Monday, 18 September 2017

Sound Devices mixpre 3 and 6 - initial thoughts

firstly some caveats: i’m not a ‘location sound crew’ chap & so I use recording technology as part of an artistic process that is dependant not on the technology as the driver of the process or its goal but rather an intuitive meeting point between content, intent, chance and the tools used. I am not interested in the erroneous idea of a ‘perfect’ sound or, more to the point, a narrow view of technological precision as a means of assessing the result. With this in mind if I acquire any new tool, be it a camera, a recorder, a microphone or an instrument, the success of my relationship with it could best be summarised as it ‘feeling’ right, an intuitive response that allows me to concentrate not on the technology but on the creative content, either performed or otherwise perceived. I

When it comes to portable sound recording devices the technical quality is increasingly high and democratic in its accessibility. This has lots of benefits of course but it is not, in any way, a guarantee of anything, especially the listening or the created content. Whether it be in musical instruments, cameras or audio recording devices i’ve never been interested in buying the latest model or trying to keep up with some (it has to be said stereotypically male) attitude that fetishises equipment. I’ve used the same recorder (Sound Devices) for several years now, alongside older ones that, for me, connect with a musical / material driven approach to sound exploration (tape & minidisc recorders for example). However the launch of the mixpre3 / 6 tempted me & so i’ve spent the last few weeks seeing how the mp6 ‘felt’. Whether it allowed me to focus on the listening, to fit into my process so to speak.

Overall i’m pleased with it. It feels solid, reliable and in terms of the sound quality, it, mostly, is in line with my experience with Sound Devices equipment over the years. As i’ve said elsewhere there are one or two key niggles:
  1. companies such as Sound Devices have, in my opinion, to begin taking into account that their previous core market (location sound) is now the smallest sector & those of us who have different approaches to listening would, for example, appreciate much better headphone pre-amps, especially for durational listening & for when working with extended methods (contact microphones, hydrophones etc).
  2. there are some grey areas in understanding key functions that also reflect the fact that SD are still ‘speaking’ to location sound recordists & failing to grasp that there are aspects of that area of sound culture that many users actively choose to reject for various reasons. Some of these areas are about certain features such as the limiters (on or off in some modes where selection isn’t an option for example) & fader function / structures. 
  3. A firmware fix is needed to allow linking of 4 channels for ambisonic recording. SD perhaps sped up the release of the MP3/6 as a reaction to the success of the Zoom F series but it still needs to fully grasp & accept that users now expect to be able to use double m/s or ambisonic systems as a ‘standard’ ability of any recorder / mixer.
  4. A hirose connector for mains or other powering options would have also been useful. It can however be acquired by purchasing an additional sled (from Hawk Woods), as indeed can Li-ion battery operation.
  5. i’m also somewhat intrigued by the occasional noise that occurs when you switch modes without turning the knobs / gain faders down. Its mentioned by SD but its slightly unclear as to why this happens or what the long term effect could be. Some further explanation / details would be interesting.

(* i’ll note at this point that my mixpre6 is having to be returned as it has a fault. With unterminated inputs & all settings identical the noise level on channel 1 is significantly higher than all other channels. It might be worth other users doing this test. Unterminated inputs can vary but Sound Devices confirmed via email that the levels should still be similar).

So, it is a bit less intuitive ‘out of the box’ so to speak. Once has to spend longer getting to grips with its menu & the different operating options than with most other devices in this area, but that is partly of course because it isn’t designed simply as a portable recorder: its a pre-amp / mixer / recorder & so there’s a bit more scrolling through menu’s & setting input / fader & record options at first. 

Once you have your core setting’s established the mixpre6 is a very compact, solid & impressive recorder. The new Kashmir pre-amps sound nice with conventional microphones & tests so far seem to show equally impressive results with extended recording techniques (contact mics, hydrophones etc). The headphone amplifier however sounds different than the one used in the 7 series recorders & with contact mics this means one has to spend some time getting used to the difference between what one can hear in the field & the resulting recording.

I’ve been running tests on different powering solutions & find that the ravpower usb-c power packs last for days. I’ve also received the new Hawk Woods sleds for powering via Hirose and via MDV / L-mount batteries. As is to be expected from Hawk Woods these are well built and thought out additions to the mixpre's and have been testing well. The ergonomics of the SD version of the MDV / L-mount sled are somewhat cumbersome for those of us who aren’t location crew recordists and indeed for those who are but don't like the way the two batteries stick out top and bottom from the mixpre. 

. Hawk Woods SD-1 retails in the UK for £108 & allows the mixpre's to be power from a main power supply with hirose connector or indeed with NP1 batteries with their associated hirose shoes.

. Hawk Woods SD-2 retails in the UK for £144 & allows for the mixpre's to be powered by 1 MDV / L-mount battery, which expands the run time, with a 7200mah battery, to between 8-12 hours at least.

I tend not to spend time on the various forums for sound - they are, as readers will know, largely blokes talking about kit in ways that reflect the problematic idea that the technology is what matters most. What I will say is that for anyone who likes a more creative, explorative approach to sound the mixpre’s offer the possibilities that really quiet pre-amps can bring in a small enough device to be able to carry it around any situation; urban or rural. Those familiar with the SD 7-series recorders will perhaps want to know whether it sounds as good & my reply is that i’m suitably impressed so far but it’ll take me a few months to know whether the mixpre6 ‘connects’ to me sonically in the same way as my other SD recorder does. I need to reach a point where I listen through it rather than to it.