Under the hood of this affordable new Alesis compact mixer lurks an 18-in/two-out audio interface. Is it too good to be true?
For the last few years, mixer manufacturers have been waking up to the fact that more and more recording musicians are working with computer-based studio systems, and have sought to simplify the interfacing between mixer and recorder to claim a share of this market — so USB- and Firewire-equipped mixers have been popping up like daisies. Alesis have already been responsible for a small posy on their own, starting with their original MultiMix USB range (offering stereo I/O) and expanding into their MultiMix Firewire range (with direct inputs to the computer from every mixer channel). The USB 2.0 range provides similar 24-bit multi-channel audio interfacing as on the Firewire models, but adds 88.1kHz and 96kHz sampling rates to their 44.1kHz and 48kHz rates. The requisite drivers are provided for both Mac OS 10.4 and Windows XP SP2 (WDM and ASIO).
Two frame sizes are available in the range, of which the MultiMix 16 USB 2.0 under review here is the larger, offering 16 channels, eight mic preamps, built-in digital multi-effects, and 18-in/two-out interfacing. The smaller MultiMix 8 gives roughly half the horsepower: eight channels, four preamps, and 10-in/two-out audio interfacing. Both models come with bundled Steinberg Cubase LE4 installers for Mac OS X and Windows XP.
This compact mixer's 14 60mm faders control eight mono mic/line channels, four stereo line-only channels, and two stereo output busses. The mic/line channels differ from the stereo line channels only in the input section, the former providing an XLR connector for mics, a balanced TRS jack socket for line signals, a preamp with up to 60dB gain, and an 18dB/octave, 75Hz high-pass filter. Phantom power is switched globally from the rear panel, so if you're planning to use dynamic or ribbon mics alongside your condensers, you'll need to check that their design allows them to be subjected to phantom power without being damaged.
It's a bit of a shame that there are no insert points on these channels, as this means that there's no easy way to compress mic signals before they reach your recorder. And before you say 'most people will use plug-ins for that', let me ask you why Alesis have then bothered including EQ. I also felt that Alesis might have considered including a high-impedance input on one of the channels for DI'ing electric guitars, which would have saved the home studio owner the expense of a separate DI box.
The stereo channels offer a simple pair of TRS jacks, without any gain control, and if you plug into just the left input the channel simply operates in mono. The remaining channel facilities are common to both types of channel. A simple three-band EQ offers low shelf, mid peak and high shelf at sensible fixed frequencies of 80Hz, 2.5kHz, and 12kHz, and although there's no bypass switch the clear control detents allow you to zero the EQ easily — an important consideration, because the direct channel outputs are post-EQ.
Two mono aux sends feed TRS output sockets for foldback and effects-send purposes. The first of these can be switched on a per-channel basis for pre- or post-fader operation, while the second is fixed post-fader and fed by default to the internal effects processor. A pair of balanced stereo aux returns are provided on TRS jack sockets, and any signal plugged into the second of these replaces that from the internal effects. Each has a simple rotary fader for level control.
Below each channel's Pan/Balance control are two buttons. The top solos the channel in the monitor outputs and on the LED meters in one of two ways, depending on the setting of a Solo Mode switch in the console's master section. The PFL (Pre-Fade Listen) option gives you the signal just after it's passed through the channel EQ, while the Solo option monitors the signal after the fader and pan controls. The former mode is obviously handy for initially setting up levels to minimise noise and distortion during recording, while the latter is more useful for mixing, as it gives you the same sound you're hearing via the mix bus. Well, not quite the same. actually, as the returns from neither the internal effects nor the hardware Aux Return sockets are 'solo safe'.
The mixer has two separate mix buses, Main Mix and Alt 3/4, each with its own master fader and a pair of TRS jack output sockets. The last button on each channel assigns that channel's signal to one or the other. If you leave the Alt 3/4 outputs disconnected this channel button then effectively becomes a simple Mute button, but otherwise this setup, by no means unique amongst manufacturers of small-format analogue mixers, delivers some additional routing flexibility. For example, you could, to some extent, work around the mixer's lack of insert points by sending signals to a compressor hanging off the Alt 3/4 outputs, returning the squashed signal for recording or mixdown via an unused channel pair. An Alt 3/4 To Mix button does exactly what it says on the tin, so you could also use this alternate bus as an extra stereo effect send at a pinch, albeit without independent control over channel send levels.
Monitoring is well catered for, with separate stereo Phones socket and balanced TRS Control Room outputs, both under the control of the larger pot above the Main Mix fader. A switching matrix allows you to listen to any combination of the two mix buses and the signal arriving at the unbalanced RCA phono 2-Track In sockets — if you select the latter, you'll also hear any audio arriving from the computer via USB alongside the 2-Track input signal. The 2-Track inputs and computer output can also be routed directly to the Main Mix bus if required. A second pair of 2-Track Out phonos receive the Main Mix signal for the purposes of recording to tape and CD decks.
Right at the top of the master section you'll find the small area devoted to the effects processor. This is a doddle to use: twist the endless rotary encoder to select a program number on the LCD and push the encoder to select it, then set the channel send levels using the Aux B controls, keeping a watchful eye on the effects Signal and Clip LEDs and adjusting the overall effect return level from the Effects/Aux Return B Level knob.
All 16 channels on the MultiMix 16 can be recorded into a computer, along with the stereo Main Mix output, over the USB 2.0 connection. In addition, a stereo feed from the computer can be returned to the mixer for monitoring or mixing purposes. Drivers must be installed before connecting up the mixer, but the installation process was the work of three minutes and the connection subsequently worked immediately for me, once I'd routed the inputs and outputs suitably in my version of Cubase SX2. If you don't have computer recording software of your own, you'll be pleased to know that Cubase LE4 is bundled with the mixer. However, input restrictions in this software may prevent you from taking advantage of the interface's maximum simultaneous recording track count.
The USB driver's control panel offers buffer sizes as low as 48 samples, but even at 128 samples on a steam-powered PC I found the latency perfectly acceptable for software monitoring. However, if you're of the opinion that no latency is good latency, you'll be pleased to know that setting up zero-latency monitoring on the MultiMix 16 is dead easy: switch off software monitoring; activate the Mix and 2-Track buttons in the MultiMix's monitor section; record direct from the relevant mixer channel (setting the channel fader for the best recording level); and then use the Main Mix fader to adjust the relative level of the recording signal against the backing track. The built-in effects are an added benefit in this situation, giving you immediate courtesy reverb for vocals, while leaving the recorded sound dry.
One thing I found a bit annoying about the USB audio implementation, though, was that the individual channel recording signals are fed to the computer post-fader. This makes it impossible to optimise signal levels for both the individual channels and the main mix bus simultaneously — set the channels up for the best recording level and you risk driving the mix bus into distortion, while setting the channels up for a good mix means that you have to record your signals at a lower level, which will give you increased analogue noise levels even if the 24-bit A-D conversion theoretically gives lots of headroom to play with. Personally, I'd prefer the recording outputs to come directly after the preamp, removing even the EQ from the signal path to the recorder. That said, for simultaneous PA and recording for small live gigs, the background noise in the room will probably dwarf any extra circuit noise, so this problem might not bug you like it does me.
The MultiMix 16's 4.4kg frame exudes a definite air of solidity the moment you take it out of the box, and although it is afflicted with the usual external power supply common in this price-range, it is at least a chunky affair with a nice locking three-pin connector at the mixer end. Knobs and faders have a nice smooth action with a reassuring amount of resistance, which only adds to the positive initial impression.
Once you've connected up any microphones to the mixer and engaged phantom power (always something you should do only once the mics are plugged in), it's easy to set levels via the LED meters by setting the master Solo Mode button to PFL and then using the individual channel PFL/Solo buttons. It turns out, though I could find no mention of it in the desk's manual, that the little red LED alongside the channel PFL/Solo buttons also functions as a clipping indicator, warning you if the channel signal is approaching the clipping level of the USB A-D converter inputs.
The preamps give a workable sound with reasonable noise performance. In practice, a lot of home studio owners will find that background noise in the room and/or self-noise from their mics will mask any further noise generated by this preamp — I connected up a number of different mics to the mixer, and while an AKG C414 XLS close-miked vocal was clear and clean, some much more budget mics, or those recording from a greater distance (in a typical domestic environment) showed less acceptable noise levels. My only real concern is that the control resolution at higher-gain settings is quite narrow (a common problem on budget mixers), which makes a lot of the gain appear to be bunched at the clockwise extreme.
The bottom line, though, is that in my opinion these preamps are equal to the task of delivering release-quality home recordings if used primarily for careful close miking, as long as your mics aren't all scraped from the very bottom of the bargain barrel. Furthermore, the transfer to the computer over USB seems pretty lossless, so the MultiMix has to be considered a serious contender for ensemble recording on a budget.
The EQ sounds better than a number of other designs I've tried on budget mixers, and I was able to massage a selection of different instrument and vocal tracks into a more usable form with ease. The same 'gain bunching' effect that I found in the preamps also appears to exist in the EQ circuitry, although I quite liked that here, because it gave me more control resolution for the fine settings where any budget EQ tends to sound its best. As is to be expected at this UK price point, the mid-band became rather honky at extreme boost settings, but again not as much as I've come to expect in this area of the market. Of course, you lose out on some flexibility due to the fixed-frequency design, so when you're recording you'll probably just want to leave EQ'ing until you mix, as most EQ plug-ins offer considerably more control.
The built-in effects were simple to set up and sounded fine — no surprise, given the Alesis heritage — with the reverbs working particularly well, but sacrificing the chorusing, flanging and pitch-shifting for a delay tap-tempo option would, for me, have increased usability. Monitoring was straightforward, with plenty of headphone level, although some people may find the linked headphone/control-room monitor level control rather tedious if both are connected simultaneously.
Alesis have put a lot of things into one box here, and I think this approach will work best for you if you need something both for live mixing and for studio recording. Looked at simply as a computer recording interface, some of the mixer functionality (such as the built-in high-pass filters and EQ) might be considered a little redundant given the power of even freeware applications these days. Even the built-in effects might be surplus to requirements if you're using software monitoring. However, the moment you need to use the mixer for live work, the feature balance makes a lot more sense, and the MultiMix 16 USB 2.0 becomes a much more attractive proposition. Purchasing decisions in this area of the market are as much about features as audio quality, so you need to check out some competing products to see what best meets your needs, but if you decide that the MultiMix 16 USB 2.0 has the right balance of facilities, you should also find the audio performance well up to the mark.
There are 100 programs available in the MultiMix 16's internal processor. The first 40 concentrate on various lengths and flavours of hall, room, plate and chamber reverb, and they all came across better than I was expecting (even taking into account Alesis' proven track record in this area), avoiding most of the metallic colorations that so often afflict budget processing. The following 20 variations of chorusing and flanging were workable, and the 10 delays also sounded fine. Here, however, I sorely missed the ability to adjust the all-important delay time. The pitch-shifting programs are good for a laugh, if not for much else in the real world, while the remaining 20 Multi programs create a variety of chains from the aforementioned effects types. I'd have appreciated a bit more information about the different programs in the manual, particularly for these Multi programs, as finding a suitable effect involved a bit more trial and error than I would have liked.
There's a lot of activity in this section of the market at the moment, so it pays to do a little research before parting with your cash. If you need this many mic preamps combined with serious multi-channel audio interfacing, then you should certainly look at Phonic's Helix Board 18 Firewire MkII, which also has the ability to route pre-EQ signals to the computer if required. Mackie's Onyx 1620 Firewire and Yamaha's N12 offer other options here, but only if you've got significantly more money to spend!
If you don't need as many mic preamps (or already have some outboard preamps to hand) then Edirol's M16DX or M-Audio's NRV10 both provide mixer functionality and multi-channel audio interfacing, and both implement hybrid digital/analogue designs in interesting ways. If you're happy with simple two-in/two-out audio interfacing, then the field opens up even more — models such as Behringer's Xenyx 2442FX, Yamaha's MG166CX USB, and Allen & Heath's ZED14 all demand attention.