Hybrid mixing is here to stay. (Required reading: "What is Stem Mixing?" [Tape Op #87]) This may explain why our friends at API Audio, with their rich history in analog gear, have "thrown-in" to the ever growing project-studio market by offering a small-format console to meet modern audio- production demands. While The Box does incorporate a summing mixer in its architecture, I refuse to refer to it as simply as "a summing mixer." API has rightly calling The Box a "console," but in my opinion, using the word "project" in its description belies the unit's professional-level functionality and quality. I've mixed and recorded more than a few records using John Baccigaluppi's API 1608 console [Tape Op #81] when it was installed at the old Hangar in Sacramento, CA, before it was relocated to the new Panoramic House in Marin County, CA. I can say with both confidence and experience, that The Box's build quality, componentry, and character are all on par with the 1608's.
At first glance, The Box may seem like an old friend to those who've used an API desk, while it immediately reveals a "no compromise" build quality as well as modern features. Notable attributes include a well-appointed master section; four mic/line/DI inputs; two routable API 550A three-band EQs; two open 500-series expansion slots; two assignable and stereo-linkable API 527 compressors; a 16-channel line/summing mixer; and tons of convenient I/O options. Moreover, my ears love the vibe and sound of recording and summing through transformers, and The Box is stocked full of 'em.
Integration of any console takes care, consideration, and cabling. Connectivity at the rear panel of The Box's chassis is extensive, but uncrowded, well organized, and clearly labeled. For a worthy installation, plan on at least 96 patch points; The Box boasts 108 points of I/O, plus two headphone jacks (one in back, one in front). I didn't have the luxury of incorporating The Box permanently into my studio, so I hit up the guys at Hosa, who provided me with DB-25 to TRS snakes for a temporary setup.
My first test of the API was to remix a glam rock song I'd finished some weeks before. Originally, the song was mixed (with great, low budget results) from my DAW (using mostly plug-ins) through an eight-channel summing mixer. I knew The Box would allow me to spread the mix out over 16 channels, and I definitely wanted to experiment by adding a few more analog components.
The Box's summing mixer section comprises two rows of eight stereo inputs, with the bottom row holding odd numbered channels of the stereo pair (1, 3, 5, etc.) and the top row containing even channels (2, 4, 6, etc.). The first button on each of these 16 channels is one of my favorite features of The Box - a unity-gain fader bypass! I'm hereby lobbying all remaining analog console manufacturers (aren't there at least two or three left?) to employ a unity-gain switch on every fader. By doing this, API is accepting modern mixing protocol with the understanding that automation and channel/group output assignment are tasks largely handled within the DAW. Another indication of API's nod to modern mixing is the lack of meters on The Box's summing inputs, which at first seemed odd to me. However, with my DAW metering its own outputs and the API faders locked to unity, I settled in quickly. Each summing input also has an insert button, activating the insert-return routing for its respective channel. Along with simple physical routing, the insert button makes A/B'ing a processor chain super-efficient. The inserts and aux/cue sends (a stereo cue bus, plus one stereo and two mono aux sends, with pre/post-fader buttons) here really sell The Box as a console. A center-detented pan pot, accompanied by buttons for program bus assignment and solo-safe mode, round out the summing input controls. Below the two summing input rows are their corresponding 100 mm faders, sixteen total grouped in eight left/right pairs, with mute and solo buttons above each fader.
Working up a replica of my last mix required simply setting pan pots on The Box, engaging the unity-gain bypass and bus assignment buttons, then turning up the control-room level knob in the master section. The timeline of plugging in cables and running up my first mix was less than 20 minutes! Playback immediately revealed more detail in the stereo field and throughout the frequency range (especially from 150-300 Hz) than I'd achieved with my original mix. I also revisited some selected songs from older projects that had been mixed on JB's API 1608. Many of those tracks utilized outboard processing that was not at my disposal for this review, but these quick remixes through The Box offered a character decidedly similar to the mixes completed on the 1608, especially in regards to the acoustic sources.
During playback of the glam rock song, I quickly familiarized myself with The Box's master section, which is kind of a "big deal" in a small space - again emphasizing "console" functionality and borrowing heavily from the look of the 1608, right down to the control-room level knob. Four external stereo sources plus the main program bus can be routed to the control-room monitors and the cue bus through a 5×2 matrix of buttons. The control-room buttons are selective, not additive, while the cue buttons are additive. The Box handles two sets of monitors, with a trim pot for the alt monitors. There's also a dim function with its own level knob, and of course, a mono button for checking phase, etc. An insert button enables bus processing on the program bus, and there's a program-sum input button which can sum in additional material from another mixer or stereo source. A stereo solo bus offers PFL, AFL, and SIP modes, with a master solo trim and a solo clear button. Finally, if it all gets too crazy, use the cut button to kill everything! Before your head stops spinning, I'll mention The Box's full-featured talkback with its own level knob and slate functionality.
Above the master section, The Box sports classic VU meters sitting atop a pair of API 527 compressors. By default, the compressors are assigned to the program bus, but each compressor can also be assigned to a recording input channel. The 527 is a very smooth, "hands-off" processor in my opinion - making it super difficult to screw up a mix. Each onboard 527 offers a five-segment LED meter; variable threshold; hard or soft-knee operation; feed-forward or feed- back detector paths; and ratio controls. A Thrust mode switch places a high-pass filter before the detector circuit, which can prevent bass energy from overdriving or pumping the compressor. When the 527 pair was assigned to the program bus, I mostly preferred Thrust mode. Gentle attack and release controls round out the 527's features. As stated initially, the 527 doesn't produce an aggressive sound, even at its fastest release time, but it is a great "smoother-outer" that never really drastically changes the mix. For more aggressive bus compression, I achieved great results by patching other dynamics processors into The Box's program bus inserts.
At this point in the mix stage, I had used about two-thirds of The Box's resources. For my next test, I made the decision to complicate things by rigging my bathroom with a powered monitor, fed from mono aux 1, and a large-diaphragm omni condenser, returning to mic input 1 - creating a makeshift echo chamber for some "real ambience" effects. All four of The Box's recording input channels employ the same mic/line/instrument 548B preamps used in the API 1608 console. Channels 1 and 2 additionally employ 550A EQs, while 3 and 4 offer two empty 500-series slots. All four recording channels, in addition to having the same access to program, aux, and cue buses as the mixer channels do, also have a comprehensive selection of I/O at the back panel. Note that with two additional 500-series preamps installed in the empty slots, The Box can provide 26 inputs!
In similar fashion, I patched in a spring reverb, feeding from mono aux 2 and returning to line input 2. My "janky" vintage consumer reel-to-reel served as a stereo tape delay, from stereo aux 3/4, returning to line inputs 3 and 4. Because the recording channels have the same send features as the mixing channels, I was able to feed back the tape return into the send again for some nice delay "repeats." My mix was becoming more interesting for sure! At this point, The Box had quickly gained my confidence for mixing, so I moved on to recording.
I ran the console through several tracking scenarios, including a live session with an acoustic/vocal duo. The API preamp, 550 EQ, and 527 compressor made for an excellent signal chain, accommodating multiple overdubbing sessions with vocals, percussion, direct bass, direct keyboards, and amplified guitar. I should also mention that The Box is very flexible when it comes to building an artist mix. For example, you can simply assign any combination of the program bus and external stereo sources to the cue bus, and then route the cue bus to The Box's built-in headphone jacks. But more complex, multi-source artist mixes can also be quickly configured, and the manual even dedicates three pages to examples of how to do so. Moreover, with its comprehensive aux and cue facilities, there are many options for building a zero-latency artist mix, as you can imagine.
After three days of use, The Box felt like home. We lowly reviewers must ask ourselves some hard questions when the time comes to ship reviewed gear back to the manufacturers. "Would I buy this for myself? Would I recommend my buddy or colleague get this for her/his studio? Will this product affect the industry in a positive way?" For The Box, my answer to all these questions is "YES!" Romance aside, The Box will undoubtedly find homes in both commercial and project studios alike. Right now, I cannot imagine a better B-room solution. Some will complain about The Box's price tag. In the end, we all know that good components cost money, and anything worth keeping in this world requires an investment. A last complaint - given all of its capabilities, I think the The Box should be called The Bridge. Hardest question for me - "How am I gonna pay for this thing?" ($17,995; www.apiaudio.com)