DJs know Phonic's mini-mixers well. Will the musician take to their new 16-channel, rackmounted offering? Nicholas Rowland racks his brains
Imagine the benefits of mounting your mixing desk in the same rack as your outboard gear. Imagine having 16 channels and three auxiliaries to work with. Imagine having change from £700...
While 1992 will no doubt go down in history as the year of the multi-FX, 1993 is rapidly becoming the year of the mixer. For anyone already bewildered by the variety on offer, this review won't help. Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce for your consideration, the PMX-1600A - a rack-mounting 16-channel stereo mixer designed to fill any convenient 6U-sized space in your live rig or studio rack. It comes from Phonic, a name which you may well have seen emblazoned on various cheap and cheerful audio/disco mixers. Now the company has decided to move up-market with higher quality mid-range products aimed at more serious applications - ie. at musicians with more money.
This doesn't mean the company has forsaken the principles of value for money. While at £699 the PMX-1600A is not exactly bargain basement (no mixer ever could be, given the cost of the hardware and the fact they are extremely labour intensive to build), if you look around at other 16-channel rackmountable units you'll see that the PMX-1600A scores very highly in the pounds-per-feature department.
As for specifications... well we already know it's got 16 inputs, so what else is there to tempt our jaded mixing palates? 3-band EQ, three auxiliary sends plus insert points on every channel for a start. There are also separate inserts on the auxiliaries and masters too. Other highlights include a choice of balanced and unbalanced master outputs plus separate tape outs, switchable phantom powering for eight of the mic inputs - and an extra auxiliary return for tape decks, CDs etc. This mixer is beginning to sound like it could do the business...
Bristling with knobs and sliders, the PMW-1600A also looks as though it could do the business. But on closer inspection some of those knobs turn out to be a little on the flimsy side. I was particularly concerned to find two of the slider knobs rattling around in the bottom of the box when my review model arrived - though to be fair to Phonic I've encountered this problem on a number of other pieces of equipment too. And apart from these minor teething troubles I encountered no other problems. Overall, the mixer was well put together and I was particularly impressed with the solidity of the metal casing.
Though rather compact, the front panel layout holds no surprises and follows the conventions of all mixer designs - rackmounting or otherwise. Working from top to bottom, all the channel controls are in the order you'd expect to find them. Gain, 3-band EQ, Aux send 1, 2 and 3, Pan and Volume fader. Each channel also features a peak LED (most helpful in setting up levels quickly) and a PFL (Pre-Fader Listen) button for individual monitoring of channels. You can also turn channels on and off individually using the Channel buttons.
Cue levels are displayed on the 10-segment LED bar graph meters next to those for the left and right master output levels. All 16 channels have separate Mic and Line inputs - situated on the rear panel - XLRs for the Mic inputs on the first eight channels and 1/4 inch jack sockets for the rest. The first eight channels also feature optional +48V DC phantom power, for use with condenser microphones. Rather usefully, this can be switched separately for each pair of channels, rather than being applied to all eight in one fell swoop.
The 3-band EQ has the advantage of a sweepable midrange from 350Hz to 5kHz with the level control offering a cut or boost of 15dB. High and low EQs are simple shelving types with +/-12dB cut or boost at 10KHz and 100Hz respectively. The function of the three auxiliary sends I'm sure needs no explanation. Each has a Master control with a cue function, allowing you to monitor them singly or together via the headphones output. Aux 1 and 2 are always postfader. But Aux 3 Send can be switched between pre and post fade - making it the obvious choice if you need to set up a monitor mix which is unaffected by changes to the stereo masters.
I've already mentioned that each Aux Send also has an insert point, allowing you (amongst other things) to add effects or EQ to a stage or monitor mix as desired. There are not three, but four Auxiliary Return masters. The fourth is designed for inputting 2-track tape decks, CDs etc. To cope with high output devices it has a switchable input gain control, giving you a straight choice between +4dB and -20dB.
The PMX-1600A also has the luxury of talkback facilities. There's an XLR mic socket plus level control and four Destination switches to route the signal to any or all of the auxiliary busses plus the stereo buss. The manual postulates that this may be helpful for your sound man to talk to the band through the foldback system while soundchecking, or even during the gig. This is a good idea no doubt, though what it will do for the time-honoured traditions of wild gesticulation, grotesque mouthings and the general striking of Anglo-Saxon attitudes, cannot be judged. However, my eyebrows lifted involuntarily when I spotted a paragraph suggesting that your sound engineer might also use it to sing along to the music, "adding extra harmonies" as and when required. Now there's one line of demarcation I'm sure everyone would be happy that no sound engineer over crossed.
Putting the PMX-1600A through its paces, I was pleasantly surprised by how quiet it was, providing you keep all the Gains, Volume sliders and Master outputs at sensible levels. Pump up the gain and the mix becomes instantly awash with a sea of hiss. But that, of course, is a problem with all mixers in the budget-to-mid-price band. Only when it doesn't happen do you know you're dealing with something special - and usually very expensive.
While we're not talking the same kind of direct-to-DAT quality as, say, the Spirit Folio (which I just happened to be reviewing for MT at roughly the same time), the sound quality of the PMX-1600A is more than adequate for general stage and home studio use - which, clearly, is the market at which it is aimed.
Certainly, if you're thinking of the PMX-1600A primarily as a live keyboard mixer, a DAT-quality specification would be rather pointless, given the dreadful acoustics of most venues coupled with the inherent nastiness of many house amplification systems. Not only that, but if your sound engineer really does insist on singing backing vocals, CD-like fidelity is likely to be the least of your worries! Crosstalk levels (quoted as 70dB at 1kHZ for both adjacent input channels and input to output) were more than acceptable for a unit which crams so much into so small a space. And there was virtually no mains hum - both points in the PMX-1600A's favour.
Where the the PMX-1600R really scores is in sheer versatility. While most rackmount stereo mixers are compromised in a studio environment and soon begin to reveal their limitations, the Phonic comes up trumps with its ability to cope with loads of FX and outboard gear. Since (as we're always being told) everyone's mixing direct to 2-track these days, the PMX-1600A's flexible routing system would seem to make it a very attractive proposition indeed.
Evaluated purely on its own merits, the PMX-1600A would make a sound investment. However, I draw back from giving the Phonic an unreserved seal of approval simply because this is a market in which there are many alternatives, some of which may suit your requirements better - though I doubt if you'd find much around at this price. As I said at the start of this review, the appearance of the PMX-1600A certainly hasn't made the business of choosing a mixer any easier. But it definitely shows that Phonic are now up there and mixing it with the best.
Price: Phonic Mixer £699 inc VAT
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Review by Nicholas Rowland
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