Review: Avid S3L-X
Simon Allen sees whether this new system really does offer “greater versatility, reliability, and value” than the original S3L.
There used to be a time, not that long ago, when live sound engineers and studio engineers never crossed each other’s paths.
That gap between two of the largest fields in pro-audio has been drawing closer and closer with the digital age. Many of the console manufacturers have helped to spark this trend in some really exciting ways over the past five years alone.
Avid, which is at the front end of studio solutions and has been at the top of the game for many years, has also been one of the leaders in the era of digital live sound consoles. During this period, however, there have been some significant technological advancements in Avid’s fundamental audio processing methodology. Both the software and hardware aspects of its products have been through some radical developments, enabling Avid systems to reach new heights. The S3L system marked the moment these developments finally made it to the stage. As a keen engineer of both ilks, I went looking for new and exciting possibilities that hopefully continue to bridge the studio/live division, in the S3L-X. Let’s face it, if anyone was going to move this forward, then Avid is in the right place to do it.
First off, let’s look at what elements make up the S3L-X. Like many digital live sound systems, there is the control surface and then an array of stage boxes for varying I/O configurations. The S3L-X is very similar, but with the keen distinction that the ‘brains’ or ‘computing power’ is delivered from a separate unit. The E3 is the system’s engine and takes care of all processing and management of the user interface. In essence, the E3 is a PC computer, but with additional DSP processing power along the lines of an Avid HDX card.
Having the engine separate to the control surface and the stage/FOH boxes opens up several benefits. Obviously, in the live sound environment the engine can be placed virtually anywhere and doesn’t have to be at the FOH position. This could help with anything from simple I/O distribution through to greater installation options. However, the biggest benefit comes with the S3 control surface due to its dual purpose. The control surface is a studio DAW controller by day, and then a live sound console by night.
In terms of I/O capabilities, the S3L-X system can process up to 64 inputs and 32 outputs simultaneously, but importantly, any number of systems can run on the same AVB network sharing stage box I/O options with full auto gain tracking. This new feature makes the apparently compact S3 capable of significantly large and complicated tasks. Currently, Avid is only manufacturing a single configuration for the stage boxes, offering 16 XLR mic pres, eight XLR balanced outputs and four channels of AES each. Both the E3 engine and the S3 control surface also offer some additional I/O for local connections, which can be routed across the AVB network in the same way the stage box inputs and outputs can.
The control surface (S3) is certainly compact and lightweight, but shouldn’t be perceived as being poorly built or not strong enough for the road. Its layout is very simple with only 16 faders, two rows of encoders for parameter editing, and several function and user keys. So how many functions of the console really can be controlled from the surface and how easily can it be used in a live environment? Thankfully, it is clear from the moment you power it up how much thought Avid has put into the layout of the surface and each control – whether it be fader, encoder or just a button – has a purpose for being there. The result is a very tidy, clear and easily configurable surface.
Admittedly, I do have one small complaint. Although everything’s there, it did take me a little longer to build up speed using the surface alone to control the system than other desks. The S3 is capable of editing almost all functions – certainly those needed to operate a show after setup – but it did require a little more learning time. As you might expect, there is a degree of expanding pages of possible parameters across the encoders for complete control, which is fine, but there’s a lot of ‘shift_expand’ button pressing that has to become second nature. That said, it’s a ‘muscle memory’ type of lesson, which once learnt really makes anything possible and you can keep on top of a complex show very easily.
Reassuringly, there is never the feeling you can’t get to any of the controls you need, because of the excellent Venue software, which any Venue console operator will recognise in a heartbeat. For me, this is one of the reasons I’m such a fan of the Avid range – the software is extremely comprehensive and looks the same on the smallest SC48, through to the Profile. This allowed me to work professionally and smoothly as if I knew the S3L-X system inside out, giving me the time to get used to the surface. The possible configurations within the Venue software are actually enhanced with the S3 surface drawing on its new user layer. If set up intelligently, you could operate almost any size of show with just 16 faders, avoiding constant channel chasing.
While the S3 control surface is operating as a DAW remote, its own local I/O can also be utilised via the Ethernet AVB connection. This means that the S3 can be connected to a laptop and provide an immediate pro studio configuration. This very serious, dual-purpose piece of equipment is not only responding to how engineers are working today, but modelling how the future of digital audio is continuing to develop. For example, an FOH engineer can run a live show with the S3L-X system and take a multichannel recording of the performance. After the show, the stage boxes and E3 engine can be loaded up for transport or storage, while the S3 control surface can easily be taken to the hotel to aid working on the recording from that night.
The most significant update around integration has to be the new Venue Link for recording into Pro Tools with the Venue 4.5 and Pro Tools 11 software, which is included with the purchase of an S3L-X system. Via a single Ethernet connection, a laptop can be connected to the engine and record up to 64 channels. Avid has adopted an easy patching and channel naming control method to speed up workflow, and it works effortlessly.
This new recording workflow has also expanded the capabilities of virtual soundcheck. As well as the traditional global virtual soundcheck mode, any channel can be switched to the return playback from Pro Tools at a touch of a button in the preamp section. This allows for very fast switching between recorded elements and live, allowing musicians to soundcheck without their colleagues being on the stage at the same time. Other manufacturers have started offering this too, but this is the most fluid I have ever experienced and it works extremely well. ? Avid has certainly capitalised on its knowledge of multichannel recording and live consoles to bring us ?something I think we’ll soon find hard to live without.
Integration doesn’t stop there, as all the usual benefits of an Avid system are still available. For example, plug-ins are hosted on the system itself, which allows for a fluent operation without the need for additional equipment and controls. Of course, the plug-ins that the S3L-X system now hosts are the new AAX 64-bit format. Then there’s the familiar Venue software that all Avid consoles run. This has to be one of the best user interfaces on the market, giving complete control and configuration of the system with just a keyboard and mouse if necessary. This allows Venue consoles to offer one of the most powerful wireless remote control facilities around. With the S3L-X there is a new tab in the software called Media. This useful feature offers stereo playback or record options via any connected USB storage devices.
The main part of my testing ground for this review was a concert in a theatre that I know well, for the performance of a choir and live band that I’ve worked with before. The system in the venue is above average and the room is particularly good, but amplifying a live choir with a five-piece live band always presents its own challenges.
Aware of the potential downfalls for such an event, my colleague Ross Simpson and I planned the stage layout, microphone positions and general spec meticulously and well in advance. On the day, once we were in a position to start sound checking, I felt very confident in the decisions we’d made and I had a really good idea of the results we were hoping to achieve. This is where I believe the fuss about 64-bit really comes in, and I’ve only noticed it once before with one other manufacturer’s desk.
Even after the first small movements of EQ were made on the grand piano, I could hear something very special in terms of quality that I’d never heard from the piano in that room before. Let’s not forget that I am very used to working with digital consoles from all manufacturers, including the Avid Venue line, and that I’ve had much experience in that venue with those microphones and PA systems. Continuing through the sound check, several concerns and limitations we thought we might encounter because of the installation never occurred. Fine movements of signal processing settings were possible, which enabled a more naturally accurate result to be achieved than I expected.
The real proof came once the choir were up and running and I’d found the right balance between all the mics. Sonically, there was a warmth about the choir sound and the definition of the words they were singing was beautifully clear. Then came the reverb. I used a standard ReVibe plug-in for the reverb on the choir and it was sensational. I could have used any amount of wet/dry mix, and you’d have still heard the words. The reverb was colourful yet transparent, to a level I haven’t heard ReVibe perform before.
All too often I feel we get drawn into the tech behind modern digital consoles and their ‘all singing, all dancing’ wonders, forgetting to consider the sound quality. Yes, the S3L-X system not only has the capabilities you’d expect from any modern digital console, but in fact it’s written a whole new chapter in the development of console offerings. However, if you’re wondering what does it sound like, what are the preamps like, etc, then have no concerns and prepare to be impressed. I’d buy this console on the basis it uses the familiarity of the Venue software and it’s sound quality alone. The Pro Tools integration, dual-purpose control surface, modular light-weight and compact design, virtual soundcheck capabilities and the ability to host plug-ins are all benefits that easily explain it’s price tag.
Simon Allen is a freelance internationally-recognised sound engineer and pro-audio professional with over a decade of experience. Working mostly in music, his reputation as a mix and FOH engineer continues to reach new heights.