API The Box

Analogue Console

Published in SOS January 2014
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Reviews : Mixer

How much of API's legendary large-console technology and sound have they managed to pack into this smaller sibling?

When API were formed, at the very end of the 1960s, there was enormous competition in the analogue console market. The ensuing two decades were the age of 'transistorised' equipment, in which the diminutive silicon transistor allowed enormous circuit complexity to be accommodated in very small spaces. The primary benefit for mixing consoles was the ability to cram far more facilities into the design than was possible in the preceding valve era. Hence the emergence of the big multi-channel, feature-packed consoles that we associate with the '70s and '80s. API's approach to audio circuit design revolved around a concept called the 'discrete operational amplifier' module, or 'DOA'. This simple but elegant transistorised gain stage was known as the 2520 (see box), and it formed a basic building block for API's studio consoles. The 2520 DOA is still used to this day in 'API discrete products', and it undoubtedly forms a key part of the legendary sound character for which API have become known.

The Box

Most of the traditional big-console manufacturers now offer digital consoles, but API remain resolutely analogue. They have several large-format analogue consoles in their current product range, including the Vision, the Legacy Plus, and the 1608. The market for big, expensive, analogue consoles is not what it once was, though, and the smaller DAW-based project studios that now dominate the industry have very different requirements. Recognising and addressing this potential market, API have borrowed some ideas and technology from their versatile 1608 consoleAPI The Box to form a new DAW-optimised mixing desk called 'The Box'.

The Box is designed specifically for well-heeled project studios that want to integrate a DAW with a fully-specified, high-end console — but a console which has an appropriate scale and format to suit a project studio's requirements. To that end The Box provides four API mic/line/instrument input channels as the front end; enough for recording solo artists or small ensembles, or for overdubbing. For the 'back end' The Box is equipped with a separate 16-channel summing section, with faders for mixing to the main stereo program bus (it's actually possible to mix 22 channels simultaneously, or 28 with some thoughtful patching). The third important element of the console is the inclusion of a complete monitoring section with comprehensive cue and talkback facilities. All inputs have balanced insert points, and both input and summing sections can access four aux or two artist cue sends, so integrating analogue outboard and effects is very simple. The Box also includes a dual-channel API 527 compressor (see box), which can be assigned either to the stereo mix bus or two of the four input channels, while the first two input channels feature built-in 550A three-band EQ sections. The second two input channels are provided with 500-series module slots, allowing the user to install any desired preamp or processor that comes in single-width 500-series format directly into either of those channels.

Although The Box has a relatively small channel count, especially on the input side, it's still a fully specified console that matches the high technical standards we've come to expect of API. It features the same transformer-coupled 548B multi-input preamps as the 1608, and has a similar, but simplified, console architecture. The four input-channel insert sends and direct outputs, as well as the main stereo-bus inserts and outputs, and the aux and cue outputs, are all transformer balanced, too. The build quality is exemplary; it's no wonder it weighs over 36kg! But before you get too excited, I should tell you this desk's price reflects both this quality and the reputation of the API brand.

Studio Rig

Given the raison d'être of The Box, we decided to try it out on a real-world recording session. The console had been installed in a studio at the University of Westminster, alongside their Amek Angela II console, and I used it to track an interesting live drum & bass group called Imperium, with the help of my SOS colleague Matt Houghton and two staff technicians, Rich Evatt and Sebastian Torres. The band's line-up was unusual, comprising a Roland SPD-S electronic drum pad with real cymbals and additional drum samples triggered from a laptop, electric bass and guitar (both with DAW processing), a stereo backing track, stereo keyboards, another mono sampler, and a female vocalist. The band wanted to get a good recording of them playing this material live, so we agreed to record the whole lot at the same time, though in the end captured a separate vocal overdub to overcome the inherent problem of cymbal spill on the vocal mic — just to keep options open on mixdown.

We used the four mic inputs on the API console for two cymbal overheads (miked with AKG C451s) the vocal (a Microtech Gefell M92.1), and the bass (via a Radial J48 active DI box). The preamp direct outputs were patched into a Pro Tools rig via Prism Sound ADA 8XR converters.

All of the other sources were DI'd using more J48s, and brought up to line level via the preamps in the control room's Amek Angela II console. In theory we could have routed these line sources directly into the API's summing channel inputs, taking PT recording feeds from the inserts, but the studio's wiring infrastructure made it more practical to work as described. So the line-level direct outputs from the Amek console were patched directly into the ADA 8XRs for tracking.

All of the Pro Tools source tracks were routed back via the Prism converters and into the API's 16 summing channels for monitoring and to throw a rough mix together,Different stages in the signal chain have their own patchable I/O — and this means that if you have any 500-series preamps, you can record up to six mic sources at once, as we did on the test sessions.Different stages in the signal chain have their own patchable I/O — and this means that if you have any 500-series preamps, you can record up to six mic sources at once, as we did on the test sessions. the latter also being recorded back into PT as a guide. We also set up a washy reverb (via Waves' Trueverb plug-in), fed from the vocal track, and sent the wet output back to the API for the monitor mix and for the artist headphones. Artist foldback was derived using the console's aux sends, with aux 1/2 providing a 'band mix' and 3/4 providing the vocal and reverb, and these signals were patched into the studio's own headphone monitoring system, which allowed each musician to adjust their own headphone balance.

Input Channels

All four input channels in The Box are equipped with API's 548B preamp, which was debuted in the 1608. This is similar to the company's 212L preamp (which traces its roots right back to the 2488 series console), and uses the same 1:10 input and 1:1 output transformers, as well as the ubiquitous 2520 DOA. This gain stage offers +10 to +45 dB of gain, while the input transformer provides another 20dB. However, whereas the 212L only has a mic input, the 548B also includes a high-impedance instrument input and a balanced line input. Rear-panel connections accept an XLR for the mic input, and TS and TRS plugs for the instrument and line inputs respectively.

User controls comprise four buttons to select phantom power on the mic input, polarity inversion (on mic and line inputs), input pad (-20dB for mic and -6dB for line), and a mic/line selector. The mic input is replaced by the DI input automatically when an instrument is plugged in, but it would have been more convenient had this been switched from the front panel, to avoid having to grub around the back of the desk when wanting to record a guitar DI instead of a mic source. The gain control range is unmarked on the panel, but actually spans +30 to +65 dB in mic mode, +5 to +40 dB for the DI, and unity gain for the line input.

A transformer-coupled channel direct output, accessed via an AES59 (Tascam standard) 25-pin D-sub connector, can be fed straight from the preamp's output, or from after the channel fader if preferred, as selected by a push button on the channel strip. Each channel is provided with an eight-LED bar-graph meter, which can be switched to show the level either at the preamp output or after the fader.

As I mentioned earlier, the first two input channels are equipped with built-in (and slightly re-packaged) 550A EQ modules. These are three-band semi-parametric equalisers with an overall bypass button, and the top and bottom sections are switchable between bell and shelf modes. The proportional-Q design means that the EQ responses narrow as the cut/boost is increased, making them progressively more selective. All three bands are provided with seven centre-frequency options, and ±12dB boost/cut range. A band-pass filter (-3dB at 50Hz and 15kHz) can also be switched in to help control unwanted out-of-band signals.

The signal path gets a little convoluted after the preamp stage, but the benefit is considerable flexibility. The output from the EQ module goes to a transformer-balanced insert send connector (TRS socket), and the signal is normalled through a corresponding TRS balanced return socket, with an 'Insert In' button to switch external devices into circuit as desired. The insert sends from all four input channels are presented alongside the direct outputs on the D-sub connector.

When assigned to a channel, some elaborate switching allows the 527 compressor module to be connected either pre or post the channel insert. This allows the compressor to be patched in to form two possible signal paths: preamp, compressor, EQ, insert send, insert return, fader; or preamp, EQ, insert send, insert return,API The Box compressor, fader.

Input channels three and four are fundamentally the same as one and two, except that, instead of the built-in 550A equalisers, they feature 500-series module slots and the insert arrangements are slightly different. The inclusion of two 500-series slots is a feature borrowed from the 1608 and enables the user to install EQ, dynamics, alternative preamps or any other compatible devices to suit their requirements or preferences.

To maximise the flexibility of the 500-series slots, the transformer-balanced preamp output appears on a back-panel TRS socket labelled, reassuringly, 'preamp out'. This is normalled to another TRS socket labelled 'EQ In', which connects directly with the corresponding channel's 500-series slot input. The slot output is routed back to the insert-send socket, which is normalled to both the D-sub and corresponding insert return. The rest of the signal path is the same as the first two channels, but with this alternative arrangement the compressor switching options create the signal16 channels take a feed from your DAW via the ubiquitous Tascam-format D-sub connectors. Each of these channels has a balanced send and balanced return socket, making it possible to patch in outboard processors or, if you wished, further mic preamps.16 channels take a feed from your DAW via the ubiquitous Tascam-format D-sub connectors. Each of these channels has a balanced send and balanced return socket, making it possible to patch in outboard processors or, if you wished, further mic preamps. paths: preamp, compressor, pre out, EQ in, 500 slot, insert send, insert return, fader; or preamp, pre out, EQ in, 500 slot, insert send, insert return, compressor, fader. This may seem complicated in print but it makes perfect sense in practice, and everything is clearly labelled and explained in the manual.

Although the 500-series slots are intended primarily for EQ or dynamics modules, we decided to install alternative preamps in the slots for this session (a Focusrite Red 1 and an Electrodyne 501), both to test the slots were working as intended, and as a point of comparison with the onboard preamps. We connected the mic signals directly to the 'EQ In' TRS sockets, bypassing the desk's own preamps completely, and recorded the replacement preamps via the post-fader direct outputs, alongside channels one and two. We didn't require more mic preamps for this session, but it struck me later that the console's channel-patching flexibility makes it perfectly possible to record six mic sources simultaneously, if desired. The internal preamp outputs from channels 3/4 can be patched straight to their insert returns to restore the normal channel path, and the 500-series slot inputs and outputs can be accessed directly from the EQ In and Insert Send sockets. Intriguing!

Post-fader

Following the compressor and insert switching, the channel signal path continues to the conductive plastic fader (which has 12dB gain in hand), a switchable high-pass filter (50Hz, first order), a mute switch (above the fader), pan control, and a program bus routing button. Illustrating the high calibre of this console, all of the mix buses are impedance balanced, to minimise crosstalk and noise. The usual pre-/post-fader signals are derived to feed the aux and cue sends, and the pre-fader signal source can be configured via internal links for pre- or post-EQ (The factory setting is post-EQ and post-insert).

Unusually for such a compact console, The Box is very well equipped in its channel monitoring facilities, with channel 'Solo' buttons that can be switched between non-destructive PFL or stereo AFL modes, as well as a destructive solo-in-place (SIP) option. Each channel can access two mono aux sends (1/2) with independent level controls but shared pre/post and on/off switching. Aux sends 3/4 are configured as a stereo send, with a single level control and pan-pot. Again, the pre/post and on/off switching are shared,For a console of this size, the solo facilities are impressive — and not only because of the easily visible solo/mute indicators!For a console of this size, the solo facilities are impressive — and not only because of the easily visible solo/mute indicators! but a third button routes the output onto a stereo cue bus instead of the aux 3/4 buses.

Considering the entire channel signal path, it's worth noting that a mic input signal passes through four transformers, four 2520s, a 2501 and two 2510 gain blocks as it travels between the input XLR and the stereo mix-bus console output. If routed as we did, using the preamp direct outputs to feed a Pro Tools rig and returning via the summing inputs, the count goes up to five transformers, five 2520s, a 2501 and three 2510 gain stages. That's clearly where the characteristically rich, punchy, unmistakably analogue API sound comes from!

Monitor Mixing

Having established sensible recording levels into Pro Tools from the four input channels' post-fader direct outputs, our attention turned to building a rough mix from the Pro Tools returns that were patched into the 16 summing channels. These balanced line-level inputs are connected via two more AES59 D-subs, which are wired straight into the corresponding inputs' balanced insert-send sockets. In installations where there's no requirement to patch outboard equipment, the insert return socket can be used as an alternative TRS line input, and switched in place of the D-sub input via the 'Insert In' button.

The summing channels' signal path is very simple compared with that of the recording channels. A 2510 gain stage receives the balanced input (post-insert), and passes the signal to the fader (with 12dB of gain in hand, again). A 2520 DOA block then drives the pan control and program bus routing. Usefully, a push button at the top of the channel strip allows the fader to be bypassed, if preferred, for accurate unity-gain mixing. The same aux/cue routing and PFL/AFL/SIP monitoring facilities are provided as the four recording channels. Surprisingly, there are no meters on the individual summing channels — not even simple signal present/overload LEDs. I imagine the assumption is that the levels will have already been optimised in the DAW software.

The summing section layout groups the faders as eight stereo pairs, with the two corresponding sets of channel controls arranged one above the other in line with the faders. The channel allocation follows API's usual practice of locating channel one's controls as close to the user as possible, which means the odd-numbered channels are directly above the faders, and the even-numbered channels above them at the top of the panel. I struggled with this layout at first — my small brain expected the odd channels to be on the top row, which seems to be the 'British way' — but I gradually became used to this configuration and found myself reaching for the right knobs by the end of the session!

In normal mixing applications, the provision of 'destructive' solo-in-place monitoring is very useful. In this mode the stereo mix-bus is monitored at all times, and pressing the solo button on a channel actually leaves that channel alone and mutes all the other channels instead (hence being 'destructive'). Pressing multiple solo buttons allows multiple channels to be auditioned together, of course. Making this function even more useful, all of the summing input and recording channels on The Box are equipped with 'Safe' buttons (alongside the program bus routing buttons). Pressing a Safe button prevents that channel from being muted when channels are soloed in SIP mode. As an application example, reverb return channels would be made 'safe' so that the associated reverb remains audible when soloing contributing channels.

In our session, since we were recording the stereo bus as a guide mix, we didn't want any source checking to affect the recorded mix — so we used the 'non-destructive' mono PFL and stereo AFL modes instead. Pressing the Solo buttons in these configurations routes the channel signal onto dedicated monitoring buses and simultaneously switches the monitor section to audition those buses, thus ensuringThe central control section is impressively spec'd and provides for switching between two sets of monitors.The central control section is impressively spec'd and provides for switching between two sets of monitors. the stereo mix-bus remains unaffected (hence 'non-destructive').

The stereo mix-bus section of the desk uses 2520 DOAs as summing amps, the outputs of which drive the insert sends via balancing transformers. The 527 compressor can be switched into the mix-bus path prior to the insert point if required. More 2510 gain blocks receive the balanced insert returns and feed the master stereo fader (calibrated for 0dB at the top of its travel), with more 2520 DOAs driving the transformer-balanced main outputs. Usefully, an external stereo mix-bus input is also provided, with a dedicated 'Sum In' button, to permit additional external sources to be incorporated, if required. With 16 summing inputs and four recording channels all routable to the programme stereo mix-bus, plus an external stereo mix-bus input, The Box can accommodate a total of 22 simultaneous mix inputs with ease.

Masters & Monitoring

The central portion of the console panel is given over to the output masters and monitoring facilities. The three aux send masters (two mono and one stereo) are adjusted via three rotary controls, each providing +6dB of gain at the fully clockwise position. Each output also has an AFL button to check what is being dispatched. Two more rotary controls are provided for the artist cue mix, the first controlling the contribution level from the stereo programme mix-bus and any selected two-track inputs (see below), while the second acts as a master output-level control. Again, an AFL button is also provided, and the four aux sends and stereo cue outputs are accessed physically via another AES59 D-sub on the rear panel.

The monitoring section source signal is selected with five push buttons at the top of the panel, accessing four separate stereo two-track inputs (connected via an AES59 D-sub) in addition to the stereo program mix bus. The four two-track signals can be auditioned individually or in combination, but are overridden (muted) whenever the program input is selected.

Usefully, these same four two-track inputs are available to the artist cue mix, selected with a second set of buttons either individually or in combination. A fifth button, corresponding with the control room's monitor program selector, is also labelled 'Program'… but it isn't! This button actually routes the output of the control room's monitor selector to the Cue mix, which means it will carry the stereo mix-bus signal only if the Program button is pressed for the control-room monitor source as well. Otherwise, the Cue feed will be whichever two-track sources are selected for the control room. This arrangement is convenient if you want the artists to hear what the control‑room monitors are playing with minimal button-pushing, but it can be quite perplexing if you aren't aware of the Cue source label's ambiguity!

Earlier I mentioned that The Box could mix 22 inputs simultaneously, or 28 with some clever patching. Here's how: since all four two-track inputs can be mixed together into the Cue bus, the Cue bus outputs can be patched via the rear panel directly into to the mix bus external inputs and — hey presto! — 28 inputs to the stereo mix-bus. This is yet another example of the supreme versatility of this unassuming little console.

Returning to the control-room monitoring, the selected two-track or stereo mix-bus source isThe two-channel compressor can easily be patched into the recording path or the summing bus.The two-channel compressor can easily be patched into the recording path or the summing bus. automatically replaced with the PFL/AFL signal whenever a solo button is pressed, and this is the signal displayed on the two VU meters (where 0VU equates to +4dBu). By default, the solo section operates in PFL mode with a ±10dB level trim control, and three push buttons clear any soloed channels, engage destructive SIP, or the non-destructive stereo AFL modes.

The monitor section controls also include Mono, Dim and Cut buttons, and both the Solo and Dim signal levels are adjustable. The monitor volume control is set with a nicely oversized knob, and the output can be routed to either Main or 'Alt' speaker destinations (the latter with a separate ±10dB trim control). Both are presented on rear-panel XLRs.

The console's headphone amplifier — which proved plenty loud enough on a pair of 300Ω Sennheiser HD650 headphones — has two paralleled TRS output sockets, one under the front arm rest and a second on the rear panel. The headphone signal is derived from just before the monitor section's volume control (so post the source, PFL/AFL, mono and dim selections), and has its own independent volume control. Two more push-buttons turn the headphone output on/off and replace the monitor section signal with the Cue mix output instead.

The final element of the master and monitor section controls the talkback facilities. The gain of the built-in mic can be adjusted and routed to the slate (program mix bus), aux (all four) and Cue destinations, with a momentary press-to-talk button to activate the talkback (and dim the speakers to improve intelligibility). Recessed trimmers in the top panel allow the relative levels of each destination to be tweaked, if necessary.

Opinions

After using The Box for a day, and becoming familiar with its ergonomics and features, I have to say I have become a fan. This is a great-sounding console, which is easy toThe rear panel of the console in full. Note the hinges, which allow for easy service access.The rear panel of the console in full. Note the hinges, which allow for easy service access. use and has many genuinely useful facilities that are rare to find on a physically compact desk. API have retained the big-console feel here in terms of operating features and ergonomics, as well as sound quality and connectivity.

Really, the only negative comment I would have made is that the review console ran surprisingly warm. However, API subsequently discovered that the power supply was defective, and have now replaced this.

The Box console has an unusual feature set, quite unlike any other console I'm aware of and, consequently, is likely to be a 'Marmite' product — something people either love or loathe. Some will think just four input channels is inadequate, or dismiss the console for its total lack of DAW remote control or automation facilities. Others will argue that the cost is too high and that better solutions can be constructed from separate units for less.

All of these arguments have some validity, of course, and The Box certainly won't satisfy everyone. However, it's an extremely well thought-out console, it has remarkably versatile connectivity and internal signal routing, and it is a proper, fully specified, fully integrated, high-end console with all the features, performance and convenience we associate with that claim.

For anyone who likes to work in a traditional, console-based way, who only needs to record a maximum of four sources at once (or six with a bit of creative patching and some additional preamp modules), and who likes to mix in the analogue domain, The Box is a very elegant solution. Its cost is reflected fairly in its quality, versatility and performance, but this desk is a delight to use, it looks the business and, most importantly, it sounds utterly fabulous. .

Alternatives

The UK retail price for The Box places it in the same ballpark as the 12-channel version of Audient's ASP8024, while it is slightly more expensive than their 4816, and slightly more affordable than SSL's Matrix. However, these all offer radically different feature sets to The Box and don't employ transformers in the signal path. The Harrison 950m is arguably more comparable, but is slightly more expensive, reflecting the greater number of tracking channels.

Interestingly, constructing something similar to The Box using 500-series modules (10-slot rack, 4x512C Preamps, 4x505 DI, 2x550 EQs, 2x527 compressors, and two 8200 eight-channel line mixers) would cost around $16,000nearly £13,000 — and you'd still lack a monitor controller, aux and cue send facilities, and faders. In that context The Box doesn't seem quite so expensive after all.

The API DOA

Electronics technology developed at a phenomenal rate after the Second World War, and the 'operational amplifier' (op-amp) — which was first conceived for analogue computers during the war — became a popular general-purpose circuit block. An op-amp is essentially a DC-coupled, high-gain voltage amplifier with a differential input and a single-ended output — and it makes a very handy and versatile 'gain stage' for audio systems.

The first commercially available op-amps appeared in the early 1950s, made by a company called George A Philbrick Researches in America. The GAP/R K2W comprised two 12AX7 valves (tubes) mounted in a bespoke housing, which contained all the necessary internal circuitry, with a standard octal base to access the power, input and output connections. Moving into the 1960s, when semiconductors became available, solid-state op-amps started to appear using discrete transistor circuitry, such as the GAP/R P45 and P65. The P45 is really the origin of the modern DOA or 'Discrete Op-amp', and comprised eight transistors, eighteen resistors, a couple of diodes, and six capacitors, all mounted closely together on a small printed circuit board roughly 1.5 inches square. The whole assembly was 'potted' to form a 'black brick' using a special resin to ensure thermal stability and to protect the design. Seven pins at the base provided the power and signal connections, and this arrangement has become the standard audio DOA format.

Through the 1970s various manufacturers developed their own DOAs specifically for high-performance audio applications, with carefully selected transistors optimised for different circuit elements, such as the differential input stage and the output driver section. The best-known audio DOAs are the Melcore 1731, the API 2520, and the Jensen 990, but although these all share the same basic concept they differ significantly in design detail and, consequently, sound character and technical performance.

While API chose to employ DOAs in its consoles, other contemporary console manufacturers, like Rupert Neve and Calrec, followed a different route. They also used individual, modular, discrete transistor gain stages — such as the Neve BA283, for example — but these were generally rather simpler and more traditional amplifier designs, typically with between three and six transistors, and they lacked the differential input of the DOA.

The op-amp concept is still very popular today, but is most commonly found now as a 'monolithic integrated circuit' or IC. The performance and quality of modern IC op-amps has evolved to a level that equals or exceeds the DOA for the majority of audio applications (although some would, no doubt, argue that point), but back in the 1970s the early monolithic ICs couldn't come anywhere near the performance of a good DOA. The sound character of the early API consoles — as well as all subsequent API discrete products — was (and is) directly attributable to the company's extensive use of their bespoke 2520 DOA design.

527 Compressor Module

Like the built-in 550A EQ modules on channels 1/2, the console's dual 527 compressor unit — located at the top of the centre section — is also a re-packaged version compared to a standard 527 rack module. However, the circuitry is mostly the same, with the only significant difference being the omission of an output make-up gain control. Instead, this version of the 527 has an automatic gain make-up system, similar to that employed in the 525 compressor.

Like the stock API 527 (which I reviewed in the October 2010 issue of Sound On Sound), the version here is configurable with the side-chain working either in a feed-back (old-school) or feed-forward (more modern) arrangement, with a switchable hard- or soft-knee characteristic and API's unique 'Thrust' mode. This last feature high-pass filters (roughly 3dB/octave below 1kHz) the side-chain control signal to reduce the compressor's sensitivity to high-energy, low-frequency elements in the programme. When enabled, the Thrust mode helps to maintain a powerful bass end, while still controlling the overall dynamics through the mid range and HF.

The two 527 channels can be used independently, or linked for stereo applications (the controls of both sections need to be matched for consistent operation), and each section has its own gain-reduction meter. Rotary controls are provided for threshold, ratio, attack and release, with buttons for in/out, hard/soft knee, old/new side-chain configuration, and Thrust mode. In addition, each section has two more buttons to determine where the compressor is connected in the console. The first button selects the stereo program mix bus or input channel, and the second determines which channel — the top section can be inserted in channel 1 or 3, and the lower one in channel 2 or 4.

In use, these compressors impress just as the stock 527 does. On the mix bus it can be incredibly smooth and transparent — especially in the soft-knee mode — even when applying substantial amounts of gain reduction. The scaling of the ratio control makes it just as easy to find very gentle settings below 1.5:1 as heavy limiting over 20:1, and the threshold spans a huge range from +10 to -20 dBu. If I had to be picky, maybe the release time could have a faster minimum setting — 0.3 seconds is a bit lazy in some contexts — and this is the major factor in why this compressor sounds very polite most of the time.

Second Opinion

I was intrigued by API's The Box. On the one hand, while in no sense of the word could it be described as 'cheap', it is by quite some distance the most affordable API console ever to be brought to market. On the other, a significant portion of the API reputation has been built on the use of their consoles to track rock bands, complete with multi-miked guitars and drums — and unless you're deeply into lateral thinking, The Box just doesn't offer sufficient mic inputs to make that sort of work easy.

With these points in mind, I was initially quite prepared to dismiss The Box as an overpriced or under-specified hybrid. Yet, like Hugh, over the course of a day tracking and mixing a band via this console, I grew to really enjoy using it. It looks good, it's well thought-out and well built, and it feels nice in use. The only real operational quirk not discussed already by Hugh was that I found it rather difficult to remove some 500-series modules, as the slots are slightly recessed, making it hard to get fingers or nails around the faceplates.

I'm not an advocate of analogue summing for its own sake — there's absolutely nothing wrong with summing in the digital domain, and I've usually been able to achieve whatever 'analogue warmth' I require by running the stereo mix through analogue stages. But I sense that this is not at all what The Box is about: the fact that the DAW return inputs feature balanced insert sockets suggests that it is intended as a centrepiece for anyone already running an analogue/digital hybrid mixing system, making use of both DAW software and a number of outboard devices. And in such a studio I could see this being a very useful device indeed.

As for the tracking side of things, the target audience is obviously those project studios in which the modus operandi is overdubbing: there are sufficient inputs to cater for dual-mic setups on a couple of sources simultaneously. But there is potential for more ambitious projects too. The aforementioned lateral thinking that makes it possible to use this mixer for close-mic drum tracking and other such applications is that you could conceivably invest in a rack of outboard preamps (one 10-slot and one six-slot API Lunchbox, perhaps?), patch those into the 16 summing channels and use the balanced insert sends to feed your recording device. You'd still get the benefit of the aux sends and true zero-latency artist monitoring that way, and have a total of 20 channels, each with the useful SIP and solo-defeat options that Hugh has described in the main review. Of course, that would require either a suitably wired patchbay or that you sacrifice using the console for analogue summing from the DAW... but it's worth knowing that this can be done.

I suppose I'm slightly less convinced than Hugh by the price. It has to be said that I could acquire a very decent recently refurbished second-hand console with many more channels featuring preamps and EQ for the asking price, though admittedly that ignores the potential for far higher maintenance costs. However, I would be very hard pushed to purchase something so heavily featured or versatile, and with this small a footprint, for the same money. Of course, some will argue that much of the price is in the brand name, but the flip side of that argument is that well-maintained API gear remains desirable and therefore retains much of its value. Add to this the warranty and number of years of reliable service it's likely to give and the price seems rather more justifiable. I just wish I could afford it... Matt Houghton

API The Box £14,999$18,000
pros
API sound quality thanks to its use of classic 2520 DOA circuitry and loads of output transformers.
Fully balanced I/O, with versatile connectivity options.
User-customisation via 500-series slots on channels 3/4.
Four API recording channels, with instrument inputs and access to aux and artist Cue buses.
Up to 22 (or 28) inputs on mixdown.
Full monitor section with talkback.
cons
With an API badge, it was always going to be pricey...
summary
API's The Box console has an unusual feature set, and consequently will appeal to a very specific subset of project studios — mostly old-school traditionalists who like to work on a 'big console', but don't need the overabundance of channels provided in most standard consoles. The Box is a 'big console' in terms of features, technology, connectivity, build quality and sound, but with sensibly restricted input and mix channel counts.
information
£14,999 including VAT.
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