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Studiomaster Star System Mixer

Article from Sound On Sound, September 1993

Is it an analogue modular synth? No! It's a mixer with a difference.


And now for something completely different... a studio console that turns the accepted idea of mixer ergonomics upside down, offering not only an innovative new shape but a host of more conventional facilities. John Harris discovers what's behind Studiomaster's new clothes.


Studiomaster have been producing good quality desks aimed at the cost-conscious end of the live sound and home recording market for some years now; their mixers have been deservedly popular but not, perhaps, revolutionary in appearance. The Star System changes all this: one look at this most unusually shaped desk brings to mind images of '70s modular synths, the analogue Korg MS20, space age one-armed bandits — it's certainly refreshing to see such a different approach to mixer ergonomics.

The design of the Star System seems to be primarily directed towards the needs of the modern home studio user — using not only mics but also keyboards, samplers, drum boxes and maybe even hi-fi or disco equipment.

Such users need a lot of input channels, which usually means spending a lot of money or cobbling together a system using more than one mixer. The Star System addresses this market directly; it's cost-effective, with plenty of channels and a flexible routing system. It's also amazingly compact and will sit quite happily on a desktop. How many times have you bought a bit of gear, got it home and then had to redesign your entire studio layout to accommodate it? Most home studio owners have pretty small rooms for their studios, as I can testify from the photos sent in to Demo Doctor; the Star System scores in being the smallest mixer I've yet seen which manages to combine so many useful features — in an unorthodox but attractive package.

OVERVIEW



Because of its 'sit up' design, the controls of the Star are very easy to get at, as they're slightly tilted away from you. Below the raked control panel, the faders are located horizontally, feeling quite conventional as a consequence. And, because all the connections are on the rear panel, there's no messy cabling in sight, yet the sockets are still easily accessible; there's even a set of wiring diagrams for things like insert points and inputs printed on the back panel.

The most surprising thing for me is that the Star System can provide a staggering 38 inputs on mixdown! It achieves this figure by incorporating eight main channels with 3-band equalisation and full sized 100mm faders, eight monitor/line inputs, 10 stereo inputs (four of which have 2-band EQ and can be brought up on additional faders), and external patching into the left/right bus.

All the inputs have access to the lateral routing system — basically a form of subgrouping which uses the main Left/Right bus when multiple inputs need to be mixed to tape. Individual channels may be routed directly to tape by means of the Direct, L/R button (see box for more details).

Those into dance music or sampling from vinyl will welcome the flexible stereo inputs, two of which can be switched to RIAA phonos for use with record decks. And everyone should appreciate the two channels of parametric EQ on the master section, which provide a welcome addition to the 3-band channel equalisation. The parametrics can be linked to any channel on the desk, left in the main stereo output path, or indeed interfaced with external equipment.

Unusually for a budget mixer, the Star System has Solo In Place as well as the usual PFL (Pre Fade Listen), the reason being that the Listen system is also an integral part of the off-tape monitoring arrangement.To further add to the overall flexibility, the multitrack tape outputs on the back of the mixer can be switched to operate at either -10dBv or +4dBu and optional ready-made interface leads are available which connect directly to the balanced inputs and outputs of the new generation of low-cost digital multitracks.

Phantom powering is global, and in common with the P7 studio console, the Star provides two stereo tape inputs which can be monitored individually or used as a routing system to dub from one machine to the other.

The left-hand end of the console is laid out nominally as an in-line design with no conventional subgrouping. The 'lateral routing' system is basically a direct switching option from each of the main channels 1-8, plus the ability to subgroup using the left/right faders. The advantage is, of course, a shorter signal path on the direct route and therefore a cleaner signal. The disadvantage is that you're limited to two subgroup faders, and when using the monitor section channels for off-tape listening you have to remember to switch into a different mode. In practice, this shouldn't be unduly restricting for conventional 8-track work.

The main signal path has three aux sends, while a fourth is located in the Line B section. Sends 3 and 4 are normalised so that they sum together if nothing is plugged into the Aux 4 output. There are no dedicated effects returns on the console, but effects can be brought into the mix via stereo line inputs 5-10, which are simple 'level-only' inputs.

CHANNEL FEATURES



The input channel strip can accommodate two signal paths, A and B, the latter normally being used for in-line tape monitoring during recording and as an additional line input at mixdown. Their roles can be altered using a reverse switch called, engagingly, 'Swap'; this simply swaps the A and B line inputs so you don't have to repatch when you come to mix!

A microphone/Line A switch is provided on the main channel path and the Gain stage has a clip LED to warn of impending overload. A more accurate representation of level is shown by using the PFL button — the input signal level, as usual, appearing on the main bargraph meters.

Equalisation and three of the four Auxiliary sends are dedicated to the main channels. Aux sends 1 and 2 are the dedicated post-fade sends and have colour-coded knob caps, ostensibly to make operation less ambiguous. However, there is some confusion here because blue is used for the caps of Auxiliary sends 3 and 4 (usually denoting a pre-fade send) — but only send 3 is pre-fade.

As touched upon earlier, Aux 4 is normalised to feed the Aux 3 buss if nothing is plugged into the Aux 4 output socket — a bonus for those with limited effects units wishing to access the same effect (a global reverb, for example) for line B channels as well as the main ones. Aux 4 may, alternatively, be patched into the Aux bus input of your choice, so Aux 1 feeding a reverb could also carry the Aux 4 send signals. This is just one reason why the inclusion of Aux buss access points on the rear panel is such a good idea.

Each main channel has a 3-band EQ offering low, mid and high frequency bands with up to 16dB of cut or boost at 60Hz, 1.8kHz and 12kHz respectively. The EQ is pre gain and has a cut switch. No EQ is available on the monitor section, but as these channels will be used for effects returns and sound modules during mixdown (both of which usually incorporate their own EQ) it's not too much of a problem. For sounds where a lot of EQ is necessary, the signal can be run through the parametric, or the 'swap' button can be employed.

STEREO CHANNELS



Obviously designed to cater equally well for the person using a MIDI-to-tape synchroniser to trigger sounds during mixdown, the live keyboard player, and the live act on the dance scene, the 10 stereo channels may also be used for effects returns or any other line-level source. Four of them have more comprehensive features — input trim, channel on/off, listen, insert points, 2-band EQ (shelving at 12kHz and 6Hz) and two Aux sends switchable to the four Aux buses. There are no direct outputs on the stereo channels, as these would not normally be recorded to tape, though they could be recorded via the Left/Right bus if necessary.

The option to connect and level match Stereo Inputs 1 and 2 with turntables via the phono inputs is invaluable for sampling from records, compiling dance mixes and combining turntable work with a band live. Another fine idea is the ability to bring the first four Stereo Inputs up on faders for mixing. With such a flexible system, a dance outfit could easily take their studio setup into a gigging situation with very little hassle. Incidentally, these inputs will also accept mono signals, though using them as such would be rather wasteful when the line B inputs are available for that. Stereo inputs 5-10 are designed for signals which don't require EQ or effects, as they have access to neither. Probably their best use is as effects returns or as inputs for synths that have on-board effects.

MASTER SECTION



Apart from the usual monitor, headphone and Auxiliary controls, the Star also has a 'Listen' mode section. In Pre Listen, you're in a PFL mode where channel signal level appears on the meters and also comes over the headphones. All very straightforward — but what really impressed me was the addition of a pre-fade listen trim which can prevent this PFL mode being overpoweringly loud when activated at high monitoring levels — very considerate.

Post Listen provides the useful Solo In Place but there are also buttons for Line B and Stereo Listen, which play an important part in the overdubbing and mixdown process. Selection of Line B Listen provides a means of monitoring all eight line B channels, so it's essential to be in this mode for track laying. It's not as unorthodox as it may seem — both Seck and TAC have employed a similar design at one time or another in their consoles.

Stereo Listen is, in effect, a global listen for any stereo input channels that are switched on; when recording, the monitoring arrangement relies on the use of the Listen facility, so Stereo Listen must be selected in order to hear any effects or MIDI instruments coming in via the stereo channels.

A couple of useful features conclude the-tour of this section: there's a meter calibration control with 12dB of trim, and further controls that may be used to send the entire mix to the Auxiliary buses. This is for times when you want to add, say, a reverb effect to everything. It helps compensate for the lack of sends on the last six stereo channels, but should not be used at the same time as the channel Aux sends because of the risk of feedback.

IMPRESSIONS



I initially thought the unconventional layout of the Star System would take a bit of getting used to, but I was soon very comfortable with the signal routing system. As with any console, you have to watch out for 'howl round' when using the channel direct to tape buttons, but the rest was logical and straightforward. The console is pretty quiet in use, with the proviso that the input gains are properly set up before you start work; good signal to noise ratio is ensured by the correct use of the prefade listen function and clear metering (a significant improvement on my old Studiomaster Proline). Strangely, whilst the pre-fade listen has a trim, the postfade listen appears louder than its normal level in the mix, which is slightly disconcerting.

The parametric EQ was of particular interest to me and I found it pretty flexible, even though it only operates on a single frequency band. For instance, with a string sound and a tight Q you can accurately pick out and emphasise selected harmonics within the sound; it also worked well on acoustic kick drum. For musicians who make their own samples this EQ is going to be invaluable for sound shaping, and with a wider Q you can obviously be more subtle with certain sounds.

SUMMING UP



Despite the fact that the hybrid MIDI/tape studio has been with us for several years, nobody seems yet to have built a mixer specifically for that market. Perhaps the Star is the first serious attempt in that direction? Certainly it has the right mix of multitrack features and stereo line inputs, and its well-conceived design fits the needs of the modern MIDI studio owner working with a 4- or 8-track recorder. Furthermore, its flexibility means that it isn't confined to one specific application; it's as useful live as it is in the studio if eight mic inputs is enough for you. In short, the Star System is a veritable concatenation of good ideas; it deserves to do very well indeed.

Further Information

Star System £1081 inc VAT.

Studiomaster, (Contact Details).

STUDIOMASTER STAR SYSTEM £1081

PROS
Up to 38 inputs on mixdown if you include the stereo bus access points.
Very comprehensive connection panel including hi-fi and RIAA record deck input options.
Flexible enough for serious 8-track recording.
Unusual shape and small footprint make the Star especially suitable where space is limited.

CONS
Though the shape is good for use, it may be a little awkward to transport.
Some may find eight mic inputs insufficient for some live applications.

SUMMARY
The Star System is very well suited to a multitrack recording environment in which multiple MIDI sequenced instruments are also being used.


PARAMETRIC EQ

The dual parametric EQ section is one of the strong points of the mixer and even includes a variable Q (bandwidth), Q range being from 0.35 to 10, as opposed to the fixed narrow or wide switches found on more expensive consoles! Connections to the rear of the console are wired 'normalised' so that when no connection is made to the parametric EQ, it remains inline with the main Left/Right output. Once activated using the EQ Active switches, the degree of available cut or boost varies from 5 to 30dB depending on the chosen Q setting. The frequency range is 30Hz-1.2kHz but may be multiplied using the xlO button, which effectively extends the range to 12kHz.


EXTRA FEATURES

LOUDNESS: Unexpectedly, a Loudness button is included on the Star. This works in the same way as the ones found on domestic hi-fis and is really intended for the low-level listening conditions enforced by a domestic environment — I wouldn't recommend that it is used while actually mixing. However, it can be useful to create a more 'happening' sound when composing late at night when you have to work quietly.

STAR FX PORTS: Two blanking panels to the top right of the console can be loaded with the optional Star FX modules which are then powered by the console. Available at the time of going to press are a stereo compressor/limiter and stereo gate, with more to follow. Once installed, they can be used with the console by patching or can operate totally independently with another desk or sound source.

BUS ACCESS INPUTS: These are provided for the Right, Left and Auxiliary 1-4 buses, so in practice an external mixer can be patched directly into the Star System's Left/right signal path without taking up any channels. The Aux bus points provide access from an external mixer's Auxiliary sends to any of the Aux signal send paths on the Studiomaster, so an effects unit can be used with both mixers. If you have limited effects this really is an excellent idea.

TWO TRACK DUBBING: With no external patching, signals can be dubbed from one stereo tape machine to another, provided that they are both connected to the console. Whichever tape machine is selected will also feed its signal to the input of the other one, as well as being heard over the monitors.


THE SHAPE OF THIHGS TO COME?

The Star's cosmetic styling is attractive as well as practical, though it does take up more room than a conventional mixer when being transported — not a problem in the studio, but something to think about if you want it for live work. In other respects, the shape is excellent, as everything can be seen and reached, even if there's a keyboard in front of the console. And because the Star has a narrow 'footprint', it will fit on a desk top rather than needing a dedicated stand.


LATERAL ROUTING

All the Star's inputs have access to its Lateral Routing system. In effect, the Left/Right bus doubles as a pair of subgroups, the Left routed to all odd-numbered tape outputs and the Right to all even-numbered tape outputs. When single input signals need to be recorded to tape, they may be sent directly from the channel to the tape out by selecting Direct rather than L/R. Though this is slightly less flexible than full eight-bus routing, I can't see it being a limitation for 8-track work.

Some modern multitrack machines have a similar routing system, in that all the odd inputs are normalised together, as are all the even ones. This means you could get away with only two leads connecting the mixer and multitrack inputs; the downside to this approach is that you can never record more than two tracks at a time. In order to make full use of the Star's flexible routing system, all eight tape outputs should be connected to their corresponding tape inputs on the multitrack machine. When set up this way, up to two subgroups may be routed to tape, as well as any individual input channels that are not already being used to feed subgroups.


MIXER BASICS

If you'd like more background information on modern mixer design and features, Recording Musician ran a series explaining this very subject in the January, February and March 1993 issues.

Back issues cost £1.50 each, including postage, from RM Back Issues, SOS Publications Ltd, PO Box 30, St Ives, Cambridgeshire PE 17 4XQ. Cheques or postal orders should be made payable to SOS Publications Ltd.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Oceanic

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Bank Managing


Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


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Sound On Sound - Sep 1993

Gear in this article:

Mixer > Studiomaster > Star System 8:4:2

Review by John Harris

Previous article in this issue:

> Oceanic

Next article in this issue:

> Bank Managing


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