Steve Brodie checks out Soundtracs' latest addition to the increasingly‑crowded compact mixer market.
The emergence of relatively powerful compact 2‑ and 4‑buss mixers over the last few years has done much to elevate the status of the home studio, and other areas have benefited from the change too — such mixers are now used in theatres, churches, clubs, and even video post‑production. The other side of this coin is that with consumer choice comes confusion — the market is now flooded with compact mixers from various manufacturers, all offering slightly different features at slightly different prices, and with new models constantly becoming available, it's more difficult than ever to make a purchase decision in this field. Fortunately, the mixer under scrutiny here, the new Soundtracs Topaz 14:4, promises to handle a variety of applications without being crammed full of confusing features.
Appearance & Connections
The 14:4 is one of three new 4‑buss additions to the Topaz range (the others being 12:4 and 24:4 versions). Initial impressions of the middle of the range model are good, if not too exciting; the steel casing and dominance of metal jack sockets, along with the chunky pots, lend the 14:4 a solid appearance, and the colour scheme is restrained; the casing is dark grey with very clear white legending, while the caps of the pots are colour‑coded according to function. A stripe continues down the side of each knob, so it is easy to see your settings at a glance. Around the back, the rear panel accommodates just the master outputs on balanced XLRs, the power socket and on/off switch, and an external earth connection. The power socket mates via a secure screw thread which is unlikely to be dislodged by inadvertent tugs or snagging; sadly, though, the PSU itself is external and non‑rackmounting (unlike the 14:4 itself, which can fit into your rack with the aid of the rack ears supplied). The back panel also sports a handy table detailing the wiring conventions of all the connectors, which is excellent — but I can imagine having to contort my body somewhat in order to read it once the mixer is installed!
Moving over the back edge of the folded steel chassis brings us to the main array of connectors, located on the rear of the 14:4's top panel. The 10 mono mic/line channels may be accessed via either balanced XLRs or balanced line‑level jack inputs, and there's also a post‑EQ insert point on a three‑pole jack, wired ring‑return/tip‑send. To the right of the mono channels are the two stereo input channels which, being line‑level only, have no XLR or insert points, just a pair of unbalanced jack sockets; connecting a jack to the left input only provides a mono channel. Above the stereo inputs, there are two stereo effects returns (increasing the possible number of mixer inputs to 18), and adjacent to these are two mono aux sends and two group outputs, again all on unbalanced jacks. Beneath these are two pairs of phono connectors allowing for input from and output to a stereo recorder.
This leaves just two connectors; the headphone socket which nestles next to the two‑track phonos, and an unbalanced mono output, ideal for dressing room cue systems and the like in theatre installations.
At the top of the mono channel strip is the gain control, providing mic gain of +10dB to +60dB or ‑20dB to +30dB at line level. Next down is the straightforward 3‑band EQ section, providing 15dB of cut or boost at 12kHz, 2.5kHz and 80Hz. Each band has its own pot with a centre detent. I could bemoan the lack of a sweepable mid‑band, but the frequencies are well‑chosen, so the EQ should be adequate for the less experienced operator.
The last two pots are for the two stereo auxiliary sends. Aux 1 is switchable either pre‑or post‑fader, so it could be used to set up a monitor mix (in pre‑fade mode) or be employed as a conventional effects send. Aux 2 is fixed post‑fader. Both sends have a Solo switch located in the master section alongside the pre/post fade switch for aux 1.
Next we have a conventional pan pot, followed by the pre‑fade listen Solo button. This is vital for the setting of input gain controls in conjunction with the bargraph meters, which show the level of any solo'ed channel. You'll need to set level with particular care, as the channels have no clip warning LEDs, which I found rather disconcerting. To hear the solo'ed channel, you will have to use headphones, as there are no monitor outputs, and the master outputs naturally continue to carry the programme material. This is a drawback for most home recording applications, particularly any form of multitracking, but it's not insurmountable.
Beneath the Solo button is a channel mute, which is a welcome inclusion. Neither the solo or mute buttons have status LEDs in the channel, so you might find yourself peering along the surface of the mixer trying to see which button is depressed, although there is a master warning light.
A routing switch toggles between L/R or groups 1/2; you can't send a signal to the groups and the master outputs other than by assigning the whole group to the master outputs, which is far less flexible. A 60mm channel fader completes the mono input channel.
The stereo channels lose the gain control in favour of toggling between input sensitivities of +4dBu or ‑10dBV. There is no mid‑range EQ, and the pan is replaced by a Balance control, which changes the relative level of the left and right inputs.
Facilities in the master section are basic; there's a single fader for the groups, but one each for the left and right outputs. A switch selects whether the 10‑segment LEDs monitor the masters or the groups. A 20dB pad is available, which can be applied to the masters while leaving the tape outputs unaffected. The two effects returns each have a level control, with that for aux 2 doubling as a level control for the tape returns. A global phantom power switch and a headphones level control complete the master section.
So — what does it sound like ? As part of my assessment, I took the Topaz 14:4 along to a live band recording I was due to make. It was a fairly simple recording setup, with a main stereo mic pair and some spot mics all mixed straight onto DAT. The results were strikingly transparent and clean — the absence of noise was particularly noticeable, even with the gain wound up to cope with very quiet acoustic instruments. In short, the sound quality is very good.
During the session, everything seemed to fall neatly to hand; at no point did I struggle to find anything, although the lack of status LEDs for mutes, clipping and PFL was disconcerting, to say the least. I didn't use the EQ during recording (I always treat it as a last resort), but trying some pre‑recorded material revealed some contrasts. The HF was crisp and open, verging on edgy, whereas the LF was less well‑defined — warm rather than punchy. I found the mid section well suited to boosting, providing some nice added presence, but less effective when cutting — which is what I would normally be looking to do with mid EQ!
I was delighted with the sound quality of the Topaz 14:4, but it's as well to remember that there are a number of handy features missing, such as sweepable mid EQ, monitoring facilities, and clip/status LEDs. There are also no insert points on the groups and masters (so you can't patch in a compressor/limiter or external EQ for that extra bit of control over the final mix), the two groups share a fader, and there are no individual channel outputs. I feel that these omissions (particularly the last one) are going to be more problematic for those wishing to record with a multitrack — whether you need those features really boils down to how you work.
The simplicity of design makes this a very flexible mixer, and for the musician who just wants good recordings without having to become a sound engineer, the Topaz has much to commend it, particularly the modest asking price.
- Straightforward yet flexible design.
- Reasonable cost.
- Solid construction.
- Excellent sound quality.
- No dedicated monitor outputs.
- Basic EQ section.
- No clip LEDs.
- No channel status LEDs.
Good sound quality, good construction, and a good price! Some features are missing which would make multitrack applications simpler, but whether these limitations will present a problem depends on your intended uses for the 14:4. If you need a mixer that can cope with basic studio recording and live use, check out the 14:4.