As seen in Live Sound International  | by Mark Frink

YES, I KNOW. When I first saw it at NAMM two years ago, I thought it was a toy, but while I was at Summer NAMM’s new TEC Tracks, across the aisle QSC was presenting “the world’s most powerful and portable easy-to-use compact digital mixer” with hourly live performances.

TouchMix is well into its second year and second software revision, so I knew it was stable. Greg Mackie and Peter Watts consulted with QSC to design this unique little mixer, so I knew it was well thought-out. What surprised me was TouchMix’s sound quality.

The QSC Touch- Mix-16 on tour with the author in Prague

The QSC TouchMix-16 on tour with the author in Prague

I’d already begun my summer tour with New Orleans’ most legendary doctor using a different monitor desk and a different set of wedges every day, with wildly varying travel – literally planes, trains and automobiles – so TouchMix seemed like a solution that could provide day-to-day consistency, in a package small enough to be hand carried.

There are two models: TouchMix-16 is bigger, with twice the inputs of the TouchMix-8. The TM16 also has six mono auxiliary sends on XLRs instead of the TM8’s four, and two stereo aux sends for hard-wired in-ear monitors on TRS instead of one. The TM16 has both a stereo cue and a stereo monitor on TRS, as well as an independent XLR talkback input, while the TM8 simply has a cue output.

FULL PACKAGE

TouchMix puts pro desk features in a laptop form factor: four-band fully parametric EQ, variable high- and low-pass filters, compressors and gates on every channel, plus class-A mic preamps, pro-grade converters, output EQ, limiting and delay, as well as eight DCA and eight mute groups. In addition to all those aux sends, there are four dedicated FX sends with multiparameter digital effects optimized for live sound, emulating popular L-word (“Lush”) and Y-word (“Dense”) plate, room and hall presets, plus delay and micro-pitch shift.

Both models employ 32-bit floating point processing, with 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling. Specs include a S/N ratio of 95 dB, dynamic range of 105 dB and latency of 1.6 milliseconds, comparing favorably not only to budget digital consoles, but to many midrange professional touring products as well.

Each input XLR has its own analog gain “trim” pre-amp control – two rows of eight trim knobs below two rows of eight XLRs. There’s up to 45 dB of gain in the full clockwise position. I disliked them at first, as they can be bumped and are obviously non-recallable. However, unlike most other consoles, TouchMix has no faders or encoders except for its single Master Encoder, making dedicated gain controls necessary. The seven Shure BETA 57 and 58 vocal mics sit nicely at “12 o’clock” while SM58s might be at “2 o’clock.”

The tour’s file-based front of house engineer Andy Loy uses a 32-channel input list that fits a wide variety of digital consoles, so it seemed like the TouchMix-16 might not be big enough. However, only 16 channels are needed in the wedges.

Obviously all seven vocal mics are needed. In addition to the trombone’s wireless BETA 98 and the effects pedals fed from its UHF-R receiver, we mic two guitar amps, use the XLR output from Roland Guerin’s Aguilar DB 751 bass head, a Nord keyboard’s JDI, and a Barcus-Berry CS-4000 piano pickup that’s used with a Countryman Type 10 DI. That makes 14.

Fig.1

Fig.1

Herlin Riley’s Mapex drum kit uses a total of 13 mics, an input list that would satisfy most festivals. However, the majority of bands I’ve worked with need no more than kick and hi-hat in their floor monitors. While some musicians ask for snare drum in their wedge, most get more than enough snare from the hi-hat mic, which is always needed (Figure 1).

The Shure KSM137, like the KM184, is particularly smooth and accurate, and when placed a half-foot above the hi-hat cymbals, is shadowed from the snare drum enough to balance against it, but also gets enough toms to sound natural when combined with a dynamic kick drum mic, for a total of two more monitor inputs.

By varying the hi-hat mic’s height, high-pass filter and EQ, a variety of drum sounds can be supplied, from lots of hi-hat to an even blend of hat, snare and toms. Without the pounding of snare drum mics in monitor mixes, everyone can monitor at lower levels, helping conserve hearing, though it’s not for everyone. Check it out.

ON THE ROAD

We began our run on smaller stages, starting with a Philadelphia parking lot gig. Moving into New England we played the Bull Run in Shirley MA, the Flying Monkey in Plymouth NH, The Space in Westbury NY, the Westhampton Beach PAC, Infinity Hall in Hartford CT, the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury MA and Dartmouth College’s Spaulding Auditorium.

Each venue offered a new monitor console and a different make and model of floor monitor. The time needed to build a new file is not always available, unless you’re able to carry a wide variety of off-line editors. Even so, moving from one monitor console to the next means switching from one show file to another, so the previous file on a similar console may be from a show that’s weeks or even months old, requiring substantial tweaking during sound check.

Fig.2

Fig.2

Console choices over four weeks in no particular order ranged from Yamaha M7CL, Soundcraft Vi6, Allen & Heath GL2200, Avid D-Show, Avid SC48 (twice), Midas PRO2, Soundcraft MH3, Yamaha PM5D (twice), Yamaha CL5, and Allen & Heath GLD. Even using Yamaha’s file conversion software, we still would have been on other consoles more than half the time. And while it’s possible to completely chart a desk, that also takes time. The consistency of staying on the same desk or file, night after night, allows it to mature with daily input channel and mix refinements, allowing musicians to feel instantly comfortable – like they’re stepping onto the same stage over and over.

When working with “wedges du jour,” a consistent set of mics and console are required for dependable results. Using TouchMix’s graphic EQ with Rational Acoustics Smaart DI to systematically flatten and contour the frequency response of each day’s new wedges is the beginning of a preset that can be copied to every mix. Mix EQ touch-ups are easily made with the iPad at each mix, compensating for double wedges or wedges hitting vocal mics from the side (Figure 2).

TouchMix provides a 28-band third-octave graphic equalizer on its six mono mixes and on the main stereo mix, with eight XLRs for easy interfacing with power amps or self-powered loudspeakers. While fully parametric EQ is considered best for tuning speakers, many agree that for wedges, a graphic EQ is better for balancing frequency response while also managing gain before feedback.

Fig.3

Fig.3

Third-octave ISO frequencies don’t often fall where they’re needed, however today’s manufactured floor monitors exhibit fairly flat frequency response so that their response can be managed with a GEQ. There are sometimes a few sharp peaks that fall between ISO frequencies, but can be tamed using TouchMix’s four notch filters (Figure 3).

WIFI & APP

TouchMix comes with a simple USB WiFi dongle that works in uncluttered 2.4 GHz environments and performed well in 500-seat venues during our first week. At the first larger venue, a greater number of smartphones in the audience overwhelmed the dongle, forcing operation from the TouchMix itself.

The following day a dual-band 2.4/5 GHz “a-n” router was installed, connecting to TouchMix on the low band, with its SSID hidden, and connecting to the iPad using its less congested high band, where it worked flawlessly in Manhattan, at the Newport Jazz Fest and in Europe. A USB-to-Ethernet adapter is an even more secure way to get into a WiFi router.

TouchMix in its SKB compact waterproof case

TouchMix in its SKB compact waterproof case

iPad apps are great for monitor mixing, allowing operators to stand eye-to-eye and ear-to-ear with performers on stage. The TouchMix app is my new favorite. It closely mimics TouchMix’s touch screen and controls. The main difference is that its Master Encoder jog-wheel is replaced by up and down 1 dB fader “nudge” controls that I enjoyed, good for both mixing IEMs where smaller moves are better and double or triple-tapping for wedges. The iPad mini is slightly larger than TouchMix’s 7-inch screen and the app’s onscreen faders are longer than the mixer’s, though I prefer iPad’s even larger surface for my big hands.

The app and the mixer’s GUI operate independently, so the iPad can act as an extra user interface that shows and controls different functions from those controlled via the screen. This can be extended to multiple iPads, so that one (or more) could mix monitors, while another might be used for the FOH mix even though TouchMix might be located at the side of the stage. It would even be possible to tile several tablets together to display the entire TouchMix console!

Substitute drummer Derrick Phillips, who plays for Hank Williams, Jr., brought his custom IEMs and it was easy to give him a hardwired in-ear mix that he could control from his iPhone from one of the TouchMix-16’s two stereo auxiliaries by just using a headphone extension cable. The operator can allow or restrict access to functions on a per-device basis, keeping users from adjusting anything but their own mix, allowing the iPhone app to operate as a personal monitor mixer.

For non-Apple users, QSC just released the Android version of the app for tablets and smartphones that requires Android OS 4.4.4 or newer and TouchMix firmware V2.1.4922.

SIZE MATTERS

The author mixing via the TouchMix app

The author mixing via the TouchMix app

At 12 by 15 inches and 6 pounds, TouchMix-16 is no bigger and slightly lighter than my last Windows laptop. Its cardboard retail box holds TouchMix in a slim 13-inch by 22-inch fabric and hard foam zippered case with a side compartment for its international voltage power supply. Our trip to Europe simply required using an IEC cable with a Schuko plug instead of an Edison. SKB makes the injection molded 3i1813-7-TMIX waterproof case for TouchMix, with a custom foam insert that accommodates either model by removing a perforated foam insert, plus a cutout for its power supply, holding a standard or mini iPad underneath. Not only does either case meet carry-on restrictions, they even fit overhead in smaller, three-across regional planes.

The latest firmware upgrade, version 2.1, includes options for Mandarin, French, German, Russian and Spanish in addition to English, as well as the ability to assign aux buses to the left and right main outputs to act as sub-groups.

TouchMix-16 is also capable of direct recording all 20 (16 mic plus 2 stereo line) individual channels plus one of its three stereo buses to a 7200 RPM external USB hard drive in 32-bit broadcast wave format, and then play those tracks back for virtual sound check or virtual rehearsal.

If you’re looking for a mixer that can take your band from rehearsal to promotional appearance to support slot to festival stage and perhaps even headlining, TouchMix is the smallest professional solution you can carry with you in the van and on the plane.

MARK FRINK is a long-time monitor engineer and professional audio editor and writer. He’s hosting the Live Sound Expo at the 139th AES Convention in New York this October.