Learning Soundcraft’s affordable new console in time for the fair.
My middle initial is “A”. It stands for Analog. Or at least it should because (as far as mixing consoles are concerned) I have remained quite content living a pre-digital lifestyle. I have nothing against digital mixing consoles, it’s just that, until now, no manufacturer has trusted one to my care long enough for me to get comfy with the concept. So when Soundcraft offered to let me use one of their new Si Impact “affordable” digital mixing consoles, it was the golden opportunity I had been yearning for to learn first hand what’s it like to go from A to D. Oh, BTW, “affordable” means $2799. (Read more about the features and functions of SI Impact)
Trial By Fire
According to the Soundcraft PR team, “The Si Impact is designed to be as simple to operate as
an analog mixer.” Having worked with a lot of analog gear over the years, I took a smidgen of comfort in that statement. In fact, if this evaluation was scheduled to be done in familiar surroundings with the usual forgiving gang of singers and players, I would have been quite relaxed about it. But that was not the case. My first time out with the Soundcraft was to be at an actual gig with real people and 5 different bands performing on a stage in an open field at a county fair. To complicate matters, I was unable to get stage plots or any information on the bands until the day before the start of the event. Recognizing that a lot of things were going to be done “on-the-fly,” I roped in Jordan Riesenberger who is one of the techs from our church. Jordan is excellent at getting things set up on stage and has some limited experience with digital mixers (but not this particular one). Like myself, he was really eager to get good with this console.
Like In A Buffet Line
Almost before the big brown truck was out of the parking lot, I had audio passing through the Si Impact. Within 15 minutes, I had figured out how to set up levels for FOH, and how to build and send a monitor mix. I was feeling pretty good about that whole “simple to operate as an analog” thing until I went online to access the manual. What? 132 pages? Really? Do I have to know all this stuff?
Once beyond that brief time of panic, I decided it was time to start thinking as I would if standing in a buffet line—just because all that food is there, doesn’t mean I have to eat it all. I had already figured out how to create a basic mix, add FX and create a monitor send—that’s all I need for right now. Desserts will come later. This is important, and something you should find reassuring if you are, for example, considering replacing an existing analog mixer. You can take out the old board and connect your existing lines to the inputs of the new one and get right back to work. There’s a lot in the manual you don’t need right now. The best way to learn this console is to use it. If you don’t have a digital snake, skip that part, and understanding how to set up matrixes can probably wait also. In fact, IMHO, the manual could be a bit more intuitive. The basic “quick start” information you need is interwoven with a lot of information that can probably wait. But then, who reads manuals when there are dozens of videos at the Soundcraft site which we found to be extremely helpful. Anyway, once I had filtered through the 132 pages for the basic information I needed to set the board up to mix a small band, I realized I had really been over thinking it.
So, is it as simple as analog?
If all you are doing is a simple mix for front of house with a couple of monitors, the answer is yes. Anything beyond that is an insult to the Si Impact—its capabilities are far beyond any analog console I’ve ever used.
The first thing you need to wrap your analog brain around is that each of the 24 faders is actually a DSP controller with several functions. For example, let’s say you have a vocal mic assigned to channel #1. You use the channel #1 fader to 1) adjust the level of that microphone for front of house, 2) to control how much of that mic is in the monitor mix, and 3) to dial in the effects on that microphone. You also use the faders to access a 28 band graphic EQ, effects and other features. So that you know exactly what function the faders are performing, they glow in various colors. They are also motorized so that as you move between monitors to front of house to effects or EQ, they return to the position assigned for the function.
One of the biggest differences between the Si Series (and I assume other digital mixers) and analog consoles is how you access the processing and EQ. On the Si Impact, each fader strip has a “SEL” button. When depressed, it assigns an entire pack of processing options to that channel. These options include setting the gain, setting the point for the high pass filter, a gate, a compressor and four bands of EQ. This section is very intuitive and makes channel adjustments very quick and easy. You can also cut and paste the settings from one channel to another, so if you have three vocal mics to EQ, get the first one good and then just copy that to the next two before making your final tweaks.
Among the other differences are: 1) You won’t see “AUX” anywhere on the control surface, it’s been replaced by “MIX” which I find to be a more logical term and 2) You don’t “mute” a channel, you turn it on and off, which also makes more sense. Oh, and here’s one they sort of sneak in with little mention: Anything that looks, acts and smells like a knob and rotates is an “Encoder.” Encoders do not have a hard stop/start position so their position is noted with lights.
In advance of our gig at the county fair, Jordan and I spent a considerable amount of time getting used to the features and functions of the Si Impact. And you know what? It was all for naught. While we had learned all the basic functions, nothing speeds up the learning curve faster than a live group on stage plugged in and ready to play for a live audience. Fortunately, our first act was a duo who needed just two vocal mics and a couple of directs. It was during that first three-hour concert that we really began to develop some level of proficiency with this console.
The next evening was a bit more challenging as the featured band brought amps, effects pedals and needed lots of directs and mics (for drums). They were also much louder and more demanding in terms of what they wanted from the three monitors. It was a bit challenging at first, but with the bands cooperation, we managed to get a good sound out to the crowd in short order.
The next day started with a trio with bass, two vocals and a variety of instruments, which were all directs. This gave us an opportunity to apply some of what we had learned the previous evening in preparation for the up-coming evening act: a seven-piece funk/rock cover band.
When we first got wind of the featured band’s requirements, we immediately began thinking it through how we wanted to layout the stage. As a result, once they arrived and set-up progressed, things quickly fell into place. After a quick check on all the mics and instruments, we requested a short sound check just to make sure we had everything dialed in. Apparently the band had a different plan, and instead of a sound check, they just launched into their first set. It really didn’t matter as during the first couple of songs the singers communicated what they needed in their monitors and we made the adjustments on the fly. To say we got it perfect would be a stretch (we gave ourselves a B+). While the front of house sound was well-defined and punchy, getting the monitors right was a bit more challenging. We have since learned what we could have done to get those spot on for the singers in less time. Aside from that, the sound out front was excellent and folks were dancing in the grass right to the end of the show.
While most everything we have to say about the Si Impact is complimentary, there are two things you will want to be aware of. First the knobs on the faders fall off way to easily. We had several drop to the ground while putting the mixer away and finding them in the wet grass under the cover of darkness delayed tear down. Second, while the fader glow feature is cool, groovy and very helpful in illustrating what mode you are in, it’s useless in bright sunlight, so make sure you have something that will offer enough blockage from the sun so that you can see what you are doing.
Jordan’s take on the Si Impact was equally positive, “It is surprisingly smooth after I got the grasp of the layout. The ability to hop from FOH to the monitors made mixing quicker. The color coding was a nice touch which made identifying different channels easier as well. My favorite feature on the console would have to be FX set-up. The ease of use in dialing in an effect, as well as the selection bank gave sound crafting a refreshing and user friendly touch. In my opinion, the hardest part was remembering what faders to enable for particular tasks (FOH, FX, FOH EQ, etc). Aside from that, I can’t say there was anything that I disliked about this board.”
So, overall we did prove that you can go from being anal about analog to digging digital in a very short period of time. As I personally conduct training for sound techs at area churches, this experience was a huge move forward for me. While I have not worked with any other digital consoles on market and, therefore, cannot make any comparisons, I would have to concur that operating the Soundcraft Si Impact is as easy as operating an analog console—it’s just a different workflow and one that, if you are like Jordan and I, you will really come to love. I believe I’ll change my middle initial to D.
Image Top: A “Board’s Eye View” of The Alyssa Trahan Trio performing at the Monroe County (NY) fair in August.