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This article was originally published in issue #44
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Soundcraft is one of the world's 'go to' brands for hard working mixers. But times change and the competition is fierce. The company has a lot riding on its new series. So will the Signature make its mark?
The Soundcraft name is one of the more iconic in the history of British mixing console manufacturing. In the 1970s, the semi-legendary Series 1 (a live console built into its own flightcase) established the company as one that knew what its customers needed before even they knew. Building on that approach over the last 40-odd years, successive generations of Soundcraft consoles (and those of its lower-cost Spirit brand) have delivered supremely practical features, facilities and user interfaces to musicians and engineers worldwide.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the dive to digital consoles at the start of this century, analogue consoles have maintained their popularity with end-users. Over more recent years, an increasing numbers of mixer manufacturers have incorporated multitrack DAW digital interfaces into their analogue offerings, initially on Firewire but, more normally nowadays, on Thunderbolt for high-end applications and USB for those of us with less-rarefied budgets. Having a multitrack DAW recording/playback interface in an analogue console means not only that you can record at home in the digital domain and (if you prefer to) mix in the analogue world, but also means that you can mix and record your live gigs, incorporate DAW plug-in-based processing live and even run band-free soundchecks – which can make both FOH engineer and band very happy indeed!
Soundcraft’s latest consoles are the members of the Signature series, a range of crossover live sound/recording analogue consoles in 10, 12, 16 and 22 input formats, the last three of which are also available with built-in multitrack USB recording interfaces, designated by an MTK suffix in their respective model numbers. These MTK consoles have entered the currently quite competitive market where live consoles (both analogue and digital) meet DAWs. However, thanks not only to Soundcraft’s heritage electronic designs, but also to the technologies that the company has access to from being part of the Harman Group, the Signature Series MTK consoles – including the Signature MTK being reviewed here – come loaded with a selection of useful enhancements from stablemates dbx and Lexicon.
The first thing that you’ll notice is the 12MTK’s distinctive profile that allows the mains input to be placed underneath the console. This leaves the back panel free and, coupled with the console’s diminutive dimensions and all controls and connectors being on the top panel, means that the 12MTK can be fitted into quite a small space, which can be very convenient on a crowded desktop or in the restricted confines of a club installation.
Being a Soundcraft, the 12MTK is built like a tank and its channels are clearly laid out with the control configuration mirroring the signal path in the circuit boards below. The 12MTK has a total of 12 inputs (hence its name) that are configured as six mono microphone/line channels, two channels that can accept either mono microphone or stereo line inputs and a final two RCA phono inputs – giving you 12 inputs in total. All 12 inputs, plus the LR outputs from the stereo main mix are permanently routed to the built-in 14 Out/12 In DAW Interface, with all channel outputs being returned to their respective channels via the individual channels’ USB RTN switches. The stereo mix being sent to the DAW is not returned directly, but could (for example) be routed inside the DAW to another pair of outputs – 7/8, 9/10 or 11/12 – for playback of a completed mix through those channels on the 12 MTK.
All XLR microphone inputs can be supplied with globally-switchable phantom power, and feed Soundcraft’s renowned Ghost mic pre-amps, which deliver high headroom, wide dynamic range, high resolution and clarity, coupled with a very impressive signal-to-noise ratio. On Channels 1 and 2, these pre-amps are followed by switchable one-knob dbx limiters (high ratio compressors) to keep excessive levels (especially from vocalists) under control. Although these are the only channels so equipped, further along the panel, Channels 5 and 6 feature switchable high impedance (Hi-Z) inputs designed to accept guitars, basses and other instruments.
On all channels (except 11 and 12) 100Hz high pass filters help eliminate handling noise and other low-frequency disturbances, and the three-band Sapphyre Asymmetric 'British' EQ takes care of overall tonal adjustment. Unusually, the Asymmetric Sapphyre EQ, alongside controlling tonality, also works to prevent muddiness and harshness by – in the case of the shelving treble and bass sections – adding a slight boost at the corner frequencies when cutting, and a slight cut when boosting. The sweep midrange also plays its part by widening the bandwidth when boosting and narrowing it when cutting which, alongside the varying shelving response, ensures that the resulting tonal modification retains its overall musicality.
The 12MTK’s aux and channel routing shows its GB Console ancestry, with pre/post switching and individual outputs on the three aux busses, plus flexible routing to, and dedicated outputs for, the two subgroups. Aux 3 routes both to its own output and to the input of the 12 MTK’s selection of 22 Lexicon effects, each of which has two adjustable parameters that you can tweak to get just the effect you want. The return from the Lexicon FX feeds the dedicated FX Return channel and routes to Aux 1 and 2 via individual sends and to the main mix through its very own fader. An optional footswitch can be used to mute the FX when required.
The main mix fader controls the level of the main output, and its input source can be switched – by depressing the Interval Mute button – between the 12MTK’s stereo mix bus and inputs 11 and 12 so that you can play interval music either from your computer via the built-in audio interface or from a mp3 player etc. connected to those channels’ RCA inputs. You don’t even have to worry about your player running out of power as the Type A USB socket that sits above the 12 MTK’s meters is there to supply power to such devices and not to fulfil any audio functions.
A Type B USB socket positioned just below the RCA connectors for channels 11 and 12, provides the I/O connection from the 12 MTK’s built-in audio interface to your DAW on PC (Windows 7 and above), Mac (OS 10.7 and above) and iPAD (with Camera Connection Kit). Using the console with a PC requires the installation of Soundcraft Multichannel Audio Drivers (WDM and ASIO), and these are available from the Soundcraft website. Once you’ve got these installed you’ll have the ability to insert (as long as your computing platform supports them) any VST/AU/AAX/TDM/RTAS plug-in into any input channel. To get you started, the 12MTK is accompanied by free downloads of the Lexicon MPX-L plug-in and Ableton Live 9 Lite.
Despite the complexity of which it is capable, as a console the Soundcraft Signature 12MTK is extremely intuitive to use. Everything works as you’d expect and good results are easily obtained. The two input channel limiters do their job effectively and, used carefully, can stop peaks in the signal causing distortion in the audio interface and/or further down the signal path without causing adverse effects – unless you deliberately mash them against their end stops.
Although I hadn’t come across the Sapphyre Asymmetric EQ before, I was very impressed by the way in which it operates and, used judiciously, it can produce extremely musical results without introducing unwanted artefacts.
The built-in audio interface works seamlessly. A dedicated Signature MTK recording guide on the Soundcraft website not only walks you through the entire PC driver installation process (Macs and iPads just work – as they always do (Oh yeah? Ed)) and also includes set-up instructions for Reaper, Logic and Ableton Live 9 Lite. Once the drivers are installed, you can use the outputs from the 12MTK – which are taken straight from the output of the Ghost pre-amps - as sources for your DAW, insert whatever plug-ins you want and, as well as recording them, you can, by switching the relevant channels on the 12MTK to USB Return, use the effected channels in your live mix. If you play with backing tracks to get additional instrumentation – as many bands do these days – you could output those from your DAW to the stereo USB returns on channels 7/8, 9/10 and 11/12 on the 12MTK, or even output three stereo stems of backing tracks and mix those live with the remaining five mono mic/line channels – and enhance everything with the on-board Lexicon FX … pretty neat!
The Soundcraft Signature 12 MTK is one of those consoles that could easily become the heart of your live and recording set-up. To my mind, not only is it comprehensively equipped with usefully flexible routing, a musical EQ, really great FX and an excellent audio interface, but also it is – despite its complexity - easy and intuitive to operate.
If you’re in the market for a new compact console that is going to be used in both live and recording environments, then the Soundcraft Signature 12 MTK should be high on your audition list - you certainly won’t be disappointed and, at its price, your bank manager will be happy.