Spirit of Rock & Roll
Soundcraft Spirit Auto Mixing Console
Soundcraft's Spirit Auto heralds the age of affordable, automated multitrack consoles for home and private studio use.
Soundcraft's Spirit mixer range has been further augmented with the addition of an automated console. Have the company made a good thing even better? Zenon Schoepe finds out.
Most people involved in recording recognise the fact that automated mixing consoles are extremely valuable studio tools, and now that costs are coming down in leaps and bounds, what was once the province of the top West End studio is now becoming available to the home enthusiast. Soundcraft has taken its popular in-line monitoring Spirit Studio console, (which is available in 16- and 24-input versions), and added VCAs to the Channel faders and automation to the Monitor and Channel On switches. The result is the Spirit Auto.
The desk's automation generates MIDI information, which can be recorded into the user's own sequencer or can be run with a dedicated Atari ST software package from Steinberg, which adds around £350 to the price. Visually, the desk is practically identical to its non-automated cousin, the only additions on the Auto being the inclusion of a Snapshot button, a MIDI Receive LED at the bottom right-hand corner of the desk, and MIDI In, Out and Thru connections under the armrest, together with DIL switches and a rotary MIDI channel selector. These dictate how the console communicates with the outside world in terms of digital control.
When connected to a sequencer, the Auto operates at 7-bit MIDI resolution (128 steps), but when connected to the Steinberg automation package, a Soundcraft 'super-MIDI' protocol gives 8-bit resolution — 256 steps. Regardless of whether the desk receives 7- or 8-bit data, it uses a 12-bit digital-to-analogue convertor to translate this into audio controller information. These figures relate purely to the resolution of the controlling data and not the audio.
Spirit Studio is not a new desk, but it is worthwhile to recap its features for those who are not acquainted with it. As a 'flat-top' desk, all the connectors are presented at the back of the work surface, providing a convenient patch panel. Each input strip takes switchable mic/line inputs, plus a tape return, and has a tape send for direct output or group output, plus an insert point. All inputs are balanced, while the mix, group and aux outputs are all ground compensated — a satisfactory halfway house between balanced and unbalanced performance.
The signal routing is quite conventional, with the eight Group faders located to the right of the desk, while the monitor level and pan pots are located in the channel strips — hence the in-line monitoring tag. The channel strip hosts 48V phantom switching; a Direct Out button (which sends the input of a strip directly to the correspondingly numbered tape send); and Gain and Trim pots for the switchable mic/line inputs and tape inputs. The Channel and Monitor paths each have access to one pre-fade Foldback and two postfade Aux busses, but the two Monitor Auxes can be switched into the Channel path via a button.
EQ is four-band, fixed shelving LF and HF and sweepable twin mids with 15dB cut and boost throughout, and this normally resides in the channel path. HF and LF operate at 100Hz and 10kHz respectively, with the mids sweeping from 50Hz to 1.6kHz and 500Hz to 16kHz. There is no EQ cut button, but the boost controls are strongly detented so you're in no doubt where the centre is. Additionally the LF and HF can be switched to the Monitor path, providing tape returns or, indeed, extra inputs at mixdown, for example, with some form of tone control. Monitors and Channels have illuminated On switches and PFL buttons with the PFL LED doubling, ingeniously, as a Peak indicator when its associated button is not depressed.
The Monitor section is permanently routed to the main stereo buss, but provision is made, via a Reverse button, to swap the monitor and channel sources, thus allowing tape returns to be bounced without having to repatch. The four individual stereo effects returns have HF and LF EQ, two Foldback auxes, pan, trim, a rotary fader, PFL, and routing to the pairs of output groups beneath them or to the main stereo buss. Pairs of group faders can act as subgroups, which are routable in stereo or mono to the main stereo buss.
Central control functions located above the single main stereo fader include a talback mic with gain pot, and non-latching buttons routing it to the tape or foldback busses. PFL and AFL volume is controllable on a pot, and solo status is indicated by a bright red LED. The Control room output level is on a pot and can be mono'd; this output can be mixed in with the two foldback busses, which can also be linked for extra versatility — for example, to supply a studio artist's feed. AFLs are provided on the four Aux masters, and a two-tone oscillator routable to the groups and main stereo completes the picture beneath peak reading bargraph meters.
The quality of the Spirit's finish is unusually high for this end of the market, with buttons that don't wobble and smooth pots. Because the top of the desk is all in one piece, there is little flexing, which means that internal connections are not being stressed. While having all the connection sockets at arm's reach and pointing upwards is convenient, it is also a potential dust trap, the insert sockets being particularly vulnerable.
To wrap up the minor niggles first, the headphones amp sounded a mite brittle and the power supply made a disproportionate amount of noise for its size. There are also no EQ bypass switches or aux mute buttons, but there has to be some compromise at this price point.
In its favour, the Spirit's foldback section, though simple, is actually quite potent; direct output is sensible and practical, and can provide a dedicated extra send during mixdown, while having basic EQ on the effects returns is useful.
The Spirit Auto, looked at purely as an unautomated desk, is appealingly targeted at the small MIDI studio which also works with real musicians from time to time. It's conveniently laid out, and seems designed with this sort of environment in mind. Notable is the way in which the effects returns may be routed to the main stereo buss for mixing or to the groups for tracking. Also worthy of note is the Channel/Monitor signal path Reverse switch, which allows you to start setting up the final mix on the faders as you build up a recording.
However, the desk's basic attributes pale in comparison to the power of the Spirit Auto when connected via MIDI to an Atari computer.
Things start to get very serious from here on in.
The Auto sports automated Channel and Monitor On switches and VCA automated channel faders. The depression of an On switch or the movement of a Channel fader emits MIDI continuous controller information which can be recorded into a MIDI sequencer and played back in the same way as any other MIDI composition. Thus moving a Channel fader from the bottom of its travel to the top covers MIDI's 0 to 127 controller range, and similarly the Channel and Monitor On switches toggle between values of 0 and 127, depending upon whether they are depressed or released.
Control-wise, the desk can be regarded as a somewhat strange-looking MIDI instrument that generates and recognises conventional MIDI controller data.
Connecting up C-Lab's Creator, for example, allows the mix to be recorded alongside sequence data, and this applies for just about any other hardware or software system on the market. This data can be edited in the sequencer for the fine-tuning of moves and scenes, but as anyone who has ever tried to edit continuous controller information will testify, the process is a trifle tedious.
The Steinberg automation software for the Soundcraft Auto presents the automation data in an instinctive and brilliantly clear manner. The main screen on a 16-channel Auto gives graphic representations of the Channel faders and Channel and Monitor On switches, plus eight VCA group faders with Group, Channel and Monitor On switches. Tape transport type controls are provided for the movement of mix data within the computer memory. Though the program will run from its own internal clock, automation makes more sense when it is running to timecode from tape. Hence the software has a synchronisation page, allowing the automation to lock to MIDI clock or MIDI timecode, and not surprisingly for a Steinberg product, the system is ready to be integrated with other Steinberg products, most notably through the inclusion of MROS.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of the package, a few words about automation in general. You have to tell an automation system that you want to record data — it is not just a matter of rolling the tape and doing your thing. You are unlikely to want to mix from the very beginning on all the faders and switches every single time; you'll get some bits right and will want to improve on others — so the process of recording automation data is broken down into categories. This might not seem natural at first, but in reality it echoes quite faithfully the way in which we mix. It also means you can emulate a 10-handed mix on your own by building the mix up in stages. Each automated switch and fader can be regarded as having its own recording 'track', and these tracks may be recorded individually or together and then tweaked manually or via an edit page.
The program has a number of Modes, and these can be selected Globally (to influence all the Channel faders and Channel and Monitor On switches), in sections (to influence just the Monitor On switches, for example), or just on selected items, such as one channel fader, four Channel Ons and all the Monitor Ons, for example. The system has to be put into record whenever data that needs to be recorded is being generated, and dropped out when this is completed; some automation systems switch automatically to a safe mode as soon as they stop receiving timecode.
Write mode allows fader and switch movements to be recorded, while Read mode allows these movements to be 'played back' to control the desk. A Local mode permits the desk to be operated normally but without the ability to Record anything. Recorded fader data can be altered in an Update mode, which is a very instinctive way of working which I'll explain by example: run the multitrack tape generating SMPTE, put the desk into Global Write mode and Record from the screen and mix. At the end of the pass, stop recording, and while the tape is rewinding, place all the faders at the 0 or unity gain position of their travel and put the desk into global Update mode. When the tape rolls again enter Record in the automation software. Any movements of the faders now are relative to the movements you recorded in the first Write mode pass. Thus if a fader was consistently recorded in Write mode as 20dB down from unity gain throughout the song, movement of that fader in Update mode is relative to that value and is adding or subtracting from it. Thus if you Update by pushing the fader from unity gain to the top of its travel at +10dB you are effectively adding 10dB to the original -20dB value.
Update is an immensely useful means of tweaking a mix by altering the original in the places that need it, and if you don't touch a fader then nothing is changed. This is analagous to setting a happy mix up manually, then pushing and pulling on certain faders at particular points — except that it's better, and you only have to get it right once because your moves are stored.
The biggest problem with automation is that if you keep dropping in and out of record for sections of the mix — and you will because you can — then if you're not very careful there will be audible jumps in fader position. The software covers you for this by offering an Auto mode which switches the system from Read to Write mode only once the current fader position crosses the value that was previously recorded. Other features that help in the quest for a smooth mix are Ramp to Mix In and Ramp to Mix Out, which fade from the Read value into the Write value and back out again by adjustable amounts.
This is possible because there are two sets of automation data stored in memory at the same time; one for the Read data and one for the stuff you choose to Write. Consequently, it is possible to Undo a mix, and Undo the Undo if you choose — something that the rather more expensive Tascam M3700 cannot do unless you had the foresight to save the previous pass on disk. This might seem like a minor point, but it is an important one because of the temptation to get reckless and creative without saving beforehand.
Snapshots of all the automated features can be created and programmed to occur at a particular time reference, or they can be fired on-the-fly using the desk's Snapshot button, which some will no doubt prefer.
Eight software group faders are available on screen and any number of Channel faders can be assigned to these, thus allowing the movement of the Group fader to control its constituents, albeit only via on-screen mouse.
Operating the Group Channel and Monitor Ons via mouse click similarly activates the same switches in the Group members. For hardware control of a group of faders, a Channel fader can be designated master; other faders slaved to it will move relative to the Master fader's position. Slaved Monitor and Channel On switches are also grouped. Channels can be solo'd from the screen and named.
If this level of control is not enough, (and personally I believe that it is), then the extended editing functions certainly are. The main edit page is based on a horizontally scrolling stack of fader contours and solid blocks for Monitor and Channel Ons. This can be magnified or reduced to include as many strips of information as the eye can decipher — which, at the most reduced resolution, is not a lot. Magnified, the screen becomes very useful and the horizontal interval of time displayed can be adjusted to give almost two minutes at a glance.
Fader curves can be drawn freehand, straight lines can be drawn, lumpy bits of activity can be smoothed out on single or groups of faders — particularly good for long fade ins and outs — sections can be deleted, lifted and pasted or copied to other faders or to the same fader further into the song.
The degree of sophistication surprised me, and it very quickly became easy to dip into the edit page and shift an On switch position or adjust a fade-in slope.
Additionally, the editing can handle 'parts', whereby whole chunks of a song — identified by chorus, verse and middle eight if desired — can be cut, pasted, deleted or faded en masse. Incredible.
While this level of control should best be regarded as a strong supplement to the main mixing system, I can see it being used for a lot more than that as people explore its potential.
I would have to say that, aside from rudimentary mixing that can be captured in pretty much a single pass, using Auto with a sequencer as the storage and editing medium can be a touch laborious, though much depends on which sequencer you use. I am sure that many MIDIphiles come to terms with this quite readily, but once you've seen the Steinberg automation software, which is a staggeringly clever program, I think you'll see the advantages. It's fast and clear in operation and offers extra functions that couldn't even be contemplated in a sequencer. Editing in particular is an absolute knockout and is surprisingly professional considering its humble price. The screen on the main automation page can get a little bit notchy when there is a lot going on, but this is purely down to graphics; no audio artifacts are detectable.
A standard 1040ST comfortably gives enough room for a good-sized mix, although more memory might be required if you really want to go mad. Needless to say, the same will apply if you intend to run the system alongside Cubase on the same computer, so a memory upgrade is a good idea.
The VCAs cannot be switched out of the channel signal path. This should not be construed as a limitation for mixing — after all, the majority of records are mixed on VCA-equipped SSL desks — but tracking through the Spirit Auto, and particularly bouncing of tracks, means that the miniscule and, for all intents and purposes, inaudible levels of 'processing' that passing through a VCA entails mount up. Thus tracking four individual tracks, bouncing these down to two and then incorporating these into a stereo master means that the signals have passed through no less than 10 VCAs. I can't say that I noticed any problems, but if it really bothers you, you could use the pre-fade Foldback auxes to get signals cleanly onto tape.
The Spirit Auto, combined with the Steinberg automation package, cannot be faulted, given its reasonable cost. Any limitations of the basic desk resulting from it being built to a price are more than outweighed by the benefits of the automation. While the Auto can be run with any MIDI sequencer, I would strongly suggest that any potential buyer consider spending the extra £350 on the Steinberg software, because it moves the desk up a gear and offers a degree of control that starts to question the validity of stand-alone automation systems many times the price.
Auto remains an incredible feat of price, performance, features and engineering, and in many ways it doesn't quite add up. How Soundcraft have managed it for the money baffles me. I believe I would still have been impressed with substantially less. As it is, I am amazed at this very important and ground-breaking product. At this end of the market, your shopping list should start here.
Spirit Auto 16:8:2 £3172.50; 24:8:2 £4641.25; Spirit Studio 16:8:2 £2120.08; 24:8:2 £3119.63 Steinberg Spirit Auto Automation Software £351.33. All prices include VAT.
Soundcraft Electronics Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Zenon Schoepe
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