Soundcraft Ghost

8-buss Automated Mixing Console

Published in SOS October 1996
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Reviews : Mixer

After months of curiosity-arousing, X-Files-style advertising, Soundcraft's Ghost is here, offering the project studio owner automated 8-buss mixing at a highly competitive price. DAVID MELLOR deliberately avoids all jokes about transparent EQ and haunting sound quality...

 

When manufacturers first started to design consoles for the home and project studio market, they didn't seem to know how to make the equipment affordable enough without cutting corners. They threw out important features, loaded up the compromises -- and then wasted all these savings by using clumsy, labour-intensive manufacturing techniques. We ended up with minimalised desks that didn't really perform as well as we wanted them to. But bit by bit, low-cost manufacturing techniques improved, and the features we need have returned -- and more have been added besides. We asked for more, and we have got it. Enter Soundcraft's Ghost. I doubt such sound and build quality, and well-directed facilities have ever been available before at such a canny price.

THERE'S NO SUCH THING!

When reviewing a desk with a name like this one, from the company which is also responsible for the Spirit range of mixers, there's an overwhelming temptation to indulge in a tirade of ectoplasmic puns -- but that would be to divert your attention from what is actually a very serious, 8-buss mixing console. Available in both 24- and 32-channel frame sizes, and with the option of a 24-input expander module, the in-line Ghost is currently available in two different versions, depending on your automation requirements, or lack thereof: the straightforward, manual mixer with no automation (the so-called Ghost Le), and a version with mute automation and machine control (as reviewed here).

Despite the name, this console has few insubstantial qualities. I can see that it has been aimed at the top end of the home project studio market -- there's nothing cut-down, cut-price, or anything less than professional about the look, feel and sound quality of the Ghost -- and for those in this bracket aiming to sell studio time, the appearance of the console is very important.

This is a traditional analogue desk, and whereas digital recorders have certain sound quality advantages over analogue tape, in terms of low noise and low distortion, even the top-end digital mixers are still hard pushed to rival the dynamic range and headroom of analogue mixers. In addition, there is no learning curve with a 'traditional' analogue console -- you just sit down and start mixing. There is one knob or button per function -- no menus, no shift keys.

CONSTRUCTION & CONNECTORS

The construction quality of the Ghost, given its price, is impressive. Soundcraft have made a sensible compromise between a non-modular construction (which means that if a single channel fails, the whole console has to be taken out of service for repair), and fully modular construction, which, at the extreme, is frighteningly expensive, due to the more complex metalwork and robust connectors that are necessary. If a channel on the Ghost gives up the, er, ghost, then apparently the console can be disassembled (though even the technical manual doesn't explain how), and the circuit board replaced or serviced.

In common with other budget-conscious consoles, the connectors are on the top panel, which is downright ugly, as well as an open invitation to meddlers. I think Soundcraft will sell the optional meter bridge with just about every Ghost ordered -- and a lot of people may only use it to hide the connectors! Perhaps they could also consider selling a non-functioning version for 50 quid? But seriously, in the past it was considered very important to be able to meter directly from the console, rather than having to turn elsewhere to look. Nowadays, the unforgiving nature of digital recorders means that it is natural to look on the recorder's own meters as the primary, most accurate reference, and meters on the console -- even for the stereo output -- have become more or less redundant for many. Perhaps the next development in consoles will be ADAT, TDIF or other digital inputs to drive the meters directly, with absolute accuracy, from the digital output of the multitrack? If anyone's working on this, AES/EBU and S/PDIF connectors would be nice too, please.

The Ghost's input and output connections are on conventional TRS jacks, with XLRs for the mic inputs. The main outputs are ground-compensated, which in theory makes them compatible with both balanced and unbalanced inputs. Conventional electronically-balanced outputs need different wiring according to whether they are connected to a balanced or unbalanced input, which is inconvenient in the studio. The Ghost's inputs are all balanced, apart from the insert points, where the connector configuration does not permit it. In addition to the audio inputs and outputs, this console (but not the Le manual version) has a trio of MIDI sockets, and a timecode input and output, so there is rather more going on than simple mixing, as we shall see. But first, let's have a quick run down the channel strip -- the pic on page 116 should help.

CHANNEL FEATURES

A screaming vocalist into a high output-level mic? No problem for the Ghost, which will accept an input signal of up to +14dBu. When you consider that 8dBu is usually considered peak level (allowing for headroom) for line-level equipment, you realise you shouldn't have any distortion problems here. There is a phantom power switch for each mic input, and a switch for line input, plus further switches for phase and a high-pass filter. The last of these has a cutoff frequency of 100Hz, and a slope of 18dB/octave, which is useful for cutting off the very low end of a bass boost applied with the EQ section proper. The filter is, of course, also useful for removing the standard problems of microphone pops and the results of vocalists kicking the mic stand during the best take!

Since this is an in-line console, the tape input appears in the channel strip, and there is a useful tape trim control. This comes in handy if you are using a particular sound very low in the mix, but you still want precise control over it on the fader. Just set the tape trim to a low value, and you will be able to operate the fader in a higher position. Tape trim is also useful when you have recorded a track at too low a level! A reverse button ('flip' on some other consoles) swaps the channel and monitor signal paths for mixdown. The insert point is pre-EQ, which is good for gating and not so good for compression, but you can always compress via the group insert point going onto tape. Every channel has an output to send signal to the multitrack, so the Ghost can handle as many tracks as it has channels. This output can be switched as a direct output from the channel, or routed through to the groups.

So far, everything is OK, but not exciting. The EQ section is where things hot up, almost literally. We have been asking for more, and Soundcraft have given it to us in the form of a 4-band EQ with two fully parametric mids. Fully parametric means that for each section, there are three controls, for gain, frequency and Q, Q being the sharpness of the filter. Generally speaking, a lowish Q (0.3 is low) is more useful musically, and a high Q (6 is fairly high) is good for picking out single instruments in a mix signal, or for correcting problems with the sound, such as mains hum. The Ghost's Q ranges from 0.7 to 6. I don't feel 0.7 is quite low enough to satisfy everyone, but this is a fairly minor point. A Q of 6 is about what you would get from a guitarist's wah-wah pedal, and I had a lot of fun simulating this effect on a track I was working on, by setting maximum Q and sweeping the frequency control rapidly up and down. I ended up with a sore wrist and the feeling that the controls were just a tiny bit too close together -- but it was fun! Two mid sections like these are just what we need in a cost-conscious mixing console, but the high and low sections are quite standard filters at 60Hz and 12kHz, providing up to 12dB of boost or cut. Judging from the graphs in the manual, and what I can hear, these filters seem to have a gentle slope, which helps make them musical, but by the same token, it makes them less incisive in difficult situations.

Since this is an in-line console, the high and low sections can be split off into the multitrack monitor signal path. Quite often, the monitor mix can benefit from a little bit of EQ to make it sound more like you know the final mix should. Also, when the monitor inputs are used as extra signal paths into the mix during mixdown, the versatility of being able to allocate your EQ resources as you wish, although not unusual, is certainly valuable. Finally in the EQ section, I'm happy to report that there is an EQ In/Out switch -- something that's missing from too many budget consoles.

The Ghost is very well equipped with auxiliary sends; there's a total of 10 busses grouped as six mono and two stereo pairs. On each channel, you have to select whether to use busses 3 and 4, or 5 and 6, but that's fair. The way you handle foldback on the Ghost is unusual, and I'm not sure it suits my own way of working. Stereo foldback to musicians in the studio can be derived from three sources: the mixed stereo output (independent of the solo buttons), the monitor mix (Mix B), and Aux 1 (left) and 2 (right) -- and these three sources can be mixed together. Although this offers a certain degree of flexibility, I don't think it is an ideal arrangement. For example, if you want to use the aux sends for foldback, you have to use both Aux 1 and Aux 2, otherwise the signal will only come out of one earpiece -- unless you set up your headphone feeds to give you the same (mono) signal in each ear.

There are, actually, two foldback output sections in the console, but the fact that they have the same signal source options means that they are not as independent as they should be. I don't doubt there are workarounds, and that most engineers will find a method of using foldback that suits them, but I feel that a rethink is necessary here. I would also have liked to see at least one of the four effects returns route directly to the foldback for setting up quick and easy reverb in the headphones, which you can't do at present.

Moving on past the monitor section, which has level, pan, cut and pre-fade listen (PFL) in addition to the EQ and aux options mentioned earlier, we come to the fader section. The faders are nice and smooth for this class of console, and the solo and cut buttons are illuminated, which is an excellent feature. A Signal Present LED informs you when a channel has a signal at the input (great for live work), and a multi-point peak detector tells you whether the signal is approaching distortion at any point in the channel. Curiously, this LED will light if an extreme EQ boost is set but the EQ is switched out, so I assume it is connected to the EQ output. Perhaps it's good policy anyway to prevent distortion products buzzing around the console, even if they are not in the direct signal path.

Over on the output side, just to give you some brief information, the eight groups can be subgrouped to the masters either in mono or stereo (odd numbers for the left, even for the right). There are four stereo effects returns, with level and balance controls, PFL, and routing to all groups and masters. All the auxes have master level controls, of course, and PFL. The oscillator offers frequencies of 1kHz and 10kHz (what happened to 100Hz for analogue fans?). Talkback can be routed to tape, to the studio or to Aux 1 and 2. All that is pretty standard, but there's also a level control for PFL and a warning LED for Solo In Place (SIP) -- both welcome after working with limited budget consoles (see the 'Solo In Place' box for more information). Also welcome are the four mixable control room monitor sources -- channel and monitor mixes plus two stereo sources. The control room output has a button for an alternate set of power amp and speakers, and there's the essential mono-check button, which won't cure your stereo phase problems, but will at least let you know when you have them!

AUTOMATION & MACHINE CONTROL

This is the aspect of the Ghost that many people reading this review will find particularly interesting. Taking the machine control first, this is definitely a pro feature -- the mighty SSL company was virtually built on it. Having machine control incorporated into the console means that you don't have to mess about with the controls on the multitrack itself, or have an autolocator box lurking inconveniently around the mix position -- you can do everything, in theory, from the mixer. Soundcraft have taken advantage of MIDI Machine Control (MMC), which is rapidly gaining ground in audio circles at all levels of professionalism. Having said that, on some products, MMC just isn't implemented in a well-thought-out way. How about the sequencer, where once you activate MMC, you can only record on the multitrack, and not on the sequencer (which is precisely what you would most want to do)? Oh well, it's a learning curve for manufacturers too.

I was able to use the Ghost's machine control with both my Fostex RD8, and ADAT plus BRC. First of all, I had to hook up two MIDI cables between the multitrack and the console, and also a third cable for timecode (this machine stripes its own timecode, but the Ghost has a timecode generator, should you need it). I followed the instructions carefully, and set the machine type from a longer list of machines than I would have expected (including Alesis ADAT with AI-2 or BRC, Tascam DA88, and Sony 9-pin for video machines) -- and then I was ready to go. If I point out what actually happened in my situation, bear in mind that with other multitracks, you might get different results. I found that I was certainly able to play, wind and record as normal, and I could see the timecode coming back from the machine in the Ghost's display (even in fast wind, since the RD8 can throw out timecode when winding). I could arm tracks (the Ghost can control the arming of up to 48 tracks!) and drop in and out of record. However, the one thing I couldn't do was shuttle with audio. If you have a hard disk-based multitrack, you should be able to use the Ghost's scrub wheel, but do check out features that you think will be important to you. The Ghost has four locate positions, which can, like other data, be stored via MIDI dump (unfortunately, there is no floppy disk drive). A 4-position locator doesn't sound like much, but it's certainly enough for me -- I have 100 positions available on my RD8 and I never use more than two! My own eventual conclusion, based more on hands-on use than analysis, was that I was better off with the RD8's remote. You might feel differently, and since the Ghost has a port to attach a PC for software updates, a lot more might become possible.

The Ghost's mute automation is quite easy to use, even without the manual. To perform simple manual mute grouping, all you do is set up the mutes on the faders, then allocate that setting to one of the four buttons. That setting will be recalled simply by pressing the button. If you want to go further, up to 128 mute snapshots can be set up and automated against timecode. This isn't actually what you would call mute automation (which works on an individual channel basis), but it is certainly extremely useful, if slightly more complicated to set up than the mute groups. Full mute automation is available if you use a MIDI sequencer -- the mute on/mute off messages are then transmitted as MIDI Note On and Note Off messages. Ease of mute information editing, therefore, depends on which sequencer you're using -- and some sequencers also have a limit on the note lengths they can record, which could pose a problem. Finally, for committed MIDI users, four of the group faders can be designated as MIDI controllers. This is great, but of course you lose four group faders, so maybe separate MIDI faders would have made more sense.

VERDICT

Of the consoles I've looked at recently, the Soundcraft Ghost has come closest to replacing my 1988 vintage crosstalk generator -- sorry, mixer -- and I think that it is only my finickiness about the buttons around the Ghost's faders that might put me off. I found the sound quality and overall usability of the Ghost to be excellent, and superb value for money. What's more, people don't come to my studio any more and say, "Where's the mixer?". They know a professional piece of kit when they see it. 'Nuff said!

 

FEELING SOLO: A WORD ON SOLO IN PLACE

Solo In Place, or SIP, is regarded as a professional feature, because it completely destroys your recording or mix if you use it at the wrong time! The Ghost has a button to select SIP or conventional PFL (Pre-Fade Listen). SIP works by killing all the other channels apart from those on which you press the solo button, allowing you to audition them at their fader and pan settings.

Upmarket consoles often have a Solo Safe button on each channel, which means they are protected from the effect of SIPing another channel. This is useful for channels which are used as effects returns. Of course, this means having an extra button, which, at the Ghost's price point, is probably unfeasible at present. As a workable compromise, all of the Ghost's effects returns are always solo safe. If you wanted to EQ your reverb returns by bringing them back through channels, you would have to SIP them at the same time as you SIPed any other channel using that effect.

 

SMALL THINGS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE: KNOB DESIGN

It may seem like a small point, but I think Soundcraft have designed the perfect knob. It has a distinctive pointer that extends all the way from the top of the knob to the bottom. This means that it is visible from whatever angle you look at the knob, and you can check precise settings without having to consider parallax. The gently curved surface of the knob is also perfect for marking with a wax pencil, which is useful for live work, or for 'Chinagraph' mix automation.

I was a little irritated that the colour of the aux sends is very similar to the EQ level controls, meaning that I often grabbed the LF EQ when I wanted to adjust the reverb. However, the solution was simple -- I just pulled off the white Q knobs and swapped them for the grey LF EQ level controls on all the channels!

 

MOAN & WHINGE CORNER

I like to get my moans over in one go, because it's very boring and no-one likes a moaner. But if I tell you what I think the worst points are about this console, and you think, "Well, I can put up with those", then surely you will know that the rest of it is OK. For me, the Ghost's most annoying feature is the location of the routing, Cut and Solo buttons alongside the faders. A mixing console to me is a musical instrument, and if someone said I had to put up with a load of buttons in between the keys of my piano I certainly know what I would say back to them! Look at any top pro console, and you will see that the faders are either completely clear, or that only the low-profile automation buttons occupy the same space. Mixing is a process requiring care and precision, and clutter should be kept well out of the way. On a purely practical note, many engineers both in live sound and recording mark fader positions with a wax pencil, and the room for manoeuvre here is very limited.

My other major moan is about the noisy external power supply. The only noise I want in my studio is the noise coming out of my speakers -- that's my responsibility! All other studio equipment should be absolutely silent. Designers will insist that if the equipment doesn't have a fan, it will overheat.
This may be true -- but have they explored the limits that can be achieved by convection-cooled heat sinks? Have they tried to design quieter fans and perhaps employ the kind of noise reduction techniques that are used in studio air conditioning? Ticking hard disks are another contentious issue, but I am in no doubt where I stand. The Ghost's power supply cable is about seven metres long, which does facilitate mounting it remotely, but the manual warns against extending the cable further. On a happier note, just as SOS was going to press, we heard that Soundcraft were already working on a replacement PSU after receiving some other comments similar to mine!

My third moan is directed not at the Ghost or Soundcraft per se, but the mixer industry in general, although the point was inspired by one of the Ghost's features: its insert points are wired with the ring of the jack as send and the tip as return. Many mixers now seem to be made this way (rather than having tip as send, which used to be more common), the idea being that you can use the insert point as an additional direct output by plugging in an ordinary jack halfway, rather than having to make up a special cable for the purpose. I'm not sure that I like the idea of plugging connectors only halfway, but since everyone seems to be doing it, we'll all have to get used to it!

 

TOGETHER IN SILENCE: MUTE GROUPS

Mute groups are the unloved, unappreciated and seldom understood feature of a number of mixing consoles. Put simply, mute groups allow you to select a number of channels and assign them to a button so that when this button is pressed, all those channels are muted. Two or four mute groups are common (the Ghost has four). Mute groups are a rudimentary form of automation, since you can carry out many more mute operations during a mix than you could possibly do individually, and you don't have to go to the trouble of programming a sequence of mutes -- you just do it manually as the tape runs.

 

MUTE AUTOMATION

Mute automation does half the work of full automation. If you record real instruments and voices, as opposed to synths and samplers, you will inevitably end up with a lot of rubbish on the multitrack tape -- guitar amp hiss, singers humming and making other strange noises when they are not actually singing, and sundry clicks, thumps and things that go bump in the night. If you are a connoisseur of all things analogue then you'll have tape hiss to contend with as well. Twenty-four tracks of tape hiss mixed together sounds like ocean surf! With mute automation, you can get rid of all these unwanted sounds without having to have lots of noise gates, and without all the time it takes to set these up correctly.

An additional bonus of having mute automation is that it allows you to record more material than you need -- particularly textural parts -- and then mute out the bits that you don't want in the mix. When you have mute automation, and you become accustomed to using it, it is surprising how useful and effective this technique can be.

 

GHOST COSTING: THE PRICES IN FULL

As mentioned elsewhere in this review, the Ghost is available as two different models; the Ghost Le (with no automation), and the automated standard version under review here. Both these models come in either a 24-channel or 32-channel format, resulting in complex pricing arrangements. All prices given here include VAT, and the cost of the power supply.

GHOST Le

• 24-channel version £3877.50.

• 32-channel version £4700.

STANDARD GHOST

• 24-channel version £4465.

• 32-channel version £5287.50.

OPTIONAL ACCESSORIES

• 24-input expander module £TBA.

• Meter Bridge: 24-channel version £634.50; 32-channel version £740.25.

• Stand: 24-channel version £428.88; 32-channel version £440.63.

 

pros & cons

SOUNDCRAFT GHOST

pros
• No hints of amateurism about this budget-conscious professional console.
• Solo In Place as well as PFL.
• 2-band, fully parametric mid EQ.
• Mute groups and mute snapshot automation -- and full mute automation is possible with a MIDI sequencer.

cons
• Routing, Cut and Solo buttons clutter fader area.• Noisy power supply.
• No pre-fade foldback mix from monitors.
• Meter bridge is an expensive extra.

summary
If you want a console in your studio that looks the part, as well as does the work, then the Soundcraft Ghost is a must-see. As a cost-effective 8-buss console, Ghost wants for nothing.

 

info

£ See the 'Ghost Costing' box.

A Soundcraft Electronics Ltd, Cranborne House, Cranborne Industrial Estate, Cranborne Road, Potters Bar, Herts, EN6 3JN.

T 01707 665000.

F 01707 660482.

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