It may look like just another mixer, but this new entry-level model from Alesis also packs in a hefty 18-input, stereo-output Firewire audio interface. Too good to be true?
At first glance, the Alesis Multimix Firewire mixers could be mistaken for any other affordable general-purpose analogue designs, but the inclusion of Firewire interfacing enables them to double as multi-channel computer audio interfaces, placing them in a very different league. Post-EQ, post-fader direct outputs from each channel (eight mic/line channels plus four stereo line channels on the 16-channel model I had for review) are sent to the computer via the Firewire link, as is the main stereo mix, while the stereo mix coming back from the computer is routed to the two-track return in the monitor section. When Mackie came up with their Onyx Firewire mixer, there were complaints that its excellent EQ was bypassed while recording, so Alesis have obviously learned from this feedback and placed their direct outputs after the EQ. While I wouldn't pretend that the mixer section of the Multimix Firewire 16 is as sophisticated as the significantly more costly Mackie Onyx, it does have the benefit of being extremely inexpensive, and its functionality should suit a good many computer audio applications, especially where it is necessary to record multiple sources at the same time. If you have a computer and want to record a band, this is a great solution.
My first port of call is usually the manufacturer's spec sheet, as this at least gives me some idea what to expect in terms of quality, but oddly the spec for this mixer misses out many important and informative details, such as noise figures, crosstalk, distortion, and frequency response. Instead, it concentrates on telling you what level the various outputs emerge at and at what frequencies the EQ operates. While this is helpful to the user, it does little to back up the technical performance credentials of the unit. However, in my practical tests there seemed little to be ashamed of given the mixer's low cost. The manual is also somewhat unclear as to which inputs and outputs are balanced or unbalanced, though I managed to piece some of this information together from the block diagram.
The Multimix series (comprising eight-, 12-, and 16-channel models) is based around the DICE II Firewire chip set, which here handles the audio interfacing at 24-bit resolution and at sample rates of 44.1kHz or 48kHz. The interfacing is compatible with Mac or PC machines that have standard IEEE 1394 Firewire ports, and drivers are included on a CD-ROM for Windows XP and Mac OS X. A copy of Steinberg's Cubase LE recording software is also provided for those who haven't yet chosen their sequencing software. Additionally, a coaxial S/PDIF socket carries a 16-bit digitised version of the main stereo mix, enabling it to be recorded to a hardware device. By default this runs at 44.1kHz, but when the Multimix is connected to a computer it can be set to either 44.1kHz or 48kHz.
Although there is a paucity of technical spec, the manual is rather more forthcoming about promoting the built-in 28-bit digital effects processor, which can deliver 100 preset effects, including a good selection of reverbs, delay effects, and modulation/pitch treatments. The mic/line channels, of which there are eight on this model, have globally switchable phantom power and all the channels have one send switchable pre/post-fader, with a second fixed post-fader and normally feeding the internal effects, though it also has its own separate output. There's a fixed-frequency, three-band EQ per channel, with high/low shelving filters and a 2.5kHz mid-range control, all bands providing a gain range of ±15dB. The high and low shelving frequencies are set at 12kHz and 80Hz. The EQ turns out to sound nicely musical, with the anticipated exception of the mid-band if used to apply heavy boost. The strategy seems to have been to tune the mid-band to the frequency range responsible for harshness, so that it can be cut when needed, and in this role it works just fine, though a swept mid-band is always more flexible.
The master section includes separate quarter-inch jacks for Main, Alt, and Monitor outputs, a headphone output, and an Alt 3/4 fader in addition to the main stereo fader. The Alt 3/4 buss is the key to this mixer's flexibility, because it can either be used to set up a four-buss output or to keep specific channels out of the main mix so that both the individual channel outputs and mixed channels can be routed to the computer in a reasonably flexible way. It may also be routed to the main mix for setting up a separate subgroup when mixing. Stereo eight-section bar-graph meters monitor the output (or the PFL/Solo buss level when a PFL/Solo button is down), while further status LEDs show when the main power and phantom power are on.
Physically, the mixer is neatly designed, with a tough sheet-metal chassis and moulded plastic end cheeks. All the audio connections are on the top panel, with a locking connector for the included PSU on the rear panel, along with rocker switches for power and phantom power. Metal jack sockets are used, which inspires confidence. As mixers go, this one is very straightforward, with a balanced XLR mic input and a balanced quarter-inch jack input on each of the mono channels. A maximum mic preamp gain of 60dB is available, with a further 10dB of gain provided by the channel fader in its maximum-gain position. These channels also have 75Hz low-cut switches and input gain trim pots, but no insert points. Given that this mixer is likely to be used with a computer audio system that runs plug-in effects and processors, the lack of insert points probably isn't a serious limitation.
Running down the rest of the input channel, we have the three-band EQ with no bypass (though the controls have centre detents), the two aux sends (the first having a button for pre/post-fader switching), and a channel pan control. A PFL/Solo button sits above the 60mm channel fader, where a further button in the master section selects PFL or Solo mode and a larger button switches the routing from Main Mix to the Alt 3/4 buss. This dual-purpose arrangement was first seen in some of Mackie's earlier mixers, and is a very practical way of adding flexibility without adding excessive cost. LED indicators are fitted for the Mute/Alt 3/4 and PFL/Solo buttons, but there's no metering on individual channels, as levels can generally be monitored within the DAW software. Each of the (four) stereo quarter-inch jack channels has the same EQ, aux, and fader arrangements as the mono channels, except that the pan controls are now balance controls, and there's no input gain trim or low-cut filter.
There's little unusual in the master section except that the familiar RCA phono two-track inputs and outputs work in tandem with the stereo Firewire input in such a way that the analogue tape return and stereo DAW mix are summed for monitoring purposes. I can't immediately see why you might want to hear both at once, but doing it this way saves the cost of a switch. Other than the two-track RCA phonos, all the audio inputs and outputs in the master section are on quarter-inch jacks. The outputs comprise the main mix, the monitor mix, the two aux sends, and the Alt 3/4 mix, while the inputs comprise two sets of stereo returns. From the block diagram, it seems that the aux returns are balanced, while the main, Alt 3/4, and monitor outputs are 'impedance balanced', which is a way of making an unbalanced output behave more like a balanced one by taking the cold leg of the TRS jack socket to ground via a resistor that matches the output impedance of the hot leg.
At the top of the master section is the effects processor control panel, where a two-digit LED display shows the effects numbers from zero to 99. A 'turn and press' knob selects the effects, which have their categories and numerical ranges printed just above the display. There are 40 reverb presets and, in most cases, these will be the most commonly used effects. The second aux send feeds the effects normally, but if the send is being used for an external effect, then the second set of Aux Return inputs take the place of the internal effects. Although the effects can't really be used very flexibly while mixing within a DAW, they can be recorded, and you could always put them on a separate track (by routing all the input channels to the Alt 3/4 buss and recording from their direct outputs) if you felt the need to adjust the amount later. Separate level controls are provided for adjusting how much of each of the two Aux Returns is fed into the main stereo mix, and a monitor control knob adjusts both the monitor output level and the headphones level. There are three possible monitor sources — Mix, Alt 3/4, and two-track, where two or more sources may be selected at the same time where required. Further routing buttons send the two-track return or Alt 3/4 buss to the main stereo mix.
All this adds up to a simple mixer that can also double as an audio interface, providing up to 18 simultaneous computer audio feeds. Given the low cost, this is remarkable in itself. If the mic preamps are competent and the mixer circuitry reasonably quiet, then I don't see how it can fail to be a winner, especially if you need to record several musicians at once. So let's see how it works out in the studio!
Checked as an analogue mixer, the Multimix Firewire 16 turned in the kind of performance I'd expect from a well-designed entry-level mixer, insomuch as it was free from hum and hiss, other than when using the mic preamps at high gain settings. It isn't esoteric, but it's not in any way bad either. My feeling is that the mic preamps are a touch noisier than those you'd expect on a premium mixer, but not unacceptably so. The EQ sounds fine, as long as you don't use the mid-band for boosting unless you really want a harsh, invasive sound — better to use it to cut such sounds. There's a good choice of effects, even though some of these sound to my ears a little less sophisticated than I'd expect from an entry-level Alesis hardware reverb such as the Picoverb. The inability to make any effect adjustment (specifically delay time) was also frustrating on the delay presets, though there was enough reverb variety to fit most applications. In the main, I also found the section of combination effects rather too gimmicky to be useful — some tasteful delay/reverb combinations might have been more useful. If you have a good software reverb (which probably costs more than this mixer!), then it will almost certainly sound better than the one in the Multimix, but if you are running an entry-level audio program and are using the reverb that came with it, then the Multimix Firewire 16 may well offer a useful sonic improvement, with the added bonus that it won't hog your CPU resources.
My initial experiences running the Firewire side of the mixer under Mac OS v10.4.2 were a little disappointing, as I experienced occasional playback glitches even on large buffer sizes, and the system seemed very unhappy with small buffer sizes. I contacted Alesis about this and soon found an updated Mac OS X driver (v2.0) sitting in my mailbox. After evicting the old one and installing the new one, everything worked happily. After restarting the computer, I could get down to buffer sizes of 128 or even 64 samples without any sign of glitching. Problem solved!
Given its low UK price, the Multimix Firewire 16 offers extraordinary value for money, and is ideally suited to the musician on a budget who wants to record an entire band at once, while keeping all the tracks separate for later mixing. Although the mixer's facilities are pretty basic, it turns in a very acceptable audio performance, and the mic preamps behave well enough to make good, clean recordings, provided that you use either sensitive capacitor microphones or use dynamic mics fairly close to the sound source. The effects are generally OK, though some of the brighter reverbs can be a touch on the 'ringy' side, and not being able to adjust even one parameter can be frustrating. Most of these effects would be fine for live use, but for recording check your plug-ins and see which sounds best. The medium-length reverbs are probably the most useful effects when recording or mixing a finished track, and fortunately there are several sensible presets from which to choose in this section.
As to my initial Max OS X problems, the new driver solved all the glitching and everything worked quite painlessly. The ability to route so many individual feeds to a DAW should appeal to anyone who wants to record multiple sound sources at once, but who prefers to mix within the DAW. The post-EQ direct feeds mean you can tweak the sounds prior to recording them, and if you want to add effects as you record you only need to record the effected track or tracks via the main stereo output with suitable effects applied. The Multimix may be built to a price, with competent rather than esoteric audio performance, but the strategy has clearly paid off. After all, where else can you buy a multi-channel mixer, an 18-input audio interface, and a digital effects processor for such a small outlay?
- Up to 18 simultaneous inputs for recording.
- Integral effects.
- Mac OS X and Windows Firewire drivers.
- Fixed mid-band EQ frequency and no EQ bypass.
- No parameter adjustment for the effects.
Alesis have managed to combine a basic but practical analogue mixer with an 18-in, stereo-out Firewire interface at an unprecedentedly low price.
Multimix Firewire 16, £429.99; Multimix Firewire 12, £349.99; Multimix Firewire 8, £249.99.
Numark +44 (0)1252 341400.
+44 (0)1252 353810.