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Small But Perfectly Formed

Soundcraft Spirit Folio


Soundcraft's range of Spirit consoles has a new baby — the compact, versatile, Spirit Folio. Dave Lockwood looks at the mixer that delivers Spirit quality for around £350.


Soundcraft's Spirit Folio is aimed at the growing market for ultra-compact, high-quality mixers suitable for both sound-reinforcement and demanding recording applications. Styled along similar lines to the popular Spirit Live and Studio ranges, the Folio seeks to offer facilities invariably omitted from very small desks, such as 'sweep' EQ, and a full complement of faders rather than compromising with rotary level controls, whilst still maintaining a highly competitive price.

The review model was a diminutive 10-2 configuration, measuring just 407 x 375 x 39.2mm, the other options in the range being a 12-2 (which adds a further 68mm to the width), and a 12-2 rack-mount version. An external PSU helps to keep the weight of the chassis down to just 4.2kg, but I was disappointed at the choice of connector — a small, moulded-plastic, 3-pin affair, which, above all, is non-latching. This seems a poor option in a desk whose essential features seem to invite portable usage, with all the frequent disconnection and reconnection that entails. The plug is a reasonably firm fit at present, but how long before it becomes looser, and vulnerable to being accidentally pulled out? It will happen to someone sooner or later, I guarantee. I just hope it isn't in the middle of recording an unrepeatable performance, or with a PA system hung on the end of it.

CONSTRUCTION



Like the larger Spirits, the control surface and connector bay are fabricated from a single piece of sheet steel. However, the Folio's moulded end-cheeks extend beyond the top of the panel to form a combination of a convenient carrying handle and a prop to sit the mixer at a comfortable angle in operation. Removing the base-plate shows the electronics of the entire mixer to be built on a single PCB, with all switches and pots mounted directly onto it. The XLR and jack connectors are, however, firmly fixed to the chassis as well, thereby avoiding damage to the board due to the long-term effects of plugging strain or the pull of heavy cables. The channel density within the compact chassis dimensions is achieved by utilising a pair of stereo channels in each configuration, differentiated by their blue fader tops, as on the Sapphyre. These have reduced facilities, and only operate at line level, whilst the other six channels (eight on the 12-2) are all full-featured, with both mic and line connections. Both types of input are electronically balanced, the former via XLR3-F, the latter via a 3-pole jack. Connection of a mono jack is, of course, perfectly alright, merely operating the circuit in an unbalanced configuration.

48V DC phantom powering is available for condensor mics and active DI boxes, but is not individually switchable. You should therefore take care not mix balanced and unbalanced sources when phantom power is in use, and also to avoid simultaneous connection to both mic and line sockets on the same channel, as the two inputs utilize the same circuitry. Phantom operation is confirmed by an LED which, prior to the advent of any signal on the meters, serves as your sole indication that the desk is actually powered-up (there is no power on/off switch).

CHANNEL FACILITIES



The channel Gain control, operative on both inputs, has a 44dB range (+10 to +54), with the line level unity point marked but not detented. This is followed by an equaliser/filter section of surprising sophistication for such a compact mixer. First comes a switchable 100Hz high-pass filter stage — very rare indeed at this level of the market — followed by a 3-band, sweep-mid EQ. This offers +/-15dB shelving response at 60Hz/12kHz, with the mid centre-frequency variable over a useful range of 250Hz to 6kHz.

This is a very handy little EQ indeed, with the HPF undoubtedly proving particularly valuable in PA applications, where unpredictable phenomena such as stage rumble and untraceable mains hum sometimes have to be dealt with. The control-law on the EQ gain pots seems to give the requisite degree of instant gratification, whilst the mid-shift has plenty of 'reach' — with this configuration, there are few problems that you can't at least begin to sort out. 12kHz is, I feel, usually a more appropriate frequency for a fixed HF than the more common 10kHz, seeming to offer a little more transparency in the sound (source permitting), without also over-emphasising the inevitable 'hardness' of the upper midrange frequencies.

At the other end of the spectrum, 60Hz is a sensible compromise given the inclusion of the 100Hz HPF, allowing plenty of control options, without duplication. All in all, a very satisfactory performance indeed for a desk in this class. You will not be surprised to hear that there is no EQ In/Out switch, but HF, LF and Mid Gain are all centre-detented, as is the channel Pan.

There are two auxiliary sends per channel (but no returns — you'll have to use the channels), sensibly configured as one fixed post-fade and one globally switchable pre/post. This allows either two effects sends for mixing down, or one effect send and one monitor/foldback send for PA usage or recording with an independent headphone mix.

Channel facilities are completed by a 60mm fader, with deeply concave, non-slip fader top. These are not, I have to say, the smoothest faders you will ever come across, but they are certainly not the worst either. Although exhibiting rather greater mechanical friction than we are used to from Soundcraft, the feel is consistent across its full travel, making it predictable and therefore easy to allow for once you are used to it. The action was also similar from one fader to another, and didn't seem to free-up at all with frequent use, so perhaps we can expect them to remain reasonably consistent for the majority of the working life of the mixer.

The inclusion of faders on the Folio is a major plus point in comparison with some of its competitors, but the benefit would be somewhat dissipated if they were seriously unpleasant to use — these, I think, certainly should be considered acceptable in a product pitched at this price level.

The tactile quality of the switches is good but, once again, being mounted quite low and having a short travel, I find they are still not adequately self-indicating. Some attempt may perhaps have been made in this area, as there are actually indentations in the side of the switch cap which are only visible in the 'up' position, but you still have to look pretty carefully— it is nothing like as effective as a simple coloured stripe round the side.

On the stereo channels the gain control is omitted in favour of sensitivity switches, selecting either -10 or +4dBu nominal level operation. The EQ is also simplified, reduced to a 2-band, fixed-frequency, shelving configuration, operating at 60Hz and 8kHz. 8kHz struck me as a slightly odd choice at first, but presumably the thinking is that these inputs will be used primarily for tape sources or effects, with not a lot going on above say, 10kHz, perhaps making another 12kHz HF rather ineffective. I am not entirely sure I agree, but at least you can see the logic behind the choice. Pan pots on the stereo channels function, of course, as a balance control, biasing in favour of one side or the other.

MOMENTARY 'PFL'



All channels feature a momentary (non-latching) PFL ('pre-fade listen') switch, selecting the signal into the monitoring in isolation without interrupting the primary signal paths. The two auxiliary circuits feature similar AFL (the same, but 'after' the level controls) switching, whilst in the stereo channels the PFL signal is the sum of the two sources. PFL/AFL operation is confirmed by a status LED beneath the right main output meter, which is also switched to display the PFL bus level.

I am not convinced about non-latching PFL switches. Apart from initial gain setting, the primary reason for activating the PFL facility is to track down a faulty source. Having located the channel in question, it is quite conceivable that you would want to leave it PFLed while you wiggle around leads or connectors, or check on a MIDI module's behaviour. Having to keep your finger on the PFL switch in this sort of situation is nothing but a nuisance, and when you actually have a 'PFL-on' warning LED, as on the Folio, I can't be persuaded by the argument usually used in downmarket desks that it prevents the inexperienced operator leaving it on by mistake.

There is a light-coloured 'Write strip' area beneath the faders, and I can confirm that the painted surface will take a chinagraph pencil and wipe clean again with isopropyl alcohol, but better still, there is just room for a strip of masking tape — personally, I much prefer to be able to write neatly and legibly with a proper pen, and to know that the markings won't rub off as soon as you start to operate the faders.

OUTPUTS



The main outputs are governed by separate Left and Right faders (always preferable, I feel, to a single ganged stereo master fader, particularly in PA usage), feeding a pair of unbalanced (ground-compensated) quarter-inch jack outputs. In keeping with recent Soundcraft practice, the unity point on the masters is at the top of their travel, maximising fader resolution. Level is monitored by 12-segment, green-amber-red LED columns, calibrated -21 to +12VU.

Separate connections are provided for both headphones and a stereo monitoring amplifier (inserting the phones plug disables the other feeds), although they share a common Monitor Level control. The phones output was a bit short of clout into 600 Ohms for my liking. A dedicated stereo Tape Return input, with level control, is provided. This facility also includes a switching option for routing the tape signal into the stereo bus, rather than just the monitoring, considerably extending the possibilities for creative use — it is no longer necessary to tie up a pair of channels for tape playback when doing a 'live voices over a backing-track' mix, or you could even use them as extra effects returns, or as a controlled bus-combiner in a multiple mixer set-up. This neat idea first appeared on Soundcraft's Europa design, their biggest console, and has now found its way down to the smallest.

A surprise inclusion, but very welcome on a desk of this type, is that of a 1 kHz oscillator to help with signal-tracing and line up operations. It is unfortunate, however, that its switch is located just above the master faders. The thought of accidentally sending a 1kHz sine wave at full level over the PA during a live performance would certainly worry me, for it is located altogether too close to the Tape Return to Mix switch, which is something you might conceivably need to operate quite frequently in a combined tape/live show. I can't imagine why they stuck it there; whatever the internal proximity ramifications, operationally it belongs right out of the way, in the top right corner with the Phantom switch.

INSERT POINTS



Insert points, via the usual stereo break-jack arrangement, are featured on the main outputs, but are conspicuous by their absence on the channels. This is perhaps the one serious omission in the Folio's operational features, and all the more curious when you consider how little it would have cost, and the fact that there is sufficient panel space for another jack in each of the primary channels. Insert points would also have given the option of taking a direct output from any channel, either interrupting or leaving intact the feed to the stereo bus according to how you wired the insert jack — this would have considerably enhanced the Folio's potential for use in a small multitrack set-up.

With line level signals you can, if necessary, simply connect a processor between the source and the channel input and achieve much the same effect (albeit pre-EQ where post is often preferable), but at microphone level there is simply no substitute. The Folio's method of construction does not exactly encourage a DIY mod either, as there is insufficient space between the board and the chassis for a non-PCB-mounting jack to be added (the type used also has deep locking nuts, placing rather more of the socket above the surface than normal).

IN USE



That's it for facilities, so what does it sound like — how much has building down to a price been allowed to erode the superior audio performance for which the Spirit range is renowned? "Not at all" is the answer I am happy to be able to give. The Folio is clean and quiet, seeming electronically robust and forgiving in use. Crosstalk, both inter-channel, and particularly aux bus leakage, are at surprisingly low levels. There is plenty of front-end sensitivity; even in tests with low output dynamic mics placed at some distance from the source, mic amp noise was quite acceptable.

At the other end of the scale, a high output condensor close-miking a loud vocalist proved no problem for the Soundcraft padless preamp design. For condensor mics on drums, I had to use their on-board pads, but then I would anyway, whether the desk had pads of its own or not. Line sensitivity proved more than sufficient for the range of MIDI instruments, guitar recording processors, and tape sources I managed to throw at the Folio during the review period.

The outputs all have plenty of drive-capability (+22dBu max, all o/ps) and I encountered no electronic interfacing difficulties whatsoever with a range of varying requirements from 'pro' power amps down to modest home recording gear. I suspect that the Folio has been designed to cover as broad a spectrum of the audio market as possible, and it does so effortlessly. The compact dimensions will appeal to everybody to whom portability is a factor, such as mobile sound-reinforcement or location recording work. The Folio may prove particularly attractive to those in this field who use 'minimalist' desks not out of esoteric pretensions, but simply because there is not much else available with a signal path of sufficient quality — a Folio and a portable DAT make a rather natural pairing. To the home recordist for whom space is at a premium, it will prove equally valuable. Even in a very modest system, the Folio would make an excellent upgrade to the mixer stage of any cassette multitrack equipped with Tape Direct In/Out connections — substituting a high-quality component for the integrated mixer in Portastudio-type units can transform their performance beyond recognition (record initially through the external desk, whilst using the on-board mixer just for monitor mixing, then re-patch on mix-down via the high-quality mixer).

The lack of any form of channel-cut facility is always a bit of a nuisance in any mixing situation (there isn't even a mic/line switch to stand-in), but obviously the designer has to draw the line somewhere — in the main I think Soundcraft got it about right. They are to be praised also, I think, for the User Guide for this product. Folios will undoubtedly find their way into inexperienced hands — however, the mixing novice will find a comprehensive description of the function of every control in the form of a large, 2-page graphic of each section of the desk, making the information much more readily accessible than the usual combination of text and diagrams. It is not a large document — indeed it omits one or two points of minor technical interest — like the frequencies of the EQ controls, and I think the glossary could be expanded to some advantage, but it is, above all, appropriate.

CONCLUSION



The combination of excellent specification, broad range of facilities, and extremely attractive pricing make the Spirit Folio a certain winner in the ultra-compact mixer market, even before you consider Soundcraft's reputation for quality engineering and reliability. My only real problems with this design are centred on the lack of channel inserts, and my doubts about the suitability of the power supply connection — the other reservations, such as the feel of the faders and even the PFL momentary/latching switch type, and general switch self-indication, can all doubtless be easily addressed in subsequent production, should Soundcraft receive sufficient user-feedback on the subject.

Thus I cannot quite conclude that this is the ultimate 'no-compromise' design among economically-priced sub-compact mixers, but 'Folio II', with inserts and a latching power connector, were it to appear, would certainly be a viable contender for that accolade. Even as it stands, on an audio-performance-for-the-price basis alone, this is a real gem — highly flexible in use, and a treat to look at as well. In these recession-hit times for the audio industry, it is good to see a British designed and manufactured product hitting the price/performance target so accurately.

Further information

Soundcraft Spirit Folio 10-2 £351.33 inc VAT.
12-2 £410.08 inc VAT.
12-2 Rack-mount £410.08 inc VAT.


Soundcraft Electronics, (Contact Details).

SOUNDCRAFT SPIRIT FOLIO

Low-cost, compact, versatile, high-quality 10:2/12:2 mixer.

FOR: Outstanding audio performance for price bracket; 'real' faders rather than pots; excellent EQ.

AGAINST: No channel inserts; no effect returns; non-latching power connector.

SUMMARY: Affordable, packed with features, yet without compromising the quality for which the Spirit range is known.


SOUNDCRAFT SPIRIT FOLIO SPECIFICATIONS

Frequency response (1 kHz, +/-1dB): 20Hz to 30kHz
Distortion (Gain 30dB-o/p +14dBu, 20Hz to 20kHz): < 0.005%

CROSSTALK
Adjacent channel crosstalk (1 kHz): >90dB
Aux send attenuation: >85dB
Input fader attenuation: typically >100dB

NOISE
Mix noise
(i/p fader down/masters up): <-83dBu
Aux noise (sends down): <-83dBu
Equivalent input noise (source R=150 Ohms): -129dBu

IMPEDANCE
Mic input: 2kOhms
Line input: 10kOhms
All outputs: 75Ohms

MAX LEVELS
Mic input: +11dBu
Line input: >+30dBu
All outputs: +22dBu
Headphones: 200mW per side

DIMENSIONS
10-2: 407 x 375 x 39.2mm
12-2: 475 x 375 x 39.2mm
12-2 Rackmount: 445 x 305 x 39.2mm


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Live End

Next article in this issue

Is Analogue Multitrack Recording Dead?


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Feb 1993

Gear in this article:

Mixer > Soundcraft > Spirit Folio

Review by Dave Lockwood

Previous article in this issue:

> Live End

Next article in this issue:

> Is Analogue Multitrack Recor...


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