March 2007

M-Audio ProjectMix I/O Control Surface

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to sit in the control room during a live radio broadcast, you’d know how audio engineers are the magicians behind the scenes. Perched behind monstrous audio interfaces and mixers covered with knobs and buttons, these surgeons of sound move almost instinctually—flicking a switch here, raising a fader there. It’s a physical, intuitive process that requires a skillful touch.

Nowadays, digital home recording, while requiring the same level of creativity and technical prowess, bares little resemblance to the art practiced by those audio technicians of the analog era. Once upon a time, if you wanted to boost a level, you found the appropriate fader and you cranked it up. It was intuitive. It was simple. It felt good. Today, the same process entails numerous clicks, a bunch of drop-down menus and more than a few expletives. Simply put, there just aren’t any knobs to twist anymore. It’s true that digital equipment has made home recording more affordable and accessible. Unfortunately, its perceived complexity has also alienated and intimidated many would-be composers and producers along the way.

The people at M-Audio are trying to change that.

The new ProjectMix I/O ($1,599 retail) is an 8-track audio control interface complete with real knobs, faders, buttons and even a jog wheel. It’s designed for use with most major software sequencers. The idea behind ProjectMix is simple: create an interface with digital precision that brings production to your fingertips—not your mouse pad. For the most part, M-Audio has achieved its goal. There are, however, still some major kinks to work out.

ProjectMix has a simple design. Eight channel faders with accompanying inputs, pan/mute/record controls, a handful of option buttons and a compact LCD fit nicely into a sleek, slim black casing; the device’s width and weight are less than half that of a standard analog mixer. All of ProjectMix’s major inputs are clearly labeled: S-PDIF, ADAT, stereo, MIDI, eight XLRs plugs and eight 1/4-inch TRS plugs. The knobs and buttons are a bit more nebulous; I had to guess the functions of many of them, which have labels like “IN” and “SEL OUT.”

It took just a few minutes to hook up and install ProjectMix to a PC. Unfortunately, the relative ease of installation was offset by ProjectMix’s major drawback: incompatibility.

According to M-Audio documentation, ProjectMix works with nearly all the major sequencing programs. However, my older versions of Pro Tools, Tracktion and Cubase did not recognize the device. This incompatibility problem is not unique to M-Audio products. Audio interfaces are designed to run on current versions of applications. As a result, when you buy a new piece of digital recording equipment, you’ll probably need to upgrade your sequencing software at the same time.

After installing and configuring the latest version of Pro Tools M-Powered, I was ready to record. As promised, ProjectMix does restore knob-twisting, fader-sliding and button-tapping to the home recording process. It’s hardly necessary to use the mouse at all. When I wanted to boost a level, I raised a fader. When I needed to adjust panning, I tapped the pan button.

ProjectMix works effectively as a MIDI interface too. I ran a Yamaha MO8 music production synthesizer through it with no problems. Latency hang-ups were also non-existent due to ProjectMix’s FireWire connectivity. FireWire is much more efficient than USB connectivity. Unfortunately, most PCs do not come with FireWire hook-ups; those need to be installed after purchase. The resultant sound of the ProjectMix makes up for most of its compatibility problems. My recordings were warm, rich and clear—on par with Mackie’s excellent Onyx series.

With ProjectMix, M-Audio does literally return digital home recording to your fingertips. All the knobs, faders and buttons that made old-school recording so much fun are back. Unfortunately, this tactile simplicity is deceptive. Setting up and configuring ProjectMix requires the same amount of toil as building any other digital home recording system. The end result, nevertheless, is worth it. ProjectMix makes the recording process feel less like programming a computer and more like performing a little back-in-the-day radio magic.

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