Soundcraft 200 Delta
Modular Mixing Console
Does Soundcraft's new 200 Delta mixer succeed in being all things to all men? David Mellor finds out...
Soundcraft enjoy an excellent reputation as a manufacturer of high quality mixing consoles at a reasonable cost. They produce models in all shapes and sizes, right up to 'Bigfoot' - Soundcraft's flagship model 3200, suitable for studios working close to the very highest level. The new Soundcraft 200 Delta falls into the 'small console' bracket, with a maximum of four group outputs on offer. But it can be ordered with up to 32 input channels, so this a small console with aspirations to great things.
There are many different types of people and organisations who use small consoles. Those who will use the Soundcraft 200 Delta as a music recording console, I would suggest, are in a minority. Homes to which these consoles will go to include clubs and theatres, conference centres, audio-visual companies, PA companies, radio and TV, postproduction studios. Soundcraft even hope to sell the 200 Delta to churches. And why not? Many churches have PA systems as antique as the buildings they serve.
As you can see from this list of potential applications, Soundcraft have designed the 200 Delta to be as versatile as possible. Larger consoles are usually application-specific - you wouldn't use a PA console in a recording studio, for example - but the 200 Delta would slot neatly into either role. At this point, the word 'compromise' may be flashing up in large letters, for it is often the case that when a product is designed to be all things to all men it turns out to be less than ideal for any one person's task. But rest assured that, in this case, you can have your cake and eat it. As we shall see, not only does the Soundcraft 200 Delta make an excellent recording console, it is - within its own terms of reference - entirely suitable for live work, and for the other applications mentioned above.
The Soundcraft 200 Delta comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. You don't just walk into a dealer's showroom and order a complete console. Rather than offer a set menu, Soundcraft encourage users to order a la carte and satisfy their particular requirements by offering a selection of frames and modules from which the customer can mix and match.
Frame sizes range from the smallest, which can take up to 12 modules plus the master module, to the daddy of the range, which has 36 slots plus the master once again. In between come the 20 and 28 module versions.
Taking the smallest frame size as an example, there are choices to be made straight away. If you need just a simple stereo mixer, then you can choose 12 input modules which will mix directly to the stereo masters. Or you can opt for up to four group modules, which will increase the number of outputs available at the expense of fewer inputs. (The smallest frame, by the way, is also available in a rack-mounting version.)
There are four types of input module: the Standard module and the Deluxe, which are both single channel modules; the Stereo Line input module; and a Dual (separate mono) Line input module. These can be freely combined in any way. At present, there is only one type of output module: the single group module, which has two mono return inputs and can be used as tape monitor inputs, auxiliary returns, or simply as additional inputs to the stereo or group mix.
For the customer who can't afford all the modules he would like straight away, there are blank modules available which cover the unfilled slots in a frame (but as the price guide shows, they make rather expensive dust covers!).
As the 200 Delta is a modular mixing console, it makes sense to make this a modular review. So let's start with the basic console frame. Is there anything special to say about a metal box?
Well, actually, there is. One of the interesting aspects (probably irrelevant to the end user, but interesting nonetheless) of the 200 Delta is the way in which it is put together in the Soundcraft factory. Soundcraft assemble the modules themselves, but the frame is made elsewhere and sent to Soundcraft in a cardboard box - and it never leaves the box until the customer unpacks it! The whole mixer is built up in the box. That's efficiency for you.
The frame is, as I said, a metal box. It also has plastic mouldings which surround all but the bottom panel. These are obviously meant to be attractive to the eye, giving the console a sleek, sophisticated look, with 'Soundcraft' imprinted in large letters on the side (rather like a Steinway concert grand piano). Real sound engineers won't care about that, but they will recognise that the resilient plastic will give the console good protection against the knocks it is bound to receive as it is moved about (which it undoubtedly will be in non-recording studio applications). The side mouldings also function as handles, and as one who has spent much time lugging awkward shaped consoles from place to place, I can testify to their value.
Included in the frame's price is the master module (more on this later), all the wiring required for the complete console, and the separate power supply. The console wiring is in the form of ribbon cable buses - an idea which was once frowned upon, but with proper electronic design can be made to work excellently.
All the modules are constructed on a folded steel chassis. Folded steel seems to be the late '80s answer to extruded aluminium, and after seeing the way it is done here, I must say that I like it. The metal is bent into a 'U' shape, which supports the controls and the printed circuit board. Also, one side of the 'U' is extended, bent at right angles, and itself formed into a second 'U' to mount the input and output connectors at the rear of the console. When you view the 200 Delta, ask to see a module taken out and you will be impressed by its simple but intelligent design.
There is a big advantage in this form of construction - having the connectors fixed to the same piece of metal as the controls and PCB removes the need for wiring between these two areas. Hand wiring, even if multipin connectors are used, is time consuming for the manufacturer - hence more costly - and has intrinsic unreliability potential. The system employed by the 200 Delta is much better.
The Standard input module features an XLR microphone input, jack line input (the mic and line inputs are electronically balanced as standard, with transformer balancing for the mic input being an option), and a single stereo jack insert point with the ring wired as send, the tip wired as return. The single jack insert is becoming increasingly common, but is certainly not becoming any more convenient for the user. If you use the console without a patchbay, you have to make up two special insert cables for each channel. One is for using the insert connection as a send and return, as you would use a compressor, and the other for using the insert send as an extra output. Obviously, Soundcraft must have considered bucking the trend and providing two jacks, but to my mind they have reached the wrong conclusion.
Still on the subject of the insert point, I think it is a mistake for this insert to be 'post-EQ'. This means that the signal is processed by the channel equalisation circuitry before it leaves the insert point. Consequently, this makes it difficult to use noise gates on these inserts, because you have to re-adjust the gate's trigger threshold whenever you make a significant change to the EQ - and setting up the correct gate threshold can be a tricky enough business anyway. It also precludes the safe use of the insert points as audio sends to another console - if you are operating a PA which is also being broadcast, say - because EQ used on the master console would affect the signal received by the secondary console. The possible advantage of having the insert post-EQ is that it is often desirable to compress the EQ'd sound - but you could do that at the group insert or via an auxiliary anyway. Pre- or post-EQ insert points are matters of personal opinion, but Soundcraft should consider providing an internal link (as they have for Aux 1 and 2 pre/post settings, mentioned later) so that the user can decide.
That's got virtually all the quibbles I have about the 200 Delta off my chest, so I can now go on to tell you why I think it is an excellent console regardless.
Starting at the top of the Standard module, there is a switch for 48-volt phantom powering - standard stuff. The gain control, thank you Soundcraft, works on both the mic and line inputs, whichever is selected. It is a distressing trend for modern consoles to have fixed line input gains. This is a real bother, in practice, because you either find yourself wanting to push the fader higher than it will go or you are working at such a low fader setting that half a millimetre of travel changes the level by 10dB (a slight exaggeration to emphasise how difficult it is to work with half a dozen faders at very low levels). With a line gain control you can adjust the level to suit the console's requirements for optimum performance, and you can also use it to ensure that you are working with the faders at a reasonable level. Mic gain is adjustable to match incoming levels of —70dBu (ie. wrist watch at 20 paces) to -2dBu (ie. mic inside bass drum), and the line gain from -20dBu to +10dBu.
The EQ on the Standard input module is three band: fixed frequency HF and LF, and a sweepable Mid. The effect of EQ is always very subjective, but I found the curves chosen very useful. The LF control in particular has the ability to boost the bass without making the sound excessively 'boomy'. The Mid control ranges between 300Hz and 5kHz. Each band is capable of cutting or boosting the signal by up to 15dB, and - a very good point - the controls are calibrated in decibels.
The Standard input module has four auxiliary send controls, but gives access to six auxiliary buses. Aux 1 and 2 are 'prefade', for probable use as foldback sends, whilst Aux 3 and 4 are both 'post-fade'. There is no 'pre/post' switching, but I can accept the lack of this on a budget console.
To access the other two buses, there is a switch close to the Aux 3 and 4 controls which, when depressed, swaps their output from Aux buses 3 and 4 to Aux buses 5 and 6. Six auxiliary outputs is a very generous number for a small console, and you can't have too many auxiliaries, can you? But seeing as the EQ level controls are calibrated in decibels, why are the auxiliaries calibrated from 0 to 10? Strange.
Soundcraft are very proud of the Delta's pan control design, so it is worth briefly examining why careful design is important here. It has become something of a convention that channel-to-group routing is done by selecting a pair of buses with a switch - eg. buses 1 and 2 leading to groups 1 and 2 - then using the pan control to select either the odd-numbered or even-numbered group, or indeed both if you pan centre. This is not done for reasons of user-friendliness, though. It is much better to have individual buttons for each group and a switchable pan between odd- and even-numbered groups just in case you need to use it, but this costs more. It doubles the number of routing switches and adds an extra pan switch. Manufacturers are, of course, willing to give users this type of routing in their more expensive consoles, but you pay for it.
The drawback to paired group switching is that the isolation between signals sent to, say, group 1 and group 2 is determined by the performance of the pan control. Simple potentiometers (the component behind the front panel that actually does the work) do not have brilliant isolation at their end stops, and 50dB or even 60dB is not good enough for many purposes.
To overcome this, Soundcraft use an active panpot circuit which gives a claimed isolation of better than 85dB (measured at 1 kHz). Figures like this make the system of paired group switching work properly.
Next in line is the overload LED, which monitors the level in the channel just after the EQ circuitry to check for signal clipping. (Clipping here can not be corrected by the fader). It may be possible to have a situation where clipping (distortion) is occurring in the mic amp, but the level is being reduced below the LED's threshold by the EQ circuitry. More expensive consoles employ multi-point monitoring of clipping, but the 200 Delta's single point monitoring overload LED is still very useful.
The PFL (Pre Fade Listen) and Channel On buttons both have integral LED indicators to emphasise when they are depressed. Like auxiliary buses, you can never have too many switches with LEDs, and here they are provided on the most important switches. If I wanted to use the console in a theatre, I might find these LEDs, and the metering LEDs, just a little on the bright side and a potential distraction for the audience (though they are fine for studio use or PA). I checked with Soundcraft and they confirmed that they would be able to assist a user with this special requirement to modify his console, or it could be done by Soundcraft - at an extra charge, of course.
Rounding off the Standard input module is the smooth 100mm fader. I would have preferred the fader to be mounted centrally in the module rather than offset to one side, and I would have preferred that there were no switches intruding into the fader area where I like to make my Chinagraph marks. Small points perhaps, and current fashion in mixer design, but should things be progressing away from ease of operation?
Although the Standard input module is perfectly adequate for basic use, the Deluxe module would be my module of choice, if sufficient funds were available. Its extra facilities include a phase reverse switch, high pass filter, an extra Mid section on the EQ, plus an EQ in/out switch. It is probably worth the extra £24 per module for the EQ in/out switch alone, and the extra EQ section gives valuable additional possibilities.
The auxiliary sends benefit too, because the Deluxe module makes it possible to set Aux 1 and Aux 2 to be pre-EQ and pre-fade, post-EQ and prefade, or post-EQ and post-fade, using internal links. A useful range of options.
As well as mic input, line input and insert point, the Deluxe input module has a (post-fade) direct channel output on its rear panel. One potential use for this is multitrack recording. Since the 200 Delta has just four groups, it would be inconvenient to record more than four channels at the same time, at a live gig perhaps. With these direct channel outputs, however, you can easily record as many tracks as you have channels.
Perhaps I haven't said so much about the Deluxe input module, but that is only because it shares many facilities - and its level of performance - with the Standard module. If there is sufficient money in the kitty, it is definitely the one to go for because of all the useful little extras.
Mechanically, the Delta's group modules take the same form as the channels, being of folded steel construction with the connectors mounted directly onto the module.
Basically, the group part of this module consists of the fader and the LED bargraph meter. The fader is exactly the same as the channel fader except that it is calibrated up to 0dB as its maximum, rather than the channel's +10dB. The meter has 20 segments flashing green, yellow and red at appropriate levels. There is a calibration preset recessed behind the panel to adjust the sensitivity of the meter (from 0dB = -2dBu to +20dBu), and the response of the meter is internally selectable to be peak or average reading.
Additional to the group facility are two return sections, each with HF and LF EQ, Aux 1 send, Pan and Volume controls. The upper return takes its signal from the Tape A connector on the rear panel and is permanently routed, via an On switch, to the stereo mix bus. The lower return is more versatile, having the following four switching possibilities:
- NONE - takes the group output and feeds it to the stereo mix bus.
- RET - takes its input from the Tape B connector on the rear panel and feeds it to the stereo mix bus.
- SUB - converts the group into a subgroup and feeds the group mix directly to the stereo mix via the Pan control.
- SUB+RET - routes the return signal to the group mix, which is in turn routed to the stereo mix.
This group module is at the root of the 200 Delta's versatility. With four of them, you can record and overdub happily onto an 8-track tape recorder; or you can operate a four-speaker PA system and make a simultaneous mix for recording onto stereo tape or for sending to stereo speakers in the foyer; or the returns can be used for effects, which can be routed to the stereo mix or directly into the group mix; or... I'll leave the rest up to your application and your ingenuity.
The Master module is twice as wide as the other modules, with two bargraph meters. This module houses the six auxiliary masters, with illuminated AFL (After Fade Listen) buttons rather than the PFL type on the channels and returns. There is a single frequency (1 kHz) oscillator with on/off switch and level control, which can be used for quickly lining up a stereo tape recorder to the console meters. A couple of extra frequencies would have been most welcome here, but obviously Soundcraft consider this to be a feature more suited to their higher priced consoles.
Talkback is to Aux buses 1 and 2 (the foldback buses) or to all the buses. The control room monitor can take either the stereo mix or a stereo tape return. PFL overrides both, and there is a single headphone socket which cuts out the control room monitor when in use.
Rear panel sockets include a mono output - there is no front panel mono switch - and stereo mix insert points, which are valuable things to have and sometimes lacking on budget consoles.
The performance of this console, completely disregarding its low cost, is excellent. You can see this from the specifications, but the important points to look out for, in practice, are hum and noise levels, crosstalk, fader rejection, and the rejection of other controls such as aux sends, pan etc.
I carried out my standard subjective test of donning my headphones and turning up the volume of some music until it was slightly louder than I would ever want to monitor, then I listened to some signal paths to which the music was not routed. Crosstalk, even group to group, is very minimal and would probably not be noticed in any practical situation. There is, of course, some noise caused by the simple application of the laws of physics to sound engineering situations, but there is no audible hum.
The console is logically laid out with good-sized knobs (which could be further improved by the addition of a white line all the way down the side) and plenty of finger room to operate them.
In short, this is an excellent mixing console, and the price is excellent too. If I have my quibbles, it is because I want everything to be perfect, but the Soundcraft 200 Delta, at the price offered, does indeed come very close.
See panel for prices.
Soundcraft Electronics Ltd, (Contact Details).