The M-3 is an 8-channel mixer clearly aimed at DAW users as a tube front/back end for those cold, hard computers. Many people seem to have issues with digital mix busses, and the M-3 is one of several new products that offer DAW users an alternative to mixing in the box. Basically, you have eight channels of tube mic preamps (or line inputs), each with a polarity-reverse switch and a high-pass filter at 90 Hz. The inputs utilize Sovtek 12AX7WA tubes, and there's a pair on the master buss as well. EQ is 4-band: high/low shelves (12 kHz and 80 Hz) and semi-parametric high/low mids (500-18k and 50-2k sweeps, Q fixed at 0.7). There are also two mono aux sends per channel. (Aux 1 can be switched pre-fader.) The optional digital output board (AES/EBU, SPDIF and TOSLINK) has knobs for selecting sample rate (44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz) and bit-depth (16, 20, 24), and it can be sync'ed internally or externally. On the back, there are mic/line inputs, inserts and direct-outs on each channel, balanced mix outputs, 1/4" monitor outs, aux sends and returns, and optional digital outs. The direct outs, aux sends & returns, and 2-track return are all switchable for +4 dBu or -10 dBV operation. For those of you with deep pockets, multiple M-3's can be linked together. Construction-wise, it seemed very sturdy and well put-together, with the exception of the faders, which were- for lack of a better word-"chintzy." Even I've spent enough time on real boards to know what good faders feel like, and these ain't it. But whatev, they work fine. [For the record, the faders are low profile Alps N-type and have proven reliable and accurate, according to TL Audio. -Ed]
So I set the M-3 up in my studio and powered it up. The fan- cooled external power supply seemed awfully loud; but fortunately, the cable from that to the mixer was long enough that I was able to move the power supply out to another room, next to my CPU. That problem solved, I put a half dozen mics in the general vicinity of my drums and hit record on the ol' Otari 8-track. First, the good news: the preamps in the M-3 sound really good. I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I've spent my life in pro studios mixing platinum records on Neve boards; but I like to think I can tell when something sounds nice, and this was certainly the nicest I've ever heard my drums sounding. Now for the bad news: using the M-3 for tracking to a tape deck is kind of a pain. To listen to the playback (accurately), I had to switch all the inputs over to line, move the trims to line level, and disable any phase-flip buttons I'd enabled for tracking. I got around this by monitoring playback via my Mackie 24/8. If you're using the M-3 as your only mixer with a multi-track, I think you will find yourself growing frustrated quickly. DAW users tracking with the M-3 need not worry, as you'll most likely be monitoring through your DAW. Anyway, after tracking was complete, I switched the tape returns from the Mackie to the M-3 and used the direct outs to transfer the tracks to my computer via my Delta 1010. I recorded a bunch of different sessions this way; and I have to say, I was smiling every time I heard the tracks though the M- 3 after having monitored through the Mackie. It just sounded a lot better overall, the low mids in particular were much clearer though the M-3.
For fun, I decided to compare the preamps in the M-3 to those in the Mackie as well as to my Bellari preamps. I recorded the same song through each set of preamps, playing drums, bass and a few tracks of guitar. I tracked directly to the computer. I liked the results with the M-3 preamps a lot more than with the Mackie or Bellari. The snare in particular really sounded better through the M-3. It seemed weirdly compressed through the Bellari, and just plain tiny through the Mackie. The Bellari preamps were noticeably trashier sounding on overheads, and a little furrier on kick. I did like the bass through them though. The Mackie sounded pinched and hard, and the low mids seemed cloudy and undefined. I wouldn't call the preamps in the M-3 transparent; they're certainly colored, but they sounded a lot more open than the Mackie and not as brash as the Bellari. These results are probably surprising to no one, so on to our next test...
Now that I had a fresh tune to work with, it was time for a mixing shootout: The M-3 vs. the Mackie vs. the computer. I had recorded the tracks into Cubase, so first I balanced the levels and bounced to disk (everything was 44.1/24 if you're keeping score). Then I bussed all the tracks out to their own channels on the M-3, keeping the faders on the M-3 at zero and just adjusting the pans, and recorded that back into Cubase. I did the same with the Mackie. (I used the analog output of the M-3 to be fair.) Then I put all the faders in Cubase at zero, and adjusted the faders on the M-3 to try to get as close to the same balance as I could, and mixed that back into Cubase. I figured we needed to know what happens when you push the M-3, so, leaving the faders where they were, I cranked up the trims the same amount on all channels and lowered the master fader accordingly. Peak lights going off like crazy. What fun! So what did all of this sound like? Well, I lined up all the mixes in Wavelab, got the average RMS levels as close as I could, and listened, mainly switching between the Cubase mix and the mix with the M-3 faders at zero. The M-3 was better. It does what it's supposed to do: the highs were smoother; the low end was noticeably tighter and better defined (I'm not allowed to say "punchy"); and the whole mix just sounded rounder and more glued together. Bigger and "more boss." Alright! The Mackie mix had its usual cloudy low-mid thing happening, so I kind of abandoned that one. The "cranked gain" mix through the M-3 sounded like you'd think it would: more up-front and compressed. I preferred the normal M-3 mix, but I'm sure many would beg to differ; and it's cool that you can push the M-3 pretty hard before it starts crapping out. Lots of creative potential there.
You may have noticed I haven't mentioned the EQ yet, and that's because I didn't find myself reaching for it that often. When I did, it sounded nice and musical, and it seemed that a little went a long way. I mainly used it to take out some of the yucky midrange my rooms are so fond of producing, and cutting even 3 dB was more than enough. Boosting the highs didn't result in icepicks to the ear like on some other mixers, and boosting the lows worked great for toughening up a wimpy kick (not mine :). If I wasn't a firm believer in moving mics around until it sounds right, I'd have a lot more to say about the EQ-but I am, so I don't.
To me, the M-3 isn't so much of a mixer as it is eight recording channels with good mic preamps that you can EQ, combine, compress, and effect. What's the difference? Well, a lot. You have a lot of signal routing options on a "real" mixer that you don't have on the M-3. Now to be fair, I don't think this is what TL Audio had in mind for the M-3. I think it was designed as a way for DAW users to get "warmer" sounds into the computer, and to mix them in a similar fashion. And at that it succeeds-at a reasonable $440 per channel. To sum up the pros and cons in ten words or less: it sounds really good, but there's not much signal routing flexibility. Damn, that's eleven. ($3549 MSRP; www.hhbusa.com, www.tlaudio.co.uk)