Allen & Heath Saber Mixer
Moving upmarket? David Pickering Pick presents this user report on Allen & Heath's Saber console.
When shopping for a mixer, what is it that influences your choice? The number of inputs/outputs/extra inputs at mixdown must be high on most people's list, followed by how many auxiliary sends, how many bands of EQ, and how many inputs per channel there are. After that come less tangible influences - how does the EQ sound, how easy is the desk to operate, what sort of 'image' has the manufacturer, and how impressive-looking is the appearance? These last two attributes are surprisingly powerful; the 'look' of a mixer becomes increasingly important as your studio is hired by people who know very little about music but know hi-tech when they see it. The reputation of the manufacturer is even more insidious: it may be that wild horses would not drag you towards one make or another based on nothing more than one bad session eight years ago, with a mixer that the manufacturer himself has forgotten he ever made!
A few years ago Allen & Heath's image (to me at any rate) was solid, unadventurous, and a little pedestrian. Much of this went out of the window when they produced one of the first mixers to feature some degree of MIDI control, the CMC series. MIDI has found its way into quite a few mixers since then, but there is little consensus as to the best way to use it. The most popular option, and probably the easiest to implement, is control over the individual channel, group and auxiliary return mutes. Yamaha, with the DMP7, went all the way and produced a fully digital eight input mixer with every function under MIDI control, and motorised faders to boot. Somewhere between the two, and usually coming at some cost, are the systems offering VCA control of levels via MIDI. A&H have decided to follow the 'mutes only' route with the new Saber range, and have concentrated on making the system easy to use and largely transparent to the operator.
Any mixer has to have a market to aim at, and the target here is medium-sized 16-track studios, MIDI programming suites, and up-market private studios. The Saber is a modular console which comes in three frame sizes: 36, 44 and 52 module widths. There are various configuration options available but both recording and PA versions require the master module. This occupies four module widths and contains the MIDI mute processor as well as the usual auxiliary sends/returns, and studio and control room monitor controls. The smallest Saber has 24 inputs, 8 outputs and 16 tape monitors; the largest is the 32:16:16 with full patchbay (40 inputs are possible without the patchbay).
Module options include the standard input module (described in detail below); a version with auto muting on the fader for broadcast and other applications; a stereo input, with more limited EQ and the possibility of RIAA equalisation for record decks. On the output side, the choice is between a single or dual output group, the latter giving the full 16 outputs, the former only eight, which is often sufficient. The difference in cost is not very great, though, and I would imagine most people would opt for the dual group option.
Both modules contain two tape monitor inputs which have fader reverse switches on them (more of this later) and can be used as extra inputs at mixdown. I understand that there is now a module available with extra tape monitors for 24-track operation, though the desk is still only a 16-buss design and therefore this is the maximum number of output groups available.
Money is important to most people and the Saber is priced fairly, given the facilities it offers. Being modular, it is possible to buy a larger frame than you need initially and to add modules later; leaving out eight input modules would save about £750, and would cost you about £830 to add later (at current prices). The cheapest recording Saber is the 24:8:16 with analogue VU meters, which costs £6214 (plus VAT), and the most expensive is the 32:16:16 with full patchbay and bargraph meters, at almost £10,000 (all prices exclude VAT). Incidentally, the patchbay adds a cool £2300 to the cost. These are not trivial amounts of money, of course, but if you are considering a console in this class you will probably have an old one to trade in, and will probably expect the Saber to earn you a bob or two. We are into impressing the punters here, and owning a Saber is a lot more prestigious than owning a Seck, however good they undoubtedly are.
To my mind the Saber is a very handsome mixer. It is finished in eggshell grey, with light grey knobs and a predominance of red (mute buttons, gains and pans). The recording version comes with a cantilever steel stand, which is non-adjustable and holds the desk at a convenient angle. It is a little taller than I would have preferred. The sides are finished in solid wood, stained dark grey-brown. I must say, having seen only photos of the desk before it arrived, I was surprised at how compact it is. The 32:16:16 version in the medium frame is just 1.5 metres wide. The clever bit is that it feels by no means cramped in operation - everything is well laid out and clearly marked.
There is a large meter bridge containing 18 meters (16 group plus left/right) which can be either illuminated VU types or 20-segment LED bargraphs, with PPM characteristic to BBC standard. My console has the VU meters, which I stubbornly prefer, even though people tell me they are 'Virtually Useless'. I'm afraid to have to report that one of the illumination bulbs blew after one week, but was not hard to replace.
The operation manual is not particularly lengthy but includes useful information about wiring, test procedures, and is fairly comprehensive about the MIDI muting system, which will be new to most people. For a nominal sum (£10.50), you can purchase the full service manual which contains all the circuit diagrams and much that is useful even if you don't intend to do your own servicing.
Mixer reviews usually begin by taking a leisurely stroll through the input channel, and this one is no exception. Each input receives three sources: microphone (electronically balanced with individually switchable phantom powering); tape return (balanced XLR connectors, the first 16 of which are in parallel with the 16 tape monitors); and line input (balanced jacks). Each input channel also features a direct output (unbalanced jack) and insert (pre-fade, tip send/ring return at 0dBu). All of these sources are switchable from the top of the input module, along with a gain control (active on all sources) and associated 20dB mic input attenuator and phase reverse switch. Next come the track selector switches, which permit each input to be routed to either groups 1-8 or 9-16, but not to all 16 at once, and to the left and right main outputs.
Next we come to the six auxiliary send levels. Unlike some lesser desks, where you really have to use some creative addition to come up with the manufacturer's claim of six aux sends, in this case there really are six discrete ones. The first two are switchable as a pair either pre- or post-fader, the purpose of the former being foldback or cue to the musicians in the studio. If two pre-fade auxiliaries is not enough, any of the sends can be internally rewired by means of circuit jumpers to be pre-or post-fade, as well as pre- or post-EQ. Pretty versatile.
The 'sound' of any mixing console is mostly about the quality of the EQ - after all, the rest is just preamps and switches and if these colour the sound significantly you've really got problems. The Saber's EQ is fairly comprehensive, consisting of a shelving HF control, with the corner switchable to 6 or 12kHz. All of the EQ bands cut and boost by 12dB, which is less than some other consoles but gives the EQ a nice smooth feel. There are two mid frequency bands, both sweep equalisers with the upper ranging from 1-10kHz, and the lower from 200Hz-2kHz. The bass is a shelving control like the top, with switchable corners at 70Hz and 140Hz. This means that there is a small frequency band between 140 and 200Hz which is not covered by the EQ, but the bandwidth of the lower sweep is such that there is still some 10dB of cut and boost at 150Hz so this should not cause any real problems. Finally on the EQ front, there is a low cut filter of 12dB per octave at 80Hz, which can be used regardless of whether the EQ section as a whole is switched in or out. A nice touch.
A thoroughly conventional pan control is followed by a button and associated LED marked 'Check'. Saber uses a novel (meaning I haven't come across it before) system of monitoring individual sources. It has full solo-in-place facilities, allowing individual sources to be heard at their post-fader level and correctly panned; and because the echo returns are not muted, the source is heard with its own reverb, etc. Clearly this is a great boon for setting up a mix. However, because the other inputs and reverb sends are muted, it would be disastrous to attempt it during actual recording. To add to the flexibility of the system, solo-in-place can be separately enabled for either the channels, the group monitors, or both. For example, extra reverb returns coming into the monitors would be heard when a channel is soloed, unless the two are linked; in which case only the auxiliary returns are left unmuted along with the selected channel. Clear as mud?
For those occasions when you would not wish to risk upsetting a recording with solo-in-place, you can select pre-fade listen (PFL) instead, as indicated by a green LED next to the switch on the master module, and a red LED which lights when a check switch is activated anywhere on the console. In all, a comprehensive system which is rather more sophisticated than you might expect on a desk of this type.
Below this is the large red mute button and associated LED, which also bears the channel number on it. This is a non-latching button, and toggles the mute (and LED) on and off. It is very quiet, and you have to turn the volume up very high to hear any sort of click. The mute itself is achieved by a low noise FET, which is under the control of the MIDI mute processor on the master module; the mute button therefore affects the FET mute element only indirectly, via the processor. Details of the MIDI mute system are given in a separate panel.
A red peak LED is situated below the mute switch and lights at 3dB below overload, monitoring the pre-fader, post-EQ signal. Lastly comes the channel fader, which is a light but smooth 100mm Alps type. The only thing that comes after the fader is the padded arm rest.
Eight or 16 group output faders feed the balanced output XLR connectors. The impedance here is 50 ohms, which is low enough to drive anything which doesn't actually have four wheels. The balancing is rather wasted on my Fostex E16, which is arranged to join pin 3 (cold) to the screen. Group output and multitrack return levels may be internally modified by way of circuit jumpers, to either +4 or -8dBu, for pro or semi-pro machines respectively. The test console was fairly well aligned as far as levels and meters were concerned. Sharing the module with the output faders are the tape monitors. These are arranged on the 16 output version with returns 1 and 2 on the first module, and so on. But on the eight output version it is assumed that output 1 will also supply track 9, and the monitors are numbered accordingly. Inserts are supplied on the output groups, but it is worth knowing that the signal from these is out-of-phase with other outputs on the desk. This is not a problem if the signal is returned through the insert, but if it is returned through an input the phase switch should be reversed.
Each monitor section is a smaller version of the input modules, again with three input sources per section - group buss, tape return, and line inputs. The tape returns are connected in parallel with the tape inputs on inputs 1-16, and therefore it's a simple matter to switch between routing the tape returns through the monitors or through the first 16 inputs. The purpose of the tape monitors is, of course, to set up a rough mix from the multitrack when all the inputs are tied up with microphones or whatever, but this is unlikely to happen very often, especially with the larger Saber consoles, so most of the time I would expect to use inputs 1-16 for the tape returns, leaving the monitors as extra inputs for effect returns and MIDI equipment.
The facilities offered by each monitor are somewhat less than the full inputs but useful nevertheless. After the tape/line/group input selector comes a two-band EQ section (+/— 12dB shelving at 100Hz and 10kHz) and then auxiliaries 1 and 2, switchable pre- or post-fade as usual. There is one more send which can be configured as aux 3 or 4 - you can switch between them but can't have both. Next come a level control and pan. These are followed by our old friends. Check and Mute (programmable). Finally, there are one or two fader reverse buttons. These are incredibly useful and simply exchange the functions of the group output fader and the monitor level knob.
Thus at times when you feel the need to use the monitors as extra inputs (or at any other time), the group faders become the monitor input level faders, making them seem very much more like 'proper' inputs during mixdown. The only problem here is the close proximity of the faders on the 16 output version; there is no numbering here, unlike the inputs which have a clear bold number on the mute button, and it is very difficult to distinguish between them.
The Saber is a conventional 'split' console — it has the input channels on one side and the output groups and monitors on the other, as opposed to 'in-line' consoles where the monitors and outputs are incorporated into the same channel modules as the inputs. Most people seem to find split consoles easier and more intuitive to work with, and this is useful if you have outsiders coming in to use your studio. Split consoles do tend to be wider than the equivalent in-line type, which in turn can make you stretch a long way to reach the top of the channel.
Located in the middle of the Saber is the master module, which contains the six aux sends, along with PFL (not 'check'; this time solo-in-place is not available because it is a meaningless concept in this context) and mutes, which are not programmable. I am not sure of the reason for this omission, as programmable sends would be extremely useful to isolate individual words or phrases and route them to, say, a delay unit. There are four dedicated auxiliary returns: 1 and 2 offer two-band EQ and full output group routing as well as programmable mutes; 3 and 4 lack EQ and can only be routed to the main stereo outputs - I suppose this is dictated by space but I like to able to route either of my two reverbs to the multitrack without re-patching. In fact, this is the one area where my previous mixer, the humble but efficient Seck, wins over the Saber!
At the bottom of the master module are the master outputs: a red Alps fader controls the stereo output, whilst there is a separate, parallel mono output fader feeding a balanced XLR, but not metered. This might be useful for feeding, say, a video machine, and carries the summed main stereo signals after the fader - in other words, fading the stereo fader would also fade the mono output. Just above the output faders are left/right peak indicators, which illuminate if you drive the stereo mix buss a little too hard. Insert points are also provided on the stereo output.
The right-hand side of the master module is what mainly differentiates the recording console from the PA version, and very comprehensive it is too. Firstly, there is a test oscillator with three set frequencies: 100Hz, 1 kHz and 10kHz. The output of this can be routed, as can the talkback from the internal mic lower down the module, to either or all of the studio monitoring system, the main outputs, and the group outputs. This oscillator is not intended to be a precision piece of equipment, and the 10kHz signal is about 1.5dB down on the two lower frequencies. The level control can be adjusted to accommodate this. There is also a discrete oscillator output on the back panel (unbalanced jack), which is a thoughtful inclusion.
The studio foldback section is next up, which includes a choice of outputs to feed either headphones or a studio loudspeaker system (both via suitable amplification). These lines can be fed by a combination of Aux 1 and 2 (either separately in mono or together as stereo), the L/R masters, or the control room monitor source. Plenty of flexibility here. In addition, there is a non-programmable mute which really should have a warning LED like all the other mutes, but hasn't. So if the musicians keep saying they can't hear anything, this might be the reason.
The control room monitoring section is comprehensive, with the source selectable from the main outputs, stereo tape machines 1 or 2 (two sets of inputs and outputs are included) or the studio. The selected source also appears on the L/R meters. There are outputs for two separate sets of monitor speakers, plus dimming and muting buttons. There is one headphone socket on the top of the desk with a level control and another on the back panel. The only criticism I have of this section is that the monitor volume level does not completely attenuate the selected source - some of it still bleeds through to the monitors even when it is turned right down.
After the monitoring section comes the 'check' system selector, offering PFL or solo-in-place. At the bottom right of the module is the mute processor keypad, which is described elsewhere in the separate panel.
The Saber is a very good mixer which I would be happy to own. Come to think of it, I do own it (except for the bit which still belongs to the bank!). There are several competitors to the Saber, but none have quite the same combination of facilities and other attributes. Most of the few reservations I have do not survive the "what can you expect for the price" test. Of those that do, I would most like to see programmable mutes on the auxiliary sends.
The Saber is as quiet as one could reasonably hope for, although the design is such that what noise there is on the main outputs is at maximum regardless of how many inputs are routed to it. To put this into perspective, this noise is easily swamped by the output noise of my Yamaha REV7 reverb, which is generally considered to be one of the quieter budget reverbs. If I wanted to route only two channels to a DAT machine, say, I would probably use the channel direct outputs. Crosstalk is well within limits for the class, and is easily exceeded by the head crosstalk between adjacent tracks of even a high quality multitrack.
I think Allen & Heath have found the right combination of facilities, appearance and size in relation to price and the kind of work the console is likely to be asked to perform. Thus, I would expect the Saber production line to be a busy place for some time to come.
Review mixer supplied by: Thatched Cottage Audio, (Contact Details).
Saber prices range from £6214 to £9969 (plus VAT) for the recording versions. The review model 32:16:16 with VU meters costs £7194 (plus VAT).
Allen & Heath Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by David Pickering Pick