Summit Extension 78 And MPE-200S

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 PM, ERIK HAWKINS

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All sorts of MIDI gear can be controlled directly from your digital audio sequencer. From an armchair in front of the computer display, you can manipulate parameters and change patches on sound modules in other rooms, operate multitrack machines that are locked in a closet and even adjust the gain of your audio interface's line inputs — assuming that you have the proper gear, of course. However, microphone preamps have remained largely outside of this world of remote-control magic. There just aren't a lot of MIDI-controllable, high-end, studio-quality micro-phone preamps available.

Summit Audio recognized the need for such a product. Designed in cooperation with Rupert Neve, the Element 78 Series includes two MIDI-controllable preamps with built-in EQ, the MPE-200 ($4,495) and the MPE-200S ($3,895). The MPE-200 has a full complement of knobs and buttons for easy front panel control, while the MPE-200S is optimized for remote-control use with just one knob and a button on its face. Both preamps can be remote controlled via a TDM plug-in called Extension 78. Also part of the Element 78 line are two dedicated MIDI-tweakable, two-channel, parametric equalizers, the EQ-200 ($3,995) and EQ-200S ($3,495). They too can be controlled via the Extension 78 plug-in and are configured similarly to the preamps — the EQ-200 sports front panel controls, and the EQ-200S has a single knob and a button. (The “S” at the end of the model name stands for “slave” unit.)

The Extension 78 plug-in can be used with any digital audio sequencer that will run Digidesign's DAE engine, such as Emagic's Logic Audio or MOTU's Digital Performer. The Element 78 products can also be remote controlled by any digital audio sequencer that allows the creation of custom MIDI control templates, so you can map an Element 78 unit's SysEx and CC commands to your own virtual faders and knobs — a tedious task — but worth the effort. (The SysEx and CC commands are not published in the manual but are available from Summit Audio on request.) For this field test, I used Extension 78 in a Pro Tools environment to control an MPE-200S.

MPE-200S

The MPE-200S is essentially the same unit as the MPE-200 minus the front panel controls. Because the MPE-200 was covered in a previous issue of Mix (October 1999), I'll focus on how the MPE-200S and MPE-200 differ and the use of the Extension 78 plug-in.

The MPE-200S is no lightweight. It's only two rackspaces high but weighs in at a hefty 27 lbs., is solidly constructed and creates a striking image with its blue-gray anodized aluminum faceplate and minimal controls. The power switch is on the rear panel, near the removable IEC AC cable socket and 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz AC power select. And, like the MPE-200, the MPE-200S has a Standby mode that is entered by a combination of pressing and holding the front panel controls.

All the audio connections are balanced XLRs on the rear panel. The two preamp/EQ channels are designated A and B, and each is given its own discrete set of I/Os. This configuration makes using each processor independently a snap. Simply plug into the I/O of the processor that you need and voilà, all of the other electronics are bypassed. To use the processors in tandem, simply connect the output of one processor to the input of another. This flexibility also simplifies inserting a compressor or other effect between the unit's individual processors.

As sparse as the front panel controls are, they are amazingly intuitive — the design is actually very ingenious. Tapping the unit's single, large, square key steps you through pages. The key itself is backlit and does double-duty as the display window. A large, infinitely rotating dial lies just beneath the key and is used to enter values. Pressing the dial lets you scroll through the different parameters in the display window. The only catch is that the controls only address the preamps, filters and MIDI channel assign parameters and not the parametric EQ settings. To control the EQ, you need to use either the MPE-200 (which can be used as a master controller for up to 15 MPE-200S machines) or the Extension 78 plug-in.

Like the MPE-200, the MPE-200S is a great-sounding unit. The preamp is clean with plenty of gain (64dB worth). The filters are extremely useful, providing 17 steps of highpass and lowpass cut. The 4-band parametric EQ is accurate and flexible with low- and highbands switchable between shelving or peak, and low mid and high mid with variable EQ. I recorded a wide range of instruments through the MPE-200S, including drums, voice and classical guitar — everything sounded wonderful. The unit's tone can be summed up as having a nice solid-state quality that lends a touch of analog warmth to recordings without sounding muddy or “wanna-be” vintage.

EXTENSION 78

The Extension 78 control module is a free plug-in that is available for download at Summit Audio's Web site. Cool Stuff Labs wrote it for the exclusive purpose of controlling the Element 78 products from within your TDM recording environment. Though the plug-in's graphical interface vaguely resembles the MPE-200 machine's front panel, it is not nearly as exciting to view. It would have been nice if Cool Stuff Labs had put some time into making the plug-in look a little hipper — perhaps replacing the dark gray background with a representation of Element 78's neat anodized aluminum faceplates, like the Focusrite series of plug-ins.

But despite appearances, Extension 78 gets its job done. Controls for all four bands of the parametric EQ are present, as are preamp input gain, master output level, filter and output attenuation (which Summit Audio calls an “Output Fader”). MIDI settings can also be accessed from the plug-in, and there is a handy “MIDI OK,” or “Check MIDI,” status message. Because the MPE-200S doesn't have a MIDI activity light (a feature that would be a nice addition), this indicator is appreciated. The only control that I really missed was a key for switching preamp phase. The phase for each preamp channel can be reversed from the unit's front panel but not from the plug-in. Having phase control right on the plug-in would be super.

Previously posted on the Summit Audio Web site was a phrase that said, because Extension 78 is simply a MIDI-control module, “it uses no DSP power.” Not exactly the case. I see their point, however — one mono instance of the plug-in eats up 25% of a DSP chip. Additional instances and stereo instances use up more DSP, accordingly. However, the plug-in will instantiate on either SRAM or DRAM chips. (After pointing out the online oversight, Summit Audio has since omitted this misinformation.) The plug-in can be inserted in stereo to give you control over both channels of the MPE-200S simultaneously, or mono to allow independent operation of each channel — very cool.

CONTROL FREAK

Hooking up the MPE-200S and Extension 78 was no problem. I downloaded the plug-in from the Web site, stuck it in my DAE plug-ins folder, connected the MPE-200S to my MIDI patchbay and rebooted the computer. With a Pro Tools session up and running, I inserted the Extension 78 plug-in on an audio channel, selected the proper MIDI ports for communication and that was it — I was in control.

The plug-in's knobs are easily tweaked by either up and down or circular mouse movements, depending on where you click. I was also able to control Extension 78 from a Mackie HUI digital audio mixer worksurface. All of the onscreen elements tracked the HUI's controls fine. However, when the plug-in's dials are selected for editing by HUI, the LED around the onscreen dial became so dark that it was barely visible. This is a minor graphical problem, but a hair confusing when you first see it, because you're not sure if HUI is actually moving the onscreen dial or the dial has been deactivated — something to keep in mind.

One of the best things about the Extension 78/MPE-200S combo is the ability to save presets. Saving your EQ and preamp values is exactly the same as saving your settings on a traditional plug-in — all you have to do is hit the “Save Settings” command and you're done. This feature makes recalling a previous session's preamp and EQ adjustments no sweat. For example, there's no longer a need to write down all of your preamp levels when a vocal session must be continued at a later date; just save the preamp setup as a patch, and all you have to remember is which microphone you were using. This is a real time saver.

To my knowledge, there is nothing else on the market quite like the Element 78 line and its associated Extension 78 plug-in. While the plug-in price can't be beat (again, it's free), the Element 78 hardware might be a bit pricey for some. But if you have the cash, these units are a solid investment. However, for the less financially endowed, it would be nice to see an inexpensive, single-channel MIDI preamp from Summit Audio based on the same operating principles as the Element 78 products. With the advent of the Element 78 system, all that's required now is a plug-in controlled mic stand and we'd hardly need to move at all, though I'd recommend going to the gym regularly to burn off all of those all-night session junk food calories.

Summit Audio, 390 Westridge Drive, Watsonville, CA 95706; 831/728-1302; fax 831/728-1073; www.summitaudio.com.


Erik Hawkins is a musician/producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit him at www.erikhawkins.com for more equipment chitchat and tips on what's hot for the personal studio.






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