Zaxcom Fusion ENG Mixer and Multitrack Recorder

It's in the bag — Zaxcom's portable mixer, IFB, and multitrack machine
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Technological innovation in the visual production circuit has been fast and furious in the last several years. As exemplified in the blurring — if not erased — line between film and HD video acquisition, the production scene has become a welcoming adopter of an across-theboard range of new technologies including a bevy of high-tech, on-the-set audio tools.

So ... has the ENG market kept pace with its production brethren? As Jon Stewart says, "Not so much." In a land oft ruled by fossilized dino-mixers that can be carbon-dated back to the early 1980s, evolution in audio tools (and attitudes) moves at a glacial pace. It is this general market — reality shows, news-gathering, independents, and other field-production work — that Zaxcom ambitiously targets with its Fusion ($7,995) production mixer/multitrack flash recorder.

Features

The Fusion is the latest in Zaxcom's successful Deva multitrack hard-disk recorder line. As its name implies, the Fusion combines a number of mixing, recording, and cue functions into a fairly lightweight, highly portable package. While the other Deva units are more commonly found on audio carts in full productions, the Fusion's mirrored Compact Flash recording system eliminates the weight, moving parts, and power consumption of hard disks, positioning it well for typical PortaBrace case run-and-gun work.

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The Fusion measures 10.6 x 7.7 x 3.2 inches and weighs in at five pounds (without battery). All controls and indicators are found on its well laid-out front (or, when in a bag, top) panel, the only exception being its power switch, which is nicely tucked away on the left panel. Front-panel controls include generously large transport buttons, a number/cursor-control pad, and a set of eight duallayer function buttons — all brightly back-lighted. Also on the front is a set of eight user-assignable rotary faders, a built-in mic for use with the dedicated slate button, and the all-important 3 x 2.25-inch full-color touch screen that serves as the main user interface for settings and metering.

Without venturing into overstatement, the Fusion has an immense amount of mixing and routing power under the hood, which we'll look at more in-depth in the In Use section below. To summarize here, the Fusion features 16 inputs, eight output busses, 16 outputs and up to 10 recording tracks. Its 16 inputs are comprised of eight mic-/line-selectable analog inputs (on XLR) that utilize the same low-noise transformerless mic preamps found on the Deva 16, and eight digital inputs configured in four AES pairs (on DB-15). Each of the analog inputs features selectable 48-volt phantom power, an analog limiter and an adjustable (30 to 240 Hz) high-pass filter.

The Fusion's 16 addressable outputs are comprised of six balanced analog outputs (on DB-25), eight digital outputs in AES pairs (DB-15), plus two analog sends to a camera via a 10-pin Hirose camera cable connector that also provides a monosummed return from the camera's headphone amp. There is also a headphone amplifier with standard 1/4-inch stereo output derived from user-configurable presets.

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The Fusion records 16- or 24-bit audio at sample rates of 44100, 47952, 48000, 48048, 88200, 96000, 96096, and 192 kHz, and is capable of on-the-fly sample rate conversion of incoming digital sources up to 192 kHz. Power is supplied to the unit via a standard 4-pin XLR that accepts between 12 and 18VDC (100-240VAC transformer included); alternatively, a standard rechargeable NP-1 battery can be inserted into the internal compartment to power the unit when on the go.

In Use

Let me state right off the bat that the Zaxcom Fusion is one fabulous, nearly all-powerful marvel of portable mix-and-record engineering. The wisdom and experience of 12 years of Deva development Zaxcom has imparted to the Fusion is undeniable, from its highly tactile hardware faders to its touch screen interface and near-infinite mix, recorder, and cue matrixbased routing possibilities.

It is a complex beast, to be sure, but that is because the Fusion leaves nary a stone unturned when it comes to the potential production demands it is capable of meeting.

Despite the wealth of features, I found most of what I needed to be up and running mixing four sources (three Sony 88s and a Sennheiser boom) to two camera tracks while simultaneously routing the mics to four discrete internal tracks and dialing up a live-L, camera return-R phones mix without cracking the manual. Setting up the Fusion's user presets for my typical output mix, disk mix (record) and cue mix routing requirements was the obvious next step.

Truth be known, I already had a little experience on a Deva V years ago — and pretty good knowledge of pre/post crosspoint matrix routing and processing software (Lectrosonics DM, in my case) didn't hurt either — but I mostly "used the Force" and was quite happy to find the menu system, data entry, preset storage, and navigation to be thoroughly intuitive.

I also put the Fusion to work on a variety of ENG and production gigs including a live taping of the PBS television show, The Kalb Report, and a live forum called, "Battle for the Youth Vote 2008," presented at George Washington University in partnership with CBS News. On both of the above, I used the Fusion's discrete tracks to later post CBS and XM radio versions. I also tracked all sources during a Billy Joel performance at the National Press Club just for the sport of it, since it was broadcast live.

Fusion offers a well-labeled, comprehensive I/O. The Zaxcom preamps are very high-quality, with very little noise and a good, if not forgiving, amount of headroom. Like most, I tend not to print with processing — especially given that I'm often the one to post mix — so I didn't much explore the EQ and compression available on the review unit, but I did make good use of the adjustable HP filters and limiters on inputs as well as the bus output limiter. I must mention the phenomenal job Zaxcom did with the Fusion's shielding and balanced circuitry. In one instance, a proximate Blackberry sent interference straight to my phones, yet not a blip was registered in the output mix feeds or on the recorded tracks.

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Despite using the Fusion to simultaneously record multiple sources to discrete tracks (mirrored between its internal CF card and an external Avastor hard drive via the Fusion's built-in FireWire interface), mix to a real-time DVD recorder in stereo and output two different cue mixes, in the context of the Fusion's total capabilities, I was still in meat-and-potatoes land.

To illustrate, in my work I had no need to use the Fusion's multiple digital input SRCs, configure custom metering screens, craft-embedded scene/take/notes metadata (beyond simple naming and frame rates), or require its full-featured TC interface (beyond Record chase) or its user-configurable GPI triggering. In my spare time I did manage to check out some other features including M-S monitoring, assigning a quad-mic surround set to one fader, and even plugging in a USB keyboard for faster data entry.

Summary

One could mount an argument that its near $10,000 price (when outfitted with optional cables, batteries, and effects) or its 300+ mixer cross points and 200+ user parameters (as highlighted in Zaxcom lit) make the Fusion overpriced and overkill for the target ENG market. In the opening, I mentioned the glacial pace of evolution in the adoption of new ENG audio tools. I specifically referenced attitudes, which are often correctly and/or necessarily based on "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" or "the need for speed" and, of course, tight budgets. You can connect those dots.

That said, there most definitely is a market for this stunning mixer/recorder; I'll just self-revise it to start at the rentalhouse and reality-show level and then move upwards into financed independents, 2nd and 3rd film units and any other full production units where mobility, flexibility, and centralized audio control are essential. In those applications, including those requiring high-resolution surround recording, the Fusion truly has no equal.

Regular PAR Contributor Stephen Murphy has over 25 years of professional audio production experience. www.smurphco.com