I’ve known Tony Shepperd since the early ’90s and have always been impressed with his commitment to high-quality audio. When I heard he was teaming up with A-Designs to build the ultimate summing mixer, I couldn’t wait to hear the result. And my excitement grew considerably when I heard that the legendary Paul Wolff was its designer.
The Mix Factory ($2,990 street) is a 2U, 19-inch deep summing box. It features a sleek black faceplate that includes 35 brushed aluminum knobs, 20 illuminated buttons and a two-channel LED output meter. The rear panel includes a pair of D-sub connectors for input, balanced XLR stereo I/O for the three inserts, transformer-balanced XLR stereo outputs for monitor output (pre-master fader) and main output (post-master fader) and a pair of female XLR connectors to daisy-chain multiple Mix Factories.
Each of the 16 inputs includes gain, pan (center detented) and cut controls. The cut button illuminates green when signal passes, and the brightness increases in proportion to the level of the signal. It lights red when the mute has been activated.
The unique design architecture of the 16-channel manually controlled device is based on two passively summed subgroups—one for inputs 1-8 and one for 9-16. Each subgroup has a switchable insert and the two subgroups are summed together at the Grand Master stereo bus. The Grand Master includes a switchable insert and a bypassable transformer-balanced output. While this may sound like overkill, it’s not—it’s simply brilliant. Read on to find out why.
For this review, I prepared a mix, starting by setting all 16 inputs to the three o’clock position (as recommended by A-Designs’ Peter Montessi). I panned all of the channels in pairs (1-left, 2-right, 3-left, 4-right, etc.) and ran a 1 kHz tone through each of the pairs, making sure the left/right balance was exact. I should mention that headroom isn’t an issue with the Mix Factory; the inputs can handle an impressive +27 dBu. I set both bus outputs and the grand master output to full volume. I split up an ITB (in-the-box) mix across the eight stereo pairs and found the result to be quite good. Imaging was better than coming right out of Pro Tools and there was more punch. There are a lot of summing boxes that do this well, though, so I wasn’t completely sold…yet.
Next, I began a mix from scratch using the Mix Factory. After a bit of experimentation, I found that I got the best results using the first bus as a band bus and the second bus as a vocal/effect bus. I panned channels 1, 2, 9 and 10 to the center and kept the remaining channels hard left and right. Although it varies from mix to mix, my standard setup is routing kick and snare to channel 1, bass to 2, the remaining drums to 3 and 4, guitars to 5 and 6, keys and any other remaining instruments to 7 and 8, lead vocal to 9, harm or doubled vocal to 10, backing vocals to 11 and 12, and stereo vocal effects to 15 and 16. I then insert stereo compressors on both channel buses and the grand master bus; this is where the true magic happens. I found that being able to vary the amount and type of compression between the band and vocal buses gave me the ability to glue the mix together in a way that just isn’t possible with a single master bus compressor. This way, vocals retain intelligibility and have more room to breathe without having to be as loud. Overall imaging is improved and the mix has increased punch and more dynamics. Yes, it is truly impressive. I have never witnessed this potential on any other standalone summing device.
I love having the ability to switch the unit’s Cinemag CM-ET3042 line output transformers in and out of the signal path, although I must confess that, to date, every time I’ve compared, it sounds better with the transformer in the circuit. To me, it feels like inserting the transformer creates a sonic bond that makes the whole mix work better. Regardless of how good the mix sounds, it sounds better after running through these transformers!
The Mix Factory’s dual-bus architecture is flexible, musical and it creates a workflow unique to the world of summing boxes. ITB mixers who long for the musical sound of analog summing should give the Mix Factory top consideration, as it will not disappoint.
Russ Long lives and works in Nashville, engineering and producing a wide variety of music and film projects.