As I disembarked from the Queen Mary 2 on to the pier in Brooklyn (well someone has to do it) the first thing on my mind was not the prospect of the famous sights of Manhattan, nor the thought of some very good New World warbler spotting around The Ramble in Central Park. No, after a fascinating and pampered voyage across the North Atlantic, which featured some excellent seabird and cetacean watching, I was really looking forward to making the most of a most favourable exchange rate. For this was May 2008, pre Credit Crunch, and those kind American folks were happy to give me more than two of their lovely dollars for each and every one of Her Britannic Majesty’s pounds sterling. So after checking in to our hotel, I took my wife on a walking tour of the city, which by coincidence ended in the wonderful emporium which is the B&H Superstore on 9th Ave at 34th St. What a shop! Every professional mic and piece of recording kit on display, with expert sales people to hand. I gave them my wish list, and was soon in the queue for the till (the American guy in front wondering why I hadn’t brought an empty suitcase with me). Back in our room, I unpacked the Sound Devices 302 mixer, and began to get to grips with this tiny and versatile box of tricks. Dinner could wait…
The SD302 is a 3-into-2 (potentially 5:2) portable mixer, offering a wide range of features in a box measuring just 241 x 114 x 47mm, weighing 850g – so roughly the same size as my paperback Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America.
For those new to these devices, the main purpose of a portable mixer, certainly in my practice, is not actually mixing, but to act as an input control unit for the recorder (indeed, some very nice boxes are now coming onto the market which combine a mixer and a digital recorder, e.g. the SD552, and I think these could well represent the future of portable recording - at a price). As an example, on a recent trip to Australia I needed to travel light, and used the SD302 as the 'front end' for my Olympus LS-10. The Olympus is a remarkable little recorder but has limited input functionality, so the SD302 provided all the input control and mic powering that I needed, in a very small package.
The left side panel provides the three main transformer-balanced mic/line XLR inputs. Mic inputs are dynamic or powered, the latter phantom (12V or 48V) or T-power 12V, with up to 10mA per mic. Here also lies the 3.5mm headphone socket.
The right panel is predominantly output – 2 master balanced XLRs, plus an unbalanced stereo out at tape level on a small TA3 connector. A 3.5mm stereo socket provides the Return signal input, and this doubles as inputs 4 & 5 when this option is selected form the setup menu (these are unbalanced at line level and have no mic preamps). Access to the sealed battery tube is also on this panel - it protrudes in an odd fashion, but not when XLR output plugs are attached.
The front panel is of course the main control surface. Each input channel has: a rotary gain control and a separate rotary fader for recording level adjustment, a pan switch L/C/R and a 3-position high pass filter switch (flat/80Hz/160Hz at 12dB per octave). To the right are controls for headphone level adjustment, and headphone output switching (e.g. prefade on each channel, plus L/R/Mono/Stereo/Return and various MS options). A slate mic - very useful when working with long cables - is linked to a programmable reference tone switch. Also on this panel are switches for power, MS polarity reverse, peak limiters and battery check.
Along with scattered LED function indicators, there is the hallmark spectacular multicoloured Sound Devices level meter. Like the 7-series recorders, this has variable brightness and can be viewed in direct sunlight.
Powering comes from 3 AA cells internal or 5-18V external through a 4-pin HiRose connector.
Battery life is pretty good, my NiMH rechargeables giving me almost a full day with a pair of P48s attached.
The potential of this small unit really shows in the Setup menu, which offers 18 different variable features, and can be accessed during power-up. The meter then displays the feature being altered and the value chosen by the operator. Most of these are 'set up and forget'; for instance, you can choose several different meter ballistics (such as VU/PPM/Hold), input and output levels, input channel linking for two-channel stereo or MS. This process will also be familiar to anyone with a 7-series recorder. Sound Devices thoughtfully supply a quick reference card for all the setup parameters which fits into a plastic wallet on the underside of the unit.
The reason for buying this mixer was to replace my ageing SQN4 mixer with something smaller and lighter, and offering MS decoding. I also knew that it would provide a perfect match for my SD722 recorder. I have not been disappointed; it has worked perfectly from ice and snow to sandy beaches and tropical rainforest. It's been thrown around quite a bit, with only a little cosmetic 'damage' in the form of scratching of the black finish. I've used it with a full range of dynamic, P48 and T-powered mics. The mic inputs are very quiet and supply loads of gain, which definitely compensates for the apparently low gain on the standard 722 inputs, particularly for quiet atmospheres. As stated above, the battery life is adequate and running on just 3 AA cells, it's great when travelling - AAs can be bought in just about any corner store.
Pros: size, weight, amazing range of functions, MS decoding, T-powering.
Cons: can't think of any, except perhaps the price. At the time of writing, UK prices were around £1300 inc. VAT, and as usual, around $1300 in the USA. Luckily, by catching the right exchange rate, and even including import tax, I still got one in NY for roughly half the UK price.