(click thumbnail)I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to use, abuse and review a number of software control surfaces over the last six years. The subjects have ranged from controller-only models (Radikal Technologies, Mackie, SmartAV) to digital mixer/controller combos (Yamaha, Mackie, Behringer, TASCAM) to FireWire-interface/control surface combos such as the TASCAM FW series.
Fast FactsApplications: Studio
Key Features: Eight analog mic/line inputs; ADAT and S/PDIF I/O; four analog outputs; two headphone outs with independent volume and sources; nine 100mm motorized faders with 10-bit resolution; two-line LCD display; word clock I/O; built-in support for most popular DAWs.
Contact: M-Audio at 626-633-9050, www.m-audio.com.
What I have found is that they all presented a good core set of controller functions (moving faders, transport buttons, channel parameter controls), most have brought one or more new and innovative elements to the table, and all have had some shortcomings or omissions.
M-Audio's ProjectMix I/O ($1,599) is the newest control surface to enter the fray. Aimed at M-Audio's core personal and project studio markets, the ProjectMix I/O features built-in support for the most popular DAW platforms, a FireWire computer interface, and an all-important LCD scribble strip.
The M-Audio ProjectMix I/O functions as both a FireWire audio interface and as a control surface for popular Mac and Windows-based DAW platforms. The unit itself is fairly compact, measuring 20 inches wide, 18 inches deep and 4.25 inches at its highest point. Its sloped front-panel wrist support combined with a fader section that never reaches over two inches high makes the ProjectMix I/O easy on the wrists.
The ProjectMix I/O audio interface features eight mic/line-selectable analog inputs and four line level analog outputs. All line level connections are on balanced 1/4-inch jacks, and, of course, all microphone inputs are on XLR jacks.
Each of the eight analog inputs features a mic/line selector switch and input gain knob, plus signal present and clip LED indicators. The phantom power switch is global, affecting all eight microphone inputs (so no using ribbons with condensers!). The A/D and D/A converters are 24-bit, and support the standard sample rates between 44.1 kHz and 96 kHz.
The first channel of the ProjectMix I/O can be switched to a high-impedance/instrument level input for use with the corresponding front panel 1/4-inch instrument input. The ProjectMix I/O also provides an output knob (typically used to control the volume of one or both of the stereo outputs, though other functions can be selected in the control panel) plus two stereo headphone outputs with individual level controls. The headphone outputs can be independently set to monitor either of the analog output pairs (1/2 or 3/4) or set to monitor a custom "aux" mix, dialed up in the ProjectMix I/O's control panel (more on this later). Headphone output 1 can be assigned to an A/B button on the control surface for monitoring two different headphone mixes.
Digital connectivity includes a single 6-pin FireWire port for connecting to the host computer, one set of ADAT optical I/O ports (which double as the optical S/PDIF ports), coaxial S/PDIF I/O (RCA), a set of MIDI In and Out ports, and word clock I/O on BNC jacks. Rounding out the unit's connections is a 1/4-inch footswitch jack and a power input jack for the included line lump power adapter.
Of course, the heart of any control surface is its faders, and the ProjectMix I/O matches up with the best in its class: eight 100mm touch-sensitive motorized channel faders plus one more for master fader control, all operating at 10-bit resolution. Above each channel fader is a dedicated record enable, channel select, solo and mute button, plus a rotary encoder knob. Another highlight of the ProjectMix I/O is its backlit two-line LCD display, which performs scribble strip, parameter value, operating mode and other duties.
The ProjectMix I/O also features illuminated transport controls and a jog/scrub wheel, plus four directional navigation buttons (which double as zoom controls when the zoom button is enabled). Other transport control buttons include nudge forward and back, marker set and marker-locate forward and back buttons, loop enable and locate to in/out point buttons. For navigating across your software mixer, there are buttons for jumping forward and back eight channels at a time or one channel at a time.
The functionality of the set of buttons located in the "Encoder Operations" section of the control surface is, for the most part, application-specific. These controls include five aux buttons, plus pan, plug in, channel info, meter, flip and others. The specific use of these buttons heavily depends upon which software application is in use.
The ProjectMix I/O manual, available on the M-Audio website, details specific functionality for the Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, SONAR, Live and Digital Performer platforms. The M-Audio ProjectMix I/O can also be used in any Mackie Control or HUI-compatible application. The ProjectMix I/O also features a dedicated MIDI control layer (accessed by hitting the "MIDI" button) for customizing MIDI control of specific software elements, virtual synths or outboard MIDI gear.
For this review, I used the M-Audio ProjectMix I/O with an Intel 3.2 GHz P4-based PC running Windows XP Professional (SP2). I principally used the controller/interface with Steinberg Nuendo and Cubase, and Digidesign Pro Tools M-Powered.
As an audio interface, I was pleased with the unit's sound quality in general and the ease of use of the M-Audio control panel when making routing and hardware setup changes. The mic preamps are decent, though, as to be expected, they don't fare as well when pitted against high-end (and high-priced) outboard preamps.
I liked the fact that the unit has separate switchable mic and line inputs (as opposed to combo jacks) – great for leaving line level playback gear etc. always plugged in, or for wiring the unit to a patch bay. I wish M-Audio had put in at least a couple of insert points for post-preamp analog processing. Of concern is the lack of pads on at least a couple of the mic preamps – a Shure 57 on a snare drum consistently pushed a preamp set at minimum gain into overload.
The monitor mixer interface within the control panel is fairly powerful without being overly complicated. A nice touch is that the two headphone outputs can be independently sent either of the computer output pairs (1/2 or 3/4) or fed from an aux bus that can be derived from a mix of any or all of the analog and digital outputs. Any of the live inputs can also be mixed in (with level and pan control) for no-latency monitoring. I also liked the fact that the ADAT I/O can be switched to S/MUX II mode for four-channel 96 kHz operation.
I should mention that, although M-Audio markets the ProjectMix I/O as an 18 x 14 interface, this is a bit disingenuous, as it is actually only capable of 16 x 12 simultaneous I/O channels. Though I could find no mention of this in the manual, enabling the ADAT digital I/O disables the S/PDIF I/O and vice versa.
As a controller, the ProjectMix I/O worked very well with both Nuendo and Pro Tools M-Powered. The layout of the control surface is well thought out and intuitive, and I was particularly impressed with the feel and motion of the motorized faders. I also really liked the dedicated horizontal and vertical zoom buttons, and the marker set and locate functions. One conspicuous omission is the lack of dedicated programmable buttons for assigning to specific functions within the chosen application. Even though it interfaces with the software applications using the ubiquitous Mackie protocol, the ProjectMix I/O goes one better by incorporating specific application support into its hardware (as opposed to waiting for the DAW developers to write support into their programs) – smart move.
There were a few programming oddities that I hope will be refined in future updates. For instance, in order to see your pan positions for the eight channels (within the pan display mode, no less) you have to first move one of the eight encoder knobs. Only then will the pan settings for the eight channels be displayed. You can hit a button called "Chan Info" to achieve the same result without changing a knob, but as soon as you bank left or right, or view any other page, it reverts to simply displaying that you are in the pan edit page. The same holds true for send, insert, plug in/effects and all the other parameters – the default simply shows the name of the parameter, not the actual state (imagine a page that displays "FxOn" – the parameter name – over all eight channels, but not actual states of the parameter). At the very least, they should allow the controller to remain in "Chan Info" mode (if selected) as one navigates between pages and around the control surface.
Similarly, there is a welcome meter mode feature that displays a horizontal level meter over each of the eight channels – obviously not intended for precision measurements, but great for visual reference. The misstep here is that the meters don't go away when entering any of the edit pages (again: pan, sends, inserts etc.), obliterating any chance of actually doing anything useful within those pages.
Based on the company's excellent track record in driver development, I expect M-Audio will actively address these software issues and continue to refine and enhance the operation of this otherwise well-thought out product. Its built-in support for the most popular recording applications, intuitive operation and sound quality make the ProjectMix I/O a worthy consideration as the hub of computer-based personal and project studios.