(click thumbnail)Portland-based SignVideo Ltd. has manufactured and distributed made-in-the-USA video production and duplication tools/accessories since 1993. Its product range includes a utilitarian variety of video distribution amplifiers and dub switchers, as well as some more specialized entries.
From an audio standpoint, easily the most remarkable item in SignVideo’s catalog is its four-channel field mixer, the ENG-44. Retailing for just $529, the ENG-44 and its well-appointed feature set adroitly fill a void in the market where industry standards retail for two to three times its price.
SignVideo ENG-44 designer Roger Marin apparently took a Cook’s tour of the most popular field mixers and developed a product that not only covers the rudimentary requirements, but also incorporates a few features plucked from the best.
Location audio production
AC/DC-operable four-channel in/two-channel out mixer; inputs are mic/line selectable; per-channel phantom power, high-pass filter and L/C/R pan switch; 10-segment VU meters; output compressor/limiter (internally adjustable); dual headphone outputs; balanced and unbalanced outputs (mic/line level); tape return monitor; 30-day satisfaction-guaranteed trial period
SignVideo | 503-236-0000 | www.signvideo.com
- Outstanding value
- Impressive sound quality
- Very good limiter
- Flexible I/O complement
- Combined L/R front-panel output control
- No channel mutes or solos
- No discrete left- or right- channel audio monitoring
An excellent addition to the location audio backbone that won’t break the spine or bank.The ENG-44 has four switch-selectable mic/line inputs on XLR connectors (2 kohm input impedance). Each input has a corresponding continuously variable level potentiometer, a left-center-right pan switch, a 100 Hz high-pass filter (6 dB/octave) and a +48V phantom power switch.
The balanced main left/right XLR outputs are fed from the mixer’s stereo master output control; the L/R outputs can be globally set to either line or mic level. The same output buss also feeds separate 1/8-inch stereo (unbalanced) mic- and line-level “auxiliary” outputs. At line level, balanced and unbalanced outputs have 600-ohm impedance.
A headphone monitor pot feeds both a conventional 1/8-inch stereo jack on the front of the unit (10-ohm output impedance) and a second XLR phones output (carrying L/R information, not balanced) for running a long cable to a boom mic operator or producer. Two unbalanced 1/8-inch stereo jacks provide aux input to the mix bus (line level, fixed) and a tape monitor input for auditioning the return back from a deck or camera. The latter features independent L/R input level adjustment via recessed trim pots, and can be discretely monitored at the headphones output via a front-panel mix/tape-return selector switch.
The ENG-44 weighs in at 2.25 pounds loaded with four AA batteries. The unit can also be powered via an external supply of 9-18 VDC. The external power input accepts a 2.1 x 5.5 mm center-positive coax-type connector, and is protected against potential reversed polarity damage.
The range of professional field mixers for the professional ENG and film/video production market is fairly small. Yet the expectations for these “one chance to get it right” products are unusually high, especially in the build quality and ergonomic departments.
There are only a handful of industry-respected “usual suspects” from which to choose and prices tend to be commensurately high, with two-channel models starting just under $1,000 and four-channel models in the $2,000 - $3,000 range (there are additional models that push beyond $4,000). Naturally, production engineers form a tight bond with their trusted mixer: it literally and figuratively becomes an appendage and extension of themselves when they pick up the PortaBrace.
Based on name recognition and perception-by-price alone, SignVideo’s ENG-44 doesn’t fit into the first-call picture. It can, however, fit in nicely as a capable and quality backup — a CYA luxury that smart ops should seriously consider based on its feature set, minimal weight and extremely low cost.
Don’t feel sorry for the ENG-44; it is perfectly positioned to fill the affordable four-channel mixer void and provide real field production audio operations to the new and exponentially growing HDV production set.
My experience using the ENG-44 for this review spanned two phases. First, I was in my studio under (reasonably) controlled circumstances using a variety of mics that included Sony ECM-77 and ECM-88 wired lavs, Lectrosonic M152 lavs (with LM transmitters and Venue receivers), an ElectroVoice RE-20 and a Shure KSM-44. For the second phase I took the ENG-44 (feeding a Zoom H4 and Sony HVR-Z1) out to an office location and on the streets for some location shoots using the Lectro lavs and a Sennheiser ME66 on a fish pole.
During the tests and in mock-post, I was completely impressed with what SignVideo and designer Marin were able to accomplish. Specifically, I was impressed by the clear and quiet preamps, its surprisingly pleasing compressor-approaching-limiter (its knee/ratio falls somewhere in between), and its capable feature set. The unit had no trouble providing consistent phantom power to a full complement of amperage-hog condensers, even for extended lengths running on four AAs.
From an ergonomic standpoint, the ENG-44’s dual curved 10-segment LED VU meters were fast and easy to follow (a recessed VU brightness switch provides both normal and near-blinding settings), the limiter indicator was well in sync with its action, and the front panel knobs felt secure and smooth, with a healthy amount of stay-put resistance. The headphone amp proved capable of comfortably driving a set of Sennheiser HD280 phones (64 ohms), but I wouldn’t recommend a much higher load for noisy situations.
Some other welcome features were the secondary XLR headphone feed (though a level control would be even more welcome), the built in slate capability, and the redundant stereo line output (on mini). It was also nice to find that the compressor threshold is internally adjustable, as are the left, right and tone generator outputs – though I recommend calibrating these before hitting the road, as there are over a dozen screws to contend with.
There are some useful features found on several (but not all by any means) of the ENG regulars that are not incorporated in the ENG-44, but that wish-list version would carry a much higher premium.
As it stands, you really can’t go wrong with the SignVideo ENG-44 as a backup to a first-call favorite or as the audio core for lower-budget independent production outfits. It boasts an impressive sound quality and circuit design, a beyond-utilitarian feature set, it’s made right here in the States, and its absolutely affordable.