With a versatile range of features and exceptional sound quality, AMS Neve's latest piece of outboard technology manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
As we all know, the music studio industry has changed enormously over the last two decades. Professional studios with large recording rooms and huge mixing consoles have been on the wane for a considerable time now, having seen their roles taken over by ever more sophisticated home studios and clever software. This huge change in working practices has obviously hit the major analogue console manufacturers hard, and they have had to find other ways to market their core technology and intellectual property.
AMS Neve have a long and proud history in the professional audio industry. There can be few, if any, who aren't aware of the name, and the company's classic consoles of the '70s and '80s still have an enthusiastic following. Today, while interest in large consoles is lower than ever before, DAWs still need good front-ends and decent monitoring facilities — something console manufacturers obviously know all about! There is also a fashion at the moment for not mixing 'in the box', using outboard analogue mixing engines instead, and again, traditional console manufacturers have plenty of experience in how to design high-quality mix busses. Which brings us to the subject of this review, AMS Neve's latest outboard product, the 8816 Summing Mixer.
Like most of AMS Neve's classic outboard range, the new 8816 is a substantial beast. Rackmounting in 2U of space, the box extends 14 inches behind the rack ears. But despite its large size, the mains power supply is, sadly, not contained internally. Instead, an external switched-mode supply is included to provide over 2A at 36V DC through an eight-pin DIN plug.
The front panel is festooned with knobs and buttons — it has to be the most densely packed 2U panel I have ever come across! The reason for this is that the 8816 offers far more than a simple 16-into-2 mix engine. It also provides surprisingly comprehensive monitoring and cue mix functions, incorporates versatile insert facilities, includes Neve's Recall software and can accommodate a very high-quality optional A-D stage too.
This level of flexibility is, as far as I know, unmatched in any other broadly comparable external summing box, but it is not without drawbacks. Cramming so many features, operating modes and user options onto a 2U panel means that many controls have dual functions, some of which are unmarked and not intuitive. Consequently, operating the 8816 at anything more than a very basic level is inherently quite complex and probably not for the faint-hearted! A thorough reading of the handbook is essential to really get to grips with what this powerful unit can do.For those who prefer to mix on faders, there is even an optional fader pack — the 8804 — with 16 input faders and two output faders. With the fader pack attached, the rotary controls on the 8816 become aux send controls, and post-fade channel direct outputs are available from the fader pack back panel.
The 8816 is extremely versatile and can be used for a wide variety of applications including recording and overdubbing, as an input expander, for sub-mixing and for mastering. It can also be configured as a 'split' mixer, with separate recording and monitoring paths to interface with the DAW. Although the internal circuitry is constructed using mostly surface-mount components, the topology is based very closely on the mix buss of the revered Neve 80-series console, and uses transformers as an integral part of the mix system.
Although the front panel is extremely busy, the layout is logical and the buttons and knobs are all clearly labelled. Each of the 16 input channels is equipped with a red level control and a grey pan control, a solo/cut button and a cue/select button. The rotary knobs are small, but have the classic Neve shape and are spaced sufficiently to allow easy adjustment.
There is no centre detent on the pan controls, but the panning law is smooth and progressive even at the extremes, with -3dB centre attenuation. The level controls span a range from off through to +15dB, with unity gain at the 12 o'clock position. When used without the optional fader pack, the aux buss is a simple mono post-fade mix of each channel, but when the fader pack is employed, the level control becomes a dedicated aux send level control instead.
The Cue buttons above the level and pan controls assign the corresponding input signal to (pre-fade) to the cue mix buss. For channels 1-14, the level is set by the separate Cue 1-14 level control next to the left-hand meter. Channels 15 and 16, when selected, are fed to the cue mix at a fixed pre-fade level.
The buttons below the level and pan controls function as either Solo-in-place or Cut buttons, depending on the status of the global Cut/Solo button. In Cut mode the buttons mute their respective channels and illuminate red. In Solo mode, pressing a button causes it to light yellow while all the other channels are muted and their buttons illuminate red. Multiple channels can be added to the solo mix if required. The muted and soloed channels are remembered as you switch between the modes, which allows repeated auditioning of solo or mute groups just by pressing the global Cut/Solo button.
To the right of the controls for the 16 input channels is a small section concerned with the cue mix headphone output. Two standard quarter-inch headphone sockets are provided and wired in parallel, one on the front panel and another on the rear, where there are also balanced line outputs of the same stereo signal to feed a dedicated headphone amp.
The 8816's optional A-D card is a high-quality stereo design based on a Burr Brown PCM1804 converter chip, supporting sample rates up to 192kHz. The DSD format is also supported. When the A-D card is installed, the analogue signal feeding it is normally taken from the mix buss output, but a pair of TRS sockets on the rear panel allow an external balanced line-level signal to be over-plugged to feed the A-D separately. The nominal input level is +26dB for 0dBFS, but this can be adjusted with a pair of recessed headroom switches to give 14 or 18 dB of headroom above +4dBu (in other words, +18 or +22dBu for 0dBFS).
A button on the front panel allows the sample rate to be selected from any of the six standard rates between 44.1 and 192 kHz, followed by the DSD mode. Normal operation is based on internal crystal clocks, but an external AES or word clock reference can also be accepted — both inputs having a bi-colour LED associated with them. The unit selects the best reference automatically, and if no external clock is present, or if an external clock is at a different rate to the selected sample rate, the internal clock is used. If both AES and word clock references are present and at the correct sample rate, the word clock source is given priority.
Word clock in and out are catered for with BNC sockets, and a recessed button allows a 75Ω input termination to be applied, if required. Three XLR connectors provide an external AES reference input and two AES3 outputs. These can be used as separate identical outputs, or for dual-wire operation, although this mode requires an external clock reference. If an external clock is provided, and the sample rate is selected to twice the external rate, the AES output is automatically formatted for dual-wire operation. For example, a 48kHz clock can be provided when the unit is switched to a 96kHz sample rate, or a 96kHz clock for a 192kHz sample rate. In this mode the first XLR carries the left channel data and the second XLR carries the right channel data.
The DSD mode is always referenced to a 44.1kHz clock, and the DSD output is provided on two BNC connectors, switchable from the rear panel for SDIF 2 or SDIF 3 formats. The former carries only the audio data and a separate word clock reference has to be routed along with it, while the latter has embedded clock signals.
At the top of the control section, an illuminated button allocates the dedicated two-track return to the cue mix — the level being set by a rotary control under the left-hand meter. Another button replaces the headphone cue mix signal with the main monitor mix output instead, and a small blue knob sets the headphone level. This knob incorporates a push-switch, and when pressed, it routes the internal talkback mic (hidden behind a small hole on the front panel between the meters) to the cue mix. At the same time, the monitoring output and the cue mix source level are dimmed by 20dB to ensure the talkback is clearly audible. A footswitch socket on the rear panel is provided for remote control of the talkback function, which is a useful feature.
Nestled between the two meters is a button to select an alternative pair of monitoring speakers, allowing both main and nearfield monitors to be controlled directly from the 8816. Curiously, below this button is a 3.5mm jack socket labelled 'iMon', which turns out to be a dedicated monitoring input for an iPod or similar. There is also a recessed trimmer here to adjust the gain of the talkback mic preamp.
There are two illuminated buttons and grey knobs below the left-hand meter. The first button switches the two-track return into the stereo mix buss, and the grey rotary control below sets the level (from off to +10dB). Since this signal can be routed separately to the headphone cue mix, one suggested use is as a dedicated reverb return when recording vocals. The second button activates an insert return path that can be mixed with the main stereo buss. This is quite separate from the main buss insert, point which functions in the traditional way. The Insert Mix path effectively runs in parallel with the main insert point, the return being mixed with the normal path at a level controlled by the Insert Mix Return control under the button (again, spanning a range from off to +10dB). This facility allows additional signals to be mixed into the final output, or for parallel compression to be set up, for example.
There are two more illuminated buttons under the right-hand meter, the first of which switches in the normal mix buss insert return, and lights yellow to indicate the active insert. However, the insert return can also be operated in a second mode which incorporates sum and difference amplifiers before and after the insert point, changing the insert signal to the Middle and Sides format instead of conventional stereo. This alternative mode is achieved by pressing in the blue Mix level rotary control under the button, at which point the insert button lights red. The Mix level knob is effectively the main output fader, ranging from off to 0dB. If the optional fader pack is connected this control is bypassed completely and only the switch function still operates.
The next button is labelled '<W>' and switches a 'spatialiser' circuit into the signal path (post the mix level control). Once activated, the stereo width can be adjusted with the red knob under the button, and this facility allows the image width to be adjusted from mono through to normal stereo and then on to extra-wide stereo.
The last control knob on the panel is the monitoring level control, and this is accompanied by four LEDs immediately above. With no LEDs lit the monitoring signal is the main stereo output, but pressing the monitor level control cycles through the alternative monitoring sources, starting with the two-track return, then channels one and two (pre-fader), and then the iMon front-panel mini-jack input, before returning to the main stereo output. By pressing the stereo width knob, the stereo mix is combined with the selected monitor source, allowing the internal and an external sources to be auditioned simultaneously. This mode is indicated with a yellow LED labelled 'Sum'.
The 8816 uses the same Recall software as Neve's other 88-series outboard units. It's compatible with both Macs and PCs, which are hooked up to the 8816 via a USB socket on its rear panel. The software application required to access this facility is included on a CD-ROM, and the only user intervention is to select master or slave status if two 8816s are connected to the same recall system (via a USB hub).
The software interface is pretty straightforward and intuitive. Pretty much all switch, rotary knob and fader positions can be stored, with the exception of the A-D sample rate settings. When you load a Recall file, all switch positions reset automatically and immediately, while a graphical display (pictured below) shows both the current and required positions of any rotary controls that don't match the stored values. An enlarged graphic is provided of each control in turn to make matching the settings as accurate as possible, and as each control setting is matched, that control is removed from the overall display.
This is a straightforward and intuitive facility that will be valued by anyone who might need to rebuild a mix using the 8816 at any future point. It's not quite as slick as using the automation and settings recall facilities of a DAW, but it is the next best thing, and probably quicker and more reliable than writing the settings down! The only thing it lacks is dynamic automation...
Two VU meters are fed from the main outputs. The metering is as complex as everything else on this unit, with multiple scales and built-in LEDs. The latter flash red if the signal reaches +25dBu, which is 1dB below the analogue clip level, and yellow if the optional A-D converter clips. Sensibly, the A-D clip warning takes priority over the analogue clip indication. The meter ballistics are based on a pseudo-PPM format, but with a unique white-on-black scale marked from 0 to 10. Like standard PPMs, there is 4dB between scale increments, and the meter spans the range from -16 to +26 dBu.
In addition, a yellow scale marking indicates reference levels, relative to +4dBu. Hence, the yellow zero mark (aligned to 5 on the main scale) equates to +4dBu. The 14 mark (aligned to 8.5 on the main scale) equates to +18dBu, and the 18 mark (9.5 on the main scale) equates to +22dBu.
A silver button above the right-hand meter switches the 8816 on and off, glowing red through the Neve symbol when the unit is on, while one last illuminated button above the left-hand meter selects the sample rate and clock source if the optional A-D card is fitted.
The rear panel of the 8816 is much simpler than you might expect, mainly because most of the analogue I/O is implemented via five 25-way D-Sub connectors, wired according to the familiar Tascam protocol. One socket carries balanced +4dBu inputs for channels 1-8, while a second handles inputs 9-16. The main outputs are presented on a third D-Sub, catering for the main mix outs, main and alternative loudspeaker outputs, and the stereo cue mix outputs.
Insert sends and returns, plus the external inputs, are carried on the final two D-Subs. The main stereo insert sends, mix insert sends and the aux output are provided on a D-Sub labelled Main Insert Outputs. The corresponding returns, plus the two-track return and stereo mix buss input are carried on a D-Sub labelled Main Insert Inputs. A recessed button next to the Insert input connector is labelled 'Slave Bus' and connects the mix buss input directly to the mix buss. It is intended to allow two 8816s to be connected together as master and slave, allowing up to 32 inputs to be mixed together.
Another D-Sub is provided for connecting the optional 8804 Fader Pack, and quarter-inch sockets provide unbalanced outputs for the main mix and both the main and alternative monitor speakers. The maximum level on these unbalanced feeds is +14dBu instead of the massive +26dBu for the balanced outputs. A slide switch adjacent to the power inlet enables the audio ground to be lifted from the mains safety earth to help cure ground-loop problems, if necessary.
There are numerous internal jumpers provided to reconfigure various aspects of the machine. To re-route the signals to the Fader Pack, jumpers have to be moved for each of the 16 channels, the two outputs and the aux buss, and two more jumpers allow the output monitoring to be taken pre or post the A-D option card's external input sockets.
The 8816's technical specifications are impressive, as you would expect, with a bandwidth that is 3dB down at 60kHz, noise below -80dBu with all 16 channels routed, and distortion below 0.02 percent.
I'm glad I read through the 40-page PDF handbook early on in my time with the 8816. So much of its functionality is unmarked on the front panel and concealed behind rotary controls which double as push switches! However, having read up on the unit, I found it a doddle to use. Its main purpose — combining analogue DAW signals into a stereo mix — is very simple and straightforward to achieve using the mute buttons, level controls and pan pots. It might sound strange, but I was particularly impressed with the linearity of the pan pots towards their extremes. Some lesser systems seems to become quite abrupt and imprecise as the control nears the ends of its range. The ability to create mute groups and to monitor solo-in-place was also very handy.
The cue mix system works well, and it is nice to have well engineered talkback facilities built in. Likewise, the aux buss is handy for generating a reverb send when overdubbing vocals, and even more flexible when the optional fader pack is used.
Despite its very unusual scale, the metering works well enough in practice, as does the whole monitoring section — the facilities, while basic, cover at least 80 percent of most people's requirements. My only real complaint is that the control markings, being below the knobs, can be hard to see if the unit is placed on a table. More familiarity with the unit would help resolve this problem, of course.
The stereo width control is a nice facility to have, but the ability to introduce sum-difference matrices into the mix buss insert is actually a lot more useful and creative — a very nice feature indeed. I suspect a lot of people will find the dedicated iPod monitor input useful too, although I can't help feeling that it's akin to fitting remoulded tyres to a Ferrari!
The critical issue, though, is not so much what the unit is like to set up and use, but what it sounds like. The answer is simple: it sounds fabulous and sublime. Its huge headroom and the classic transformer mixing topology endow the mix with an effortlessly silky quality that just screams 'analogue' at the listener. I can't explain what is going on here — any more than Paul could when he reviewed the Audient Sumo — but this unit alters the sound in some extremely subtle way that is, quite simply, extremely nice.
I tried remixing a variety of eight-track material — rock and pop, classical and choral — both internally in a SADiE System 5, and externally through the 8816. Technically, I couldn't really differentiate between the mixes, but sonically I favoured the 8816 every time! Annoyingly, though, mixing internally in the DAW and routing the stereo output through the 8816 seemed to have much the same effect and sonic benefit. It makes no sense to my head, but my ears like it all the same!
After playing with the 8816 I guessed at a price of £3500-4000 — it sounds that expensive. The reality is that it retails for only a little over £2000, which is quite remarkable, especially when you consider the monitoring functionality built in. The A-D and fader options will obviously add to that price, and although neither is essential, they are certainly nice options to have. Were you to also throw in a rack of Neve 1081R mic preamps, you would have the basis for a very nice portable recording outfit. Now there's a thought...
There are several dedicated outboard summing mixers available now, although they are all fairly expensive devices. Some, like the Audient Sumo, include mix buss compression or limiting and optional A-D cards, some provide stereo width processing or other tweakery, and pretty much all can accommodate external mix buss inserts to facilitate external processing. However, I don't know of any other unit that combines the functions of a 16-channel mix buss and a well-furnished monitoring controller, nor any designed to work with an external fader panel. This makes the 8816 uniquely versatile and comparison with direct equivalents virtually impossible. However, simpler alternatives include the Audient Sumo, SPL MixDream, API 8200, Nautilus Commander and Phoenix Audio Nicerizer ( what a fantastic name!).