M-Audio have packaged a fully featured control surface with motorised faders, an 18-input Firewire interface and eight m audio fast track pro manual pdf preamps in one box — at a very competitive price. O arrived at the SOS office, we all thought ‘Blimey! It looks just like the Digi 002!
Digidesign and M-Audio are now part of the same empire, so it seemed logical that they might have pooled their resources to create new hardware, and both products are variants on the same basic concept. However, M-Audio say that the Project Mix has been developed independently of Digidesign, and on closer inspection, it turns out to be quite different from the 002. In many ways, in fact, it turns out to be better. O, it has eight mic preamps rather than four, it has a shuttle wheel and master fader in addition to the eight channel faders, and there are two headphone outputs rather than one. Another difference is that it uses the Mackie HUI protocol to communicate with Pro Tools, rather than the system Digi themselves developed for the 002 and Command 8. The Project Mix also supports the Mackie Control and Logic Control protocols which are implemented by most of the other major sequencers, and is clearly intended as a universal controller and audio interface. The review unit didn’t come with any music software at all, and until January 15th, this is how the Project Mix will be sold.
To my mind, this is bizarre. Given its low price, you might expect M-Audio to have cut some corners in the construction of the Project Mix, but it’s actually very solid. At 20 inches wide by 18 deep, the case is quite large, and feels very substantial, with rigid moulded plastic surrounds and a metal surface that doesn’t flex under pressure. Installing the drivers from CD was straightforward, and although it generated a couple of error messages while attempting to uninstall my existing M-Audio Firewire drivers, worked first time.
The Project Mix comes with a very brief, fold-out Quick Start Guide and a PDF manual. The latter is not exactly comprehensive, and although it tells you the function of each control, you will need to consult your sequencer’s own documentation to learn how it works with a control surface. O is almost identical to another M-Audio product, the Firewire 1814: so similar, in fact, that I won’t go into details here, but will refer anyone who’s interested to Martin Walker’s review of that unit in SOS October 2004. Where the Project Mix improves over the 1814 is in its analogue circuitry: there are eight rather than two mic preamps, there’s a high-impedance jack socket for connecting electric guitars directly, and all eight line inputs are on balanced jacks. I noticed no difference at all between the sound of the 1814 and the Project Mix. The preamps are clean and quiet, with plenty of gain, the guitar DI socket worked as expected, and the headphone outputs put out a decent level.
However, Pro Tools users had to wait until the launch of version 7 to access the Project Mix’s audio interfacing. As is the case with most control surfaces, many of the buttons take on different functions in different applications, but the labelling seems to be based primarily on Pro Tools. For instance, the five Aux buttons allow you to set the levels of sends 1 to 5 in Pro Tools, but work differently in Cubase. O has nearly the same functionality as the Mackie Control it emulates. That is, it’s of limited use for setting up projects or editing audio and MIDI, but it’s very useful for tracking and mixing. The rotary encoders default to panning duties for the eight channels in the current bank, but five Aux buttons switch them to controlling the eight FX sends for the selected channel, selecting that channel’s insert effects and switching them off or on, doing the same for the first eight slots in the VST Instrument rack and Master effects, and controlling the EQ on the selected channel.
When I first switched the Project Mix on, the shuttle wheel worked backwards. However, hitting the Setup button accesses various housekeeping functions, one of which is Jog Wheel Calibration, and after I’d visited this, everything was normal. There are things I don’t like about the way Cubase deals with the shuttle wheel, but these are Steinberg’s fault rather than M-Audio’s. O’s buttons have no function within Cubase, but in general, the mapping of available controls onto functions is sensible and logical.
Although there are separate Alt and Shift buttons, most commonly used functions can be accessed without them, and they’re reasonably well placed at the top between the rotaries and the Aux buttons. O in Cubase are so much easier from the computer keyboard that you’d have to be very determined to do them any other way. As well as having preset modes dedicated to specific applications such as Cubase and Logic, the Project Mix also acts as a fully configurable MIDI controller. Hit the MIDI button on the control panel and launch the Control utility from the Start menu, and you will be greeted with an on-screen replica of the Project Mix. Hovering the mouse pointer over any button, fader or rotary controller will tell you what MIDI data it is set up to output, and on what channel. This could be a fantastically useful facility for those who want to control a piece of software that is not directly supported by the Project Mix. To test it, I used the Project Mix’s Control utility to assign the preset drawbar CC values in Native Instruments’ B4 II to the faders: it was quicker and easier than using B4 ‘s MIDI Learn feature, and the results worked perfectly.
However, there are areas where the Control utility could be improved. Sync section of Live ‘s preferences and tell it that a Mackie Control is attached. Unlike Cubase, however, Live ‘s Mackie Control implementation depends heavily on a feature that M-Audio have left out of the Project Mix: the ability to use the rotary encoders as momentary buttons. For instance, pressing the Plug-in button shows the Devices that are active on the selected track, and according to the Live manual, you should be able to select a Device for editing by pressing the corresponding rotary encoder. To set Pro Tools up to be controlled from the Project Mix, you simply tell it that an eight-fader HUI is attached.
O improves on M-Audio’s Firewire 1814 interface by offering eight mic preamps and balanced line inputs. The Project Mix’s shuttle wheel does nothing in Pro Tools unless either the Zoom or Scrub buttons are pressed. When the Zoom button is unlit, the arrow keys have the same navigation functions as the ‘P’, semicolon, ‘L’ and apostrophe keys in Command Focus mode. It took me a while to get my head round the way that plug-in editing from the Project Mix works in Pro Tools, but it is possible.