Promark MX-3 8/4/2
British mixers are recognised the world over for their exemplary quality. In the top professional field there are no foreign products to compete with the likes of a Solid State Logic or Neve mixing desk. It's only when we move into the realm of budget mixers that the competing nations get a look-in, but even here there is still a healthy stronghold of British-designed products from companies like Allen & Heath, RSD, Canary and Seck to name but a few.
However, there is still no real mixer, to date, designed to compete with the 350 model from Fostex... until now!
The MX-3 from Promark, is a brand new mixer from a brand new Cambridge-based company, that has been specifically designed to match Fostex and Tascam recording equipment. No expense has been spared in the creation of the product as Promark enlisted the services of two of the country's top audio consultants - Ray Tam, who's been responsible for the cosmetic design aspects of the MX-3, and Dan Everard who handled the electronics. Previously employed by Neve, his experience in designing broadcast standard desks is reflected wholeheartedly in the Promark mixer. It embodies specific concepts that are unique to a mixer in this class and price bracket, such as the one piece PCB (containing all of the electronics), Peak Programme Meters, slimline case and extensive signal routing facilities.
The MX-3 has been tailored to meet the needs of the home recordist making multitrack recordings, who also requires the maximum flexibility from every piece of equipment he or she possess. With these considerations in mind, let's look at what the Promark MX-3 has to offer.
The model under review had just reached the final production stages, but the impending Frankfurt Music Fair meant that my time with the unit was somewhat limited, so what follow should be taken as a guide to the mixer's capabilities. However, HSR hopes to run a further feature on using the MX-3 in a future edition.
The MX-3 is an 8 into 4 stereo mixer that operates at the budget -10dB line level and is fully compatible with Fostex/Tascam tape recorders. It is capable of straight stereo recording or can be used in both four and eight track recording applications, for which it is ideally suited.
The MX-3 has adopted a new approach to graphics and employs function knob colour-coding to simplify operational understanding. The facilities are neatly housed in a grey, slimline case measuring 520 (D) x 515 (W) x 48 (H) mm and constructed from a lightweight, but extremely durable plastic. The darker grey front panel has been designed for easy removal via six screws, giving access to all test points on the one-piece printed circuit board. This should ensure the minimum of 'down time' during servicing.
The front panel is divided into the eight input channels, group, auxiliary and master output sections. The slimline styling has been partly possible by resorting to front panel-mounted signal connections located along the top rear section of the case. These utilise colour-coded RCA type phono connectors, red for input, yellow for output. This is a logical move as all budget-priced recorders feature phonos for input/output connections.
A recessed rear panel contains eight ¼" jack sockets that provide the balanced inputs for microphones. This again shows foresight, for the type of mic that the majority of the mixer's intended users will possess, will not terminate in XLR plugs, but jacks.
There is another front edge-mounted jack socket to the bottom right that accepts an input from a low impedance (above 8 ohms) pair of stereo headphones, or can be used alternatively to drive a small pair of monitor speakers - such as those used with Walkmans and their like.
A conservatively rated external power supply is supplied with the MX-3 which helps maintain hum generation to an absolute minimum. Built-in safety precautions enable the PSU to be used even with one of its two voltage supply rails out of action, whilst the locking edge connector prevents accidental dislodging of the power cable.
Tri-colour LED columns are provided for metering the four group and master left/right outputs. The ten segment displays incorporate a very fast rising, peak response meter and changes colour from yellow on the lowest two segments, through green and finally to red above 0dB. The idea behind this is as follows: if your recording levels are consistently in the yellow, then they are too low and will result in noisy recordings. If they're always in the red you'll create distortion. The ideal position is to have the green LEDs lit constantly with the first two red LEDs (+1.5, +3 dB) illuminating occasionally on transient 'peaky' material. The whole display is itself sufficiently bright to be viewed at a distance in strong sunlight.
Each of the input channels has a smooth operating input gain control for optimising levels for both Mic and Line signals, according to the status of the Mic/Line selector button above it.
Three band equalisation controls provide a fine degree of tonal adjustment of incoming material. The Hi and Lo bands have respective turnover frequencies of 12kHz and 100Hz with 12dB of cut or boost. The Lo band is particularly well chosen to enable the reduction of bass boost that arises from microphone 'proximity' effects ie. close-up working. The Mid control is a variable one capable of a sweep frequency range from 270Hz to 5.6kHz with the customary 12dB cut or boost. Used in conjunction, all three controls provide an excellent amount of signal modification.
To my mind, the success of any mixer is partly determined by the number of auxiliaries it has and here, the MX-3 scores. It has two, and both utilise a unique method of switching from pre- to post-fade response. In its central, detented position no input signal is selected. By turning the knob to the left, an increasing amount of pre-fade signal is sent to the auxiliary bus, whilst the reverse direction sends a variable amount of post-fade signal. This is an excellent idea that economises on additional hardware whilst still offering a welcome degree of flexibility.
The final pot is the Pan control, and like all other channel rotary pots, it's colour-coded and has a centre detent. The raised pointers on the pots also help to find the position when mixing in very subdued light, as on stage.
Every input signal can be individually routed via the Pan control to group outputs 1/2, 3/4 and to the Left and Right master outputs. This permits sub-grouping, multi track recording and stereo recording simultaneously - a very valuable facility for a home recordist or live sound engineer.
The input channel is completed by a 70mm throw fader. Promark have gone for their own design of fader knob, a rectangular shape with a raised circular insert, which fits in nicely with the overall styling, but which is a wee bit difficult to operate. I suppose with time and use, they would become as easy to operate as conventional ones but that's hard to verify from my brief acquaintance.
Four group channels are provided, each with a Pan and input gain control, as well as similar output level faders, all located directly below the PPM display panel. A channel pushbutton selects whether the controls operate on the sub-group signals or the multitrack tape returns ie. recorded tracks.
The bottom front faders control the levels of Auxiliary 1 and 2, and Left/Right outputs. Above the meter panel are the headphone volume control and a separate master Line level control. An accompanying pushbutton also selects whether the Master output signals or the stereo monitor signals are displayed on the right pair of meters.
The top two rows of phono sockets are linked through a helpful routing line diagram that indicates just where each socket is in the signal path. This aids mental understanding of what's patched where.
The connection facilities are pretty extensive considering the 'budget' classification of the mixer: 4 group inputs, 4 group outputs, 4 tape returns, 2 aux outputs, 2 master outputs and 2 monitor in and outputs. In addition, every input channel has a Line input socket, direct output, and post EQ/pre-fader insertion points. The latter has its own pushbutton that switches any connected signal processing device in or out of circuit. This means individual channels can have their own effects treatment, in addition to the overall sound treatment (such as reverb) obtained via the auxiliaries, which can be permanently connected and 'punched in' using the switch when required.
There are no dedicated auxiliary return sockets as such, so you need to use either the Line input of a spare input channel or one of the tape returns. If doing 4-track recordings, the tape returns can be plugged directly into the Line input of four channels, leaving a further four channels open for additional live instruments during the stereo mixdown. This gives three major benefits over using the designated Tape Return inputs.
Firstly, it allows you to equalise the recorded tracks during mixdown and secondly, enables further effects to be added using the input auxiliaries. Thirdly, it frees the four groups for use as extra inputs by plugging additional instruments into the red group input phono sockets.
In a similar manner, full 8-track recording is possible by using the insert phonos as send and return channels to the 8-track machine, whilst still using the Mic or Line inputs for your instruments. Then on mixdown of your multitrack tape to a stereo master, you plug the tape return signals into the 8 input channel Line sockets, with the added flexibility of EQ and effects treatment. As an alternative, the group inputs could be used for four of the tape tracks that don't require equalisation, thus freeing once again some input channels for addition of further instruments during final mixdown.
As you can see, the Promark MX-3 offers comprehensive and extremely versatile routing/interconnection facilities; considerably more in fact than on similarly priced mixers.
Noise performance is quoted at -122dB, with a crosstalk reading of -69dB at 1kHz (simply a measure of the signal breakthrough between adjacent channels), both good indicators of professional standard equipment.
A considerable level of 'headroom' (the safety margin available above 0dB) is provided; +26dB in fact, meaning that the mixer is very kind to all types of signals, however large, which will reduce overload distortion to a minimum. The peak overload indicators on the input channels help ensure correct level matching as well, firing whenever a +6dB signal level is surpassed.
If this review has given you the impression that the Promark MX-3 takes a new direction in terms of mixers then I'm glad. The brave styling and slimline appearance are admirable. At 5.7 kgs, the MX-3 remains a highly portable piece of equipment that you can comfortably tuck under your arm, and at the same time, won't look out of place alongside your living room hi-fi.
The final question is 'how much will all this cost?' And the straight answer is £466 including VAT! The only feature the MX-3 lacks is Pre-Fade Listen (PFL)... but set that against the features it offers and you'll undoubtedly come to the conclusion that this mixer is exceptionally good value for money. Full marks Promark!
Review by Ian Gilby
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