FIG. 1: Mackie''s Onyx 1220 requires an optional FireWire card for sending its 14 channels of audio to individual tracks of your recording application.
The nerve center of the recording studio, the audio mixer, has changed roles dramatically in the digital age. A marvel of electronic engineering, the traditional analog mixer has become for many people a mixer in name (or graphic image) only, because digital mixing is done by mathematical computation rather than by hardware wizardry.
But reports of the death of analog mixing are greatly exaggerated, and producers and engineers have come to appreciate the flexibility of hybrid systems that allow a combination of analog and digital processing. One obvious application is live band recording, where multiple analog sources (drum mics, instrument feeds, and so on) need to be mixed for the house while being sent to a digital recorder for processing later. Another application is submixing for the keyboardist who needs to assign several instrument and module signals to one or more recorder tracks.
The Playing Field
Several new small-format mixers make these tasks convenient. We looked at four of them: the Alesis MultiMix 16 FireWire, the Mackie Onyx 1220, the M-Audio NRV10, and the Phonic Helix Board 24 FireWire MKII. All have built-in FireWire interfaces to get signals to and from a computer for recording and monitoring. In addition to these four, Yamaha is about to introduce two mixers in this category (see the sidebar “Coming from Yamaha”). Although they are designed to sit on a desktop, you can also install any of these mixers in a rack. Each allows you to mix a group of analog signals for monitoring or rerouting while converting the signals to digital audio and passing them on to a FireWire-equipped recording system.
These mixers work well with newer computers. All require drivers to work with Windows, but two work immediately with the Mac OS X Core Audio system. Generally, you need to be using either Mac OS X 10.3 or Windows XP with SP2 and have a G4 or 1 GHz Pentium processor, 512 MB of RAM, and as much free hard-drive space as you can get. Check the companies' Web sites for detailed system requirements (see the sidebar “Manufacturer Contacts”).
Beyond the features just described, these units differ significantly. Input and conversion capabilities vary. Some units provide no digital features beyond the conversion and monitoring capabilities offered by the interface, whereas others come with onboard digital effects and recording software, making them a complete recording studio in a box. Their various capabilities and prices ensure that there's a mixer to fit just about any need, from solo singer-songwriter demos to 16-mic ensemble recording.
Bear in mind that except for the M-Audio NRV10, these units are best for front-end mixing; they aren't designed for final mixdown of digitally recorded tracks. Three of the units provide for only a stereo return from your computer — you can't route recorded tracks back through the mixer channels. The NRV10 is the only mixer in this group that can receive multiple previously recorded discrete tracks over FireWire. (The NRV10 EQs and faders process converted digital signals, whereas the channel circuitry of the other units affects the original analog signals.)
Mackie Onyx 1220
The Onyx 1220 ($689.99) is the smallest of the Onyx line and, like its siblings, is designed mainly for analog mixing. The 1220 follows the same design scheme as the other Onyx units (see Fig. 1) but has fewer input options. For computer connectivity, you need to buy an optional FireWire card ($519.99). The unit sports four of Mackie's very good Onyx mic pres (as well as two instrument inputs and ten line inputs) and offers convenience features — such as a talkback section and alternate stereo bus — that are familiar to musicians who grew up with analog mixers. The 1220 comes bundled with Mackie Tracktion 3 sequencing software.
The biggest convenience option may be the FireWire interface. With the Onyx 1220, the FireWire card allows you to stream up to 14 channels of 24-bit digital audio to a Mac or PC. (If you're working with a PC, you can combine two mixers and have them appear to your computer as a single 28-channel mixer. Mackie says Mac support is coming soon.) The 14 channels show up in your audio software as 12 individual audio inputs and a stereo L/R mix. You can also monitor two channels of audio from the computer through the Onyx's Control Room Source matrix. Those two channels can feed the phones, control room, or main-mix outputs. You can select alternate sampling rates for the card's A/D/A converters using the Onyx Control Panel on a PC and directly from your audio software on a Mac. Sampling-rate options include 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96 kHz.
The A/D conversion process and routing to the FireWire port occur before the signal reaches the EQ section, so the 1220's channel EQ sections have no effect on them. However, if you really want or need to EQ a signal at the board before recording it, you can use an aux send or Mackie's Alt 3-4 bus to send a processed channel to an open one that can then feed the FireWire port. The unprocessed signal will still be available to your recording software.
Interface options aside, the unit is a formidable small-format analog mixer that can serve a variety of applications. You get mic pres on channels 1 through 4. Channels 1 and 2 have high-impedance instrument inputs and a switch to engage them. Channel strips 5 through 8 are stereo, but you can configure them as dual mono for recording. Channels 1 through 4 have individual 48V phantom-power switches and low-cut filters (18 dB per octave at 75 Hz).
All mono and stereo channels have fixed-frequency, low- and high-shelving EQs centered at 80 Hz and 12 kHz. The mic channels provide selectable midrange EQ (100 Hz to 8 kHz) with 15 dB of cut or boost, whereas the stereo channels have a fixed 2.5 kHz midrange control. The Perkins EQs are quiet and very usable — a staple of Mackie mixer designs.
Other traditional niceties such as a dedicated talkback mic input, stereo sends and returns for external decks or players, and switchable pre- and postaux master controls make this a solid and dependable board for live mixing. If you happen to have a recorder with Tascam-format DB-25 connectors, you're all set; the unit has built-in output connectors for those machines. Otherwise, you can use adapter cables to send balanced direct outputs from these connections to analog inputs on other devices.
Read more of the EM article on analog mixers with digital audio interfaces.
Phonic Helix Board 24 FireWire MKIIThe Helix Board 24 FireWire MKII ($999.99) is a 16-by-4-by-2-channel mixer with onboard digital effects (see Fig. 2). With 16 mic pres, 16 line inputs, and 16 channel inserts, it offers the most input options of any of the mixers in this roundup. The Helix Board 24 can send 18 independent channels of audio at 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution to your computer with near-zero latency. The mixer's S/PDIF digital output is preset to a 44.1 kHz sampling rate, but you can change it using the included PC-control software or in the Mac's Audio MIDI Setup utility. A 32/40-bit DSP engine powers the board's 16 digital effects, and its 17.5-inch-wide frame is packed to the gills with six aux sends, four subgroups, two footswitch inputs, and an XLR mono/subwoofer output with insert points. You also get Steinberg Cubase LE workstation software. The Helix has a rotating I/O module (reminiscent of the ones on classic Mackie 1604-series mixers) that you can position for desktop or rack use. The module rotates easily, but the screws used to secure the cover plate after rotating the module are small and difficult to work with. In fact, everything is small on this unit because of its multitude of controls. Even so, most are easy to grasp and operate. The board's analog features include 3-band EQ with a sweepable midrange-frequency control on all 16 channels. Each channel also has a 75 Hz low-cut switch, its own phantom-power switch, ¼-inch TRS insert jacks, and a direct-out jack. Four knobs set the six aux-send levels. You can set send 1 and 2 collectively to pre or post, and you can switch send 3 and 4 to feed aux outputs 5 and 6. Aux send 3 doubles as the send to the internal effects section, which includes reverb, chorus, and delay, and a total of 108 presets and 4 test tones. You will not find distortion effects or dynamics processors (besides some gated reverb presets), so you'll want to use guitar processors or outboard compressors when recording guitars and vocals. Also missing are dedicated instrument inputs. The Helix provides several useful digital options to facilitate recording and playback over FireWire. The most important of these is also the most cumbersome to access: setting the outgoing digital signal from any channel to be post-EQ (and post-low-cut filter), which allows you to record using the board's EQ. To access the switches that enable this option, you must remove a plate on the bottom of the unit. In most cases, you can probably set these once and forget them. But if you want to bypass the EQ section entirely on certain channels before digital conversion, then you'll either have to plan for those channels in advance or perform the same tasks session-by-session: power down the board, turn it over, remove the plate, and set the switches. You can select which stereo pair will be sent over FireWire as channels 17 through 18: main L/R, group 1/2, or aux 3/4. That's a useful option if you need to record, say, a live drum mix but don't want to take up more than two tracks. You can also assign the stereo mix returning from the computer to the aux 1 output. That way, if you're using aux 1 for a headphone mix, you can send the players a mono mix of the recorded tracks with the push of a button. At $1,000, this unit is a bargain. Its preamps sound good, its effects are useful, and the included software makes it a versatile, professional-quality recording system (you add the monitors). Although you can't access its EQs and effects individually for mixing from the computer, you can use these processes for recording, and that is extremely handy. M-Audio NRV10The NRV10 ($899.95) is a compact mixer with four mono mic/line channels and two stereo channels (5/6 and 7/8). Channel 5/6 includes an XLR connector, allowing five mics to be used simultaneously. A third stereo channel (9/10) is dedicated to a corresponding output from your computer and DAW. Unlike the larger units covered here, the NRV10 lets you do more with your recorded tracks than just listen to a stereo mix (see Fig. 3). When you assign DAW tracks to NRV10 outputs 1 through 8, those tracks become available on the corresponding NRV10 mixer channels, allowing you to use the mixer's EQ, faders, and effects section. These can, in turn, be recorded back to the DAW as individual tracks or a stereo mix. Because it is an M-Audio product, the NRV10 works with Pro Tools M-Powered ($299.95) version 7.3 or later, which is a paid upgrade for users who bought versions of Pro Tools M-Powered prior to November 2006. The NRV10 comes with a trial version of the application, along with a utility to manage the mixer's onboard effects section and drivers for both Mac OS X and Windows. You must install drivers on either platform before the NRV10 will be recognized by your computer. M-Audio recommends connecting the unit while it and the computer are powered down. The NRV10 is an 8-by-2-channel analog mixer with a built-in 10-by-10-channel FireWire 400 audio interface that operates at 24-bit resolution and an up to 96 kHz sampling rate. Its integrated digital effects processor features 16 effects with 16 variations each. These are mostly reverbs with some delay and chorus effects thrown in. You can monitor three different sources over headphones: the main mix, the cue mix (muted channels), or the monitor mix (aux 1). In each case, you get the stereo 9/10 feed (from your recording software's main outputs) mixed in on its own pot. You can select whether the channel signals assigned to the FireWire bus will be pre- or post-EQ, allowing you to record processed channels to DAW tracks. But you must use this feature carefully: because the computer is sending and receiving to and from the same channels, it's possible to create feedback loops that could damage your system. You can use the unit's two aux buses to access external processors or create a custom headphone mix. Aux 2 also feeds the internal effects section. That is particularly useful for adding effects during live performance or overdubbing. And M-Audio sweetens the effects pot by including a dedicated version of Audiffex's interFX program, which functions as a digital insert point for each of the mixer's input channels. With this little gem, not only can you add compression and gating to any input, but you can also directly access any two VST plug-ins on your computer from the same channel. As long as your computer is fast enough that latency is not a problem, the NRV10 provides enormous flexibility for signal processing and basic recording in a performance or rehearsal situation. Its handling of digital signals gives it a great deal of power in an amazingly small box. (For a full review of the NRV10, see the June 2007 issue of EM, available at www.emusician.com.)
FIG. 2: Phonic''s Helix Board 24 FireWire MKII has a list of features as long as its name, including 16 mic pres with direct outs, 108 onboard effects presets, 2 footswitch inputs, and a dedicated subwoofer output with inserts.
FIG. 3: M-Audio''s NRV10 approaches the flexibility of full 2-way digital mixing by sending its channels to individual tracks of your computer audio application and routing the returns of those tracks back to individual channels of the mixer.
Alesis MultiMix 16 FireWireThe MultiMix 16 FireWire mixer ($799) is a very compact 16-channel mixer with eight mono mic/line channels and four stereo/dual-mono channels. (A USB 2.0 version is anticipated for summer release.) Its compact size owes a lot to the 3-pound in-line transformer on its power cable, which attaches to the mixer with a 3-pin twist connector. The MultiMix 16 handles 24-bit audio at either 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling rates and comes with Steinberg Cubase LE. The mixer has optional ears for rackmounting. This mixer sends all 16 of its inputs (4 stereo/dual-mono and 8 mono channels) down the FireWire cable, along with its main-mix signal as channel 13/14 (see Fig. 4). It converts the signals postgain, -EQ, and -fader, so you can tailor individual signals somewhat before recording them. However, the MultiMix 16 offers only fixed-frequency 3-band EQ on all channels and provides no insert points on any channel nor any gain controls for its stereo channels. The mixer does provide a lot of effects presets — 100 28-bit effects including reverbs, delays, chorus, flanging, pitch, and multi-effects. These are accessed from the aux 2 sends on each channel strip. Only one can be active at a time, and none are available on the FireWire stream, which means the effects section is primarily useful for monitoring — for example, for providing a master reverb or a flange effect for a group of synths on a live gig. The 2-track return from the computer is available at the mixer's 2-track bus. You get RCA connectors for this bus, and if you have a CD player or other device plugged in, its signal is merged with the signal from the FireWire return. However, you get no controls for the corresponding signal levels other than a headphone/control-room knob. Each of the eight mic/line channels has a 75 Hz highpass filter and gain control. A single switch toggles phantom power for all eight channels. Each of these channels also has a balanced ¼-inch TRS line input. The channel strips have two aux sends. You can set aux send 1 to pre or post. Aux send 2 is post and feeds the effects section and the aux 2 output connector. A channel strip's Mute button routes the input signal to the Alt 3/4 bus. Each channel strip also has a Solo button. The Solo Mode switch in the master section toggles the Solo buttons between PFL (Pre-Fader Listen) and Solo mode. A single S/PDIF output jack is located between the XLR and headphone connectors at the top of the unit and is accompanied by an illuminated Digital Out label. That will be an easy connector to find if you must operate the unit in the dark. The only other illuminated signs are the power and phantom-power indicators, and the 2-digit LEDs that list the selected effects program. Mix in Your WorldAlthough all four mixers offer some sort of digital transfer capability for getting live analog signals to your digital recording application, the features and prices of these boards put them at different levels of digital recording usefulness. The Alesis MultiMix 16 FireWire is the most economical way to get 16 channels into the computer. The M-Audio NRV10 points the way to the future of hybrid recording, with digital tracks flowing seamlessly back and forth from mixer to application. If you need better mic pres, Mackie's tried-and-true Onyx 1220 (or one of its siblings) provides the reliable path to seamless multitracking. But the bargain of the lot may be Phonic's feature-rich Helix Board 24 FireWire MKII, which puts an impressive group of features into a rackmount mixer and lets you EQ 16 channels of audio before routing it to your computer through FireWire. Rusty Cutchin is a former editor of EM and a producer, engineer, and music journalist in the New York City area.COMING FROM YAMAHAYamaha's new n-series FireWire Digital Mixing Studios, the n8 and n12, were not available for evaluation at the time of this writing but should be released by the time you read this. They promise to offer 24-bit mixing and processing at a 96 kHz sampling rate, mic pres with phantom power, 3-band sweepable EQ, and high-resolution reverb. Both units feature comprehensive monitoring capabilities, and the n12 includes surround support. The n12 is a 12-by-16-channel unit with an additional two bus and two aux input channels. Those are routed through its 16-by-16-channel FireWire audio interface, which includes full 5.1 surround support. The n8 is an 8-by-12-channel unit, but again it has an additional two bus and two aux inputs, all routed through its 12-by-12-channel FireWire audio interface. MANUFACTURER CONTACTSAlesis www.alesis.comMackie (Loud Technologies Inc.) www.mackie.comM-Audio www.m-audio.comPhonic America Corp. www.phonic.comYamaha www.yamaha.com DESKTOP MIXER FEATURES COMPARED Product Alesis MultiMix 16 FW Mackie Onyx 1220 M-Audio NRV10 Phonic Helix Board 24 FW MKII I/O Configuration 16 × 2 × 2 analog, 18 × 2 digital 12 × 2 × 2 analog, 14 × 2 digital 8 × 2 analog, 10 × 10 digital 16 × 4 × 2 analog, 18 × 2 digital Analog Inputs (8) balanced XLR; (16) bal./unbal. ¼" TRS line (4) balanced XLR; (1) bal. XLR talkback; (2) unbal. ¼" high impedance; (10) bal./unbal. ¼" TRS line;(4) ¼" TRS inserts; (2) RCA tape; (2) 16-ch. (5) balanced XLR; (8) bal./unbal. ¼" TRS line; (4) ¼" TRS channel inserts; (2) ¼" TRS main mix inserts (16) balanced XLR; (16) bal. TRS line; (16) TRS channel inserts; (2) TRS main inserts; (2) RCA 2-track ret.; (2) footswitch (effects on/off, tap) Analog Outputs (2) bal./unbal. ¼" main; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" Alt 3-4; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" CR; (1) TRS headphone (2) bal. XLR main; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" CR/headphone; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" Alt 3-4; (2) RCA tape; (2) 16-ch. Tascam DB-25 (2) bal. XLR main; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" main; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" CR; (1) TRS headphone (2) bal. XLR main; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" main; (2) bal./unbal. ¼" CR/headphone; (8) mono direct; (4) mono group; (2) DSP effects; (2) RCA rec. Digital Ports (2) FireWire 400; (1) S/PDIF out (2) FireWire 400 (w/optional card) (2) FireWire 400 (2) FireWire 400; (1) S/PDIF out Aux Sends (2) bal./unbal. TRS (2) bal./unbal. TRS (2) bal./unbal. TRS (6) bal./unbal. TRS Aux Returns (2) bal./unbal. TRS stereo/dual-mono pairs (2) bal./unbal. TRS stereo/dual-mono pairs (2) bal./unbal. TRS stereo/dual-mono pairs (4) bal./unbal. TRS stereo/dual-mono pairs Effects (programs × presets) 10 × 10 none 16 × 16 108 Phantom Power grouped, ch. 1-8 individual, ch. 1-4 grouped, ch. 1-5 grouped, ch. 1-16 EQ low, 80 Hz; mid, 2.5 kHz; high, 12 kHz (ch. 1-8, 9/10-15/16) low, 80 Hz; high, 12 kHz; mid, ±15 dB, 100 Hz-8 kHz (ch. 1-4); mid, 2.5 kHz (ch. 5/6-11/12) low, 80 Hz; mid, 2.5 kHz; high, 12 kHz (ch. 1-4, 5/6, 7/8) low, 80 Hz; mid, ±15 dB, 100 Hz-8 kHz; high, 12 kHz Faders 60 mm 60 mm logarithmic taper 45 mm 60 mm Size (desktop W × H × D) 13" × 3.2" × 15.2" 13.9" × 5.9" × 17.3" 10.4" × 4" × 14.2" 17.5" × 8.3" × 17" Weight 10.1 lbs. 16 lbs. 8.2 lbs. 23.1 lbs. Price $799 $689.99; FireWire card, $519.99 $899.95 $999.99
FIG. 4: The Alesis MultiMix 16 FireWire offers onboard effects to go with eight mic-pre channels and four stereo/dual-mono channels.