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Though we’re not clear why, Allen & Heath’s newest digital console release has, up until now, remained a closely guarded secret, so much so that barely a handful of people worldwide have known about its existence. Only one solitary example of the new CQ-18T exists on Australian soil at present, and recently I was given special access to the product, but only after several secret handshakes and an extensive police check were conducted.
Every now and again I’m approached by a shady character on a train who subtly passes me an envelope that self-destructs seconds after reading its contents. The information I’m privy to in this exchange is usually ‘Top-Secret’ stuff, often with the security of nations riding on my next move.
So it has been these last few weeks, where a game of cat and mouse has taken place between myself and a certain secretive manufacturer. The company’s Australian importer has been the meat in the sandwich of this shadowy exchange, fielding repeated calls around whether I was trustworthy: “Who is this Andy Stewart character anyway? Do you think he can keep this highly sensitive information under wraps?”
I pleaded my case, pointed to my long track record, and sat tight awaiting further instructions.
So then, a few days ago, disguised as a Matildas fan (actually that was my normal attire on the day), I was blindfolded, repeatedly shunted from one electric car to another to ensure we weren’t being followed, and eventually unceremoniously dumped in a back alley in Collingwood. From there I was frogmarched to TAG’s Melbourne HQ, perched on the topmost floor away from any ground-based threats and finally shown what had, up until that moment, been either described as a new exercise bike, a vase from the Ming Dynasty or a fresh 100m roll of Cat6 cable.
It was, in fact, Allen and Heath’s brand-new release: the unremarkably named CQ-18T digital console. Why the name doesn’t include the numbers 00 and 7 somewhere in there seems like an opportunity lost…
The new CQ-18T console is a compact desktop-styled 18-input digital mixer that takes its cues from different aspects of Allen & Heath’s extensive range of more expensive digital mixers. Built like a small tank, fader-less and somewhat understated in its appearance, the CQ-18T offers a wide array of mix controls and recording features, albeit with one substantial caveat: the console is designed for people who don’t know much about consoles.
If you’re at all familiar with any of the digital consoles in Allen & Heath’s extensive range, then you’ll no doubt find many of the CQ-18T’s innumerable features more than familiar looking: the parametric EQs, the compressor’s GUI, remote access via tablet software etc.
But ironically, this console has not been designed for you or me.
The console is aimed squarely at the gigging musician, pub owner or band that can’t afford its own mix engineer. In short, it’s for crew without a clue… well almost.
But whether the console manages to pull off this two-card trick, perhaps only time will tell. By my first reading of the console’s layout, language and simplicity, there’s every chance the CQ-18T will be a good fit for all kinds of gigging musicians, pub owners and location recordists who often find digital consoles intimidating, and in some cases, terrifying. But will they at first find it simple to operate? I’m not so sure.
You see, it would seem the inventive folks at Allen & Heath haven’t been able to stop themselves shoehorning all manner of facilities into this unit, and consequently the features list of the CQ-18T is long.
Physically, the compact design layout includes 16 mic/line inputs (a generous eight of which are on combo jack connectors), a stereo input via left and right ¼-inch jacks, six outputs also on ¼-inch jacks, a balanced footswitch jack that can be customised to perform a wide range of tasks, and a stereo main output on XLRs. There are USB-A and B facilities for audio and data transfer, a Cat6 connector for networking, and perhaps less predictably, an SD card reader for more reliable multitrack recording and playback. There’s also built-in Wi-Fi featuring an external antenna (that looks a tad vulnerable given its position on the console).
On a slightly different angle, tilted towards the operator, the main deck of the console features but a scant few controls positioned spaciously around its main 7-inch colour touchscreen. To the right are three soft keys and a main rotary encoder; to the left, three smaller illuminated soft rotary encoders that change colour to reflect your on-screen selections. So when, for instance, you select a filter band inside a parametric EQ that’s colour-coded purple, the soft rotaries on the left will mirror this colour scheme.
Excluding the main rotary encoder, all of the aforementioned controls are, needless to say, customisable and versatile (and therefore, arguably, complex). There’s also a row of screen selector buttons below the touchscreen itself, described as: Config, Processing, Fader, FX and Home. Each of these gives you access to a wide array of controls and options via different pages (again – adding complexity). And finally, on the front edge of the console there’s facility for two sets of headphones, which is a great idea.
In addition to all of this, the CQ-18T has four FX engines that include many of your typical effects, and these can be accessed via busses in the usual way. The console can also multitrack record and playback at 24bit 96kHz, and these recordings can be played from, or recorded to, an SD card. The console even has feedback elimination and gain assistant software onboard to get you out of trouble when you steer yourself into dangerous waters.
But what separates the CQ-18T most significantly from larger and more elaborate digital consoles is its use of instrument presets, called ‘Quick Channels’. These allow a user to quickly setup a channel of say Bass Guitar, whereupon a simple GUI of a one-knob rotation control then allows you to flow between preset sounds until you hear something you like. Embedded in this virtual knob is also a small graphic representation of the EQ you’re creating, which morphs as you rotate the dial. This is a great idea, one that’s bound to help people overcome possibly the most foreign and intimidating process a mix- outsider could ever attempt: the paralysing task of EQing a sound.
This one aspect of the console makes pulling a relatively decent sound simple indeed, but overall the navigation in and around the various tabs and screens of the CQ-18T still seems potentially confusing to someone with little knowledge of the basics of mixing. And I haven’t touched on even half of what this console is capable of. The CQ-18T is an awesome little console; a one-stop-shop for all manner of recording, mixing and live performance tasks. It sounds cool, takes up no more room than a small laptop and is bound to have a big impact on the market, given Allen and Heath’s long-standing reputation for quality and reliability.
But is it intuitive enough for crew without a clue? I’m not so sure. You’d have to know something about mixing and recording to navigate your way around the CQ-18T, but I’d imagine that once things became familiar it would be fast and intuitive to operate. And though it’s not entirely relevant here, I’d reckon it will only be a matter of time before some of these preset concepts appear on the more expensive end of the Allen & Heath spectrum.
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