A review of a new field mixer might appear, at first glance, to be of limited interest to Mix readers. Even though the dialog and ambiences recorded by a location mixer — the person, not a device — are often heard by millions of people, the number of location mixers is dwarfed by the number of people with project studios and larger recording facilities.
Unlike the music business, in which audio is frequently produced to blow people away, the best dialog and ambience sound draws absolutely no attention to itself. That type of unpretentiousness requires a lot of talent and the right tools. One of those tools is the field mixer — the device, not the person. A good field mixer must be highly functional, portable and durable.
That means a field mixer should have a lot of Gozintas and Gozoutas, does not weigh much, operates for a long time on batteries, withstands physical abuse and operates in inclement weather. Traditionally, there are bag mixers and cart mixers. Bag mixers are smaller, lighter, battery-operated, have rotary knobs and fit into a bag or shoulder harness. A bag mixer can be operated on a portable cart, but most cart mixers are too big to schlep around in a bag. Cart mixers frequently have faders instead of knobs, and while some run on internal batteries, cart mixers usually run on an external DC supply.
Moving a fader only requires one finger. Twisting a rotary pot usually requires a finger and an opposable thumb. I mention this because recording dialog can require constant gain riding of multiple inputs — you run out of opposable thumbs more quickly than you do fingers. With that said, watching an experienced mixer's hands “tarantularize” three or four rotary knobs on a field mixer is an amazing sight.
The Sound Devices 442 Field Mixer ($3,195) is an instant classic in design efficiency. It's a head-turner, and by its look and feel, you instantly know this is a high-functioning, professional and very solidly built 4-input bag mixer that is also quite at home on a cart. All of the connections and knobs are mounted on three sides of the mixer (left, front and right). This means that once this 4.5-pound mixer is strapped into a bag, you don't have to pop it out to connect or disconnect any audio cables, change batteries or flip dip switches.
Pre-production 442s were drop-tested at a height of six feet to concrete. The 442 has a main U-chassis constructed of one continuous piece of 5052-H32 ⅛-inch-thick aluminum alloy. The smaller C-chassis, which the knobs and switches are mounted on, is slightly thinner. The strap extrusions are designed to hold a strap and take the brunt of a fall, rather than allow the knobs and shafts to take the impact. If the knobs do get smacked, they are designed to divert the shock to the case and not the guts. The battery tube cap is attached to a heavy-duty, machined block of solid aluminum mounted inside the C-chassis.
On the inside, two four-layer main circuit boards are populated on the top and bottom. The two inner layers of each board carry ground and power. With its low-consumption silicon components, the 442 runs on four AA batteries or an external 5-17VDC supply. The 6 VDC generated by the AA cells feed a very carefully designed switching power supply on its own circuit board, which provides three low-noise power rails: 48-volt, 12V and 3.3V. Phantom-powered mics suck up most of the juice. Four alkaline AA batteries will last up to eight hours without phantom; less with phantom-powered mics, louder headphones and brighter LED displays.
The 2×10-inch front panel is quite busy. There are 19 knobs, nine switches and a striking Gallium Nitride LED display consisting of two 20-LED rows that indicate levels from -30 to +20. The LED meter can be adjusted to show VU, peak, or VU and peak. A four-stage brightness control allows the display to be read in full sun; it is also bright enough to cause you to see “tracers.”
The trim, pan, EQ, master and headphone pots are of a unique pop-up design. When not in use, they retract into the face of the mixer with the push of a finger, where their adjustment status can be seen, but where they are out of the way. The mix knobs may be a bit small for ham-fisted mixers, but the edges are nicely knurled and the action is very smooth.
Each of the four inputs has its own peak and limiter LEDs, momentary PFL switch, pan pot, input trim, rotary channel knob and sweepable highpass filter. The peak lights fire when the signal is 3 dB below clipping. The LF EQ sweeps from 80 to 240 Hz. At 80 Hz, the filter's slope is 12 dB/octave. Above 80 Hz, the slope is a more gradual 6 dB/octave.
The EQ can be turned off completely by rotating the pot fully counterclockwise. A slight electrical click is audible when switching the EQ on or off; you probably wouldn't want to do that during a take.
An LED between mixer pots 1 and 2 reminds you that those channels have been linked for either stereo or M/S operation. And speaking of M/S operation, the 442 has a switchable M/S matrix built into its headphone output, so you can actually get a clue as to what your M/S will sound like.
The headphone section also has more usable possibilities than I have seen on any other mixer. A rotary pot allows you to choose the following configurations: left or right to both ears; mono to both ears; standard stereo; stereo return A or return B; stereo summed A return to the left ear and stereo summed B return to the right ear; decoded M/S left in both ears; decoded M/S right in both ears; and decoded M/S stereo.
ON THE RIGHT
The output (right) side of the 442 is no less busy than the other two. There are three pairs of balanced stereo-mix outputs, one pair of transformer-fed XLRs, another transformer-fed pair via a multi-pin Hirose connector, and a pair of TA3 active-balanced outputs that get tapped before the output transformer. The XLR and Hirose outputs have switches to select mic, -10 or line output level for each channel. The TA3 outputs can be switched between mic- and line-level with the user-configured settings (see below).
Separate unbalanced stereo TA3 male and 3.5mm tape output jacks provide for MiniDisc or cassette recorders, and there is a separate mono mic-level output plus TA3 male master-bus input connector that allows several 442 mixers to be linked to each other or to a Sound Devices MixPre or MP-2 preamp. There are also two return B jacks, an unbalanced stereo TA3 male and 3.5mm TRS jack. The A return is part of the Hirose multipin connector. Stereo headphone jacks are both ¼-inch and 3.5 mm.
Depressing the Peak/VU button during power-up accesses 18 extremely extensive, user-adjustable setup configurations. The output-limiter threshold is adjustable. The input limiters can be defeated; outputs can be set to mic- or line-level. The tone-oscillator frequency can be set for 100 Hz, 400 Hz or 1 kHz, and tone levels can be set in 1dB increments or OFF. Tone can also be selected to go to the direct outputs.
Another configuration option disables the built-in slate mic. PFL level can be sent to the meters. Monitoring can also be sent to the main meters. The 0VU reference can be set to 0 dBu, +4 dBu or +8 dBu. Each of the two returns can be configured to a Split mode so that when the front panel return switch is activated, one ear of the headphones hears the stereo return combined to mono, while the other hears program audio.
Return A is part of a Hirose 10-pin cable and connector. Return B is a separate stereo mini jack. The Return switch operates momentarily to the right and latches to the left. The user configuration lets you choose just A, just B, B momentary/A latching, or A momentary/B latching. Another configuration drops the headphone level 20 dB when the tone is engaged. Because the 442 operates across such a wide range of DC voltages, there's a parameter that allows you to choose among six voltage ranges so that you can know more precisely how much juice you have left. The last parameter setting resets the mixer to the factory defaults. Parameter changes cannot be done while the 442 is in normal operation.
A DAY AT THE ZOO
After getting to know the 442 in the studio for a few days, I got a call from Flite Three here in Baltimore to grab some wild audio for an ad campaign for the Baltimore Zoo. This was a boom-and-bag job with DAT. I packed my Ktek boom, Schoeps CMC6 with Mk41, Sennheiser 416 and Panasonic SV-255 DAT and headed for the zoo.
After throwing some tone from the 442 to the DAT to set levels, I spent four hours with the zoo staff getting rehearsed and ad-libbed lines from staff members, parents, kids, animals and the steam whistle from the zoo's train. Despite the widely varying sources, the 442's input and output limiters kept me from losing a take and never sounded squished. Mark Patey, the A2 at Flite Three, confirmed that all of the audio was usable.
Back at the studio, I put the 442 through a controlled battery-consumption test. I loaded a fresh set of alkaline batteries and plugged in a Sennheiser MKH416, Schoeps CMC6/Mk41, a T-powered Sennheiser MKH435 and a pair of Sony MDR7506 headphones. I put a CD on as I worked and adjusted all of the mics and headphones to normal levels. The green power LED began blinking a little over four hours later, letting me know that the batteries were going. Depending on the current drain, the blinking LED means that you may have about a half-hour left; two hours after that, the power quit completely.
The extreme number of features and flexibility built into the 442 position it not only as a solid bag mixer, but also as a well-appointed cart mixer. With its features fully extended to encompass peripheral equipment, you could easily expect the 442 to act as the audio hub for a four-mic/two-camera shoot with mixed stereo feeds going to each camera, a third stereo mix going to a DAT or Nagra, and each of the four inputs going “iso” to a Zaxcom DEVA, Tascam, Mackie or other MDM. Oh, and don't forget to feed the mixed mic or tape output to the director's wireless headset.
The Sound Devices 442 is well-designed and packed with features that make it a logical upgrade from a Shure FP33A. I was able to distort the audio by pushing the output limiter to extreme excess with a Sennheiser MKH416, but no one in their right mind would operate a mixer that way. The small but hardy community of location sound mixers will welcome the fourth input for additional talent or as part of a stereo ambience pair. The first round of money saved in switching from 9-volt to AA batteries will be eaten up by the cost of TA3 plugs for all of the 442's extra features. But hey, there had to be a downside somewhere.
Sound Devices LLC, Box 576, Reedsburg, WI 53959; 608/524-0625; fax 608/524-0655; www.sounddevices.com.
Reach Ty Ford at www.tyford.com.
The specs for the 442 are impressive: 20 Hz-30 kHz +.2 dB, -.5 dB. Response extends further with minimal loss to -1 dB @ 5 Hz and 50 kHz. EIN is -126 dBu and -128d BV between 22 Hz and 22 kHz, with filter set flat and trim control up full. Dynamic range is listed at 115 dB. THD+Noise is at .007% for 1 kHz at +4dBu output and .09% between 50 and 20k Hz at +18 dBu, line out, fader up. CMR ratios are 120 dB @ 80 Hz and 100 dB @ 10 kHz.
On the left panel are four locking XLR inputs (pin-2 hot). Each can be set for mic or line input level, and each has its own switch for phantom or T power, complete with a center DYN position that removes power from the inputs. Another global switch flips the supply voltage from 12 to 48 VDC for all phantom inputs. A three-way LINK switch enables the first two inputs to be linked as a L/R stereo pair, or for Mid-Side use. There are also separate gain adjustments for return A and return B. Finally, there are four male TA3-style, active-balanced outputs. These outputs are pre-fader, but post-trim, input limiter and highpass filter.
— Ty Ford