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Soundcraft Spirit Auto

Mixing Desk

There’s a 16:8:2 and a 24:8:2, and both have MIDI-controlled automation. Furthermore, Steinberg have written a Cubase-like automation program for your ST, so there’s even less need for any of that awkward stretching. Vic Lennard enters into the Spirit.

High quality mixing and faders that work by themselves. A ghost in the machine? More like one of the new Spirits in the mixing world...

Grrr... another mixing desk review cluttering up the pages of MT. Well, I suppose they do all look pretty much the same, do pretty much the same thing and are a lot less interesting than, say, a nice new keyboard/sampler/teamaker. But the design of a mixing desk can be the making - or breaking - of a modern MIDI studio set up, particularly now that they themselves are coming under the influence of MIDI.

Of course, mixing with MIDI data is by no means new: adjusting the velocity of notes or controlling the volume of each MIDI channel using on-screen faders has been a common feature of many software sequencing packages. On a standard mixing desk, however, the only way to control the faders on each channel is to push them up and down manually. MIDI-controlled desks were the next logical step.

And these there have been - any number of them - offering simple MIDI muting of individual channels. Limited yes, but useful for killing noise and handy where instruments have to share channels. More recently, desks with built-in VCAs (voltage controlled amplifiers) have begun to emerge - at reasonably affordable prices. No more fumbling with sliders and screwing up fade-outs. Sit back and let your recorded data do the work.

The Spirit Auto is just such a mixer. Based on the Spirit Studio desk released a couple of years ago, like the original it has most of the features you'd expect on an up-market design - 4-band EQ, six auxiliary sends and four dedicated stereo returns. There are three versions with 16, 24 and 32 inputs but all with eight group outs for connection to a multitrack tape recorder.

The dedicated Steinberg Spirit Automation program provides an on-screen replica of the automated faders and switches of the Spirit Auto

The original Spirit and the new Spirit Auto look virtually identical as the MIDI connections on the Auto are hidden beneath the armrest along the front of the desk.

These comprise standard In, Out and Thru, together with a miniature 8-way switch block for setting up the desk. The first of these determines the format of the MIDI data either as MIDI Control Changes (providing 128 positions for a full sweep of a fader) or Soundcraft System Exclusive which effectively doubles this resolution. You can use the former where you might want to carry out some simple editing, while the latter can be used with more specialised programs such as Steinberg's Spirit Automation (see boxout).

Two other switches are also of interest. The first thins out the MIDI data being created by the movement of the faders which you might use if you were going hell-for-leather moving faders galore. But generally, it can be left turned off. The other switch controls 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 standard 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 with a visual editor. As the Spirit Auto also provides for channel and monitor muting - again by using Control Changes - you can edit mutes to a high degree of accuracy.

By showing all fader and switch movements on-screen, carefully crafted sections of automation can be copied or moved between tracks

The Snapshot button on the Spirit Auto is 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 try yanking them all down to zero simultaneously, but that takes time and creates a great deal of MIDI data. A better idea is to take a snapshot of these faders positioned at zero and to then use this as a multiple mute.

Some sequencers have quite specialist editing pages which can be used to good effect with 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 terms of its audio performance, the Spirit Auto is based very closely on the Spirit Studio range which has been gaining friends and admirers for some two years now. It's an in-line design with tape monitor controls in the channels along with a direct channel-to-tape facility which allows the input on any channel to be routed directly to the tape track of the same number.

There's also the ability to split the 4-band channel EQ into two sets of 2-band EQ - one for the main channel input, the other for monitoring. Each input channel has connections for Mic, Line, Tape In & Out and Insert. And at mixdown, the channel/monitor reverse button can be used to feed the tape output into the main signal path, leaving the line input sockets to feed the monitor path, providing extra line inputs.

The MIDI Mixer page in Steinberg's Cubase sequencer allows you to manually construct mixes for Spirit Auto, without the need for any custom software

The 4-band EQ comprises high and low cut/boost controls and a pair of sweepable mid range controls with ranges of 50Hz-1.6kHz and 500Hz-16kHz respectively. When split, the sweep controls remain in the main channel path for tape returns, while the fixed low and high controls are placed in the monitor signal path.

As far as auxiliaries are concerned, the main and monitor sections each have one pre-fade and two post-fade sends - although all six may be assigned to the main signal path if required. Returns take the form of four stereo signals, each with 2-band EQ which can be fed into the stereo mix, foldback (pre-fade) or group pair directly beneath them.

The master section comprises 2-tone oscillator (for setting up), headphone output and the four master auxiliary sends. Each of the latter have AFL buttons and PFL/AFL levels are shown on the right-hand side of the stereo meter (the PFL level being adjustable via a trim pot). Sixteen position LEDs are used for each of the eight group outs and for the right and left outs.

To sum up, the Spirit Auto offers excellent mixing performance even when viewed as 'just' a mixing desk. Include the MIDI automation facilities into the equation and you have a mixer which sets itself apart from most other designs currently available. Though by no means cheap, the Spirit Auto has at least opened the door to those who have aspired to expensive automated consoles, but who have always found the price too restrictive.

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)

Steinberg Automation

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 on-screen 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 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 different, track. The point of this is that you can set up the fader movements for, say, a chorus and copy all of the 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 you having to draw in the curves by hand. Neat.

With sufficient memory in an ST (2Mb 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.

Spirit Auto and VCAs

In keeping with many other pieces of automated equipment, Spirit Auto uses dbx 1252 chips for the VCAs. The faders have a linear response as opposed to the logarithmic ones used on the standard Spirit Studio. The reason for this is to allow the same degree of MIDI data to be created by a movement of the fader, irrespective of the actual starting position. The A/D converters are 8-bit which means that 256 positions are catered for - a system used to the full by the Steinberg Spirit Automation and JL Cooper Softmix programs.

When MIDI data is received by the Auto, the D/A conversion is 12-bit with the extra information being used to generate the logarithmic feel from the standard Spirit Studio faders. The result of this can be clearly seen by putting the desk into Local Off (via switch 4) and passing the generated MIDI data back to the Auto via a sequencer; the resulting feel of the faders is then very similar to the Spirit Studio.

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Touching Bass

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The Streets Of San Francisco

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Jul 1993

Gear in this article:

Mixer > Soundcraft > Spirit Auto

Review by Vic Lennard

Previous article in this issue:

> Touching Bass

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> The Streets Of San Francisco...

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