Photos: Mark Ewing
Mindprint's Trio is designed to meet the specific needs of the desktop audio market and comprises a very practical combination of a channel strip and a monitor-control section, complete with headphone amp and talkback facilities. Although it doesn't include a computer audio interface as such, it does have optical S/PDIF inputs and outputs, so it could be used with the new Apple Mac G5 computers without the need to buy a separate audio interface. The voice-channel part of the package is based around a very respectable Class-A mic/instrument preamp with switchable 48V phantom power, compressor, and equaliser, but there's also a separate stereo line input with its own EQ that can be mixed with the mic input, as well as an auxiliary monitor input that could be used as a two-track return. Mindprint have taken part of the Trio's compressor design from their rather more costly DTC dual recording channel, and it provides programme-dependent adjustment of the time constants so that only a single knob is needed to adjust the processing. Furthermore, the mic channel's EQ is tailored specifically to vocals so you get the job done with fewer distracting controls.
Clearly Mindprint have tried to provide all the essential front-end and monitoring features required for use with a typical desktop recording setup, though they've steered clear of including a USB or Firewire computer interface, as different users will have different requirements in this area. All the analogue inputs may be used at the same time, and there are also two separate headphone amps, each with its own volume control. Latency-free monitoring is catered for by allowing the input signal to be routed directly to the monitoring section during recording, though this obviously means switching off software monitoring in the computer to avoid hearing both the direct and delayed signals.
Also included in the monitoring section is talkback functionality; speaker level control with Mono, Dim (20dB attenuation), and Mute buttons; and provision to switch between three pairs of speakers. On a practical level, the unit is compact without being cramped, and its cast-metal case is finished in a pleasant rubbery coating with a very nicely styled red front panel. There are rubber feet on the base, and the unit is surprisingly heavy, so it shouldn't creep around on your desk. All the connections, including the two headphone jacks, are on the rear panel, and the integral talkback mic is just below the centre of the front panel.
All the channel-strip controls are located on the left of the unit, and all the monitor control facilities are on the right. Those controls relating to the zero-latency monitoring have their own section at the bottom centre of the panel, where you'll also find the auxiliary input's level control. All the pots have red caps with clear white marker lines, and most of the buttons are chunky rubber affairs with in-built status LEDs. Power comes from the obligatory power adaptor, and there's a ground terminal (of the type used to earth record decks) on the rear panel — this is a useful addition for systems powered entirely from mains adaptors, as you may get a hum if you have no grounds at all. Also on the rear panel are three DIP switches for setting the optical S/PDIF to internal or external sync and for selecting 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, or 96kHz sample rates.
The Trio has two input channels that are mixed before being fed to your DAW, the main one being the instrument/mic channel. This features a gain control with switchable 80Hz low-cut filter, a two-band EQ tuned for vocals, and a Fat knob which brings in the compression. Unlike the more general-purpose EQ in the line channel (which features shelving at 120Hz and 9kHz), the mic-channel EQ's shelving frequencies are set to 100Hz and 7.5kHz and have a Chebyshev curve, which simply means there's a bit of a dip before the boost comes in to give it a vintage EQ character. All the EQ bands have a ±12dB range. A round button activates the phantom power, while a further knob sets the output level being mixed with the line channel, the latter accommodating mono or stereo line signals.
Mindprint have designed the mic channel's Fat compressor to automatically adjust its gain depending on how much compression is applied, so the level should remain reasonably constant during adjustment. Although there's no gain-reduction meter in the traditional sense, a multi-coloured LED shows green when there's no compression, orange during moderate compression, and red when the signal is really being hammered! This compressor has a soft-knee characteristic and so behaves fairly benignly. Each channel has its own Mute button. The line input incorporates a basic two-band shelving EQ and a level control. A 10-segment meter at the centre of the panel can be switched to read the input or the output level but not the compressor gain reduction. When in input mode, the left meter shows the mic-channel level while the right meter shows the summed line-input level.
Bottom centre on the front panel are three knobs, two to control the level of mic and line channels to be fed directly to the monitor section for zero-latency monitoring, and there's also a control for the stereo auxiliary input. In the output section are feeds for three sets of monitors, where the first (A) is on jacks and the other two (B & C) are on phonos. A single large level control adjusts the speaker output levels. There is a screwdriver level-trim control on the bottom panel for monitor output B, so active monitors fed from output C need to have their levels matched using their own input trim controls — passive monitors can be adjusted by using their own amplifier gain controls. Two further trims set the main DAW analogue input and output levels. Right next to the speaker outlets are the two independently controllable headphone outputs, leaving just the AC input and power switch at the end of the panel, next to the ground terminal.
The mic input is on a balanced XLR, while the mono instrument input and stereo line inputs are on quarter-inch jacks. A pair of quarter-inch jacks provide an insert point that may be used for connecting additional processors between the preamp and the compressor. As separate send and return jacks are provided, the send is always active and can be used as a further output without upsetting the signal flow. The stereo mix of all the possible input sources is fed to the stereo DAW Interface Out which, in this case, is on unbalanced phono connectors, as is the corresponding DAW Interface In.
There is, however, a cunning set of DIP switches on the bottom panel which serves two functions: firstly, it allows the routing of the mic and line channels to the DAW Interface Output jacks to be configured; and, secondly, it lets you determine how the channels are monitored, so an overdub can be monitored in the left ear while the original track plays in the right, for example. The default setting is to have all four switches on, which sends both the mic and line signals to both sets of DAW inputs as well as to both channels of the monitoring system.
The DAW output, also on phonos, is fed via an internal 24-bit converter to the optical S/PDIF connector. Both optical S/PDIF ports are located at the lower edge of the rear panel along with the DIP switches for setting the sample rate and sync status. Two further Aux In phonos feed the monitor section directly. As mentioned earlier, these could be used as a two-track return, but you could also use them to play a CD, keyboard, or guitar preamp directly into the monitors without the computer being on.
The integral talkback mic routes into the headphone outputs. The switch is non-latching and any other audio being monitored is dimmed when the talkback is active. A Monitor On switch allows the input channels to be routed directly to the monitor section again useful for trying things out without your computer running. Similarly, a DAW On button provides a fast way to feed the outputs from the computer's audio interface to the monitor section. Separate latching buttons are used to switch on the monitors, so all three pairs can be active at once when needed — the Mono and Dim buttons apply to whichever monitors are selected.
The Trio proved to be very easy to set up and work with, and with very few exceptions it worked impeccably. The mic preamp sounds clean and solid, though a little hiss is evident when you turn up the HF EQ controls, even when using a sensitive capacitor mic close up. This probably wouldn't be noticeable under normal vocal-recording conditions, but could become audible when recording more distant sources or particularly quiet vocalists with less sensitive microphones. The EQ frequencies and curves seem well chosen from a musical standpoint, while the compressor is particularly impressive in thickening up vocals without making them sound excessively processed.
Although the general monitoring facilities are comprehensive and the phones feed is both loud and clear, there is quite a loud 'clonk' when you activate the talkback. This is simply the mic picking up the switch operation, but if you have your phones turned up loud, it's rather like having your head in the bucket and somebody tapping on it with a spanner. Looking on the bright side, it certainly gets the attention of your listeners on the other end of the cable!
Overall I really like the concept of the Trio, and it delivers a lot of quality and flexibility for the UK price. Its mic amp is at least the equal of what you'd expect to find in a mid-price mixer, and I think the compressor is exceptional for something you can drive with only one knob. I love the packaging — it's just the right size and it stays put on your desktop, though I'd still have preferred a choice of two-track monitor sources for playing back CDs and so on. You can use the Aux input for this, of course, but on the Mackie Big Knob that I reviewed recently there are three two-track inputs, and I often used these to connect my Roland V-Drums and Line 6 Pod guitar preamp for simply playing through the studio monitors. Having optical S/PDIF I/O is a undeniable bonus, though, and while many pieces of audio equipment use the coaxial rather than optical variant of S/PDIF, it does provide a simple way for users to connect to those computers that have optical S/PDIF I/O, such as the Apple G5 range.
Of course you can't provide all the features to satisfy everyone without hiking up the cost to the point where people aren't prepared to pay for it, so a line has to be drawn somewhere. I would have liked balanced I/O for connecting to the DAW, rather than phonos, though this won't be a significant shortcoming in most studio setups. My feeling is that Mindprint have come up with a great product. For those musicians who record only one or two audio parts at a time, it combines all that is essential in a stereo monitor controller with a simple yet very smooth-sounding front end, and it therefore does away with the need for a separate channel strip or mixer. For the desktop studio user who works mainly alone or with one musician at a time, Mindprint's Trio is a very appealing all-in-one product for recording and monitoring.