Designed to integrate with Cubase, and featuring new preamps and compressors, Yamaha's N-series digital mixers have been causing quite a stir. Could the N12 be the centrepiece of your project studio?
Photo: Mark EwingYamaha and Steinberg have a relationship that goes back to long before the Japanese corporation bought Steinberg in 2004. Many of you will probably remember the support included for Yamaha products (such as the DSP Factory card and their XG synth standard) in earlier versions of Cubase, and more recently functionality to make the most of Yamaha's 01X.
So when Yamaha acquired Steinberg, it seemed only a matter of time before we would see them releasing hardware products that enjoyed a deeper level of integration with Cubase and Nuendo. The Yamaha N-series digital mixers are the first such products to emerge from this partnership.
The design philosophy behind the N-series, which comprises the N8 and N12, is simple: digital mixers that integrate seamlessly with your DAW (see the 'Soft Centre' box elsewhere on this page), but feel and sound like an analogue desk. So there may be no fancy moving faders, but there are lots of buttons that are (at least when in the same mode) dedicated to a single function. It is about as far away in concept and feel from the 01X as a digital mixer could get... a musician-proof digital desk, if you like.
While the N12 may be a mixer for musos, it is also a serious piece of kit that's capable of being the heart of a home or project studio. When it is hooked up to Cubase via its Firewire interface, you can record up to 16 simultaneous signals, using sample rates of up to 96kHz at 16- or 24-bit resolution. Perhaps more significant is its ability to mix up to 16 channels sent to it from Cubase via Firewire, and add processing via its on-board channel dynamics and EQ before returning a stereo mix back into the sequencer for recording. All this takes only a few button presses and, of course, as the mixer is digital, it requires no additional A-D/D-A conversion. You get full 5.1 surround facilities (although Cubase AI 4 doesn't support this, so you'll have to upgrade to take advantage of these features) and quite a number of separate signal buses. For monitoring all this, there's also a comprehensive Control Room section and a multi-bus meter display.
The raison d'être of this product is clearly integration, and Yamaha have paid as much attention to software as to hardware. Rather than the usual copy of Cubase LE/Essentials that ships with many other-brand small mixers, you get the 'Cubase AI 4 Integrated Music Production System'. This is still a cut-down version of Cubase, but is more fully-featured than most, and it is further supplemented by the Extensions for Steinberg DAW software (a program that effectively links mixer with software, so that the two operate together seamlessly). The latter will also work with Cubase 4 and Studio 4 (it doesn't work with versions prior to Cubase 4).
The N12 is fairly large, measuring 561mm front to back and 517mm across, which allows for a nice, spacious distribution of the controls. The layout is fairly conventional, with all the I/O (apart from the two headphone outputs, which are sensibly positioned alongside their level controls on the top right-hand corner), found on the rear panel, and all the controls on the top surface. The channel strips are on the left, with the Control Room and DAW Remote controls to the right of them.
Of the available 12, channels one to seven are identical. The eighth differs only in that it sacrifices a phase-reverse switch for one that allows you to select a hi-Z input for connecting electric guitars and basses. Each of these channels can be fed via an XLR or quarter-inch jack socket, and includes an insert point on a standard jack connector. There's also 48V phantom power (applied in two banks of four) via the XLR input sockets, a 26dB pad switch, and an amplifier control capable of providing 44dB of gain.
The N-series mixers have the privilege of being the first Yamaha hardware to benefit from a new class-A preamp design, based on the highly musical-sounding inverted Darlington Circuit. Most Yamaha preamps (as found on their DM- and O-series products) are clean and accurate, but are sometimes criticised for lacking character. Those found here have been engineered to provide more colour.
A-D conversion occurs after the gain control but before the 'phase' (polarity invert) switch. A high-pass filter rolling off 12dB per octave from 80Hz is next, immediately before the point at which signals sent from the DAW enter the circuit. Next in the chain is the new 'Sweet Spot' morphing compressor section, which features a five-point Morph knob and a Drive dial, and is described in more detail elsewhere in this article.
The remaining channel features are also found on paired channels 9/10 and 11/12, which don't have the insert points, compressors, pad switches, XLR connectors or phantom power that is available to the eight mono channels, but they retain the high-pass filter. These channels' inputs are on RCA phono and quarter-inch jack.
The EQ section is a simple three-band design with a sweepable mid, ranging from 100Hz to 10KHz. All three sections provide up to 18dB of cut/boost. As is so often the case in smaller mixer designs, there is no EQ bypass switch. Of course, as this is a digital desk a neutral setting effectively bypasses the EQ, but you can't A/B your EQ'd and dry track without losing your settings. After the EQ is the direct out to the computer (which means that the status of the remaining controls does not affect recording for that channel).
The first of the two Aux send controls is permanently assigned to the internal reverb, and therefore has no physical output. The second bus is monitored via its own Aux headphone socket (and associated level knob), and on the rear is a pair of jack sockets carrying the signal to connected devices such as headphone amplifiers and effects units.
The pan/balance knob acts conventionally, as does the solo button, the channel On switch and the 100mm faders. Alongside the faders are some helpful four-stage signal-input LED meters. Below these are three routing buttons, each with its own status LED. The one labelled Wet is used to arm the Monitor button for the corresponding Cubase track, and becomes active when the Monitor Remote Rec Bus switch (found in the DAW Remote Control section) is on. In simple terms, this function switches direct monitoring of the channels from within the mixer to a situation where the signal feed is routed via Cubase, and therefore includes any insert effects and processors on the Cubase channel.
The remaining two buttons determine whether the signal is routed to the ST (stereo) or Rec (record) buses, both of which are available for recording via the Firewire connection alongside the 12 main channels.
I was initially attracted to the N12 because it ticked a number of boxes as far as my own project studio was concerned: decent preamps with high gain, high-quality convertors, extended compatibility with Cubase (my sequencer of choice) and onboard faders, EQ, and compression. I record a lot of vocals and acoustic instruments at home and wanted to be able to do this on my Macbook, which runs much more quietly than my desktop, before transferring the files to my Windows machine for mixing and processing, so it was important that my interface be compatible with both operating systems.
The first thing that struck me about the N12 on getting it out of the box was its size — it's a pretty hefty piece of kit, which looks and feels fantastic, and has certainly impressed many of my visitors. It was designed to feel like an old-school analogue mixer (Yamaha claim it uses Physical Component modelling to emulate the classic British consoles of the '60s and '70s) and in this it certainly succeeds — plus each knob and fader performs only one function, so there are none of the menus and multi-function controls of traditional digital mixers. The N12 comes from Yamaha's Music Production group and is designed more for musicians than gearheads — hence the simplicity and straightforwardness of its operation.
Once the N12 is plugged into a Firewire port the operation is straightforward. The preamps sound bright, clean and airy and worked well on acoustic guitar signals. More importantly, they had plenty of gain, and were so quiet they showed up the noisiness of my microphone! I liked the warmth of the EQ, and the channel compressors and onboard reverb were of a high quality.
Getting audio into Cubase is easy enough, and you can record multiple channels simultaneously or just one channel at a time. The wet monitoring function is especially cool — you can monitor in real time any VST effects you insert onto your Cubase recording channel, so if the onboard N12 effects aren't quite your thing, or you fancy recording your guitar dry but want to monitor via an amp sim, then this is fantastically useful.
The bundled version of Cubase AI is pretty extensive and a surprising number of the sequencer functions that you would use when recording are available on the control section of the N12, although I was forced to upgrade to Cubase Studio 4 when I discovered that AI doesn't import the earlier Cubase SX files. A separate download from Yamaha installs the extension files that allow such close integration with Cubase/Nuendo and the N12.
I love the fact that you can send your audio tracks out of Cubase into the eight mono and two stereo N12 channels and then further mix them using the onboard EQ and compression and channel faders. (If you have more than 12 tracks of audio, you just use an N12 channel as a group bus.) Having always mixed 'in the box', it was a delight to forego the mouse and shortcut keys, tear my gaze away from the monitor, and mess around with faders and knobs.
I had a bunch of mixes for my band's new album lying around on my hard drive, and before sending them off the mastering house I thought I'd try running the individual channels out into the N12, to see if its summing sounded any different to the software summing in Cubase. To my mind, the result was slightly airier and I decided to use these on the final release.
The N12 takes a bit of getting your head around — it's easy to use but there's lot more going on under the hood should you need it. For people who are musicans first and producers second, I would certainly recommend it. Graham Gargiulo
The stereo bus, as one would expect, has its own fader, metering display and rear-panel outputs. Like the Aux bus, its signal is output via quarter-inch jack sockets but it also offers the choice of RCA phono connectors.
The stereo Rec (record) bus differs from the other channels in that it is specifically intended for routing channels to the computer, so it doesn't have any physical outs. The metering for the Stereo, Rec and Aux buses is handled by a large 72-LED display, providing stereo information in 12 stages for each bus. When the 5.1 Surround system is being used, these meters can be switched to provide feedback on the six mono speaker outs. Of course, the N12 has the necessary outputs for connecting to a surround-sound speaker setup, and it also has an array of Speaker select buttons.
The Control Room segment of the desk also contains several buttons for checking what's going through the various buses. Other useful features include a dimmer switch for instantly dropping the monitor level, a monitor mute button, and a built-in talkback function (there's a small mic just below the Yamaha logo) with its own level control.
Also found in this section is a simple digital reverb processor, with settings of Hall, Room and Plate, which offers control over level and time. There are no figures to indicate the bit-depth of the processor, but Yamaha inform me that these RevX reverbs are based on those in the DM2000 and PMID mixers and the SPX2000 effects unit. The reverb can be sent to the Aux, Rec and ST buses completely independently, when the relevant buttons are pressed.
There's also a pair of RCA phono inputs with their own ST bus routing, level control and monitoring (intended for connecting tape/CD/MD players), MIDI In and Out connections, and an external power adaptor with a screw-lock cable.
Moving on to the DAW Remote Control section, you get a set of basic transport controls, plus some Cubase-specific ones for scrolling through tracks and arming them, entering Cycle mode, adding markers and navigating between them. It also includes a click-track level control and 'on' button, and some handy work mode controls for switching the mixer into a mode where the channels are commandeered by the outputs from the Cubase channels. When used with other DAW software, such as Sonar, the N12 will connect using the usual Mackie protocol: you get the transport controls, but none of the Cubase-specific functions.
Overall, the build quality seems fairly good. From the outside the pots look to be mounted directly on the circuit board, so they won't be as robust as panel-mounted ones, and the faders in particular seem a bit wobbly. On the plus side, the buttons all feel well engineered, as does the chassis. The most obvious weakness is the flimsy plastic lip at the front, which I suspect could easily get broken.
The manual is generally well written and is quite in contrast to many I have seen, which have obviously been badly translated into English. It begins by explaining concepts such as the decibel scale and balanced cabling, before carefully tacking the various purposes of each section of the mixer, but although the effort is appreciated, it appears to have been at the expense of some really vital information, such as where in the channel paths the signals are sent to the computer. I had to do some tests to find out for certain, as the manual's written operation examples seemed to contradict the schematic.
The setup procedure, as tested on my PC, has so many stages that an adult mayfly probably wouldn't live long enough to see its completion... That said, it's a reasonably straightforward process, requiring you to click a series of OK buttons and choose the occasional option before powering up the mixer and following a few more prompts. When all is complete the host PC acquires an mLAN manger program (this mixer isn't exclusively an mLAN device, and will work over a standard Firewire connection), through which the Driver Setup is managed and sample rates and bit depths are set.
The benefits of the long setup procedure become clear when work begins on a song in Cubase: as soon as the software opens, the Cubase Ready arrow symbol on the N12's meter panel illuminates brightly to inform you that the devices are linked, and that all the controls in the DAW Remote Control section are ready to work the software.
The 'Sweet Spot' morphing compressor found on the first eight channels of the N12 is a novel design intended to make selecting suitable compression settings easy. The Morph control is used to select between five presets, labeled 'A' to 'E'. The ratio increases as you progress from 'A' to 'E', and each is programmed with appropriate attack and release characteristics. Positioning the knob between presets provides an intermediate 'morph' setting. The Drive control determines how much compression is applied. Turning it clockwise lowers the threshold, causing the compressor to act on the signal, and the gain makeup is adjusted automatically. The processor is effectively off when the knob is fully anticlockwise. The intention seems to be to simplify compression, with ease of use for the musician in mind. As I've mentioned in the main text, the results are surprisingly good, and if you're worried you'll find five presets limiting, don't be, because more can be downloaded from Yamaha's web site. At the time of writing, there are three new presets, each programmed by a well-known engineer.
I tested the N12 on a project where I was recording and mixing an entire track. There was a moderate learning curve, but once you get your head around the various buttons and the routing rational, integration with Cubase is really very good. Recording is fairly straightforward, and flipping between using the mixer for recording and mixing is a simple matter of one or two button presses.
You may be wondering how the 16 Firewire inputs are achieved, given that the N12 has only 12 channels. Well, the figure is reached when the L/R Rec (Record) and ST (stereo) buses are used. Sadly, there are no aux inputs, which would have been useful for routing further signals to these buses, and outputting from Cubase also has its limitations, as there are only 12 channels to route signals through. The options are to either group multiple signals, using a single channel or pair of channels as a group, or send the 'spares' to the Aux and Monitor buses.
Perhaps the greatest example of the N12's simplicity is the way in which buttons in the DAW Remote Control section make it possible to instantly switch from monitoring the mixed output sent from Cubase (St Mix), to a situation where the individual recorded tracks are output to the matched desk channels (Hardware Mix). This is achieved by the press of a button, although the routing can be done channel by channel if required, as each has its own DAW button. There are also some really handy remote functions, the Click controls being good examples, but what I really would have liked to see here are the tools for setting up and controlling auto-punch-in recording remotely.
The preamps are of a high quality, (certainly the best I've heard on a Yamaha product in this price range) and they provide an up-front, detailed sound without being harsh or thin. They worked extremely well on vocals and definitely exuded 'character'. The EQ is also very useable, managing to do its job without colouring the sound. The control arrangement of the desk's 'Sweet Spot' compressor is novel (see 'Sweet Compression' box for more information) but proved very easy to use, and should be of great benefit to those wanting fast, reliable results. It's a shame that it is not possible to mix and match different compressor programs across channels of the N12, but as the process of writing them into the mixer's memory only takes a few seconds, it is easy to swap back and forth between favourites.
The best results come from using this mixer with Cubase, but it does work with other DAWs too. For example, getting the N12 recognised as a remote in Sonar was achieved simply by opening the Controllers/Surfaces window, adding a new Mackie Control to the list and making the appropriate mLAN MIDI I/O selection. The Cubase-specific link functions were unavailable, not unreasonably, but the five basic transport keys did work.
For those who like computers for editing and composing, but prefer tweaking mixes using physical faders, the N12 is well worth a look. For me, personally, it's an attractive option, especially as it's so fast and easy to set up.
Yamaha have taken full advantage of their relationship with Steinberg to come up with a whole recording system that blurs the boundaries between hardware and software. Control surfaces may have been doing something broadly similar for a decade now, but the N12 is much more than a set of remote controllers or A-D converters — in fact it would represent decent value as a digital mixer alone, given this quality of preamps, EQ and compressors.
There are a few minor points of criticism. While it would be possible to use as a live desk, given the flexible monitoring and bussing options, the N12 is perhaps not as robust as you'd want for such work, so it is better thought of as a studio mixer. Other issues are the lack of channel EQ bypass and the desk's relatively large footprint. Arguably the one thing the N12 really lacks is a fader automation and recall system. Admittedly, this would be tricky, given that the knobs are not motorised, so their positions would not match recalled parameters. Dedicated software control surfaces get around this by having banks of assignable continuous controllers that have no fixed positions, so they are always correct, but Yamaha could have employed the often-used workaround whereby a knob remains inert until it is turned through the recalled point during its travel. Yamaha's own 01X is a good example of a product offering fader automation, scene recall and extremely good hardware/software integration. This is really beyond the scope of the N12 and might detract from its simplicity and ease of use, but there may nonetheless be a gap in the market for this type of product.
When compared with some other mixer/interface solutions, the N12 may at first seem a bit pricey, but when its unusually wide range of features are considered it begins to look like great value. Anyone who buys the N12 and owns a fairly modern PC or Mac need only add a modest controller keyboard with a bank of assignable knobs, and would find themselves with a pretty decent recording studio that is capable of achieving professional-quality results. .
There are quite a number of small, Firewire-enabled hardware mixers on the market at the moment, but none really offers the same level of integration between hardware and software as the N12, and they also tend to be analogue desks, where the N12 is digital.
M-Audio's NRV10 is broadly similar in concept, but works with Pro Tools M-Powered, rather than Cubase. M-Audio's rough equivalent of Extensions for Steinberg DAW is their InterFX application, which enables up to two VST plug-ins to be used within the mixing signal path. As far as mixer controls and I/O are concerned, the NRV10 is less well equipped, although it has more on-board effects. Given that the NRV10 is an 8:2 mixer with a 10-in/10-out Firewire interface, it is probably better to compare it to Yamaha's N8 than the N12.
If a more standard mixer is what's desired, then Phonic's Helix Board 18 Firewire MkII is a possibility. It offers no dedicated software remote controls, but does have movable Firewire sends in each channel and ships with a version of Cubase. None of Phonic's Firewire mixers are set up to mix the individual software channels, though, as they only offer stereo mix monitoring.
Mackie's Onyx range of Firewire mixers have a similar feature set to Phonic's, but their main goal has been to offer high-quality preamps and EQ rather than to compete on price. Other competitors include products such as the Multimix 12 by Alesis.