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API The Box 2

Analogue Mixer By Hugh Robjohns

API The Box 2

The original The Box brought API's big-console sound to a new audience, and this new version should have even wider appeal.

We've reviewed many API products over the years but I remember the original The Box analogue console (SOS January 2014: https://sosm.ag/api-thebox) very fondly. I've always appreciated well-designed consoles, and this one appealed because it translated API's 'proper' big-console engineering into a more compact form to meet the needs of the smaller, more project-oriented studios that are typical today.

Although the design on the whole was intelligently balanced and focused on a productive workflow, with considerable versatility, its facilities were inevitably constrained in some respects by its size, and I recall a few frustrations with the original The Box. The provision of only four full input channels seemed to restrict the potential customer base: it was fine for building up tracks through overdubs, but not really suited to full-band recording, or acoustic drum kit sessions. Positioning the instrument inputs on the back panel also made it less convenient than should have been the case to quickly plug in and overdub a guitar track. Nonetheless, The Box sounded extremely good, was very easy to use, was remarkably compact given its facilities, and if the input channel count met your needs, could add high-quality tracking and analogue mixing facilities to a DAW-based studio. So it was no surprise that it quickly became very popular, particularly in the US.

Six years on, API announced a new version, which you'll find listed by retailers (who obviously need a way to distinguish between the two versions) as The Box 2. It's also known by some as The Box 8, since this second-generation console features a more useful eight full input channels. I'll call it The Box 2 here when there's a need to differentiate but, officially, it actually retains the name of its forebear: simply, The Box.

Clearly, API have listened to their customer base, because all the revisions appear to be the result of user feedback, and all seem to be worthwhile improvements, not least those extra input channels. Inevitably, it's a little more expensive than the original model, but that it really is only a little more is reassuring, given the years that have passed and the additional channels.

Overview

Anyone familiar with the original The Box will instantly feel at home, because while facilities have been added, very little has changed in terms of layout and feel. I was pleased to see that the top of the rear panel now features cooling slots; the review model of the original version seemed to run fairly hot, but The Box 2 barely got warm after several hours' use. All the controls are the same and in the same places, although many of the original's round illuminated buttons have become square illuminated buttons (which I prefer, actually).

The signal paths are the same, too, as is all the underlying circuitry — and therefore the console's very appealing sound character. The Box 2 employs a lot of high-quality audio transformers, and it is full of API's distinctive plug-in 2520 and 2510 Discrete Op‑Amps. The 2520 is capable of driving output transformers, while the 2510s are used for internal gain stages. Input channels use transformers for the mic inputs, the balanced preamp outputs, the direct outs and the insert sends, while the master section uses them for the Cue sends, the Programme bus insert sends, and the main outputs.

I can't think of another console at this price level which incorporates so many signal transformers, and it really does have a beneficial effect on the console's overall sound character. Of course, the added metalwork, electronics and transformers associated with the four extra input channels has swelled the console's already substantial weight — to a grunt-inducing 40kg (90lbs) — and despite the compact format, this is a two-person lift!

Given the near-identical design of The Box 2 and the original console I'll provide an overview here, and concentrate on the changes — I won't cover all the facilities in detail, as I'd simply be repeating myself. For more detailed information, please read my review of the original The Box console at the link given above.

The key difference, of course, is the addition of those four extra input channels on the left-hand side of the console, with a full set of eight 500-series slots above. As the eight channels already feature mic/line preamps, these slots are intended primarily to accommodate EQ modules, and the input channel signal flow reflects that: the slots are wired after the preamp and before the insert point. However, other modules could obviously be installed, such as channel compressors, saturators or effects. Alternatively, rear-panel connectivity is sufficiently versatile to allow the channel path to bypass the slots completely, and if you do this, the slot I/O can be accessed independently.

Linking cards are placed in the empty 500-series slots to maintain signal flow when no modules are in use.Linking cards are placed in the empty 500-series slots to maintain signal flow when no modules are in use.In the original console, the first two slots were factory-fitted with API 550A three-band EQ modules, but in The Box 2 these are vacant slots covered by blanking panels, with linking cards in the sockets to maintain the default signal paths. Omitting those EQ modules obviously reduces the build budget slightly, helping to offset the cost of the four extra input channels, but it also affords the purchaser greater flexibility. The manual states explicitly that the slots are not configured for additional preamp modules.

Visually, the extra input channels make the console appear far better balanced, and mean the master/monitor section is now placed centrally, which I much prefer. More importantly, though, having eight full input channels makes it practical to record small bands in one go, or track a full drum kit in a way that the original could never realistically accommodate. That capability alone will make The Box 2 a far more attractive proposition for project studios and small professional facilities the world over!

It also increases the channel count for mixdowns or analogue summing, of course, raising the total from 22 to 26 (eight channel inputs and 16 monitor inputs, plus the stereo Programme Sum direct inputs). And with a bit of ingenuity and some patching, it's actually possible to mix down up to 32 channels, since the four two-track monitor returns can be combined into the Cue bus and patched externally back into the Programme Sum inputs.

I can't think of another console at this price level which incorporates so many signal transformers, and it really does have a beneficial effect on the console's overall sound character.

Grand Tour

As with the original console, the input channels employ API's much-loved 548B preamps (these are also used in the company's 1608 and 2448 consoles), which combine a 2520 DOA with a 1:10 step-up mic transformer to provide +30 to +65 dB of gain. Eight-LED bar-graph meters on each channel are scaled in dBFS, on the assumption that the console will be used with a computer-based DAW or other digital recorder. Usefully, recessed trimmers below each meter permit calibration to common analogue/digital alignments.

The balanced line input bypasses the input transformer, and in line mode the gain control is deactivated so that the preamp provides fixed unity gain. A pad can be applied to both mic and line inputs, reducing the mic input (before the transformer to avoid saturation) by 20dB, and the line input by 6dB, allowing maximum input levels of a very generous +18dBu for the mic input and +34dBu for line sources. Illuminated buttons on each channel cater for phantom power, polarity inversion, pad and mic input, line being the default source. API's distinctive winged knob adjusts the gain (but without panel markings).

Small details matter: having four instrument inputs and two headphone inputs accessible from the front of The Box is a good, practical improvement on the original design.Small details matter: having four instrument inputs and two headphone inputs accessible from the front of The Box is a good, practical improvement on the original design.Unbalanced instrument direct inputs are provided for the first four channels as standard, although potentially all eight channels could have them as a cost option. Helpfully, these instrument input sockets have been relocated from the rear-panel on the original The Box to the front, under the arm rest on the left-hand side. This makes it so much easier to patch an instrument in quickly — one of those small physical changes that can make a big difference to the workflow. Plugging into a DI socket activates a relay to switch the preamp's DOA input away from the mic transformer, and across to the instrument signal. Consequently, the mic source must be selected and the gain range is reduced (+11 to +46 dB) with a maximum input level of +28dBu — both are more than enough for any instrument source. The pad and polarity buttons don't work for the instrument input, which is, of course, phantom-safe.

The buttons at the bottom of the preamp section perform the same functions as before. A 50Hz, 12dB/octave high-pass filter, which, unusually, is post-fader, can be switched in. The signals to the LED meter and Direct output can be selected independently from either the preamp output or post-fader (and post mute/high-pass filter), the latter being the default for both. Another button selects the insert return.

Connectivity for each input channel comprises an XLR socket (with phantom power when activated), five quarter-inch TRS sockets, and a D-sub, all of which are balanced. The top TRS socket accepts a line input and the second provides the preamp's direct output. This is normalled across to the third socket which is the 500-slot input, while the fourth is the slot output which also doubles as the insert send in normal use. As you'd expect, this socket is also normalled across to the last which is the insert return. Eight channel Direct Outputs are presented on an AES59 (Tascam DB25) connector which has been relocated to the side of the input section (on the original version it was below the inputs).

The input channels (right) have various I/O, including mic and line inputs, a mic preamp direct output, and 500-series module input and outputs — so, if you prefer, the 500-series modules could be treated as an external unit and wired to a patchbay.The input channels (right) have various I/O, including mic and line inputs, a mic preamp direct output, and 500-series module input and outputs — so, if you prefer, the 500-series modules could be treated as an external unit and wired to a patchbay.

The channel fader is scaled with 12dB of gain above its calibration mark, potentially providing a maximum of 77dB overall channel gain, while the pan-pot introduces 3dB attenuation at the centre position. Each channel has controls for two mono and one stereo aux sends, and the mono auxes share pre/post selection and On buttons. The stereo aux has its own pre/post and On buttons, and can also be switched to feed the Artists' Cue bus instead. The pre-fade source for the Auxes can optionally be derived from either the preamp output or after the insert return (factory default) via internal links. Solo and Mute buttons are located above the fader, while a Solo-Safe button is provided at the bottom of the channel strip. The Solo mode is set globally for Mono PFL (the default), stereo AFL, or stereo Solo-in-Place.

Like the original console, The Box 2 features two API 527 compressors in the centre section. These are primarily intended for mix-bus compression (inserted just before the Programme mix-bus insert) , but they can be allocated to any of the first four input channels, if desired. The top module can be routed to channels 1 or 3 and the lower to channels 2 or 4 and, once allocated, buttons on the corresponding channels determine where the compressor sits in the signal path. The default is between the preamp and slot (ie. pre-EQ), but pressing the 'Comp Post' button positions the compressor between the insert return and fader instead.

Summing & Master Sections

The right-hand side of the console accommodates 16 'Summing' inputs, as before, arranged in eight vertical pairs with two closely spaced faders at the bottom of each strip. A pair of DB25 sockets accepts the inputs, which link straight to pairs of normalled TRS sockets providing balanced insert sends/returns. '0dB' buttons bypass the faders for unity-gain summing, if required, and, new for The Box 2, four-LED bar-graph meters have been added to each channel, which is a very welcome facility. Aux/Cue send arrangements are the same as the main input channels, as are the Mute, Solo and Solo-Safe functions.

The only obvious upgrade to the centre section is a rubber suspension around the built-in talkback microphone, presumably to dampen thumps and bumps. Talkback can be routed to the programme, Aux or Cue busses, with recessed trimmers to set the absolute level sent to each destination.

The main monitoring defaults to the Programme Mix Bus, of course, but four stereo two-track returns can be selected instead, auditioned individually or in combination. The monitoring output is metered on large VU meters (0VU = +4dBu), and routed to Main or Alt speakers (the latter via a Trim control), with Volume, Cut, Mono, and (adjustable) Dim controls. Headphone sockets at the rear and under the arm rest normally follow the control-room selection, but they can be switched to audition the Cue output, which is a useful feature if the artist is performing in the control room.

Impressions

The Box 2 is undeniably a lovely console, technically, sonically and ergonomically — and it removes any reservations I might have held about the original Box completely. While in some respects this might appear to be rather a modest makeover, all the changes really do add up to more than the sum of their parts. It will make a lot more practical sense to many more people now it has eight input channels. Moving the instrument sockets to the front was an obvious step, but one that makes a huge difference to its practicality, and adding the simple LED meters to the Summing inputs is equally helpful.

The whole console lifts up like a car bonnet, to reveal the huge array of channel cards, transformers and discrete op-amps — this arrangement makes it easy to maintain and repair the console, and of course to keep it clean and dust-free.The whole console lifts up like a car bonnet, to reveal the huge array of channel cards, transformers and discrete op-amps — this arrangement makes it easy to maintain and repair the console, and of course to keep it clean and dust-free.

In an ideal world, it would be nice if the API 527 compressors could be allocated to any input channel (instead of only the first four or the master bus) but that's a compromise I can easily live with, since compressors can also be installed in the 500-series slots, or even hooked up via the insert points if really needed.

On the technical side of things, the Box 2 has exemplary specifications and, with all outputs capable of +28dBu, there's plenty of headroom and a dynamic range of 118dB or so. Servicing is made easy too — the console opens like a car bonnet/hood, allowing access the electronics on individual vertical cards, and the DOAs can be unplugged and replaced easily if necessary. I applaud the use of transformers on so many outputs, not only for bestowing balanced connectivity throughout the console (I loathe unbalanced insert points!), but also for making it easy to resolve ground-loop issues and interface unbalanced outboard when necessary.

Of course, it's not all about the technical. Subjectively, there's something very appealing about the sonic impact of a string of transformers. The path from this console's mic input to Programme output passes through at least five of them! And then there's the price. Yes, this is a professional piece of gear, and the price tag naturally reflects that. But there's an awful lot of functionality, quality and value here, and most importantly, the design works so much better than the original version. All in all, then, this is a delightful evolution of a fabulous old-school analogue console, and it's well suited to modern studios.

Alternatives

There are various small consoles around now, each with slightly different strengths and sonic characters. Probably the nearest competitors are SSL's XL‑Desk and the Looptrotter Mixing Console, both of which feature 500-series slots, as do API's larger consoles, Purple Audio's MFtwenty5 System, Tree Audio's Roots Console and Interphase Audio's Ark Console. But the facilities and signal paths vary significantly amongst these consoles, and of course you could hook up external 500-series racks to any high-quality analogue console, such as those by Audient and Rupert Neve Designs.

Pros

  • Eight full input channels, each with a 500‑series slot.
  • Classic big-console API sound, with the same preamps, DOAs and transformers.
  • Big-console facilities throughout, too.
  • Versatile and fully balanced connectivity, even for inserts.
  • 26 (or even 32) channels for mixdown.

Cons

  • None.

Summary

API's updates to The Box reflect user feedback, bringing a small but very welcome raft of practical improvements that combine to greatly expand its appeal to project studios and smaller professional facilities. Importantly, it retains its fabulous 'big console' sound, build quality, connectivity and operational features, and all for an attractive and competitive price.

information

£15,750 including VAT.

SX Pro +44 (0)800 6522 320.

sxpro.co.uk

www.apiaudio.com

$15,955.25.

API Inc +1 301 776 7879.

service@apiaudio.com

www.apiaudio.com

Published May 2020