Could it be the perfect match?
Ever since Fostex released the B16 multitrack, mixer manufacturers have been claiming their models to be the ideal match for it. Dave Simpson reckons ACES' latest attempt comes damn close to being the perfect match at only £1300.
Ever since Fostex first accomplished the impossible and squeezed sixteen usable tracks onto a half-inch tape, and did it (most importantly) at an affordable price, mixing desk manufacturers have been offering forward their products as the perfect match for the B16. Studio owner Dave Simpson poses the question of the latest ACES mixer and delivers his answer.
By and large, the new generation of budget sixteen-track desks have been pretty successful. RSD and Allen & Heath were early starters, both with good basic desks, with the RSD having the advantage of sixteen full outputs. Both companies have recently added to the appeal of their products with RSD producing add-on patchbays and input modules and AHB opening up new horizons in the budget multitrack field with their computer aided models.
For the smaller (sizewise) set-up, Seck's 18-8-2 offers a lot of features in a trim package, and more recently Soundtracs and TAC (with the Scorpion) have proved that there is a market for higher quality desks to interface with cheaper multitracks. Given then, that the market seems to be fairly well catered for, have ACES with the B1816 made the right decision in venturing into this area? If they have, where do they fit in and, most importantly, is the unit worth the money?
The ACES B1816 is an eighteen in, sixteen out in-line console designed (as the name suggests) to be mated with the Fostex B16, or perhaps the Tascam 16B or ACES' own sixteen-track machines. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of an in-line console let me explain.
A traditional mixing desk has the input signals entering through the left hand side of the console, where they are EQ'd and fed to the effects sends, with input levels being controlled by faders located immediately below each channel. The signal is then output to the multitrack via a similar set of faders on the right hand side of the desk, where it can receive similar treatment ie. EQ, effects sends etc. Obviously the system involves a certain amount of doubling up of facilities, and it was this realisation which prompted the development of the in-line console.
With this, rather than have input channels and separate outputs, the process is confined to a single input/output module, switchable between the two. This has the dual advantage of saving space and allowing more comprehensive controls which can be allocated to either section.
I am never quite sure how best to review a complex piece of audio gear like a mixing desk given only a limited space, so I will run through all the features and controls, section by section, and then add a few comments.
At the top of the input/output modules (arranged in groups of four) are eight buttons, depression of which allows the incoming signal to be routed to any of the sixteen outs, odd or even outputs being selected by the main pan control. Below these a gain pot gives control of incoming signal level, with a clip LED to help set optimum level, and then there are four switches, allowing phase reverse, 48V phantom powering, a 20dB pad on the mic inputs and finally the mic/line switch.
Above and below the main EQ controls are four pots, arranged in two groups of two, and four switches. Various combinations of these knobs and buttons allow the signal to be routed to any one of six auxiliary send busses, with 3/4 and 5/6 being switchable pre- or post-fade, whilst any one channel can be sent to any three sends at any one time.
Sandwiched in between these two sets of controls are the main EQ pots - all six of them, featuring a 12kHz boost or cut pot, two semi-parametric mids, with the high providing up to 13dB of boost or cut from 800Hz to 12kHz, and the lower mid providing 17dB of boost or cut from 80Hz to 1 kHz. The bass control provides 16dB of boost/cut at 80Hz. EQ in/out buttons are provided.
Below the second set of auxiliary send controls are three more pots and a switch labelled 'input-group' which determines whether the channel is to be used as an input (ie. during recording) or an output (during mixing or whilst monitoring tracks during overdubbing). In the 'input' position, the signals coming from the pre-amp/equalisation are controlled in level by the channel fader prior to going to the main pan control (which determines the position on the stereo mix buss of signals coming from the monitor level control, which in turn, gets its feed from the PB/Post/L/Out switch which we will come to in a moment). The monitor level control varies the amount of signal reaching the monitor pan control.
When switched to the 'group' position, the signals coming from the main pre-amp bypass the fader and go directly to the 'main pan' pot, for routing to the multitrack busses and/or mix buss. The fader then becomes a level control for the line out signals, thus allowing a 'group' of other channels to be controlled on one fader prior to sending out to the multitrack. Subgrouping during mixdown can also be achieved this way using the 'mon level' and 'mon pan' to pick up the now 'fader controlled' line output signal and send it across the mix buss.
The PB/Post/L/Out switch mentioned earlier determines the source of signals feeding both the Aux 1/Aux 2 and monitor level controls. In the 'PB/Post' position, with the line/mic switch selected for mic, the signal comes from the line output socket to enable direct monitoring off tape whilst using the channel for mic signals. With the line/mic switch selecting line, the signal comes from after the channel fader. When selecting 'L/Out' the signal source is then the line output socket irrespective of the position of the line/mic switch.
There's more to go yet! A mix button, when depressed, sends any signal on the main pan control directly to the mix buss and a solo button allows the signal present on that channel, whether being used as an input or output module, to be soloed over the monitors. This is not true solo (ie. in place) but more a kind of pre-fade listen. It does the job though.
Nearly there. A mute button does just that, irrespective of whether the channel is set for input or output, a clip LED shows when the fader is in danger of distortion and finally, at the head of the console, a small illuminated VU meter shows the signal level present at the line input.
In addition to the sixteen full input channels there are two auxiliary inputs with identical facilities except those concerned with monitoring off tape. Those two spare inputs are for the connection of extra returns or instruments, during recording or mixdown.
At the top of this master module is a three position line-up oscillator complete with level control and off/on switch. The available frequencies of the oscillator are 15kHz, 10kHz and 1kHz. When depressed, the in/out switch feeds the sixteen line outs enabling quick lining up of the stereo and multitrack machines.
Below these is a headphone level control (not foldback, but engineer's headphones with a socket situated on the armrest) and a foldback/monitor button enabling the foldback headphones to be fed from either the Aux 1 and Aux 2 busses (the foldback mix) or the monitor busses, in which position the studio headphones will pick up anything played over the studio monitors.
The six send level controls come next, together with a small group of switches which, in various combinations, allow any or all of the auxiliary sends to be soloed over the monitors. Four further pots allow both auxiliary returns to be adjusted in level and panned over the stereo mix busses, and each come with the required solo buttons and two further buttons to allow the return signals to be muted.
A talkback socket enables a balanced or unbalanced mic to be connected - a level control does just that, and two switches let the talkback run across all the inputs (for track identification purposes), the foldback, or solo over the monitors.
Finally, the monitor section. A level control adjusts the volume of signal over the main monitors and a mix/playback button allows monitoring from a connected stereo mastering machine, whether monitoring off tape during a mix or playing back a master. A mono button allows left and right monitor feeds to be summed in mono, to check for possible phase problems but this does not affect the main outs. Completing the rundown is a mute button and a stereo pair of faders which control the level of the signal feeding the stereo machine. Phew!
Each input/output channel has a Cannon/XLR style connector for microphones, either balanced or unbalanced, a mono jack socket for line in (from the multitrack) and a stereo jack socket for output to the multitrack, selectable either -10dB or +4dB.
In addition, a 37-way multitrack multipin connector allows connection via a linked multicore. The rear of the master module features the six auxiliary send sockets as well as the two auxiliary return sockets. Left and right outputs for a stereo master are provided, as are main left and right outs and a socket for connection to an external power supply.
So much for what the desk offers. The point is - how good is it?
Let's get the beefs over with first. I should have liked to see LEDs instead of VUs (personal preference, I admit) and Cannons instead of jacks would have been a bit more professional on the main outs. Although the desk is primarily designed to mate with the B16 (which interfaces at -10dB) the handy multiway connector unfortunately is fixed at +4dB. A couple more effects returns would have been handy, although I am told that the inputs will be expandable in groups of four with up to 30 inputs available from the present power supply - when these will be available is not certain however. The pots are nothing special, noise levels are average and centre-detented pan pots would have been nice. I cannot vouch for the reliability of the desk with it being such a new model - only time will tell on that count.
And the good points? Well - I will lay my cards on the table now - for the price the ACES is bloody amazing!
Someone has actually sat down and thought about this desk, and it shows. Like putting the insert points (for effects sends and returns) in the form of a patchbay on the side rather than stupid little stereo jacks at the back. Why don't other manufacturers do this? Mute buttons on each channel - obvious you may think, but many similar desks don't have them! A switchable line-up oscillator - great, though I feel that 100Hz would have been more useful than 15kHz, but at least it's there. The engineer's headphone socket - well located at the front of the desk where it can be reached. The monitor mono button to check for phase cancellation and individual phase buttons on each channel - very useful! The comprehensive EQ - maybe just a little higher (14kHz) and a little lower (40Hz) would have helped, but the controls that are already there make for a hell of a lot of control anyway. Finally - six full effect sends - oh bliss! What more can you say?
Don't get me wrong - all of these features (and more) are available on other mixing desks I know, and most are a bit quieter and probably will last a bit longer. What is really impressive about the B1816 though is the price - only £1300 plus VAT at full retail (and you know what that means!). The B1816 does not try to compete purely price-wise with its competitors - it slots in neatly underneath them, whilst offering a whole host of useful features. I am not saying that this desk was noisy or poorly made - it wasn't; but at this price, noise almost ceases to be relevant! D'you know what I mean?
Review by Dave Simpson
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!