Originally Posted On ChurchProduction.com on July 2, 2014
Since my start as a monitor engineer oh so long ago, I have often felt like a grumpy old man when it comes to personal mixers for the band. Maybe it comes from my fear of being replaced or my dislike of stage clutter. Either way, I have not generally been a huge fan. However, as I have transitioned into the church world, I have begun to warm up to the idea.
In the fall of 2013 my church was in desperate need of a new monitor console: our existing 12-year-old analog console gave up the smoke. Literally, it started smoking. At this point, our setup consisted of personal stage mixers for the band, as well as vocalists, fed from a separate monitor console and split snake. This allowed the band to keep their gain structure separate from the front-of-house (FOH) console, thus eliminating any changes to the bands’ mix levels when gain adjustments were made. In addition, having a separate monitor board allowed for a simple transition to mixed monitors for vocalists if needed. When I was asked to demo Allen and Heath’s new personal mixer, the ME-1, I was delighted. With several new campuses opening in the near future, my church is beginning to think about how to outfit its new multi-campus technical infrastructure. Not wanting to stick with the current brand set up, I was looking forward to using the ME-1 in a real-life demo application. Having just installed an Allen and Heath monitor console, the ME-1 seemed to be the logical place for us to start.
Going into this review, I knew next to nothing about the ME-1. The only information I had: was that Allen and Heath made a personal mixer for the band. For the demo, I received a pelican flight case with five ME-1 stations, an ME-U Personal Monitor Hub, and several card options. I was immediately impressed by the flexibility of the system as a whole: being able to work with a multitude of options. I initially just plugged the ME-1s in alongside our older, existing personal monitor mixers, and they worked just fine. The only caveat to doing this was that I was limited to 16 channels, and I wanted to take advantage of the 40 that the ME-1 boasts. Knowing how other more-than-16-channel personal mixers work, I figured that the ME-1 functioned the same way: each being able to select 16 channels from the pool of 40. Wrong. The ME-1 can actually handle 40 channels. This feature completely blew me away. Through the use of “groups,” the ME-1 is actually independently doing the sub-mixing on each unit. For example, on our existing personal monitor mixers, I can send the drums down an auxiliary output for the vocalists, and they have volume control over what they receive. The problem with this is it becomes a “deal with it” situation if you have multiple vocalists who want different mixes. On the ME-1, I made channel one “drums,” then in that channel I sent the kick, snare, high hat, toms, and cymbals. With the push of a few buttons and the turning of some knobs, each band member receives independent control of each microphone on the drum kit—with panning for toms and cymbals. Once you back out of group controls, channel one operates as an overall volume for the entire drum set. If I were tweeting right now, I would include the hashtag #MindBlown.Having the increased channel count also eliminates the need for multiple systems. For example, to overcome the limitations of 16 channels in our current system, we run two separate systems: one for the band with channels that are important to them (see: separating the drums out and having the vocalists all in a single channel), and the other for the vocalists who prefer to have the drums all in one channel and vocalists separated. Because the ME-1 handles all the grouping features, it is no longer necessary to use auxes on the console to create summed mixes. Utilizing direct outs from the console, the engineer is free to use the available auxes for things other than sub-mixing.
Moving on to the control surface itself, the digital interface has a very classy look and a solid feel. The unit is made up of backlit push buttons, two analog knobs, a multi-use encoder knob, and digital display. For those of you used to using digital consoles, this layout will seem familiar to you. The configuration is flexible and can grow and change with your needs. With 16 configurable keys, a musician who wants to move a channel can do so as simple as touching a few button taps. And while presets and recalls are not a new thing, having the ability to name them and see what you’re recalling adds a level of confidence to the band. The display is an OLED screen, and if you’re wondering what that is you are not alone … I had to ask someone smarter than me. It stands for Organic LED, and Allen and Heath had a reason for choosing it. OLED screens have a wider viewing angle than standard LED screens, and they allow for a dimmer look on stage. Another timesaving feature occurs when the ME-1 is connected to an Allen and Heath digital console via its dSnake system. With this configuration, the task of naming the channels is handled for you. The control surface will pull the channel names from the console so you can move on to more important things. A built-in ambient microphone gives those on stage a better sense of what is happening in the room. It also helps with on-stage communication between band members who don’t have vocal mics.On the back of the unit, you’ll find standard Ethernet in and out jacks, though the ME-1 features locking EtherCon connections for added assurances that the cable won’t “pop” out.
There is also a 3.5-mm aux in jack for local source playback. I also discovered a USB port on the back. While this is nothing you would normally get excited about these days, I did. See, many of our musicians have transitioned to using iPads on stage for various things like sheet music, guitar tones, and to up their “cool factor.” This has created an additional cord for us to run, which clutters the stage. The USB jack on the ME-1, while primarily for firmware updates and backing up presets, is able to charge devices. As an OCD stagehand, I love how this contributes to keeping my stage neat and tidy. While I do like the setup, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention at least one concern with the Allen and Heath ME-1. I think all the features included in this small footprint could become overwhelming to some. I immediately took to it, but the band members with less tech experience struggled. Having to know when to push and turn the encoder, and where things are buried in the groups, etc., flustered a few team members. Training and coaching will help, but a sophisticated mixer like this may be too much for some members of the average worship team. Still, the capabilities are remarkable and the system performs as advertised. With training and an open mind, this unit is worth the pain of change in my book.