Soundcraft Spirit Folio
Q: Just what is a Minister Without Portfolio? A: A leading member of the Government who hasn't got Soundcraft's nifty new portable mixer, that's what. Nicholas Rowland raises questions in The House
With a host of professional features and a highly competitive price, this is a Spirit destined for the material world...
Soundcraft seem to be on something of a roll at the moment with their critically acclaimed Spirit series of live, studio and MIDI mixers. Now here's another visitor from the Spirit world - the Spirit Folio. Measuring just 375mm x 407mm (that's about 16 inches square for all you diehard imperialists) this 10-channel stereo desk is quite literally the new baby of the family. In fact it looks exactly like a bigger mixer that's shrunk in the wash! The Folio is designed for anyone who needs a compact, portable mixer that's fairly simple to operate yet flexible enough and with enough inputs to handle many different configurations of instruments for both small scale recording or live work. If this doesn't sound like you, then you must be reading the wrong magazine.
The Folio is also aimed at those of us trying to reconcile big musical ambitions with small scale budgets. In fact, purely in pounds per feature terms, its RRP of £349 makes it laughably cheap. At £410, the two other Folio editions (one a 12:2 'desk' version, the other a 12:2 rackmountable version) are not that much heavier on the wallet either. And you'll find that they too squeeze an awful lot into a very small space. Compact and rather cute they may be, but the Folios are far from being toys. The first thing you notice is how solid they feel. Soundcraft haven't let the need to build to a price compromise their reputation for well-engineered and sturdily constructed products. Neither has low cost meant any sacrifices in terms of aesthetics. While many other budget mixers look like Heath Robinson kit builds, the Folio looks good enough to eat! Some may disagree... "Oh, it's a game of Coppit" said my other half when confronted with this marvel of miniaturisation.) I particularly liked the integral carry handle running along the back of the unit and the neat little touches like the mounting hole on the power supply which enables you to hang it out of the way on the wall. Other manufacturers take note.
Of the ten input channels, numbers one to six are mono while the remaining four are covered by two stereo pairs. The mono channels will accept line or mic inputs and are equipped with both XLR and quarter inch jack sockets. Phantom power on all six mic sockets is an easily switchable option if you happen to be using professional condenser mics. All the mic and line inputs are balanced - a pleasant surprise on a budget mixer, but quite necessary if you want to keep the noise gremlins from surfacing in your mix. Other sockets include two auxiliary sends, left and right monitor outs (for on-stage foldback or monitoring while recording), a stereo tape input, a stereo phones socket and left and right master mix outs. There's also an insert point just before the left and right masters - useful for patching in a compressor or other FX unit before sending the final stereo mix to either tape or the PA amp. All these sockets are mounted on a raised section of the front (top?) panel where they are easily accessible.
Also accessible, but not necessarily in the right position, is the headphone socket; when son of Folio appears (the Quarto edition perhaps?) I'd like to see this moved to a more sensible location at the front edge of the unit. The line jack sockets themselves (which are designed to accept 3-pole TRS jacks) are rather unusual in design, but they do seem to grip the jack plugs more firmly than the PCB sockets you'd normally find on desks at this price. And there are many other features on the Folio which really just shouldn't be on a desk of this price - you'll find several of them by casting your eyes down the mono channel strips, where you should immediately notice not just a 3-band EQ, but a 3-band EQ with a sweepable mid-range - a crucial inclusion, in my humble opinion, on any mixing desk.
The frequency control covers a useful range of between 250Hz and 6kHz - the range of most vocals in fact - and the selected frequency can be cut or boosted by up to a generous 15dB. High and low EQ controls, both shelving types, are also given a +/-15dB range, though I searched the manual in vain to discover what frequencies they operate at. The Folio is particularly unusual in that it comes equipped with a 100Hz Hi-pass Filter - a useful feature which can help eliminate the rumbles from your rock 'n' roll - especially when playing live. The rest of the mono channel controls comprise variable gain, pan, level fader, and two auxiliary sends. For level setting, each channel features a Pre-Fade Listen function (sometimes called 'solo' on other mixers). Press this (and the signal from that channel and that channel alone) is fed to either the monitor output or headphones as well as to the right hand side of the 12-segment bar stereo output meters. With both aural and visual indication of the signal levels, you can't really go wrong, but a clip LED on each channel might have provided a little added protection. Incidentally, you can also monitor the outputs from either of the two auxiliary sends using similar buttons - this time labelled AFL or After Fade Listen. Controls on the stereo channels are a little more rudimentary, but then again, these are primarily designed for line level instruments (synthesisers, expanders, samplers etc.) where you don't really need the same kind of tweakability. As you'll see, they may also need to be pressed into service as Aux returns too.
In place of the variable gain control is a button giving you a straight choice between +4dBu or -10dBV. Most of the time you'll have it switched to the former since this is the level most items of professional equipment use for their inputs and outputs. The second setting is really intended for semi-professional tape machines or hi-fi equipment. The stereo channels also see the 3-band EQ replaced by a simple 2-band affair (again, there's no mention of the frequencies involved) and the pan control is replaced by Balance (which to all intents and purposes is the same thing). As before there are two Aux sends: for all channels Auxiliary 1 can be either post-fade (for FX) or pre-fade (for foldback on stage or for setting up monitor mixes in the studio). The transition is achieved via a button above the master faders which switches all the Aux 1 controls at one push. By contrast, Auxiliary 2 is always post-fade.
Both auxiliary outputs are mono, and both lack a complementary aux send control - or even a master - though given the almost universal inclusion of level controls of FX processors most people would not see this last point as a critical omission. More potentially serious is the absence of auxiliary returns, which leaves you faced with the prospect of having to tie up both of those lovely stereo channels with the returns from your FX units... and you thought you'd bought a 10-channel mixer! But hold on, all is not lost. Remember those two sockets labelled Tape Return? These would normally be used for patching in a tape deck or CD, either for playback of recorded material or for playing soothing pre-gig music over the PA. But they can also act as the re-entry point for one of your FX loops. Indeed there's no reason why they can't also be hijacked as an input for an extra stereo instrument if you're absolutely pushed.
The level of incoming signals can be adjusted by an associated volume control and the signal itself can be routed to either the master mix or the monitor outputs or the phones output if you've got cans plugged in.) There's also a separate volume control for monitor/phones. Returning to the subject of tape decks, the Folio can also output a 1kHz oscillator tone, normally used for system testing and aligning the heads of tape machines. Just don't hit it during the gig or you'll realign the mind sets of your audience.
The Folio proves itself extremely easy to set up and use, and despite the lack of dedicated auxiliary returns, the signal routing options are surprisingly flexible - as is the 3-band EQ. The rotary controls also prove less of a fiddle than might be expected given their small size and the fact that there are a hell of a lot of them crammed onto that front panel. Sonically, the Folio is quiet: too damn quiet, as they say in corny Westerns just before the Indians attack. Seriously, it's easy to understand why Soundcraft have no hesitation in recommending the Folio for recording direct to DAT. For those conscious of their figures, mix noise is quoted as less than -83dBu, crosstalk at less than 100dB and distortion at less than 0.005 per cent. Like I said, too damn quiet.
Verdict? Well, it may be cheap; it may look cute and cuddly; it may, indeed, remind you of a game of Coppit in full swing, but this is no mean Spirit. For anyone who doesn't use a multitrack or who needs a compact mixer for both live and studio work, the Folio is an obvious winner. For anyone who does use a multitrack, its ease of use and lack of noise levels might still outweigh the fact that it only outputs in stereo. Soundcraft have successfully distilled the virtues of the bigger Spirits and managed to come up with a product that's 100 per cent proof.
Prices: 10/2, £349; 12/2, £410; 12/2RM, £410 All prices include VAT.
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