Line 6 M20D - Intuitive enough for virtually every user.

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Review: Line 6 StageScape M20d Digital Mixer

by Strother Bullins

Intelligent and intuitive, this unique digital mixer is the heart of Line 6's ambitious rewrite of what users know about portable PA.

I've come to expect the unexpected from Line 6, a pro audio company with an overall design philosophy that, first and foremost, serves musician end-users. From their first incarnation of the POD digital guitar amp modeler in the late '90s to their 2010 entree to live sound, their XD Digital Wireless line, Line 6 has well served those not tied to the traditional standards of legacy pro audio equipment.

The StageScape M20d live sound mixer is another Line 6 innovation of that kind; at first glance, it's nothing like the channel-stripped mixers of old. Unique and high-tech sexy, it is streamlined, largely naked of knobs and buttons and provides no vertical faders. Paired with complimentary Line 6 StageSource loudspeakers, is built to do things that traditional portable PA rigs do not, such as provide touchscreen visual-based mixing; multichannel recording with soundcheck loop capabilities; comprehensive iPad remote control; auto-sensing I/O; loads of DSP power; and much more, all in an intelligent, digitally-networked rig.

Key Features

Out of the box, the M20d feels rock solid, like a tightly-built MacBook Pro (and it even looks similar, though no relation). In typical Line 6 fashion, this forward-thinking product is built for the expected rigors of a modern gigging musician's life, and its seven-inch, full color touch screen and 20 buttons/knobs brings all the capabilities of the M20d to my fingertips. Its footprint is approximately 16 inches wide by 14 inches deep - compact but large enough for any user, thanks to its uncluttered design and layout.

I/O is comprehensive - a dozen auto-sensing mic/line (XLR or quarter-inch) combination inputs; four quarter-inch auto-sensing line inputs; four auto-sensing monitor outputs (balanced XLR); and two audio-sensing main outputs (balanced XLR). Also included - quarter-inch headphone output with adjacent volume knob; eighth-inch "aux in" for mobile device audio input; dual quarter-inch foot switch inputs; USB PC jack (for recording/playback via standalone DAW); as well as a USB 2.0 dock and a SD card slot (either is recording/playback-ready via the mixer's internal recording software as well as preset and MP3/WAV file storage).

Most interesting within the M20d's I/O category is Line 6's proprietary L6 LINK connection. (click the Read More link below to read the rest of the article)

It utilizes an AES/EBU 110 Ohm cable to send digital audio in one direction while sending control info in two directions, allowing control of Line 6 products when used with a StageScape-centered PA. Line 6 products that currently use L6 LINK are POD HD300, HD400 and HD500 guitar multieffect pedals and DT50 amplifiers. L6 LINK is essentially a product unto itself; read more about it here: line6.com/l6link.

Once inside the M20d, audio signal input encounters a multitude of simply-presented but deep treatment options. The mixer recognizes each input (as well as output) type: for example, pop in a condenser microphone into XLR input 1, instrument via DI into quarter-inch input 2, or connect the Line 6 StageSource L3t loudspeaker (also included in this review) to the main Left XLR output. From there, each input gains its own customizable channel strip with gain, EQ, effects and routing options; these parameters are dialed in by the dozen multi-function push-knob encoders below the screen. This auto-sensing based setup alone can save a lot of time and headache during load-in/soundcheck.

To the left of the screen, the five vertically-aligned buttons allow access to (from top to bottom) Setup, where the user configures I/O and accesses the Stage Icon Gallery, so a kick drum can be assigned to the screen to represent the kick drum mic input; Tweak, to adjust EQ, dynamics and effects per input; Record, to set up recording functions for up to 18 channel tracking plus the main mix output; Monitor, to set stage monitor send levels per channel; and Perform, which locks parameters to prevent accidental changes during an event. To the right of the screen are the vertically aligned, self-explanatory Mute Mics and Mute All buttons, plus a large Master Volume pot.

After in initial setup, intuitive adjustment options abound. Highlights include the Tone X-Y "Quick Tweak" Pad, a quick-adjust, nearly fool-proof full-screen GUI controller that adjusts multiple parameters via an X-Y, finger-drag-based window; for example, from the Setup screen, I simply touch the Kick icon, then tap Tweak to enter the Quick Tweak screen. With the center of the screen labeled as Neutral, the four corners are Boom, Snap, Scoop and Smack. Dragging the X-Y's crosshair center to where I hear the best balance of the four extremes - it's that simple. The multicolored push-knobs are great as both visual and tactile tools, and they are especially helpful in Tweak mode.

"Deep Tweak" Edit Mode provides more "traditional" plug-in GUIs per parameter or effect for delving deeper. In other words, using "Quick Tweak" got me close, if not there, while "Deep Tweak" is the last 5-10 percent; these Tweaks work quite well together. Also notable is Total Scene Recall for saving/recalling as many stage setups as I might ever need, and four stereo Master Effects Engines are provided - two reverbs, vocal doubler, and a delay/chorus/flanger.

Finally, Quick Capture and iPad control features allow M20d users access to some truly pro-level capabilities. One-touch activation of Quick Capture records up to 20 seconds of soundcheck material from all input sources to internal memory; simply loop it and tweak it to my heart's content. Further, users can record beyond 20 seconds - full songs to full shows - to either SD card or via USB to a thumb drive or DAW; StageScape isn't just a live mixer, it's an all-in-one portable recording rig, too. Meanwhile, iPad control, via a compatible USB WiFi adapter (check the Line 6 website for the specific compatible models), allows adjustment to any other M20d parameters from anywhere in the venue. The iPad aspect of the M20d opens up a literal world of options - multiple iPads can be connected, thus each band member's iPad is their own monitor mixer, for example. Like I said earlier, the M20d allows users to go as deep as necessary.

When the M20d is paired with StageSource loudspeakers - each with its own internal mixer and EQ, feedback suppression, and even an accelerometer (detecting if the speaker is horizontal for Floor Monitor mode or vertical for Main Monitor mode) - L6 LINK allows automatic self-configuration, stereo signal pan, 31-band graphic EQs on each speaker.

In Use

This was a challenging review for me to write in all honesty. The reason being that the StageScape M20d is incredibly intuitive - so much so that it's hard to fully convey its simplicity. This is not a cop-out; getting one's hands on it and trying it out is the only way to fully understand its capabilities.

I began by simply taking it out of the box, plugging it in, tapping through the screens, and literally figured it out on the fly. Within 30 minutes - with no manual, without a video tutorial or even glancing at a quick start guide - I was doing most everything the M20d advertises. After getting comfortable with it, I even "checked my work" via the start up menu's Help menu.

Totally impressed from the get-go, I was self-assured when I took it out for a few gigs. Paired with dual StageSource L3t mains and the StageSource L3s subwoofer, I used the M20d for a variety of live events. Whether at a club for a rock show with nearly all inputs full; at an acoustic show, carefully pouring over Line 6's great-sounding effects and having great success using the Quick Capture feature for a detailed soundcheck; or at a local church, watching "light bulbs" going off over volunteers' heads as I explained its operation with very few words, the StageScape proved its worth to me, and I was a skeptic no more. For these gigs, the M20d performed at least on par with - and, in most cases, surpassed - any other portable live mixer I've ever used in terms of sound quality, intuitiveness, and features.

Finally, the recording capabilities of the M20d make it much more than a great live mixer. For many modern audio types, this could be their only hardware mixer.

Summary

For those apprehensive about digital mixers for portable PA applications, the M20d may finally be the epiphany that will change one's mixing lifestyle. I've closely watched the digital mixer market from my position - as both an end user and a pro audio industry editor - for years now; I believe the M20d is the first product on the street of its kind that is intuitive enough for virtually every potential end user.

At $2,500 street, this is not an inexpensive mixer, thus it will still be out of reach of many portable PA users. I would also not recommend it for a venue without a house engineer. As intuitive as it is, it could still inhibit a gig; I can just see a band of weekend warriors gathering around this space age thing, 30 minutes before the downbeat, scratching their heads. The M20d is ideal for the discriminating, forward thinking engineer or gigging band looking to lighten the load, as well as for houses-of-worship or theaters featuring a variety of performers and modern needs. Paired with Line 6's L6 LINK-equipped StageSource powered speakers, the M20d becomes a modular live sound system that will make its engineer look almost as smart as his mixer.