Recording with the Soundcraft Series 200
Freelance recording engineer Dave Lockwood outlines the many ways he has found of utilising the extensive routing facilities of Soundcraft's Series 200 mixer, to make full 8-track recording a viable proposition.
The Soundcraft Series 200 mixer offers a high quality, low-noise performance normally associated only with a considerably more expensive studio console. Although the design may initially appear to offer only fairly limited facilities for multitrack recording, in fact the Series 200 has a versatility that shows the designers' clear understanding of the needs and working methods of the eight-track user. The modular construction allows different numbers of input channels, from 8 to 24 to be selected, but the output section remains the same for all mainframe sizes, consisting of four group outputs, four auxiliary outputs and a main stereo output, with four dedicated tape returns and four group/tape return monitor channels, giving full eight-track monitoring capability.
The input modules contain just a single routing switch, which can assign the signal only to groups 1 and 2 or groups 3 and 4. No facility is therefore included for routing directly to the mix-bus, and seemingly only 4 tape sends are accessible. Although most multitrack sessions undoubtedly do not require the recording of all tracks simultaneously, few professional users would be content to be entirely without the ability to cover this situation if necessary, and in fact, the Series 200 offers two methods of deriving additional outputs, using the auxiliary busses and the input channel insert points.
The four auxiliary sends actually utilise similar circuitry to the group outputs, and as auxiliary master controls are provided, it is therefore possible to sum several input signals together, and then have overall control of the level sent to tape. Only the pre-fade auxiliaries can be used in this way however, as the signal within the channel must be prevented from also entering any of the main group busses by keeping the fader closed.
Unfortunately the channel on/off switch cannot be used for this purpose as the feeds to both pre and post-fade auxiliaries are derived after the switch. If this had been located in the circuit just before the Pan pot, all four auxiliaries could then have been used in this way, but this would also have led to a rather undesirable situation when mixing, whereby the channel mute facility would leave the effects sends still operative.
Using the two pre-fade auxiliaries with the relevant input channels necessarily switched on, but with their faders kept down, effectively allows two extra group outputs to be derived, making a total of six available, with the potential for three stereo groups if auxiliaries 1 and 2 are used together as a stereo pair.
Although the Series 200 has four VU meters, normally displaying the output of the four main groups, the lower pair of meters can be switched when necessary to display the monitor source, which allows metering of the stereo bus and any signal that has been 'soloed' by the use of a PFL or AFL switch. All four auxiliary masters have their own AFL facility which isolates that auxiliary output in the monitoring and also allows the meters to display the output level after the auxiliary master control. Using this facility, accurate tape send levels can be set when utilising the pre-fade auxiliary circuits as additional groups, and although it may not seem very convenient to have to interrupt the monitor mix in to check levels, in practice, this is not really a problem, as tape send levels are generally preset and rarely altered actually during recording.
Further outputs can then be derived by using the (rear panel) insert point jack sockets that are provided on all input channels, and whilst this method does not allow further grouping, as only one channel can be sent directly to a track, this is not seriously restrictive as most multitrack recordings are almost certain to contain at least a couple of input signals that are to be recorded individually on their own tracks. The insert point is located after the equaliser circuitry, but before the channel fader, so the output level to tape must be controlled solely by the input gain setting (for each channel), although the facilities of the EQ remain operative, and the channel's 'peak' LED indicator will continue to give its normal warning of the level within the module approaching within 4dB of clipping.
The insert points use stereo ¼" jacks, wired with the 'return' into the channel via the tip connection, and the 'send' or output using the ring, with the sleeve connection as a common ground. A stereo jack plug can be used to take a direct output via the ring and sleeve, leaving the tip unconnected as no return line is necessarily required. However, a useful degree of extra sophistication can be added to this by linking the tip and ring connections within the plug. This allows the desired output to be taken without interrupting the signal at this point within the module, and so enables a number of extra facilities to be utilised.
The PFL switch is located immediately after the insert point and if the return line is maintained in this way, not only is the channel's solo monitoring facility retained, but the PFL circuit also offers a convenient method of metering the output level at the insert point, and therefore the level being sent to tape. With the break-jack having been bypassed, it is again necessary to prevent the signal entering the main group busses, either by keeping the input fader closed, or by using the channel on/off switch. Although occasionally, the fader can be intentionally left open to take advantage of the possibility of recording a signal on its own via a direct output and also as part of a group. This facility can be particularly useful with drums, enabling a mix of the whole kit to be recorded, as well as an additional track of perhaps just the bass drum, for corrective use if necessary.
The Series 200's four main groups and two auxiliary groups can therefore potentially be augmented by as many direct outputs as may be needed, up to the number of input channels on the mixer, all of which can be equalised, metered and 'soloed'.
The monitoring of a relatively complex eight-track recording is best achieved by keeping the RET (tape return) switches selected above groups 1 to 4, thus simplifying the situation by making all eight monitor controls equally dependent on the multitrack monitor switching logic.
Although it is very important for the mixer to be able to properly control the recording of all eight tracks simultaneously (for 'live' recording or for sessions where the musicians want the 'feel' achieved by playing together as a band), the majority of multitrack sessions still involve the recording of a backing track, followed by overdubbing. It is of some assistance if tracks 5 to 8 on your recorder are used at the backing track stage, as this generally requires very little monitor switching; the group send/tape return switching, available only on monitor channels 1 to 4 can then be utilised during overdubbing.
It is rare for the number of tracks to be simultaneously recorded as an overdub to exceed two, and therefore, provided that you have more than eight input modules, it is possible to use the input channels for monitoring at the overdub stage. You thereby gain access to the EQ in preparation for mixdown, and can use the post-fade auxiliaries for reverb and other effects treatments on the monitor mix. As the Series 200 modules cannot access the stereo mix-bus directly, a pair of groups must be reserved for the monitor mix, while the other pair are used as the multitrack sends - one for each overdub.
Because of the metering arrangements, I feel it is preferable to always use groups 3 and 4 for the monitor mix, as the routing of groups into the mix-bus using the SUB switch disables the group metering. If groups 1 and 2 are used for monitoring with their SUB switches depressed, meters 1 and 2 are then inactive, whilst 3 and 4 are used to display the multitrack send levels. If groups 3 and 4 are used for the monitor mix however, the inactive meters 3 and 4 can then be switched to read the monitor source ie. the monitor mix or any 'soloed' signals, whilst meters 1 and 2 also continue to be usefully employed in displaying multitrack send levels.
One of the most convenient ways of utilising the inherent flexibility of this Soundcraft system is to use a simple patchbay, to which all the inputs of the multitrack machine remain connected, and are then accessed by the appropriate groups and direct outputs from the mixing desk via a second row of sockets. This is not only valuable for keeping track of where everything is being sent whilst recording a large number of tracks, but it is also particularly useful during repeated overdubbing, especially when input channels are being used for monitoring. The groups used as the multitrack sends can then be made to instantly access any of the tape tracks simply by moving the plugs on the patchbay, making for much faster and more efficient working when complex overdubbing and track bouncing is required. I use a Series 200 with 16 modules in a 24 channel mainframe, enabling a simple patchbay to be built-in, but an external unit would prove just as useful.
Whilst the Series 200 appears to have no dedicated effects returns, the facility is more than adequately covered by the ability to use all 8 monitor channels as returns if necessary. Whilst it is often preferable to use spare input channels as effects returns during mixdown, this is of course not possible if you are only using an eight channel desk, and in fact the arrangement of the monitor and subgroup switching on the Series 200 creates some interesting possibilities for effects control.
Monitor channels 5 to 8 simply access the mix-bus directly, through their level and pan controls, but the operation of monitor channels 1 to 4 is dependent on the status of their SUB and RET switches, as with both switches depressed the monitor level pot then controls a feed from the tape return socket into the group. The pair of groups used for mixdown will be panned hard left and right, making their returns best suited to use with a stereo effect, such as reverb, but the other groups can be utilised as separate subgroups with their own effects returns, and with their overall level into the mix-bus able to be controlled by a single fader. This useful technique can still be utilised when input modules are used as effects returns, simply by routing certain input channels and their effects to a subgroup instead of the main mixing groups.
The Series 200 can be made to feed an eight track machine solely via its four groups if appropriate pairs of channels are connected in parallel at the inputs to the multitrack ie. 1 with 5, 2 with 6 etc, with the tape machine's own channel switching then used to ensure that the correct tracks are recorded. However, I do not find this arrangement particularly satisfactory as it obviously prohibits recording on certain combinations of tracks and it is also rather inefficient if you prefer to use the input channels for monitoring whilst overdubbing, as the pair of groups used to feed the mix-bus will frequently have to be changed according to which tracks are being recorded.
Provided that the desk has more than eight input modules and therefore the monitor channels are not required to act as effects returns, it is perfectly feasible and worthwhile to parallel the outputs of the recorder to feed both the tape returns and the line inputs of channels 1 to 8, thereby allowing mixdown without re-plugging.
Although the Series 200 normally interfaces at the standard professional level of +4dBm (ref 0.775 volts), provision has been made to facilitate proper interfacing with tape machines using the standard Japanese level of -10dBV (ref 1.0 volt). The modification is detailed in the comprehensive User Manual and simply involves changing resistor values to reduce the group output level by the appropriate amount, and correspondingly increasing the gain of the tape returns.
This is a versatile and highly cost-effective product with a performance to match its manufacturer's reputation, and whilst it may initially appear that some facilities have been limited or omitted in order to make such a high quality mixer so affordable, in fact the clever design of the Series 200 enables it to fulfil all the requirements of a professional eight-track recording desk without serious compromise.