Studiomaster Proline 16.8.16 Mixer
Offering 32 inputs on mixdown, four auxiliary sends, flexible EQ and the added benefit of a MIDI-controlled muting option, Studiomaster's ProLine 16.8.16 mixer has a lot going for it. Gareth Stuart checks it out.
The Studiomaster ProLine comes in three sizes - 8.4.2R (the 'R' denotes rack-mountability), 16.4.2 and 16.8.16. Available options include an additional 24 input channels and, more interestingly, MIDI-controlled muting (MCM). Under scrutiny this month is the top of the range model, the 16.8.16.
The ProLine 16.8.16 is a very compact mixer, measuring 800mm (W) x 130mm (H) x 500mm (D), designed with space-saving and easy portability in mind. At 19.5kg, I had no trouble lifting it. However, the first thing that struck me on unpacking the mixer was the apparent lack of room for writing track names: there's certainly no space beneath the faders, and above the gain pot there's insufficient room to stick down a thin strip of masking tape without covering the direct out jacks, I checked to see if a chinagraph pencil would write on and rub off the chasis - it did, which means this problem may be partially overcome by writing the track names vertically, beneath the group select buttons on the bottom left of each fader.
You may be able to get away with this in a semi-permanent home studio installation, where inputs would be labelled once and rarely altered, but for live work it would be hopeless. For the sake of an extra three centimetres below the faders to accommodate a channel labelling strip, it seems a strange omission.
While in this area of the desk, let's run through the channel layout. The faders (black) are a little stiff and a bit stubby, and don't really lend themselves to gripping the ball of your finger for smooth, comfortable fade-ins and fade-outs. The range of each channel fader is marked rather unconventionally from 0 to 10, with double lines either side of the '7' position - the intended optimum working setting. This numbering deviates from the normal markings of minus infinity through 0 to +10, which is how the ProLine's eight subgroup faders are graduated - and I can't see why they should differ. When there are perfectly straightforward guidelines laid down as to optimum level, noise, and overhead margin with respect to the faders set at 0 and gains tweaked appropriately, why depart from the norm?
At this point I thought it worth consulting the owner's manual to see what words it offered about the input channel fader. It states that it is a "100mm fader with 10dB of gain". To an unfamiliar user, this would seem to make sense of the 0 to 10 scaling. I checked this 'theory' by inputting a 1 kHz tone with the fader set at minimum and gain set at 0. Looking across at the master LED output meters for Left and Right outputs, I advanced the fader through its 100mm range; the increase corresponded to a boost of over 23dB, and the LEDs reached their limit by position 8 on the fader. I then re-calibrated the incoming tone so that with gain of 0 and faders set at 10, the LEDs read their maximum +3. Returning the fader to 7, the level dropped to -13 - a drop of 16dB. But, you say, 'How can you be so accurate using 12-segment LEDs?' Well, you can't, so I checked the readings against PPMs and found that from 7 to 10 (and back) equals a rise/fall of 12dB. (What's a few dB between friends!) What the manual should really have made much clearer to the user is that between fader settings 7 and 10, you have 10dB of gain. On conventionally scaled faders, this section of the fader is marked 0 to +10, which makes a lot more sense. As it stands, the ProLine input fader markings are confusing.
On the left of the fader are four grey buttons for routing the channel signal to one or all of the eight group outputs. Additionally, one buff coloured button routes the signal to the stereo left/right outputs; another button mutes the channel (a couple of LEDs indicate its status: green is on, red is off), and the red Solo button isolates that channel in a mix - effectively muting all other channel signals and placing the soloed sound central, despite its panned position in the stereo image. The Solo button also enables tracks to be heard pre-fader, ie. when the fader is off, should the need arise. Strictly speaking, the button ought to be labelled 'PFL' (pre-fader listen) but 'Solo' is perhaps a clearer description of the button's effect.
Next comes the pan pot, four separate auxiliary sends - 1 and 2 are post-fader, 3 and 4 are pre-fader, followed by the the equalisation section. The criticism I have here is that the pots are all too close together for comfort. It's awkward to rotate the pan pot through 180 degrees without catching your finger on auxiliary send 4. I mention the pan pot in particular because it's the only control in this bank that is ever likely to be fully rotated during a mix.
Aux 1 and 2 are intended for post-fader feeding of effects units, whilst aux 3 and 4 are for foldback. One point worth remembering here is that, since the ProLine's talkback facility only feeds aux 4, foldback mixes should be prepared with this in mind.
The EQ is of a three-band design comprising High frequency (shelving type with 16dB of boost/cut at 12kHz), Mid frequency (sweepable peak/dip type with 16dB of boost/cut from 280Hz to 8kHz), and Low frequency (shelving type with 16dB of boost/cut at 60Hz) controls. Although there is no EQ in/out switch provided, there is a quick but unorthodox way around this problem, and that is to select the tape return switch over in the monitor/group section of the desk, then simply make comparisons between the 'flat' signal returning to the monitor section and the equalised signal coming through the channel.
This EQ section offers great scope for modifying the tonality of incoming signals (in the best possible way, of course), and I think it worthwhile to report on a few handy settings.
For a clicky bass drum, 6dB of boost at 12kHz plus 6dB of boost around 2.5kHz really brings out the click, with 3 to 4dB of boost at 60Hz for weight. For a deep crisp snare, 8dB of boost at 12kHz, 6dB boost at 4kHz and 12dB of boost at 60Hz does the trick. Finally, a couple of approaches to tackle the problems of a newly-strung bass: sometimes it feels like the 'slaps' are closer to splits (a new approach to sonic scalping?), so it's handy to be able to 'sweep' away those vicious edges with a touch of well-targeted EQ. Rather than cutting offending frequencies, I found it better to boost those frequencies in the midrange which emphasised the bass tones. However, if a 'talking' bass with a clear springy sound isn't your cup of tea, a deep mellow bass will emerge by cutting 12kHz by 16dB, cutting 500Hz by the same amount, and cutting 9dB or so at 60Hz.
With all this enthusiastic frequency boosting, it is inevitable that tape hiss and rumble will be emphasised. Noise gates may do the trick, but paying out for a noise gate per channel would prove expensive. There is a much cheaper alternative solution, in the form of Studiomaster's optional MIDI-controlled muting (MCM) system. (More on this later.).
Above the EQ controls is the gain pot, whose 45dB range ensures that with a mic, tape, or line input you have sufficient control over the input sensitivity. Just above each gain pot is an orange button to switch between tape or line inputs - I'll come back to this very soon. The ProLine offers three discrete input sockets per channel - Mic (XLR), Tape and Line (both jacks). Tape accepts the outputs from a 16-track recorder (though there's nothing to stop you using an 8-track with this particular 16.8.16); Line allows you to leave any signal plugged into its input without cancelling the tape return. Unlike the Tape input, Line is balanced - to defeat interference and frequency loss over long cable runs (that is, provided your source signal is also balanced). Is this such a big deal? Well, to me it is - on my present Soundcraft mixer I have a similar number of inputs but plugging any signal into the Line input immediately cancels the tape return to that channel. This can be a real pain when working on a desk with a limited number of input channels, because the moment you want to replay a track through a channel that already has an input plugged into its Line socket, you must either revert to the monitor section or unplug the offending input - which means a trip round the back of the desk. Nice touch, thumbs up to Studiomaster. Also, because the ProLine is a flat desk, with all its input and output connectors on the top panel, even if you had to remove an input connection you needn't move from your chair.
The only two inputs unaccounted for on the channel are the Direct Out and Send/Return sockets (jacks). The Send/Return would normally be used to patch in a compressor or noise gate. The Send/Return jack is wired in such a way that it requires a stereo jack plug to operate - where the tip sends and the ring returns.
When it comes to possible uses for the Direct Outs the owner's manual is very helpful, suggesting five alternative live/recording setups, three of which are shown in diagrammatic form. One case is where the Direct Out jack of a bass drum channel is fed to the sidechain of a noise gate, with the input and output of the same noise gate being fed from the Send/Return jack on a bass guitar channel. The upshot of this is that each time the drum is kicked, the level of the bass guitar rises slightly (in the mix) producing a tight, punchy sound. Naturally, the quality of the effect depends to a large extent on the flexibility of your noise gate. The most obvious use of the channel Direct Out is as an extra output for multitrack recording, where the current eight group outs don't suffice.
Over on the right half of the desk are the eight group faders (grey) and two master faders (white), which control the overall output level of the stereo mix. Each of the subgroup faders has a Solo button but, unlike the input channel Solo, there is no LED to indicate its status. Above this is a bank of six pots, split into two sections - these are the upper and lower tape monitor sections. Each monitor section has a dual role: the lower controls govern the monitored level of group outputs or tape/line inputs 1-8; the upper set control the level of auxiliary line inputs or tape inputs 9-16. You switch between these various inputs using an orange button labelled 'Grp/Tape' (1-8) and 'AL/Tape' (9-16). Both banks of monitors have accompanying pan pots, but whereas the lower monitor section feeds auxiliary 4, the upper section can feed aux 1 in 'AL' mode and aux 4 in 'Tape' mode - a flexible arrangement.
Above the monitor sections are eight 12-segment LED bargraph meters which indicate the level being sent to the tape recorder through the tape outputs (situated at the top of the panel, just below the Studiomaster logo). The ProLine offers only eight dedicated tape output jacks (1-8) - so what happens when you need to record on tape tracks 9-16?
Studiomaster suggest you make up some split cables and connect tape output 1 to multitrack inputs 1 and 9, etc. There's no need to do this if you're using a Fostex E16, as I discovered. You need only plug in the first eight inputs, as they are automatically routed through to tracks 9-16 when the appropriate Record button is selected on the Fostex.
Grouped under the tape outputs are three jacks (per subgroup) - a Send/Return (stereo jack), for connecting external effects that you only want to hear on the subgroup signals, and two auxiliary line inputs (mono jack). The latter may be used to connect extra sound sources (multitimbral synths perhaps), over and above the 16 multitrack returns. These can be routed through the tape monitor section during mixdown, where individual control of level and stereo position is provided (but no EQ). Thus, 32 different inputs can be accommodated on mixdown. Alternatively, some or all of the auxiliary inputs may be used as extra effects returns.
To the right of the group faders is the master section, containing all the master auxiliary send and return controls. Global effects like reverb, used by a majority of channels, would be returned to and controlled from this section. Also, the volume of headphones and monitor speakers can be adjusted. A talkback XLR socket is fitted, suitable for any dynamic mic (phantom power doesn't affect this input). The fact that talkback is not heard through the main monitors but just on the aux 4 foldback mix (when the 'to aux 4' button is pressed) makes a great deal of sense.
On desks where talkback is heard through the main monitors, an attenuation pad is normally built in so as to avoid feedback when monitoring at high volume. The Studiomaster approach cuts out the fuss and simply sends talkback directly where it's needed. Also, because the talkback switch is of the non-latching variety, it can't accidentally be left on as the engineer and band members exchange words of sympathy on the vocalist's poor intonation or the drummer's sloppy timekeeping! Another nice touch.
Above the master faders is a bank of six pots - the uppermost are the four master sends. Sends 1 and 2 may be muted for quick wet/dry comparisons of the mix, and 3 and 4 may be soloed for studio monitoring of the foldback mix. Below are the return controls for auxiliaries 1 and 2. These incorporate a two-band EQ section (at 12kHz and 60Hz), which may be switched between the effects returns (1&2) and the stereo master outputs. This could be a useful facility for brightening up a whole mix and/or emphasising or cutting the bass, but I know I'd prefer it if the EQ was switchable between the stereo output and auxiliaries 3 and 4, rather than 1 and 2. So often foldback is of a much lower audio standard than the main monitoring signal (in studios anyway) and to be able to tweak the foldback mix - to freshen it up - would be a useful facility.
To the right of this bank of pots is a section labelled 'MIDI'. This will only be fully operational if your ProLine is fitted with the optional MIDI-controlled muting (MCM) system. The Reset button initialises the MCM board, and sends a MIDI Note-On command to mute all channels (inputs 1-16 and auxiliary sends 1 and 2). The white On button activates the desk for MIDI muting, whilst Dump sends a System Exclusive dump of the status of the channel mutes to a sequencer or any other MIDI data storage device. More about the MIDI applications in a moment, first I'll finish with the remaining features of the master section.
Above the MIDI area is a 1 kHz slate, useful for lining up the levels of group outputs/tape inputs. Above this button is a single pot governing the level of the stereo auxiliary returns. The stereo return jacks (located higher up) are designed so that if a mono device is returned the effect is positioned centrally, but if a stereo effect is returned each input is split left and right.
On the back of the desk is a phantom power switch, which sends 48 volts to all microphone inputs except the talkback mic. The manual suggests you should check whether such a voltage will damage any of your DI boxes or dynamic mics before you plug them in!
The only other connectors on the back panel are DIN sockets for MIDI In, Thru and Out, plus a dial set from 1-9 and A-F for selecting the ProLine's receive/transmit MIDI channel.
With the MCM option installed, MIDI is used to switch channel and auxiliary 1 and 2 mutes on and off, to create MIDI-automated mixes. It's ultimately intended for multitrack mixdowns where the ProLine would be receiving MIDI Note-On/Off information from a sequencer driven from timecode on the multitrack. But, if your sequencer allows you to step through sequences manually, it's conceivable that it may also be useful for live work.
As the manual points out, "the MCM system is a very useful addition to the desk which can be used purely as a tool for noise avoidance, creatively to produce special effects that are otherwise very difficult to produce manually, or as a very convenient way of muting/switching on various 'patches' of inputs in an installation." Note that it says 'noise avoidance', not necessarily the same result as a noise gate. I'll return to this a little later, because in some circumstances ProLine is extremely good in this capacity, and being MIDI controlled is perhaps even better than a noise gate.
An ideal time to use the MCM facility is at the start of a song where a quiet introductory solo is followed by the whole band coming in together. Obviously, if 15 or more tracks of 'nothing' are left faded up whilst one quiet solo track is playing, hiss would be unavoidable - whether it's introduced from tape, miked-up amps, or channel EQ. To have those redundant channels muted and un-muted in real time by a MIDI sequencer is tremendously helpful, and should result in cleaner recordings.
Here's how you might go about using the MCM system for the above example. You could record the channel mutes in three passes onto three tracks of your MIDI sequencer - taking five channels at a time, or use the Dump and Reset buttons on the desk to perform the task in just one pass. In order to do the latter, it's first necessary to mute all the channels you wish to be silenced, before you begin recording. Then as the mute point approaches simply tap the Dump button. At the end of the mute period tapping the Reset button un-mutes the muted channels, and the job is done.
Another option is to write the mute information directly into a sequencer. In the above example, this may be a slower option - but for complex multiple mutes or quasi-noise gate applications it may prove the most accurate and time-saving approach. This is possible because the mute function on each input channel and auxiliaries 1 and 2 responds to a different MIDI note number/pitch. For instance, input channel 16 will be muted whenever the note E0 is received at the ProLine's MIDI In, and will be un-muted when the note is released. Thus, it is possible to play your mutes via any MIDI keyboard (wind synth, guitar etc) into a sequencer and store them for later recall.
One point worth noting is that if you start the sequencer from a point after the mute on command (Note-On) has been issued, the ProLine is sent no information and therefore performs no mutes.
Using the ProLine's MIDI-controlled muting system to simulate the functions of a noise gate can be very effective, especially if the sound source you are gating is also MIDI-controlled. Channels can be muted with extreme precision, reducing to an absolute minimum any background noise apparent when instruments are not sounding. However, it's important to note that the muting circuitry takes a fraction of a second to activate. As the time the ProLine takes to un-mute is constant, irrespective of musical tempo, you must compensate for this by allowing a safety margin of between 1/96th note (at a tempo of 60 beats per minute) and 3/96ths (at 240bpm).
This facility certainly raises the professionalism of the desk, and opens up the potential for extremely slick quasi-automated mixes.
After having cold feet about the ProLine desk to begin with, I hope it has come across that I've warmed to it a great deal. However, I do uphold the following criticisms: no room to write track names on each channel, not enough space around pan pots, and no EQ in/out switch.
But as I mentioned right from the start, the ProLine sounds good, and the well thought out features like tape/line switching, talkback direct to auxiliary 4, switchable EQ on aux 1 and 2 or master outputs, MIDI-controlled muting (if you purchase this option), versatile EQ on channels, and 16 extra inputs on mixdown make the Studiomaster ProLine mixer a real joy to work.
16.8.16 £1649; MIDI muting option £228.85; 8-input expander £489.90; MIDI kit for extra inputs £97.75 (all prices inc VAT).
Studiomaster (OK) plc, (Contact Details).
Review by Gareth Stuart