April 2001--Consoles are a tricky business. In the last 10 years, the explosion of the personal and home studio has massed dozens of small (and inexpensive) console designs to the marketplace, where the middle market of professional consoles has been particularly lacking for products with both a good dollar and feature value. In walks Crest, whose foray into the console market a decade ago forced hard competition for venerable, established companies. One of several American manufacturers who have made a large impact on the console market, their latest console design, the X-VCA, attempts to push the envelope by providing high-end features into the middle marketplace.
While Broadway has the J-Type and touring has the XL4 and PM4000 as industry standards, there has been no definitive console in the middle market. Small touring companies, regional and off Broadway theatres, intimate clubs, and similar applications have had few choices in the $10,000 to $30,000 range. The X-VCA fits ideally in this middle-market niche, with a full-sized desk selling for around $25,000. For dollar-conscious producers and feature-conscious users, this desk marks a new level for the competition to beat in value engineering.
The layout of the console is standard and familiar. Mono and stereo input blocks grouped into standard sections, stereo inputs available in sets of four. An interesting note on the stereo inputs and the aux returns is the standard connections: XLR, 1/4" (both balanced Tip-Ring-Sleeve and unbalanced Tip-Sleeve compatible) and RCA jacks are on the aux return. The top connector on the back panel for each input is the dedicated Direct Output, which is switchable between Pre and post fader by a removable shunt on the circuit board. At last, a direct out on a Crest desk that does not steal the aux 8 send!
The mono XLR mic input starts with a 15-70 dB gain stage on a 4k ohm balanced mic preamplifier, while the line input (TRS connector) is 10k ohm balanced. As with every insert point on the desk, the input send and return connectors are separate TRS jacks for each point, with a dedicated insert button on each channel strip. Separate buttons for phantom power, a -26db pad, Line In, and phase are standard for each mono input. Directly below these buttons are the aux assignments 1-8, assignable pre/post in pairs on one through four, but only as a group on auxes five through eight, with are concentrically stacked pots. After using these auxes for monitors as well as FOH, I realized I would prefer to lay out my normal aux assigns backwards so that I could have more control over the pre-post selection. Also, these pairs are capable of acting in stereo (by enabling a stereo aux button over the groups) which controls level for the pair on the odd potentiometer and pan position on the even potentiometer on each pair.
Directly below the aux assignment on the mono input is the equalizer. This is a next-generation EQ design for Crest, with a full four-band true parametric EQ, with each band capable of providing +/-15dB in overlapping frequencies (40Hz-800Hz, 100Hz-2kHz, 400Hz-8kHz, and 1kHz-20kHz) with a Q variable from .07 to 3.0. Furthermore, the high and low bands can be clicked into their farthest position for shelving! Last, a separate, sweepable high pass filter from 20-400Hz with its own engage button completes the EQ section on the input block. Directly below the HPF rests the Insert button, then the LCR pan pot, a bi-color LED indicator for safe/preview, and the input Mute button. Below the scribble strip resides the 100mm long-throw fader, with a 5-segment signal indicator LED, and assign buttons for LCR, LR, Mono, group assigns, and pan on At the bottom of the strip lies the solo button which doubles as a VCA assignment button.
The stereo input block, (available in blocks of four to the left of the master section) is similar to the mono with a few exceptions. On the rear panel reside three pairs of input connectors, the first set on XLR inputs, the second input on both balanced TRS and unbalanced RCA jacks. It is worth noting that the stereo input also has no direct output or insert points due to the three pairs of input connections on each stereo input. The phantom, pad, line, and phase buttons at the top of the module are replaced by a Line 2 and a L/R mono switch which allows either or both input signals to be routed as a mono input to the odd/even assignments. The equalizer has also been adjusted; on the stereo module it is still frequency agile but with a fixed Q. Instead of a five-segment LED there resides two dual LED displays for signal present and overload indication.
The output section of the console is comprised of group modules (in pairs) and the master module block. The group module has (from top to bottom) aux masters, four matrix sends, group dynamics with gate and compressor (linkable in pairs), the group fader and its assign buttons, the group insert button, peak signal indicator, solo/VCA assign button, and finally the VCA fader, with its dedicated mute, edit/assign, and solo buttons. The master module block houses the L/R stereo buss and mono fader for true LCR panning, along with a bunch of other goodies. The matrix masters and matrix assigns reside at the top of this module; directly above the master faders are output limiters and a five band output EQ. The EQ is comprised of sweepable high and low frequencies and three middle frequency bands each with adjustable frequency and Q; with a switchable, fixed 40Hz high pass filter.
For a desk in this price point, the I/O is surprising. All outputs are XLR female, yes including all eleven group, eight aux, and four matrix outs. Better yet, every insert point is a separate 1/4" TRS jack for send and return. These simple standards are not standard for other manufacturers and will help to sell the higher-end market on the quality of this desk.
The central feature of the console (and what gives the desk its name) is the microprocessor and the automation controller on the master module of the board. Instead of simple mute memory, this mini-computer allows eight manual scenes and 128 sequenced scenes of automated mutes AND automated VCA assignments. That is to say in plain language, that any input can be routed to a VCA via the automation for a given scene, and change the VCA automation for the following scene.
The meter bridge atop the desk houses thirteen traditional VU meters: eight group, three master (L/R/Mono) meters and two dedicated solo meters. Unfortunately, there are no matrix or aux meters, nor are there LED metering for these output sends. While the dynamics package is welcome, it is no substitute for good metering or gain structure. To make up for the lack of these meters, I found myself leaving the center cluster in AFL Solo mode and watching these meters. Hopefully a future version of the meter bridge will allow the user to switch between matrices, auxes, and groups to maintain the bride size.
A few things on the X-VCA are ideal features for discriminating band engineers and festival applications. The ouput parametric EQ, 20:1 limiter on the stereo and mono buss and group dynamics are notable and rare in a mid-line console; as are the monitor and secondary "Alternate" stereo output feeds. For applications that require a master stereo mix (most music/band mixes), this console's integral features require significantly less outboard gear- a savings for both gear and space.
For theatre, satellite, broadcast and corporate industrial applications, the onboard 10x4 matrix is a welcome sight. An expandable matrix is to be made available later this year. From a design standpoint, the dynamics package, matrix, and automated VCAs make this a very attractive product. The powerful microprocessor on board makes this desk incredibly valuable for theatre, theme parks, broadcast, industrials, and similarly for rental houses. The only limitation of this lovely piece of engineering is that the microprocessor only has 128 scenes, and that the VCAs lack the alphanumeric LCD readout that Broadway mixers use on their J-types. But Crest can defy the cost-conscious buyer to find any other product that can do as much as the X-VCA in a similar price range. There simply isn’t one, yet. Crest has raised the challenge, and in the meantime, will probably reap the benefits.
With the good comes the bad; a few things on this desk are not ideal. The dual concentric pots on auxes 5-8 are troublesome to set perfectly, and it would be nice if all four sends were not forced to be pre or post simultaneously --one learns quickly to put monitor mixes here instead of EFX sends and record feeds. And while the five-segment LED input metering and VU group meters perform nicely, the desk could use more metering options both for stereo input modules, aux sends and matrices-without reverting to the solo/AFL. The four Littlelites on the desk have (of a rotary dimming pot) only two lumination settings, full and dimmed, which is selected on the back of the desk by a tiny pushbutton-impossible to access during a show. Possibly Crest's biggest downfall in the release of the desk, however, is the current lack of a decent manual. While an eight-page introductory manual on the automation controller came with the desk as standard, there was no other user documentation on the desk with the demo module. Though none of the engineers felt a need to read a manual on the standard elements of the desk, it would be nice to have such information available. Likewise, the manual for the controller is limited and does not explain the utilities section (a very important section, we found by trial and error) or show a signal flow of how to add or delete to VCA or mute groups. Crest DOES have a 10—page X-VCA microprocessor operation manual available on its website in .pdf file format for those interested.
Sonically, the X-VCA is better than expected for the price point. As the Crest console line has matured, the improvements to mic preamplifiers, EQs, and VCAs are obvious. This preamplifier design is very nice, it was even forgiving when I tried clipping a guitar input at +26dB. The input parametrics are by far improved over other designs and are easy to understand and operate. Overall, I found the signal path had little coloration or degradation. Both lavalier and handheld wireless sounded good through the desk, as did a regular orchestra, a blues band, and several playback cues. I was concerned about the dynamics package being inserted on the groups until Crest's Paul Morini assured me (and I cross-checked on the signal flow diagram) that the dynamic processors are completely bypassable. But when used, (and I listened to them on lavalier, handheld, music, and playback groups) they sounded surprisingly ok- not esoteric, or ultra high-end, but when dialed out the compression was gone. I have to admit I have very expensive taste in compressor/limiters, and spend a great deal of time comparing units to each other. If I find the onboard dynamics acceptable, I can assume that the contractors who specify the desk will find them acceptable as well, and that many engineers operating the consoles will want to use all the onboard features they find. At the very least, they are a great convenience, if nothing more. The desk ran well with both low-gain and high-gain reinforcement, for intimate shows and a big concert the desk is equally well suited.
The physical construction of the X-VCA is 14-gauge galvanized steel, while modules are of a lighter 18-gauge. Frame sizes are available in 40, 48, 56, and 64 slots; note that the eight groups and the master module require 12 slots, so a 40-slot is 28 inputs, or 24+4 stereo, and larger configurations translate to 32+4, 40+4, and 48+4 input desks, each with eleven groups and a twelve by four matrix. The desks are 11.59" high, 29.50" deep, and vary in width from 52.5" to 81.97", and in weight from 139 lbs. to 217 lbs., not including doghouse.
Where else can one find VCA automation in a desk for under $50k? With a strong feature set and low price tag, the X-VCA surpasses the V12 and the X-8 in value engineering and competes well with Britain's Soundcraft Series and Midas Heritage desks. The US market has been longing for a local contender, and now it remains to be seen if this console will be the next big seller across the nation. From both the test drive of the X-VCA and a market perspective, this product is hard to beat for the combination of features and price.