The mixer wars are hotting up, which is great news for you if you're contemplating buying one soon. You might even be tempted if you're not particularly on the lookout for a new mixer, as the ratio of cost to features is rapidly improving -- you may be able to afford something now that you could only have dreamed of owning a few years back.
The Phonic Hi-Tech Corporation look on the verge of attempting to give Soundcraft a run for their money, judging by a first glance at the M1642, having borrowed more than a little from their design and choice of colour scheme. As the model number suggests, this mixer is a 16 into 4 into 2 (in other words, it has 16 channels, four busses, and a master mixing stereo output). Other major features to note are the inclusion of phantom powering, Cue (pre-fade listen), inserts on all channels and groups as well as on the stereo output, and no less than six auxiliary sends with stereo returns. Wow!
All 16 of the Phonic's channels are the same, so I'll work my way down one of them from the top, starting with the input sockets, which are to be found on the rear panel; there's a quarter-inch jack for line-level inputs, an XLR for low-impedance mics and an insert jack for externally processing an individual channel. The position of all the sockets at the rear of this mixer means that use in conjunction with a patchbay is virtually a must, unless you have an extremely long neck and the ability to read upside down. At the top of the front panel there's a Mic/Line switch, Pad switch, Peak LED and a Gain control. There are no separate sockets for Tape inputs, so in a studio situation you'd probably dedicate several channels to your tape returns. Next comes the EQ section. This is comprised of a High (10kHz shelving), Low (100Hz shelving) and sweep Mid (350Hz to 5kHz peaking), with 15dB cut or boost on each of the three bands. Each control (apart from the mid sweep) has a centre detent to mark the position of zero cut/boost. This mixer boasts an impressive six Aux sends, four being available on a channel at any one time, which is probably enough for even the most adventurous effects users amongst us. A switch selects between Aux 3/4 and 5/6 -- quite a common arrangement on mixers in this class. There is no external control over whether the Auxiliary sends are pre or post fader on Auxiliaries 2-6, and on Aux 1, which is switchable, the pre/post choice is applied to all channels. Auxiliaries 2-6 are set as post-fader at the factory, but can be changed to pre-fader inside the mixer (not something you'd want to have to do very often -- in fact they recommend you get it done by qualified service personnel). Pre-fade signals are usually only used to set up a headphone monitoring system for performers, whereas post-fade sends are mainly used for adding effects to signals, since the amount of effect is directly linked to the amount of signal. Having so many Auxiliaries would make this mixer suitable for use in a live situation where you might want several different foldback mixes.
Next comes the Pan control, which is used in conjunction with the Group assignment switches to direct the signal to the busses. Another button directs the signal to either the master mixing busses or to Alt 8/9 -- a status indicator shows which. I was somewhat mystified by this curiously-named destination at first, especially as the manual doesn't give you much in the way of clues, but a closer inspection of the master section revealed outputs 1-7 (1-4 being the four Groups, 5 and 6 being the stereo left and right outputs and 7 being the mix master output). I can only assume, then, that Alt 8/9 stands for Alternative outputs 8 and 9. I have to admit I can't really think what you'd want this for, but I'm sure that, if the mixer were to take up permanent residence, a use would soon be found. It may be that this button started out in life as a mute button, then someone in the design department thought you might as well be able to route the signal somewhere else rather than just being able to cut it out.
A button labelled Cue sends a pre-fade signal to the headphone jack and to the monitor outputs. This button has a status indicator. Last stop on our tour of the channel strip is the channel fader, which determines the level of signal going to the Master Mix or Group sections.
A look at the rear panel of the mixer reveals two sets of phono sockets labelled Tape In. These enable you to play two tape decks through the mixer -- they appear on the L/R bus and there's a level control for each, so this is where you'd most likely bring back your mastering machine(s). The Master section also has overall level controls for the six auxiliary (external effects) sends, and returns 1 and 2; you would have to control the level of return of Auxs 3 to 6 from any external units connected. These aux returns (which are all stereo, by the way) can be directed to busses 1 and 2, or 3 and 4, or Left and Right, so you can apply effects to signals as you record if you wish. If you didn't want to use all those auxiliaries as effects returns you could use them as extra stereo inputs from your drum machines/sound modules. Each Aux Send has a Cue facility for monitoring signals sent to the external processors. The headphone level control doubles up as the monitor output level -- which they don't tell you in the manual.
To help you set and check your levels there's a 6-segment LED display meter. This can be switched to show the output levels of Groups 1-4, Aux 1-6, Master Left and Right, Cue and Master Mix. A Talkback feature is included, but you have to use an external mic, and the switch to activate it is latching (it's rather more common to have a non-latching one, for reasons I'll go into later!). The Talkback signal can be sent to Aux 1, Aux 2 or all six auxiliaries (in a situation where you want to use all six as separate monitor mixes). There's a Cue button for the Master L/R and for each of the four groups. Faders for the four Groups, the Stereo L/R and the Master Mix control levels to these outputs.
Phantom powering is available to all of the XLR connectors. However, it's an all-or-nothing setup, so if you have a mixture of microphones, some of which need phantom powering and others which don't, you have to use the jack inputs for the ones that don't. The switch to activate the phantom powering is tucked away on the rear panel and, unfortunately, is rather hard to see to check whether it's on or not -- there's no indicator either. A quick look at the remaining inputs and outputs: there's a stereo Monitor Out, a stereo Mix out (a single XLR socket), four Group outs, Stereo Left and Right out, Group Inserts 1-4, Stereo Insert (L and R) and finally, Stereo Sub In (L and R) and Group Sub In (1-4), which provide the facility to expand the mixer by connecting the Stereo Outs or Group Outs of another mixer.
Aesthetically, the Phonic M1642 is quite a good-looking beast, decked out in a rather tasteful light grey with contrasting blue and black controls and red and black buttons. The rotary controls are clearly marked on the top and side, so that you can see their position clearly from any angle (drummers trying to check up on the mix from under the table should find this reassuring). The arm-rest is a bit plasticky, but the rest of the mixer has a solid feel to it. The rotary controls, buttons and faders aren't magic to the touch, merely fairly good. All work more than adequately, however (no clicks, bangs or crunches), and at this price I consider them perfectly acceptable. The top surface of the mixer, as well as having somewhere to write, also has a gradient, so your chinagraph pencil will roll off. The angle is such that the guitarist's pint of lager (when positioned carefully under the guitar faders so as to prevent any possibility of them being turned down) won't, though.
Looks aside, the real beauty of this mixer is its sound; smooth, clear and true. Crosstalk and noise levels are comfortably low throughout -- even on the headphone socket. I was particularly impressed by the EQ section; on extreme settings which would have sounded dire on some other systems the sound was lovely and smooth -- not a hint of harshness or peakiness. There's lots of range on the sweep mid, enabling you to correct an unwanted boxiness or nasal quality, or change the sound dramatically if you want to.
Some of the features, I felt, weren't quite thought through. Not having individual channel switching for the phantom powering is one thing, but I definitely disapprove of the idea of having the phantom power switch on the back panel, out of sight, with no indication as to whether it's on or not from the front. Maybe I could learn to live with it, but there's always the danger of something expensive being plugged in by mistake and getting written off as a result. Also the channel line inputs didn't seem to match up to my gear very well -- even with my units and the channel inputs going flat out, my sound modules couldn't make the peak lights come on. In fact, the input gain controls had no apparent effect on the line inputs at all, and my gear is all pretty standard stuff, of the kind which is to be found in many a 4- or 8-track studio. That's not to say that there was any apparent increase in noise or degradation of signal as a result. The microphone inputs, however, behaved more as expected, and a yell down the mic displayed the effectiveness of the peak meters. A word of caution here: the peak lights do mean you're distorting, so setting your level up as suggested in the manual, with them just flashing occasionally, might not be a good idea.
Having a latching switch for the talkback could be quite fun/disastrous at first if you're not used to it -- many an honest truth has been unfortunately witnessed with the talkback supposedly off ("that's an hour and a half for that one line, for God's sake -- if he doesn't get it right in the next couple of takes we're gonna miss closing time")! Yes, it can be a drag holding your finger on the button whilst explaining to the vocalist that "just one more" doesn't mean that you forgot to hit 'record' last take, but at least when it's on, you know. On balance, I think the non-latching variety of switch is safer.
The EQ isn't what you'd call sophisticated -- there's no bypass button or selectable range for the high and low frequencies -- but what is there is very useable. There are no channel mute switches by name, but you can use the ON/ALT 8/9 button. And I thought there should have been a separate control for the monitor outs and the headphones. But to end on a positive note, having all those stereo auxiliaries and inserts really is very good news indeed. Ten out of ten for that.
The more competitive the mixing market becomes, the better -- as far as you, the customer, are concerned. This desk could well be a contender for the Best Value For Money award. Sixteen channel inputs, four groups, six auxiliaries with stereo returns, inserts on all channels, groups and the stereo bus, extra inputs for two tape decks... and if that's not impressive enough, how does ultra-smooth EQ, good quality signal and low noise, and change from a grand grab you? (It's also worth noting that this desk is available in a 24-channel version, for a mere £200 more.) OK, the M1642 isn't without its compromises and, in my opinion, faults -- the worst being the inaccessible/invisible position of the phantom power switch, combined with lack of status indicator for same -- but with all those insert points and auxiliaries, I think I could be persuaded to part with my money if I were looking to spend around the £1000 mark on a mixer.
THD: Less than 0.1%, 20Hz-20kHz
FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 20Hz-20kHz
HUM AND NOISE: -128dB Equivalent Input Noise; -90dB Residual Output Noise
INPUT CHANNEL EQ: +/-15dB Maximum Boost or Cut in each of three bands:
HIGH: 10kHz shelving
MIDDLE: 350Hz-5kHz peaking
LOW: 100Hz shelving
CROSSTALK: -60dB (1kHz adjacent input channels and Input to Output)
POWER CONSUMPTION: 75W
DIMENSIONS: 853 x 551 x 186mm
Very good value for money.
Insert points on all channels and groups as well as stereo output.
Generous number of aux sends with stereo returns.
Pleasing sound quality and low noise.
Phantom power is either on or off, not individually selectable, and switch is hidden at the back of the desk, with no status indicator.
Talback switch latches.
Despite a few niggles, this is a very full-featured desk for
the money - and more importantly, it also delivers good sound quality.
£ M1642 £999; 24-channel version, £1199. Prices inc VAT.
A Audio Awareness, 10 High Road, Chadwell Heath, Romford, Essex RM6 6PR.
T 081 598 8081.
F 081 598 8984.