~A tour of the late 70's analog classic from Soundcraft.
If you’ve ever labored on a mix in-the-box, before a computer screen and a pair of reference monitors in a dimly lit room for more than a few hours at a time, you’ve probably been through the mental perplexia of trying to dial in an unattainable mix for a seemingly simple jam that just seems further down the rabbit hole than your sonic arms can reach. If you’ve pocketed every drum and transient to the grid, tried every setting on every plug-in, every level or pan position, added tracks in, muted them, and then subsequently dropped them out, rode all the faders, automated the volume, trimmed the vocal -0.5 dB only to boost it back up and then some, or compressed/limited that erratic snare or bass track into dynamics oblivion; thrown EQ's and multi-band compressors or limiters on the master buss with every setting imaginable, referencing through every type of speaker or headphone you could muster, only to conclude in the final stages that your mix still lacks depth, warmth, or simply that musical feel your core audience finds most accessible, then you’re probably already singing the “In-the-Box Blues.”
When a DAW mix just isn’t cutting it, and the plug-ins have officially hit the digital fan, most mix engineers decide it’s time to get out-of-the-box and into the board. And in this day and age, the average person can neither afford the high-dollar options or find room for the large footprint of a well-engineered desk in their studio, thus conceding to invest in one of the many smaller analog summing mixers out on the market. These mixers take the multiple signals from the track outputs of your DAW (via digital/analog converters), hard-disk recorder, or tape machine, and “sum” or add the continuously fluctuating voltages of each signal together into a stereo bus, often also while providing the end user a means of adjusting levels of individual tracks (via faders or trim pots) or affecting stereo-field orientation (via pan pots). Another important aspect of the summing mixers are their ability to boost your headroom on tracks significantly with relatively little or no distortion, providing a safer option for raising individual volumes without inducing the unwanted clipping you find in DAW mixing/summing applications. Other analog summing mixers have fixed gain without pan options, simply summing the product of your work in-the-box together without introducing extra circuitry into the signal path that could possibly degrade or color the audio in an unwanted fashion granted it was engineered correctly.
While all of these purpose-built, analog summing mixers are fantastic options to bring life and luster back to the cold, sterile mixes you were getting in the box, there’s still something missing that keeps most engineers unwilling to commit. They can’t quite put their finger on it at first. Maybe it’s the lack of knobs or switches to play with, or perhaps it’s the lofty sum they paid to get it into their rack... or maybe, just maybe, it’s because you’re still hovering on the fence between between the lifeless “1's and 0's” or the faders cranked, EQ's blazing, analog glory of a full-tilt, honest-to-God, mixing desk. So why compromise a chunk of your upgrade budget for a small analog summing box that’s only emulating it’s larger counterpart?
Here at Creation Audio Labs, we’ve had a lot of people asking the same question lately. And while our stock response is typically that you need the amazing features, clarity, definition, and superior summing that a super-modified Soundcraft Ghost provides, some people are still hovering in the limbo between remodeling their studio to necessitate the board and finding another option with perhaps fewer bells and whistles and a smaller footprint. Which leads us to the Soundcraft series 200.
The series 200 was originally released in the late 70's, continued with production throughout the 80's, were one of the first boards imported into the US by Soundcraft (manufactured in the UK), and were arguably one of the best sounding board options they ever sold. They were available in 8, 16, 24, and 32 channel versions, and came in several model configurations including the 200, 200SR, 200B, and later, a more updated version of the 200B with sweepable MID's on its EQ. The 200's and 200SR's were pin-3-hot originally, which could pose an issue with more modern signal routing applications, but could either be modded or quickly fixed via some pin-reversing cable adapters. The 200B's were pin-2-hot. All versions of the 200 had 4 auxes and 2 pairs of subgroups (1-2, 3-4) for their main-bussing options. The 200B's were the only ones to feature not only the subgroup bussing but a master L&R buss as well, which honestly made no difference if you were using either the 1-2 or 3-4 group as your master buss.
EQ's on all the 200's feature a 15dB boost/cut at 60Hz (shelving), 250Hz (peak/dip), 5kHz (peak/dip) and 12kHz (shelving). The more premium version of the 200B featured sweepable MID's (semi-parametric LOW-MID & HI-MID) that also has an engageable low-shelf filter switch as well as a switch for bypassing/engaging the EQ's. Now I know what you’re thinking: the EQ's are a little plain. But while the EQ's are a lot simpler, they couldn’t be farther from lackluster as the stripped down EQ is very musical sounding and can be used to provide easy boost or cuts to the main frequency ranges that need it. Albeit something you don’t necessarily need in most “strictly-summing” situations, the options are there to take the guesswork out of your mix one further step before the end of the line and mastering. And practically speaking, sometimes you just need fewer options.
The 200 was also wonderful option back in the day, in-the-studio and especially in live situations, because of the generous amount of headroom on the mic preamps, as was the norm with most Soundcraft boards of the day. The mic preamps were also very neutral sounding, being transformerless, and thus presented a great medium for capturing a source without unwanted coloration. You might find the pres being some of your favorite go-to's when you don’t want to patch in a high-dollar outboard one.
With all of these great pro’s, many engineers were still skeptical of its studio applications due to the noise floor specs. But with the Creation Audio Labs modifications (akin to what you’ll find on our Ghost mod) which include faster, lower-noise, lower-distortion op amps and lower series-resistance electrolytic capacitors, additional caps to decouple the IC's from power more effectively which reduces cross-talk between channels through the power supply, as well as caps to suppress high-frequency oscillations from the faster op amps, the board is brought up to surprisingly better specs all around, making it a fantastic summing option with all the board features you’d hate to leave behind going with one of those outboard analog summing mixers. We even provide upgrades to the power supply to effect an even bigger increase in headroom as well as minimizing noise-floor.
The 16 channel versions were roughly 27” long, the 24 channels 37”, and the 32 channels 48”, making them all very suitable for any smaller control rooms or areas where you’re strapped for space. The 8-channel versions of the 200 even have a frame less than 19 inches wide, which would allow you to even place them in a rack, granted you either place some rack ears on the sides (with it vertically oriented in the rack), or get a sliding shelf unit for your rack that could easily necessitate it.
The only downside to a modded 200 is their lack of direct outputs on anything but the master section. Although this feature is largely unnecessary in most strictly-summing applications, the inserts could very easily be adapted for use as an unbalanced direct out with some custom adapter cables. However, we have developed a compact self-contained TRS jack with output driver that can tap the signal from just about any point along the path, configurable with gain and impedance balancing if desired. As long as room can be found for the ¼” jack, and power provided, it can be added to any audio gear to create an additional output. Each jack added will require about 8mA from the power supply.
There are still a lot of vintage analog boards lying around and collecting dust in the studio closets and storage units of unsuspecting owners. You’ll sometimes find a gem going for as little as $50 (check eBay, Reverb.com, etc.), but the price is deceiving as these sleeping dogs are unequivocal beasts once we wake them from their sonic slumber with Creation Audio Labs hallmark mods and refurb, driving it out of the cave and into outer-space. Once modded, you’ll often find them to be a truer analog summing option, without compromising your ability to track or mix with them, that’s still a much cheaper price-point than most of it’s wannabe counterparts. We’ve had a slew of them flying through the shop lately. And occasionally there may be one available for sale.
Be sure to contact Creation Audio Labs (ph: 615-884-7520, email: info@CreationAudioLabs.com) if you’re interested or have any questions!
Guitarist/performer, songwriter, live sound engineer, audio post production specialist, repair technician, husband, father - these are just a few of the hats resident tech Michael Frazier wears. Michael graduated with a BA in Audio Production in 2009 from the Art Institute of Tennessee - Nashville, and has been working with Creation Audio Labs in their console maintenance/modification department since then, apart from his work at Gibson guitars from 2012-2015