When I first saw the NRV10 at the NAMM show in
January, I said out loud, "Duh! Why didn't anyone else think of doing this?" The sucker is an analog mixer and multichannel audio interface in one. It makes a ton of sense! Well, I finally got one, and you know what, the pocket-protector geeks at M-Audio outgeeked me and made it even more useful than I originally thought it would be.
Sure, you can use it as a regular 8x2 analog mixer. It's got six input faders. Faders 1-4 can be switched between mic or line inputs. (You can keep both the XLR mic and TRS line inputs plugged in at the same time-no unpatching necessary.) Phantom power for the mics can be turned on or off globally. And the line inputs have more than enough gain to be used as instrument DIs. Fader 5/6 is selectable between a mono mic input and a stereo line input. Fader 7/8 is a stereo line input. Each fader has a three-band EQ, a prefader Aux 1 send, and a postfader Aux 2 send. Aux 2 simultaneously feeds the Aux 2 output and the DFX, a built-in digital effects unit. And each fader can be assigned to either the Mix bus or the Cue bus. The Cue bus is exclusive of the Mix bus-perfect for DJs or performers who need a foolproof way to audition records or samples while the Mix bus is feeding the house sound. Additionally, the first four faders have analog inserts. The master section has faders for Phones and Ctrl Room output levels, and there are two stereo returns. The DFX has two knobs allowing you to select a preset from sixteen programs and sixteen variations of each program. All in all, the NRV10 is very straightforward and well laid-out. But things really get interesting when you plug this mixer into the FireWire port of your computer.
As a FireWire audio interface, you get ten channels in and ten channels out, at up to 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution-these channels are labeled FW 1-10. FW 1-8 are set up like tape sends/returns (let's call them DAW sends/returns) on Faders 1-7/8 (remember, Faders 5/6 and 7/8 are stereo). FW 9/10 are sent to the DAW from the Mix bus, and they return to the NRV10 through two knobs that you can use to blend FW 9/10 into Ctrl Room and Phones independently. What does this all mean? Well, let's talk workflow now.
After reading the well-written manual, as my first test of the system, I connected the NRV10 to my Sony handheld micro PC (Tape Op #57) running Pro Tools M-Powered. Then I fed it eight tracks from another computer, as if I were recording basics for a whole band. Four tracks for drums landed on Faders 5/6 and 7/8 via the line inputs. (In a real tracking situation, I would have used external preamps to feed these two faders.) Scratch vocal, two guitars, and a bass went into Faders 1-4. (And in a real session, these would have come through the built-in mic inputs.) Then I used the DAW sends on FW 1-8 like direct outs to the DAW, and I recorded eight individual tracks into Pro Tools. I created two headphone feeds for my pretend band: one using prefader Aux 1; and a second using the NRV10's Mix bus inserts (this is a cheat), which I fed to a Samson Q5 headphone amp (Tape Op #29). Both of these headphone feeds were generated pre-A/D converter; therefore, they had zero latency. To monitor the actual recorded signals, I created a mix in Pro Tools and
brought it back on FW 9/10 so it was the only source to Ctrl Room (because of the previously mentioned cheat). This post-DAW mix, of course, exhibited converter and buffer-induced latency, making it suitable only for me, the engineer, to monitor, and not for my pretend band. I was psyched that I could get two different zero-latency feeds going with the Mix bus inserts and Aux 1, but I really wish the NRV10 had two independently-assignable headphone outputs-one for the engineer and one for the performers, or in some cases, both for the performers.
Now it was time for overdubs, so I pulled out some real mics to record myself. Within Pro Tools, I submixed the basic tracks and returned them as stems to the NRV10 via FW 3-10 onto Faders 3-7/8 and assigned FW 9/10 to Phones. Then I used Faders 1 and 2 for recording new tracks, feeding them to the DAW via FW 1/2. The headphone mix came from prefader Aux 1. And I used the DFX to add reverb to the headphone mix without the reverb getting into the tracks being recorded. Cool!
Can I tell you that I absolutely hate creating headphone mixes in software with on-screen faders and aux sends? Creating a headphone mix on an actual mixer is so much easier-just grab knobs and turn them! And just as in recording basics with the NRV10, channels that are currently being recorded as overdubs can be monitored with zero latency. I should emphasize at this point that you can do all this with a separate mixer and interface, but the NRV10 is so well integrated that you don't have to repatch anything as you go between tracking, overdubbing, and mixing.
And speaking of mixing, all I had to do was return eight channels of stems from Pro Tools to Faders 1-7/8 via FW 1-8, and I had real EQs as well as effects loops. Oh, and the Mix bus insert was handy for slapping on a stereo compressor. Unfortunately, the analog inserts on the Faders can't be switched to post-DAC (they only work on pre-DAC signals), so they can't be used during mixdown. Too bad, because it would've been nice to use a bus compressor on the drum submix. Also too bad that the DAW returns on FW 1-8 are always pre-EQ, because you can switch the DAW sends to post-EQ-watch out for feedback! Personally, I think this is a design omission; the switch for the DAW sends/returns should instead move both the sends and the returns pre or post-EQ, not just the sends. Furthermore, the 45 mm linear faders are so short and sticky that you can't really mix with them-you have to "set and forget" them. Smooth 60 mm faders (like on Mackie compact mixers) would have been more useful. Or if M-Audio really wanted to save space, I think rotary knobs would have been better than the 45 mm faders.
There are lots of useful LEDs, including peak indicators for Faders 1-7/8 and the DFX, as well as status lights for phantom power and FireWire. A Kensington lock port is on the back so the mixer won't grow legs. Unfortunately, there's no word clock input, and I wish inputs 5/6 and 7/8 were switchable to RIAA curve for use with turntables. But considering that M-Audio really thought through various workflows to make the NRV10 as flexible as it is, my various complaints read more like a wish list for a future release. My guess is that there will soon be copycats of the NRV10 coming our way. Like I said, I can't believe no one else has done anything like this before. ($899.95 MSRP; www.m-audio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.