I recently got my hands on M-Audio’s Projectmix I/O, which is a firewire audio interface and DAW controller console that also has the advantage of being Pro Tools compatible. Here are a few of my initial observations on the unit…
Projectmix For The Solo Artist
CDM recently published a fairly substantial post responding to a reader’s request for advice on moving to a home digital recording platform.
The main requirements were an ability to record guitar, bass and keyboards and to interface with other users of Pro Tools. As such, the first hardware suggestion was the Digi 003 – which, funnily enough, is a firewire audio interface and DAW controller console that also has the advantage of being Pro Tools compatible. However, it does come with a pretty hefty price tag – about £1500 – which might be a bit steep for someone looking for their first home studio rig.
This is where the M-Audio Projectmix comes in. It boasts pretty much all the same features as the Digi 003, but you can buy one new for under £800. The components in the Digi 003 may be of a slightly higher quality (such as the preamps) but that’s not to say the preamps in the Projectmix are sub-standard – far from it. In fact, the Projectmix does represent much better value for money – and it’s compatible with Cubase, Logic, Live, Sonar…as well as Pro Tools M-Powered (M-Audio and Digidesign are both owned by Avid).
Projectmix As A Control Surface
If portability isn’t a concern, then there is a lot to be said for getting a dedicated DAW control surface, as it can greatly speed up your workflow. The Projectmix features nine 10-bit motorised faders – eight channel faders and one master fader. For some bizarre reason, the master fader isn’t supported by Pro Tools – this is something to do with its implementation of the Mackie HUI protocol, but I haven’t been able to find an explanation as of yet. Motorised faders are a joy to use, and they really take mixing to another level; I highly recommend investing in a motorised mixer of some kind if you plan on doing a lot of production work.
The Projectmix features a variety of preset modes for using its DAW controller features with certain sequencer packages straight away – these are Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Sonar, Live and Digital Peformer. This means that if you use the Projectmix with any of these programs, the various knobs, buttons and faders will be fully mapped to the most sensible controls in the software without you having to set anything up yourself. If you use another package, you may have to tell the Projectmix what controls affect which parameters.
Although not listed in the primary modes, I found that in Cubase mode the Projectmix picked up on Propellerheads Reason straight away, and all controls were automatically mapped. This makes the controller setup practically instantaneous, leaving you with nothing to do but get on with making some music.
As well as the faders, there are eight endless rotary encoders, and you can flip the functions of the faders and rotary knobs by pressing a button. For example, if you wanted to have more control over a panning movement on channel seven, you could flip the controls so that the pan can be modified by moving the fader rather than the knob. When you’re done, you just flip back again.
There is a four-character LCD window above the channels which provides useful visual feedback, and you can easily switch between channels using the bank forward and back buttons – you can cycle through your channels either one at a time or eight at a time. You will also find the standard transport control buttons and the very useful zoom buttons which can really speed up a mix.
The Ins and Outs of Projectmix
The M-Audio Projectmix I/O has eight analog inputs, switchable between standard line inputs (for plugging in a standard guitar or bass lead) or an XLR (that’s the round microphone plug with the three pins in the middle). So, hypothetically speaking, you could have eight microphones and eight guitars plugged in at the same time, and you could then switch between guitar and microphone on each channel as required.
I have heard that the mic preamps used in the Projectmix are similar (if not identical) to those used in the Firewire 1814. Whether this is true or not, my initial testing would indicate that the sound quality of both microphone and guitar recordings through the Projectmix is very good indeed – and you certainly won’t find much better at this price point.
The Projectmix also features MIDI in and out ports, ADAT Lightpipe I/O, S/PDIF I/O and Wordclock. Another nice touch is the addition of an instrument input socket on the front left of the unit, which overrides the rear instrument input of channel one. There are also two headphone outputs on the front right of the Projectmix, each with its own independent rotary level control.
Projectmix Versus Digi 003
For a small home studio, the quality of the Projectmix signal path is clean and smooth and will keep all but the most golden-eared pros very happy. It’s important to remember you’ll always encounter a certain degree of ‘gear snobbery’ when you ask for advice on recording equipment, but the fact is that you should only spend money on extra quality that you a) actually need and b) actually can hear.
There is generally a law of diminishing returns that comes into effect when buying any type of hardware; first you have the budget models, which are focused on providing functionality at the cheapest price, then you move up into the more advanced models which provide good quality and features all round. It is somewhere in this range that the ‘diminishing returns’ start to kick in; a high standard has now been reached, and to scale up to the next performance level will require significantly more spend.
For example, if you’re just starting out with sequencing software, it makes total sense to get a Pro Tools M-Powered or LE rig rather than splashing out upwards of ten grand on a HD system. The same applies to hardware; although the Digi 003 may technically have better-sounding preamps, could you really tell the difference in a blind test? And because the Projectmix preamps sound good anyway, is that incremental increase really worth paying twice the money?
If you’re making a living from producing music, and need the absolute best at any price, then it may well be – but for the vast majority of home-based musicians, the overall quality and value of the Projectmix will be very hard to beat (and you certainly can use it to create professional-level recordings).