio environment.

First, the R-16 is very sturdy and you get a fine analog mixer—the preamps sound great in that they don’t “sound” at all, and the per-channel EQ has two mid-sweepable bands (with Q) as well as high and low shelving. And while it’s not apparent just looking at the pictures, the build quality is for real: Controls are held on to the front panel with actual metal nuts, and each channel has its own circuit board for easy maintenance/ replacement (although according to Anderton’s Law, “Products that are the easiest to service generally require the least amount of servicing”). Faders are 60mm, not 100mm, and not motorized—but given the way the R-16 works, that may not be a deal-breaker.

Gozindas/gozoutas. The R-16 has a basic operation of 18 FireWire channels for both input and output at 44.1/48kHz. (There are also two ADAT ports; at 44.1/48kHz you can use one of these simultaneously with the FireWire channels. At 88.2/96kHz, you can use both ADAT ports but no FireWire channels, or 16 FireWire channels but no ADAT channels.)

This lets you mix signal sources through analog channel strips (pre- or post-EQ, if you want to include analog EQ in the recording signal path) that end up as FireWire audio going into your mixer. So far that’s not too unusual. What is unusual is that you can then send individual tracks through FireWire back into the mixer, and mix with a true (and high-quality) analog mixer. For all those who like to send digital tracks or “stems” to analog mixers or summing boxes, this is a dream come true. You can also route analog inputs through the computer, use its plug-ins, and come back in to the same analog channels—essentially, the FireWire provides a “virtual insert point” for the R-16’s analog mixer channels. Of course there will be some degree of latency with this type of situation—something to keep in mind for mixing live, which the R-16 can also do.

You can monitor post-computer plug-ins too—like monitoring off of a tape recorder’s playback “confidence” head so you know what’s being recorded. Interestingly, you can even send a computer track into the mixer’s digital input, use the EQ as an “analog plug-in,” then route the signal back into the computer post-EQ. Wild.

Furthermore, you can send the stereo output while doing a mix back into your DAW. This is one reason why moving faders aren’t all that crucial: If something goes wrong during a mix, just go back to before the problem, set your faders as desired, then punch in and continue recording the stereo mix into your DAW.

However, that’s not the only way to mix. If you prefer, the faders can also send out MIDI control signals, so you can use them to program DAW automation. Although the lack of fader motorization is a limitation, A&H clearly put their design bucks into the signal path and the mixer’s analog elements. To include moving faders, especially 100mm ones, would likely price the R-16 far out of reach of its intended market. But also note that these are programmable, general-purpose controls which, along with some other controls and switches, can be used to change parameters on soft synths, plug-in effects, and the like.

If I had to pick one word to describe MasterControl operation, I’d choose “straightforward.” Everything works as expected, and aside from doing configurations, there’s a one-function-per-control design that recalls analog gear. The feel is solid—the faders don’t wobble in their tracks, the buttons have a positive “click” when hit, and the rotary encoders have just the right amount of resistance.

One caution: The drivers for 64-bit XP/Vista are beta drivers, so if you use a 64-bit OS you may need to surf the bleeding edge for a while until the drivers reach the same maturity as the 32-bit versions.

My wish list is small, but I’d love a software applet that allows configuring the unit from your computer instead of having to do everything through the small, but adequate, LCD.

Conclusions. The MasterControl isn’t the only device of its type out there, but it sure hits all the sweet spots for a very reasonable price. In fact it kind of makes for a boring review, because all I can really say is “it does what it claims to do, with no nasty surprises.” However, do remember that not all computers implement FireWire with consistency. My PC Audio Labs desktop works perfectly with the MasterControl, but if you’re using a laptop or super-budget machine, try before you buy; should you encounter problems, using a FireWire card or (with laptops) card slot FireWire interface instead of the interface built into the computer will often solve any problems.

Probably the highest compliment to give a control surface is that you don’t have to think about it much . . . and once the MasterControl is set up, you might be surprised at how quickly it becomes second-nature when controlling your DAW of choice.

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