The Soundcraft M12 is one of many compact, budget "utility" mixers on the market. The biggest differences from the other mixers are the digital output, the 100 mm "big console" faders, and - my favorite - the look. This thing is gorgeous. It has a black metal top with white writing and rich yet brightly colored knobs. It is far and away the best laid out compact mixer I have had the pleasure of using. This makes the board really easy to get around on, but perhaps even more important depending on your situation is that people tend to think it's a lot more expensive than it is. I have gotten several comments along the lines of, "Whoa, serious board." The M12 is a 12 mono channel, 4 stereo channel, 2 bus mixer. It is also available as an M8 (8 mono channel) and an M4 (4 mono channels) with all other factors remaining the same. The mono channels have phantom- powered (single global switch) mic preamps that are the same as those on the Soundcraft Ghost console. The stereo channels become mono if you only plug in one side. It has an S/PDIF digital output (24-bit, 44.1 kHz) that can be switched to mirror either the MIX L/R or AUX 1/2 analog outputs. Mono channels have inserts, direct- outs, and 100 Hz hi-pass filter switches. Every channel has two pre and two post aux sends, The four stereo aux inputs are RCA. I wish at least two of them were 1/4". The master aux return volume has a mute switch. There is a monitor out, mono sum, XLR master outs, and RCA playback inputs which can be routed to the monitor or mix bus. Aux send masters are solo-able. The newly designed EQ on the mono channels has a hi-shelf, a mid sweepable from 240 Hz to 6 kHz with fixed Q, and a low- shelf at 60 Hz, which is proof that they are listening to a lot of hip-hop at Soundcraft. When I bought the M12, I wasn't interested in the EQ, and I didn't think I would use it because I have computer plug-ins I really like. Now that I've tried it, I probably will use it.
The brushed aluminum sides are removable to reveal rack rails. It is rack mountable in 11 spaces - but the power cord sticks out of the back and needs room, and the power switch is next to it, so you really need at least 12 spaces to mount the M12. I rack mounted my M12 in a 12-space SKB tilta-rack, a nice companion for this mixer. Some tiny metal thing (solder blorp?) was rolling around in mine when I got it, so I attempted to get inside. The screws are very soft - I stripped them all. I got the tiny thing out, but I never saw it. Connections are on top. My only gripe here is that the channel connections are slightly offset from the channel strips - when setting up, I had to stop and think about which connector went with which fader. [This is a design compromise due to Soundcraft packing in as much as possible into the compact frame. -Ed]
There is a "direct pre" button on each of the mono channels. When pressed in, the signal from the channel preamp is sent to the direct-out, pre-EQ and pre-fader. When the button is out, the direct-out is affected by the EQ and channel fader. I wish the direct-outs were balanced. Regardless of your direct-out connection, you can still use an insert as a direct-out if you only partially inject the cable. This came in handy for creating "more me" sends for headphone mixes. The insert jacks themselves are not that tight fitting though, and it was easy for the cable to go from one click to the next. This was a drag. Perhaps I need British 1/4" jacks.
The transformerless mic preamps are worthy of any double-blind shoot-out. They handled a variety of sources very well. They are the "clean or clipped" variety - they do not gradually distort. They have lots of gain, 60 dB, which is maybe too much - the last 7% of the gain knob has a lot of self noise to my ear and doesn't seem usable. [Soundcraft have recently redesigned the gain stage to address this issue. -Ed] The good news is, I never needed that much gain for anything I recorded, including drum kit, FX rack direct bass, DI'd and FX rack guitars, keyboards, vocals, and upright bass. The most I needed was for the war-torn (but happy) upright bass mic'ed with a "ChiNeumann" condenser, and we got "the best tone we've ever heard on that thing." In this situation, I chose the M12's preamp over an expensive ($2K) tube preamp. I'm not saying the M12 is better, but I preferred it for that situation. Considering this board sells for seven hundred- ish, you could look at it as a rack of 12 mic preamps with EQ (takes 12 spaces...) for about $60 each, with a quiet, good sounding mixer included at no extra cost.
After setting up, I found out that the channel 5 and 6 clip lights light up in unison whenever there is signal on channels 1-4. I didn't send it back because the channels sound fine, but this is a distracting bummer. To Soundcraft's credit, I left a message for someone in the service department, and he called back right away. It's not fair to say they have a problem with quality control because of this, as I am just one person. It is, however, a good lesson to check out every channel, one at a time, on a new mixer while you can still exchange it. I spent a day wiring a setup which uses almost every jack on the mixer, and then I discovered the problem. [Soundcraft are implementing a design change that fixes the problem with the peak LEDs. -Ed] The M12 has a 24-bit S/PDIF digital output that operates at 44.1 kHz only. I think that calling things "digital outs" has caused people to forget that they are really just analog to digital converters, therefore you are really just changing which end of the cable the converter is on. If you are hooking the mixer to a DAT for instance, I would do a listening test and see what you like better - your DAT's converter or the Soundcraft's. The digital out is the only connector on the back of the unit, which is kind of a drag - but they probably didn't want anybody hooking up analog RCA jacks to it.
Conclusion: I like this M12 a lot. I feel that all my gripes are made irrelevant by the price tag and overall sound quality. The M12 is certainly worth checking out over the bevy of me-too gunmetal gray clones that are out there, and I personally like the M12 best. (www.soundcraft.com)