A low-cost mixer with a surprising array of features
By Erik Holsinger
Too often live mixers come in the not-quite-right category—too big to move around or so small that they don’t offer any real functionality. Then there is the price—I’ve found that low cost mixers just don’t have the clean signals or decent preamps that you want. Then again, do you really want to shell out thousands for a mixer that’s vulnerable to the hazards of live performance, courtesy of Nigel the Friendly Roadie?
Allen & Heath, long known for their recording studio mixers, have come up with an impressive solution to this live mixer dilemma—the ZED-14. It’s a medium-sized live performance and recording mixer with USB that incorporates the same audio quality found in Allen & Heath’s bigger mixers, yet at a ridiculously low price.
Touch me, hold me
The first thing you notice is how rugged the mixer feels—the ZED-14 comes on like a tank. The case is solid, but not too heavy. All the pots are attached at right angles, and every pot is nutted down to the top panel, making it nearly indestructible and/or Nigel-proof, and if a module ever needs service, you can simply send in just the one module and the rest of your console will function fine.
One of the best parts of the ZED-14’s physical design are the 100mm ALPS audio faders. Long and lovely, the ZED-14 faders have twice the throw of most faders encountered in this price range. I’ve found that longer faders mean your mixes will have more subtlety, because smaller adjustments are much easier to make. One other great ZED-14 design feature: all of the knobs and faders are bright and easily seen. Nothing is worse than trying to mix with tiny black knobs on a black surface—with the ZED-14 you can easily see what you are doing, even in a darkened live environment.
According to Allen & Heath, the ZED-14 uses its new DuoPre preamps, which are based around the company’s PA mixer series. They give you an incredible 69dB of gain over the entire signal level. Since most of the gain comes from the first stage of the two-stage preamp, signal noise is kept very low.
While these are impressive specs, the fact is that the ZED-14 preamps sound fantastic. Especially when using microphone sources, I found the frequency response unbelievable in such a low-cost mixer. The sound was very transparent, yet I was able to increase the gain with barely any noise. (Even my line level sources, which are apparently sent directly into second gain stage of the ZED-14’sZED-14 I won’t have to mortgage the house to get one. preamps sounded good). True, there are other mixers out there with better preamps—but with the ZED-14 I won’t have to mortgage the house to get one.
Swiss Army mixer
The ZED-14 controls provide you with incredible flexibility in both live and studio mix situations. First, you have 14 inputs to work with—six with XLR preamps, and four stereo line inputs. You also have two stereo RCA inputs for your iPod, tape deck, or other line sources. Each of the stereo RCA inputs also has its own separate gain knob.
The three-band, four knob EQ section on the ZED-14 is nice, with a clean swept mid frequency design. Allen & Heath calls this design MusiQ. It features an optimized slope (or Q factor) for equalizing individual elements. The addition of the high-pass filter switches are great for eliminating that unwanted ultra-low frequency that can muddy up any PA. I found that the EQ section can nicely enhance a variety of instruments from voice to acoustic guitar.
Finally, the ZED-14 also has four aux sends available, so you can add a variety of effects or processing to your setup. Aux sends one and two are set up as pre-fader effects, while aux three and four are set up for post-fader effects. But the really interesting thing is what happens when you integrate the ZED-14’s USB connection with your effects work.
USB me, baby
The ZED-14 is an impressive little mixer, but its USB capabilities push the ZED-14 firmly into the “WOW!” category. While I would have preferred to have a FireWire interface (for its faster data transfer, but with the four channels of the ZED-14, it’s real-time and that’s plenty fast). I have to say that the ZED-14’s USB implementation is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. When you connect the ZED-14 to your personal computer (either Mac or PC), you simply select the ZED-14 as your output device, and in one step you have noise-free audio straight in and out of your computer.
The USB fun doesn’t stop there—you can assign the USB input to any pair of the aux sends, so you can send an effects signal for processing by a software-based mixing application. Using the USB connection, I was able to process our vocalist with the advanced reverb program in my favorite music app, and mix the result with the ZED-14 in real time.
As an extra bonus for PC users, Allen & Heath has bundled Cakewalks SONAR LE audio and MIDI application, so you can turn the ZED-14 into a PC-based digital audio workstation. Given the amazing variety of audio processing features found in most of the popular music applications on the market, the ZED-14’s USB audio effects connection is like buying a new car, and finding it comes with a free yacht.
Given the ZED-14’s price range, I was prepared to be disappointed, but in the end I was blown away. As a first mixer for home music enthusiasts, the ZED-14 offers solid performance and great flexibility. As a professional, I found that the ZED-14 is a great buy, with enough flexibility and sound quality to be useful onstage or in the studio. When you add in the great preamps and the incredible USB flexibility, it is clear that ZED-14 is a winner.
Features & Specs
- 14 inputs total
- 6 mono inputs with XLR pre-amps
- 48V phantom power
- 2 stereo RCA inputs
- 3-band EQ with MusicQ
- 4 stereo line inputs
- 4 aux sends
- 2 stereo returns
- 1 USB bidirectional I/O port
- 12 - 100mm faders
- Comes with Sonar LE
- Dimensions: 15"W x 18"L x 5"D
- Weight: 15 lbs.