Soundcraft Series 200B
Even though it had no serious competitor quality-wise, Soundcraft's original Series 200 mixer was somewhat lacking in the 'useful features' department. The newly-improved 200B puts all that to rights as Dave Lockwood discovers.
The Soundcraft Series 200B represents a welcome and well thought out upgrade to the original Series 200 design, with a number of useful additional features being incorporated, along with a measure of cosmetic and structural restyling.
The desk, which supersedes the old model, is fully modular on the input side (one input channel per module), ensuring good serviceability, with a separate output module featuring four group outputs and a dedicated stereo mix bus.
Three mainframe sizes are available, accommodating up to eight, sixteen or twenty-four input modules, with the eight channel format being sufficiently compact to be offered as a nineteen inch rack-mounting unit. Partially filled frames are likely to be available, enabling the owner to start with a smaller number of modules, if necessary, and then expand the system at a later date.
The length of the channel strips, at eighteen inches, is certainly not excessive in view of the comprehensive facilities included, however, the employment of relatively small control knobs and switches, and the judicious use of colour-coding and ergonomic layout, has managed to maintain an uncluttered aspect in spite of the compact dimensions.
The original Series 200 desks were rectangular in section, and lay flat in use, sometimes making the meters and some of the legending difficult to read from the operating position; most users have probably finished up, like myself, semi-permanently propping up the back edge of the desk, and so would welcome the new sloped design of the 200B. The end-cheeks have been made wedge-shaped, creating a preferable working angle, and also allowing more space on the rear connector panel, which was rather densely packed in the old model, tending to become difficult to use for frequent patching simply through lack of space between adjacent connectors.
The familiar brown livery associated with Soundcraft desks has given way to a new dark grey finish, with a lightertone used for the controls and switches - not so distinctive, I feel, but certainly very functional and easy on the eye. The quality of construction, both mechanical and electronic, is most impressive, giving confidence in the desk's ability to withstand the rigours of heavy use in mobile situations. The mainframe panels are rigid, without being excessively thick and therefore weighty, and the input channel modules seem to deflect only a little when subjected to pressure in the centre (sometimes a weak point in a less ruggedly constructed modular desk).
A substantially built, free-standing, external power supply unit is employed, feeding the desk via a decent length of cable equipped with some very positively locking connectors. Keeping the PSU components out of the desk not only assists in achieving noise-free operation, but also significantly helps to minimise the dimensions and weight of a compact desk.
The standard input module accepts a mic input via its balanced, female XLR connector (wired Pin 2 'hot', Pin 3 'cold', Pin 1 ground), with the >2kOhms input impedance ensuring compatibility with just about any normal stage or studio microphone. 48 volt 'phantom' powering for condenser mics is featured, and has been made individually switchable for each channel - a good idea, as it facilitates the use of a mixture of balanced and unbalanced signal sources if necessary. The 'Line' selector switch activates the line input, a balanced, stereo 1/4" jack, with a 10kOhm input impedance, allowing the direct connection of synthesizers and drum machines with no 'loading' or level matching problems. Both Mic and Line inputs employ 'electronic balancing', which offers advantages in minimising phase shift and ensuring optimum transient response, compared to a regular, transformer-based, balanced front-end.
The input 'Gain' control, which heads the module, operates in conjunction with a useful -20dB Pad facility (effective only on the Mic input), and has a more than adequate range for any likely working situation.
The excellent equaliser section remains unchanged from the original Series 200, and rather goes against the contemporary trend favouring 'sweep' Mid controls. Four EQ bands are provided, with fixed centre frequencies, offering 15dB of cut or boost to the input signal. The well-chosen frequencies, 60Hz, 250Hz, 5kHz and 12kHz, with a shelving characteristic in the LF and HF bands and the classic 'bell-shaped' response curve in the mid-bands, results in a very smooth, musical EQ, which can be used almost instinctively, rarely producing harsh and unnatural effects. The subtle interaction of the controls facilitates more complex response tailoring than would at first appear to be possible with fixed bands, and despite the apparently greater flexibility provided by a high 'Q' swept mid-band, I feel that a fixed EQ of this quality is often subjectively preferable in use. An 'EQ In/Out' switch would have been a very nice addition, but its absence is compensated for by the inclusion of centre-detents on all the EQ pots, making zeroing easy and precise.
Four auxiliary sends are provided and, impressively for a desk in this sector of the market, their operation can be tailored to the user's requirements by positioning a series of push-on links on the input channel PCBs. There are three options for each pair of sends: 1 Pre-EQ/Pre-fade, offering a feed of unmodified programme; 2 Post-EQ/Pre-fade, for regular foldback applications in PA or recording where the musicians will probably wish to hear the effect of any EQ used, but with their mix remaining independent of any fader alterations; 3 Post-EQ/Post-fade, the normal arrangement for overall treatment effects such as echo or reverb, where the 'send' level needs to vary in accordance with the fader setting, so that when a channel is faded out of a mix, it does not continue to feed an effect and still be audible via its return line.
In most conventional music recording applications, one pair of Post-EQ/Pre-fade, and one pair of Post-EQ/Post-fade auxiliaries is almost certain to prove the most useful arrangement, but, as versatile a product as this, is highly likely to find its way into some very different applications, such as theatre, video and broadcast work, where the ability to tailor this aspect of the desk to custom requirements would prove invaluable. Alternatively, it would be possible to select all four auxiliaries to operate as Post-EQ/Pre-fade sends, thus offering up to four additional, independent group outputs! The versatility offered in this area of the design shows an awareness of the diversity of use to which these desks are suited, and could significantly enhance their operation in some of the less basic applications.
Lack of signal routing facilities was perhaps the most criticised aspect of the original Series 200 design, and logically, that area has been amended in this model. It is now possible to route a signal to Groups 1 and 2, Groups 3 and 4, or directly to the main stereo mix bus (or even all of these at once). Routing to a single group is achieved in the normal fashion, using the centre-detented Pan pot, panning fully left for odd numbered groups, and fully right for evens.
The extra routing is a more significant addition than it may initially seem, for on a desk with a sufficiently large number of modules, it considerably increases the feasibility of using spare input channels for the monitor mix during both track-laying and overdubbing. The channels to be used as tape returns can be routed straight to the stereo bus, whilst live input signals are sent to tape via the groups; the advantage of this method being that it offers the full input channel facilities for use on the monitor mix, allowing trial EQing during playback, and more importantly, giving access to a post-fade effects send, for adding reverb - perhaps the single most useful aid to judging the progress of a recording as it is built up track by track.
A 'Channel On/Off' switch is present, supported by an adjacent green LED. The switch is satisfactorily quiet in operation (regrettably, not true of every desk on the market), facilitating its use to cut channels in and out of a mix, without altering fader settings. All the auxiliary sends are muted by the 'off' condition, unless pre-selected to Pre-fade/Pre-EQ mode, which seemingly would guarantee an uninterrupted feed regardless of channel status.
The essential 'Pre-Fade Listen' facility is featured, enabling a signal to be 'soloed' in the monitoring, even with the fader closed if necessary, and without interrupting the main programme paths. The PFL signal is taken after the insert point return, but before the On switch, and can be used for checking quality, cueing-up an external source, or even just a confirmation of signal presence before introducing a channel into the mix. The effects of any outboard processing patched at the insert point can be monitored in isolation in this way, which can assist in checking for side-effects from compression or gating during recording. The 'PFL On' condition is indicated by a red LED located in the master module of the desk, which is both larger and significantly brighter than the rather inadequate one provided on my original Series 200; this one being as impossible to overlook as it should be.
"...the versatility offered shows an awareness of the diversity of use to which these desks are suited."
A 'peak' LED on each channel serves as an input overload indicator, detecting the signal level at the insert point send, and illuminating 4dB below the onset of clipping.
The channel, group and master faders are all high quality, long-throw types, giving fine resolution, with a consistently smooth action, making them really a pleasure to use. The channel modules are quite narrow, but so are the fader tops and this, combined with their high profile, makes it possible to easily operate quite a large number of channels simultaneously if necessary.
The master module, conventionally located at the right-hand end of the desk, contains the four group outputs, the main stereo bus and auxiliary master controls, the metering, and the tape return channels. Four standard VUs are provided, reading the output of the four groups, but with the lower pair of the square layout (groups 3 and 4) able to be switched to read the mix bus or a temporary monitor source, such as a PFL signal. The meters are quite large, internally illuminated, and with the new angled working surface, very easy to take in at a glance.
Beneath the VUs lie the monitor channels - because of the disparity between the number of groups and the number of returns, there are four dedicated tape returns and four group monitor/tape return channels. Although apparently included mainly to cater for multitrack work, this area of the desk is, in fact, far from redundant in other modes of operation. Returns 5 to 8 offer a rotary Volume control and a Pan facility, for achieving balance and stereo positioning in the monitor mix whilst track-laying. A send to Auxiliary 1 is provided, operating before the tape return level control, for the provision of an independent foldback mix, and the PFL facility also extends to the return channels, allowing soloing within the monitor mix.
Returns 1 to 4 have the same Volume, Pan, Aux 1 and PFL facilities, and with their 'RET' switches selected, will operate as identical tape returns. With these switches deselected, the group output becomes the monitor source, being heard via the level and pan controls. When the 'SUB' switch is pressed on one of these four channels however, the output of the group fader below bypasses the return volume control and accesses the main stereo bus via just the pan pot, creating the possibility of up to four individually panable subgroups within a mix, or two stereo subgroups if pairs are panned hard left and right. Additionally, if the 'RET' switches on these channels are activated whilst operating in subgroup mode, any input to the return socket can be fed into the group via the monitor volume control. This can be regarded as an effects return that is unique to each subgroup, enabling groups of signals and their effects to be faded in and out of a mix on a single fader.
Each of the four auxiliary buses has its own master level control, located within the output module. Overall send levels to external processors or amplifiers can be controlled in this way, and the signal soloed into the monitoring and metered via individual 'AFL' switches. The facility is designated 'AFL' (After-Fade Listen) rather than PFL in this instance, as it operates after the level control at this point in the circuit.
The presence of a 1kHz oscillator with its own level control is very useful. It routes to all group and auxiliary buses and can assist with fault-finding and setting-up optimum interface levels. It would be nice to have a couple of additional frequencies, perhaps 100Hz and 10kHz, to extend its use to tape machine calibration and placing basic line-up reference tones on tape, but I realise that the manufacturer must compromise somewhere to make a high quality product like this affordable.
A most welcome addition to the 200B's facilities is an on-board talkback system, using an almost invisible, flush-mounted electret microphone, with its own gain control. The switching is arranged to make it possible to talk into both auxiliary and group buses, enabling simultaneous cueing and 'slating' (recording titles and take numbers on tape for identification purposes), or to talk just to Auxiliaries 1 and 2, the most likely choices for foldback, communicating directly with musicians via headphones.
Original Series 200 desks had no dedicated Control Room monitor outputs, the high impedance headphone socket having to be used for this purpose. This has been amended on the 200B; the 'Monitor Level' control now sets the level into both the monitor amplifier feeds (separate, unbalanced, sockets for left and right signals) and the front panel-mounted headphone socket which, logically, silences the speakers when a plug is inserted. The '2T' switch facilitates listening to the return signal from the stereo mastering machine, for playback or monitoring via the machine's input circuitry - if meters 3 and 4 have been switched to 'Monitor Source' they will then also display the return level.
A pair of master faders, equipped with yellow fader-tops, completes the control line-up (group fader-tops are red, inputs are white, making errors unlikely in spite of their close proximity). They are placed very close together and can easily be operated simultaneously with one finger, whilst maintaining their advantage over a ganged mix bus fader in that they can be separated if necessary to correct (or create!) level differences between the two channels.
On the rear panel of the master section it is good to see insert points provided for the mix bus, facilitating easy connection of a device such as a stereo compressor to process the whole mix, without having to interrupt and re-patch the feeds to the mastering machine. The main stereo outputs and group outputs 1 to 4 appear on the connector panel as standard 3 pin, male, balanced XLR connectors (wired Pin 2 'hot', Pin 3 'cold', Pin 1 ground). Users with 'semi-professional' multitrack and mastering machines that use unbalanced inputs can simply wire Pin 3 also to ground (preferably at the tape machine's end of the cable, Soundcraft suggest).
The 'Tape Return' sockets and the input channel 'Line In' sockets are also balanced, using stereo 1/4" jacks, wired tip-'hot', ring-'cold', sleeve-ground, but a conventionally wired mono jack plug works perfectly well with unbalanced equipment.
The insert points, on both the input channels and the mix bus, also use stereo jacks, but these are unbalanced, with both the send and return incorporated into a single, switched socket. The wiring follows the current convention for this type of connection, with the send on the ring, the return via the tip, and the sleeve as common ground.
"The compact dimensions are a distinct asset to mobile users, or anyone with a restricted working area."
It is possible to use the input channel insert points as Direct Outputs, in order to increase the available number of tape sends, simply by inserting a stereo jack plug, wired with the ring as the 'hot' wire of the output and the sleeve as ground. The tip, if left unconnected, will keep the break-jack contacts open, and prevent the signal passing into the routing section. However, it can be advantageous to link the tip and the ring of a stereo jack used in this application, as this maintains continuity for the signal within the channel, thus enabling the peak LED and PFL functions to remain operative. This is useful not just for the soloing facility, but also because it allows metering of the signal level at the insert send point (via the PFL switching), giving an indication of the record level of the direct output. The recorder's own meters could be used for this purpose but budget multitrack tape machine meters are often small, inaccurate and, especially when compander-type noise reduction is employed, difficult to usefully interpret.
By leaving all the channel's routing switches de-selected when taking a direct output in this way, the signal can be prevented from appearing also as part of a group output, regardless of the channel fader setting. This was not possible in the old Series 200 where group routing could not be totally deselected, necessitating the channel to be switched off (which unfortunately also mutes the auxiliaries), or great care to be taken to keep the fader closed, to avoid unwanted mixing of signals.
For eight-track use, Soundcraft suggest that the four groups can be parallelled at the multitrack to simultaneously feed tracks 1 and 5, 2 and 6 etc, although I feel that this rather wastes some of the inherent flexibility of this desk, in prohibiting recording on certain combinations of tracks. More useful, perhaps, would be a simple patchbay, or even just a connector box, with all the multitrack sends permanently connected, and to which any combination of the four groups, auxiliary groups, and direct outputs can be patched, as desired.
On a desk with a sufficiently large number of modules, where the monitor channels are unlikely to be needed as effects returns, it is perfectly feasible to parallel the multitrack outputs to feed both the tape return sockets and the line inputs of channels 1 to 8, thus facilitating track-bouncing and mixdown without the need for any re-patching.
Although the Series 200B normally interfaces at standard professional line level, +4dBu (ref. 0.775V), provision has been made for user-selection of the alternative -10dBV(ref. 1.0V) format (Tascam, Fostex etc, operating level). The procedure is well documented in the comprehensive User Manual supplied, only requiring the alteration of internal switches and PCB jumpers, rather than the substitution of resistors, as on the earlier model.
The Series 200 design proved to be effective not just in music recording and PA applications, but also in the specialised fields of A/V, theatre and broadcast work. It makes sense therefore, that Soundcraft should now offer a dedicated Stereo Line Input module, with full facilities for the control of stereo tape sources, turntables, cartridge machines etc.
The EQ has been amended on this module to be more suitable for pre-recorded sources, offering a 10kHz HF and a 60Hz LF (each + or - 15dB, with a shelving characteristic), with the addition of a very useful 100Hz high-pass filter (ultimate slope 12dB per octave). An EQ In/Out switch is included which operates independently of the filter. Phase reversal of the left-hand channel and mono summing of left and right signals is possible, as well as feeding both channels with just one side of a stereo input. The four auxiliaries are identical to the standard input module and remain as mono sends, however, the Pan facility is retitled as a 'Balance' control, and has a restricted range of + or - 5dB, for stereo programme balance correction.
An accurately matched, long-throw stereo fader completes this module, which represents a significant addition to the range of facilities available on this versatile desk. Stereo modules require their own rear connector panel, which occupies the width of two channels, making these units most suited to use in pairs, although presumably, there is no reason why a single module should not be used with a blanking plate.
The review model, an 8-4-2 with standard input modules, was used for location recording sessions feeding a Sony PCM-F1 digital system. I have used an original Series 200 Soundcraft desk for this purpose for some eighteen months now, and as expected, the same impressively clean, open quality was evident in the sound, along with the extremely low noise floor essential for working in this format.
The mic amps remained sufficiently quiet at high gain settings to facilitate the use of low sensitivity, high-quality dynamic mics, even with distant sound sources, if desired, whilst no front-end problems were encountered in using 'hot' condensers to close-mike a loud horn section. Heavy EQing inevitably increases the noise content, but when a sound requires drastic attention, common sense, as well as good engineering practice, dictates that extreme equalisation should only be a last resort, and that mic positioning, or microphone choice, should always be investigated first.
Although I had the advantage of already being familiar with the basic layout of these mixers, I feel that the 200B is an instantly likeable, user-friendly desk, with all its essential features able to be readily understood, even by an inexperienced operator. Yet it is in no way a system lacking in extra subtleties, and in fact offers many possibilities for the inveterate patching enthusiast who likes to stretch his equipment beyond its apparent limitations.
Another of the many thoughtful little touches in this design is the numbered write-on strip, which runs the length of the frame below the faders and is repeated at the top of the desk, making rapid channel identification much easier when operating the controls in that region.
The high-performance electronics, and the sophisticated range of facilities featured in the 200B, are most impressive in such a cost-effective package. The compact dimensions, of all mainframe sizes, are a distinct asset to mobile users, or anyone with a restricted working area, and have been achieved without compromising operation in any way. The simplicity of configuring the desk for some very specific user-requirements is certainly a bonus at this level of the market, and should enhance the acceptance of this model in a wide variety of applications. Overall, I feel that the amendments to the original Series 200 design represent a useful extension of the capabilities of the desk, rather than just a cosmetic upgrade. The Series 200B undeniably leaves an impression of all-round quality, and certainly maintains the excellent reputation that Soundcraft products in this field currently enjoy.
The Series 200B 8 channel rack-mounting version reviewed is priced at £1350 plus VAT.
Review by Dave Lockwood
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