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Roundup – A New Mixer Paradigm

March 19, 2012
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MIXING USED to mean one thing: A large piece of analog hardware with inputs, outputs, buses, and lots of controls. The number of each of these varied, and of course there were variations on a theme, but mixers were mixers were mixers. Were mixers.

No more. This roundup started as a collection of reviews, until I realized that these four devices took very different approaches to mixing and integration with digital audio workstations—and reviewing them would be not just comparing apples and oranges, but comparing apples, ice cream, and salmon. Yes, they’re that different. Even the two units that have the most in common—the PreSonus StudioLive 16.0.2 and Phonic Digital Console—offer different solutions to the same problem.

These are deep devices, and any one of them could justify taking up the entire roundup. So rather than try to describe every aspect in detail—that’s why companies have websites, and besides, you’re not going to commit some serious bucks to a mixer just based on a magazine article—the point here will be to analyze these different approaches, what they mean to you in terms of recording and workflow, and zoom back a bit to take a look at the bigger picture because we’ll be seeing more variations like this in the years ahead.

 
 
Focusrite
Control 2802
Live outside the box, but commute into the box

$4,999.99 MSRP

On the surface, the 2802 appears to be a traditional analog mixer: If you want to plug in a bunch of mics into Class A discrete preamps and record a drumset, perform analog summing for your DAW, or bring in multiple analog inputs, no problem.

However go a little deeper, and you’ll find it’s designed to integrate the best of the analog world with DAWs—so much so that there’s no digital audio I/O (FireWire, AES/EBU, whatever), as the 2802 prefers to use DB-25 connectors for its eight direct analog outs, eight DAW ins, and eight summing ins. (To interface these with your DAW, you’ll need either DB-25 cables for interfaces like Avid’s HD series, or BREAKout cables for interfaces with 1/4" TRS ins and outs.)

The crucial 2802 design decision is its focus on users who basically want to get the hell out of the box as soon as possible, and linger for as long as possible in the analog world before going into the box. The 2802 assumes that outstanding mic pres and outboard gear matter. It also has a sweet-sounding, VCA-based bus compressor, but it’s patchable and accessible for other routings. For example, it could compress a drum bus mix using other available 2802 I/O.

The mixer’s jack field is typically analog. Each of the eight inputs has an XLR mic jack and 1/4" TRS line in, as well as insert jacks, 75Hz highpass filter, and polarity flip. Additional XLR inputs cover an external stereo in, DAW mix, and DAW foldback. It has two sets of speaker outs, as well as mix, cue, and aux outs (again, all on XLRs). TRS connections include two sets of stereo returns, compressor in and out, and stereo mix bus inserts. Bottom line: You can stuff up to 32 stems from your DAW into the 2802 for analog summing, as well as set up creative I/O routings.

The top panel has typical mixer controls—gain, phantom, 100mm motorized faders, pan, cue, aux send, etc. One of the coolest features is its four options for direct out routing: In addition to pre-fader and post-fader, other options are pre-insert/pre-fader, and postpreamp/ filter/polarity flip, but preanything else. (If you use the line in, this also bypasses the mic pre.) This is about preamps, routing, and mixing; there’s no onboard EQ, as it’s assumed you’ll be doing that in your DAW or by patching in hardware. The master section is conventional and functional.

Digital Control The 2802 has a dual identity as a DAW control surface that connects to a Mac or Windows machine (or larger network) via Ethernet, allowing you to control software levels, pan, and aux sends for every DAW channel in your project. It’s based on the HUI protocol, and is compatible with Cubase/Nuendo, Pro Tools, and Logic. (Currently, the company doesn’t plan to support other programs, instead concentrating on updating for these core programs as appropriate.) The reason why the 2802 and its motorized faders are equally at home in the analog and digital worlds is that no audio passes through the faders, as they generate control signals for VCAs. Navigating with the control surface is pretty transparent, and the OLED displays identify the current rotary encoder functionality.

Final Mix There’s an Internet rumor that when Focusrite took over the 2802 from Audient, they shifted manufacturing to China. The 2802's final assembly (built like a tank, too) and testing is done in the UK as it always was, and possesses a solid, robust feel. Absolutely nothing feels like corners were cut.

Overall, the 2802 is an ingenious melding of analog routing, accommodation of outboard gear, analog signal path automation, and sound quality with digital recording and control. The compact format doesn’t take over your studio, but doesn’t feel cramped, either. The sound has that indefinable “width” associated with analog, coupled with excellent mic pres and superior routing options. While the 2802 will be overkill for some small studios, when you consider everything it does, it’s a cost effective solution for those who remain skeptical of the all-digital studio—yet need the recording and editing elements of today’s DAWs.

It’s said that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If those two points are analog sound and digital control, the 2802 is a straight line.


 
Phonic
Digital Console
Live mixing with a nextgeneration interface

$2,749.99 MSRP

Phonic has flown under some people’s radar, but the company has been quietly honing its chops at creating high-quality, costeffective pro-audio gear. The Phonic Digital Console (PDC for short), also called the Summit, is intended primarily for live performance, but it’s also a studio mixer and (with an optional card) FireWire and USB computer interface. It has motorized 100mm faders, but not for mix automation—they allow switching among fader layers (channels, aux groups, outs, etc.) and making edits, then having the faders snap back to where you left them.

The basics are standard: 16 input channels with mic/line ins, TRS insert jacks for each channel, and phantom power switchable as four groups, with four inputs per group. You’ll also find select, solo, and on buttons for each channel.

So where are the EQs, sends, and effects controls? This is all about the touchscreen interface, and I must admit to approaching the concept with skepticism. For live performance, the idea of going through menus and scrolling did not appeal. And at first, I felt that assessment was justified—there were too many screens, and too many options. But . . .

The Touchscreen With other mixers, the display is a readout showing what’s happening within the mixer, and that’s fine. But the heart of the PDC is the touchscreen. The key to the user interface is that there are many ways to access the same functions, and once you understand the logical layout as virtualized in the touchscreen, you can really fly around the mixer. To summarize, I originally saw the touchscreen as supplementing the mechanical elements like the faders, switches, controls, etc. Now, I understand that the mechanical elements supplement the touchscreen.

For example, you can adjust delay parameters when you’re viewing an individual channel. However, another screen lets you see, for example, the delay parameters for channels 1–8 simultaneously. So if you’re working in one channel and you want to make a tweak, it’s easy. However, for setting up delays on multiple channels, it would be more time-consuming to flip through the different input channels compared to just going to the delay page and doing everything there. Although sometimes the touchscreen is slower to respond than I’d like, this isn’t something that interferes with the functionality. I’m just a fan of snappy response.

Basically, we’re not necessarily dealing with a linear workflow but something more like “parallel processing”—the way you’d work with the PDC depends very much on how you like to work, what you need to do, and the context (e.g., live performance vs. recording).

Effects All channels and buses have comprehensive “bread and butter” effects—EQ, dynamics, gating, delay, limiting, etc.— with useful graphs for visual representations. These processors are equal to or better than what you’d find in any similar-class mixer. Unlike some mixers that include delay only to tune out timing differences between channels, here, you can tune out delays in 0.1ms increments but use the balance and feedback controls to create delay effects.

Phonic touts the PDC’s two effects processors, but they are actually multi-effects processors that can serve as inserts in channels or buses. One has 11 effects that feature reverb but also have modulation effects, while the second has eight effects that feature echo but also include other modulation effects. I’m very picky about effects, particularly reverb, and I don’t expect much from “built-in” effects. But these are excellent. Even the reverb is outstanding; I would not hesitate to use it if the PDC was a standalone processor. Couple the effects with the ability to store presets and scenes, and again, this mixer scores some major points for live performance.

Final Mix The PDC turns the digital mixing paradigm on its head so the virtualized part— the touchscreen—does the hard work, and the physical controls are more about touch-up and edits. In that respect, there’s something quite futuristic about this mixer; taken to its logical extreme, you have something like the SmithsonMartin Emulator interface for DJs, which is all touchscreen. Meanwhile, Phonic has hit a sweet spot with the integration of digital operation with physical control.

 
 
PreSonus 
StudioLive 16.0.2
Talking ’bout my . . . i-i-i-i-integration

$1,499.95 MSRP

PreSonus’ philosophy here goes beyond using a mixer for both studio and live applications. The StudioLive 16.0.2 is one element of a cleverly designed system that encompasses both hardware and software.

In fact, the 16.0.2 is really about StudioLive, not “studio” and “live,” because of the way it bridges DAWs and live performance. It includes Capture software for streaming audio through the FireWire interface to your computer’s DAW (laptop live recording, anyone?) as well as Virtual StudioLive software that treats the 16.0.2 more like a computer peripheral. But if you just want to use the 16.0.2 as a standalone mixer, it’s more than happy to oblige.

What’s more, PreSonus has stolen liberally from itself. The mixer includes the excellent Class A XMAX preamps originally introduced in the company’s audio interfaces, as well as the “Fat Channel”—a landmark feature in their original, larger StudioLive consoles. It also has something the other mixers don’t have, and that also emphasizes the system aspect: a MIDI input.

The Mixer StudioLive has eight mono inputs and four stereo ins (12 faders), although they all have mic inputs with individually switchable phantom power. There’s also a talkback mic input with trim (but you can’t record it, so it’s not another recordable input). Four additional faders control aux bus outs, and there’s a master fader. XLR outs include a mono out with trim and stereo outs, also with trim.

The 16.0.2 interface departs from the norm with its “Fat Channel,” which covers most of the top panel. This is a complete channel strip, with full hardware/ hands-on control, that includes highpass filter, gate, compressor, limiter, and three-band EQ—low and high are semi-parametric (no Q parameter) but also switchable to shelf, while the semi-parametric mid offers a choice of two Q settings. You can assign it to any channel for editing; another nice touch includes extensive use of color-coding for the switches so it’s easy to parse at a glance what’s going on.

The Fat Channel encoders can also change parameters for a 31-band graphic and sends to two different effects processors that are dedicated to ambience and delay effects.

The feel is substantial—the knobs don’t wobble, the buttons have a positive touch, and there’s a standard IEC AC cord receptacle instead of a wall wart. The 60mm faders aren’t as smooth as I’d like, but they do the job, and despite the unit’s extremely compact footprint, nothing feels squeezed.

The Software Virtual StudioLive is your window into the 16.0.2. It makes it easier to do some things, like show all bands of the 31-band EQ instead of showing different sections in the physical Fat Channel display, but it also displays thumbnail EQ curves and gain-reduction metering for the dynamics. An additional setup page, also accessible from the mixer itself, specifies which parameters will be exempt when recalling different Scenes. For example, you could choose to recall EQ and dynamics, but not fader settings should you need to make on-the-fly adjustments.

The Capture software could also be called “recording for dummies.” If you know how to plug in a FireWire cable and understand the meaning of “record,” you can stream 16 tracks into your computer as well as perform (very) limited editing, like deleting sections. This is not a DAW, by any means; it is really just for capturing audio to disk. If you want something more full-featured, the package includes Studio One Artist, a “downsized” version of Studio One Professional.

Final Mix It’s a given that mixers need to interface with DAWs these days, but it’s usually as a complementary pair, like with the other mixers/control surfaces in this roundup. StudioLive 16.0.2 does that, but you can also treat this mixer as a computer peripheral, or your computer as a StudioLive peripheral—as the FireWire interfacing is bi-directional, you can even insert plug-ins into your computer’s DAW and have them “inserted” in StudioLive. And even the peripheral can have a peripheral: You can control the Virtual StudioLive software with an iPad.

This is one slick mixer with multiple identities, but the most important aspect is that all of them are implemented extremely well.

 
 
SSL
Nucleus
The equation: Complete studio minus DAW equals Nucleus

$5,149 MSRP

Nucleus is clearly designed for smaller studios that function primarily in the box, as it consolidates multiple elements needed to turn a DAW into a studio: Ethernet-connected control surface with 16 100mm motorized faders, rotary encoders, and user-assignable “soft key” buttons; 4 x 4 (two analog + stereo optical S/PDIF) audio I/O via a USB interface; the Duende Native Essentials VST/ AU/RTAS plug-in bundle (SSL Channel EQ & Dynamics, and Stereo Bus Compressor); SSL’s “SuperAnalogue” monitoring; 4-port USB hub; two quality analog mic pre channels (with combo jacks and inserts) that even have enough gain (75dB) for ribbon mics; footswitch input; and of course, the SSL cachet.

Shortly before I finished this review, version 1.5 software appeared, and it was noteworthy not just because of its added compatibility and profiles, but the well-documented and painless installation and updating process. The main updates are Mac Lion support and OS X 64-bit support for the USB I/O (Windows 64-bit was already supported), along with DAW profiles for Ableton Live and Reason. These kinds of updates are always encouraging for those who fret over whether they bought a future doorstop or not.

In a way, Nucleus resembles a baby SSL Matrix. It has an open layout, and takes up more space on your desktop than the other mixers reviewed here. However, this means there’s more room for controls—not just the 16 faders, but also two sets of V-pots, multiple buttons, and LCD “scribble strip” displays that are extremely readable, even from a distance. Visual feedback is excellent, and raising the back up a couple inches makes it even better. A “master control” section in the middle includes large transport controls, data wheel, and USB keyboard emulation buttons. (Why doesn’t every controller have that, given the importance of keyboard shortcuts?)

One Size Fits . . . Most Nucleus offers variants of both HUI and Mackie Control, and can switch among three DAWs at once. This functionality makes the Live and Reason templates even more useful, as ReWiring them into more traditional DAWs is a common technique. Although I was not able to test Nucleus with Sony Vegas, it too is Mackie Control-compatible and I often use it in conjunction with DAWs when working on audio-for-video. The inclusion of only two audio input preamps (albeit very high-quality ones) underscores the idea that Nucleus is designed for voiceovers, solo artists, and mixing/editing more than, say, tracking a rock band.

In addition to the new profiles, Nucleus supports Pro Tools, Logic, and Cubase/Nuendo. However, it can also control Reaper, and while Sonar isn’t officially supported, the Nuendo default (basically Mackie control) imparts general functionality, including control of Sonar’s various ProChannel parameters. Although I had some head-scratch moments (I figured out how to get into bus control mode, but not how to get out of it), it seems like Nucleus could be compatible with more DAWs without too much effort.

For non-HUI/MCU applications, Nucleus offers the “trap door” of being a general purpose MIDI CC data controller. In this respect, it can control pretty much anything with a learn function, including virtual instruments, signal processors, and the like. I had no trouble getting it to work as an ACT controller in Sonar, and with Pro Tools, this kind of control is built in without even having to go into the MIDI CC “layer.”

Final Mix Like with any controller, it takes a while to get used to grabbing a control instead of reaching for the mouse; you need to learn a controller like you would an instrument. That said, once you do, it’s easy to fly around the control surface.

The price may seem high, but considering the “sum of the parts” gives a different perspective. The control surface is first-class, but so is the audio path—the preamps (the same used in Duality and the AWS consoles) and monitoring are excellent, and of course, you can do zero-latency monitoring if needed. Being able to switch among programs is a big deal for those who need that kind of capability, and while it’s a small touch, having two headphone outs is appreciated. Throw in the plug-ins, and the extra details like a USB hub, and it adds up to quite a complete package.

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