Etek, the professional-audio division of the Italian musical-instrument manufacturer Eko, evidently took Apple's "think different" admonition to heart when it designed the NoteMix MA 400. This cute, portable powered mixer resembles a laptop computer, folding out to provide mix controls on top, where a laptop's display would reside, and a surprisingly powerful amplifier in the bottom section. It looks like no other mixer I've seen.
LILLIPUTIAN PANELSConstructed of beefy, gray sheet metal, the NoteMix MA 400 is a sturdy, visually understated unit with blue silk-screened control-panel graphics. The power-amp section, decorated with a large Etek logo, features air vents on the top and front and provides three small rows of yellow LEDs positioned to illuminate the control face in the dark. Except for eight prefader-listen (PFL) buttons, all the controls are small faders or sliding switches. The unit comes in a high-quality, padded Cordura carrying bag, complete with shoulder strap and partition for the power cord.
Six mic/line input channels, laid out in rectangles and labeled CH1, CH2, and so on, dominate the control panel. Each channel provides a slider control for gain, 3-band EQ, three aux/effects sends, pan, and volume. Beneath each gain slider is a red clip LED.
The graphic equalizer bands-labeled Low, Mid, and High-provide 15 dB cut/boost for the low and high (shelving) bands and 10 dB cut/boost for the mid band, which is a peaking filter centered at 700 Hz. The first aux/effects slider, labeled Aux/DRX, is dedicated to the onboard digital effects; the other two are labeled Aux2 and Aux3.
Just below the EQ section is the PFL (solo) switch. Curiously, it is a momentary switch-which is great if you're worried about leaving it on accidentally, but not too cool if you have to move around or make adjustments elsewhere with one hand while holding the switch down with the other. (There's always duct tape, I suppose.)
Another oddity is the pan slider, which is oriented vertically rather than horizontally (left is on the top, right on the bottom). This counterintuitive design will most likely take some getting used to.
Inputs 7 through 14 are controlled by two sections, Submix A and Submix B. Each submix panel provides a 3-slider aux/effects section (just like the mic/line panels), a PFL switch, and separate left and right volume sliders. The submix channels are, of course, helpful, allowing you to run a separate monitor mix, return effects, and so on. However, the modified 4-bus setup is limited by the fact that boosting channel 7 also boosts channel 9, and boosting channel 8 also boosts channel 10.
The far-right panel of the control face contains the master and monitor sections, the DRX digital effects processor, and the LED metering. You control the master section with separate left and right volume faders. The so-called in-ear monitor system, controlled by a single fader, has a three-way switch for changing between PFL, L+R (master), and aux 3. The LED metering is also switchable between three sources: PFL, L+R (master), and aux 2 and aux 3.
Except for the PFL setting, the monitor system is postfader. Therefore, if your master or aux 3 volume is all the way down, the monitor and headphones get no signal, either. One obvious problem with this arrangement is that you can't set up a monitor mix unless the main mix is also turned up. A prefader switch would be welcome.
EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELYThe DRX digital effects processor provides a switch for three different effects modes: Delay, Reverber, and Surround. A little LED illuminates behind one of the three names, indicating which effect is selected. The Delay and Reverber are available individually, or you can use them simultaneously when the switch is set to Surround.
There is also an Operating Mode switch for assigning the effects, whether to L+R/Aux/Aux3, L+R/Aux1, or Aux1/Surround. A third switch lets you choose between fast, medium, and long settings for Delay and Surround and between chorus, small hall, and large hall for the Reverber. Levels for the Delay and Reverber can be set independently using separate faders. Finally, a fader controls the effects output level, and a PFL switch is provided for the effects section.
The effect billed as Surround isn't surround sound as in 5.1, nor is it an effect. Rather, it simply allows you to route cables from the aux 1 outputs on the back and send them to another amp and set of speakers. Aux 1 is posteffect, so you can apply a little delay to get a "delay tower" effect-a kind of faux surround, I suppose. (Of course, you could also bypass the main mix with sound sources going to the aux 1 output, sending them to a second pair of speakers instead, for that old-fashioned "quad" sound.)
THE BACK SIDEChannels 1 through 6 offer both XLR and 11/44-inch mono input jacks, located on the rear panel of the NoteMix. Each mic channel is equipped with "unswitched" (meaning that it's always on) phantom power, an idea I'm not fond of. I would prefer a switch, even if only a global one.
The NoteMix's mic inputs override the line inputs. Interestingly, the line inputs double as TRS insert jacks when the XLR mic inputs are being used.
Four 11/44-inch output jacks handle the eight submix channels. These TRS jacks are set up to accept channels 7/9, 8/10, 11/13, and 12/14. Stereo breakout connectors (or, as they are called in the manual, "Etek cables") are required to access the stereo capabilities. (Stereo breakouts are available from most audio suppliers, of course. They look like Y-adapters, with a 11/44-inch TRS jack on one end and two mono jacks or plugs, in your choice of format, on the other.) The four jacks can also be used as separate mono inputs using standard cables. In this case, they feed only the first channel of each jack.
There are three aux outputs, one stereo and two mono. These share two stereo, 11/44-inch TRS aux-out jacks. Aux 1 (the one with DRX effects) can be used in mono with a standard cable or in stereo with a Y-adapter. Aux outputs 3 and 4 share the other TRS jack: if you use a mono cable, you'll get aux 3; a Y-adapter gives you access to both mono auxes.
The back panel also provides stereo inserts for the main mix, tape outputs on two RCA jacks, and a headphone minijack that the manual mistakenly calls an "in-ear monitor." Few pro headphones have minijack connectors, so you may need an adapter to use your premium cans. There is also an "Extention Port" (sic), which is an 8-pin connector that allows you to connect the NoteMix to the Notextention, a separate 24-input module with six extra headphone jacks. However, the Notextention is not available in the United States at this time.
The main speaker outputs for the NoteMix are on Neutrik Speakon jacks, which are pretty much the standard in Europe. I prefer these connectors to others, but for many U.S. buyers, another cable purchase will be necessary. Also on the rear panel is the standard IEC power-cord socket and rocker-type on/off switch, which is conveniently located on one end of the rear panel.
THAR SHE BLOWSThe NoteMix's overall sound quality is very good, including the mic preamps and sledgehammer-style EQ. (By that, I mean that the EQ is potent, requiring only incremental fader moves to effect big changes in the sound.) But two things mar the unit's sonic pedigree: the effects and the fan noise generated by the amp.
My initial reaction when auditioning the effects was that I have stompboxes that sound better. Indeed, the reverb, though digital, is reminiscent of the spring reverb built into a guitar amp I own. The delay-basically a slapback-sounds mediocre at best. The effects will work in a pinch, however, especially for industrial or speaking events. (Even then I would go lightly, because a little goes a long way.) For live music performances, I would rather use a good-quality external effects unit returned through one of the submixes.
The other problem is the fan noise. With almost 400 watts (190 watts per side), the NoteMix MA 400 has nearly the power of a B-29 bomber. Unfortunately, it's almost as loud as one, too. This shouldn't be a problem in clubs, considering all the other noise going on, and the MA 400 certainly has the moxie to power the average nightclub P.A. (A version with 96 watts per side, the MA 200, is available for $849.)
In its present incarnation, though, the NoteMix is probably not the best choice for a small room or a quiet setting. I used the NoteMix for an acoustic-music show in a coffeehouse and was very distracted by its unrelenting fan noise. A quieter fan would definitely be appreciated. (According to Etek's U.S. marketer, Wave Distribution, the most recent version of the NoteMix has a redesigned power-amp stage with a "much quieter" fan.) And how about a thermal switch that would turn the fan on only when things got hot?
Finally, I was struck by the inadequacy of the NoteMix's user manual. Aside from the colorful turns of phrase in broken English-gems such as "the ledbars can't be missing in order to visualize the real output level" and "your system can be abreast with the times and offer your audience new sonorities"-the dual-language manual (in Italian and English) simply doesn't explain much.
FOLD IT UPThe Etek NoteMix MA 400 is a nifty powered mixer that, for the most part, delivers the goods. I love the unit's unique, notebook-type design and the extreme portability and small footprint it affords. For small to medium-size club gigs that require performers to bring their own P.A., the NoteMix will definitely ease the burdens of setup and teardown.
As noted, the fan noise on the review unit was excessive, and the NoteMix's market appeal would be considerably enhanced by improved digital effects. The few other grievances I have-such as momentary PFL switches and global phantom power that is permanently turned on-are fairly minor.
With a few tweaks, Etek could have a real winner on its hands. I look forward to seeing the next generation of this innovative product.
J.J. Jenkins is an independent producer, engineer, and musician who lives on an island in San Francisco Bay (no, not Alcatraz).