Spirit by Soundcraft's sub-£1000 Folio range has been one of the mixer success stories of the past few years, with Folio after Folio seemingly offering more facilities for around the same price. The new F1 follows this honourable tradition: it's a 2-buss mixer available in two versions (with either 14 or 16 inputs -- the 16-input version is under scrutiny here), and the cheaper of these costs only £30 more than the original 10-input Folio did on its introduction (see SOS February '93).
Over time, a group of long-term Folio users has been sending their thoughts on the range back to the manufacturers, and several of the most common suggestions have been incorporated into the design of the F1. The most obvious of these improvements are the full-size, long-throw 100mm faders which give it its name (F1 is short for 'Fader 100', apparently), and of which more shortly. Like the more expensive Folio SX (reviewed in SOS July '96), the F1 has also benefited from Spirit's new surfacemount circuit board technology, which has been instrumental in allowing Spirit to cram extra features into both the SX and F1 designs without having to significantly widen the physical size of these mixers. Overall, the F1 shares many of the facilities found in the SX, but has fewer channel inputs, and does without the sub-buss routing facility and the dedicated direct outputs on channels 1 to 8.
What you're left with is eight mono line/mic channels (or six on the 14-input version), each with high and low shelving filters and a sweepable mid EQ, two stereo channels (with just the shelving filters and no insert points), two extra stereo inputs (with gain controls only), two track return inputs, and, finally, those long-throw left and right mix output faders. Whilst the MIDI module/ sequencing user might not use the faders much, having the extended fader travel to do a quality 'real-time' fade in and out is a real plus point. The faders all felt spot-on in a two-handed 'active mix' (ie. one with lots of ever-changing and unpredictable source signals!), and there is plenty of space between each channel, so your fingers fall comfortably on each fader.
The noise figures for this mixer are impressive, both on paper and in practice, with more-than-acceptable hiss levels when the mic gain is cranked to its full 60dB. This maximum boost is going to be absolutely fine for all but a handful of ribbon mics with weedy output levels -- certainly Spirit's trademarked UltraMic preamp circuitry did a fine job on a selection of my moving-coil and electrostatic mics. Power to these was supplied by switchable global 48V phantom power, which is available on all the mic channels. Newcomers to phantom power need not fear -- the F1's excellent user guide is quick to warn about the potential problems of sending phantom power to unbalanced microphones. The mic and line inputs are wired in parallel, so it makes sense to remove any source you're not using from a channel. I often don't, and find that my moving-coil mike has had a nervous breakdown and become a miniature loudspeaker being fed from the tandem line input!
Two pairs of phono sockets at the top of the stereo channels give you two additional stereo inputs. As mentioned earlier, you only have level control over these (there's no EQ or aux sends), but they are ideal as returns from a signal processing device, as they go to the main mix output.
Two phonos close to the main output balanced XLR sockets are intended for the 2-track return from the device you are mastering on (eg. cassette, CD or DAT) and a Mix/2Trk button allows you to choose whether you monitor the mix going to the mastering device or the signal returning from it. A level control is close to hand, and has a generous amount of gain in case you bring a low-level source in through this input. There's also a 2Trk To Mix button, which could be useful for quickly getting a pre-recorded DAT backing track up onto a mix ready for overlaying with more sounds.
Each channel on the F1 has a 100Hz 18dB/octave filter to eliminate rumble, and the EQ section provides you with a very usable palette of tone controls. The High and Low shelving filters boost or cut up to 15dB at 12kHz and 60Hz respectively, while the mid EQ offers 15dBs of cut or boost anywhere between 240Hz and 6kHz, with a fixed Q value of 1.5. I found that on most occasions I didn't have to move the cut/boost control far to achieve the desired audible effect, and using these controls to their full extent allowed any sound to be drastically altered (and not always for the better in artistic terms). This brings me to the fact that there are no EQ bypass buttons on the channel strips. Whilst I realise that these would add to the cost, anyone involved in mixing relies on bypass facilities a lot; it is very easy for our brains to lock onto a sound that has been radically altered by EQ and then take this as the definitive, improved product. It's only by comparing with your starting point that 'successful EQ' can be assessed, and the absence of an EQ bypass button makes this tricky. The embossed, boldly-coloured legending on the EQ, pan and aux send controls works well, and should help people to mix even in the darkest of corners. The tapered shape of the knobs and the generous distance between all the controls and faders also helps to keep mixing a stress-free zone!
The pre-fade facility for each channel is at the bottom of the channel strip, to the left of each fader. Anything pre-faded gets put onto the monitor buss, headphones and meters, replacing the selected monitor source (Mix or 2Trk). A little LED close to the 10-section level meters alerts you to this fact, just in case your ears have stopped working. I suppose it would have been nice to have illuminated 'PFL active' on each channel to help you track down any rogue button presses, but once again, the price of this unit precludes such a luxury. Incidentally, inserting headphones into the phones jack cuts the monitor outputs, which could be a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view!
The eight mono channels and the two stereo channels have On buttons that mute all outputs from the channel (except the insert output) when raised -- these switches have to be depressed before you hear any signal from a channel. It's good to see where these buttons are located -- at the top end of the fader travel there's little chance of accidentally removing something from the mix as you move the fader!
The Mono Sum is a bonus output which was also apparently incorporated at the request of long-term Folio users. Fed from a dedicated rotary control, the Mono Sum signal emerges via an impedance-balanced "A"-gauge jack socket. This mono output from the desk could be useful in live contexts, for example to feed a waiting area for the next band due to play, or, in a theatre, for the actors needed in the next scene of a play, so they can hear what's happening on stage. A church induction loop (hearing aid system) could also benefit from this facility.
There are three aux sends that offer sensible alternatives in terms of where they take their sound feed: aux 1 is fixed pre-fade, and aux 3 is permanently post-fade, whereas aux 2 allows you to choose either pre- or post-fader send courtesy of a global master switch (but you can't have a mixture of both). Each aux send buss has its own AFL soloing and master level controls. Again, the excellent F1 manual gives suggestions to the beginner about which configuration to use to achieve a specific purpose. The desk certainly allows you to drive a couple of external signal processing devices such as reverb and echo, whilst also providing a separate dedicated foldback or monitor mix to a performer or audience. When the aux sends are fully off, I couldn't hear any residue of sound leaking through, which certainly ties up with the F1 spec's quoted 'aux sends pots offness' figure of less than 89dB. The aux sends are muted with the other channel outputs when the On switch for a given channel is released.
The Spirit Folio F1 mixer is definitely a chip off the old Soundcraft block -- it oozes value for money and audio quality, and comes in a compact, accessible package. As I've suggested here, anybody embarking on a flirtation with sound, whether it be in a home studio setup, amateur dramatics, live music or sound reinforcement at venues, will find the F1 an excellent tool. The beginner will also find much to cheer in the superb manual, which gives clear illustrations of how to integrate the desk with other equipment -- and then there's that wiring guide (see the 'Wire Intelligence' box). I really like this level of commitment by manufacturers -- it's obvious that Spirit are very keen to make using a piece of their equipment as straightforward and hassle-free as possible. Of course, in this case it does indicate where some of Spirit's target purchasers are -- ie. those starting out on their recording and mixing careers. However, this isn't to say that only a beginner would find a use for the F1. The facilities bristling all over it make it ideal for the experienced user too, who will be able to scan the features and get up and running straight away (incidentally, the F1 is so light that running with one in each hand and two tucked under the arms is feasible!).
Several friends and colleagues witnessed me tinkering with the F1, and commented on how they would like to use it for radio outside broadcasts, or as a sub-mixer for a large band setup. I think this is the strength of this mixer -- it might start off as the centre of a modest home studio setup, but its quality and facilities mean that it will continue to prove useful as your system grows. I can't imagine anybody glowering at an F1 in the corner of a studio thinking, "I've outgrown you, you sound cheap, I need to upgrade..." With the F1's no-nonsense, high-quality, good-value features, you'll simply find another application for this mixer if your sound requirements change.
Paul Hedges is a lecturer in audio operations at The Centre for Broadcast Skills Training at BBC Wood Norton. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and are not necessarily those of his employer.
Paul White noted the recent improvement in build quality in the Folio range in his SX review, and this has been maintained for the F1. The mono channel faders felt unhindered and uniform in their travel, with slightly more friction noticeable on the stereo channel faders, while the pots were all firm to the touch and furnished with centre detents where appropriate. A quick look inside the desk showed that the main surfacemount circuit board was screwed firmly in position at several points, which minimises the risk of warping. The only point of note concerns the moulded catch which keeps the power cable in place -- it's of reasonable quality, but it wouldn't offer up much resistance to a good sharp tug.
Mic Input Impedance 1.8k (omega)
Line Input Impedance 10k (omega)
Stereo Input Impedance (unbalanced phono) 12k(omega)
Stereo Input Impedance (balanced jack) 10k (omega)
Aux Sends & Inserts 75(omega)
Mic Input max. level +22dBu
Line Input max. level greater than 30dBu
Stereo Input max. level greater than 30dBu
Headphones (into 200(omega)) 150mW
Frequency Response (any input to any output, 20Hz to 30kHz) less than 1dB
THD at 1kHz (+20dB at all outputs) less than 0.006%
Mic EIN (max gain, 20Hz to 20kHz bandwidth,150 (omega) source impedance) -129dBu
Channel noise (auxs, mix and masters at max, 10 inputs routed, faders/pots down) better than 85dBu
The position of the EQ in the F1's sound chain in relation to the insert point is evidence of a well thought-out desk: the inserts on the mono channels are after the gain control and filter but before the EQ strip. This means that you can use the F1 to feed a multitrack device by sending the channel signal on the tip of a TRS 3-pole "A"-type jack to the record input, and taking the output of the multitrack machine back into the channel on the ring of the aforementioned jack. Very neat, and, of course, any EQ you apply is not on the recording but on the monitor mix. Don't worry if your eyes glaze over at the mention of 3-pole "A"-type jacks, and you quake at the thought of making up leads to perform these tasks, as the manual includes a truly excellent wiring guide that takes account of almost every cable wiring permutation I can think of.
Sensibly thought-out features and facilities.
Excellent user guide.
Eminently useful for a range of applications.
Great value for money.
No EQ Bypass button.
An excellent desk that is equally at home at the heart of a beginner's setup or as a sub-mixing facility in a more complex audio arrangement. It would also be the ideal companion in a church hall or amateur dramatics venue, where cost and ease of use are paramount.
£ 14:2 version £382; 16:2 version £452.
A Spirit by Soundcraft, Cranborne House, Cranborne Industrial Estate, Cranborne Road, Potters Bar, Herts, EN6 3JN.
T 01707 665000.
F 01707 665461.