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Mission control (Part 1)

Yamaha ProMix 01

Article from The Mix, January 1995

Groundbreaking digital mixer


Few machines warrant both a preview and a full hands-on appraisal — but Yamaha's new ProMix 01 is one of the few. Back in the very first issue of THE MIX, we looked at what this all-digital, MIDI-controlled mixing desk had to offer, now we get to use one in anger. Is it as good as we were lead to believe? In the first of two features, Nigel Lord supplies some answers — but there's something puzzling him...


It has always been a mystery to me why it's taken so long for manufacturers to bring full MIDI control to the mixing desk. While there has been MIDI channel muting on mixers for some time, and the occasional add-on MIDI level control device has found its way onto the market, the fully-programmable digital mixer has remained an elusive dream for more than a handful of top commercial studios who can afford computer-controlled desks.

But why this should be? Is it more difficult to bring level and EQ settings under realtime control than it is synth parameters? Clearly not. Is there a barrier to using menu-driven programming and multi-parameter controls rather than rows of knobs and switches? Not for anyone who's used a synth or sampler over the past six or seven years there isn't. Is it a question of cost? Would a digital design suitable for the small MIDI studio be prohibitively expensive to produce? On the contrary, manufacturers frequently cite cost as a reason for producing digital equipment in preference to control-laden analogue machines.

Perhaps it's simply that there isn't a large enough market for this kind of machine; after all, you can't expect anyone to develop a product without being convinced of the likely demand. To believe this, you'd have to believe that people were happy to make use of MIDI all the way through their systems up to — and sometimes including — the recording stage, but content to have a large hole of non-controllability, non-programability, and non-storability right in the middle.

There have been a couple of products which have pointed the way to what's possible when MIDI is married to mixing, but these were separated by several years, and passed over by other manufacturers.

The first was Simmons' SPM8:2 rack mixer which surfaced around 87, if memory serves. A highly innovative design, it was intended for users of electronic percussion setups. providing MIDI control of a number of parameters and offering a means of instantly recalling mixing 'scenes'. It was, however, inherently noisy in operation and, shoe-horned into a single U of rack space, rather tedious to use. Nevertheless, second-hand models have commanded a high price in the back of this and other magazines over the years.

The second machine was the fully MIDI-controllable Mixtab released by Fostex a couple of years ago. Though ground-breaking in a number of respects, excitement about the release of this affordable MIDI mixer soon gave way to disillusion, when some of its decidedly non-professional features were revealed — not least of which was the simple 2-band EQ and limited auxiliary facilities. This clearly wasn't the all-in-one answer to MIDI control of the mixing process we had been hoping for.

It was always assumed that Fostex, having the bit between their teeth, would go on to produce a more upmarket machine which overcame the design limitations of this first venture — but it wasn't to be. It has taken the might of Yamaha to break the impasse and produce the machine thousands have been waiting for, ever since computer sequencing heralded the mass defection to MIDI as a control medium.

Requirements



My set-up isn't particularly elaborate: a couple of synths, a couple of multitimbral sound modules, a sampler, three effects processors and MIDI control via Cubase Audio and a Mac. Yet I would estimate that it can take me anything up to two hours to get a song up and running and at the same stage I left it the last time I worked on it. This time is spent almost exclusively around a 16-channel mixing desk, setting levels, EQ and effect sends and so on. When working with other musicians I often feel like asking them to bring a good book along, if I know we'll be working on two or more numbers during a session.

None of this would be so bad if I could ever convince myself that I had a track sounding as good as the last time I mixed it. It may be psychological, but I never seem to recapture that perfect mix when returning to a song after a period of absence. I suspect I'm not alone in this.

When reading Bob Dormon's preview of the Yamaha ProMix 01 in the mix in July, I knew it was potentially the ideal machine as far as my set-up was concerned. Since that time I have limited myself to doodling around with new ideas rather than getting immersed in any serious work. That could wait until the ProMix was up and running, whereupon I could link songs with their finished mixes and commit them to memory, ready for instant recall when that elusive record contract was signed and I had to re-record the whole lot for my first album. Well, owning a 16-channel, MIDI-controlled, digital mixing desk once seemed like a dream, too.

Whatever the potential of the ProMix, I had a hunch that introducing it to my setup would throw up a whole new batch of problems, like a pair of gold lamé loon pants invading my wardrobe. Was I right? Read on...


Ins and outs



In purely audio terms, the ProMix 01 is likely to offer significant improvement over the quality and facilities most people expect from mixing desks in domestic, semi-professional, and small commercial studios. Like it or loathe it, we have digital technology to thank for that. No matter how careful you are about signal levels, impedance matching, cabling and so forth, analogue design is inherently noisy, and can seriously compromise audio quality at the point where music is actually being created.

Once converted to digital information by ProMix's 20-bit linear, 64-times oversampling A to D converters, music may be kept in the (virtually) noise-free digital domain and at CD-quality, up to and including the mastering stage — if you own a DAT machine or other digital recorder.

This isn't to be glossed over lightly. For those who find it a distraction from the creative process to be constantly taking measures to keep audio quality high and noise levels low, the ProMix will be a godsend. Short of driving inputs into distortion (easily noticed with digital audio) it's almost impossible not to get first class results from the ProMix — and if you had to listen to the music of so many Rough Mix demo tapes being ruined by poor quality sound, you appreciate the importance of this.

With its built-in effects and dynamics processors — both of which are properly specified and not mere add-ons or gimmicks — the ProMix in many ways distills the promise of digital audio. All we need now is to persuade manufacturers to include digital outputs on all their equipment, and the missing link will be bridged. Or will it?

Although we were warned of the non-inclusion of digital inputs on the ProMix in the aforementioned preview, it's only when you come to install the machine at the heart of your system that the significance of their absence becomes obvious. Given the number of direct-to-disk systems currently being sold (the owners of which would almost certainly be among the first ProMix customers), Yamaha's decision to provide analogue inputs only seems hard to fathom, and indeed justify.

I'm not someone who happens to believe that converting signals from digital to analogue necessarily represents a serious compromise of quality (or that even most professional engineers can tell the difference), but for sheer convenience, being able to connect the digital outs on your computer soundcard or digital recorder would have been worth the added cost of digital input sockets on the ProMix.

Beyond considerations of audio quality, ProMix includes a number of facilities also likely to be something of a step up for users of most conventional mixers. Though manufacturers still insist on referring to sweep equalisation on their desks as 'parametric EQ', genuine parametric equalisation is seldom found on domestic and semi-professional equipment.

Q for action



It's the Q control that makes the difference. It's all very well being able to sweep the centre frequency of operation (and to their credit, many mid-range EQ sections extend from the bass frequencies up to very high treble), but to have real control over your audio signals you need to be able to determine the bandwidth of the frequency spectrum being cut or boosted. On ProMix this is variable by the Q control in increments between 1/6 and three octaves, across all three parametric EQ sections.

It also helps if the degree of cut and boost is extended to ± 15dB, rather than the ±12dB more common to most mixing desks. This again is a feature of ProMix, which graphically reveals the full EQ picture for each channel on the large LCD screen, along with all the relevant parameter settings.

As is often pointed out about digital equipment, you can't see at a glance what's happening to all your controls simultaneously — or immediately reach over and tweak one of them. But with a little practice, getting to where you want to be on screen takes only a couple of seconds, and the display you're rewarded with makes looking at the controls of a conventional EQ section seem like peering through frosted glass. At the risk of sounding like some kind of advertising blurb, the facilities on ProMix potentially extend the role of EQ in the mixing desk from the purely utilitarian to the actively creative. But there's more...

ProMix's connections to the world


EQ made easy



A library of equalisation presets and user programs is also available so that you can instantly recall an EQ scene to impart a specific tonal feel to a particular channel. To this end you'll find patches like EQ-Rock and EQ-Live, and more specialised presets which you can use to dial up a telephone voice effect, or hum and noise reducers. If nothing fits the bill, simply create your own program and commit it to memory; of the fifty available presets, twenty are user-programmable.

So radical is the effect of some EQ presets when applied to an entire mix, it's difficult to believe that it is only EQ parameters that are being changed. To an extent, this is the tonal equivalent of features like groove quantisation on software sequencers. Creative mixing, it seems, has finally come of age.

Using MIDI synths, sound modules and a sampler as my primary means of producing music, I have found my use of dynamics processors limited to vocals and the odd acoustic instrument. However, time spent in professional studios has taught me just how essential it is to be able to control the dynamics of a musical performance, particularly when recording to tape.

Compression and limiting are perhaps the most important treatments — so much so, it seems odd that no-one has previously had the idea of incorporating such processors into the mixing desk, for assignment to those channels on which they are required. That ProMix has done just this is clearly a result of its all-digital design which makes it possible for the processing to be written into the software (I said possible, not easy).

I, for one couldn't be more pleased. Not only does it mean I can now sell my redundant compressor-limiter, it also means that whereas in the past I would have set it up specially during a recording session (and often didn't, because I couldn't be bothered), I now have dynamic control available at my finger tips. Really, ProMix's dynamics processing is so easy, I now find myself adding a touch of compression here and applying a noise gate there, and producing consistently better results.

This is largely due to the inclusion of memories — 10 preset and 10 user-programs — which may be instantly recalled across all three stereo dynamic processors. Of course, if you regularly record live music with a number of non-MIDI instruments and a selection of vocalists, the chances are you'll need more than three processors, particularly as they cannot be used as individual mono devices. Nevertheless, three represents a sensible compromise when cost is taken into consideration.

It would be feasible, for example to use one as a compressor for a lead vocalist, a second to handle a stereo mix of backing vocals, and the third to gate out noise from a guitar. Alternatively, in a live situation you could use one processor to compress the vocals, the second to compress a stereo mix from a pair of overhead drum mics, and the third to provide limiter protection for the entire mix to safeguard the PA — and your audience's ears.

Dynamic controls



As Bob Dormon pointed out in his preview of the mixer, the terminology associated with ProMix dynamics processing is quite conventional, so provided you're familiar with the basic concepts, you should find yourself perfectly at home. The processors may be patched into any of the input channels, Send 3 and Send 4 auxiliaries and the stereo output mix — and on all but the input channels they're configurable pre or post fade.

A neat pair of processing meters allow you to monitor output level against gain reduction. It's a bar-graph display, with output signals in one column moving conventionally from bottom to top, and gain reduction in the adjacent column moving from top to bottom. It's perfectly logical when you think about it, but I found it took me a little time to get used to it visually.

Given the inclusion of a ducking mode, you have have wondered where the key-in signal comes from, to trigger the processor. The answer is — virtually anywhere. As you'll see from the accompanying boxout, you're given a wide range of options, including all the input channels and the second pair of auxiliary sends. No more hunting round for suitable output triggers and the right cables; on ProMix, key-triggered compression and ducking programs are easy to access and quickly configured.

Again, this is a real spur to creativity. It is so easy to use ducking to subtley lift a vocal track above the other instruments, or a gating program to impart the tight feel of a drum track onto a bass line — you find yourself experimenting in ways you'd never get round to using external devices. The benefits of this are clear; besides helping you to control the dynamics of your music more effectively, it gets you involved in an aspect of sound manipulation still seen by many as something of a black art, best left to studio engineers and producers.

Next month: Effects processing

The essentials...

Price inc VAT: £1,878
More from: Yamaha-Kemble, (Contact Details)


Spec check

Frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz, +1dB -3dB @ +4dB into 600 ohms
Dynamic range: 105dB typical, AD + DA (Stereo in to Stereo Out)
AD conversion: 20-bit linear/64 times oversampled
DA conversion: Stereo output - 20 bit linear/8 times oversampled. Monitor output and aux 3/4 output — 18 bit linear/8 times oversampled
Sampling frequency: 48kHz
Inputs: 18 input channels plus two-track return
Outputs: XLR +4dB L/R, phono -10dB L/R, quarter inch jack +4dB monitor L/R, quarter inch jack +4dB aux send 3&4, quarter inch jack stereo headphones, coaxial SP/DIF digital output
Dimensions: 125 (H) x 484 (D) x 436 (W) mm
Weight: 12kg


Preset dynamics

1 Total compression (typical mix compression; adds punch and definition)
2 Radio compression (typical FM radio compression)
3 Compression-fast (fast attack compression to catch signal transients)
4 Compression-slow (slow attack compression to allow transients though)
5 Compression-heavy 1 (strong signal limiting)
6 Compression-heavy 2 ( medium signal limiting
7 Gate-fast (quick close noise gate)
8 Gate-slow (slow close noise gate)
9 Ducking (typical signal ducking)
10 BGM ducking (ducking for background music voice-overs)


Key in sources:

Self: Same as patch
Ch1 - Ch2 Input channels, post EQ, pre-fade
Send 3: Auxiliary Send 3 *
Send 4: Auxiliary Send 4 *
ST-L: Stereo output - left channel *
ST-R: Stereo output - right channel *
(* Can be pre or post fade)


Preset EQs

1 Reset
2 Loudness
3 EQ Disco
4 EQ Pops
5 EQ Rock
6 EQ Live
7 Tight drums
8 Loud drums
9 Kick drum
10 Snare 1
11 Snare 2
12 Cymbals
13 Hi-Hats
14 Toms
15 Electric bass
16 Wood bass
17 Acoustic guitar
18 Trumpet
19 Saxophone
20 Piano
21 Male vocal
22 Female vocal
23 Chorus
24 Male announcer
25 Female announcer
26 Telephone voice
27 Notch 4kHz
28 Hum reduce 50kHz
29 Hum reduce 60kHz
30 Noise reduce


Series - "Yamaha ProMix 01"

Read the next part in this series:


All parts in this series:

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Inner tube

Next article in this issue

Second coming


Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

The Mix - Jan 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter, Chris Moore

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

Control Room

Series:

Yamaha ProMix 01

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2


Gear in this article:

Mixer > Yamaha > ProMix 01

Review by Nigel Lord

Previous article in this issue:

> Inner tube

Next article in this issue:

> Second coming


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