Carry On Mixing
Soundcraft Spirit Folio
A quality name, a quality product, an affordable price tag — Soundcraft's new portable mixer seems to have it all. Derek Johnson wants to carry one home.
It's compact, stylish, bristling with features and costs far less than you might imagine. Derek Johnson puts this little desk through its paces and gets quite carried away.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, small, general purpose mixers seem to have become something of a growth industry. In response to the increase in demand, Soundcraft have come up with the latest addition to their Spirit range of mixing consoles — the Spirit Folio. The Folio is light, compact, sturdy and seductively stylish, the basic model offering six mono mic/line input channels and two stereo line-only channels with proper fader control, three-band EQ with sweep mid and phantom powering on the mic inputs. For those needing a couple more inputs, there's a version with eight mono input channels, this latter version also being available in an 8U rack-mounting package. Both versions are powered from an external power supply.
The Folio's colour scheme conforms to the usual Spirit steely blue-grey, with pale grey pots topped with coloured caps, and line markers which extend down the side of the pots to provide positive visual indication of a pot's setting. In all, it's a design which exudes quality and inspires confidence. Attention to detail in the construction of the Folio is evident and there are refinements not normally expected on a mixer of this size or price — an example being the scribble strip across the bottom of the front panel. There's also an integral carrying handle which extends the full width of the mixer; it's covered in a ribbed, hard, rubber-like material which makes transporting the Folio as easy as picking up a briefcase. And with dimensions of 375 x 407 x 39.2mm, and a weight of only 4.2kg, it's certainly little larger or heavier than a typical briefcase. The handle also doubles as a support when the mixer is set up on a flat surface and serves to angle the desk into a comfortable working position.
Unusually, the jack sockets on the connector panel are raised rather than, as is more usual, being recessed. These look quite attractive but may have been selected because they take up less room inside the case, which is surprisingly shallow.
Each of the six mono input channels has a mic input on a conventionally wired, balanced XLR socket with the option of phantom power, which is switchable globally. The Line input is also balanced, which is surprising for a mixer of this price, but may be used unbalanced simply by inserting a mono jack — which is what the majority of users will undoubtedly do. There is no Mic/line switching, as inserting a line jack overrides the mic input.
The first control after the input connectors sets the gain and offers a range between -10dB and +54dB, with unity gain clearly marked for line level inputs. Next comes a 100Hz high pass filter switch — again an unusual sophistication on such a small mixer. This can be particularly useful in a live situation to keep stage rumble at bay, and will also help reduce popping from microphones to a limited extent.
Another surprise is the EQ, which is not only a three-band system, but also comes equipped with a swept mid control. The HF and LF are both shelving controls, the HF working at 12kHz and the LF at 60Hz. Both provide cut or boost of up to 15dB, while the mid EQ ranges between 250Hz and 6kHz, again with 15dB cut or boost. The EQ is very smooth, and alters the tonal balance in a musical way without adding any harsh overtones or unduly upsetting the overall balance of a mix, though as so often seems to be the case, the mid control doesn't go down far enough to tackle boxiness when miking drums. A lower extreme of 120Hz would have been far preferable. The controls themselves are staggered, which prevents them from becoming cramped. This is a similar arrangement to that employed by the original Seck mixers, to which the Folio no doubt owes some of its features, and is made possible by the single circuit board construction rather than individual channel boards, which tend to dictate a linear control layout.
After the EQ comes the auxiliary send controls. Aux 2 is solely post-fader for use with external effects, while Aux 1 is switchable between post and pre fader, allowing it to be used when setting up foldback mixes. This switching is available on a global rather than a per channel basis. The pan pot is followed by a 60mm carbon fader which is reasonably smooth, if a little resistant. Last comes the small, grey pre-fade listen (PFL) button. This is a momentary action switch, so you need two hands when setting up the input channel gain controls. The right hand LED bargraph in the master section shows the channel signal level during this operation, and the result can be auditioned via the monitor output.
Additionally, the Folio features two stereo line channels (labelled 7/8 and 9/10), which are visually distinguished from the previous channels by virtue of their blue fader caps and lack of mic inputs. These channels are slightly simpler than the mic/line channels, both having a pair of balanced jack inputs, a +4dB/-10dB pad, a simpler two-band EQ (HF shelves at 8kHz, LF at 60Hz), two aux sends, and a balance pot. If you plug a single mono signal into input 7 or input 9, then the balance knob is designed to behave like a pan pot. The fader is once again 60mm type, while the PFL button sends a mono sum of the two input signals to the monitor output and to the right hand meter.
The master section includes the 48V phantom power switch, accompanied by a red activity LED. The master bargraph meter is simply composed of two rows of LEDs poking through holes in the sheet steel front panel, but this is aesthetically quite acceptable and very clear in operation. There are three colours: green up to -3dB, yellow at 0dB, and red from +3dB to + 12dB. Below the right hand bargraph is the PFL/AFL indicator LED — the right meter is used to display the PFL or AFL signal.
Next up is the Aux 1 Pre switch which configures all the Aux 1 sends as pre-fader for monitor purposes. Here is also found the Aux 1 and Aux 2 AFL (After Fade Listen) switch, which allows you to check the level of the auxiliary sends, in the same way that the PFL is used to set the level of the input channels. Rather unusually, the Folio's master section also includes a 1 kHz test tone oscillator — a latching switch routes this to the mix outputs where it can be used for level alignment or for signal tracing. Because there is only one tone, it is not suitable for tape machine alignment.
The Folio is designed to accommodate a stereo tape machine and this function is covered by a level control and two assignment buttons. The tape return can be routed to the monitor and headphones output (muting the mix) or added to the main mix output. This latter provision makes it useful as a stereo effects return or additional stereo line input when it isn't being used with a tape machine. The monitor/phones output has its own level control, and a further pair of 60mm faders with red caps handle the master output level.
Connections for the master section are at the top of the panel, and comprise the two aux sends, left and right monitor outputs, headphones socket, main left and right mix outs, mix insert points and the tape returns. Also in this vicinity — at the top left, to the rear — is a three-pin socket for the external power supply.
Sonically, the Folio is a quiet, clean performer and no doubt benefits from its relatively short signal path when compared with large studio consoles. When a channel's gain is turned up as high as it can go, with the monitor or mix outputs also cranked up, there is a little bleed through from channels that have their faders right down and inevitably also a little hiss, but certainly no more than you'd expect from a typical, mid-price recording or PA console.
The EQ section is flexible and powerful without being unduly harsh unless excessive settings are used. The choice of 12kHz as the HF frequency seems justified as it allows you to add a little 'air' around sounds without making them fatiguing or abrasive, and the LF control is fine for warming up sounds or killing boominess. As mentioned earlier, the sweep mid is an unexpected and welcome bonus on a mixer designed for this sector of the market and it works well, providing that not too much boost is added.
The lack of channel insert points is a frustration, but very often, any apparent limitation can be worked around by using the master insert points. On a purely practical note, I must confess to disliking external power supplies, especially for use in live situations. This one connects with a very tiny three-pin plug which is a snug enough fit and the plug doesn't wobble, but psychologically, it doesn't seem quite right for a mixer of this quality. Also on the subject of power, there is no on/off switch, and no indication that the mixer is active when you plug it in — not even a LED.
Blazoned across the Folio's box is the epigram "Everyone needs a little Spirit". Is this actually true? Just who will benefit from using the Folio? It's certainly portable, so the gigging musician and mobile engineer on a shoe-string have probably got their cheque books out already. And for live recording, I could think of far worse setups than a Folio, a compressor/limiter, a DAT machine and a few mics to handle quality location work.
"Sonically the Folio is a quiet, clean performer and no doubt benefits from its relatively short signal path when compared with large studio consoles."
Keyboard players in need of a convenient sub-mixer will also welcome the Folio's compact size and portability. It's so simple to send a feed from the Folio to the main PA or studio mixer, and to make instant recordings of jams. The stereo inputs are ideal for the main outputs of multi-timbral synths and samplers, though in the case of a setup involving only keyboards, a dedicated keyboard line mixer might be more practical.
Groups will love the desk — stick one in the rehearsal studio, whack a couple of leads into a cassette deck, and after a couple of takes, you may just have a decent demo. For multitrack recording, the Folio may not seem to be the ideal choice as it has no dedicated monitor section, although with a little ingenuity, the desk can cope with basic 4 and even 8-track recording. Insert points on the input channels could have been used to address individual tape tracks, but their lack for more traditional uses (compressing a vocal that is going to tape) can be got round by using the master insert point, so long as the vocal is an overdub and not part of a mix. Monitoring can be achieved by feeding the tape machine outputs into spare mixer channels, turning the fader levels right down and then using the pre-fade aux send controls to set up a mono cue mix.
Despite the inevitable minor criticisms attracted by any product that's built down to a price, the facilities on offer are impressive and the three-band EQ with sweep mid wouldn't be out of place on a far more sophisticated mixer. Having proper XLR mic inputs with the option of 48V phantom power, and balanced line inputs is also very welcome. Indeed, so 'professional' are these features that it's almost impossible to understand why Soundcraft omitted to fit channel insert points, though master insert points are provided for the main stereo output.
Having only a pair of auxiliary sends on a small mixer such as this is about par for the course — but having one that's switchable between post and pre fader is very useful for setting up a monitor mix in live or multitrack recording situations. The provision of separate monitor and mix outputs is also very welcome when recording, as it allows independent control over the signal going to tape and the signal being fed to the monitoring systems. The tape returns allow off-tape monitoring without the need to repatch and double as extra audio line inputs. But I felt that the omission of additional dedicated aux returns was a little stingy, as you are forced to use the tape returns or the stereo line input channels.
The 1 kHz test tone oscillator is handy for rough and ready diagnostic work or signal tracing, while on the input channel front, it's great to have PFL, but I missed not having channel mute switches or EQ bypass buttons. Still, you can't have everything for this low price and Soundcraft have managed to provide some very nice facilities without compromising on sound quality.
Of course the Folio isn't without competition, the most obvious contender for the small desk crown being the US-built Mackie 1202. Without making any value judgments, both have facilities that the other lacks: the Mackie, while only having four mic inputs, does offer insert points on those channels and it does have two dedicated stereo FX return channels as well. The Folio, on the other hand, offers a more spacious, comfortable design, has a more comprehensive EQ section and real faders rather than rotary pots.
One positive side to the hard time Sterling is having on the world markets is that UK-made products are starting to look very attractively priced. And that helps make the Folio sharply competitive. The chance to own something this well-built, that sounds (and looks) this good, with Soundcraft's name on it, is almost too good to miss. You'll know what I mean when you take one for a spin.
Spirit Folio £351.33; 12:2 version £410.08; 12:2 rackmount £410.08. Prices include VAT.
Soundcraft Electronics Ltd, (Contact Details).