With the recent announcement of Yamaha's keenly priced 01X Music Production Studio, it looks as though mLAN, the Firewire-based protocol for multi-channel digital audio and MIDI, might be about to come of age. We take an early look at the new system.
The mLAN Firewire-based connection protocol for digital audio and MIDI has been around for a few years now, and a number of manufacturers have started making gear that uses it, including PreSonus, Apogee, and Korg, but it's fair to say that its uptake so far has been much slower than that of, say, MIDI in the early '80s. This is ironic, because as more and more recording studios are now centred around computers, it would be incredibly useful to have a modern high-bandwidth connection standard capable of handling many channels of multiple digital audio, MIDI and other control protocols, which could work with modern Macs and PCs with the minimum of fuss. If this protocol could only gain the same far-reaching acceptance that MIDI has, we'd probably all be better off. If you'd like to know more about mLAN, take a look at the box on the right, as well as the short series we published about it, which appeared in SOS from August to November 2000.
One of the things that's undoubtedly held back the acceptance of mLAN is the lack of a proper range of hardware gear that uses it. The odd unit has appeared here and there, such as Yamaha's own original mLAN audio and MIDI interface, the mLAN8P (which is now incredibly hard to find), the mLAN interfacing card for Korg's Triton workstation, and, more recently, PreSonus' mLAN-based Firestation multi-channel audio interface. Despite these developments, it hasn't really been practical until now to put together an entire mLAN-based studio. But this is about to change, following two developments at the recent Frankfurt Musikmesse: one concerning significant enhancements to the capabilities of the mLAN protocol, and the other announcing Yamaha's keenly priced mLAN-based 01X mixer, audio interface and control surface. Perhaps mLAN is finally due to come of age?
Originally developed by Yamaha, mLAN is a high-speed, multi-channel interfacing system that uses specially designed chips to send multiple streams of audio, MIDI and sync information over a standard Firewire (IEEE 1394) cable. Using mLAN, musical devices can be connected directly to Firewire-compatible computers and to other mLAN devices. Early mLAN implementations, such as those discussed by Paul Wiffen in his SOS series on the subject a few years ago, were restricted in the number of audio channels they could handle to eight per device. However, the recently announced second-generation mLAN chips can handle many more than that, which simplifies wiring, and enables mLAN-equipped digital mixers to double as audio I/O for computer-based studios.
As more mLAN-compatible equipment becomes available, it will be possible to link hardware boxes such as synths, MIDI interfaces, signal processors, hard disk recorders, audio interfaces, and mixers to a computer using a single cable, with no complications arising from interfacing compatibility. Note that although mLAN devices need to incorporate mLAN interfacing chips, connection to a computer is via the ordinary Firewire port — no special additional cards need to be fitted to the computer. PC users can therefore use the same Firewire cards they've already bought for use, say, with digital cameras, and owners of recent Macs don't need to do anything at all, as Firewire is built in as standard.
The concept behind the 01X is not itself new. Yamaha have been producing hardware products designed to integrate with computers for years, such as the SW60XG and SW1000XG 'synths on PCI cards' from the mid-'90s, and 1998's DSP Factory card, which combined audio interfacing with mixing and DSP effects and featured a high level of integration with the most popular software sequencers. The 01X is another logical development in this history.
It's also something musicians have wanted for years. Some five years ago, I visited Yamaha's R&D department in London and was asked what product would be top of my studio wish list. My answer was a digital mixer that could act as the audio I/O to my computer music system and also offer a decent level of integration with my music software. Now that mLAN YGDAI expansion cards are available for Yamaha's current digital mixers, this is a practical proposition. However, since my original meeting at the R&D centre, we've seen the rise in popularity of moving-fader controllers and even the first rumblings of surround sound. This must have made it difficult for Yamaha, because the 01X has been in the planning and development stage for well over three years, and at the start of that process, there was no Logic Control, Mackie Control, or indeed any low-cost moving-fader interfaces at all to speak of. The 01X has therefore been conceived during a time when the expectations of what makes a good control surface have been constantly changing, but despite this, as we shall see, the results are impressive and also keenly priced.
I must stress at this point that this is not a review but a technology preview; production models of the 01X are not expected to ship until autumn this year. Apparently only a few changes are anticipated before production starts, these mainly being minor firmware and support-software tweaks. Most of the key functions were working when I saw the unit, though there were minor issues, including some aspects of the metering display, that still needed tidying up.
As I see it, the 01X brings together the roles of the computer audio interface, the automated, moving-fader digital mixer, the MIDI interface and a moving-fader remote control surface in a single package. It uses mLAN, via Firewire, to communicate both with the computer and other hardware, so if more I/O is needed, an mLAN-compatible unit such as the PreSonus Firestation can be drafted in, requiring no more than a Firewire cable for installation. The unit utilises Yamaha's new second-generation mLAN chip technology, which makes many more channels of low-latency audio interfacing possible over mLAN for Windows (XP) and Macintosh (OS 9 and OS X) computers. I asked Nick Howes, of Yamaha's Computer Product Planning and Development department at the London R&D Centre, how they arrived at the format for the final product.
"The 01X combines what we're good at — mixing and DSP technology — with our experience in computer product technology such as the DSP Factory and SW1000XG. The level of integration we achieved with those products was quite a selling feature, so what we're trying to do now is integrate a hardware control surface with that kind of DSP functionality and get it to work with as many sequencers as we possibly can. We have done that by using standard protocols, such as those used by Logic Control and Mackie Control, to offer a level of integration that is almost identical to that provided by these dedicated controllers. On top of that, we've added audio interfacing, so that you have multiple channels of 24-bit/96kHz I/O. This means that without any need for expansion cards, the 01X already offers you eight mic/line inputs plus S/PDIF, making a total of up to 10 simultaneous inputs. The four analogue and stereo S/PDIF outs can be configured in a number of ways, giving you a very flexible stand-alone system."
I asked Nick if he thought that the Firewire standard would last long enough (given the speed of change in the computer industry) for mLAN to become a viable standard with a reasonable amount of longevity. Not surprisingly, he was very upbeat: "If you look at the number of digital video cameras and other consumer devices equipped with Firewire, it's evident that it's going to be around for many years to come. Various design concepts were suggested during the course of the three years or so that this particular product has been in development, and while we were waiting for the second-generation mLAN chips to be developed, we even considered the idea of using USB, but then we decided that USB was too slow and not reliable enough for this level of production system. Many PCs are now supplied with Firewire as standard to accommodate the DV camcorder market, and every Mac now built comes with a Firewire port. It's also ideal for laptops where you have to connect using existing ports, and can't add expansion cards. Furthermore, Apple have already built mLAN support into Mac OS X 10.2.4 and onwards, so you don't have to install any special drivers to make our first-generation mLAN products work, and we're working closely with Apple to get the same level of support on our new second-generation products.
"Our first-generation mLAN products were really just dipping a toe in the water. Take our original YGDAI mLAN card for the 02R mixer, for example; each card was limited to eight channels. With our new chipsets, you could have one node controller supporting four PH2 packet-handler chips, which can handle up to 128 channels of audio per device at normal sample rates, or half that at up to 96kHz. The chipset can also support sample rates of up to 192kHz, even though this isn't yet implemented in any of our existing products. MIDI is handled by creating multiple virtual MIDI ports, and you can get literally thousands of channels of MIDI data down an mLAN pipe. This approach is suitable where compatibility with existing MIDI devices is necessary, though we can also handle very fast data transfer of up to 400Mbits per second between devices where necessary.
"In the near future, mLAN will be forging forward technically, with newer developments such as Firewire 2, the newer and faster variant of the protocol, and we're also committed to the idea of expanding the existing mLAN system, both with our own new products, and those from other hardware manufacturers. With companies like PreSonus, Apogee, Tascam, Korg and Otari on board, the flexibility and choice given by mLAN to end users is far greater than with any proprietary Firewire or USB solution."
To facilitate the possible needs of future expansion, the 01X's operating system is Flash ROM-upgradeable. I was interested to know whether there was enough Flash ROM space for loading plug-ins to run on the 01X's internal DSP chips, but Nick merely returned one of those inscrutable smiles he's evidently learned from his employers. He pointed out that Yamaha do have plug-in capability on some of their other mixers and that computer host-based plug-ins were prone to losses though piracy, but he couldn't comment on any future plans Yamaha might have in this direction, so I steered him back onto less contentious ground and asked him about the current capabilities of mLAN in the context of the 01X.
"MLAN supports up to 63 devices, and with the 01X you have two Firewire ports, one for direct connection to your computer and the other for daisy-chaining other mLAN devices. When it comes to the maximum possible number of inputs you have on the 01X, you can use the onboard analogue inputs for channels 1 to 8 with a further 16 inputs handled by mLAN, either directly from your computer or via a third-party interface such as the PreSonus Firestation, or one of Apogee's new mLAN-compatible units. And, when connected to a computer, the outputs from your sequencer feed into the mixer directly via mLAN, so no additional interfaces are necessary. There may be other routing options using any spare outputs, such as the monitor/aux or S/PDIF to add extra capabilities — the internal routing system isn't finalised yet."
On the remote-control side, this isn't one of those units where you have to configure everything yourself, as the 01X already supports Cubase SX, Nuendo, Sonar, Logic, Digital Performer and many popular software synths via a dedicated remote mixing layer. Not only can it remotely control fader levels, pan positions, transport, track-arming and scrubbing, it can also access plug-ins, channel EQ, screen zooming, window selection and virtually all the other functions that you'd expect to be able to access from a dedicated remote controller.
The 01X also includes multi-port MIDI interface support with two MIDI ports built in and the option to add mLAN-compatible interfaces if more are required at a later date. The internal MIDI side of 01X has additional Firewire-based MIDI ports for communicating with DAW applications and also for direct interfacing with Yamaha's bundled Studio Manager software, thus keeping the physical serial MIDI ports free for use with keyboards and modules.
One concern about entirely host-based computing systems is that no matter how fast the computers get, you always find something else to run to eat up the available power, and in the context of audio mixing, good-quality reverb is extremely demanding of CPU power. As the mixing engine of the 01X is based around the same chipset used in Yamaha's new range of 96kHz mixers (DM2000, 02R96 and 01V96), it includes two 32-bit DSP effects engines, each capable of producing high-quality reverb, plus many other effects and processes. On top of that, each 01X mixer channel includes dynamics processing, plus four-band parametric EQ. The 01X can even be used as a stand-alone digital mixer, which could be handy for a live gig.
The styling and user interface of the 01X follows that of Yamaha's other digital mixers, so existing users will have no problem finding their way around it. Physically, the unit is around two-thirds the size of a Logic/Mackie Control console, and all the connections are on the rear panel. There are eight balanced analogue inputs, all capable of accepting mic or line-level signals with XLRs on the first two only. The XLRs can be fed standard 48-Volt phantom power for use with capacitor microphones. All eight inputs, which are based on Yamaha's new generation of improved-spec mixer preamp circuits, have gain trims at the top of the front panel, and input eight has an instrument-level input option with a high-input impedance to suit guitars and basses. There's also an S/PDIF input with sample-rate conversion, though the SRC can be bypassed when not needed. As with the other mixers in Yamaha's recent 96kHz-capable range, audio with sample rates and depths of up to 96kHz, 24-bit are supported.
On the output side, there are four analogue outs and one S/PDIF digital output. Two of the analogue outs are configured as control-room monitor outs and are fed through a master level control — essential if you're using active monitors. The other two analogue outs can either be configured as the main stereo out or as a pair of aux outs, but there's no dedicated provision for connecting a stereo recorder (tape out, tape monitor). A while ago, this might have been seen as a serious omission, but today it's more likely that users will record their stereo mix back into the computer as a 24-bit file rather than rely on a DAT machine or MD recorder, and then master to CD at 16-bit if required from an internal CD-R burner.
Also on the rear of the unit are the two MIDI In and Out ports, two Firewire ports (as Firewire is bi-directional, no need for In/Out or Thru markings is needed), a headphone out and a pair of footswitch jacks. The phantom-power switch is located on the rear panel and applies to the two dedicated XLR mic inputs only.
To enable the control surface to emulate existing sequencer control hardware, there's a display running across the eight physical input channel controls which displays channel number, names and parameters. As with Logic Control and Mackie Control, communication is bi-directional, so changing a parameter on the 01X affects it on screen, while resetting a parameter on screen alters the 01X settings, including motorised-fader positions and displayed values where relevant.
To get the maximum control in a practical format, the unit has eight sets of channel controls comprising short-throw faders, a further assignable controller fader and a pair of buttons for Select and On. Similar facilities are provided for the stereo master strip with the addition of a dual-function Name/Value/Meter button. The display is capable of displaying both horizontal and vertical metering options directly, as there's no dedicated hardware metering as such. The eight physical input channels on the base 01X can be switched to control up to three banks of eight physical inputs plus MIDI tracks, virtual instrument levels, buss/send levels and so on.
The Master section includes chunky transport buttons and a data wheel with a scrub mode. Cursor keys double as display zoom controllers and in addition to bank-select buttons, there's also a Flip mode that allows the knob and fader functions to be reversed. Dedicated buttons are available for Save, Undo, Edit and Loop, with 10 assignable function buttons that are used to support the functionality of different hardware control surfaces. Four of these have dual 'Shift' functions and are used to access Track, Mixer, List and Close functions. Five buttons control the mixing-layer access with a separate set of controls to access the main channel functions, such as EQ, dynamics, sends, pan, grouping and effects selection.
Between the main Master areas and the channel controls are two further groups of buttons, one associated with display options and the other for accessing the automation, solo and record-ready functions. While any fader levels used to remotely control sequencer software are stored as part of a sequencer song, the 01X's own automation, its signal routing and its effects/EQ configurations are saved separately, just as on any other Yamaha digital mixer. Using the included Studio Manager software, this can be automatically saved to your computer whenever you save a song, but you still have your song data saved in two places — the sequencer song and the Studio Manager song. This has been made as transparent as possible, given that the 01X is designed to work with as many third-party music software packages as possible, but in an ideal world, the music-software companies would produce a customised version of their sequencers able to store the 01X setup and mix information along with their song data.
In addition to Studio Manager, which allows it to be set up from your computer, the 01X comes with a suite of four VST plug-ins, which as I understand it, will also be available in Audio Units format for Logic OS X users. Rumours of DXi support for Sonar have also been floating around. Nick Howes confirmed that "very positive meetings have been held with all of the major sequencer companies. Yamaha are working hard to offer a dedicated and full experience for users of all the major platforms". That would be a definite maybe, then!
One of the plug-ins I saw was Channel Strip, a software emulation of the 01X's own channel, including the EQ and dynamics. Not only does this enable additional 01X virtual channels to be used while submixing within your sequencer, it also allows settings to be copied from the virtual channel strip to its hardware counterpart and vice versa using Studio Manager.
The second piece of software, Final Master VST, provides three-band compression and limiting for mastering applications, and this may be used in conjunction with any good equaliser plug-in to form a mastering suite. The plug-in features graphical dynamics curves for all three frequency bands, variable frequency points and built-in limiting. A third plug-in, Vocal Rack VST, provides a toolkit for effective vocal processing, including dynamics and EQ, while the fourth, Vocal Fix VST, offers automated pitch correction and is designed primarily for vocals, though it will work on many other monophonic sound sources. Like its obvious existing counterparts, such as Antares' Auto-Tune, Pitch Fix can follow a user-definable scale, but it also has formant-correction built in, so as to minimise pitch-shifting artifacts. Nick Howes expanded on Yamaha's philosophy regarding these bundled plug-ins.
"They've been developed to complement the hardware we are releasing. Pitch Fix is a great example of a well-used tool that should add value to the overall hardware concept. Then there's the 01X channel module, which is unique in the way it integrates the 01X into the virtual world. The message with 01X is to offer a level of total integration with the computer environment that has never been seen before, including the ability to work with almost all of the major sequencer platforms. And with the possibility of adding other hardware via mLAN, we think the flexibility of choice is greater than anyone could have imagined only a short while ago."
My own view is that the 01X is a brilliantly conceived product, perfectly pitched at the serious computer studio user who wants a one-box solution to interfacing, mixing and control. It's particularly attractive for anyone using laptops or an iMac with no card slots. The onboard mixing and effects takes a big load off your computer, which means less pressure to upgrade, while the bundled software also signals a departure from tradition for Yamaha and provides very practical added value, rather than padding out the bundle with extras that nobody wants. Of course, we can't tell you how well the device performs until we get one, and that won't be until the end of the summer at the earliest, but from what I've seen, it looks extremely promising, especially as it costs little more than a dedicated hardware controller.
The price for the 01X has not yet been fixed, but it is expected to be in the region of £1200 including VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble Brochure Line +44 (0)1908 369269.