The ASP4816 offered big‑console features in a project‑studio footprint, but its new souped‑up sibling offers that bit more...
For years now, since people first started working ‘in the box’ without a recording console, we’ve seen countless standalone products emerge whose purpose is to deliver separately the various functions once performed by a traditional mixer. You can buy racks of preamps, EQs, compressors, summing boxes, monitor controllers, cue‑mix facilities... the list goes on. Some of those can, of course, be very useful in their own right, but if you do a lot of recording, particularly of drum kits, full bands, other multi‑player ensembles, or anything else requiring lots of inputs and monitor mixes, you might find yourself adding several of these products to your setup. And in that scenario, there’s a very strong argument that you should just go back to using a console! A good console can prove more cost effective (assuming equivalent quality), but an analogue console in particular gives you hands‑on, one‑knob‑per‑function control in an intuitive, convenient layout.
Perhaps this is why recent years have seen the launch of several high‑quality analogue consoles, from the likes of Neve, SSL, API and Trident. Another name that has earned a very strong reputation in this market is Audient, who were founded by Dave Dearden and Gareth Davies back in 1997. The heritage stretches back further than that, though: the pair were behind the respected DDA consoles of the ’80s and ’90s, and worked on a range of consoles for other famous names over the years. In the last decade or so, Audient have increasingly catered for in‑the‑box and home studio producers, with two popular audio interface ranges (which offer remarkable quality for the money), as well as ADAT‑equipped preamps and monitor controllers, among other things. But they remain very active in the studio console market too, through their acclaimed ASP range of analogue mixers. They’re not ‘cheap’ by any means, but they’re far more keenly priced than anything I know of that’s comparable in quality.
The latest model, the ASP4816‑HE is very much a case of evolution rather than revolution, with much of its construction, circuitry and features being exactly the same as on the original ASP4816, released a decade ago and reviewed by Hugh Robjohns back in SOS October 2012. That model, which remains in production alongside the HE version, drew heavily on the original ASP8024 (SOS October 2000), which was treated six years ago to a Heritage Edition refresh (SOS September 2016). The ASP4816‑HE is a revision along similar lines, but includes some features not found in the 8024‑HE, and lacks some options that aren’t really needed due to the lower channel count.
At heart, then, the ASP4816‑HE is a 16:16:2 in‑line recording console, with 16 dual‑input mono channels being joined by 16 mono subgroup buses and a master stereo bus. But that’s underselling it a little, as will become clear when I discuss the subgroups below. Each input channel has one of Audient’s wonderful, clean‑sounding mic preamps, along with an EQ section, six aux sends, two cue‑mix sends and two faders: one long, one short, each with a pan pot and independent routing. Channels 5‑16 come as one of Audient’s standard 12‑channel blocks (as used in other consoles), while channels 1‑4 are on a separate four‑channel block. Amongst the other features are four stereo monitor outputs and monitor‑control facilities, a talkback mic input with footswitch‑operated talkback control, as well as a (post‑insert, pre‑fader) stereo bus compressor. Bar some cosmetic changes, all of this is just as it was on the original ASP4816 model.
New features in this Heritage Edition include what Audient describe as Vintage Mix Bus Processing, which can be switched in/out of the stereo mix bus signal path (pre inserts and compressor), and which I’ll cover in more detail below. There’s now a moving‑coil gain reduction meter for the mix‑bus compressor, and the compressor now also includes a ‘bass expansion’ feature — a side‑chain high‑pass filter to you and me! Audient seem proud about the use of discrete John Hardy 990 op‑amps in the signal path and bus‑processing chain, the main purpose of which is to lower the already low noise floor. There’s now a dedicated headphone amp too, a feature which more than one Audient console owner I know will welcome!
The metering has been treated to a refresh, with the LED meters now a classy‑looking white — not so bright that they dazzle, but they always remain easy to see. This change isn’t solely cosmetic, since the LEDs chosen are low‑power ones, and contribute to the console’s lower power consumption compared with the earlier model. Speaking of power, another tweak you probably won’t notice at first glance is that the HE version has a fanless, noise‑free, switch‑mode supply built into the console; you won’t need to find a home for a separate rack unit. I spent a full day checking out a console that was recently installed in Tileyard Studios, London, and nothing really ran particularly hot; there’s a little warmth in places, of course, but the whole case has been designed to promote airflow up and out the back. And talking of the case, the top can be lifted up like a car bonnet/hood, for ease of servicing.
Among other cosmetic refinements since we reviewed the ASP4816 is the classy‑looking, sustainably sourced (in the UK) wooden armrest. Other aesthetic improvements have been made with a more practical purpose in mind, with reworked fonts and legends, and better use of colour, backlighting and lines to differentiate features and signal paths in a clear and consistent way. Since a big part of the market for such desks is likely to be multi‑user studios, that’s probably more important than you imagine!
As I mentioned above, the 16 main channels are in‑line types. Each has two independent signal paths, either of which can access various features. One path Audient refer to as the Long Fader (LF) path, and the other the Short Fader (SF) path. Essentially these are equivalent to a traditional console’s recording inputs and tape returns. The idea is that you can record using the SF path (which you route to your interface via the subgroups; more on that later) and bring the returns from your DAW back on to the LF path, for playback/mixdown.
On the rear, you’ll find dedicated mic and line inputs for each channel, the former on XLR, the latter on TRS jack. Some might prefer a couple of DB25s for so many channels, but I’m a fan of the XLR/jack approach, particularly since there’s no dedicated patchbay: it’s much easier to integrate new gear or something brought along by a visiting producer/artist this way. There are also separate TRS jacks for the insert sends and returns, which is a nice touch given that most processors you’ll want to insert are balanced these days.
The mic and line inputs share the same preamp stage, which is capable of up to 60dB of gain, and it’s followed by a switchable high‑pass filter, polarity inverter, and the insert in/out switch. Phantom power is switchable too (and, rightly, only ever present on the mic input). You can switch between mic and line sources for each channel just beneath the meter. There’s a separate line‑level DAW input, which bypasses the HPF and polarity inverter (presumably a case of them being on separate cards) but does have its own switchable insert, again with separate TRS send and return, should you want to mix through outboard gear.
Either path can be routed through the ‘split’ EQ section, which is a pretty conventional console‑style EQ in many respects, though it offers more versatile routing than most: the word ‘split’ denotes that there two separate EQ stages, and you can either route the SF path through one stage and the LF path through the other, or route one path through both. The first stage is a pair of high and low shelving filters, and the second comprises two parametric ‘mid’ bands, one ranging from 50Hz to 1.5kHz, the other from 450Hz to 20kHz. From here, the signal goes to the Short or Long Fader section, where you have a fader, pan pot, and cut (mute) and solo buttons, and then on to the mix and solo buses.
To route the signal from a recording input to your DAW using the ASP4816‑HE, you’d usually route the channel to one of the 16 subgroup buses — the routing buttons are located between those for the channel’s preamp and EQ. Each of these 16 buses feeds into the stereo master bus but also has line‑level outputs on the rear. Subgroups 1‑8 also have TRS insert sends and returns, and two line outputs, one pre insert and one post fader. The 24 line outs are presented as three DB25 D‑sub connectors on the rear, which is a sensible choice for hooking it up to an audio interface or patchbay.
You can print the same signal pre and post‑processing, but you also can expand the ASP4816‑HE to use it for 24‑track recording.
Not only does the subgroup 1‑8 configuration mean you can use them to print the same signal pre and post processing, but they can also be used to expand the ASP4816‑HE for 24‑track recording. You could, for example, hook up an external eight‑channel mic preamp such as Audient’s ASP880 to give you 24 mic inputs, each with a line out to your DAW. Or you could leave synths or amp modellers permanently wired into the returns, while keeping the main input channels free for other things. A bank of 16 knobs above the master section sets the levels going from the first 16 outs to your DAW, while the faders set the level going to the mix bus and to outputs 17‑24. As well as the fader, each subgroup channel has pan, solo and cut controls. It’s a clever, versatile system.
Beneath the main channels’ routing section are the aux send controls, with eight send‑level knobs arranged as four pairs. Each knob governs the level going to a mono XLR aux output, and the first three pairs can be set (in pairs) to be pre or post fader, and to send the LF or SF signal. The final pair, designated Cue, has the same options but the SF/LF paths can be switched individually for each control. They can be used as regular aux sends, but are the ones you’d normally use to balance a foldback mix.
The return signal from any aux effects can be fed either to spare input channels, or into four dedicated mono/stereo inputs (four pairs of TRS jacks, left‑only being mono). These don’t have any EQ but do have a ±20dB input trim knob, level fader, solo/cut buttons, and the ability to route to subgroups, the main mix, and foldback mixes. Again, using these stereo returns can free up input channels.
We’ve seen this stereo bus compressor before, a VCA design not a million miles away from the famous SSL type, and of decent quality. As well as the new gain‑reduction meter, you get the old controls to set the ratio (2:1, 4:1 or 10:1), attack and release time (each with six settings, and the last release position being Auto), threshold and make‑up gain. A new Bass Expand button inserts a high‑pass filter in the compressor’s side‑chain, to reduce its sensitivity to low frequencies (and thus any tendency to pump in time to kick drums); a modest but very useful tweak. It’s a great compressor for that little bit of ‘glue’. My only real misgiving is that it can only be used on the stereo mix bus. I’d love to have the ability to reassign it to a stereo subgroup or have direct access to its I/O on the rear. That would, for example, allow you to process only the drum bus or route some sources ‘around’ the compressor. I gather that implementing such a change would have entailed a much more fundamental (and expensive!) redesign, but perhaps it’s a good plan for a future console?
A more interesting addition (to me) is the Heritage Edition Mix Processing, which again can only be applied to the stereo bus. Some might call the effects subtle, but I enjoyed them a great deal! Button 1 is marked Xfrmr Drive, and pressing it passes the signal through some Carnhill transformers. The next two add a Low Bump and High Lift to the sound, with a pretty broad EQ curve. These are suitably subtle for the intended mix bus duties, but as they affect the sound going into the transformers the three buttons give you rather more control than you might imagine. That pair of discrete John Hardy 990 transistor amplifiers remains in the signal path too, of course. I loved being able to switch between the pretty clean and clinical sound I’ve grown accustomed to from Audient (and which I regard as a great asset in a multi‑purpose console) and more colourful, vintage tonalities. I’m a fan!
Bar the headphone output, there’s nothing particularly new on the monitoring and control room front. You can select from four sources (named Mix, Ext 1, Ext 2 and DAW) and between four speaker outputs (named Main, Alt 1, Alt 2 and Alt 3). The last three have a separate level knob, and the larger Main Volume control is joined by Mono, Cut Left, Cut Right, Cut and Dim controls, the last two muting the outputs and attenuating them by 15dB, respectively. There’s no way to preview only the Sides signal (ie. a left or right channel polarity inverter), but there is an Integration Port, which allows you to sync the console with a separate, more fully featured monitor controller.
There’s also an oscillator section, for aligning tape machines and checking signal paths, speakers and so on, and beneath this are the solo controls. Again there’s some very thoughtful design at play here: as well as solo being switchable for AFL or PFL, and having a level control, there’s a switchable Solo In Front mode. This dims rather than mutes other channels relative to the solo bus, and you can set and fade that dim amount with a dedicated knob. It’s really easy to ‘focus in’ on one sound without losing the all‑important mix context — it’s similar to how I usually tend to use solo in software when working in the box.
The headphone amp sounds great, naturally, and seems capable of driving pretty much anything you plug into it. While it’s a very welcome addition, the headphone jack is placed beneath the meters, which can mean the headphone cable trailing across the master section. I’d prefer the socket to appear on the front corner of the console, beneath the master fader, but as with the compressor routing, I’m told that this would have necessitated a much more extensive and expensive redesign; despite the apparent space on the top panel, the circuit boards beneath it are packed cheek by jowl!
Acquiring a high‑quality mixer such as this inevitably means a serious outlay, but Audient have long been at the keenly priced end of the ‘serious’ market. It’s a niche where there’s very little in terms of direct competition too. The signal quality and feature set puts it well above the Mackies, Allen & Heaths and Soundcrafts of this world, yet the ASP4816‑HE ‘saves’ you many thousands of poundsdollars compared with a Neve 8424 (even before you add 16 mic preamps, which aren’t built in) or a fully loaded SSL XL‑Desk. It’s also less expensive than API’s The Box 2, yet offers more channels, more preamps and more versatile routing.
I wrote at the outset about the proliferation of products that replace the various console functions, and on mentally totting up all the separates you’d need to replace the ASP4816‑HE (16 preamps, EQs, summing amp with fader pack, monitor controller, cue‑mixing facilities, stereo bus compressor, saturation options... and more), the final figure was much higher than the asking price of the ASP4816‑HE. It really is remarkably good value for money, then, and arguably its only direct competitor is the ‘vanilla’, non‑HE version of the ASP4816, which costs a couple of grand less and now benefits from the same power-efficient metering. Personally, I’d very happily mix on either. If I were buying, I’d have to weigh up whether the extra bells and whistles of the Heritage Edition are worth it, and on balance I reckon they are: the transformer saturation option sounds great, the specs are a touch better, the onboard PSU is more convenient, the headphone out is handy, and all that work that has gone into colour coordinating the control set and signal flow has really paid off. But the best thing is that I’m pretty sure that anyone who’s used a console before will find that the learning curve is pretty much non‑existent — you could walk up to one of these in any studio and understand how to pilot the thing within a matter of minutes.
- Wonderful tracking console with loads of I/O.
- Great value for money.
- Wonderful mix‑bus colour options.
- Internal power supply.
- Relatively low power consumption.
- Now has a headphone amp.
- More flexible routing for the bus processors would be nice.
Nothing comes close to being as good as this mixer for the price. Genuine big‑console functionality and a great sound, in a project‑studio footprint.
£16,798 including VAT.
Audient +44 (0)1256 381944
Audient +44 (0)1256 381944