M-Audio ProjectMix I/0

Using just an alpha-numeric keyboard and a mouse, a true Pro Tools ninja can execute the program’s many functions with furious intensity. But no matter how impressive your quick-key kung fu becomes, if you spend a lot of time working with a DAW and staring into a computer screen, at some point, you’ll pine for the old-school, tactile ergonomics of knobs, faders, and buttons. Imagine sessions where you’re not courting eye strain by staring at small fonts and parameter menus, or risking tendon blow-out by logging 25,879 mouse clicks and key punches—all while you’re also managing instruments and trying to play your parts. If that scenario sounds like bliss, then check out M-Audio’s ProjectMix I/O ($1,599 retail/ $1,299 street)—a FireWire audio interface and control surface that’s compatible with Pro Tools M-Powered, Ableton Live, Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer, Sonar, Core Audio, ASIO, and WDM.
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A full-service mixing and recording solution, ProjectMix offers eight analog XLR mic inputs and eight TRS line inputs, phantom power, a front-panel instrument input (q" TS), four analog outputs (balanced q" TRS), ADAT Lightpipe and S/PDIF I/O, nine touch-sensitive motorized faders (eight channel faders and one master fader), eight assignable rotary encoders, a jog/scrub wheel, dedicated transport controls, and two headphone outputs. All of these features make the ProjectMix a bit too big (at 20"x 18.5" x 4.25") for fitting on the average desktop with a computer and screen. I opted to leave my flat-screen LCD on my desk, and mount the ProjectMix on a keyboard stand with my monitors set on slim bookstands at each side of the controller.

ProjectMix is easy to connect, and it ran Pro Tools M-Powered seamlessly on my iMac 2.1GHz (OSX 10.4.6) with just one glitch: A noise burst that sounded like the shrieking of a thousand hydras was output every time I booted up. (Although I didn’t resolve the problem by press time, M-Audio offers free customer support for the life of its products.) Once ProjectMix was on line, it was a marvelous benefit to execute almost every Pro Tools command using hardware controls—which makes operations such as writing fader automations much easier than doing so with a mouse and a keyboard. In fact, everything about the DAW recording process is a lot more fun now. Each session I call up immediately springs to life. The faders jump to their correct levels, and the track names appear on an LCD strip. Although you can only work with eight tracks at a time, pressing Bank Select instantly shifts everything over to the next (or previous) group of eight channels. In addition, the unit’s handy MIDI mode allows hands-on control of plug-in, virtual synth, sequencer, and other software parameters.

ProjectMix has improved my recording situation so much that I can hardly imagine life without it. By bringing together the best elements of the digital and analog worlds, this powerful slab of music technology has made recording and mixing my music more productive, as I’m focused on swift, tactile operations, rather than tedious, computer-oriented moves. When a single piece of gear improves your recording process this much, it directly improves your creative process, as well.