Soundcraft Spirit Auto
Mix your Spirit - and stay in control
A high-spec, high quality mixing desk with full MIDI automation and a sensible price tag. It's more than just a Spirit...
I suspect many readers greet the appearance of reviews of mixing desks within the pages on MT with a kind of weary resignation. Yes, we have to use them, but that doesn't mean we have to enjoy reading about them. After all, they're not musical, they don't make any sound of their own (apart from the cheap, noisy ones), and they all do the same thing - more or less. Indeed, only with the advent of MIDI automation in recent years has there been any significant movement in the mixer design stakes - anything interesting for MT readers to get their teeth into.
And what a slow process it's been. Up until recently, the only affordable option that was available was for MIDI muting, where MIDI messages were used simply to kill the sound on a particular channel. Useful to cut out input noise or perhaps lose an instrument at a strategic point in the mix, but not automation in any meaningful sense of the word. But the times, it seems, are a-changin' and MIDI has been creeping ever further into the design philosophy of a number of new consoles. The era of the MIDI-controlled VCA is upon us and with it comes the re-invention of the mixer as a creative device within the wider MIDI environment.
Incidentally, just in case it's not a term you're familiar with, a 'VCA' - or voltage controlled amplifier - is an electronic device used to convert any fader movement instigated by you into a stream of MIDI data which your sequencer can record and playback - so repeating your 'performance'.
Sporting it's own complement of VCAs is the new Spirit Auto, based on the popular Spirit Studio desk which was released by Soundcraft a couple of years ago. Like its non-MIDI forerunner, the Spirit Auto is, purely in audio terms, a well-specified desk and comes with all the features you'd expect to find in this sort of price bracket... four-band EQ, six auxiliary sends and four dedicated stereo returns. Inputwise, there's also a choice of three versions - 16, 24 or 32 channels - all with eight group outs for connection to a multitrack recorder.
Looking at the Spirit and Spirit Auto side-by-side, you'd be forgiven for failing to spot any difference between the two. This is because the MIDI connections on the Auto are housed underneath the armrest along the front of the desk. They comprise standard MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets and a miniature eight switch block for settings. The first of these sets the format of the MIDI data: MIDI Control Changes giving 128 positions for a full sweep of the faders, and Soundcraft System Exclusive which effectively doubles this resolution. The former is intended to be used with a normal sequencer, where you might want to carry out some basic editing, while the latter is designed with specialised programs in mind such a Steinberg's Spirit Automation (see below).
Two other switches are of some interest, too. The first 'thins' out the MIDI data being created by the movement of the faders - which may be useful if two separate people were going hell for leather moving every fader they could get their hands on. But generally, it can be left turned off. The other switch determines whether the desk responds to its own fader movements or via MIDI data received at the MIDI In port - the equivalent of Local Control if you like.
With a conventional sequencer, Spirit Auto is a doddle to use. Using a two-way connection you can record fader movements to a track and then 'play' them back. More to the point, if you're using a computer sequencer with a visual editor, you can use the mouse to edit and fine tune the generated MIDI Control Changes on a visual editing screen. As Spirit Auto also provides for channel and monitor muting - again by using Control Changes - you can edit mutes to a high degree of accuracy.
The 'snapshot' button on the Spirit Auto is the most useful as it transfers all current fader and switch locations to a sequencer in one go. Let's say that half a dozen faders are half-way up and you want to mute them in one fell swoop. You could yank them all down to zero, but that takes time and creates a great deal of MIDI data; a better idea would be to take a snapshot of these faders positioned at zero and to then use this as a 'multiple' mute.
Some sequencers have specialist editing pages which can be used to good effect with the Spirit Auto. Creator/Notator's RMG page and Cubase's MIDI Mixer each allow you to set up on-screen faders; making a custom template is straightforward due to the relative simplicity of using control changes.
In conjunction with Soundcraft, Steinberg have created the Spirit Automation program which utilises the Soundcraft SysEx format to give 256 fader positions. The program bears more than a passing resemblance to Cubase (hardly surprising...) and gives you an onscreen representation of all of the Spirit's faders and mute switches. In typical Steinberg fashion, it uses three modes; Write for recording automation data, Read to play it back and Update to alter information on-screen. One nice feature is being able to group a number of faders together, an option which reduces the amount of MIDI data being generated.
Where the program really comes into its own, however, is with the Time Editor page which displays curves for fader movements and vertical lines for mutes. The on-screen toolbox gives you various options including the ability to highlight areas and move or copy them to other places in the same, or a different, track. The point of this is that you can set up the fader movements for, say, a chorus and copy all of your carefully-crafted settings to the next chorus. Another powerful feature is that of 'ramping', which automatically creates smooth transitions from one set of fader positions to another without having to draw in the curves by hand. Neat.
With sufficient memory in an ST (two Megabytes and above), you can have Cubase and Spirit Automation working together and move between them by using the Steinberg Switcher program - if you're a Mac aficionado, you'll be pleased to hear that JL Cooper are currently working on a similar program entitled 'Softmix'.
There can be no doubt as to the viability of the Spirit Auto as a MIDI-based mixing system. For ease of use and professional results it leaves nothing to be desired at all. One can only applaud Soundcraft's decision to take a popular, proven desk like the Spirit and produce a version of it which will be of interest to anyone who has longed to extend MIDI control a stage further into the recording chain.
Even for those not directly involved in recording, the Spirit Auto has much to recommend it and really does serve to make mixing a creative process on a par with (and now inseparable from) arrangement and composition itself. That's got to be worth thinking about.
Prices: Spirit Auto 16-8-2 £3172.50; Spirit Auto 24-8-2 £4641.25; Steinberg Spirit Automation £399; Steinberg Spirit Sync Pac (Spirit Automation with Midex+) £744; Steinberg Spirit Pac (Spirit Automation with Midex) £663; JL Cooper Softmix £TBA. All prices inc VAT.
More from: Soundcraft, (Contact Details)
Review by Vic Lennard
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