Studiomaster Power House Vision 8
Powered mixer with effects
There's a new breed of compact powered mixer coming onto the market. Combining a well-specified mixer, powerful amp, and digital effects, their mission is to provide decent live sound to even the most humblest of venues, and cash-strapped bands. Ian Masterson checks out Studiomaster's contender, the Powerhouse Vision 8
It's becoming increasingly difficult to catch equipment manufacturers out. Time was when the reviewer could look at a new product and say, "Well, it's great as far as it goes, but wouldn't it be brilliant if it had better EQ/digital effects/easy editing/more outputs..?" Now, with high-performance technology becoming more accessible, more cost-effective and ultimately more affordable, manufacturers seem to be cutting corners less and less.
The trend now is to cram as many features as possible into the available space, simply because the technology is there to be used, cheaply and effectively.
Obviously, the all-in-one approach can benefit the end user greatly, provided of course that the components of the design complement and enhance each other. When it comes to integrated PA mixers, there's always been a weak link - be it the limitations of the mixer section, the nastiness of the on-board reverb, or the background noise of the amps. But recently, manufacturers have started to refine each component separately, before hooking them together in a single box.
It's this design philosophy which Studiomaster seem to have adopted when creating the Vision series desks. The three Vision models (in 8, 12, and 16 channel configurations) are the latest additions to the Powerhouse range of integrated PA mixers, already highly popular with gigging musicians everywhere.
However, based on my experience of the original Powerhouses, I'd say the Vision units are actually in a different league altogether. Don't get me wrong - the originals are good, solid workhorse PA desks. It's just that the Vision 8, Vision 12 and Vision 16 are much, much better.
Given the modular design philosophy, it seems sensible to analyse each of the main components individually. First up is the mixer section, probably the least remarkable area of the console. The Vision 8 I tested divides its channels between six mono and two stereo input strips (although the latter, typically, can be used in mono mode if required).
All the channel connections are located on the top panel of the console, making them rather more convenient for urgent patching and repatching than if they were buried round the back. Each channel features twin balanced inputs; a lovely Neutrik XLR socket for microphones, and 1/4" jacks for line sources.
I was slightly disappointed at the absence of any channel inputs, although your sense of loss will depend on how often you employ compression and/or gating in live mixing. I do feel that inserts on at least the first four channels would have been a definite boon, 'though. Phantom powering can be globally applied to the channels by means of a recessed front panel button.
The channel controls also offer little to shock or astound. But it does seem slightly bizarre that the only rotaries to be properly calibrated are the gain and mid-range EQ sweep controls - the rest are marked out with rather vague dots. It would have been nice to know, for example, that the HF EQ control provides 15dB of cut and boost at 12kHz, and the LF control does the same at 60Hz (I only found this out from the manual).
For my money, nondescript panel legends such as this one only make noting settings and levels difficult and tiresome - not the state of mind you want to be in during sound checks or rehearsal. This is compounded by the lack of centre detents on any of the rotaries, making the resetting or cancellation of pan and EQ a fiddly nightmare. Too many budget desks seem to suffer from this problem, in both the studio and live markets.
Controls are provided to govern both reverb send (to the internal effects processor) and an auxiliary output; there is also a rotary for adjusting the amount of channel signal sent to a separate foldback, or monitor, mix. A pan control, input clip warning LED, channel assign switch (you can send the signal to either a group master or the main master faders) and channel level fader complete the lineup.
The stereo channels differ slightly in that they lose the sweepable mid-range EQ control - but gain in the fact that both mic and stereo line inputs can be handled simultaneously, since they incorporate separate gain controls for each input. This is both highly unusual and highly worthwhile, since it really gives you not eight, but ten distinct inputs.
"The reverbs glisten without fizzing, and fade away without swirling into hiss"
It's worth pointing out that, despite my reservations about their lack of calibrated markings, the controls on all the channel strips are of a pleasingly high quality. Studiomaster have employed the same knobs, switches and pots on the Vision that they use on their 8-buss studio desk, the P7. Since my own studio is based around a much-loved and trusted P7, I was reassured that the Vision's controls exhibited the same smooth, secure response I associate with its much more expensive recording cousin.
All, that is, apart from one: the main channel fader. It's not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with this short-throw job; it's smooth and neither too stiff nor too loose. But once again, the calibration is a little unorthodox. Basically, Studiomaster have opted to give the top of the fader's track a special taper, producing a track law accuracy that imitates a standard 100mm fader.
This gives increased sensitivity over and above the all-important 0dB mark, which ends up sitting physically in the middle of the fader's throw, rather than further towards the top. I suspect the majority of users will, at first glance, bung the fader up to where they think the 0dB position is - in other words, about three-quarters of the way up.
But on the Vision, this position is actually +5dB. Until you discover your error by inspecting the front panel more closely, mixing on this console could take some getting used to! However, I do think the increased sensitivity is a particularly nifty idea, and works rather well overall.
One of the real glories on the Vision desks has to be the ultra-impressive digital effects system. Effects facilities on integrated consoles are far from being a new idea, but they've rarely matched the quality of dedicated external processors (with the exception of some of Peavey's latest desks) and have quite often been little more than a dodgy spring reverb or echo box. Studiomaster have been beavering away in their R&D department to come up with something a little bit special for the Vision, and it shows.
Signal is despatched into the internal effects via the channel 'Rev' send controls, and a peak clipping LED is provided to warn you of impending distortion from the summed inputs (unfortunately, the Vision lacks either an Aux send or Rev send master rotary, although both Reverb and Aux return controls are provided).
Various buttons with associated warning LEDs govern the host of editable functions concerning the effects themselves, and I won't bore you by going into the nitty-gritty of each and every possible permutation. Basically, it's possible to select 82 different reverb, delay and echo effects (shown on a bright blue LED display), which can then be modified by employing three different types of digital EQ (warm, bright or warm + bright) and variable regeneration (for setting echo).
Once you've called up your desired effect(s) and tweaked them to suit your needs, they can be stored in either four direct-access memories (where pressing a single button on the front panel recalls your whole effects setup) or fifteen 'Power User' memories, selectable via MIDI.
Yes, that's right. For the Vision mixer, Studiomaster have decided to embrace MIDI, and it's a choice which they are to be commended for. Set up the appropriate program change numbers on your sequencer when you're gigging, and certain dedicated effects can be called up for certain songs. You can even use MIDI start/stop messages to toggle the effects unit on an off. Simple, arguably rudimentary, but nonetheless effective. As Studiomaster point out, "when a song finishes, the effect can automatically be turned off via MIDI, avoiding the embarrassment of announcing the next song only to realise you've left the echo on, and you sound like a railway station announcer!" Er, quite.
Should you decide that MIDI program changing isn't quite your scene, then an external Footswitch can be plugged into the Vision to toggle any one of the following functions: Reverb On/off, Regeneration On/Off, Standby, Memory Cycle and Program Step. There's no excuse for you losing control of this desk at any point during your show.
Anyway, about the effects. They sound great. So good, that I'm almost disappointed that you can't patch into the reverb section separately, to get at them alone. Leaps and bounds have undoubtedly been made here, and it seems a new generation of high-quality integrated effects units for small PA systems is upon us. It's just a pity there aren't more patches of different effect types, such as chorus, flanging and delay, to get experimental with. But top marks nonetheless.
"It's difficult to criticise the compromises made in a piece of gear when they're so hard to identify"
When all your assorted noise has been processed and effected until it starts to resemble a decent mix once more, it's time to turn to the master section and convert your random inputs into one glorious stereo picture.
Or something like that. As I hinted at above, the Vision incorporates facilities for both group and foldback submixes, both of which have control faders here. A cunning switch will actually convert the internal stereo amp into two mono amps, so that the main Left-Right signal appears summed on one speaker output, and the Foldback signal on the other.
This is ideal for the small-scale gigging musician who can't stretch to running a separate amp for monitoring purposes. However, for those who can, the final Foldback signal appears at a single mono output on the back panel. It would have been nice to have been offered an independent Group output/insert too; this could have been of use in setting up a separate monitor mix, particularly on the larger Vision consoles.
A dual seven-band graphic EQ is provided on the master section also, and this can be assigned to affect the signal reaching either the master L-R faders, or the Group fader, which is rather cunning. Up to 12dB of cut or boost can be applied in the seven carefully-chosen bands - and I'm pleased to report that these little faders actually do have centre detents. (So why the hell aren't there any on the other controls?) I've never been a fan of playing with graphics to 'compensate' for poor room acoustics - you can't polish a turd, after all - but at least the facility is there.
Sundry other little inclusions on the master section include tape inputs and outputs, phones level control (with switch to select monitoring of the main or foldback mixes), amp volume control and the stereo aux inputs. Yes, that's right. For some reason the stereo aux inputs (on 1/4" jacks) have been located on the top panel of the desk, even through the Aux output is hidden round the back. Surely it would have been more ergonomic to group these sockets together in one place?
Incidentally, if at any stage you get lost when trying to fathom the effects section, you can press the online 'Help' button, and a set of appropriate hints scrolls across the display. This is particularly good for hire companies, since it's bound to reduce the number of call-outs from flumoxed users. You can even set the Help messages to be displayed in English, French, German or Spanish (Euro-sceptics take note). Mind you, the Vision is so ridiculously easy to use that I'd wonder about anyone needing to employ this facility at all.
Finally, we reach the bit that puts the 'power' in 'Powerhouse'. On board the Vision desks is a pair of extremely beefy 350watt amplifiers, ready to take your mix and pump it front of house. The output from these is despatched via both 1/4" jacks (hmm) and Neutrik Speakon connectors (much better), and is designed to be delivered into a four ohm load for optimum performance.
You can even hack into the signal between desk and amplifier via the amp insert sockets, should extra external processing be desired. Or, should you desire more wallop on the bass end, an optional crossover module can be fitted to the Vision (six different crossover frequencies are available), so that the internal amps produce only mid-to-high frequency output, while a separate bass signal appears at the line-out sockets for external amplification.
So it seems that Studiomaster really have tried to think of everything when they were designing the Vision series. Yes, there are niggles, such as the lack of a calibrated legend and no channel insert points, but they're really very minor ones.
More importantly, the performance of the individual components really does impress. The mixer section is clean and quiet, with a comprehensive and musically-usable EQ system and solid, attractive controls. The effects, as I mentioned above, are superb for a console of this price and design. The amps are hiss-free and noiseless (the lack of an aggressive cooling fan helps here). All the componentry is of the highest quality, and it shows in the spec.
On top of this, the whole thing is packaged in a robust, attractively-chunky box, which can even be rackmounted (in the case of the Vision 8). You can even lock unauthorised users out of the system via an onboard PIN-based security system. Yes, I am impressed by the Vision consoles. If this is the way integrated PA desks are heading in the future, then I'm coming along for the ride.
Price inc VAT: £899
More from: Studiomaster, (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Masterson
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