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April 2005

Summing Box Shootout
Beefing up and tricking out the back end
By Johannes Rankl

Id like to make some points clear: This is not about "better" and "worse", since all the devices have their specific characteristics, which may work for some and not for others. This is not about analog vs digital summing. It reflects only my personal opinion on mixing. In the best case my impressions may help one or another with their personal search but are never a substitute for your own tests. In my philosophy the search for the right tools on our path always has been something mystical. Im not interested in specs our scientific facts behind the different technologys. I just listened with my ears and intuition to find out, which device feels in harmony with me. So while the sword Excalibur was the one for King Arthur, every knight has to look for his own weapon on his own journey.

Tube Tech SSA -2A

Beautiful blue box. Built like a tank. Very nice vintage design. The big knob feels very good. The Tube Tech defintely has its own "tube" colour. High headroom with big bass sound. High-end more in the "silk" department. Glued the mix together in a nice way. Perfect for mid centered heavy guitar music.

My impression: It's colour can suit perfectly for specific mixes, on others I would prefer something more uncoloured. I also had the feeling the tubes make transients a touch slower, so you could loose a bit of punch. This is a very straightforward design, and if youre into its colour, which it obviously has, it can be your perfect partner. It would have ben very interesting to compare the Tube Tech with the Manley mixer, but unfortunately I couldt locate one.

Thanks for the test device goes to the german Tube Tech distributor Thomas Riedmeier from CML Studio Munich.

API 8200 with 7800

Also a summing box which is not shy to show its own colour. The well known API colour is a beautiful one. Light accent in the lower mids and beautiful "shimmering" top end. I especially liked the stereo imaging. A Gigasampler Bsendorfer Piano sample that seemed a bit lifeless before came spectacularly to life. I dare to say, the 8200 brings the signals a bit more forward "into your face", which can be great for some musical styles but not so great for others. The bottom end is not so round or fat like the Tube Tech — its more defined but still very present. On Rock mixing this would be my favourite. I like the concept behind the 8200, which implies it as an expandable mixing / monitoring solution with busses, pans, solo, mute... and if you add 7600 channel strips you even can build a real anaolgue console. Very intelligent and up to date concept.

Special thanks for the test rack goes to the German API distributor Charly Bohaimi, Munich and also for his very detailed technical backround info.

RMS216 Folcrom

The sonic chameleon. Tried it with Avalon 2022, Manley SLAM! and Spider Preamps for make up gain. As you would expect it sounds: Very clear and fast with the Avalon; Very fast and warm with the Slam!; The Golden middle between both on the Cranesong.

Dont like the design, especially not the knobs. Its a bit difficult to see from a distance which channel is on mono and which is not. The other thing is, if I use it with my SLAM! I can no longer use the SLAM! for compression of single signals in the mix.

Personally I think $1000 USD is too expensive for a passive box. [Yes I know we pay for development and ideas, not just electronic parts.] But anyway, its a great idea and will find many lovers, which it deserves for sure.

Big thanx for the test device goes to my friend RedOne.

Dangerous 2-BUS

As I've heard from others, its the most accurate, neutral-sounding unit of all tested. Its been designed for mastering studios as an uncoloured mix device for stereo stems and one hears that pristine audio quality. Its greatest strength, which is the needle-sharp accuracy, is also what I didnt like about it. Especially on the top-end and in the low-mid/ bass area I would have wished more "musical" colouring. But I know its not been built with that intention. Its superfast on transients, has natural stereo and room image and big headroom. Sound-wise, I would compare it to Brauner VM-1 microphones or GML EQs. I loved its built quality, external power supply, nice yellow and green knobs. The +6db knobs are a very helpful option for weak signals.

Special thanks to Stefan Heger at Dangerous distribution Europe.

SPL MixDream

After all that I was thinking: Id like something with the Dangerous 2-BUS tightness, accuracy and headroom and the musicality of the more colouring units like the API 8200 and Tube Tech with their big bass and silky, shimmering highs. I found it in the SPL Mixdream. Its accurate, has the biggest headroom of all, controlled big bass and very pleasing top end. I dont need features like the inserts / limiter. The stereo expansion sounds quite good in small doses.

My little boys heart loves the flickering signal LEDs. Nice design also. The unit gets very hot due to its 60 Volt technology. Its also the heaviest of all candidates. Its expandable for 5.1. To be honest, I didnt expect something like this from SPL, which is not exactly my favourite gear company. But they did brilliant work on the MixDream and I strongly recommend to everyone to audition a test unit.

A big thanks goes to my friend Armin Drfler at SMM Mnchen for the test device.

Crane Song Spider

I already owned the Spider and gave the summing section a try. It is similarly accurate like the Dangerous 2-BUS, which was not my thing so I didn't use it very intensively. I love the Spider's preamp/AD/TAPE frontend but I wouldnt buy it for its summing abilities.

Conclusion

The MixDream gives me that instant audible gratification when I lay out Pro Tools tracks on it. Its sound is perfect for what I do and Ill order one in the near future. To me the differences between all those summing boxes occur when mixing from scratch through them and get all their benefits of higher headroom, signal separation, stereo image, mono signal tightness, etc. This is, where the magic happens and the differences occour.

Ive found myself doing different EQ/compression/FX/fading decisions than I would have done "In The Box" in my Pro Tools HD 4. A/B comparisons between same mixed stems sounded only marginally different.

So of course there will be some who disagree on the importance of external summing boxes, but thats OK. No principles or rules here. Its just music and freedom and I enjoy living in such fantastic times in which I can have so many brilliant options and share my impressions with others. I think in ten years well look back and will see that summing devices will have helped to build up a new type of independent, mid-sized studio, based around Pro Tools and a controller with some nice high-end outboard, which helped to produce new music which the bigger studios could no longer afford to do.

So welcome to the postdigital revolution!

END

Johannes Rankl is the owner of Plateau Studio in Munich, Germany.

For more information on these products:

Tube Tech
API Audio
Dangerous Music
Roll Music Folcrom
SPL Sound Performance Lab
Crane Song



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