FIG. 1: Allen & Heath''s ZED-14 mixer features six mic/line channels, four dedicated stereo channels, and stereo recording to computers using a built-in USB interface.
With the ZED series, Allen & Heath has channeled the company's expertise in large-format hardware mixers with recognizably British EQ into a line of budget mixers. The ZED-14 is the baby of the family in size and price, but its sound and feature set are all grown up.
The ZED-14 and its larger siblings (the ZED-420, ZED-428, and ZED-436) are designed primarily for live sound; their USB 1.1 implementation allows for sending two tracks to a computer for recording and monitoring two return channels simultaneously. But flexibility in the routing scheme lets you control the digitized signal in a couple of ways, making the ZED-14 useful for live-band or solo-artist recording. The mixer ships with a copy of Cakewalk Sonar LE for PC users. For Mac users, Allen & Heath suggests using Apple GarageBand.
The ZED-14 follows the form of several currently available analog mixers with digital interfaces (see Fig. 1). The rackmountable unit's first six channels are mono mic/line channels with XLR mic, ¼-inch line, and TRS insert connectors. All connections are at the top of the mixer's face; there are no rear-panel controls.
The 3-band EQ on channels 1 through 6 includes fixed low-frequency and high-frequency settings, at 80 Hz and 12 kHz, respectively, with 15 dB of cut or boost available for each. The midrange EQ, labeled HM, can be swept from 120 Hz to 4 kHz, also with 15 dB of cut or boost. Each of channels 1 through 6's attenuation pots offers a generous supply of gain: -6 to 63 dB for line sources, and -10 to 26 dB for mics. There's also a switch that engages the 2-pole low-cut filter (12 dB per octave with a 100 Hz corner frequency).
The four blue-capped faders control stereo channels from 7-8 to 13-14. The stereo channels have only fixed LF and HF EQs set to 80 Hz and 12 kHz, respectively. All channels have illuminated mute buttons along with PFL solo buttons whose LEDs double as peak indicators. All of the channels also can access the four aux sends. Sends 1 and 2 are hardwired as prefader sends, and sends 3 and 4 are postfader.
An interesting design scheme places the controls for the mixer's ST and 2TRK returns (both on RCA jacks) right above stereo channels 7-8 and 9-10. These returns are normally routed direct to the stereo bus. A volume pot for each rests in the spot occupied on channels 1 through 6 by the gain pot. There's also the same rectangular button that engages the low-cut filter on the other channels. However, on the first three stereo channels, this button routes the ST or 2TRK returns to the stereo channel below, allowing you to use the channel's 2-band EQ or aux sends on whatever sources you have in the RCA jacks.
The ZED-14 also has a set of related controls above stereo channel 11-12, but these control the USB return from your computer. By pushing the gray button, you can route the stereo mix from your DAW through an aux send on 11-12 to headphones, or you could apply some basic overall EQ, as well as conveniently hit an outboard compressor strapped across the mix insert points.
The USB connector and three selector buttons sit above stereo channel 13-14. You can send the main pre- or postfader mix to your computer if you're recording in your studio. Or you can send the prefader aux 1 and 2 signals over USB if you're recording while using the mixer live. The third option is to send the postfader aux 3 and 4 sends over USB — a great way to get your live effects from applications or plug-ins.
The ZED-14's master section (see Fig. 2) offers conveniences for both live and studio operation. Using one of four gray buttons under the headphone controls, you can assign the signal from either the aux 1 or aux 2 send (or both) to the two headphone jacks (one standard, one mini). Or you can feed the 2TRK RTN signal or the USB RTN signal to headphones.
You can set up the Alt Out pot, which controls the level at the Alt Out RCA jacks above stereo channel 13-14, to send the pre- or postfader L/R or monitor L/R signals out these jacks. You also get master controls for the aux 1 and 2 sends. Some important switches, like the ones for 48V phantom power and Alt Out configuration, are “below panel,” meaning you probably need a tool to press them. An -inch miniplug works great.
Is It Live?
I was very impressed by the sound quality of the ZED-14 but not surprised; Allen & Heath mixers have a reputation for clean and quiet analog operation, and the ZED-14 upholds this tradition. Even with mics plugged in, the noise floor of the ZED-14 was virtually inaudible, becoming apparent only with channel and master faders all the way up.
FIG. 2: All the ZED-14''s connections, including the mixer''s USB port, are on the top panel.
This may be in part due to Allen & Heath's DuoPre technology. Based on the company's P.A. series mixers, the DuoPre preamps use a 2-stage design with controlled amounts of gain in each stage. When amplifying the signal from the XLR input, the preamps supply a 69 dB gain range. Most of the gain comes from the first stage, which helps keep noise levels low. Line-level signals enter the second stage of the preamp, which helps keep noise low on sources like keyboards and submixers. Unfortunately, the ZED-14 offers no dedicated guitar input (unusual for a modern mixer in this price range), so guitarists will have to go old school by miking their amp, using a direct box, or hooking up a guitar processor.
I tried out the ZED-14 with a dynamic mic on a small combo tube amp and recorded both male and female vocalists with different large-diaphragm condensers. I also recorded an acoustic guitarist-singer with large- and small-diaphragm condensers simultaneously over the mixer's USB connection. For these sessions, I used MOTU Digital Performer 5.13 on a dual 2 GHz Mac G5 running Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5.1).
The ZED-14 operated as seamlessly and sounded as good as any small-format mixer I've worked with and much better than a few I've seen at this price. It interfaced smoothly with the Mac's USB audio codec, and its channels popped right up in DP's tracks-window input columns. The digitized signals exhibited no evidence of crosstalk on playback. Best of all, the mic preamps sounded way better than they had any right to on a mixer with this price tag.
I have zero complaints about the ZED-14 given its price, but if I had one wish, I'd love to see a FireWire or high-speed USB version in the ZED series that sends individual channels to discrete tracks in a DAW. (Even the 32-channel ZED-436 offers only 2-channel USB recording and playback.) I'd be surprised if a more robust digital interface weren't on the drawing board (see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com for more on the digital recording capabilities of the ZED series and other analog mixers).
But if your goal is to record live-band performances in stereo off the board, the wish list above is irrelevant. The ZED-14's USB implementation provides a lot of flexibility for getting signals to and from a computer without disturbing a stage mix. If I needed to record a live gig, I can't imagine a more flexible or cost-effective combination than a ZED-14 and a laptop.
Rusty Cutchin is a producer, engineer, and music journalist in the New York City area.
analog/USB mixer $499
PROS: Excellent sound — clean and quiet. Flexible routing options. Good preamps.
CONS: USB 1.1 interface restricts I/O to two channels each way.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
Allen & Heath