Free The Spirit!
Soundcraft Spirit Studio
Soundcraft's new Spirit Studio is the company's first serious move into the domestic end of the studio market, a compact fully-featured mixer for the generation of affordable multitracks. Dave Lockwood checks it out.
Soundcraft's Spirit range represents their most substantial move yet into the low-cost end of the mixer market. The company enjoys an excellent reputation for quality and innovation throughout their range, which now extends from major studio consoles such as the new 3200 down to compact multi-purpose desks such as the 200 Delta. Yet although their 200 Series desks found their way into many a home studio, there was still something indefinably 'professional', almost industrial about them; they were genuinely modular, of all-metal construction, and obviously built with field-serviceability in mind. You knew that you were paying for quality, sometimes at the expense of operational convenience. The Spirit, I feel, is unashamedly a more 'domestic' console, aimed more obviously at musicians for private studio usage.
The consoles are non-modular, falling into Spirit Studio and Spirit Live ranges for recording and PA usage respectively. Two frame sizes are available within the recording range, offering 16 or 24 channels. The review model was a 16:8:2 configuration. The tape returns are placed in-line, within the channels, so there are as many monitor channels as inputs. Thus although the Spirit is only an 8-group desk, the 24-input version would be perfectly able to function at the heart of a 24-track system.
Naturally, the monitors can function as additional inputs (for sources such as synchronised MIDI instruments) on mixdown, and these are provided with enough in the way of EQ and auxiliaries to be treated virtually as channels in their own right. With the four stereo FX returns, this gives the 16-channel console a total of 40 useful inputs, and the larger configuration the impressive total of 56!
The entire control surface of the Spirit desk is a single integral piece of folded steel; the desk is not even divided between inputs and the group/master section, as is often the case with non-modular designs. The casing is flat (a mere 85mm deep), with moulded plastic end-cheeks giving a distinctive modern appearance. Unusually, the vertical rear panel has not been used to mount the connectors, which are all located on the top surface above the controls.
There are advantages in this arrangement; firstly it allows the desk to be placed directly against a wall, without having to allow not only enough space for the connectors, but also room to get them in and out; secondly you can see exactly what you are doing without having to peer over the back of the desk, or leave the operating position — the array of connectors at the top of the desk can be used as a virtual patchbay, albeit somewhat unconventionally placed. The big disadvantage is that you have to look at it all. However neatly loomed the cabling may be, it still tends to look a bit of a mess. Many of the connections are likely to be semi-permanent in most systems, and these tend to get in the way of the ones you do want to get at.
The Mic input uses an electronically balanced circuit — Soundcraft have always made pretty decent mic amps in my experience, and this one is no exception. Very low noise is evident at normal settings, and the gain structure and overload margin allows the omission of the usual input stage pad. Individually switchable 48v phantom power is provided for capacitor mics. Line input is via balanced 1/4" jacks, and channel inserts are on tip-send, ring-return stereo jacks. Channel connections are completed by further pairs of 1/4" jacks designated Track Send and Return. These function as group outputs/channel direct outputs, and tape returns, or as alternate line inputs. All other connections are made via 1/4" jacks, with the exception of the input from the external power supply. This is a relatively small casing, not quite rack sized, which connects via a cable permanently fixed at the PSU end, terminating in a screw-down multi-pin at the desk end. A power on/off switch is provided on the front panel, along with supply monitoring LEDs for the +ve and -ve 17v rails, as well as the 48v phantom supply.
Each channel has a dual circuit configuration, with some interchange of facilities between the two signal paths. The main circuit, designated the channel path, normally receives its input from either the mic or line socket, under the control of the gain pot (+10 to +60dB). A line switch reduces input sensitivity by 20dB. The tape returns have a centre-detented trim pot (-10 to +20dB).
Although the Spirit is set up for use in a -10dBv system, for some reason both the channel direct outs, and the tape returns are optimised for +4dBu operation. Monitor channels therefore need some 10dB of gain for unity tape-return operation, and switching a channel from group assignment to direct routing also requires a gain re-adjustment. The relative insensitivity of the monitors is no problem in their tape return role, but it could be a source of difficulty when confronted with one of the many pieces of MIDI gear with particularly puny outputs (-20dBu is not uncommon).
The Spirit's EQ is basically a 4-band design which can be split into independent 2-band systems acting separately on both the channel and monitor paths if desired. There are fixed frequency HF and LF bands, offering 15dB of cut or boost at 10kHz and 100Hz, plus two swept mid bands. The split EQ configuration is possible because the frequency range of the swept mid controls is much wider than in a normal 4-band configuration. The low mid operates over the range 50Hz-800Hz, whilst the high mid reaches all the way from 500Hz-15kHz. This effectively means that the mids can function quite happily as a 2-band stage all on their own, or work in conjunction with the fixed frequency controls to create an equaliser of some versatility and precision for the most critical signals.
Typically one might use the full equaliser in the input path when laying tracks to tape, when monitor EQ would not be particularly desirable, and subsequently split the EQ on mixdown. This is a flexible and efficient way to maximise the use of the desk's resources, which has been implemented with great success on a number of other consoles though not, so far as I am aware, on one in this price range. Although some people maintain they find this system a little confusing, it is well implemented here, with the fixed HF and LF placed together, separated from the sweep section by an unambiguous 'EQ to Monitor' switch that makes the function quite obvious in practice.
Conspicuous by its absence however, is an overall EQ In/Out switch, apparently always the first thing to be omitted in the interests of economy. All gain stage pots are centre-detented for easy zeroing. Interestingly, the channel insert point is located between the two EQ stages, so that when the HF/LF stage is in the channel path, it is possible to separately EQ both the insert send and return. I suppose this is one way of solving the old argument about whether it is better to insert before or after EQ. The fact is that each is preferable in different situations; post-EQ usually sounds better when using a compressor, but pre-EQ is infinitely preferable for setting up gates. When the EQ is split, the Spirit design leaves the insert active before the remaining EQ stage.
Over many years now I have admired Soundcraft's ability to design EQs that are powerful and precise, yet which still sound good. So often the delicate balance between these two factors is tilted too far one way or the other, resulting in EQs that will be ideal for some situations, and useless in others. Even though it is undeniably a budget desk, the Spirit's EQ lives up to the standard I have come to expect of Soundcraft designs, and will not disappoint even those with experience of more sophisticated designs. The extra wide range of the sweep sections means that resolution is not actually quite as fine as normal, but the compromise Q adopted for this stage makes pin-point accuracy irrelevant anyway. Ultimately, an EQ either works for you, or it doesn't. This one does, for me.
Like the EQ, the auxiliaries are can be split between the channel and monitor circuits, giving both signal paths equal access to foldback and effects. A total of six sends are provided, divided into one pre-fade foldback send and two post-fade FX sends for each source. Alternatively, the FX sends from the monitor path (auxs 3 and 4) can be switched into the channel, leaving just foldback on the monitors, and giving a more versatile channel line-up of foldback and four separate FX sends.
From an operational point of view, I cannot really see this as an ideal arrangement. It means that monitors and channels cannot simultaneously access the same effect (unless of course auxs from each signal path are parallelled to the same device). In split mode, two FX sends per input is really not enough by contemporary standards. A pre/post-fade switching facility on the foldback pots, enabling them to become extra FX sends on mixdown, would certainly make a big difference, but for reasons best known to Soundcraft there isn't one. What there is however is a Link facility, parallelling the output of the two foldback mixes into one — naturally it is possible that you would need to monitor elements from each of the two signal paths during the later stages of overdubbing, and this neatly caters for this situation. However, the addition of pre/post switching on the foldbacks would, in conjunction, with the Link switching, have made possible, at least at the mixing stage, the very useful facility of an FX bus common to both sets of inputs.
One further feature of the auxiliaries, and a very welcome one too, is a facility to feed the control room monitor source into the foldback mix. This enables a basic foldback mix to be created much more quickly and easily than recreating the whole mix on the aux pots. The mix can then be further touched up to the overdubbing musician's requirements with the individual channel sends. All four auxs and both foldback circuits have master controls, with AFL monitor switching.
Monitor channels, the secondary circuit path within the channel strip, are controlled from a rotary level pot and pan control. PFL switching is provided, plus a monitor channel on/off switch an LED to indicate mute status. The PFL LEDs cleverly double as signal peak indicators, monitoring the channel at two points within the circuit (pre-insert and post-EQ). This should pick up any normal overload condition, with the circuit indicating a nominal 4dB before the onset of clipping. A channel/monitor input reverse switch is featured, sending the tape-return signal down the channel path, and switching the mic/line sources to the monitor path. Although this would be the normal mixdown configuration, there is no reason why you have to use it; indeed, it could be argued that signals on tape, having already had the benefit of any treatment necessary during recording, should be pretty much as you want them, leaving the external sources in greater need of the more sophisticated facilities. Perhaps the decision ultimately depends on which signals benefit most from being mixed on the long-throw faders (channels) as opposed to the rotary pots (monitors).
Below the monitor controls are the main channel pan controls, operating in conjunction with the channel routing matrix. You can route direct to the mix bus (I mention this only because Soundcraft once made a console where this was omitted!), or to logical odd/even pairs of the eight groups. Inevitably, the compact dimensions of the Spirit mean that you have to tolerate the presence of some of the routing matrix switches within the fader area.
The channel path also has PFL switching and an on/off mute facility. The long throw faders (110mm), feeling very much like the ever popular Alps units with the usual 10dB of gain above the unity position, complete a decent set of channel facilities. Not so clever, however, is the vestigial scribble strip, which is reduced to nothing more than a stripe of paint on the front panel. Would a proper piece of plastic really have cost that much more?
With the monitor controls hidden away within the input channels, the group output section is a little more sparsely populated than normal. The same long-throw faders are provided, but this time with the unity position right at the top of the travel. This makes sense, for one shouldn't really ever be looking for additional gain at this stage, unless you are doing something drastically wrong; having the unity position right at the top gives greater resolution, and makes positioning automatically more consistent. The same practice has been applied to the ganged stereo master fader, with similar benefits — I find the extra travel particularly helpful on fade-outs.
Groups are provided with their own PFL facilities, and can also be routed directly to the mix bus for standard sub-grouping when mixing. Odd/even pairs can feed the buss in stereo, or a Mono switch can be activated on each pair, sending both to the buss in mono.
Four stereo FX returns are provided, which you can route to the mix bus or to groups. Full routing facilities are not offered here however, and each return can only access a specific pair of groups, which restricts flexibility when laying effects to tape. Both sides of each FX channel are sensibly controlled from a single set of pots, with a centre-detented trim facility (-10dB to +20dB) offering level matching, and a 2-band shelving EQ (+/-15dB @ 100Hz/10kHz). There are sends to both foldback busses, as well as a pan (actually channel balance, as the source is stereo) and rotary level controls, and also PFL switching.
Four stereo returns is a generous allocation in a desk of this size, but certainly no more than most users will find good use for. You can, of course, press the FX returns into service as additional channels if you're really pushed, but although you would have EQ available there would be no post-fade auxiliaries.
Moving on to the master control area, it's good to see an integral talkback mic included. The flush-mounted electret design is activated by push-to-talk non-latching switches, routing to foldback, tape sends, or both. The talkback circuit also has its own level control.
The control room or headphone monitor source is switchable between the stereo bus and a single 2-track return circuit, and there are level and mono on/off controls. The headphone socket is switched, so inserting a plug cuts out the normal control room feed. An overall PFL/AFL level trim is also provided, allowing 20dB of adjustment of the 'check' level, but with a centre-detented 'Cal' unity position. PFL/AFL signals are displayed on the right-hand column of the stereo bus LED meters.
All metering, for the eight groups and stereo masters, is by means of 16-element green-amber-red LED arrays, with a peak-reading, slow-decay characteristic. The meters are actually formed from standard LEDs simply protruding through holes in the panel — elegant it ain't, but no-one could say that it in any way compromises functionality, for viewing angle and brightness are excellent. Meter ballistics can be changed to an averaging, VU type response by means of a small internal circuit modification, but I can't really see why you would want to. A set of small trim-pots are accessable through the top panel to accurately calibrate the metering, using the handy internal oscillator. A choice of two frequencies is offered (1kHz or 10kHz), and the oscillator can be simultaneously routed to all groups and the stereo buss via a level control, for accurately aligning the Spirit with external equipment.
All in all, a decent set of facilities for a budget recording console. Where compromises have inevitably had to be made, they have been made in the right areas and in the right way — there is nothing missing, or so unusually implemented that it would cause either the novice or experienced operator any difficulty.
The group outputs on the Spirit are normalled to the track sends, located among the mass of channel sockets. The eight groups are further parallelled to channels 9-16, and on the larger model to 17-24, making it very easy to interface with either 16-track or 24-track machines; no re-patching during use nor special parallelled looms are necessary. This is further enhanced by the operation of the channel direct switches, which override the group feed on any selected channels, giving a simple individual tape send whilst leaving the groups available for other channels, all without any re-plugging. The mixing up of groups and direct channels, required by many a budget desk stretched to the limit to cope with one of the larger multitrack formats, can get pretty confusing for the inexperienced operator; however, implementation as natural and obvious as this leads to instinctive understanding and confidence in use.
The Spirit Studio displays the same clean, open sound that characterises even Soundcraft's cheaper desks. It may obviously be a budget model, but there is little evidence of this in the audio performance, either subjectively or measured. The EQ functions well enough, when used within sensible limits, and the internal headroom and input stage overload margins all contribute to the feeling of an electronically robust console — there are no nasty surprises. Mixing noise is well down and crosstalk, the arch-enemy of the budget recording console, seems properly under control. Inter-auxiliary crosstalk, responsible for so much low-level mush in mixes, is also at safe levels in the Spirit, and I foresee no problems in normal usage.
So far so good. The big disappointment about the Spirit concerns not so much what is there, but what is not there. There is no MIDI muting facility. I can only assume that cost is to blame, which is understandable given that Soundcraft's intention seems to have been to make a console with their characteristic quality available at a previously unattainable price. They are to be praised for that, for they have succeeded, but one is left with the feeling that an opportunity has been missed. A Spirit Studio with MIDI muting, albeit at a slightly increased cost, would certainly have to be in the 'best buy' class.
Operationally, the only problem I encountered with the review model was a rather loud thump when activating the line switch, which sounded rather like DC being switched. This seemed to occur irrespective of the phantom status of the channel, and was the same on all channels. Hopefully the problem was peculiar to this example, for the rest of the switching was suitably quiet. If you are wondering why anyone should need to activate line/mic switching whilst monitoring anyway, it is certainly something that I often make use of on small consoles. The Spirit, in common with many desks of this type, does not mute its foldback sends when the channel cut or off button is used. If you need to take a track in and out of the monitor mix and the foldback mix at the same time, the quick and easy way is to switch it to Mic input (assuming of course that no mics other than those actually in use are connected!).
One immediately striking feature of the Spirit is the use of colour in identifying the control knobs. In contrast to the usual rather sombre Soundcraft coloured caps, the pointer sections of the Spirit's knobs are picked out in colour. Some of them are a bit bright for my taste, and many people's reaction seems to be that they cheapen the look of the desk a little. This is a shame, for the Spirit is a quality desk, and the prominent pointers do serve a practical purpose, in that they far more clearly indicate the position of the controls than many a more subtle design.
The Spirit Studio should do very well for Soundcraft. It brings a solid combination of quality performance and particularly well thought out operational features into an area of the market that is as yet untapped by this manufacturer. Audio performance is good enough to ensure that the desk will not impose any limits in a typical system, whilst the inherent versatility of the design makes it suitable for many different working methods. It could be equally at home in an entirely tape-based system of anything up to 24 tracks, or employed with a host of MIDI sources running 'live', or with a combination of the two.
The Spirit surely represents a recognition on the part of Soundcraft that this is the age of the sub-£10,000 24-track system. Economically priced 1" 24-track machines have created a whole new console market. Manufacturers able to move down into that market from above, with established reputations for quality engineering and innovation, must surely start with an advantage. If I were currently looking for a compact, fully-featured, multi-input desk for home recording, Soundcraft's Spirit Studio would be sure to be very high on my list of models for evaluation.
Spirit Studio 16:8:2 £1,898.65 inc VAT.
Spirit Studio 24:8:2 £2,738.15 inc VAT.
Soundcraft Electronics, (Contact Details).
Review by Dave Lockwood
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