Yamaha have added USB interfacing to their established digital mixer. Is this enough to ensure it keeps pace with more recent competition?
The Yamaha 01V96 digital mixer has been around for quite a while now, and Paul White reviewed it back in SOS August 2003. It was — and still is — the baby model in a range of very well specified and designed digital mixers that include the DM1000, the 02R96 and the DM2000 (in order of increasing size and I/O capability). All four models share the same bespoke underlying DSP technology and differ principally in the amount of I/O and the physical control‑surface features. The two smaller models have slightly simpler mic preamps compared with the two larger models, although the differences in sound quality are relatively subtle.
The 01V96 (along with the other three models) had a modest mid‑life upgrade with V2 firmware a few years ago, followed by the inclusion as standard of the previously optional modelled VCM effects (adding the VCM suffix to the consoles). However, the design of the 01V96i has remained fundamentally unchanged from the 01V96 VCM, and the only significant alteration is the addition of USB 2 audio connectivity to allow direct interfacing with a computer DAW. A basic USB interface has always been included with the desk, but up until the 'i' version, it has only been used for remote control and firmware update purposes. The new 'i' model's USB 2 interface supports 16 audio channels in and out, essentially interfacing within the console's signal paths in exactly the same way as a standard MY‑card interface does.
The choice of USB 2 might seem odd to some, given the growing appearance of USB 3 and Thunderbolt interfaces, but actually it makes perfect sense. The USB 2 interface hardware was already available in the 01V96 desk design, anyway, USB 2 has more than enough data capacity and speed to support 16 bi‑directional channels of audio at 96kHz, and the interface is fully backwards compatible with future USB 3 ports. In addition, there are no issues with interface chip‑sets (unlike Firewire), and robust, well-proven drivers are readily available.
The only visible change to the 01V96i console, compared with its predecessors, is the simple addition of the 'i' suffix to the product name, along with very slightly revised panel and knob colours. So, given the very close similarity to the previous versions of the 01V96, rather than repeating the detailed feature descriptions once again, I'll just provide a brief overview here to refresh the memory and refer you to Paul White's original August 2003 review for more information.
Essentially, the 01V96 is a compact, rackmountable, 40‑channel digital console capable of operating at resolutions up to 24-bit and 96kHz. It is equipped with 16 full-length, 100mm motorised faders, and uses fader-layer paging to access channels 1‑16, 17‑32, masters (the eight auxes and eight mix busses), or a remote layer (for operating a DAW's parameters, for example). There is a single stereo master fader, and the desk also includes four high-quality effects engines (two when running at double clock rates) that provide all the usual reverb and time delay‑based effects (pitch-shift, phase, flange, chorus, and so on), plus four out of the five VCM effects suites. These include the superb Rev‑X reverbs, various vintage compressors and EQ, vintage stomp effects, and analogue tape emulations.
The internal number crunching is performed with fixed‑point 32-bit buses (providing an internal dynamic range of 192dB), and 56‑bit accumulators for the mixing computations (336dB dynamic range). I've never had any reservations whatsoever about the digital summing and overall performance of this generation of Yamaha digital console (I own a DM1000 and use it regularly), although it's important to maintain an analogue‑like approach to gain structures, as the headroom margin is finite, unlike floating‑point DAWs.
The desk is equipped with 16 analogue inputs and the first 12 have mic‑line preamps (phantom power being switched in four‑channel blocks), while the last four inputs are configured as stereo line‑only inputs. There is also a stereo, unbalanced, two‑track input on RCA phono sockets, which feeds the monitoring section and can be switched to replace inputs 15/16. On the digital input side, there's a digital two‑track input on S/PDIF, an optical ADAT input, a single 16‑channel Mini‑MY card slot, and the new addition of 16 channels of audio via USB 2. The desk also features the usual trio of MIDI sockets, plus word clock in and out on BNCs.
Analogue outputs are provided on XLRs for the main stereo mix bus, on quarter‑inch TRS sockets for the stereo monitor outputs and the four user‑configurable 'omni outputs', and on RCA phono sockets for the two-track record output. The A‑D and D‑A converter quality is good for a desk at this price, if beginning to show its age, with typically 105dB dynamic range overall. That's equivalent to perfect 18-bit performance, and while more recent budget interfaces can often achieve the equivalent of 19- or 20-bit performance (around 110‑117dB dynamic range), I doubt the potential difference in signal‑to-noise ratios would be practically relevant to most potential purchasers. A stereo digital output is provided on S/PDIF coaxial, while the ADAT optical output provides a further eight channels, with 16 more on the MY‑card and another 16 via USB 2. The desk's patchable sources can be routed to more than one output destination at once, so you could run 16 channel-direct outputs to a computer via USB 2, as well as to a hardware recorder for backup using an MY card, for example.
The console's 16 USB 2 input and output channels are accessed in the DAW in the usual way, via the software's own I/O routing facilities, thanks to the Steinberg driver. In the console, the 16 audio channels sent from the DAW appear in the input patch listing, alongside most of the other physical input options, and are simply allocated to the desired input channels for mixing or processing. In the same way, the required console output signals are routed to the corresponding USB 2 outputs using the desk's output patch selection screen, and can be derived from any of the main stereo, eight group and eight aux buses, or the 32 channel-direct and insert outputs.
The one thing that the console routing doesn't allow, sadly, is routing of any selected USB channels directly to the monitoring section — so direct USB monitoring of a DAW mix bus or monitoring signal always has to be performed via input channels. This may well frustrate some potential users, but the desk's architecture simply doesn't allow any other option, and in practice it is quite an easy restriction to work around if necessary.
The desk is supplied with a relatively brief 70‑page owner's manual, although a 200-page reference manual is also provided in digital form on a CD‑ROM. A copy of Steinberg's Cubase AI6 for Mac and PC (a stripped‑down version of the full Cubase 6 DAW program) is also included on a DVD‑ROM. Interestingly, the original 01V96 manual was a 325‑page epic, but the new versions seem rather more concise!
An IEC mains power lead was included with the review model but, surprisingly, no USB2 cable, and the USB audio driver had to be downloaded from the Yamaha web site, along with the Studio Manager and 01V96 editor. The USB driver is actually a Steinberg product, with versions available for Mac OS X (V1.6.0) and Windows (V1.6.1) — the latter with options for 32-bit and 64-bit forms of XP (SP3), Vista (SP2) and Windows 7. Once it's installed, a configuration utility allows the driver's buffer size to be adjusted and the desk's clocking arrangements checked.
Compared with more recent digital console designs, the 01V96i is starting to look a little dated, even if its audio performance and flexibility is still directly comparable to those of its peers. The monochrome screen with cursor buttons provides the most obvious evidence of its elderly design, of course: colour touchscreens are more commonly expected today. However, the monochrome screen still does exactly what it was designed to do, and the 01V96 remains a remarkably flexible and versatile console. The minimalist and heavily assignable control surface is also at odds with some of its more recent competitors that have rather more intuitive control surfaces and are faster to operate. The small Yamaha consoles require a great deal of button pushing and data-dial twirling, rather than simple knob twiddling! The user interface is logical enough when familiar, but it is a little slow and cumbersome.
The USB driver installed without any problems on my laptop and desktop PCs, and I found I could run quite happily at 64 samples with one computer, although the other needed 128 samples to provide complete glitch‑free stability. Accessing the inputs and outputs from various DAW programs was entirely straightforward. The software monitoring latency seemed quite high in practice, even with small buffer settings, and that could pose a problem for anyone wanting to play software instruments through this desk. But for recording, it's not an issue: the advantage of a hardware console is that direct monitoring is very easy to set up.
The 01V96i's ability to select the source for each output from a large pool of options is its key strength, with direct outputs being derivable individually from each channel's preamp output, post channel EQ or post fader, or from any of the main mix and aux buses. This functionality makes the 01V96i an ideal and very versatile recording desk for both studio and live applications.
It can also be used as a hardware mixdown console with additional effects engines, taking some of the load off the computer: two layers of 16 faders make it easy to configure the console with physical inputs going to the DAW on one layer (the channel outputs being deselected from any console mix buses), and mix outputs from the DAW on the other feeding the main stereo mix bus and monitoring.
Turning to the analogue audio quality, I can't say I noticed any significant difference in the performance of the mic preamps or the converters compared with my recollections of the original 01V96 or, indeed, my own DM1000. They are perfectly acceptable for the kinds of applications this desk is intended for, but if you want to use a high-quality external preamp, the internal mic preamps can be bypassed by using the channel insert sockets on the first 12 channels (using the unbalanced return side of an insert Y‑cable), or any of the four line‑only channels.
Overall, the addition of the USB 2 audio interface is a very useful feature which extends the versatility and attractiveness of what is already a very powerful little mixer. For anyone who is already familiar with the original console, just think of the USB 2 interface functionality in the same way as you would the MY‑card slot system — which remains available for further expansion and interconnection, of course.
The Presonus StudioLive desks are the most obvious competition, although there are also several analogue consoles on the market with integrated Firewire interfaces, such as Allen & Heath's Zed R16 and GSR24. Also shortly due on the market is Behringer's long-awaited X32 digital mixer, though I've not yet had the opportunity to try it.
If required, the 01V96i can also be monitored and controlled from a computer via the USB interface, using Yamaha's Studio Manager program as a host for the 01V96 Editor. The Editor GUI permits full offline editing of things like scene-memory data, input and output patch lists, effects settings and various other functions. It can also — once the appropriate interface settings have been established in Studio Manager and the desk configured to communicate via the USB port — be used for full online monitoring and remote control of all the desk's parameters. When the VCM effects are in use, they can be controlled through attractive graphical interfaces within the Studio Manager, too.