This slim mixer has been designed from the ground up to cater specifically for computer studio users. But have Soundcraft got the balance of facilities right?
Now that computer workstations have evolved such powerful and comprehensive mixing facilities, there's rarely any need for large analogue consoles unless you prefer the sound or the tactile experience of mixing through them. Indeed, most systems can operate quite happily with a small general-purpose mixer, though that often involves compromise and you still may be paying for features you don't need. What Soundcraft have done with their new Compact range is develop a small desktop mixer specifically for use with computer-based systems, leaving off all the frills that aren't needed and adding some dedicated features that actively benefit computer users.
So, what does a typical computer user need from a mixer? Firstly, you need a small number of mic preamps which can be routed into the input of an audio interface or soundcard. Most users with smaller systems rarely record more than one or two tracks at a time, so only a handful of mic channels are necessary. While software instruments are getting better and computers are becoming powerful enough to run several at once, most people still have a few favourite hardware synths or samplers that they'd like to run alongside their computer tracks, so the ideal mixer needs to be able to accommodate these too.
And then there's the latency issue. Most modern computers will run with a latency small enough that most users won't notice it. However, there are many older computers still in service, and some musicians are also particularly sensitive to latency, so a zero-latency monitoring option is still good to have. Soundcraft provide this by allowing the user to route the channel being recorded directly to the monitor outputs while recording (this works only for recording audio, not for software instruments, of course). The mixer also has other tricks up its metaphorical sleeve, but first lets get an overview.
Available in a four-channel version as well as the ten-channel model under review here, the Soundcraft Compact mixers are sturdily built from steel, and have a flat profile with rounded front and rear edges, moulded end cheeks, and all connections on the top surface where they can be easily accessed. Power comes from an external PSU, which is less of a concern in the studio than when mixing live, and because most users will be doing their mixing within the computer the channel level controls are on knobs rather than faders.
The secret to this little mixer's effectiveness is that, although it looks like a basic 'something into two' mixer, it actually has multiple busses, but to avoid scaring the user these aren't identified as such. One buss carries the record outputs feeding the soundcard, one carries a pre-pan, pre-fader monitor mix (hence it is really a mono pre-fade send on the mic/line channels and a stereo pre-fade send on the stereo channels), and one is a main left/right mix. Record and Monitor buttons are provided at the bottom of each channel so you can decide where the channel signal should be routed — to the soundcard inputs only, to the monitor buss only, or to both. In addition, the channel signal goes directly to the main stereo mix when the Record button is off. The Monitor outputs feeding your speakers get their signal from the Monitor buss, and any Monitor button activated adds that signal to the buss. Note that the Level controls affects only signals fed onto the main stereo mix buss, as the Monitor switches are wired before the Level controls.
For zero-latency monitoring, the channel Monitor button can be used to audition the signal being recorded at source, and by disengaging the Record buttons on channels not being recorded, the recording can be kept as clean as possible with no risk of accidentally adding contributions from other channels, though of course you can opt to press Record on several channels at once if you're recording a mix of signals. Having got the basic theory out of the way, it's time for a brief tour of the facilities.
As with many small mixers these days, there are two types of channel — mono mic/line and stereo line-only. The mic/line channels (there are four on the Compact 10) utilise Neutrik balanced combi jack/XLR inputs, and phantom power is switchable per pair of channels rather than globally. The first two channels have switchable low-cut filters, while the second two use a similarly positioned button to select a DI mode (with high input impedance) for the jack input, optimising it for use with electric guitars and basses. All the mic/line channels have a TRS jack insert point directly below the input. While you may not need to insert anything while recording (most DAWs have perfectly adequate compressors and EQ), the insert points can also be used to provide direct, pre-EQ outputs when used with appropriately wired cables. This is handy if you need to record more than two separate tracks at a time.
The channel gain trim control is followed by a three-band EQ without bypass switching, and this offers ±12dB of adjustment at 60Hz, 600Hz, and 12kHz. After that there are channel Pan and Level knobs, but there are no aux send controls because, in the intended application, they aren't necessary. In fact I'd argue that even EQ isn't necessary on the record channels, as it's invariably better to record flat, but at least you have the option.
All the remaining channels are stereo, the last two having phono inputs only — these are individually switchable to match turntables, complete with the necessary RIAA equalisation. The remaining stereo channels offer both jack and phono inputs and a mono/stereo button. When Mono is selected, the same signal feeds the left and right busses in equal amounts. All stereo channels have the same EQ, pan and level facilities as the mic/line channels. Record and Monitor buttons are located at the bottom of each channel strip. Normally the channel signal feeds the main stereo mix buss, but when Record is pressed, it is re-routed to feed the Record Out sockets instead.
The Master section is also very straightforward, and includes master level controls for the monitor and mix outputs, as well as two sets of headphone outputs, one intended for use by the artist and one for use by the engineer, where the engineer can switch between the artist's phones mix and the regular monitor mix. The Artist output also has a further control that allows the artist to set the desired mix of the main stereo mix buss (and hence the soundcard output plus any other sources feeding the mix buss) and the signal being recorded, so the performer can set his or her own balance of voice/instrument against the recorded parts. Below the Mix level control is a Monitor button that allows the stereo mix to be sent to the Monitor outputs. Normally the Mix output would be used to feed the final mix to a master stereo recorder, where any live inputs (such as synths) can be combined with the soundcard playback. Of course it could also be patched back into the soundcard input if you wished to record directly back into the computer.
Further level controls are provided for the Record Out and Playback In connections, and a Playback Monitor button enables this source to be added to the monitor mix. A nice touch, missing on so many small mixers these days, is a simple Mono button on the control-room Monitors outputs, so that you can check the mono compatibility of your mix, and of course there are stereo output level meters as well as power indicators and a low-battery indicator. This battery indicator may suggest that the mixer can accept batteries as well as a mains adaptor, and it can. However, these batteries must be connected via an optional external battery pack that plugs into the PSU socket — there's no provision for onboard batteries.
In terms of connectivity, it's nice that the mixer doesn't present you with balanced XLRs when what you really want is unbalanced phonos or simple jacks. In fact, the Playback In and Record Out connectors, which would normally by patched to the ins and outs of your soundcard, are on both balanced jacks and unbalanced phonos, which are the most common forms of soundcard connector. The Mix and Monitors outs are on balanced jacks, and the headphones are on stereo quarter-inch jacks as you'd expect. In fact, there's only one unexpected connector, and that's a chunky ground terminal in a recess of one of the end cheeks. Soundcraft suggest that you might want to use this to earth any turntable connected directly to the mixer, but it could also be used to provide a technical earth if the mixer was being run from batteries and was connected to another non-grounded device such as a laptop computer.
Considering what a simple mixer this is, Soundcraft have managed to cram a lot into it, but there are still some useful features missing. One might be a Bounce button, where the stereo mix is fed directly to the Record Out connectors when mixing back to a spare stereo track on the computer. The other is an integral talkback mic feeding the Artist headphone mix, because unless you're working in the same room (and most computers are too noisy to allow that), you may have problems communicating with the performer. Other than that, they've covered a lot of ground without making life too complicated for the user.
In a typical computer-based system, the Playback Ins and Record Outs would be connected to the audio interface or soundcard, the Monitor Outs to active monitor speakers or to a power amplifier feeding speakers, and the Mix output to a stereo recorder such as a Minidisc or CD-R recorder. The artist being recorded would wear headphones plugged into the Artist headphone socket, while the sources to be recorded would be plugged into the input channels (and their routing buttons set to Record). Normally, this would require you to disable software monitoring in order to prevent both the direct and delayed sound being audible at the same time.
Any synths playing along with the mix could be connected to stereo inputs with the routing set to Monitor. However, if you're using the Artist headphone mix rather than the main monitor speakers you don't need to press the Monitor buttons, as these sources feed the main stereo mix anyway. If there's already material recorded that the performer needs to hear via the studio monitors, the Playback Monitor button would also need to be down, otherwise the soundcard outputs would only feed the main stereo mix buss. Using the Record routing buttons, any connected synths could also be recorded to the computer one at a time to convert them to audio tracks.
My tests on the unit confirmed that it was straightforward to use and the mic amps were subjectively clean and reasonably transparent sounding, even though the audio bandwidth of the mixer only extends from 20Hz to 20kHz (±0.5dB) where the current fashion is to have audio bandwidths extending to 30-40kHz or greater. I saw no reason to doubt the quoted -128dBu EIN figure. However, there is an anomaly on the mic Gain controls that I found annoying. The last 10dB or so of gain comes in suddenly in the last millimetre or two of the gain pot's travel, and it is so abrupt that I was unable to set any interim gain settings — it really is a distinct step. With capacitor mics used at a normal working distance, this amount of gain shouldn't be necessary, but this characteristic may cause some gain-setting problems when working with more distant mics or low-sensitivity dynamic mics.
The RIAA inputs seem well suited to typical magnetic pickup cartridges and are ideal both for DJ-style recording and for transferring vinyl samples into your computer.
There seems to be adequate level to drive the majority of soundcards, and the jack outputs can cope with up to +20dB of level. The EQ also seems suitably benign, though the mid-range is best used for cut only, as the frequency chosen sounds really boxy or honky when used for boosting. Having said that, you may never need to use it if your computer system has decent EQ. The routing system covers most desktop recording eventualities, and of course you could also use the Compact 10 as a regular live sound mixer provided that you accept its limitations, specifically the lack of any effects sends. Some effects-send capability would have been useful in studio applications too, as there's no straightforward way to add reverb from a hardware unit while recording a vocal using zero-latency monitoring. On the whole, though, the Compact 10 is a good compromise between flexibility, simplicity, and cost, and I like the fact that the monitoring is in stereo rather than mono as it would be when set up with a simple pre-fade send. It's a shame that, although the mixer is actually very quick and easy to use, the manual doesn't do a very good job of guiding you through the process of running a session. Descriptions of what the controls do are all very well, but the user also needs to know how they all work together in practice.
I feel that a mixer specifically for computer recording has been long overdue, and Soundcraft seem to have got it about right for the less complicated end of the market, especially at this UK price. Having said that, if you don't need the RIAA turntable inputs, but you do need to record more than a couple of sources at once on a regular basis, then you can get a lot more flexibility (at the expense of more complex operation) by spending just a few more pounds on a conventional multi-buss mixer. Where the Compact series scores is simplicity, and it's also a good shape for desktop use, as it's not too deep. In some ways its a pity a battery compartment was not built in, as it would have made mobile use with a laptop very convenient. While I would have liked to have seen a built-in talkback mic and maybe some additional routing for mix bouncing back into the computer, the Compact 10 does a great job of streamlining the business of both recording to and monitoring from a computer DAW. Definitely a step in the right direction.
- Easy to operate.
- Compact without being cramped.
- Quiet mic preamps.
- Mic preamp gain control law is very bunched up at the top end of the pot's travel.
- No built-in talkback facility.
Despite a couple of minor omissions, the Soundcraft Compact 10 deserves credit for trying to meet the needs of the typical computer studio user at a sensible UK price and without being over-complicated.
Compact 10 £211.50; Compact 4 £105.75. Prices include VAT.
Soundcraft +44 (0)1707 665000.