The name may not ring a bell, but Phonic has, for decades now, manufactured good products for some very well known professional audio firms. Today, Phonic's own Helix Series of small analog mixers is a best buy considering it is affordable, flexible, and offers features of very good quality. In this line, Phonic's standout product is the Helix Board 18 Universal ($799 list).
Key attributes of the Helix 18 include 18 inputs with eight XLR mic/line inputs and 10 TRS line-level inputs; two aux sends; USB 2.0 and two FireWire interfaces for streaming up to 16 channels to and from any DAW (Steinberg Cubase LE is bundled); low-cut filter and EQ, selectable pre/post fader, per channel; two-channel monitoring via FireWire/USB 2.0 interfaces with up to 24-bit/96 kHz audio conversion for 16 channels of output; S/PDIF output (24-bit/44.1 kHz only); 100 program multieffects processor with tap delay and test tones; three-band EQ with sweepable mids on first six channels, fourband EQ for next four channels; phantom power; and included rackmounting kit.
Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of using the Helix 18 in a wide variety of applications. I put it through paces that proved its worth as a small multipurpose mixer in live and/or project studio/rehearsal room-based settings.
To begin, I mounted the Helix 18 in a rolling rack for some travel time. Successfully serving my FOH/monitor needs in a half-dozen small- to medium-sized rock club environments, the Helix 18 supplied clean audio and sufficient I/O for typical 4-5 player rock band gigs. For these events, the Helix easily allowed for the following: large powered mains and subwoofer for FOH; dual amp-driven stage monitors and in-ear monitor for lead vocals, each with its own mix; compression for the first six channels (thanks to channel inserts looping in outboard compressors); surprisingly great-sounding digital effects; and sine wave and pink noise test tones for system setup (very handy).
For one of these live gigs, I utilized the available connectivity options to send our two-track main mix to Bias Peak on my MacBook Pro (users can also choose to record stereo out from Group 1/2 or Aux 2/3 via FireWire or USB). If I wanted, I could've recorded all 18 discrete input channels and the main L/R mix via multitrack DAW at 96 kHz, with the option of selecting pre/post fader audio, per channel; later, I did just that, utilizing Apple Logic during a full band rehearsal. It worked like a charm (you gotta love the simplicity of Mac audio drivers)!
I found a great audio production-based use for the Helix: auxiliary studio mixer. In my own home studio, I use a Mackie Onyx 1640: a very good-sounding, value-packed mixer, yet limited to 16 channels. Because I most often track to an Alesis HD24XR 24-track hard-disk recorder (before dumping to Apple Logic for editing and mixing), playback while in tracking mode can become a problem once you hit Track 17.
Thus, Invention's mother, Necessity, called, and there was the Helix to take place of my normal option, a classic, American-made Mackie 1202. I sent all six drum tracks and two bass guitar tracks to channels 1-6 and 7-8 on the Helix, respectively, patched in some channel compression for the drums, adding some of the Helix's built-in #8 "room" reverb to the overheads, created a decent submix, and even patched in a world-class stereo compressor, routing the mix through it and, finally, to channels 1-2 on the 1640. Voilà! Playback channels increased to 22, plus (as easy as opening Bias Peak and pressing record) a ready-made, awesome-sounding bass/drums submix went home with the guitarist for wood shedding purposes. Guerrilla, I know, but it's the kind of thing that makes project studio recording a blast.
Finally, I must note the Helix's superb build quality. Pots and faders move with smooth and appropriately tight resistance, and the chassis feels like a solid chunk of steel. In other words, Helix 18 hardly feels like a feature-chocked mixer that streets for $599!
The Helix Board 18 Universal is a bargain considering its feature set, build quality, routing flexibility, and surprisingly high quality built-in effects. If you don't have one, you couldn't go wrong in buying this capable, well-built little workhorse.
Strother Bullins is the reviews and features editor for Pro Audio Review.