As I discovered during a hands-on session at Skywalker Sound's new Scoring Stage, which features a 72-input VXS with Flying Faders, this revitalized console series represents a significant improvement over its predecessors. In essence, AMS Neve has taken the basic VR/Legend topology, and added the following new capabilities:
The VXS MultiFormat version adds features for surround-sound mixing and music scoring, plus an independent mono or stereo dialog input. Also featured on the VXS are:
During extended listening tests, the VX/VXS soon outshines its predecessor, particularly in such areas as sonic openness, high-frequency response, and general "punch" in lower frequency and mid ranges. Neve designers are said to have excluded further crosstalk, noise and errant RF signals. Overall signal-to-noise ratios are now said to be 8 dB quieter than the VR; 6 dB better that the VR Legend. Major signal-path enhancements have been focused on a substantial re-engineering of input racking and module interconnects. On the VR, twisted-pair cables up to two feet in length were used for line-level signals in the input module, bundled together and terminated with wire-wrapped connections. VX' connections are formed by short, interleaved signal and ground tracks that are hard soldered onto a multilayer PCB.
Mic signals are now physically separated from the line-level signals of other channels. And external connections to this section are grouped by channel, not function. Power bussing within the VR Series was achieved via busbars; this functions has been retained in the VX Series, but with supply rails formed from strips of wider, 10-gauge conductors. The resultant DC impedance is reduced to 20% of that of the older model. (While I had no way of physically checking these mods, the end result was clear during listening test.)
Versatile channel-input selection and output routing on the VX/S can be modified either by master status controls located within the center section, or on a channel-by-channel basis. Master switching lets the user quickly configure the console using status selectors, mic/line switching, fader swapping, track-laying/mixdown status and broadcast selection. Consoles can be set to one of three primary operational modes: Track laying; Mixdown; and Broadcast. Master switching operates over the entire console, or on the left- or right-hand sections. In this way, either conventional in-line topologies can be set up in the VX/S, or a split configuration, with an input bank and a separate monitor section on either the left/right of the center section. (Stereo input channel strips can also be supplied for video post applications, etc.)
As will be appreciated, such freedom of front-panel layout greatly enhances the VX/S design's flexibility. The front-panel layout is very clean and easy to follow, with colored knob caps to aid in recognizing module sections, plus clear labeling of even the smallest buttons. In contrast to the gray color scheme used on the VR/Legend, the enhanced version from AMS Neve now features a high-contrast black background color, which makes it easier to read button and knob legends.
During multitrack recording, mic or line signals are fed via the channel path and large fader to the routing matrix of 48 group busses, arranged in doubled pairs (1 and/or 25, 2 and/or 26, etc.). Panning is selectable between odd and even track sends. Inputs can be processed using a high and low pass filter, equalizer and dynamics unit. The channel path can be routed directly to the track send of the same number or designated as part of an audio subgroup; a useful trim control provides level adjustment for the track send. Simultaneous monitoring of either the multitrack sends/returns is possible either globally, or from each channel.
A new design of mic amp is said to offer low noise and low distortion at all signal levels; during listening tests, it is was hard to detect any trace of overload or clipping, and noise seemed to be more a function of the mic/line source than the pre-amp. EQ and dynamics sections can be laid into the monitor path; similarly, aux sends can fed from the monitor path, either pre-fade/pre-cut for foldback cue sends and post-fade for reverb sends. Although the small channel fader is normally configured for setting control-room levels, this can be reversed with the large fader either globally or individually. Monitor signals can then be panned and bussed via a four-track routing matrix to one of the two stereo main outputs.
In addition, a Limiter/compressor and Gate/expander are available on each channel, with flexible side chain control. Gate/expander controls include a 50 dB gate range, 70 dB threshold (expansion ratio is 2:1), release time from 30 mS to 3s, with switchable attack time (1 mS or 100 microsecond) and variable hysteresis. (Hysteresis adjusts the threshold level for signals that are rising or falling in level, and enables precise triggering on the targeted signal while still allowing the correct amount of signal "tail" through the section. Very useful). External key input and invert (for ducking) are also provided.
The Limiter/compressor features 30 mS to 3s release times, 50 dB threshold, ratios from 1:1 to limiting, plus 30 dB make-up gain. Attack time is program dependent, with a switch for fast impulse response. Release can be set to follow automatic program-dependent release. The EQ section can also be inserted into the side chain for de-essing, etc. All in all, the dynamics section is easy to set up and use, and provides an outstanding range of system control; sections can be linked for stereo operation. My only complain is that the knobs are a little too close together for my prehensile digits. But, given the limited amount of real estate available on the surface, it's a pretty minor hardship.
Eight Aux Sends feature individual On/Off and Pre-fade/Post-fade switches, and can be configured as eight mono busses, with either the channel or monitor path as source. Pairs of sends can operate as a Stereo Aux with level/pan controls. Inserts can also be linked to either the channel or monitor path independently of the EQ section; pre-EQ/pre-dynamics topologies are also possible. Direct outputs are provided, bypassing the multitrack matrix.
Fader automation on the VX/S is nothing less that comprehensive. Again, Touch Record/Lock Record modes are available for the fader. Match and Auto Match LEDs indicate which direction the fader needs to be moved to return to the Play Pass position in Group and Link modes. Global master fader controls are also provided for linking channel functions. While, for many users, Flying Faders represents the current paradigm for easy-to-use, intuitive yet comprehensive automation, the new Encore system adds enhanced functions such as Replace, Relative and Auto Match Modes.
The Meter Bridge provides multitrack meters for each channel, and displays signal levels via VU or PPM scales. (A handy 6 dB Dump facility for the VUs decreases the sensitivity to allow metering of signals that peak above +3 dB.) Two small dynamics meters below the main bargraphs display the settings within the dynamics module. A Signal LED, with user-selectable threshold, lets you see if there is a signal present. Dedicated two-track meters follow selection of Mix 1-2, Mix 3-4 or an external monitor source.
A standard Stereo module is equipped with a single L/R balance control that can be switched out. Optionally, the module can be fitted with a front/back balance control that pans the stereo signal between Stereo Pair #1/2 and #3/4. (With normal models, you need to make use of an aux bus or spare multitrack for surround-channel assignments.) A Skew control works much like balance, except that it provides a mono-compatible signal by introducing crosstalk.
The optional Fader Direct Input Module provides a very useful Direct-to-Fader Input capability via the Channel Section. The entire front end of the console can now be bypassed, enabling an alternative front end- maybe an outboard mic pre-amp- or off-tape signals to be connected directly to the fader without passing through unnecessary electronics or switches. Control of Fader Direct Input is via a bank of push buttons within the Monitor section; input switching can also be controlled as an event by Encore/Flying Faders automation.
Three, eight-wide playback inputs enable monitoring of up to three recorders, while for post sessions, playback inputs can be used to return predubs into the mix busses, on into just the monitor. Usefully, VXS consoles can be supplied in one, two- or three-person configurations.
A comprehensive 8x8 matrix section selects which channels are sent to control room/dubbing stage loudspeaker sources. As is to be expected, Solo accesses individual speaker busses via the monitor path's final output and is not destructive to any two-track Mix selected. A dedicated button routes the return from a Dolby DS4 insert to the left-and right-surround speaker busses. A unique Dialog On mode selects monitoring of a dialog track to either center Summer (mono) or left+right channels. Other modes enable the bus-monitor signal to be heard regardless of the state of the Bus/Return paddles, for example.
My complains are very minor. The surface is a sea of knobs, with color coordination helping break up sections. However, some functions- particularly the dynamics section- are hard to implement, simply because knobs need to be squeezed so tightly together. In contrast, the track assignment, aux-send and EQ sections are less packed.
Fader and switch automation is blindingly fast, easy to master, and packs a lot of useful features. High tech with an open, clear sound: the AMS Neve VX/VXS is truly a revelation.