To be honest, I never really thought I'd be in the market for a summing mixer. When Dangerous Music pretty much invented the category with their 2-BUS a few years back, I thought about it but decided on a small mixer instead-a Neve Melbourne broadcast console (Tape Op #37). But when the 8816 debuted, I wanted to check one out for a B-room I was seriously thinking of building. As a second or even third-generation product in the summing bus category, the 8816 has a very well thought out feature set and several unique options, including recall via USB. This would enable a hardware mix to be truly recallable much like an in-the-box mix. This really integrates both hardware and software and delivers on the promise of recallable hybrid mixing. But to be honest, we've never actually used this feature, although it's nice to know it's there.
Like most boxes in this category, the 8816 has sixteen line-level inputs with gain and pan that sum the sixteen inputs to a stereo mix. While some boxes stop here, the 8816 just keeps going with its feature set-metering, monitoring, cue mix, solo, mute, and even talkback facilities. Even though you can solo and mute within most DAW programs, it's nice to have a real button, dammit! There is a headphone jack on the front of the unit for the engineer and another on the back for the artist, as well as balanced L/R cue out. The basic, but functional, monitoring section includes volume knob, 2-track input (for your recorder), and alternate speaker selection. You can even send the 2-track input to the cue mix, and there's a small 1/8'' stereo jack on the front panel for an MP3 player. As an added bonus, the box also has a width control for expanding or compacting the stereo image of the mix buss with proprietery circuitry producing a mono mix in the fully anti-clockwise position and adding a small amount of phase-inverted signal from the opposite channel in the fully clockwise "wide" position. All of the above features are pretty obvious without cracking the manual open. But, the 8816 goes a bit beyond the obvious with some hidden features. Several knobs also act as push switches and several master section inputs have dual functions. For instance, the 8816 normally just monitors the mix buss, but by pushing the monitor pot, you can select the 1/8'' monitor jack, the 2-track input, or input channels 1-2.
The 8816 also has several mix send/return options. You can, of course, just insert a stereo compressor or EQ into the mix buss, but the 8816 has additional options beyond that. You can also use the insert return as a parallel return to the mix buss for something like parallel buss compression. Going even further, the 2-track return can be added into the mix buss for something like an effects return for instance. The cue feature can of course be used as an effects send. Both the insert return and the 2-track return have gain pots to control their levels. One other very unique feature of the 8816 is the ability to put the insert send/returns to M-S mode; the send is converted from a stereo to an M-S pair for M-S processing, and the return re-converts the pair to stereo.
Connections on the 8816 are fairly extensive and pretty straightforward. The majority of the connections are via D-sub connectors, which I have mixed feelings about. I realize they keep the cost of a unit down, but I miss the venerable TRS or XLR connectors of which I already have hundreds in the studio. Oh well, I hate soldering, so I ordered up some TRS to D-sub snakes from Mogami, and a week later, the 8816 was in business. Some of the connections (headphones, speaker outs, and L/R outs) are duplicated with 1/4" connections but at -6 dBV levels. Everything else is on the D-sub connectors.
Another nice, but optional, feature of the 8816 is the AD converter option which outputs a digital signal via AES/EBU up to 192 kHz. It even has a DSD option, giving you a very wide range of digital outputs. The AD card arrived separately and a bit later than the 8816, which gave me an excuse to open up the box and look inside. Construction looked very solid. I initially mistook the mulititude of metal coupling capacitors for transistors and was under the impression that this was a Class A discrete piece of gear. The folks at Neve clarified for me that the 8816 uses the same high performance ICs as the 88R console. Also present are the two large custom Neve transformers which drive the stereo output. The AD card was a piece of cake to install even though I didn't have any instructions of any kind. Each cable really only had one place it would fit, and I finished it up without having to call the nice folks at Vintage King who had supplied the 8816 to us. (Along the lines of Andy's Gear Geek column last issue, I have to put in a plug for Vintage King here. I've dealt with these guys a few times over the past few years, and both Andrew and Dave there have always been super helpful and knowledgeable. Andrew was instrumental in getting us an 8816 for review purposes as the units were initially very backordered due to presales.) I turned the 8816 back on and held my breath while I powered it back up. Success! The card worked fine. My only beef with the converter option is that it has no S/PDIF output. I had to run it through a second ADA converter with both AES and S/PDIF I/O to get the signal back into my Digi 002. My guess is that a lot of potential 8816 customers are also 002 users, so maybe this will change in a future upgrade.
So how does the 8816 sound? In a word, great! I've offered potential clients an hour or two of free time in order for them to audition their in-the-box mixes through the 8816 to see if they want to spend the time to mix their entire project through it. In every case, once they hear their mix through it, they're sold. To be honest though, I think this is partially because any audio-even just two channels-passed through the 8816 sounds musical, even when there's no summing going on.
One of the first records we mixed on the 8816 was a solo album from Tape Op's own pre-press tech, Scott McChane (www.scottmcchane.com). Scott's a great musician/engineer/producer who has been cranking out cool records for years. His latest had some tracks from The Hangar but was mostly done at his house in Digital Performer. The album sounded great-lots of really cool textures and sonic tricks that Scott is really good at. But, I felt like the mix could be a bit stronger. It just felt a bit constricted, and at the same time, the top end felt brittle, not natural to my ears. Maybe I'm just biased though because I knew that Scott had bounced the mix to disc in DP, and I'm a strong believer in analog mixing and summing busses. So, Scott took me up on my offer and booked some time to bounce his mix through the 8816 and then to 1/4" tape. I told Scott to just try one song, and if he didn't notice a difference, don't worry about it. But after one track, he opted to do the whole album, saying, "There was a noticeable and huge difference. It sounded as if we'd pulled blankets off the speakers. The imaging was much, much more defined than a straight bounce, and just a touch of the Width feature went a long way. We hit tape too, which helped a lot, but I would have been happy with just my digital mix even. The 8816 really took my home studio mixes out of the box."
Bottom line is that the 8816 has significantly upped the ante in the summing box category and has even blurred the lines a bit more between small mixers, summing mixers, and monitor controllers by combining elements of all of them. The USB recall is a significant advance as well. Any small to mid-sized home or commercial studio without a mixer could easily benefit from having an 8816 at their disposal- mastering studios too-with the 8816's favorable sonics, M-S processing and width options, and stem-summing capability. The 8816 is a well-designed unit that sounds great too. In fact, my only minor complaint with the 8816 is that the gain knobs are a bit small, and in my vertical install not totally ergonomic to tweak. But, I should point out that AMS-Neve also makes the 8804 Fader Control which add 16 full-range faders to the 8816 which would completely solve this problem.
As a maker of both classic and contemporary large format consoles, AMS-Neve is in the same position as many other manufacturers; their core marketplace of large studios is dwindling while home and smaller project studios are proliferating. With the introduction of the 8816 along with their 1U 8801, 8802 and 8803 channel strip, compressor/limiter and EQ respectively, Neve has shown that they not only realize this, but that they've really done their homework and are determined to bring the same level of quality and functionality that they've brought to big studios to smaller project studios.
($3250 MSRP; www.ams-neve.com, available at www.vintageking.com) -JB
On a side note to this review, Vintage King's Jeff Ehrenberg and engineer/producer Dave Trumfio (Tape Op # 16) recently conducted some extensive listening tests on the 8816 as well as several other summing amplifiers by Inward Connections, Tonelux, API, SPL, and Chandler. You can check out some audio samples at www.vintageking.com