API THE BOX CONSOLE
Is this small format API worth getting out of the box for?
Review: Greg Walker
API is making a bold move with its new offering, The Box. Less than a full featured mixing console, more than a standard summing device, The Box defies easy categorisation especially when you consider that its pricing places it somewhere in the netherworld between cashed-up home enthusiast and full-time pro user. Even the name throws up some conundrums — “I wanted to mix it in The Box but ended up mixing it in the box.” Or “I pre-mixed it in the box and finished it off in The Box. Then I stayed home and watched the boxing on the box.” Hmmm…confusing. So what exactly is The Box? What can and can’t it do and, most importantly, what does it sound like?
OUT OF THE BOX
First up, let’s get one thing straight. This is no toy despite the slightly questionable name and square logo on the front panel. The Box is a serious piece of gear that has lots of knobs, buttons and full throw 100mm faders on it. It takes up a fair chunk of desktop real estate and is surprisingly heavy for its size (over 36kg). Getting The Box out of the box is no easy task and you’ll need a sturdy desk to place it on.
My review model of The Box came without any documentation whatsoever so I decided to take the plunge and see if I could set it up and get a mix going without downloading the manual (something I would not recommend with a large format console!). As it turned out The Box was pretty simple to get going — I plugged the 16 outputs from my DAW into the summing section, took the main XLR outputs back into Channels 1 and 2 of my interface and hit the power button on the back of the unit. A few minutes of speculative button pushing later and I had my mix coming through the faders loud and clear. Then it was time to single out a few mono sources for further special mono channel treatment. On the first song I ran through The Box I singled out vocals, kick, snare and bass for a bit of extra massaging and I started pushing faders around, exploring the onboard EQ and of course the mix bus compressor. Two things were immediately clear to me; one: the Box was sounding pretty damn good; and two: it would sound even better if I could involve some more outboard!
Basically my gripe with the whole summing idea is that if you’re going to pay for something that blends things together in the analogue domain it really should give you some basic EQ options. Fortunately I found the antidote to this in The Box’s generous insert topology and began roping in my various bits of outboard. Before long my Box mix setup developed to the point where I had an extra API EQ and compressor in the empty 500 series slots, an additional pair of JLM EQs on the mix bus insert and another couple of pairs of passive EQs and an Al Smart compressor inserted on various channels of the summing pairs. Indeed if I was to shell out for a Box I’d probably pair it with a small, clean sidecar mixer equipped with good EQ to pre-process certain stereo tracks before hitting the API circuits and enhance the analogue experience even more.
NICE TO MEET YOU
After the initial ‘getting to know you’ period tooling around on different mixes I got serious and stemmed out some mixes that needed finishing off for a client — in this case the sensational Newcastle-based North Arm. The North Arm mixes required a special approach as most mix elements were heavily multi-tracked and effected and nearly everything was delivered to me as stereo tracks. The brief was to bring more punch and definition to the vocals and rhythm parts, all the while keeping the swirling play of the sonics in full display. As it turned out these mixes were a perfect test for The Box and I was able to drive the stereo parts into the analogue sweet spot while highlighting snare and vocals in particular through the mono channels. Once I got the first mix to a good point I fired off a progress mix and the client was blown away, not only by the sound but by the effortless level I was achieving with the mix bus compressor. Even though I was only hitting this one compressor (without any digital limiting or additional gain enhancement) I was getting a volume level and RMS power equivalent to many mastered CDs. I did a couple of different fader-ride passes of the mix and it was pretty quickly given the big tick!
TICKING THE BOX
So that got me off to a flyer and I mixed more North Arm tracks and then some more straight-forward Beasts Of The Field material ‘in The Box’ to the great satisfaction of my clients and myself. I think that there are multiple reasons these mixes sounded so good — one is, of course, that the analogue architecture of The Box is rock solid and this little console is made by people who specialise in building great sounding big consoles. Another is that having all those inserts just sitting there encourages you to expand the console’s limited toolset by plugging in all your analogue outboard and this really is a hidden blessing of The Box. Another is that the mix bus compressor sounds extremely bloody good. It’s not super quick which will annoy some people, but if you tinker with it you will find avenues to great, punchy-sounding dynamics in your mixes and it has a nice softness to it that allows you to push mix elements right up into it. Perhaps the most striking aspect of using The Box for me was the impact that using real faders in a high headroom analogue circuit has on a mix. The headroom as well as the elastic ‘give’ of the bus compressor enables you to really drive key elements of a mix and highlight the important moments and elements in a song without masking the whole. Not to say you can’t or don’t do this in all-digital mixing, but there is a certain tactile performance element that comes into play when using real faders, and this encourages the mixer to actually ‘play’ the song; feature the snare here, the lead guitar there, lift the vocals subtly for a few key lines, pull the rhythm guitars down where they aren’t so necessary. I found myself regularly pushing faders up and down by 5-8dB and the effect was never less than utterly musical in the context of the mix. So yep, I’m happy to concede that mixing in The Box is both more fun and better sounding than working solely inside a DAW. I did one comparison mix where I got a song to a satisfactory point using only digital tools in my DAW and then mixed it again through the API. The most noticeable differences were in the thicker more powerful ‘guts’ of the midrange and the way the vocal sat so effortlessly in The Box mix. The snare also had a whole layer of extra goodness that I couldn’t match in the digital domain. It wasn’t that the DAW-only mix sounded bad, but The Box mix clearly had a more convincing, polished, big and ‘juicy’ sound to it. I should also mention that this analogue mixing process isn’t necessarily particularly time consuming. I would spend an average of several hours on The Box per song once I had a good digital pre-mix happening. What took up more time was keeping the mix on the board until my client was happy with the results — particularly when they were interstate and files were being sent and feedback received via email.
KICKING THE BOX
OK so that’s all to the good, but there are also some things about The Box I’m not so thrilled by. Number one is the price — as great as this thing sounds, its going to be hard to get people to part with somewhere in the region of $20,000 for a ‘summing plus bonuses’ piece of kit. For that money you would hope for more inputs and features like proper auxiliary returns. 20 or 22 channels sounds like a lot but once you stem them out you are immediately wishing you had more. Especially if you are dealing with complex modern mixes that are effects heavy and have many different sounds in them. I also don’t like how close together the 16 channels of summing are ‘paired’. When you ride a single channel it’s very finicky and easy to nudge the fader next to the one you’re trying to adjust. I also pined for some basic bass and treble EQ on more channels. Once you hear what the top of the 550 EQs can do for your snare and vocals you really don’t want to reach back into your DAW to sweeten up the guitars. But then I guess if I got everything on my wish list for The Box the whole thing would unravel and I’d end up with a 1608 and a massive price tag all over again. Hmmm… alright these things are expensive to make and this is a genuine attempt by API to give the little guys a route to big guy audio heaven. Shame it couldn’t be done any cheaper.
On a more positive note The Box can capably act as the nerve centre of your studio with all talkback, headphone mix and multiple playback options well catered for. API has provided one headphone socket front and back of the unit as well as an extra set of XLR outs for a second set of monitors. The four preamps sound excellent too. I tracked Melbourne band Canary with them on kick, acoustic and electric guitar, and room mic. We also overdubbed trumpet and percussion through them and the results were uniformly excellent. Recording Tash Parker and Melody Pool singing through these preamps was a joy and they do really shine on vocals, delivering very true and powerful tones.
In terms of sonics and usability I couldn’t fault The Box. It has quickly become a key element of my studio setup and I will be gutted to see it whisked back whence it came. While the asking price will see its use restricted to the more well-heeled project studios and pro setups, there’s no doubt API has achieved what they set out to do; create a desirable, excellent sounding hybrid mixing/summing console that lives up to the company’s considerable reputation. There are definitely some limitations here but the analogue mojo is undeniable and everything has been well thought out and implemented. If you’ve been hankering for some API console magic but had ruled out their 40-grand plus consoles on the grounds of expense, now might be the time to reconsider. There’s no question The Box can make your mixes sound better and improve the nature of your working methods, and that’s nothing to sneeze at!