FIG. 1: The NRV10 is an 8-channel analog mixer that features built-in digital effects and a 10 5 10 FireWire interface.
Although many recording musicians have given up traditional consoles in favor of mixing in the box, there is a particular subset of analog mixers that's actually gaining in popularity. I'm referring to those with USB or FireWire interfaces. The number of such products has increased dramatically over the last year or so.
One of the newest entries from that group is the M-Audio NRV10 (see Fig. 1), an 8 × 2 analog mixer equipped with a 10 × 10 FireWire interface that supports audio up to 24-bit, 96 kHz. The unit gives you plenty of signal-routing flexibility, five very serviceable mic pres, built-in effects and EQ, and much more. Although the NRV10 has many live applications (for P.A. and DJ mixing), I'll focus here on its capabilities as a recording mixer.
Mix and Match
The NRV10 has a small footprint and a standard compact-mixer shape. (Currently there is no rackmount option available.) It features four mono channels (1 to 4), two stereo channels (5/6 and 7/8), and an additional virtual stereo channel (9/10) that exists only as a FireWire output through which the main mix is routed. The physical channel strips are each equipped with short-throw, high-tension faders. Although they feel fairly stiff compared with conventional faders, M-Audio chose them so that they'd be less susceptible to jostling in a club situation. They take a little getting used to, but after that they're fine.
FIG. 2: The rear-panel I/O includes ¼-inch and XLR main outputs.
Each channel (except 9/10) also has a basic 3-band EQ: the Low control is fixed at 80 Hz, the Mid at 2.5 kHz, and the High at 12 kHz. The channels each have two aux sends. In the mixer's default routing, aux 1 (Mon) is used primarily for setting up a cue mix. Aux 2 (DFX) sends your signal to the onboard digital effects processor. Two mono aux send jacks with stereo returns let you connect outboard processors. The channel strips also have mute switches, pan controls, trim controls, and a Channel Source button (one of the most important controls on this mixer) that toggles the channel between the analog input and the corresponding FireWire output from the computer.
Channels 1 to 5 have XLR mic inputs and balanced/unbalanced ¼-inch inputs. Channels 1 to 4 also offer ¼-inch TRS insert points. Stereo channels 5/6 and 7/8 both have two ¼-inch TS mono inputs. Each channel has a mute switch but no solo switch.
The master section features faders to control Phones, Ctrl Room, and Main Mix levels. You also get four return knobs: Aux Rtn 1, Aux Rtn 2, FW 9/10 to Phones, and FW 9/10 to Ctrl Room. The latter two control how much of the main mix coming from the computer goes to the headphones and control room outs, respectively. Also in the master section is a 3-way Phones Source switch that governs what will be heard in the headphone mix. You can choose Main Mix; Monitor, a mix setup using the Aux 1 knobs (which can be used for setting up a separate monitor mix for live talent); and Cue, which lets you monitor any muted channel through the headphones without disturbing the main mix.
For metering, you get a 13-step stereo LED meter with clipping indicators, which shows you the level of the main mix. The individual channels each have peak and mute-status indicators.
Back It Up
As you would expect, the rear panel offers an assortment of I/O (see Fig. 2). You get a pair of FireWire jacks, which is handy because it allows you to daisy-chain other FireWire devices. (M-Audio thoughtfully includes two different types of FireWire cables along with the mixer: 6-pin to 6-pin, and 6-pin to 4-pin.) You also get both ¼-inch and XLR main outputs, ¼-inch control room outputs, ¼-inch inserts for the main outputs (so you can patch in, say, a compressor), a global 48V phantom power switch, and a Kensington Lock Port for locking the unit up with a Kensington security cable.
Also on the rear panel are the power switch and an input for the 12 VDC adapter. The NRV10 is not FireWire bus powered. Like other products of its type, it has no MIDI I/O. To send MIDI into or out of your sequencer, you'll need a separate MIDI interface.
The installer disc for the NRV10 loads two pieces of software onto your computer. The Control Panel (see Fig. 3) is a basic but useful utility that shows you the levels of all the inputs and outputs on the NRV10. It came in very handy when figuring out routing options.
FIG. 3: You can easily see what''s going on in the FireWire interface with the included Control Panel software.
The other application, NRV10 interFX, was developed jointly by M-Audio and Audiffex. It was designed primarily for hosting effects plug-ins for live use. You can get similar effects-hosting functionality through your digital audio sequencer, so NRV10 interFX isn't necessary in the studio.
Briefly, NRV10 interFX gives you gain control, a compressor, and a gate for each mixer channel, and it lets you insert VST plug-ins into the path of any analog input channel coming through the FireWire bus from the NRV10. So if you were using the NRV10 live, you could access any VST plugs that were on your computer for use on your live sources. NRV10 interFX also comes with six basic but solid VST plug-in effects from Audiffex: a delay, a chorus, a compressor, a flanger, distortion, and an expander/gate.
The NRV10 is compatible with a range of digital audio software, including Digidesign Pro Tools M-Powered. M-Audio includes a Pro Tools M-Powered demo (Mac/Win) with the unit.
It's the Process
The NRV10 also has its own built-in digital effects, which can be used anytime, including when the mixer is in standalone mode. You can even use them — through the DFX send — on a channel that's returning to the mixer through the FireWire bus.
You get 16 different effects, including several types of reverb, a chorus, a flanger, a mono and a stereo delay, and a couple of combination effects. You can have only one effect active at a time.
The effects sound pretty good, but they're not editable; you get one knob to choose the effect type, and another to select a variation of that effect type (for example, for the hall reverb setting, you can choose from a variety of decay times). Essentially, they're just a collection of presets, which limits their utility in the studio. Probably the biggest benefit of these effects is the ability to add them to the monitor mix when using the mixer's direct monitoring facilities.
Although the NRV10 does function as a standalone analog mixer, if you don't use it with its FireWire I/O and a computer, you won't get the most from it, especially in the studio. Used in conjunction with a digital audio sequencer, it provides a lot of options. For a tracking session, you can bring up to six sources (four mono and two stereo) into your DAW, with their Channel Source buttons set on Channel, and monitor them directly with the built-in effects with zero latency.
Alternatively, you could monitor through your computer, and use your sequencer's plug-in effects by setting the Channel Source buttons to FireWire. If your record buffer is low enough, latency won't be an issue. You could even monitor some inputs through FireWire and other inputs directly if you wanted. This routing flexibility sets the NRV10 apart from similar products. It lets you route individual channels back through the mixer for monitoring or additional processing, whereas other analog mixers with FireWire interfaces let you send back only a stereo pair.
If you're doing your final mix in the box, simply set the output of your tracks to the NRV10's FireWire 9/10 bus. You'll be able to monitor your mix through the FW 9/10 to Phones and FW 9/10 to Ctrl Room returns. When you're satisfied with how it sounds, bounce it to disk as usual.
If you're running low on CPU power during your mix, you can utilize the NRV10's built-in processing on some or all of your tracks. But this will necessitate sending all of your tracks through the NRV10's physical input channels, which means that your signal must pass through an additional digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversion as it's mixed.
Testing, One, Two
I tested out the NRV10 in tracking, overdubbing, and mixing situations. Once I got the hang of its architecture, I found it to be a very capable and flexible device.
I tested the mic pres on both acoustic guitar (see Web Clip 1) and vocals, and found them to be clean sounding with a nice sheen in the high end. According to M-Audio, they're the same pres that are in its Octane preamp (see the review in the December 2004 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com).
The NRV of You
The NRV10 is an appealing product. It combines the features of a mixer and an audio interface, and it sounds really good. Having the choice to monitor the inputs either directly or after the computer's processing gives you a lot of flexibility. The built-in effects and EQ are basic but can be very useful during tracking and overdubbing.
If you're looking for a versatile audio interface but don't want to give up the hands-on aspects of a physical mixing console, you'll definitely want to check out the NRV10.
Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.
analog mixer with FireWire interface
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3AUDIO QUALITY4VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Flexible signal routing. Good-sounding mic pres. Three different monitoring modes. Solid sound quality. XLR and ¼-inch main outputs.
CONS: EQ very basic. No editing of built-in effects.