Studiomaster Series II Mixer
Studiomaster were one of the first established mixer manufacturers to incorporate MIDI facilities in one of their desks and to mate it to a personal computer. Mark Badger assesses whether the marriage is successful.
Studiomaster were one of the first established mixer manufacturers to incorporate MIDI control in one of their desks and to hook it up to a personal computer. Mark Badger investigates whether the marriage was a successful one.
The Series II mixer range from Studiomaster represents the company's first steps toward providing a computer-assisted mixdown facility at a realistic price. Unlike their competitors in this market, Studiomaster have chosen not to include an onboard computer to handle the automation aspect. Instead, they have managed to incorporate all the facilities necessary for completely automated muting during tape mixdowns, when used in conjunction with software they supply for the Commodore C64/128 and the Sinclair Spectrum computers.
Let's ignore computer assistance for the moment and look at the Series II as a regular sound mixer. Simply put, it's lovely. It has a very nice feel, with smooth faders and detented rotary knobs, it's quiet, and can be easily switched for use at +4dBm and/or -10dBv operating levels.
The mixer has been designed for easy and convenient use in conjunction with a 16-track tape machine. Though in dimension - particularly width - all the mixers in this category are very similar, where the designers locate the connectors, faders, and switches on their mixer, and how these are arranged, varies considerably. Design mistakes can have serious consequences for a unit's future.
On any mixer, the operator needs immediate and comfortable access to the controls, so average arm length tends to govern how deep (front-to-back) a mixer can sensibly be. The controls also need to be arranged in a manner which assists the user in finding exactly the control he is seeking, quickly and easily. Easy access to the connectors is vital too, though in certain recording situations these may be rarely disturbed. It's here that many designs begin to differ. On the back, on the top, or on the front, it seems that wherever they go it involves a degree of compromise between getting in the way or being too far out of the way! Studiomaster have elected to place all the connections at the rear of the sloping face of the mixer, except those for MIDI, Sync, power and ED AC connection (a form of multiway connector) which are on the back panel.
The thought and experience that has gone into how the Series II presents its facilities is reflected in the logical layout of, and easy access to, its 155 sockets, 298 knobs, and 489 switches. You can see from those numbers how crucial it is to get the layout right, and Studiomaster have come up with a very sensible arrangement.
However, the straightforward arrangement and ease of access is let down by Studiomaster's choice of livery. The Series II is enamel black, with its control markings in white. While the colours chosen for the knob caps and the switches make distinguishing the auxiliary controls from the EQ (say) pretty easy, discriminating between adjacent channels presents greater difficulty. Studiomasters' decision to save production costs by eschewing panel modularity and going for a full-width sheet steel panel instead, coupled with their efforts to produce a compact unit, has meant that they have squeezed each channel into a 32mm width. Strangely, the Series II is wider than many of it's 16-channel contemporaries, even though most devote more width to the layout of each channel. This is due, in part, to Studiomaster's use of padded sides on the mixer's end cheeks.
The Series II is also heavy, despite the power supply being housed separately in a 2U rackmount unit, itself pretty weighty. Its sheer mass, therefore, makes this a transportable mixer as opposed to a portable one.
The sturdy construction makes the meter bridge seem very flimsy by comparison. This is a black plastic affair which has to be screwed onto the mixer's front panel. That said, the actual meters it contains (all 19 of them) are very clear 12-segment LED affairs. There is a separate meter for each channel/group, the left and right masters, and a single 'solo' meter. There is no facility for peak-hold, a meter function that I find indispensable, especially for reading the levels coming out of my synths. These meters do appear to respond to level changes very rapidly though, so this is no fatal drawback.
Taking the signal path as our guide, let's look in detail at what the Series II has to offer.
Each of the 16 Input channels provide connections for a balanced Mic, unbalanced Line, and an unbalanced Tape input. Unusually, there are separate send and return points. The sends use mono jack sockets and connecting a lead does not break the signal path, it splits it. The path of the mixer signal is only broken by connection of a mono jackplug to the return socket which, though stereo, is wired such that the 'tip' is the signal return. This has the benefit of rationalising the connector types you need for the Studiomaster - apart from XLRs on the Mic inputs, and the stereo headphone jack, everything else uses quarter-inch mono jacks. It also means that you can 'fool' the mixer by wiring a stereo jack to give you a regular insert point at the return and an extra line in/out at the send, albeit without separate gain and routing controls. Useful for connecting a multitrack tape machine in PA applications, where you don't want to hear the house mix on tape but still want to record the performance on separate tracks.
Moving along the signal path and 'down' the mixer, we come to the on/off switch for each channel's optional 48V phantom powering. Below this are channel, Mic, Line, and Tape input selector switches. There's also a Pad switch, which attenuates the signal by 22dB, and the single Gain control, which affects the level of each of the four inputs. This is an advantage in that virtually any signal level can be catered for at any connection. However, this also means that you usually have to adjust the gain each time you switch between inputs.
EQUALISATION. A four-band EQ section is provided with the two mid bands being sweepable from 500Hz to 15kHz and 100Hz to 3kHz, with signal boost or cut of up to 16dB available.
Like their competitors, Studiomaster's Series II equalisers have fixed Q ratios, making them semi-parametric. Unless you are prepared to purchase a separate EQ unit, or spend a great deal more on your mixer, you will have to forego the added flexibility of a true parametric. You will not suffer unduly though, as the designers have achieved an excellent compromise in their choice of components and the resulting ratios. The EQ section of the Series II is simply superb.
The EQ level knobs are centre-detented, so that you know when they're set flat, and the frequency controls are detented in small steps throughout their movement. The smooth travel and solid feel of these pots invokes a sense of quality and durability which is carried over to the general absence of noise introduced as a result of efforts towards equalisation.
Given the excellence of the EQ, it's almost surprising that Studiomaster have included an EQ Cut switch. This diverts the signal path around the EQ section and allows you to monitor the unaltered sound - indispensable for comparison purposes.
CHANNEL ROUTING. The channel auxiliary send facilities are lined up below the EQ section. You can route each channel to any or all of five of the six auxiliary sends, by way of five more detented knobs and four switches. The variety of possible combinations give you a great deal of flexibility as to whether the signal sent is pre-EQ, post-EQ/pre-fader, or post-fader.
As with most mixers, the output routing of each channel to the groups and masters, the fader, pan, and mute controls, are all situated at the 'bottom' of the desk. The pan knob, which balances the signals sent to the L/R master faders and the odd/even numbered output groups, is centre-detented (of course) and can be reversed in effect by pressing an adjacent switch. This is very useful for isolating sounds in a mix, and could be used creatively, though I'd suggest an auto-panner for pro results!
There's a channel 'on' switch, which either mutes the channel entirely, or switches it on making it available for MIDI muting. The status of each channel is displayed by a three-colour LED, sited just below this button, which illuminates red when the channel is off, green when on, and yellow when muted via MIDI.
SOLO. Each channel has a 'solo' switch, allowing you to monitor its signal in isolation, necessary for proper adjustment of the level presented to the channel master fader. Sensibly, there is also a solo switch for almost every other input and output point in the audio - when depressed, the signal at that point is routed to the monitor mix, where it overrides whatever is currently switched to appear at the control room monitor outputs. It also goes to the isolated meter on the meter bridge, appropriately labelled 'S' for solo, where the signal level can be visually monitored.
Studiomaster provide a thoughtful dual warning system here. There's a small red LED by each solo point on the mixer as well as a flashing 'solo on' light by the L/R master faders, each serving to warn you that the option is activated. Another red LED, situated below the channel fader, warns the user of channel 'clipping' (the electronics running out of signal headroom) and thus distortion generation. I think warning LEDs on complicated arrays of switches is a good thing and should be encouraged. It makes operation of the functions far quicker because you can find the switch you are seeking so much faster. Having an LED by each and every solo switch is a real boon, and eliminates a source of potential frustration to be found on some mixers I could mention (and own!).
The last channel function is to route the signal, via the channel fader, to an output group fader or to the master mix faders. Studiomaster have used smooth 100mm faders throughout the Series II, aligned so that an extra 10dB gain is available at the top of their travel. Alongside each channel fader runs a line of nine switches. These can route the post-fader signal to the output groups (arranged as pairs 1-2, 3-4... 15-16) and the Left/Right masters.
OUTPUTS & RETURNS. Individual channel routing to any of the 16 output groups enables the Series II to control simultaneous recording on 16 channels. Looking at the output groups, we find that a tricky bit of circuit design enables each group to be transformed into a tape return to the L/R master faders at the flick of a switch. This means that the Series II can be easily switched to accommodate mixes of up to 38 inputs, with individual level control on each and pan control on most. In addition, there are two accessible auxiliary sends for each output group and these may be switched pre- or post-fader. This makes arranging monitor mixes for performers very easy.
To add to the overall flexibility of this section, switches are provided which reverse the arrangement of the faders. In order to fit everything in, Studiomaster has elected to provide outputs 9 to 16 with rotary, rather than sliding, faders. Invoking the reverse option on channel 9 (say) causes the output level to be controlled by sliding fader 1, and the level of channel 1 to be controlled by the rotary fader on channel 9. It is somewhat surprising, given the general impression of flexibility of the Series II, that there is no provision for EQ on these groups, though this is mitigated by the access to the auxiliary sends.
The output signal connections for each of the 16 groups are to be found behind the meter bridge. Each group has a send and return jack, wired in the same way as on the channels.
Tucked away at the back of the meter bridge are eight switches which allow you to configure the group output levels in pairs to match +4dBm or -10dBv equipment. This is a very handy feature which even allows two different levels to be accommodated at once, making equipment interconnection a lot more flexible!
The auxiliary return controls are located to the right of the group section. They are arranged as two stereo and two mono returns with a level control available for each, and pan controls for the two mono returns. Each of the four return groups can be muted manually, or via MIDI, and can be routed to the output groups or the master UR faders. Also included is a switch to route the signal to the cue output in the monitor section, facilitating the creation of sub-mixes and backing guides. The arrangement of the two stereo returns limits the routing of returns 1 and 3 to the left master fader and odd-numbered groups, vice versa for returns 2 and 4. This is a somewhat strange qualification which, I suppose, can simplify matters at mixdown by automatically grouping stereo effects.
Back on the signal path, and to the right of the returns section we find the master output faders and, above them, the six auxiliary send level controls. The actual output connections are, again, behind the meter bridge, where there is also a send and return connection for both master outputs.
FUNCTIONS. Having followed our signal to the master outputs, we can move back towards the right-hand side of the Series II noting, as we go, that there is provision for the connection of two stereo tape machines and two further stereo outputs - for the control room and cue mix. Studiomaster have included a slate oscillator to help calibrate all the level settings and gain controls on the mixer and connected equipment as well. This can be switched to output signals at 100Hz, 1 kHz, and 10kHz and is an invaluable aid to achieving balanced mixes and useful recordings.
The controls for another facility, 'talkback', are sited below the oscillator. This mixes the signal from an electret microphone built into the meter bridge with the cue mix or the group outputs, allowing the operator to record verbal notes on tape or talk to someone in a studio where there is a separate control room. Below this are the switches which govern the signal appearing at the cue mix outputs. The operator can choose auxiliaries 5 and 6 or the master mix, in stereo or mono, and has control over the signal level. The remaining switches control which source (main mix, cue mix, 2-track tape machine) is being sent to the control room monitor output and there is a level control for matching the signal to your amplifier requirements, and your ears! The monitor mix can be switched to mono for comparison purposes and also 'dimmed', for instant volume reduction, without disturbing any settings in the mix.
Well, we've now covered the entire mixer, bar one knob and one switch. The knob is quickly dealt with, it's to adjust the signal level of the single stereo headphone facility. But what about the switch?
The last switch selects MIDI operation, which leads us back to something that I've been all but ignoring on our tour of the Series II - Studiomaster's provision of 'computer-assisted mixdown facilities'.
I've arranged our discussion like this because I wanted to make it clear to you that this reviewer thinks that the audio facilities on this mixer are excellent. It is very flexible, and is quite capable of fulfilling the need for large numbers of input channels that accompanies modern music production.
That said, and in stark contrast to the quality of construction, robust design and solidity of feel, I cannot discern why Studiomaster have provided the MIDI software on a cassette - and for the Commodore 64/128 and Sinclair Spectrum computers to boot(!). While the C64 has certainly achieved worldwide sales which exceed those of any other personal computer, and the Spectrum was a big seller in the UK, neither could be said to be modern. It's not that you can't get good software for either machine; they can be put to some excellent uses. The C64 in particular has a vast international software library. The problem lies in how difficult it is to write software for these computers which can be easily manipulated by people who are not boffins.
A computer boffin is prepared to put up with hassles and computer unfriendliness because he is an enthusiast and takes these as par for the course. The musician, on the other hand, who wants to get on with the mix needs a simple, efficient, and effective facility that requires very little brain-strain to operate.
Computers such as the Atari ST, Apple Macintosh, and - by sheer programming perseverence - the IBM PC, are much better equipped to make life easy for the operator. They are also far more capable when it comes to helping the struggling musician/studio owner with their work when not in use assisting mixdowns.
In theory, pressing the 'MIDI' button causes a sync-to-tape clock pulse to be output from the Series II at the appropriate socket on the rear of the mixer. This clock pulse is recorded onto a spare track on the tape machine at the points in the mixdown where you want the muting to occur. You then decide which of the channels and returns is to be muted at each of those points in the mix.
The computer is connected to the Series II via a small interface and some MIDI cables, and the program loaded into the computer. Using the software, the arrangements of required mutes are stacked as 'patches' in the computer's memory, in sequential order. When the clock track on tape is replayed to the Series II, via its Clock-In socket, a MIDI Start command is broadcast from the MIDI Out port each time it receives a burst of sync pulse. The software picks up this MIDI Start message, transmits the current muting arrangement back to the Series II, and the appropriate channels/returns are muted. Meanwhile the program readies the next muting patch for transmission.
This is a great concept, the potential being that entirely automated muting can take place as the mixdown progresses, and that this automation can be 'locked-to-tape'. The program will even store its patches on the same tape! However, in practice, the potential for frustration encompassed by such a system, especially when used in conjunction with cassette software, is enormous. The many interfacing problems render the system almost unusable - a curious discrepancy of the design approach. The rest of the mixer is so solid, the software looks like an afterthought.
All is not lost. Most of the people who would consider purchasing this mixer for its MIDI capabilities will probably already have access to the sort of tools required to transmute this difficulty. In conjunction with SMPTE synchronisation, any good MIDI sequencer can be used to supplant the C64 or Spectrum computer. Doing so turns Studiomaster's provision of MIDI mutes into a great facility which can be very usefully employed to clean up mixes or introduce special effects.
This is possible because what is really happening during the 'computer assisted mixdown' is that the computer software is sending MIDI Program Change commands every time it receives a MIDI Start command. The mixer is firmly programmed to respond to messages on MIDI channel 14 only. It's a pity that this can't be changed - but at least it isn't Omni-On!
The channel and return mutes are arranged in groups of four, and each received Program Change command can affect only four channels. On receiving a PC command 0, the Series II toggles the mutes for channels 1 to 4 'on'. If it receives a PC command 1, it will toggle the mute on channel 1 'off' and channels 2 to 4 'on'.
This sounds pretty straightforward until you discover that on receiving a PC command 5 the Series II toggles the mutes on channels 1 and 3 'off', and channels 2 and 4 'on'. Difficulties are compounded by possibly incorrect documentation details in the manual, particularly those concerning what messages are required to toggle a muted channel back on. My description is true for the review machine.
Nevertheless, I was able to use a variety of MIDI sequencing software packages to make the MIDI muting capabilities of the Series II very useful without any brainaches. I just created 'ghost patterns' on one track of the sequencer, composed entirely of Program Change commands, and named them 'intro', 'verse', 'chorus', etc. I then inserted my patterns into the appropriate points of my song. While this does require a certain degree of careful study of the Studiomaster's manual (and experimentation!), once achieved it represents a useful facility which is accessed from the machine at the heart of most MIDI studios - the master sequencer. This access compliments the sequencer's role as the central event controller and greatly simplifies the implementation of the MIDI muting.
Further MIDI potential might be squeezed from the fact that the MIDI switch causes the Series II to transmit a MIDI Start command. Ostensibly this is used to step through the program patches when recording the sync codes but, as I suggest you disgard their software, at least until it's been revised, creative use of this facility is open to exploitation...
The Studiomaster Series II is certainly a bizarre mix (!). The traditional mixer facilities are excellent, and have a lovely feel in use. The EQ is great. The provision of six auxiliary sends is generous, though not unique, and reflects the Series II's recent design. Its ability to supply a number of signal processors with a variety of different sub-mixes, and mix them all into stereo, is a vital aspect of most modern mixing applications.
On the other hand, the meter bridge is a pretty flimsy affair, the accompanying documentation is not as comprehensive as one would expect from a unit costing some £4,232 (inc VAT), and the less said about the software the better!
The operator can mute any of the Series II's channels or auxiliary returns via MIDI Program Change commands. While this can be seen as a minimalist implementation of the potential for computer assistance when mixing down, it is perhaps enough to be getting on with. Because the computer control is off-board it can be ignored if so wished.
The Series II is obviously designed for the upwardly mobile studio owner/engineer who needs a mixer capable of withstanding the transition of resources that the move from home to pro studio involves. As such, it is priced competitively and offers a high specification, which is capable of responding to studio expansion. This is an impression reinforced by the availability of two expansion modules, one providing another eight input channels and the other eight more monitor returns. These can be bolted on very easily and require no soldering.
The sturdy construction and logical design make it an ideal mixer for situations where it will be used by different people at different times, none of whom actually own it! In the end though, I can't help but wonder if Studiomaster would have been better off had they stuck to what the Series II proves they do best - designing mixers. Had they invested the money they spent on commissioning the software and including the sync-to-tape facility on extending the mixer facilities available to MIDI control, I think Studiomaster would have a runaway success.
As it is, I can only suggest that the mixer hardware is so good that you should try it yourself, and ask whether you really need the added confusion potential of microprocessors, computer-controlled routing and level control, and whether you are willing to trade these for good old British dependability. I think you may be surprised.
MRP of the Series II 16.16.2 is £4232 inc VAT.
Contact: Studiomaster, (Contact Details).
Review by Mark Badger
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