The Nicerizer Junior aims to offer what analogue still does best — subtle, yet pleasing warmth and distortion.
It’s been over a decade since the launch of Phoenix Audio’s ‘Nicerizer’, a high-quality 16-channel summing mixer which, courtesy of its audio output transformers, can also be used to add a touch of pleasant tonal coloration. It’s also endowed with a full monitoring section and stereo-width controls. Phoenix’s latest take on this design is the Nicerizer Junior, which uses precisely the same summing and transformer-output circuitry as the ‘full-fat’ Nicerizer, but dispenses with the other features — which are useful but not needed by all users — to push down the asking price.
The first thing you notice when you get hold of this unit is how heavy it is, and the reason for this is abundantly clear when you open the case: it’s jam-packed full of analogue electronics. Eight PCBs each cater for a pair of input channels, with every channel featuring its own Class A transformerless input stage. The 16 inputs are presented on the rear panel as two eight-channel D-subs and can accept balanced or unbalanced signals (via a Class-A discrete buffer amp), with no difference in level.
Each of the 16 channels is treated to its own rotary pan control on the front panel, but there’s no gain knob — the input level is determined by the DAW, or whatever other device is delivering a signal to the Nicerizer. However, there is a switch to apply an 8dB boost, should more level be required.
Once summed, the signals are routed in parallel to two independent stereo output stages — so there are four channels in total, each of which passes through its own Class-A discrete output amp and custom-wound audio transformer. On the front panel, each pair has a level control that operates on the signal before the transformers, which means it may be used to control the degree of character imparted by the transformers.
Once I’d acquired the necessary D-sub cables and plumbed the Nicerizer Junior into my system, it was easy to get started and I really enjoyed the very straightforward way of working. Whether keeping the unit’s pan controls in fixed stereo pairs or mono positions, you can just break out an existing DAW mix over the 16 available channels and decide precisely how hard you want to run the mix sources through the Nicerizer Junior’s input and output stages. The other option is to mix ‘through’ the Nicerizer, performing all the panning elsewhere (eg. in the DAW), and focus more closely on controlling the levels being sent into the Nicerizer’s inputs, and driving the output stages, according to what you perceive this is all doing to the sound.
As with other Phoenix Audio products, I found that the Nicerizer Junior always lent a warm, musical character to the signal which is very much to my taste, but it works better for some sources than others. I used two different tracks for my review tests: one was a busy full-band track, featuring hard-hitting drums, bass, guitars, vocals, strings and so on; and the other a more stripped-back acoustic track.
Listening to the busier track first, the element that I could initially hear being most affected was the snare drum; there was a distinct thickening effect that increased as I drove the output transformers harder. There was — not just to my ears but those of a couple of colleagues — a subtle but likeable improvement in the sense of depth and separation. I also noticed a tangible, though once again very subtle, difference in the perceived width of the mix, which made the key centrally panned elements (bass and lead vocals in this case) seem somehow clearer and more present.
Any positive effects were much less obvious on the acoustic track. Although I could alter the sound by getting things to saturate a little, it became much more difficult to decide whether such changes were a clear improvement or simply ‘different’.
It’s so hard to put into words the subtle sort of effect I’m talking about, so I’d encourage you to listen for differences in the audio examples I’ve included with the review (http://sosm.ag/phoenix-nicerizer-jr-media). I made three example clips for each of the two tracks: one bounced straight from my DAW, one through the Nicerizer at a moderate level and another driven harder at both the input and output stage.
Much of the warmth of this device can probably be attributed to the contribution made by the transformers. If you drive the output stage more, you get a slightly saturated, almost valve-like sound, which is very effective if you like that kind of thing. I liked the thickening effect it had on the drums, just as I’d expected I would — I find that the heavy transients of things such as drums often benefit from the sonic effect caused by hitting good quality transformers hard.
But should you add a unit like this to your setup? The answer to that question needs to take account of the effect that using it would have on your work flow, and balance that against the effect you believe it’s having on your mixes or productions. In my studio, where I’m often switching between five or six mixes a day, bouncing off several mix revisions to email to clients, it would perhaps be difficult to justify from a workflow and convenience point of view. If you tend to work more on one or two tracks at a time, and have less need for switching between projects, then it becomes much more viable and more worthy of consideration.
Whether you need the summing part of the mixer to achieve the warming effect is an interesting question, too. You could probably achieve a similar sonic result by running the mix through a pair of nice transformer-balanced preamps, for example. But if you have need of high-quality analogue summing, this is as good a place as any to have that character on tap — and it is a nice character that’s on offer here. It’s also useful that you have dual outputs, because this means you’re able to create both a cleaner and a warmer-sounding mix at the same time, and decide later which one you prefer.
One thing that struck me was that the tracks I was using to test the device had been recorded with my own choice of high-quality mics, preamps and A-D converters. Thus, they’d already benefitted from a little warmth and smoothing, and so there weren’t so many ‘harsh edges’ that required attention. For mixes where the source material is a little harsher-sounding, I suspect the Nicerizer Junior could really come into its own, and I can think of several previous mix projects of mine that could really have benefitted from what it has to offer.
Phoenix Audio pitch the Nicerizer Junior not only as a summing mixer, but specifically as a ‘mix sweetening tool’. In the right scenario I would say that is a very fair description. Neil Rogers