Simmons SPM8:2 MIDI Mixer
A mixer from Simmons? Why not? The application of MIDI control to audio mixers is resulting in a radical departure from traditional designs, as Tony Hastings found out when he road-tested the SPM8:2 recently.
A mixer from Simmons? Why not? The application of MIDI control to audio mixers is resulting in a radical departure from traditional designs, as Tony Hastings found out when he road-tested the SPM8:2.
As a keyboard player I welcome technological advance with open arms. Every few months something new or improved appears to create bigger and better sounds, and I love it. The only drawback to this increasing tide of innovation is that the end user is subjected to a bewildering complexity of options.
Now when I were a lad, you could get a Hammond organ, a Wurlitzer electric piano and a WEM Copy Cat on stage without needing more than six leads! Mind you, you did get a hernia into the bargain.
At present I am using six keyboards and two expanders in my stage rig, all connected via a giant MIDI set-up through a Yamaha MJC8 controller, and by sheer coincidence that equals eight audio outputs which I require mixing and amplifying - the same number as catered for by the Simmons SPM8:2 MIDI mixer.
Usually, I use a conventional Seck 12-2 mixer which is very convenient and portable, but with the band I play for at the moment (no name-dropping, but they've had a few hits), I am hard pressed to get all the sounds loaded and played in each song without worrying about mixing my own sound as I go along. The band's sound engineer out front has DI's on everything, but us keyboard players still like to retain a tight control over what eventually pumps out of the PA. So the opportunity for me to evaluate the SPM8:2 was a great way of seeing how I could improve and simplify my job without having to make any compromises.
The SPM8:2 is a programmable MIDI-equipped mixer that has eight audio inputs, a stereo output, and two auxiliary send and returns. Each channel can have its own volume, pan, effects, EQ, and LFO (we'll look at this revolutionary aspect later in the review) all of which can be set and memorised as part of a patch. There are 64 different patches which can be accessed instantly from the front panel, or from a footswitch, or MIDI control. In addition, all 64 patches can be saved to tape to create a back-up copy of the mix or stored as part of a library of different mixes.
MIDI programmable mixers have been on the edge of release for a number of years but only now are we seeing them actually appearing. For me, it was a surprise to find this unit sporting the Simmons badge rather than that of Akai, Yamaha or whoever. I'm not knocking the company, but we have all got rather used to the Japanese flooding the lower end of the market with rack units capable of everything - from being a full-blown synth (Yamaha TX81Z) to a MIDI patchbay (Akai MEP30). Having said that, Simmons' name for quality and innovation in the electronic drum world cannot be faulted, so maybe in retrospect the SPM8:2 is an obvious step, for this device is equally at home mixing digital drums as it is keyboards or anything else for that matter. What is so exciting about the SPM8:2 is its compactness, both in its facilities and its price (£599 inc VAT).
When the SPM8:2 arrived it had no manual with it (some unscrupulous rival magazine had swiped it!). Rather than being upset, I saw it as a distinct challenge. Was the unit straightforward enough for me to operate without the manual?
The first thing to do was plug it in and get an audio source going (my Walkman for the time being). As soon as something should have been happening I began to examine the front panel controls. I already knew a little about what the SPM8:2 was supposedly capable of and that, plus the comprehensive labelling on the front panel, helped me quickly deduce where the sound was meant to be going.
On the rear panel there are eight standard jack inputs and on each input is a small Attenuation pot (gain control) which lets you set the maximum input volume before distortion sets in. Under each of the first eight knobs (numbered 1 to 8) on the front panel is an LED, so I guessed that this would flash if I overloaded the input. Sure enough, raising the volume on my Walkman with the Attenuation control at maximum eventually produced a flicker - but still no sound. I stared anxiously at the front panel again and there, at the far right, were the vital Left and Right master output controls, both set at 0.
It didn't require Einstein to realise there was no output level, so as I increased their values the haunting strains of Motorhead started to become apparent on my NS10 monitors (just to be different my tweeters don't have bits of Andrex taped all over them). Below the left-hand Channel pots is a label which reads: 'All LEDs off = Channel Volume'. As the LEDs were indeed off, I started to tweak the volume for Channel 1 and, sure enough, Lemmy and Co started to get even louder (which isn't difficult for them).
In the centre of the SPM8:2 is a single digit LED display plus several toggle buttons and a headphone output jack. Pressing the right-hand side of the button marked 'CHAN' caused the Channel 1 LED to light up. When I pressed it again it stepped over to Channel 2, and so on... until the ninth press when it went back to Channel 1. But this time the 'Bank B' LED lit up in the centre (there are four banks, A to D). Obviously, I had discovered the edit mode for each channel; pressing the same button, but in the opposite direction, I stepped back until it indicated Bank A, Channel 1.
Simmons have crammed a lot of technology into this 1U high rack device, so the (inevitable?) compromises appear to have been made in the 'access to controls' department. The front panel Channel pots all have a secondary function in edit mode when not acting as volume controls. But before I could venture further, I heard a noise out in the hall as the second post arrived (late, of course!). Yes, here was the missing owner's manual at last. I postponed the review to have a cup of tea and quickly read the manual (thus breaking the habit of a lifetime)...
On reading the manual I found that I had so far been pretty much on course with my explorations. As each LED lights up under a numbered channel, that channel then becomes active for editing and all the controls resort to their secondary function. Once you have edited all the parameters you want, the group settings can be stored as a single patch. I left the unit set on Channel 1 and started fiddling with the parameter controls...
The first governs the Level of the selected channel. You can set this to 0 if you want, effectively 'muting' the channel, or you can use any value up to full volume. You can't, of course, programme the 'movement' of a pot as you edit it (like on automated mixers where the faders physically move up and down), but then this particular unit is not being aimed directly at the recording market (at least I don't think it is); it's more for the live performer who needs fast access to a wide range of mixes throughout a set.
The next control is Pan; again, this can be anything from fully left to fully right. Third and fourth are the auxiliary/effects send controls, designated FX1 and FX2.
The next four controls make up the EQ section of the mixer starting with a 12dB boost or cut for the Bass. Next is the Mid EQ whose centre frequency is variable across a range of 600Hz to 6kHz with 15dB boost/cut available. And finally the Treble EQ which, like the Bass, permits a maximum 12dB signal cut or boost. The EQ as a whole seemed sufficient, with the sweep Mid able to radically alter a sound with very little effort.
After I had been working with the mixer for a while I set up a few different patches with very different EQ settings and quickly switched between them. The result was fascinating because I could hear the EQ change without my ears getting used to the changes as they happened. A bit like switching the EQ in and out on desks that allow that sort of control, only instead of a comparison between 'flat' and 'EQ'd' I got a comparison between half a dozen variations of EQ, which helped me decide which one was best for the job.
Those of you who have worked with electronic keyboards before will know that an LFO is an oscillator whose frequency (pitch) is so low that it can't be heard, yet it can be used to modulate the sound of the keyboard. Usually a triangle wave type of LFO is used to produce smooth vibrato effects etc. OK, so we are all used to LFO on a synth, but LFO on a mixer?
The LFO section of the SPM8:2 can be used to individually modulate (sweep) either the Pan position of each channel independently or the Mid frequency of the EQ. When using it with the Pan facility, you can set how far it sweeps the signal by increasing or decreasing the LFO Amount setting.
The panning speed is then set by the LFO Speed control. This is brilliant for multiple keyboard set-ups. I set a different rate of 'auto' pan for each keyboard source and set a sequencer off playing them all. Then I settled back with my now cold cup of tea and monitored using headphones for the full cycledelik effect (I never claimed I was good at spelling). Anyway, the sonic result was inspiring.
Using the LFO to control the Mid section of the EQ can produce some fascinating effects - from phasing (by setting a cut in the Mid section) to 'wah wah' filter effects (by setting a Mid boost). Again, mixing a different rate and depth will produce more subtle or more dramatic permutations at different speeds.
There are also two other ways of controlling the LFO - both by signal level. Choosing LFO 3 or 4 respectively, you can control the amount of effect, not with the LFO Amount control but by the level of the signal that you are sending through the channel. Very expressive.
Although this section is quick to describe, you shouldn't underestimate the potential it has for dramatically enhancing your sounds. Whatever you are playing through the mixer can be tailored to produce an exciting result unobtainable from a standard mixer, and the fact that it can be instantly changed or instantly recalled is a winner. Even in home recording applications, where eight inputs is maybe a little limited and the operation somewhat fiddly, the facilities offered by the Simmons SPM8:2 are useful enough to make it a good addition for extra processing. I'm always running out of inputs, even on a 12-2 desk, and autopanning would cost hundreds of pounds to implement using an external unit (and then not on eight different channels at once).
Each patch is what Simmons call a 'snapshot' of the current status of all eight channels. To store a particular patch you simply press the Store button twice and the LED display spells out the word 'storing' as it happens. You can store up to 64 different patches, which are remembered even when you turn the machine off. To help you set up channels that may be similar you can use the Hold button to copy them. Simply select the relevant channel and then press the Hold button; whilst it is held you step through the other channels until you get to the one that you want, then you let go and the original channel is copied into the new location.
Simmons have also realised the importance of 'flat' EQ. This is especially useful at the beginning when you want to hear the 'unprocessed' sound before you start adding things to it. By pressing both the 'up' and 'down' arrowed buttons together, you can either 'flatten' the selected channel or, if no specific channel is selected then the whole patch. When a channel EQ is flat a small LED lights up next to the word 'Flat' to let you know. Of course, you can flatten the channel by simply turning everything down manually but the other way is much quicker.
You can also re-initialise the SPM8:2 if you want. This is (deliberately) an involved process so that you don't wipe your memories by accident. It sets every patch to the same initial values thus allowing you to do new mixes quickly.
Another neat feature is the 'Xfade' (crossfade) control. This specifies how fast the channel values will change when a new patch is selected. If the control is set to minimum then the change will be instantaneous (and thus possibly abrupt), but the further towards maximum it is set the more slowly and smoothly one patch will fade to another. The crossfade time can be set for each channel separately, so with some careful thought and the SPM8:2 hooked up to a MIDI sequencer, a form of basic automated mixing could be achieved.
On the right side of the centre panel are seven more knobs. The first four are the auxiliary return level and pan controls for FX1 and FX2. Then there is the headphone level control and, completing the line-up, the master level controls for Left and Right outputs. All self-explanatory.
On the back panel is a MIDI In port and a MIDI Thru port. Connecting any MIDI device that is capable of sending MIDI program change commands to the SPM8:2's MIDI In will allow you to control the device remotely. You can specify any one or all (omni) MIDI channels for it to receive on, and the addition of MIDI Thru allows for patches to be synchronised with new settings in MIDI effects such as reverb and delay. So, at the press of a single button you can have not only a new audio mix but new effects as well.
On the SPM8:2, MIDI In doubles as a tape save/load output port for you to connect to any bog-standard cassette player. And, rather neatly, Simmons have enabled the mixer to generate a very useful 'leader tone' which you can choose to record before each patch dump instead of just at the head of a complete data dump - of enormous benefit in identifying blocks of saved patches on tape as you can imagine. There is even a verify command in the software that allows you to check that what you have saved on the cassette is correct and not corrupted.
Now for the most important part, the conclusions...
Well, I have to admit to being very impressed. At first sight the SPM8:2 looks and feels highly professional with its brushed metal front panel and interestingly designed controls. As I found, it is very simple to use and the manual can virtually be dispensed with after one good reading (no sleight intended on the person who wrote the manual).
This mixer fills a market that is sorely lacking and is (to me) reasonably priced for the advanced technology it offers and the facilities it boasts. The LFO control of panning and EQ is a real bonus, especially if you are working in stereo. I gave it a thorough going over with all my keyboards, setting a different patch for every song in the band's set, and - to my horror - found that it had quickly become invaluable.
It's small, easy to use, pretty unique, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg (just the leg, maybe). All in all, a worthwhile purchase.
Information from: Simmons Electronics Ltd., (Contact Details).