Soundcraft Spirit Studio
As more mixer manufacturers turn their attention to the home and pre-production studios, the cost-effective quality mixer becomes a reality. Tim Goodyer discovers that there's even room for luxury.
As the recording industry recognises the growing importance of pre-production suites and home studios, more cost-effective, yet good-quality mixing desks are sure to appear; Soundcraft's new Spirit is both.
AS YOUR ARSENAL of synths, samplers, drum machines and effects processors grows, you'll come to an inescapable conclusion about your gear - you can't manage without a decent mixing desk. Without it, the whole process of recording, gigging and even rehearsing becomes hopelessly over-complicated. Somehow you've got to get all those outputs plugged into some form of tape recorder or amplifier, and the whole business of multitimbrality and multiple outputs only serves to make the problem more acute.
Where recording is concerned, one possible solution to the problem is to opt for a combined tape recorder and mixer - something descended from the first Portastudio or the many cassette-based multitrackers that have since appeared. Alternatively you could keep your options open by buying a mixing desk which allows you to use it with the tape recorder of your choice, or even as part of a live setup. Unfortunately mixers don't come cheap - not the sort that will ably handle 16 or so inputs, offer flexible routing to a multitrack recorder and have the sort of equalisation and auxiliary routing facilities needed to get the most out of today's hi-tech instruments (or yesterday's, for that matter). Happily, you and I aren't the only ones coming to the conclusion that there's considerable demand for "serious" yet "affordable" mixing desks. The same conclusion has been reached by certain manufacturers in a position to put such a desk on the market.
Before we go any further, let's establish what we mean by "affordable". Obviously the amount of hardware and labour involved in building, let's say, a 16-input, eight-group desk is going to prevent it from being "cheap" in any sense other than when compared to a fully-pro studio console. Let's also say, then, that something which costs around the price of a serious synth or sampler represents a significantly better buy than the studio desks of only a couple of years ago. Specifically, let's agree that, at around two grand, Soundcraft's Spirit Studio 16:8:16 makes a very attractive proposition.
THE SPIRIT STUDIO comes in two frame sizes - containing either 16 or 24 input channels - and has a sister line in the Spirit Live series of desks. Here we'll be looking at the smaller of the Studio desks, but the review also adequately describes the larger desk.
The physical layout of the Spirit offers little in the way of surprises: 16 identical input channels make up the left-hand side of the desk, the right-hand side being given over to the eight group and single master faders, auxiliary returns and routings, monitors master levels, metering and so on. One surprise the Spirit does have in store, however, is its hybrid split/in-line format. Traditionally, a split desk separates the input channels from the group routing and monitoring controls, while an in-line desk incorporates these to sit "in-line" with the input channels. While the group faders are to be found on the right of the Spirit, the tape monitors are in-line with the input channels.
Specifically a Spirit input/monitor channel runs as follows: from the top there are separate send and return jacks for connection to a multitrack machine, insert point, line input (balanced; stereo quarter-inch jack), mic input (balanced; XLR), 48V phantom powering, Direct button (routes input channel direct to corresponding multitrack channel), tape trim pot, line/mic selector (-20dB attenuation on line input), gain pot, channel/monitor input reverse button, high and low EQ pots, EQ-to-monitor button, two-band quasi-parametric EQ (500Hz-16kHz and 50Hz-1.6kHz bands with 15dB cut or boost), foldback 1 send, aux 1 and 2 sends, foldback 2 send, aux 3 and 4 sends, aux 3 and 4 routing button, monitor pan, monitor level, monitor PFL button, peak indicator LED (red), monitor on button and LED (green), channel pan, channel PFL, peak indicator LED (red), routing buttons (Mix, 1-2, 3-4 5-6, 7-8), channel fader (100mm throw).
The Group section contains jack connections for the eight group outputs, an insert point for each group, and the four aux sends and four pairs of aux returns. Beneath these are eight 16-segment LED ladders (one per group), master aux sends with PFL buttons, trim pots for the aux sends, high and low EQ for each of the aux return pairs, four pairs of FB1 and FB2 pots for sending aux return signals to the monitor busses, aux pan and return levels for each of the four aux mixes, AFL buttons for each aux mix, routing buttons for fx-to-group and fx-to-mix, routing buttons for group-to-mix and group-to-mono, PFL buttons for each group, and the eight group faders.
Finally there's the Master section of the desk. Here there is a connection for the external DC power supply, jack connections for control room monitors, monitor amps, return from a two-track machine, mix out and insert points for the stereo mix.
Sitting beneath these are two further LED ladders (for stereo mix, PFL or AFL levels), a tape line-up oscillator (1kHz/10kHz), foldback 1 and 2 master levels (with AFL and link buttons), a level pot for feeding the control room sound source onto the foldback busses, select button for selecting mix or two-track return, PFL/AFL active LED, trim pot for PFL and AFL monitoring, control room/headphone level, mono button, talkback mic and level, non-latching routing button for mixer mic (groups and stereo mix or foldback busses), headphone jack, and single, stereo master mix fader.
"Given Soundcraft's considerable experience in designing professional mixing desks, it's interesting to see exactly what they've chosen to include on, and exclude from the Spirit."
WHILE THE SPIRIT Studio isn't a particularly large desk, the in-line configuration ensures there's enough room around all the controls to give it the feel of a larger desk. No concessions have been made on the size of the controls either, and even the input channel routing buttons (which sit between the faders) have enough space to allow you to operate them with comfort. There are other aspects of the desk that make it physically comfortable to work with too - the provision of a scribble strip (for marking channel usage) under the faders is usually one of the first casualties when it comes to "economy"; this is not the case with the Spirit. Another early casualty is the arm rest that adorns the front edge of a professional desk. While the Spirit rest has no padding, it does at least keep your hands and elbows out of the way of the faders - and also doubles very neatly as a carrying handle which makes the (fairly heavy) desk reasonably manageable by one person. In fact, this attention to detail is something Soundcraft have pursued in the Spirit's electronics too, as we'll see shortly. The result is that, once you're involved in the details of a mix, you can quite easily forget you're using what's supposed to be a "budget" desk.
Given Soundcraft's considerable experience in designing professional mixing desks, it's interesting to see exactly what they've chosen to include on, and exclude from the Spirit. The first notable inclusion is the direct routing facility. This enables you to patch an input channel directly to the correspondingly-numbered tape track at the touch of a single button. Another convenience is the single-button method of bringing a tape track up on an input channel and substituting the instrument plugged into that channel on the monitor channel. The option to switch the shelf EQ between the input channels and monitor channels is extremely useful too - you can opt for comprehensive EQ on an input channel, or have quite reasonable EQ on both input channel and monitor channel. Remembering that the Spirit is a budget desk (and, therefore, isn't going to be blessed with full EQ on both input channels and monitor channels), it's an excellent application of resources. Similarly, the ability of aux sends 3 and 4 to be switched between input and monitor (foldback) channels allows you to make good use not just of the Spirit's aux busses, but of a limited number of effects processors. Also, with sends 3 and 4 switched to the input channel, and the foldback busses used as pre-fade effects sends (for such uses as auto panning), you're working on a desk with a very generous six effects sends. Other inclusions are equally pleasantly surprising and useful - the inclusion of phantom powering (selectable per channel) for those mics needing it, is going to save many users time and hassle, and the provision of tape trims eliminates the need to reset input levels when switching between an instrument and tape input, for example.
THE ROUTING FACILITIES offered by Soundcraft's new desk are pretty comprehensive. In addition to the direct routing of channels to tape tracks, splittable EQ and assignable aux sends, the Spirit will let you tie it in almost any type of knot you wish.
Input channels are routed to group busses in the usual way - select a pair (or pairs) of busses from the routing buttons on the channel and then use the channel pan to select which of the two groups you wish to use.
The groups can readily be set up as effects returns by assigning the only effects ta a pair of groups (with the FX To Group buttons) and muting their feed direct to the mix out buss by releasing the FX To Mix buttons. Of course, a combination of directly-routed and group-routed effects are equally easily set up.
The provision of a "mono" facility is another thoughtful inclusion on the Spirit. Provided on both the main mix buss and each pair of group busses, the Mono button gives you the ability to check almost any section of your mix for phase cancellation effects, such as those caused by effects units that give a "stereo" output by simply inverting the phase of one of the channels - in mono the effect cancels itself out.
"The lack of padding on the arm rest is always going to remind you that you're not mixing in Peter Gabriel's Real World, but the Spirit may have you believing you're closer than you actually are."
NO PIECE OF hi-tech gear is without its shortcomings, and anything built to a budget can reasonably be expected to have plenty. All of which makes the Spirit appear all the more of a masterpiece of R&D. The designers of the Spirit appear to have cut strategic corners instead of indiscriminately pruning away useful features. The net result is that the desk will either suit your needs admirably, or it won't. For a start, the desk is not expandable in any way, so you need to be sure the Spirit has enough input channels and groups for your needs (the eight group busses can be used to feed a 16- or 24-track machine by doubling up on assignments - group 1 feeds tracks 1, 9 and 17, group 2 feeds tracks 2, 10 and 18 selectable on the multitrack - but you might aspire to a desk with a full 16 or 24 busses). You certainly don't want to buy a desk only to find you need to update it in a few months, say, taking onboard the inconvenience of installing a new desk and losing cash in the process. Similarly, there's no option for adding any sort of automation internally (MIDI muting, for example). But the Spirit makes plain what it will do, and generally does it very well indeed. The high quality of the Spirit's electronics deserves a mention here - as evidenced by the unit's low operating noise.
The one exception to this performance of duty is the lack of EQ bypass switches. If you've ever tackled a tricky EQ job with EQ defeat available, you'll appreciate just how valuable this can be. To be fair to Soundcraft, while no self-respecting pro desk would be without EQ defeat, it's an uncommon luxury in a budget desk.
The only other area in which the Spirit fails to fully capitalise on its potential directly concerns the musician using MIDI sequencing as his/her first line of musical composition, with tape second. Given that the desk possesses 32 channels (16 input, 16 monitor) with a healthy allocation of EQ and effects sends, only 16 of these are readily available as instrument inputs. Use of the tape inputs as additional instrument inputs is possible, but far from ideal. Apart from the inconvenience of substituting instrument leads for tape return leads, the tape returns are matched differently from the line inputs, and tend to require that the tape Trim pot be wound up high enough to give a poor s/n ratio. As an alternative, a second set of input jacks and the ability to switch between them and the tape returns could have been provided, making maximum use of all the Spirit's channels. Not only would this have made good sense to you and I as users, but it would have been quite in keeping with the Spirit's otherwise exhaustive capitalisation on its facilities.
IN SUMMING UP, the first thing that needs to be reiterated is the feeling of physical comfort the Spirit Studio gives when in use. OK, the lack of padding on the arm rest is always going to remind you that you're not mixing in Peter Gabriel's Real World studio, but the desk's ease of use and the impression of space in which you're working may have you believing you're a lot closer than you actually are.
It's probably a tribute to the experience Soundcraft have clocked up with desks which have to cut the ice with the professionals, that the company have so accurately identified the elements that make the Spirit so appealing to use.
Another commendable aspect of the design is its honesty - if, after reading this review and spending ten minutes studying the physical layout of the desk, you feel the desk is right for your needs then it almost certainly is. The Spirit makes no implied claims to be what it's not, or do what it can't, it's simply a damned fine desk for the asking price.
Of course it's easy to point out that expandability and MIDI muting would have added significantly to the potential of the desk, especially in the current climate of ever-expanding MIDI usage. It's difficult to speculate why the Spirit isn't expandable (although it may have to do with build quality - the Spirit is a very solid piece of work), but the question of MIDI almost certainly comes down to three things. First there's this impression of honesty the mixer purveys - adding MIDI would introduce additional complications (what should be controlled and how?). Then there's the matter of having to leave the actual control of the desk to a third party (a variety of manufacturers of sequencers and sequencing software) producing systems which vary wildly in facilities and reliability, isn't in keeping with the spirit of the Spirit. Finally, there's the issue of cost: keeping the price of the desk down and leaving the option of adding an automation system of your own choice has a lot to be said for it. The lack of MIDI is a sad omission in many ways, but an understandable one. The obvious solution to those seeking MIDI control is to use one of the stand-alone systems which operate via the desk's insert points. This, naturally, the Spirit will support comfortably.
The introduction of the Spirit Studio represents a significant change in at least one of the attitudes of the established professional mixer manufacturers. Soundcraft have recognised that times are changing, and that much music is now being made in pre-production and home recording suites that simply cannot bear the cost of an up-market mixing desk. In (possibly) swallowing their pride and bidding for a place in this market, they're not only likely to cream some profit out of a new area of the market, they're providing quality mixing desks to that area of the market at a price it can reasonably be expected to bear. Well done, Soundcraft.
Price 16-channel Spirit Studio, £1651; 24-channel Spirit Studio, £2381. Both prices exclude VAT.
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