Allen & Heath System 8 Mixer
The System 8 range of mixers is specifically designed to meet the wide-ranging needs of today's multitracking musician, and is available in four configurations to suit various recorder formats: 12-8, 16-4, 16-8 and 16-16. The model chosen for review is the top-of-the-range 1616 which offers 16 input channels, 8 group outputs plus stereo mix and full 16 track monitoring. Though capable of interfacing with a 16-track tape machine, it is configured for 8-track use, giving you the added bonus of the extra monitoring facilities in an extremely good value package.
The external appearance and design of the 1616 is common to the System 8 range, being constructed from steel with polished wooden end cheeks and finished in a pleasant light brown colour. Overall dimensions are 42"(W) x 26½"(D) x 9¾"(H) and the 103lbs weight emphasises the rigid construction, and durability of the unit.
A large meter pod houses the 20 large, easily visible VU meters that forms the backbone of the mixer. These are split conveniently into two groups of eight, either side of the main Left and Right output meters for constant checks on group output and stereo mix signal levels. The main panel is logically divided into three sections: Inputs, Main Outputs and Group Outputs.
Mic or line source inputs are available, which are selected by a small pushbutton at the top of each channel. A -20dB pad can be selected, to attenuate high level mic signals to prevent overload. The associated red Gain pot adjusts the incoming signal level and has a useful mark to show the recommended position of the control when either line level signals are operative, or semi-pro tape machines (such as Teac or Fostex) are feeding the input. Setting this matches the operating level of the System 8 to the external recorder, helping to ensure quality recording.
3-band equalisation is provided giving 12dB of useful cut or boost to high frequency content at either 8kHz or 12kHz depending upon the position of the button above the HF control knob, and to low frequencies at either 60Hz or 120Hz. The midrange is catered for by parametric EQ that can be swept between 400Hz and 6kHz also with 12dB of cut or boost. These give a wide variation of tonal possibilities but the frequencies don't overlap, which leaves a noticeable 'hole' in the frequency spectrum around the 200Hz mark, which you cannot equalise and which is pretty important on bass drums and low synth sounds. Full three band parametric would have been better, but this would have added to the overall cost too much.
Following on from the EQ are the three auxiliary send level controls. Aux 1 is 'pre-fade' and thus not affected by the fader level, whilst Aux 3 is, being 'post-fade'. Aux 2 is switchable from either pre- or post-fade, and so can be used as an additional echo send (post-fade) or fold-back/cue mix control (pre-fade), depending upon the situation.
Five pushbuttons below the auxiliaries are used to route the channel signal to any or a combination of group outputs, as well as to the main stereo output, in conjunction with the pan pot. Panning the signal left selects odd numbered groups, right the even ones. If the desk is being used for PA applications, say, you could use the main left and right outputs to feed the PA speakers, whilst also sending the same signal to two pairs of groups - 1 and 2, 3 and 4, for example. One pair of groups can then be used to drive on-stage monitors with the option of different equalisation and effects treatments, whilst the last group pair goes to the inputs of a stereo recorder for a live recording of the performance. How's that for versatility!
With the model 1616 there's a slight hindrance if using a 16-track tape machine. Generally speaking, each group output would feed the relevant track on the tape recorder. However, the 1616 only has 8 group outputs but 16-track monitor facilities, so the group outputs double up and feed two tracks using splitter leads. For example, group 1 would feed tracks 1 and 9, so the track to be recorded on must be selected on the actual recorder. You soon get the hang of which group is feeding which input after a couple of test recording sessions, and you soon realise that the versatile routing buss in the System 8 is opening up a whole new avenue of recording techniques for you.
Pre-fade listen (PFL) on each input channel, when pressed, cuts out all other signals except the channel selected and routes the signal to the stereo output VU meters, allowing you to check the quality of the incoming signal. This is particularly useful when 'troubleshooting' for a noisy channel or microphone. You simply press each PFL in turn until you find the problem source - then rectify it!
A channel mute facility lets you cut that particular channel out of the mix immediately, and is ideally used to reduce crosstalk and background noise by killing the channel output from an unused channel. Being post-fade based, this mute switch won't affect your foldback mix on the pre-fade auxiliary, so a channel can be switched off without disturbing what performers are hearing in their headphones.
A peak indicating LED and 90mm long carbon fader complete the individual input channel features.
There are 8 of these on the model 1616 situated at the right end of the panel. Groups 1-8 each have a Level control, two auxiliary send levels (the second of which can be selected to send post-fader signal to either auxiliary buss 2 or 3) and a pan pot. Below these is a button marked 'tape' which when selected monitors the output from tape of whatever track that group is routed to, instead of monitoring the group output from the mixer. A group PFL is also provided and works like the channel PFL.
The System 8 model 1616 has eight extra monitor groups which are identical to the previous eight groups but without the pre-fade listen facility. The 'tape' buttons must all be depressed if you want to monitor the off-tape signal from all 16-tracks, otherwise these extra groups will duplicate the signal being fed to the first 1-8 groups, if 'group' is selected on monitor groups 9-16. These tape returns can also be used as extra effects returns during an 8-track mixdown for increased versatility.
The main left and right faders and monitor master controls are neatly located in the centre panel of the mixer. Above the faders are the echo return 1 and 2 controls, which can be routed to any group or stereo mix using a similar pushbutton system to the channel inputs along with the pan pot. The return signal level is adjusted using the level knob, and the provision of two auxiliary level controls (both pre-fade) means you can add echo (or any effect) to your foldback mix or specific groups. The permutations of using the various auxiliaries and echo returns are so great that space precludes their explanation, but many examples are given in the owner's manual if you should become the proud possessor of a System 8 mixer. Echo return PFL is the final control in this section.
Three auxiliary send master level controls are situated at the top of this central panel, each with AFL - the auxiliary equivalent of pre-fade listen (PFL), for checking auxiliary signal quality. The cue system master controls beside these, let you set up either two separate mono foldback mixes (derived from channel, group or stereo outputs) or one stereo foldback mix. A talkback facility is possible using a microphone (preferably on a gooseneck) connected to the XLR socket on the meter housing. Talkback level is adjustable via a pot and two buttons select either Slate or Cue.
Slate routes the talkback signal to groups 1-8 so that you can identify your tracks with 'take' numbers, whilst Cue lets you speak to the performers in their headphones. If talkback is selected, the volume of signal going to the control room monitors is automatically attenuated to prevent feedback caused by the talkback mic picking up the sound of your voice from the monitors.
The monitor section itself has pushbuttons to select which source you want to listen to; either the main stereo output mix, the stereo tape return, the cue (foldback) mix or a monophonic version of any of them. The level control sets the volume of the speakers you're using to monitor with and a 'monitor dim' switch can be used to cut the overall volume quickly. A useful feature when answering telephone calls in the control room, as you can leave all faders in the same position and just push a button.
Apart from a PFL/AFL indicator lamp that shows when PFL has been selected, this section is completed by the headphone level control, which independently sets the volume of mix going to the cans. These rather annoyingly plug into a socket on the meter housing so that the lead dangles over the controls(!). A better position would have been next to the last group output fader or on the front edge of the mixer.
Finally, there are two pushbuttons at the very top of this section which activate a 1kHz test tone oscillator that is routed to the group outputs at a preset level of 0VU for tape/mixer calibration. The last button selects the optional phantom power, which is derived from a +48volt supply in the external power supply unit. If phantom power is not required the regular 15V PSU can be used with the mixer, which again is an external device which ensures low noise and generally hum-free operation.
Female Neutrik XLR sockets are used on all 16 channels for mic inputs. These are electronically balanced with low impedance of 2 kilohms. Line level inputs via ¼" balanced jacks have an impedance of 47 kilohms.
Break-jack insert points on all inputs and outputs make the System 8 a flexible unit. Insert sockets can be used as combined send/return loops allowing you to patch effects like compressors, noise gates and digital delays directly into channels without tying up the all-important auxiliary send and echo return facilities.
XLR male sockets are used on all master and group outputs, while ¼" jacks are used on all three auxiliary outs, the stereo cue and monitor outputs. Mono unbalanced jack sockets are used for echo returns and tape inputs on each group, and a stereo jack for the master return from the stereo tape recorder, for replaying the completed mix.
This comprehensive selection of connections is supplemented by a system of 'buss tie lines' which duplicate most rear panel connections, enabling two System 8 mixers to be cascaded together without losing any inputs or outputs. Alternatively, the 8 input expander module (Ex8) can be linked up to provide extra input facilities, turning the 1616 into a 24 into 8 into 2 mixer - a powerful tool for any recording application.
There is no doubt in my mind that the System 8 range of mixers is the best yet from Allen & Heath. All models are competitively priced, with a whole host of features you'd only expect from a pro audio mixer - that's not to say that these mixers are not professional. The control layout, ease of operation and facilities take the hard work out of multitracking, leaving you free to concentrate on the real business of making music.
For anybody looking for a relatively noiseless, quality mixer to go with a four, eight or even sixteen track tape recorder you could do far worse than go for a System 8. At around £1700, the top-of-the-range 1616 is still a very good buy. Should your budget stretch to this level, then I'd go with it since it provides a plethora of extra useful features that make 8-track recording a creative rather than limiting process. With the advent of the Fostex 16-track tape recorder, there'll be a lot of people looking for a mixer that will do the machine justice and the System 8 model 1616 unit will do just that!
Prices of the System 8 range (including VAT) are as follows: 128 £1259.25; 164 £1322.50; 168 £1460.05; 1616 £1719.25. The Ex8 expander retails at £615.25.
For further details contact Allen & Heath Brenell Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Gilby
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