Soundcraft Sapphyre Recording Mixer
Zenon Schoepe gets to grips with the latest jewel in Soundcraft's crown, a personal desk with top-flight facilities and quality.
Something has been happening at Soundcraft of late. Everything this UK console manufacturer has produced in the last couple of years has enjoyed widespread popular appeal and acceptance. From the beautifully adaptable Delta (recipient of a prestigious Design Council Award) to the price-busting Spirit, which has surely redefined the term 'budget'. Perhaps unfairly, much was therefore expected on its release last year of the company's Sapphyre, with its stance as the grown-up's personal board. Sharing many of the ideas associated with top-flight desks, Sapphyre's in-line configuration hopes to be a natural for people who spend their days in a £1,000 room and those who can appreciate the logic of a compact and flexible system.
But the starting price of around £12,000 (inc VAT) has meant that gambles have had to be taken. The in-line design allows direct outputs to go to tape from each I/O module, but the desk is still an 8-buss design. These eight busses are repeated in blocks along the desk and can be picked up and made to work with any size multitrack, providing not more than eight groups need to be laid to tape at any one time. Not a big problem for most, but there is still some stigma associated with 8-buss desks, which you can guarantee will be played on by competing manufacturers.
The Sapphyre offers one type of I/O module, which can be mixed and matched to choice with a dual stereo module and a dual line input module in frame sizes of 23, 31, 39 and 47 modules, excluding the essential master section. This means that a considerable input density is being offered in a fairly compact space. Like other in-line desks, Sapphyre is quite deep, especially as each I/O module has its own gate section.
Finished in Delta and Spirit dark grey, the legending on the Sapphyre is extremely clear, being a delicate cream colour. Built like the proverbial outhouse and weighing about as much, the overall feeling is that you are getting something for your money. The fact that a rather elegant and sturdy stand is inclusive in the price is a boon. Channel scribble strips are provided above and below each module. The padded armrest isn't all that comfortable and extends around the sides, but it gives the impression that it will grow more supple with use — a bit like a pair of stiff leather boots. A groove is thoughtfully provided above the armrest for housing chinagraph pencils and such like.
Good quality switches with plenty of travel in them are employed, so there's no confusion about whether a button is pressed in or not. A quiet thump was detected when changing monitor/channel selection on some sections. Strip LEDs are a little sparse by Neve VR standards, with the only indicators on the I/O module being for gate on, PFL, cut, solo, peak, and channel active. Delicious faders combine with smooth pots, whose bolts act as the bottom seal of the knob thus practically excluding the intrusion of dust entirely. These should prove a major contribution to the longevity of this desk.
While the general position of the pots on the channel strip obviously reflects what's going on the circuits beneath, the HF and LF controls are perhaps a little too close to their monitor button in this section, although I can't complain about the very sensible layout of the mid frequency EQ or the auxiliaries. Knobs are (sensibly) larger for the important controls, like the monitor pans, master auxes, PFL trim and studio level. Pots are also colour-coded in a clear and logical fashion and it's nice to see that the colours chosen on the mid EQ are clearer than those on Soundcraft's new Spirit Live desks. Colour-coding is extended to the switches with Bounce, Extra Effects, and Reverse Fader buttons sporting a Lacoste polo shirt pastel yellow while pastel purple is favoured for the Send, Buss, and Sub buttons.
Input gain controls are provided on a dual concentric pot for mic or line input and tape inputs. The channel input defaults to Mic input unless the Line button is depressed. The top concentric pot governs the input level, which is the one you'd want to adjust most often, and my best efforts to get the two to accidentally gang together failed, which is not always the case with dual concentrics. The tape level pot detents at the connected machine's calibration point, which is a nice touch. Buttons are provided for phase reversal and a 100Hz second order high-pass filter. It's here that you'll also find a purple buss-to-channel Sub button, which allows Buss 8 channels, for example — numbered 8, 16 and 24 — to pick up the buss for sub-grouping purposes.
Following in the footsteps of Soundcraft's flagship desk, the 3200, a noise gate is included in each I/O module. Three pots control a wide bandpass filter (sweepable from 70Hz to 4kHz), threshold and release (operating from 0.1s to 4s). The Release control can be hooked in by a Hold button to work as a hold control, and is variable up to 2s with a fixed release time of 0.1s. The gate works at selectable ranges of 15dB or 60dB, allowing gentle or radical cleaning to be administered.
Defaulting to the monitor path, the gate can be switched in to the channel with a channel button, and a red LED illuminates when the gate is closed. A flip switch permits the device to be keyed from the other signal path in the module to the one that the gate is in, which on a small desk could be interpreted as something of a waste of an audio path when a plain old key input would probably have sufficed. Given that the Sapphyre uses this form of keying, a key listen switch is not essential.
The gate works efficiently and is simple to set up, although good sense dictates that placing it in the channel during recording is not always a good idea, in case part of a signal is missed.
The rather dreadful oversight of omitting EQ bypass buttons on the original Sapphyre has been duly rectified with a front panel switch. That said, the particular boost and cut characteristics of the desk's patented EQ means that the boost pots are very firmly grounded. Consequently, when they are centre-detented they are fully 'flat'. This was originally considered to negate the need for an EQ bypass switch, but minds have been changed, and a good thing too.
The EQ section is split in two, with HF/LF and HMF/LMF parts being separately switchable into either audio path. Nice sounding and really quite subtle HF and LF control the 12kHz and 60Hz regions with 15dB of boost or cut. Of note is the LF's asymmetrical curve, which permits dramatic cutting but more gentle boosting, making the job of over-cooking the bottom octave a little more controllable. Pots in the HMF and LMF bands are mounted slightly off perpendicular to the desk surface to ease access, and this is admirable. Plus or minus 15dB is available from 600Hz to 12kHz and 100Hz to 2kHz in peak boost and notch cut responses, which translate into a broadish band boost and a sharper cut EQ curve.
The logic of this is borne out in practice, because if you're using EQ correctively you'll more than likely be wanting to pull out a specific peak defect, while the enhancement of a sound generally requires a more broadband approach — to make something brighter, for example. The Sapphyre's EQ works well and achieved some extremely pleasant results — it's really quite sweet. It does what it does very well, but the two sections combined do not constitute what I would regard as an all-powerful cure-all EQ. If you intend to track-lay on this desk and then mix on it, or take the tape somewhere else, then you are unlikely to be disappointed. However, if you expect a large proportion of your work to be incoming and of the dog's dinner variety, then you may well have to supplement it with some outboard EQ. I suspect that most potential purchasers of the Sapphyre will fall into the first category.
Six auxiliaries are available, with Aux 1 running in stereo and deriving its pan information from the pan pot of the audio path that is feeding it. Auxes 1 and 2 are switchable pre- or post-fader and into either audio path. The remainder are fixed into the monitor path and are post-fader. This lack of switching is bearable, but I missed having mutes on the auxiliaries, which makes the task of sending a single line to a delay unit or changing reverb units for a song's chorus more of a nifty knob-twiddling chore than it should be. Bearing in mind that this desk is aimed at modern production practices, it's an odd omission. However, it is possible using the XFX button (for extra effects) to generate an additional aux feed from a tape send, which could of course be silenced with a mute button, but I can't help feeling this is a long-winded way of performing what is after all a fairly basic function.
The short channel fader is accompanied by routing buttons to the main mix buss and the eight busses of the desk, which are accessed in pairs via four buttons and the channel pan pot. In addition there's the Bounce switch, which routes tape returns back to the desk buss outputs for trackbouncing, the aforementioned XFX switch, and a Fader Reverse switch.
The ability to swap faders between the channel and monitor paths on an in-line console contributes most to the initial confusion that often greets novices who are more familiar with a conventional split desk. Unfortunately, it's also one of the biggest advantages of the in-line system as it sets you thinking about the mix from the outset. While frugal use of LEDs has kept the Sapphyre's price down, perhaps the inclusion of one on each Fader Reverse button would help the learning curve along a bit. Each channel fader has illuminated cut and AFL/PFL (switchable on the master section) buttons, while the monitor fader offers solo-in-place and cut.
The Sapphyre's in-line design gives the user the opportunity to go clean to tape, because the channel input of, say, channel 2 is available at the tape send output of I/O module 2, where it can be sent to track 2 on the multitrack. This means that the total number of tracks that can be fed simultaneously from the desk depends solely on the number of I/O modules you have fitted. Additionally, the desk's 8-buss architecture allows eight grouped outputs to be sent to tape simultaneously, and as mentioned before these are numbered 1 to 8 in repeating blocks across the desk.
Thus a 24-track recorder would be connected to the first 24 channels of the desk, and if a grouped output needed to be recorded on track 20, then the group would be picked up on channel 20 of the desk by depressing its purple Buss button. Channel 20's buss happens to be buss 4 (likewise for channel 4, 12, 28, 36 and 44, if your frame extends that far). So all the group constituents of this example should be panned hard right and routed to buss 4. Of course, pressing the Buss buttons on any of the aforementioned channels would also pick up the same group. Simple really. And if you want to hear what's going to tape on channel 20, you merely have to press the purple Send button on that channel, which allows you to pick up the signal on that I/O module's monitor fader and place it in the stereo mix with the monitor pan pot.
The colour purple is associated with grouping functions on the Sapphyre, as those who have been paying attention would have noticed by now. The I/O module strip is completed by four mute group buttons on the monitor path, which are activated by large illuminated switches located in the master section, plus a green channel active LED and a red overload LED.
"There is very little that cannot be achieved with this desk and it invariably produces stunning results. Its demeanour is one of over-engineered confidence coupled with quiet and clean performance."
Sharing a similar appearance to the LED bargraphs of the Spirit console, metering on the I/O modules follows the monitor path signal clearly with 20 green, orange, and red LEDs.
As an answer to the channel-hungry demands of stereo keyboards and effects units, the Sapphyre can be supplemented by a handful of dual stereo input modules which offer two identical stereo input blocks stacked vertically in a standard I/O module's dimensions. With a short fader on each of the stereo channels, these thoughtfully stripped-down modules offer an extremely efficient means of cramming a great number of inputs into remarkably little space.
A Gain control is provided along with one of Soundcraft's impressive Width controls, and these work alongside fixed 8kHz HE and 60Hz LF equalisers which offer 15dB boost or cut. Stereo Aux 1 is on tap, switchable pre- or post-fader, together with a switchable Aux 2 or 3 send. Assignment buttons route to the eight busses and the main stereo buss, via a balance control. Also included are the four mute group switches, PFL/AFL, cut, a channel active LED and an overload LED.
These dual modules are a real bonus. What's more, they're clean and quiet like the rest of the desk. The only problem is that, given that they're most likely to be driven by synthesizers, gates would perhaps be better placed here than in the monitor paths, where their encounter with a one-inch 24-track with Dolby S is unlikely to work them so hard. But I digress. These modules are marvellous.
Two large, bright VU meters can be switched to follow either the main mix or the current monitor selection, which is permanently displayed on two 20-segment LED bargraphs at the top of the master section. The bargraphs are extremely useful as a highly visible constant reminder of the state of play, which you can't help noticing no matter what. The six auxiliary masters have their own AFL buttons and stereo Aux 1 has a mono switch. The oscillator is routable to the mix or group busses and offers frequencies of 40Hz, 100Hz, 400Hz, 1kHz, 6.4kHz and 10kHz, with a calibrated output pot.
Two buttons allow sectioned allocation of AFL, PFL or Solo status throughout the desk, with AFL/PFL or Solo activity displayed by small but bright LEDs. Thankfully, an AFL/PFL trim pot is provided and a large output level pot, with a Dim switch, oversees the proceedings, which can be monitored in mono or through an alternative set of speakers. Two 2-track monitor sources are selectable alongside the main mix and these can be fed into what amounts to an extremely concise and flexible foldback section. This takes its feed from Aux 1 and 2 as well as the main monitor source, and has its own large level pot, AFL and Cut button. Talkback, via a built-in mic, can be routed to Aux 1 and 2, the groups, and the main mix.
At the bottom of the master section, next to the long-throw main output fader, are the four large illuminated master mute group buttons. Although somewhat spartan in number compared to competing designs, four mute groups can be used creatively — particularly if mixing in sections. Alternatively, they can be used for rudimentary configuration of the desk for particular tasks.
Two power supplies are used. These high quality units have rocker switches and power indicators on the front, and are connected by long locking multipin umbilical cords to the back of the desk. It's here that you'll also tape level switches for operation with -10dB or +4dB machinery.
I/O modules have XLR inputs with balanced jack line inputs, ground compensated insert send and balanced return on jack, and balanced tape send and returns on jacks. Dual stereo input modules have balanced jack connectors for each half of each channel's stereo input. The main stereo outputs are on balanced XLRs and these are supplemented by balanced jack Aux outputs. A jackbay is also available for the Sapphyre.
There is very little that cannot be achieved with this desk and it invariably produces stunning results. Its demeanour is one of over-engineered confidence coupled with quiet and clean performance. The quality of components is exceptional and the build quality would shame some desks costing a good deal more. Once the operational details have been mastered, and in honesty the principles are simple and well tested, the Sapphyre is a very fast desk on which to work. Most routings are no more than a few button-pushes away.
Sapphyre is so obviously orientated towards modern production sources and outboard equipment that the inclusion of a simple but powerful foldback section may not even be required by a lot of users. The EQ is adequate, effective, and errs on the side of subtlety, which is never a bad thing. It will do justice to any sound source and I fully expect to see the Sapphyre as widely placed in 'tapeless' post-production facilities as some of its less expensive brethren have become. For the producer or musician who is putting together a private studio package, Sapphyre would be a natural mate for any of the new one-inch 24-tracks with Dolby S or a cheap two-inch machine. Adding value with something like Audio Kinetics' Reflex automation would make this a very serious proposition.
I like this desk an awful lot, even though I am conscious of having given it a bit of a 'going over' in this review. That's because I found the lack of a few extras a touch frustrating — but then I don't know the finer details of Soundcraft's balancing sums on this project. However, we must wonder what we can expect from a desk that starts at £12,000, particularly as we are now seeing some real breakthroughs in price/features/performance a good deal further up-market from this desk. Maybe it's still too early. What cannot be challenged is the Sapphyre's sheer quality, and this alone should certainly separate it from down-market rivals should anyone be tempted to try and justify the saving to themselves.
The flexibility and beauty of the design is that it encourages you to do things well and cleanly. Routing is quick and efficient, and I would hazard a guess that you'd reach the mix sooner than you'd expect. The Sapphyre is a delight to use.
Perhaps MIDI muting of some description would have been desirable, but personally it's never been a requisite for me. Fader and mute automation is the full measure. Still, the desk could have been improved by the inclusion of mute switches on the auxiliary sends.
The fact that the Sapphyre is effectively an 8-buss design may be a limitation to some users, although the ability to send direct out to tape means that simultaneous multitrack recording will be limited only by the number of I/O modules fitted. In reality, the number of times simultaneous 24-track (or greater) recording is required in most studios is fairly limited. Indeed, any block track recording with this desk is likely to use the direct outs in preference to bussing, for reasons of good sound practice.
You can do anything with this desk. I get the impression that Soundcraft have put quality and longevity high on their list of priorities, and some of the omissions I have drawn attention to could perhaps have been included if the quality had been compromised. On balance. I'm glad they did what they did. It's a great desk.
From £12,161.25 inc VAT (20 mono input modules + 3 stereo modules, no potchbay).
Soundcraft Electronics, (Contact Details).
Review by Zenon Schoepe
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!