After many successful ventures in both audio interfaces and MIDI controllers, M-Audio has officially entered the full-blown control surface race with its new ProjectMix I/O, an 18-by-14 audio interface integrated into an 8-by-1 — channel motorized desktop control surface. It connects to a Mac or PC via a single FireWire connection, and almost all I/O is tucked away on the rear panel, while all tactile controls are on top. Unlike some of its less advanced (or more specialized) products, such as the Evolution UC-33e or Trigger Finger, M-Audio's new beast is built in the spirit of such heavyweights as Mackie's Logic Control and Tascam's FW-1884.
PLEASED TO MEET YOU
The ProjectMix's rear panel includes eight microphone inputs on XLR jacks and eight line inputs on ¼-inch TRS connectors. Four line outputs are situated on TRS jacks, and there is a ¼-inch footswitch input. Word-clock I/O is present, as is one set of MIDI I/O. Digital-audio I/O is provided for eight channels of ADAT (Lightpipe) and stereo S/PDIF, although only one is usable at a time. Finally, an external power-source jack, power switch and single 6-pin FireWire connector are present, along with a Kensington lock slot — an excellent feature if you carry something this valuable around.
All of the I/O is clearly marked and logically laid out, and its variety is on par with the competition. However, the lack of stereo main outputs on XLR jacks seems like an oversight. Most mid- to better-quality powered monitors and power amps have XLR inputs; connecting via XLR cables is clearly preferable to ¼-inch. The four ¼-inch outputs are balanced, which offers some consolation. On the front panel is a pair of discreet, volume-adjustable ¼-inch headphone outputs, as well as a single ¼-inch instrument input, situated on channel 1. Dual headphone connectors are a nice touch, but an additional instrument input would have been great.
ALL HANDS ON DESK
The top panel's tactile controls are logically laid out in sections and include input pots, LCDs, channel controls and faders, output mix controls, various encoder-operation buttons and locator and transport controls. Input controls are arranged in eight channels; each features a mic/line switch, a volume pot and a single clip/signal indicator LED. Channel 1 includes a high-impedance instrument signal switch. All potentiometers and mic/line/instrument switches feel sturdy, and the gains feel silky smooth, with just the right amount of resistance. There is a global phantom-power switch for all channels, which is one of my complaints. While it won't hurt anything plugged into the line inputs or dynamic mics plugged into the XLR sockets, it is a hazard for anyone using ribbon mics. In fairness, most standard mixing consoles of this size don't provide discrete phantom power for each channel; it would likely make the price tag jump substantially.
The channel controls include nine 100mm, touch-sensitive, 10-bit resolution faders: one for the master bus and eight for bankable channels. Each channel features backlit buttons for Mute, Solo, Sel(ect) and Rec(ord), as well as an assignable rotary encoder. Again, all buttons feel sturdy, and the encoder pots are infinite and stepped for precision. Above the master faders are two sets of Bank Select keys; one set allows you to bank across eight faders at once, and the other set moves just one channel at a time. The output mix controls include discrete level pots for the two headphone jacks, a master level and a handy A/B monitor cueing switch.
The encoder buttons assign common tasks such as aux send and pan to the channel encoders or faders. There are 14 of them altogether, and they are delightfully easy to navigate. The Locate and Transport controls provide a standard transport with a jog/scrub wheel, X/Y movement and Zoom controls, and several other handy tactile control buttons for engaging loops, banking through windows and other tasks. The jog/scrub wheel is stepped and feels relatively solid (though there is some play), and virtually all buttons on the ProjectMix I/O are backlit, which is helpful in the low-light atmosphere of a studio.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
I tested the ProjectMix I/O with Apple Logic Pro 7 on an Apple iBook G4 1.33GHz computer running OS 10.4.5. Windows and Mac drivers are provided on a single CD, but the latest drivers and user manuals are available from M-Audio's Website. Installation was quick, simple and trouble-free. Upon restarting, the Mac recognized the ProjectMix instantly, as did Logic. Although cables plug into all the ¼-inch jacks relatively snugly, there is a little bit of play. There is a bit more play in the XLR sockets — too much for my initial comfort, though it didn't affect performance throughout the testing. I connected all four analog outputs to four channels on my console and launched a fully developed multitrack session in Logic. The ProjectMix's faders snapped into place, but the controls initially didn't work, so I launched Logic's Control Surfaces Setup screen, trashed the old Logic Control icon (the protocol ProjectMix uses to communicate with Logic) and scanned for a new one. Logic proceeded to rebuild the interface, and from then on, it properly communicated with ProjectMix. With ProjectMix, outputs in Logic function in stereo pairs. I switched all tracks simultaneously back and forth between the two sets of hardware outputs, and the sound was crisp, detailed and evenly matched from both sets — though not especially loud. In fact, in side-by-side comparisons with the Focusrite Saffire, Echo Layla 3G and Edirol UA-25 (all of which are less expensive), ProjectMix had the lowest output of them all. The sound from the headphone outputs was slightly louder and seemingly better sounding than the mains, so I monitored the sessions from there.
I listened to the headphone jacks with a pair of AKG K-240 Studio headphones and a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M40s. The sound was clear, although again, it wasn't especially loud at maximum gain. It was here that the stepped potentiometers became a bit bothersome. Though they feel nice, the pots clearly alter the volume in a staircaselike manner, as does the master-gain pot. Because the channel faders are smooth and do not act in the same way, it was rendered less of an issue, but smooth volume pots are preferable.
ROLL THE TAPE
Next, I recorded a few instruments through the mic, instrument and line preamps. I recorded several takes of male tenor vocals and various hand percussion with M-Audio's Solaris large-diaphragm condenser mic, an Ibanez Soundgear 4-string electric bass (plugged straight into the instrument jack) and a Yamaha stereo digital piano via line-level inputs. ProjectMix performed like a champ with all three; it didn't produce any pops or glitches or miss a note. There was a lot of gain to spare with all three input types, and the recordings turned out clean and clear with no audible added noise. Plenty of breathiness and subtle details shone through on the vocal takes, and the piano recordings sounded almost indistinguishable from the actual instrument. The bass takes were the least favorite of the recordings; they sounded a tad dull and less dynamic by comparison, but to be fair, it was an inexpensive bass. Also, the bass tracks displayed full bottom range, and subtler details such as finger slides and fret buzz came through clearly.
I then routed all playback tracks through the digital outputs 5/6, connected the S/PDIF output directly to the input and recorded some digital loops. After arming S/PDIF inside the ProjectMix control panel, the tests proceeded without a hitch, producing a few perfectly clean stereo digital mixdowns. The levels of the combined outputs compared with those of the resulting stereo recordings were consistent according to Logic's meters. I repeated this test with a pair of analog outputs and inputs and was pleased with those results as well. The line-input gain pots are wide and smooth and provided adequate headroom. When the preamps overloaded, ProjectMix's clipping indicators coincided nicely with Logic's. I also tested the ProjectMix's MIDI I/O; they functioned as expected, with no noticeable latency.
ENTERING THE COCKPIT
For all major DAW tasks — including operating the transport, navigating swiftly through and scrubbing songs, recording automated volume levels, operating the pan pots, controlling aux sends and arming, recording and banking through tracks — the ProjectMix worked like a charm. All of its controls are logically laid out and clearly marked, and they feel accurate to the touch. Best of all, the user manual isn't necessary until you want to dive into deeper features — some of which are excellent. For example, by holding down the various aux buttons on startup, you can launch ProjectMix into application-specific modes for Logic, Pro Tools and so on.
With just a few button presses, users can toggle between Track Multi Channel view and Channel Strip view. In the former, users have tactile control over volume, pan, track mode (stereo/mono), automation and the assignments of hardware I/O for as many as eight tracks. In Channel Strip view, the eight channels switch over to control a selected track's volume, pan and three aux-send values, as well as the assignment of all available software instruments and two plug-in inserts. With a single button press in Channel Strip mode, controls for virtually all of a chosen plug-in's values become accessible. Better still, ProjectMix lines up perfectly with the order of each plug-in's controls.
Comprehensive multichannel and per-channel controls are provided for a maximum of eight channel EQs, send functions and plug-in assignments and parameters, in addition to multichannel surround, automation and more. Every testable attribute (I unfortunately wasn't able to test the surround-sound features) worked without error. Almost every control is no more than one to three button presses and a knob- or level-tweak away, and I liked the ProjectMix's precision. For example, unlike the headphone and master-level pots, the stepped controller pots are a delight; they move everything one notch at a time as you expect them to. If you want to pan a channel 22 steps to the right, move the associated knob exactly 22 times. For the impatient person, there is a Fast Encoder mode, which can change parameters much more quickly than the default precise mode.
SENSITIVE TO TOUCH
One of the main attractions to the ProjectMix I/O is its set of nine motorized, touch-sensitive faders, which indeed stood up to the test. They are 100mm, long-throw faders. It may be a subjective issue, but they seem to have just the right amount of resistance — not as loose as some higher-end consoles such as those from Allen & Heath, and not as resistant as a typical Mackie fader. Though they can be resilient against the lightest touches when performing motorized automation, with just a little bit of pressure, they release to the fingers and immediately reengage upon release. Though the actual knob feels like plastic and the friction feels a bit dry, the faders seem firm enough to last. They aren't overly noisy, but they also aren't silent; steer clear of placing recording mics near ProjectMix (you may not even want them in the same room). During playback, however, the noise isn't distracting.
A few other useful navigation and utilitarian buttons on ProjectMix include the Loop button, which engages and disengages the most recent loop selection; In and Out buttons, which set loop points in real time; Nudge buttons, which move selections in the Arrange window with extreme precision; and horizontal and vertical window Zoom buttons. Only two buttons are inactive for Logic, but a few others are underexplained in the manual, such as the Select In and Select Out buttons. Regarding a few of the buttons, the manual simply states, “This is a modifier button and has no function of its own,” without listing places where it actually gets used. Other than those few instances, the manual is fairly well written.
THE SOFT SIDE
Like the hardware unit, the ProjectMix's control panel software is well organized, clearly marked and version-informative. Three view modes are available. One view displays all level meters horizontally, while another displays them vertically. Those view modes come in handy because the hardware displays levels minimally. Finally, there is the default full view, which is arranged in four tabbed viewing sections. The About section displays current software, hardware and firmware information. The other sections cover Mixer, Output and Hardware controls. Everything contained within each view is self-explanatory. Levels can be adjusted; channels can be panned, soloed and muted. The control panel is also where you select the various sync and digital-port settings. Though signal routing via the software is not especially complex, it is nonetheless customizable, flexible and useful. Aside from the digital I/O, all inputs can be routed to the various outputs.
Taken purely as an audio interface, the ProjectMix sounded good and worked flawlessly. I would have liked hotter output levels, and outputs on XLR jacks would be an improvement. There is a nice variety of I/O, and all analog jacks are balanced. As a control surface, the ProjectMix shines. It is compatible with almost all serious DAW software platforms, including Pro Tools M-Powered 7.x, Ableton Live 5.0.2 and higher, Apple Logic 7.1.1 and higher, Steinberg Cubase 3.1 and higher, Digital Performer 4.6 and higher and Cakewalk Sonar 4.0.2 and higher. It feels solidly built yet sensitive to the touch. It covers a ton of DAW control and is a breeze to learn, despite a somewhat spotty user manual. The software is concise, with working drivers (a big bonus). If I could have it my way, the chassis would be smaller; its dimensions are 20-by-18.5-by-4.25 inches, and it weighs a robust 17.8 pounds. But the 100mm faders are a nice benefit. Overall, ProjectMix I/O offers a lot of bang for the buck. It should be destined to enhance many an upper-scale home and project studio.
PROJECTMIX I/O > $1,599.95
Pros: Sounds great. Low noise floor. Lots of I/O, including eight mic preamps. Simple to learn and operate. Deep controls. Well built. High-resolution, 100mm faders. Good price.
Cons: Large. Stepped volume pots. Low output-volume levels. Lacks XLR outputs. Somewhat spotty manual.
Mac: G3/800 MHz or G4/733 MHz (may be higher for laptops); 512 MB RAM; Mac OS X 10.3.9 or 10.4.2 and higher; available FireWire port or FireWire expansion card; G3/G4 accelerator cards are not supported
PC: Pentium III/800 MHz (may be higher for laptops); 512 MB RAM; Windows XP (SP2); DirectX 9.0c and higher; available FireWire port or FireWire expansion card