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Phonic Helix Board 12 MkII

Firewire Mixer
Published September 2007
By Tom Flint

Phonic's well-established Helix range has made the jump to Firewire: we look at the 12-channel version, which is capable of sending 10 channels of audio at 24-bit/96kHz to your DAW.

Phonic Helix Board 12 MkIIPhonic, who celebrate their 30th birthday this year, have a lot of experience of making robust analogue mixers for use in the studio and on stage. In the summer of 2005 they took their tried and tested mixer hardware and added a USB send, declaring their new Helix Boards to be "the world's first professional USB-equipped mixers." The concept was good, but the design could only send the stereo mix as an output, rather than individual channels, and the screen printing barely acknowledged that the USB interface was present. Two years on, Phonic seem to be favouring Firewire over USB, and have integrated the technology much more convincingly. It is now possible to output individual tracks over Firewire at up to 24-bit/96kHz, and from a choice of different points in each channel's signal path. A copy of Cubase LE is bundled free with the mixer, as is the relevant setup software, and there is full support for both Mac and PC.

Although there are also larger 18- and 24-channel Helix mixers offering up to 18 outs over Firewire, they share an almost identical core of features with our 10-channel review model, so most of what is said here should be applicable to the rest of the range.

The Hardware

The Helix follows an extremely traditional hardware mixer layout which should be fairly evident from the photograph in this review. As one would expect, the channels are lined up with their relevant inputs, the monitoring and metering controls can be found on the right, and the slightly more miscellaneous I/O is at the rear.

What isn't necessarily so apparent from the pictures, however, is that the mixer is exceptionally compact, saving lateral space by pairing channel 4 with 5 and channel 6 with 7, and reducing the other axis dimension by using thin pots and placing many of them very close together. A couple more inches have been shaved off the design by using rotary knobs rather than linear channel-level faders. Clearly, the mixer's size is optimised so that it can sit on a small desk with computer monitors and peripherals, rather than atop a rack.

The preamps of the first four channels offer 50db of adjustable gain and a low-cut filter positioned at 75Hz. The next four, organised as two paired channels, have no gain knob, just a -10dBv to +4dBu switch, and are intended to receive signal from sound modules with plenty of level. The remaining four channels, earning the mixer the '12' in its name, are aux returns paired up and labelled 1 and 2. These do not share the same channel facilities — such as EQ, for example — as the others, but have their own controls over in the master section on the right.

For the first eight channels, though, all things are more or less equal. The EQ is a simple three-band design and Phonic have helpfully written each band's frequency on the chassis: 12kHz at the top, 80Hz at the bottom and 2.5kHz in the centre, with each band providing adjustment of up to ±15dB.

Next in the strip are a set of small switches accompanied by the distinctive Firewire symbol. When sent to the computer from this point in the signal path, the audio is unaffected by the channel faders, pan position and mute status. However, if you throw the relevant switch the output point is changed to before the EQ and low-cut filter, and is therefore only processed by the channel-input preamps.

Beyond the switches are the Aux 1 and 2 send level controls, which provide up to 15dB of gain. The first Aux is fixed pre-fader and feeds the Aux 1 jack socket via the helpfully named Aux Send 1 Master pot. The second Aux control, this time wired post-fader, has the dual role of supplying a signal to the internal 40-bit digital effects processor and a feed to the Aux Send 2 jack socket.

Towards the bottom of the channels are the Pan/Balance controls, the rotary channel faders, providing up to 20db of gain, and a mute button that routes channels to the Alt 3-4 bus. Interestingly, there's a pair of jack outputs from this bus on the rear panel, enabling anything from click tracks to custom monitor mixes to be output separately from the main mix.

En Route

In the master/monitoring section there is a simple effects-selection interface with integral signal and clip LEDs and a two-digit display. There is a knob that can be turned to select an effect and then pressed to confirm the choice. If a delay is chosen, pressing the knob repeatedly sets the timing. Below this are the Aux return controls for setting the level of inputs 9/10 and 11/12, plus a button that re-sends anything input into Aux 2 onward to the Aux 1 bus via its master level control. This routing simply expands the user's options, allowing them, for example, to route anything from the Aux 2 inputs to an effects device attached to the Aux 1 bus.

Overall, there are quite a number of routing possibilities, many of which are evident from the Control Room Source array of buttons, which enable the user to select which set of signals they want to route to the Control Room bus, or to the main bus, where there is a 60mm master fader and eight-segment LED meter display. Naturally the two buses have their own physical outputs, so the system seems very flexible, especially as it is possible to combine multiple sources or isolate each one individually. The four options are Main L-R, Firewire & 2T Return, Alt 3-4 and Aux 1.

The last control that needs to be highlighted is a switch for selecting the stereo signals that are going to accompany the other eight down the Firewire cable. The options are the Aux1/2 or Alt 3-4 buses, or the main mix outputs.

The remaining inputs worthy of note are found on the rear. Here there are two jack input sockets for the insert points on the first two channels, allowing dynamics processors such as compressors to be used in the signal path. An input for connecting a footswitch os provided so that the effects processor can be turned on or off remotely, and another allows a pedal to be used to adjust the repeat speed of the delay algorithms, simply by tapping in the tempo. Phonic have obviously thought about how the effects might be used live.

Put To The Test

The Helix is ready for action as soon as the external power supply is connected. Unfortunately, the power input doesn't have a securing screw-ring, as some small mixers do, which makes it relatively easy to dislodge.

For the Helix Board to interact with a computer the driver and Control Panel software must first be installed from the supplied CD-ROMs. Installation is fairly easy if the steps in the manual are followed, although the procedure differed slightly during my setup. If all goes to plan, though, clicking on the setup.exe file gets things under way, and then at some point it is necessary to plug in the Firewire cable to enable the computer to recognise the device.

Most of the Helix's inputs and outputs are found on the main panel, with some of the secondary connections and the Firewire ports hidden at the back.Most of the Helix's inputs and outputs are found on the main panel, with some of the secondary connections and the Firewire ports hidden at the back.As a copy of Cubase LE is supplied with the mixer, I decided to use that for my primary testing. Once the software is installed, the Helix ASIO drivers can be selected from the VST Multitrack page in the Device Setup menu. So far so good, although my copy flashed up a notice saying "Cubase LE supports max 8 inputs" which obviously doesn't enable the use of all 10 channels, or indeed the 18 channels provided by the larger Helix versions. Clearly this is beyond Phonic's control, but it is still an issue.

The Control Panel software, accessed from the VST Inputs page, helpfully provides details of the input and output channel names and what they are called in terms of their ASIO assignment. It is also the place where various buffer depths can be adjusted and the sample rate is set.

To return to the mixer itself, the design seems much clearer than the USB version of the Board 12. A few knobs in the master section and a couple of minor mini-jack options from the older machine have been sacrificed to streamline the operation of the new version and make way for glowing Firewire 'active' symbols, but fortunately the former are hardly missed. In terms of routing there seem to be plenty of ways to cut your cloth, so to speak, and it's more a case of pressing a button than re-plugging wires to get the desired output. Features like the pre-EQ send switch for the Firewire outputs are extremely welcome, further demonstrating Phonic's understanding of what is actually useful during recording.

The only slightly limiting thing is that there is no way to monitor the Aux 1 return at the same time as the Alt 3-4 bus — something that would surely be handy in certain setups. I couldn't quite work out why this was, particularly as Phonic have made the same thing possible using the Aux 2 inputs when the Effects To Monitor Button and the Aux 1 button in the Control section are both pressed down! The rather brief manual offers no explanation as to the ideas behind the design, and, like some of the other Phonic products I've had the chance to review, the manual leaves a little to be desired in places. Nowhere, for example, does it explain why there are two Firewire ports!

Despite all the above, many potential customers will be most concerned with how well the Helix deals with audio. The answer is that it does pretty well, and this also means that audio recorded via Firewire sounds good too. Overall noise levels are very low, making for a very clean and honest sound. The four preamps do begin to hiss a little when turned up to apply the final 20 percent of gain available, but in my experience this is pretty normal for a small mixer. The EQ is a little ordinary, as you'd expect at this price, but it does its job, although I'd personally have preferred frequencies centred at 100Hz, 1kHz and 8-10kHz.

The effects are good, but not editable, and the mixer doesn't offer anything like, say, the system employed by the M-Audio NRV10, whereby VST effects and processors can be used as inserts within the hardware mixer channels (see the 'Alternatives' box). Instead there are 14 main effects types, including the usual reverbs and delays, each with a sub-set of preset variations to choose from. A table in the manual explains the differences, so it's a matter of trying them all out and picking the best ones for use with certain material. There are more than 100 options in all, including some useful engineer's test tones and a pink-noise generator.

Conclusions

A big advantage of using something like the Helix over a dedicated computer interface is that it offers the controls and design familiarity of a typical hardware mixer. It can also be unplugged and used on its own at any time. Although it is a pity that some features have had to go to make way for full Firewire integration, I think Phonic have made the right decisions and implemented the changes sensibly within the small space.

A few criticisms do have to be made, although they are more niggles than anything serious. Firstly, the channel knobs, including the EQ, Aux 1 and 2 and Pan, are a just a little too close together. Then there's the aforementioned lack of a securing threaded ring for the power cable, and also the simultaneous record-input shortcomings of Cubase LE. One further issue is that, compared to some computer interfaces, its output options are limited: its two-channel Firewire return is not designed for surround sound applications, for example. Oh, and Phonic really ought to put a bit more effort into their English language manuals!

Nevertheless, few of the above are likely to trouble most potential customers. The effects, and related features like the remote on/off and tap-tempo switches, plus the flexible routing designed for feeding alternative mixes to stage monitors, headphones, recording devices and so on, combine to make this a great little live mixer. It could even be used with a laptop to capture a gig performance for mixing and editing at a later date. Bearing in mind all the things it does do well, at the UK price of just under £300 the Helix is a good buy. So, although this area of the market is beginning to hot up, other manufacturers will do well to beat Phonic on price. 

Alternatives

At this moment, there is nothing offering a similar set of features that can quite match the Phonic on price. The main competition comes from the already established Alesis Multimix 12 Firewire, which has similar effects and EQ provision and also ships with Cubase LE. The Multimix doesn't record beyond 48kHz, has 28-bit effects instead of 40-bit and retails for around £350, but in its favour it has channel faders rather than knobs.

A more recently released product is the M-Audio NRV10, which combines an 8:2 mixer with a 10-in/10-out computer interface. Like the Helix, it can handle 96kHz recording but it has the added advantage of a software effect insert facility that runs from the connected computer. Inevitably, it costs more than both the Multimix and Helix.

The Edirol M16DX digital mixer offers more channels but it is also more expensive, it doesn't allow the Firewire send to be changed to pre-EQ and it is formatted into two boxes rather than one. It offers a room acoustic analyser, which is unusual, but isn't quite so much of a traditional stand-alone mixer. And, of course, it's digital.

Yamaha are also looking to compete in the market with their new N12 Firewire, but this is again a digital mixer rather than an analogue one. It's designed to double as a remote controller for DAWs, and therefore costs much more.

Published September 2007