Digital mixers can prove a headache for those who are used to traditional studio gear. With an analogue desk, once you've learnt one channel strip, you've usually learnt the lot, but with digital, you're suddenly confronted with Shift, Utility, Enter and other keys more usually associated with computer keyboards.
These are concerns that apply to Edirol's latest bright idea: a portable, 16-channel digital mixer with audio interface and effects.
It's certainly a neat little pair of units - audio I/O is handled by a rackmountable module, while mixing is afforded by a control surface that links to the rack via a 15-pin D-Sub cable.
At the front, there are four XLR balanced mic inputs with one button assigning phantom power to all or none, and each is paired with a balanced TRS line in socket. There's also digital I/O - coaxial or optical connection - along with the D-Sub socket.
At the rear, there are the usual main, aux send/return and alternative outs, along with phono connectors for 2-track out and Aux Return 2. Aux Return 1 has quarter-inch jack sockets.
Here also lies the USB socket with which you hook up the unit to your computer.
So far, so good, but it's the mixing desk that leads to some head-scratching. A quick examination reveals that the MIDI sockets absent from the audio module are also absent from the mixer. While the M-16DX can receive MIDI In via USB for software updates and patches, it doesn't have multi-port capability.
Edirol UK ventures that the device is primarily a digital mixer and computer I/O facilities are secondary to that. Still, it would have been nice to have MIDI ports, though their inclusion would likely mean a higher price-point.
The mixer appears reasonably sturdy (if lightweight), takes up little space and has a bonus pair of line ins. There are also control room outs and a single quarter-inch headphone socket, plus the data-connection socket for hooking it to the audio module.
The first four channel strips are familiar enough. Each has a low-cut filter at 75Hz, three-band EQ, pan, solo and mute, but a couple of things make it apparent that we're dealing with a decidedly digital device here.
The EQ mid is sweepable and there's also the facility to Q the frequency range, but rather than multiple or concentric rotaries, you've got multi-function rotaries at the right that adjust mids for the eight channels that have EQ controls.
Any changes show up in the backlit LCD, which switches to display whichever parameter you're adjusting. This extends to the Aux controls which are multi-function, too: default is Aux 1, while Aux 2/FX is manipulated via a button-press and knob-twiddle at the right of the console.
Sliders and buttons
Further down, you'd expect to see level sliders, but they're actually rotary pots with centre detents, which could be off-putting to many. Only channels 1 and 2 have an insert FX button, while channels 5 to 12 are grouped as stereo strips (13/14 and 15/16 have levels rotaries only, the former pair playing host to stereo-signal return via USB). A closer look reveals we've moved beyond analogue-type operation.
Cursor, Utility, Value and Display buttons feature, as does a Scene button. You can save configurations for later recall.
The Room Acoustic Control resides here too, as does a peculiar implementation of a 16-band stereo EQ. Punch it in and you have to twiddle one knob to access one of the 32 frequency bands, and then use another to boost or cut, then move on to another frequency band with the first knob.
It's easy to create notch-filter settings, but applying curves is frustrating.
Sound-wise, the M-16DX is as clean as a whistle, and channel EQ is flexible and transparent - no analogue colouration here. While some hanker for the character imbued by the circuitry of analogue desks, this machine plays it clean.
But there's fun to be had by messing about with the built-in signal processors. There are three Power Compressors available as inserts and they work really well with guitarsand vocals. They're designed to emulate vacuum tube amps and compressors, and operate on low, mid and high frequencies.
There's also a Vocal Enhancer, which is effectively a four-band EQ designed to give the voice clarity. There's a Narration Enhancer which combines a de-esser and enhancer and does a tidy job with close-miked, spoken-word material.
The M-16DX has a small selection of ambient effects but it's the Finalize feature that really makes ears prick. While it can't be used when the device is set to 96kHz and is hooked up via USB (although it can be used at 96kHz in standalone mode), projects to which the effect is applied come alive.
With a basic, well-balanced mix already configured, a stab at the Finalize button kicks in a multiband compressor and enhancer on the whole mix. There are six effects available, each of which can be adjusted, and the Natural preset is great.
Finalize operates on two frequency bands - the crossover point of which is editable - and bumps up the intensity of the mix sufficiently to give the music a kick, while not inducing the kind of harshness to which some compressor/enhancers are prone.
In certain ways, this system enables you to control a computer-based mix in analogue style, although there are no transport controls on the mixer's fascia. It suffers a little from digital multifunction overload - enough to confuse at the outset - and an absence of MIDI ports and levels sliders also count against it. However, the signal-processing options are not only useful but sound great.
Combining Room Acoustic Control with Finalize creates a quick route to a powerful, modern-sounding master that should sound good on any system - provided you've got the basic arrangement and mix sorted in the first place.
If you don't mind the learning curve, the M-16DX is an attractive option for project-studio audio control. With its 16 channels and useful signal processors, those seeking a modest, low-cost audio I/O and mixing solution should be well satisfied.