Guitarists Dreams Can Come True! Part 1 – Line 6 StageScape M20d Review

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As a guitarist, I’m not usually too bothered by mixers or PA gear, but when the Line 6 Dream Stage was released it really caught my eye. My initial reaction was that the price point of the mixer was a little too high for my needs, but when you actually sit down with one even for a short time, you really start to understand how much it can do for you and why it’s well worth every penny of the £1449 it currently sells for online in the UK.

The Dream Stage is not a single product, but comes from the pairing of a Line 6 StageScape M20d smart mixer and at least one Line 6 StageSource loudspeaker (although where’s the fun in only one speaker). The results are born out of multiple technological breakthroughs, and have the potential to revolutionise how bands make use of live sound gear to their advantage, and all without a sound engineer in sight. Or to put it more simply, this is some really good shit! Specific information on the whole Dream Stage system can be found here, but for a review of the M20d from a guitarists perspective, and the first in a series of three reviews looking at all of the Dream Stage components, please read on….

StageScape M20d Smart Mixing System (StageScape M20d Perform Mode) - Lo Rez

To start with, I sat down with the M20d without looking at a manual. I always feel more confident remembering how to use gear at a gig for the first time if I learn to use it by working out some of the features for myself, and then only when I can’t work out how to do something, I start to refer back to the manual. It only took me a few minutes with the M20d to work out that if you simply plug in your gear, it automatically recognises you’ve connected something. Having icons that you can assign so you can layout the M20d setup as per your actual stage or rehearsal means it’s so much easier to tweak settings because you’re not having to remember what’s plugged into what channel or spending time labelling up each channel. You can even group multiple sources to one fader, like multiple guitar cab mics on the same cab, or all the drum mics together. The truly genius part about that is you can set each mic individually, so maybe -20db for one mic, -15db for another mic and -5db for a 3rd mic. The group fader would then increase and decrease all the mics assigned to it at the same rate but not the same numerical amount in level. How cool is that!!! It proved a great feature when I gigged the M20d, as I could set myself and the other guitarists level and grouped them both so we could raise and lower the both guitar levels together.

One feature that I didn’t initially understand fully was the purpose of the setup tab and the perform tab (remember I like to try out gear before checking the manual). Once I’d had a good go at the M20d, I worked out that I could create a setup, then save/restore that setup. When updating the M20d firmware I also found out (the hard way) that I needed to backup my setups or they’d be wiped. So hindsight tells me that an SD card or USB pen drive/USB HDD really helps out in those situations. But it took me a little longer to also realise that on the perform mode, I could create scenes within a setup and backup/restore those scenes. Essentially setups include all input settings as well as all levels. They take a few seconds to load and so they are mainly meant to be used either for a band that wants to save different configurations for multiple venues, or for a venue wanting to save different configuration for various bands. Scenes (in perform mode) are where you may want different levels for each song within a set any scene changes are very quick to load. Line 6 have a great video on setups and scenes: check it out here. This is another example of where the M20 really brings something new to the table. From my perspective as a guitarist, when setting up to gig in a bar or pub, we would leave setting up the levels until last. With the M20d, if we’d been to a venue before, that last step would simply be a press of a few buttons, and then do a final sound check to be sure the levels are spot on for that day. That’s truly amazing stuff, and something that I’m not sure can be achieved on any other portable mixer at this price point and with the same level of simplicity! I did speak to a professional sound engineer who runs my local rehearsal and recording studio to get his opinion, and he highlighted another use. He often records bands in his studio, and uses an analog board with masking tape stuck under each channel to identify what each channel fader is controlling. With an M20d, he wouldn’t need to do that, and he’d even be able to record future retakes by loading the setups and scenes for a previous recording session without needing to refer back to old notes! So his opinion was that the M20d could save him a lot of time. Right, sorry about that, I’ll get back to the review from a guitarists perspective now 🙂

As a guitarist, I mostly have my FX covered by a POD HD or stomp boxes, so in the past I’ve only used reverb and a 3 band EQ on a PA system/mixer. With the M20d there are many more options for FX, but with an interesting twist! I found it really easy to use (I know, I was surprised too, for a guitarist messing with a PA mixer), and you only need press on one of the inputs on the setup menu, and press the tweak button to the left of the screen. This gives you a simple screen (below left) with some simple terms for adjusting your sound without needing to understand what FX and EQ settings you’d need to accomplish the sound you’re after. This takes the difficulty out of adjusting the sound, and is one of the biggest plus points for me in this mixer. For example, the tone setting for the Bass Direct (below left) gives you neutral in the middle, and at the corners: Boom, Snap, Scoop and Smack. Now I’ve never needed to EQ or setup tone for a direct bass, but I’m sure I could quickly adjust it if the bassist was shouting “more boom” or “more snappy” at me! That said, I could choose to shout back “do it yourself you lazy sod” and the bassist may be able to use an iPad to do it from where he is (more on that later).

For those blessed with some sound engineering skills, you need only press the ‘Deep Tweak’ button at the top of the tweak screen, and the easy settings move aside to show you the actual real EQ (and other) settings (below right). Getting back to the easier tweak page, just press ‘Quick Tweak’. Sounds simple doesn’t it… That’s because it really is very simple, even though it’s very powerful and flexible at the same time.

StageScape M20d Smart Mixing System (Quick Tweak) - Lo Rez StageScape M20d Smart Mixing System (Deep EQ) - Lo Rez

Line 6 have recently released been a firmware update from the original v1.0 up to the latest v1.1. The new firmware includes some feature improvements such as extra recording functionality, the ability to connect to an existing wireless network, and settings to allow monitor outputs to be linked in stereo. The recording features are perhaps the biggest part of this new firmware version, and there’s a few key features that can benefit bands or a guitarist.

Initially the biggest change is that you can record multiple tracks simultaneously, and further more, you can add markers throughout a track. That’s useful if you’re recording a whole live show and you want to mark the start and end of each song. You can also import multi-track backing tracks and use them during live performances. For some bands, this is going to make their live performances so much more streamlined without needing a separate media player as well as their main mixer. The markers will also mean I can mark when I’m about to rip up the fret board, for easy replaying of my mistakes at a later date.

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The monitor screen is used to setup the stage monitors and in ear monitors, and it’s got a really helpful display that flashes arrows over the on screen picture of the monitor you’re adjusting, just so you can be sure you’re adjusting the right monitor. You can also select for each monitor whether they are linked to the main channel levels, or independently controlled. There are settings to also setup what channels are sent to each monitor, and how much of each channel. These are quite flexible features, as with most simple PA setups, the monitors are all outputting the same audio. So the feature I like about this monitoring solution is that I could have guitar and a bit of drums through my monitor, and forget about hearing the bassist or singer. Well, if that’s what I wanted anyway 😉

The iPad is a device that I both love and hate with a particularly intense passion. It has revolutionised the tablet market since its release in only a few short years, yet we’ve recently seen a situation that I have been prophesizing ever since companies started making hardware that totally or partially relies on a proprietary 30 pin Apple connection to an iPad. What’s this situation you may well ask? It is of course the recent revelation that the latest generation of iPad comes with the new Lightning connector and not the old 30 pin connector. Some audio devices (Multi-FX pedals, mixers, etc) cannot function fully without the iPad, and so having spent a lot of money on some audio kit, consumers and audio professionals are now left hoping their iPad doesn’t break or god forbid that they would like to upgrade! Line 6 made sure they didn’t make that mistake with the M20d! They were sensible and perhaps revolutionary by being sensible. A wireless network connection can be used (a pre-existing one with the new firmware) to connect to the M20d using the StageScape Remote app v1.1 on an iPad. This app allows a sound engineer, or band member to have total control over the M20d remotely AND you can have multiple concurrent iPad users changing M20d settings. Perhaps the drummer wants to adjust his/her monitor level, or the sound engineer out FoH wants to turn up the guitarist and turn down the rest of the band (sounds good to me). Both of those situations can happen at the same time and without affecting each other. This truly is a great way to work: Having a built in touchscreen (so there’s no reliance on an iPad) but you can still use an iPad or multiple iPads to give you the portable control to be as flexible as you need to be in a live situation, and no reliance on the iPad connector! Genius Line 6, pure genius.

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I’ll be looking deeper into connecting the StageScape M20d to StageSource L3t and L3m speakers in part 3 of this series. But for now let’s just take a simple look at the outputs on the M20d.

Here’s a photo of the outputs on the M20d:

M20d-outputs

The L6 Link connection can be used to connect to any StageSource speaker, and to then connect your other StageSource speakers you simply daisy chain them from one to the next, using the proprietary Line 6 Link connection. L6Link cables are 11ohm AES/EBU digital cables and you can use up to a 50foot (15m) cable between each part of the Dream Stage to maximise flexibility. The L6Link cables carry control information and multiple channels of digital audio, hence why a single daisy chained cable can carry signals enough for more than one speaker. That’s a feature I do like, as when I usually setup the PA at a gig, there are always a lot of cables around, and having a separate cable for each speaker and monitor from the PA mixer running along the same path can get quite messy some times. When I gigged with an the Dream Stage, having just one cable to run from the mixer out to one speaker makes really good stage sense, as both L3t/m speakers I was using were at the front of the stage. If I had more StageSource speakers, then a typical setup would see most of the monitors and FoH PA are all at the front of the stage. The only issue could be when you need a longer than 50foot/15m run, or if you have a monitor at the back for the drummer. With that in mind, and while this is a great feature, I think it could have been better to have a pair of L6Link outputs on the M20d, just for added flexibility, and also to split half your speakers onto another output channel. What would happen if the first L6Link cable in the chain (M20d to first speaker) failed. You’d have no audio at all, whereas if you had 2 L6Link output channels (half the speakers on each), you’d be able to finish the song and then work out why only half your speakers were outputting sound. “The show must go on Line 6, the show must go on!” That said, I didn’t actually have any issues when I gigged with the Dream Stage. I do however like to take into account potential issues that can happen from time to time when any sort of cabling is being relied on, when I’m thinking about using any sort of gear.

The traditional connections for monitors and mains allow you to connect either directly to any full range PA FoH speakers, stage monitors, or to club power amps and crossovers using a balanced connection. Balanced connections use a clever passive method of eliminating interference while still keeping the signal analog and unaffected/altered. You have the usual headphone output for monitoring any audio signals, etc. But you could assign one (or two if you want stereo) of the monitor outputs as a headphone outputs, and then send it off to a headphone distribution system to send to in ear monitors. In performance mode you can mute just the in ear monitor or headphone monitor output(s) separately from the other stage monitor outputs by using on screen button which I think is a really flexible feature. There are separate hardware buttons to allow you to ‘mute all’ which mutes all outputs, and a mute mics, which mutes all vocal and instrument mics but doesn’t mute other input sources such as line inputs (like a bass DI input). Mute all/mics are certainly useful features for when you want to take a break and want no risk of feedback, or if you want to do an instrumental and want to just mute the mics. Perhaps you’re thinking that you’d actually like to be able to mute a group of other inputs, not just all the mics, and not everything. Well you can! Just use a grouped fader, and in perform mode you can mute that group and you can select any combination of inputs to be included in that group. That’s exactly what I did when gigging the Dream Stage, and grouped the 2 vocal mics to mute them for an instrumental track, yet I didn’t want the guitar cab mics to be muted, so the mute mics button would not work for this purpose.

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To round up:

I think the M20d is a real advancement in mixer technology and as far as I can see, there’s no real contender to the price point, size and functionality of the M20d at the moment. Most of the smart features are really well thought out, and I can instantly see a benefit for most of them. From a gigging guitarists perspective, the quick tweak feature is outstanding, and a real revelation in adjusting sound for people who perhaps wouldn’t be able to successfully tweak EQ settings if just given a standard multiband EQ.

It’s a shame there’s no L6Link input for us POD HD users, as that would allow more flexibility, and I would have used that if it had been available when I gigged the Dream Stage. I actually think a WiFi adapter should be included, and also a low capacity SD card to allow backups, but neither are deal breakers, just nice to haves. As mentioned previously, a second L6Link output bus would be worth having to allow more options for connecting cables to speakers on a large stage, and to mitigate the risk of 1 faulty cable affecting all the speakers. iPad connectivity, setup and scene saving and restoring, are all excellent features, making this a real time saver for live sound, from medium bands to huge venues.

Rowbi’s Rating: 8/10 – Go and try one NOW!

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