As many of my readers know, when I do classical recording sessions, I put all my analog electronics and A-to-D converters out where the musicians are and just run long fiber-optic cables to my control room. I’ve been doing this since 1988. Only in the last few years, however, have I been recording multitrack digital.
Applications: Line-level mixing needs – MIDI gear, submixer to larger system, monitoring
Key Features: 16 input channels of transparent sound in a single rack-space; stereo auxiliary sends and returns; linkable to another SM 82 for even more inputs
+ Small size
+ Transparent sound
+ Extensive and flexible I/O
– No headphone jack.
The Score: An incredible combination of flexibility, size, and sound quality.
In this case, the data coming down those fiber-optic cables gets recorded on individual tracks in my Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) 2408 hard disk system, and I monitor a mix in the control room through the MOTU PCI Console software application.
While in Cleveland in November 1998, I realized I was missing something – I had no way to monitor a mix of all my mic channels while I was out on the stage with the musicians, adjusting analog parameters such as mic placement, EQ, levels, compression, etc.
Sure, I could have monitored two channels at a time through that strange little headphone amp in the Apogee Electronics AD-8000 (PAR, 11/98, p. 18), but if I wanted to hear how my individual channel tweaks affected the sound of the entire mix, I was out of luck, unless I ran back and forth between the stage and the control room. What I needed was an analog monitor mixer.
I also could have lugged around my 03D, or even have set up that cute little MIDIman SAM mixer (PAR, July 1999, p. 38) (along with a DAC). Using the 03D would have been overkill for my intended use and the tiny SAM gadget only mixes four stereo pairs, and sometimes I use more than eight tracks.
I really needed a small analog mixer with a lot of channels. Good sound was also important because I needed to hear the effect of my subtle tweaks without coloration from another set of analog electronics.
I looked through my catalogs and seemed to have plenty of choice in the matter. But once I eliminated all the mixers that looked like miniature consoles – too bulky to lug around – the list narrowed considerably. Most of the small, single rack-space line mixers were at the low end, pricewise. These units would most likely color my sound too much. Also, many of them didn’t have enough inputs anyway. There was one exception, which immediately rose to the top of my wish list – the Rane SM 82.
The Rane seemed to have eight stereo inputs, and since each of these fed a post-fader send bus I could actually get two different stereo mixes out of it, if needed. I could even return a stereo signal to it. This gave me an idea I hadn’t thought of before – I could send an analog version of my digital stereo mix (from the MOTU console) back to it, and compare my pre-digital rough mix with the one I was building up back in the control room.
I found a copy of the mixer’s manual on the Rane Web site, downloaded and printed it, got really excited and, sight unheard, decided to get one. I phoned up Brett Moss, equipment editor at PAR, and asked to review it. Exactly two days later, a package arrived on my doorstep from the Rane folks in Mukilteo, Wash. Ah, the perks of the audio reviewer!
The single rack-space SM 82 ($599) is only 5.3″ deep, but every possible nook and cranny, both inside and on the front and rear panels, is efficiently used. Each of the eight stereo inputs has a rotary pot for level and a 1″ fader for balance. Next to the balance fader is another one, which is used to control the post (rotary) fader send level. That makes eight knobs and 16 small vertical faders on the front panel! The rest of the panel is completed by a power switch, two more rotary pots – for master level and return level and two more small faders, which are used for master balance and return balance.
Each stereo input channel, as well as each of the stereo output busses, has a red LED to indicate overload (with a 4-dB safety margin). No other metering is provided but, hey, consider the size of this thing!
The rear panel is equally filled. There are 25 one-quarter-inch jacks (some balanced, some single-ended) and a power jack that, for the first time in my experience as a PAR reviewer, is not an IEC connector. Rather, it’s a female RJ-45 telephone network-type jack that connects to the large Rane external line lump power supply.
I’ve subsequently learned that most Rane equipment is powered in this manner; it gives arguably better control of ground and hum parameters and, in fact, the Rane manual spends quite a bit of time explaining the theoretical basis of line noise reduction. The extremely well-written manual also contains detailed diagrams of connector wiring possibilities; Rane doesn’t want to leave anything to chance!
Back to those 25 one-quarter-inch I/O jacks. Each of the eight stereo channels has a pair of TR input connectors – that’s 16 so far. Just like on most MIDI equipment, if one connects a plug only to the left channel jack, a mono input is obtained, and the balance fader on the front panel becomes a panpot. There’s a pair of main outputs, on balanced TRS jacks, and another expand output, unbalanced, with both channels together on a TR jack – there just wouldn’t have been room for a 26th connector! The last four jacks are two loop sends and two auxiliary returns, also on TR connectors.
Within minutes of unpacking the SM 82, I had it wired up to the eight analog outputs from the eight-channel DAC card in my Apogee AD-8000. Since the Rane Web site had provided me with complete specs and wiring diagrams, I prewired eight short XLR-to-TR cables while awaiting the mixer’s arrival.
I played back a multitrack recording through the Apogee unit, and monitored the Rane mixer’s analog output through Stax headphones. The SM 82 does not have a headphone jack. At first I considered this unfortunate omission but, after examining the use of panel real estate, and considering my own priorities, I still could not decide which one of the controls to give up for a headphone jack. Sure, there might have been room to squeeze an 1/8″ jack in there somewhere, but this is a serious piece of professional equipment, so I’m sure the Rane engineers dismissed that possibility in a hurry.
I own four sets of Stax headphones and always leave one set out in the recording hall with my analog equipment, so the lack of a headphone jack wasn’t a problem. I pressed play on the computer and adjusted the Rane’s pots and faders. It took me less time to get a mix happening than it did for me to type this sentence – the controls are very intuitive and, considering their small size, feel pretty good.
What about the sound? I heard practically no difference whatsoever between the direct sound from a single stereo pair from the Apogee A-to-D card and that same pair after going through the mixer! Being a tube guy, I have no experience with the 2059 op-amp chips Rane uses for everything except the summing amps (where the schematic shows a 4570), but I can safely say that they sound just fine.
The direct sounds that went through the mixer weren’t identical, but they were close enough for the monitoring use I intend. And for some reason I suddenly had to run something through the SM 82 on the way to my recorders, I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s that transparent. I guess that simple, well-engineered solid-state design using op-amps isn’t too shabby these days. Congratulations, Rane, you impressed Dr. Fred!
No way am I sending this thing back to Rane- just send me the bill.