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Yamaha MW & MG Series

USB Mixers By Paul White
Published November 2007

These modestly priced small mixers from Yamaha offer plenty of functionality and a good clean signal path.

There's been something of a resurgence in the small mixer market of late, and we've looked particularly at various analogue models that incorporate A-D converters and USB or Firewire functionality, as they seem a sensible choice for those starting out on home recording. Yamaha have now released their first such mixers, in the form of the MW and MG series, and I decided to take a look at one of each, taking the MW series first.

Yamaha MW & MG Series

MW12CX

Where a small mixer is required for live sound or straightforward recording, Yamaha's MW-series USB Mixing Studios offer all the basics of an analogue mixer, as well as effects, 2-in/2-out USB connectivity and compressors on the mono channels — and all this comes at a very affordable price. As you might guess, this is made possible by designing the mixers in Japan but having them built in China, where labour costs are still much lower.

Each of the four models in the MW series follows the same format, the only difference being the number of channels. I chose to test the MW12CX, which offers a total of 12 audio inputs: four mono mic/line channels, fitted with switchable high-pass filters and one-knob compressors; two channels that can be used as either mono mic or stereo line inputs; and two further stereo line-level channels, which offer both jack and phono connectivity. Phantom power can be turned on for all the mic inputs via a switch in the master section.

The mixer is built into a tough, plastic chassis with a metal front panel, and it is powered by an external adaptor which features a locking connector. All the connections, other than power and the USB sockets, are on the top panel, and all the knobs' functions are grouped by cap colour.

The in-built USB audio interface can transfer two channels of audio simultaneously, to and from the desk to a connected Mac or PC. The mixer is recognised by the computer as a standard USB device, which means that you don't need to install any special drivers. Of course, to make any practical use of the USB interface, the computer needs to be running audio recording software of some kind, and a copy of Steinberg's Cubase AI4 for Mac and PC is included in the package.

As with many other USB-equipped mixers at the lower cost end of the market, the USB interface offers 16-bit conversion, at either a 44.1kHz or 48kHz sampling frequency. While it is possible to get perfectly good results using 16-bit audio converters, you need to run the signal as hot as you can without allowing it to clip, to make use of as much of the available dynamic range as possible (24-bit converters allow you much more flexibility, as with these you're able to leave plenty of headroom, but with 16-bit systems you can't afford to be so generous).

The make-up gain on the compressors is adjusted automatically, which means that you can change the amount of compression without having to keep manually adjusting the gain to compensate for the gain reduction applied by the compressor. There isn't a bypass button — you simply turn them right down to zero if you don't want compression.

Inserts are provided for the four mono mic/line channels on the usual TRS jacks, and all channels have input-trim gain controls. The mic/line channels and channels 5/6 and 7/8 feature three-band EQ, two Aux sends (Aux 1 is pre/post switchable, while Aux 2 feeds the onboard effects processor), Pan, On and PFL buttons, and 60mm faders to give control over levels. The final two stereo channels have a simpler two-band EQ system, but otherwise offer the same functionality as the rest of the channels.

The main outputs are provided both on XLRs and on jacks, and a further jack carries monitor outputs, adjustable via the Monitor-level pot. There's also a recording output (on jacks or phonos), physical outputs for Aux sends 1 and 2, and a headphone outlet which, again, has its own level control.

In the master section of the console, there's a stereo Aux return and a two-track input, which can be fed from phono sockets or from the USB audio feed from a computer. A rotary control adjusts the level of the 2TR/USB return, which may be routed to either the main outs or the monitor out. Faders are provided to control the Effects Return level and the Record Out level. A generous 12-section stereo LED meter indicates the mixer output level or, when selected, the PFL level, and a Stereo/Rec switch enables the Record left and right signals to be sent to either the monitor out jacks (and to the level meter and phones) or to the main stereo output.

To select one of 16 different effects, which include the usual reverbs and delay but also chorus, flanger, phaser, auto-wah and distortion options, there is a rotary control. For each effect, there is one adjustable parameter (which is chosen to be the most important for the effects type that has been selected). In most cases, only reverb and delay tend to get used in live performance but it's nice to have the other effects if you need them. The effects can be bypassed using an optional footswitch.

MG166CX USB

Despite being in different series, the MG and MW mixers have a lot in common. I looked at the MG166CX USB, which offers a similar USB interface, a free copy of Cubase AI4, and an on-board effects section. Though intended for more demanding applications than the MW12CX, it still uses 60mm faders rather than the more 'luxurious' 100mm type, but it also has additional features and a higher channel count. For example, it has two additional stereo buses, for subgrouping or routing to a multitrack recorder, 'one knob' compressors on six of the mic/line channels, and the capacity to handle up to either 10 mic inputs and two stereo line inputs, or eight mic inputs and four stereo line inputs. Insert points are provided on the eight mono mic/line channels. These mono channels benefit from a three-band EQ with a swept mid control, covering 250Hz to 5kHz, whereas on all the stereo channels the three-band EQ has a fixed mid-frequency of 2.5kHz. The high control operates at 10kHz and the low at 100Hz. It would have been nice if the mid went down to 150Hz, because a lot of problems occur in the frequencies just above this — which means that this design could leave you with an itch you're unable to scratch. All channels have switchable 80Hz low-cut filters and peak-level warning LEDs (post-EQ), but still no EQ bypass (just centre-detented controls).

The MW12CX is the smaller of the two mixers reviewed here. It is suitable for both home recording and live sound applications, and could be particularly useful for simple stereo recordings of small gigs.The MW12CX is the smaller of the two mixers reviewed here. It is suitable for both home recording and live sound applications, and could be particularly useful for simple stereo recordings of small gigs.Photo: Mike CameronAs with its smaller counterpart, the MG166CX USB is built into a rigid plastic case, this time with 19-inch rack-mounting points built in, and power again comes from an external adaptor with a locking connector. Phantom power can be applied globally to all the mic inputs. The main stereo outputs are doubled up on both balanced XLRs and jacks, while the bus outs (1/2 and 3/4) are on jacks only. Monitoring is switchable between the main stereo out and either of the groups, via a pair of buttons in the master section, and the 12-section LED level meters look identical to those in the MX-series mixers. All the channels have conventional PFL (Pre Fade Listen) buttons and three routing buttons for L/R, 1/2 or 3/4. The two group faders also have adjacent L/R buttons, allowing the group outputs to be routed into the main mix for setting up subgroups.

Each channel has a pair of sends that can be switched pre- or post-fader (as a pair), and a further post-fade send feeding the internal effects unit. This seems to be very similar to that used in the MW series, in that you can select from one of 16 effects types, then adjust the most important parameter using the Parameter knob. Returns with level controls are provided for Aux 1, Aux 2 and Stereo, and there are send controls for Aux 1, Aux 2 and the internal effects. The Effect send is also available on an output jack, so you could, if you prefer, opt to use an external effects unit instead of the in-built effects. The effects return has its own fader and On button, with the same routing options as the rest of the channels, but you can also kill the effect via an optional footswitch, which may be preferable for self-op live gigs. As with the MW series, there are recording inputs and outputs on phonos (-10dBv nominal), and the two-track record return to the desk has its own level control and can be routed to either the main or monitor mix. This same control adjusts the USB audio return level, so it should be turned down when not needed, to reduce the risk of computer noise being added to your mix.

Subjectively...

I had the MG166CX USB hooked up to my MacBook Pro running Logic Express in about 30 seconds and it worked perfectly right away. As I had suspected, given the 16-bit interface, I needed to run the mixer pretty hot to get a reasonable recording level and even then I wasn't able to get it as high as I'd have liked. Nonetheless, it sounded clean, with no obvious digital noise in the background (as you can get with some USB audio devices).

The MG166CX USB packs in a few extra features over the MW12CX, including more channels with built-in compression and a sweepable mid on the channel EQ.The MG166CX USB packs in a few extra features over the MW12CX, including more channels with built-in compression and a sweepable mid on the channel EQ.Photo: Mike CameronI'm guessing from the technical spec, features and sound quality that a lot of the circuitry is common to both these mixers, even though they come from different series. Both have a quoted 20Hz-20kHz frequency response. However, we're not told within how many dBs this holds for, so the figure is actually pretty meaningless.

I liked the clean sound of the mic amps. They have a specified EIN (Equivalent Input Noise) of -128dB, which suggests they are reasonably quiet (though most people quote similar figures for maximum input gain settings) but what really matters is how the noise performance holds up at normal gain settings, and few manufacturers tell you that. Subjectively, there were no problems with noise.

The compressors on the first six channels of the MG166CX (and the first two of the MW12CX) are really easy to use, and actually sound very effective. At lower settings you get an added tube-mic kind of thickness to the sound, while higher settings fatten things up in a somewhat less subtle way, but still without getting into uncontrollable pumping territory and, as the gain automatically adjusts to keep the levels constant, it is easy to judge what the compressor is doing to the sound.

The high and low EQs sound the same on both mixers and are probably based on the ubiquitous Baxandall circuit. They sound smooth and musical when used in moderation, though the full 15dB range should seldom be required. In the mid-range, the EQ invariably sounds best when used to cut offending frequencies rather than for boosting wanted ones, though in the case of the MG console the higher end of the swept mid can be used for gentle presence-boosting if needed. However, the lack of lower range in the mid that I mentioned earier is a bit frustrating in practice, particularly for live use, where I find that boxy-sounding drum kits often need a bit of massaging around 150-250Hz.

The effects sections of the two mixers are identical and offer a similar range of effects, each with one controllable parameter.Both ranges clearly use the same effects chip, with the same one-knob adjustment of the key parameter. There are eight different reverbs, including halls, rooms, plate and drum ambience, with plenty of control over decay time via the Parameter knob — though to my ear all have too much low end, which can make the sound muddy if you add more than a small amount. You also get a 'Karaoke Echo', which is a deliberately cheap-sounding mix of reverb and delay, plus a nice vocal echo. The one effect you can't create, though, is a simple slap-back doubling echo (for those Elvis/John Lennon/Oasis songs), which is a bit of a pity. The chorus, flanger, phaser and auto-wah work well enough, and though you're unlikely to use them for live mixing, they can be useful when recording one track at a time to add effects. The same is true of the final distortion setting — though it might just come in useful for live performances of Death Metal, as it adds the right kind of demonic grunt to the vocal sound. From a practical perspective, having a separate fader and On button for the effects is a big plus when working live.

Although there is only one adjustable parameter per effect, this is at least much more flexible than having to choose from a range of rigid presets, as on some similar mixers. I think, though, that it is time that designers of devices like this put a bit of flash memory in them so that users are able to download an alternative choice of 'preset' effect types from a library on the manufacturer's web site.

That leaves us with the digital outputs which, although only 16-bit, actually sound pretty good. Like most digital recording systems, digital full scale corresponds to around +18dB on the mixer, and low-cost analogue circuitry doesn't give of its best when running at those levels. Although this type of calibration is pretty standard in the digital world, my view is that on semi-professional gear like this, setting digital full scale to match up with around +10dBu output would make more sense, as it would avoid the analogue circuitry having to be run close to its limits all the time. In practice, you'll need to run these mixers as hot as you can without having the clip LEDs come on, to achieve a sensible recording level: you ideally need to be within 6dB of digital clipping on your peaks to get the best performance out of it.

Verdict

Though I've pointed out some limitations imposed by the design of these little consoles, they are actually some of the least costly mixers around and, given the facilities on offer, and that the basic audio quality is really rather good, they represent great value. For me, the choice of effects could have been better, as many of the reverbs sound very similar (especially in a live situation), and some less bassy options with more of an early reflections vibe would have been welcome. The inability to set up a simple slap-back echo would be problematic for me, as that's an effect that I use a lot — but that's really down to personal taste.

Their strongest points are the clean mic preamps, the simplicity of operation, the adjustable effects, and those nice, very effective one-knob compressors. The audio path sounds nice, and despite being 16-bit, the USB converter produces subjectively good quality recordings, as long as you remember to keep those levels up. Also, though I'm not a fan of external PSUs, the ones that are supplied with these mixers do at least come with a suitably heavy cable and proper locking connectors, which will prevent silly unplugging incidents.

If you're not into studio recording, the USB output will provide a very easy way to make 'off the board' live recordings, straight into a laptop or other USB recording device. And if you don't need the USB interface, these are still very nice, attractively-priced analogue mixers, so they should have broad appeal. If you're looking for a budget-priced small mixer with USB audio interface, both these Yamaha ranges have to come very close to the top of the 'must try' list. 

Alternatives

There are now several mixers with built-in computer interfaces via USB or Firewire and if you're considering these Yamaha mixers you might also want to look at the Alesis Multimix Firewire mixer range, Behringer Xenyx mixers (with optional USB interfaces), the Phonic USB mixer range and the M-Audio NRV10.

Pros

  • Very affordable.
  • Easy to use.
  • Good range of facilities.
  • Good audio quality.

Cons

  • Choice of available effects may not suit everybody.
  • USB interface only 16-bit.

Summary

Given that Yamaha's MW and MG ranges of mixers are so affordable, they offer an impressive line-up of features and surprisingly good audio quality. The USB audio interface facility is ideal for making live recordings or for basic home-recording applications.

Yamaha MG166CX USB & MW12CX

pros

  • Very affordable.
  • Easy to use.
  • Good range of facilities.
  • Good audio quality.

cons

  • Choice of available effects may not suit everybody.
  • USB interface only 16-bit.

summary

Given that Yamaha's MW and MG ranges of mixers are so affordable, they offer an impressive line-up of features and surprisingly good audio quality. The USB audio interface facility is ideal for making live recordings or for basic home-recording applications.

information

MG166CX USB £345; MW12CX £279. Prices include VAT.

Yamaha Brochure Line +44 (0)1908 369269.

+44 (0)1908 368872.

www.yamaha-music.co.uk

www.yamaha.co.jp/english

Published November 2007