With more professional music being produced at home than ever before, the integrated control surface/audio interface market seems to be heating up. Sharing parent company Avid's roster with Digidesign has put M-Audio in the enviable position of delivering a product with an unfair advantage over the competition.
The ProjectMix I/O borrows heavily from M-Audio's acclaimed FireWire 1814 audio interface, pairing an even greater complement of I/O with a rugged control surface design. The audio interface is compatible with Core Audio, ASIO 2, WDM, DirectX, MME and even GSIF2 — music to the ears of GigaStudio owners out there. The real kicker, though, is that the audio interface is also directly compatible with Pro Tools M-Powered 7 (sold separately), giving the ProjectMix I/O one of the widest compatibility ranges on the market and making it extremely enticing for owners of other DAWs to get into the Pro Tools club for a paltry $299 extra.
As with most compact controllers on the market, the ProjectMix I/O supports the HUI, Mackie Control and Logic Control protocols, allowing it to work with Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Nuendo, SONAR, Digital Performer and Live. To change surface modes, hold down specific buttons while powering on the unit, and it will retain that setting even on power down.
A bank of eight channel strips features 100mm, long-throw, touch-sensitive motorized faders with 10-bit (1,024-step) resolution; illuminated mute, solo, channel select and record-arm buttons; and eight assignable rotary encoders beneath a large two-line, amber backlit LCD status/scribble strip.
Completing the surface are illuminated transport and locater controls, a jog/scrub wheel with mode switch, channel zoom with quad navigation buttons, channel/bank shift and fader flip switches, and numerous other buttons for DAW functions. At 20×18.5×4.25 inches and 27.8 pounds, it's a comfortable footprint for any work area.
I downloaded the latest M-Audio FireWire driver and control surface firmware (10.19.05.A), which adds jog wheel calibration and support for Cakewalk SONAR 4.03, Ableton Live 5.02 and MOTU Digital Performer 4.6. (System requirements include Windows XP SP2 and Mac OS 10.3.9 or later.) I then snapped up a newly released utility called ProjectMix Control, which allows you to configure the control surface to communicate standard MIDI messages (instead of HUI/Mackie) with any application or hardware that supports the MIDI protocol. Also, for a limited time, M-Audio is bundling Ableton's Live 5 free with all ProjectMix I/Os.
AUDIO YOUR WAY
ProjectMix I/O gives you just about every kind of I/O you might need for a session, starting with eight analog mic/line inputs (balanced ¼-inch and XLR) featuring individual mic/line switches, gain knobs and signal/clip LEDs. Add 8×8 ADAT Lightpipe I/O, stereo S/PDIF I/O, word clock, 1×1 MIDI interface and a front-mounted hi-Z instrument input for guitar or bass (sharing channel 1), and you've got an abundance of choices. Supported sample rates (24-bit) for all ports are 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz (including ADAT using SMUX II). Dual front-mounted headphone outputs with independent level controls and A/B source switch allow for shared monitoring and cue auditioning — very handy. Zero-latency direct monitoring can be turned on via the driver control panel.
Phantom power is provided across all eight mic preamps with -104dB (A-weighted) SNR, a frequency response of 20 to 20k Hz and 55dB gain. The quality of the mic preamps sounded like my FW410 and FW1814: clean and open with virtually no added noise or coloration, even when fully cranked. If you need more mic inputs, then you can always capitalize on the ADAT input by inserting a device such as M-Audio's Octane preamp and record up to 16 microphone inputs simultaneously.
There are four balanced ¼-inch line outputs on the back that are configurable as pairs for connecting monitors and other analog devices. Call me greedy, but with no auxiliary outs or channel insert paths, you're prevented from hooking up much in the way of outboard processing, not to mention that you can't conduct surround monitoring with only four outputs. I suppose you could feed the eight Lightpipe channels to an ADAT-to-analog converter such as the SM Pro Audio AI8, but that bumps up the asking price considerably.
A PROJECT TO MIX
I tried ProjectMix I/O in Logic 7.1, Nuendo 3.2, Live 5 and Pro Tools M-Powered 7. By far, Logic support felt the most thorough, with extra channel views, automation functions and deeper panning and plug-in editing. Granted, ProjectMix I/O can only support functions that a protocol offers, so this is not to fault M-Audio. All programs responded well to control, and FireWire audio latency was impressively low as I ran live instruments through a 128-sample buffer, resulting in a delay of only a couple milliseconds at 96 kHz.
To keep the price of ProjectMix I/O competitive, M-Audio's design team opted to drop controls that they report users found “daunting” on competitors' desks, and they streamlined the design by placing some functions under the control of the keyboard and mouse. The result is a surface that doesn't have much of a learning curve and is quite intuitive. By the same token, many of the labeled functions do not translate universally across all DAW programs, and switching between the discrete DAW modes can leave you guessing as to which buttons or combinations to press.
The encoders and LCD work well together to control EQ and assigned plug-in parameters. Pressing the MTR key turns the LCD into a meter bridge showing levels horizontally (for higher resolution, I presume), which takes some getting used to. I'm not a fan of the tiny jog wheel, which I found too “tight” in radius to spin quickly, and although I was able to bear the shallow 1/32-inch click of the desk's control buttons, I do wish the transport buttons were meatier with deeper travel; they caused me to miss more than one cue.
I love that you can toggle back and forth between HUI/Mackie mode and MIDI mode on the fly, as it allowed me to create custom surfaces for external MIDI gear and edit them while recording their parts. Programming MIDI continuous controller messages to the faders, knobs, buttons and jog wheel couldn't be simpler thanks to ProjectMix Control's friendly interface. Furthermore, the lights behind the buttons can be controlled by MIDI events, thus allowing the audio application to create a two-way relationship with the ProjectMix I/O if it is within the audio application's capabilities.
However, I feel there are a number of items sorely missing from ProjectMix I/O. First, it's a shame that there's no talkback facilities onboard. An Undo button would be handy, as would some dedicated click/metronome and automation (read/write/latch) controls. The fact that there's no FireWire expansion port, I presume, is M-Audio's way of telling us that audio drives should be on their own bus.
Though its price is comparable to some compact control surfaces that do not offer audio capabilities, I would be lying if I said that ProjectMix I/O is worth the money for its control features alone. Controller-only solutions such as the Mackie Control Universal offer more parametric and better tactile control, as well as entry into an expandable system including the brilliant C4 soft-knob sidecar, at roughly two-thirds the street price. On the other hand, users also looking to condense or upgrade their old DAWs to 24/96, and who are in need of several line and microphone inputs and perhaps a MIDI controller input have every reason to be attracted to ProjectMix I/O.
The comparably spec'd Digidesign 002 (considerably more expensive even after factoring the extra cost of Pro Tools M-Powered into ProjectMix I/O) has only half as many mic preamps, but boasts stand-alone digital mixing capabilities; though as a controller, it locks you into only using Pro Tools LE. Tascam's FW1884 costs less, has a few extra perks and works with Pro Tools, but requires that you already have Digidesign audio hardware.
What separates ProjectMix I/O from the pack is that it bridges the gap between artists, producers and mixers with support for every major DAW, including an affordable ticket into the Pro Tools industry standard. M-Audio has always understood its market and positioned itself according to the needs of today's demanding home recordists, so bundling Live 5 — a $499 value — could be the icing that makes this deal irresistible.
M-Audio, 626/633-9050, www.m-audio.com.
Jason Scott Alexander is a producer/mixer/remixer in Ottawa, Ontario.