For the past two years, I've been looking for the perfect home-studio mixer. I've been through three or four of them, each inadequate for various reasons, and sold them all. The mixer of my dreams has between 8 and 16 channels, and an interface featuring between 8 and 16 FireWire inputs and outputs. It has excellent preamps on each channel, EQ that doesn't sound like crap, and simple per-track mono compression on each channel. It's easy to track through and equally easy to mix on-or at least to send some stems to for a bit of EQ and compression.
About a year ago, at the height of my mixer mania, I came across an online discussion about the Yamaha n12. I was initially excited; though it is a digital mixer, it has analog preamps, which Yamaha are calling the best they had ever made. It has EQ of course, but also per-track compression (both digital). It has FireWire ins and outs in equal amounts and is in fact designed for bringing tracks (or stems) out of a DAW and back into the hardware realm for mixing. But two impressions made me forget about it. One, it is billed as having total integration with Cubase-and only Cubase. My DAW is Reaper, and I wasn't interested in switching. Two, Yamaha seems to be marketing it as a quasi-control surface, and again, most of the control-surface-type options are only available through Cubase; more importantly, it does not have motorized faders. Who wants a DAW control surface without motorized faders?
Both of these impressions turned out to be mistaken. The n12 works fine with other DAWs. In fact, it works perfectly with Reaper, and all evidence points to it working equally well with everything else. And the n12 is not a control surface at all. It's an analog-style, hardware mixer with some transport controls on it and easy switching between tracking and mixing modes. These functions are very well implemented when you're using Cubase, but they work fine with other DAWs too. You don't have access to certain handy hardware controls with other DAWs, but there's nothing particularly hobbled about the mixer. It's fully functional as a normal mixer, however you choose to use it, and just enhanced with Cubase.
The n12 is a rather large piece of equipment at nearly 22" square. It has 8 mono channels, each featuring an analog preamp; three-band digital EQ (with sweepable mid); two-knob digital "Sweet Spot Morphing Compressor"; aux, pan, and reverb controls; pad, low-shelving, and phase buttons; a button that allows you to select between hardware input (for tracking) or DAW output (for mixing); track and on/off buttons; and a 100 mm fader. Beside the fader we find a couple of Cubase-only buttons: a Wet button for post-plug-in input monitoring, and a Rec button for arming tracks in the DAW. There is also a button marked ST for sending the signal to the stereo bus. Track 8 differs in one way; it eschews the pad in favor of a high/low-impedance toggle, in case you want to use it as a guitar or bass DI. In the back you get one XLR input, one TRS input (which takes priority, so no hooking up two things at once), and one insert.
Next are two stereo tracks that don't have the pad, phase, or compressor. After that, the stereo bus; controls for the internal reverb; and various routing, DAW, and monitoring controls. There are three very clear stereo LED meters, too, though I wish there were an option to angle them to make them visible from across the room. A variety of inputs are available on the back panel as well, including a couple of extra RCA inputs for 2TR, which presumably means a tape machine, MP3 player, or similar thing.
Now, I should say here that this review is going to be overwhelmingly positive. The n12 is a superb product, and I believe I have found in it a mixer as close to my ideal as currently exists. But let me get some negatives out of the way. First, the top panel is made of rather thin metal and feels flimsy. The knobs appear to be PCB-mounted, not bolted to the panel, which probably contributes to the flimsy feel. The fader caps are a bit wobbly, and there is a completely gratuitous and shamefully crappy 1.5" plastic lip on the front of the mixer, which has no reason for existing other than to make the whole look semi-sleek. If you don't use Cubase, you'll be annoyed by the cute "Cubase Ready" light, which you will never see lit, and I personally could do without the words "Sweet Spot Morphing Compressor" stamped on the panel. Just "Compressor" would have sufficed. (At least the word "phat" is nowhere in evidence.) Also a bit irksome-there are only two phantom power buttons, each assigned to four mono channels, so if you're using vintage ribbon mics or are concerned your wiring isn't up to snuff, be careful. There is no EQ bypass switch on the channels, and there are no detents on the knobs, nor is there a detent at unity on the aux sends.
For all that, however, the overall impression is one of clear, careful, well-thought-out design. The mixer looks really good. It's all gray, with lots of space between the controls; the rear-facing connections are a little irritating to work with but keep the mixer looking clean and organized. And on the whole, it feels like a solid piece of studio gear. You won't want to cart it to the club for front-of-house mixing every night, but it will survive your studio work-surface without problems. Installation on my Windows XP laptop was time-consuming and generally a pain in the ass, but ultimately successful. The interface was originally implemented via mLAN, which felt conceptually akin to tracking on a Jaz drive or something. But just recently, Yamaha released new firmware and drivers that ditch the mLAN and make everything a little more straightforward. The new drivers are stable and fast. The software inputs show up in your DAW and correspond to the same-numbered hardware inputs on the mixer. The outputs, if you're not using Cubase are a little wonky; software outputs 7-14 in the driver are assigned to hardware channels 1-8 on the mixer, while software outputs 3-6 go to the mixer's two stereo channels, and software 1-2 lead to the monitoring bus on the mixer. This way, it is most natural to set up the system for mixing in-the-box, but it requires only a moment of rerouting to set it up for mixing via stems (I'll get to this in a moment). Latency is very low-I just chose the middle option on the simplified latency selection menu, and everything works smoothly, without clicks or pops. This is on a two-year-old dual-core PC.
Okay. The big question. How does this mixer sound? Once I had the n12 set up, I played a few of my current Reaper projects through it. Good news-the converters sound excellent. Honestly, I am not a converter connoisseur, but it's hard to imagine converters on any other piece of prosumer gear sounding this clean and full. My previous interface, a Mackie Onyx 400F, was perfectly satisfactory, but the n12 sounds better. If you're upgrading to this mixer from anything else in its price range, you are likely to be very pleased, and it's overkill for the home studio.
Speaking of the 400F, in my studio, the Onyx was the box to beat for its clean, unobtrusive utility preamps. I never expected anything out of them except a little extra gain after my Hamptones-or at least neutral reproduction of the source. I'm happy to report that the n12's preamps fit the bill perfectly and occasionally even display evidence of "character". Not too much, mind you, but they're flattering enough for me to be perfectly happy using them to record most sources. Vocals and acoustic guitar sound excellent-the upper mids are really superb. As a result, guitar cab is also nice. Snare and cymbals are ace, and though these preamps don't naturally show off the fullness of my floor tom, they do render toms in a certain seventies way. Kick and bass are good through these preamps, but not great; I think I'm just accustomed to the huge low end I get out of my Hamptone JFET and tube preamps (Tape Op #64), which on all sources are larger than life. I'm not terribly impressed by the bass/guitar DI on channel 8 of the n12-clearly this was something of an afterthought, and I would have preferred to keep the pad instead.
The EQ is neutral, to my ears. For cutting frequencies, it's as good as any other prosumer mixer. But it's better than that because it's really quiet. Indeed, it's worth mentioning at this point that the whole board is quiet-you can barely tell the thing's on. Anyway, I boosted a bit on kick and snare at the usual frequencies to see how it would sound, and I was pleased with the result. I'll probably stick with software EQ for mixing though-the n12's EQ is handy but isn't something you'll be constantly pushing stuff through for effect.
The compressor, on the other hand, is something different. I'm not going to tell you it will set your world on fire, but it's interestingly implemented. The way it works is, there are five compressor settings, A through E, which are rendered in software. You can select any one of these settings using the Morph knob on each channel, or you can position the knob in between two of them. The settings range from smooth (A) to squashed (E), and all of them are useful. I tracked some drums with every mic set to C, just for the hell of it, and got a nice consistent signal with plenty of attack. There's only one other knob in the compressor section, marked Drive; I believe this is a reverse threshold control, with higher values giving a lower threshold. It sounds like makeup gain is being automatically applied, which I find extremely useful during tracking; once you've got your levels, you can tweak the compression all you want without having to go back and adjust the gain. The straightforward design is similar to the "one-knob" analog compression on Yamaha's lower-end mixers; I have one of those at work, which I use for recording interviews, and they're similarly handy. But the n12 compression sounds much better.
The n12 comes with a software application that lets you upload new compressor settings from your computer. Yamaha's website has a bunch of presets available for free download, programmed they say by noteworthy recording engineers. Personally, I'm not too sure about this whole "Sweet Spot Morphing" thing, especially considering that the mixer is designed to work with recording software, and if you're using recording software, you probably already have a folder filled with interesting software compressors. I would rather Yamaha had made the track compression analogue and interesting-something you couldn't get from your computer. But it does the job, and I am likely to use it for tracking some sources.
Mixing on non-Cubase DAWs is actually not difficult. You simply group your tracks into stems/folders and output the stems via the driver's software outputs to particular physical
channels on the n12. Then you toggle the input-select switch on each channel from A. IN (that is, the analog inputs) to DAW and send the result back into the DAW through the stereo outputs to record the mix on a new stereo DAW track. The entire recording and mixing process is even easier with Cubase-you can actually arm tracks from the mixer itself, and latency is so minimal that you can monitor tracks wet, with software effects, as you record them. (These features are controlled by the Rec and Wet toggles next to each fader that I alluded to earlier. They don't do anything if you're not using Cubase.) Of course, this is only analog-style mixing; if your mixing needs include a desire for some actual analog summing, you'll want an analog mixer or summing box. But if all you want is your hands on the faders and knobs-and some unobtrusive digital EQ and compression-the n12 is a pleasure to mix on.
About the way this thing was marketed. I think integrating it exclusively with Cubase was a mistake. They really, really should have tried to sell it to advanced home recordists of every stripe and left the deluxe integration as a special perk for Cubasists. The mixer comes with Cubase AI4, which is a perfectly good program, although Cubase 5 just came out, and there were a couple of months of ridiculous frustration over the winter as driver releases fell behind, and you couldn't use the n12's integration features with the new software. This just goes to show how short-sighted it is to conceptually bond a general-purpose piece of hardware so completely with a particular software program. Anyway, I have a lot of respect for Yamaha-just when you think they are the most boring company on earth, they put out something wildly innovative and exciting (CS-80, DX7, Tenori-on). The n12 is an innovative (though not wildly so) mixer conservatively presented-a pretty cool product in the guise of a pretty dull one. Their loss, perhaps; but your gain.
There is a great support system for this mixer over at the Gearslutz forum; a Yamaha employee has a tech support thread going (more than 90 pages as of this writing) in which he has solved, at breakneck speed, every problem anyone has thrown at him for a couple of years. It's a great resource if you're thinking of buying, as well.
In spite of my quibbles, I absolutely recommend the mixer, especially at the new lower price of $1200 street. It offers the project or small professional studio incredible value; if you can't make a decent record on this thing, your mixer is not your problem. ($1799 MSRP; www.yamahasynth.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.