Focusrite MixMaster


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Focusrite MixMaster


Ease of Use: 4
Value: 5
Functionality: 4

Single Mastering Unit

The MixMaster is an analog stereo audio processor designed for mastering applications in project and home studios. The review unit we received came with the optional 24-bit and up to 96kHz analog-to-digital converter for direct digital connection to a DAT or CD recorder. While the MixMaster is made specifically for mastering stereo mixes, it is useful any time you want to maximize the level and "punch" of single- or two-channel audio. MixMaster's complete tool set contains all you'll ever need for this task and will free up other analog or digital processors you may have connected.

Read Barry's Mix Magazine Compressors and Compression Feature.

The two-rackspace unit has both balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4" input and output connections on the rear panel as well as direct inputs for mixing external audio sources with the output signal. There is extensive LED metering: a single meter that reads both input and output levels (although there is no indication of which is being metered, so pay attention to whether the button is set for "in" or "out"); separate gain reduction indicators for the stereo expander, spectral compressor and peak limiter; stereo phase and separate overload indicators for the compressor and equalizer processor sections. All of this metering makes for quite a light show when the unit is hard at work.

Chained Processors

A block diagram in the wonderfully written user's manual shows that the MixMaster has five stereo processors or sections: Stereo Expander, Spectral Compressor, Stereo Parametric Equalizer, Image Width processor, and Peak Limiter. The order of the processors shown in the diagram is consistent with the front panel layout of controls. There is no way to "re-order" the chain of processors, and in actual use, I found little reason to require it. For each processor there is a lighted, hardwired bypass switch, and a global bypass button takes the entire unit out of circuit. Note that setting up a processor requires the respective section to be engaged for the LED meters to read. I find this unfortunate, especially for live sound work where I would like to get a ballpark setting beforehand (using active meters) and then switch in the section on the fly to fine tune.

Line Inputs

Both +4dBu and -10dBu levels can be used with the MixMaster, making it the perfect "bridge" between semi-pro gear, such as your small mixing board, and fully professional gear such as analog 2-track machines or digital DAT machines. There are no switches to set; just plug whatever you have into the back panel and go.
Focusrite MixMaster

Stereo Expander

The expander section is first in the chain because it operates much like a very soft noise gate, shutting down and cutting off any signal below the front panel's threshold setting. Called "downward expansion," it is useful for noisy analog tapes or residual noises because it works all the way down to the noise floor. I liked this feature for killing sound like amp buzz, noisy effect returns and the room tone audible right before the opening downbeat of a song. There is a Release time control which I set to the maximum of six seconds so that the expander stayed open throughout the song once it started (assuming there'd be no gap in the music longer than six seconds!).

Stereo Spectral Compressor

The Spectral Compressor section is worth the entire price of the unit. The Spectral Compressor is an optocoupler design with three independent frequency bands. You can also operate this section as a standard, full bandwidth stereo compressor when you use the Lock button. In fact, that's the way I first tried the compressor to evaluate its sound quality when I compressed a stereo piano track. This section is especially well suited for program material, and my piano sounded great through it.

There is a global Threshold control for setting compression amount just like any other compressor, but there are also both LF (low frequency) and HF (high frequency) band Trim controls that allow 20dB relative variation in the threshold for these two bands. It's great to be able to compress more in certain frequency ranges than others! For example, you can compress less in the high frequencies for a more open high-end sound. By only compressing low frequencies, a loud kick drum can have all the punch it needs without causing the rest of the mix to pump.

The Ratio control adjusts compression ratios from a smooth 1.3:1 all the way to 1:5. Release time is adjustable in steps: 0.2, 0.4, 0.8, and 1.6 seconds. There are also PDF and PDS settings for Program Dependent Fast and Program Dependent Slow. I recommend using one of these settings when you are not certain about fixing the release time. These ranges and settings are all great for programming dynamic control of your mixes. There are two choices for attack time with the Slow Attack button giving you the choice of a little slower attack time when the default faster attack seems to make the compressor grab too often and quickly.

The LF Slope button changes the crossover frequency between the LF and MF bands. The default crossover point is 200Hz, and pressing the button moves it down to 100Hz with an added emphasis. This is said to be good especially for dance music processing. Finally, Make Up Gain adds level back to compensate for gain reduction in the compressor.

Stereo Equalizer

The equalizer is a three-band type with stepped frequency selection for recall of settings. The boost and attenuation control is also a stepped switch for repeatability. Being able to reset the MixMaster is important in mastering since you will want to return to particular settings (for further tweaking) after checking your mixes on other stereo systems.

The LF section is a shelving filter with 40, 70 and 120Hz positions and a Tilt position that changes it over to a 2dB per octave filter starting at 1kHz--good for a general bass lift (or roll-off). The HF section is also a shelving filter, with 10, 14 and 20kHz positions. Here, Tilt positions turn the processor into a kinder, more gentler treble equalizer. Midrange is handled by a parametric equalizer with a very wide frequency range of 100Hz to 10kHz. The quality of the filter, or Q, ranges from a broad 0.4 to a more narrow 1.5.

Spectral Enhancer/Direct Input/Peak Limiter/Output

The Spectral Enhancer is part of the Output section. The Balance control will correct something I obsess over: stereo imbalance, where one side is louder than the other. The range is + or - 3dB. However, this control is only active when the Image In switch is in. Width controls the level of L+R signals and the L-R signals that make up all stereo recordings. Essentially, all center or monaural information is the sum of the left channel (L) and the right channel (R), called the L+R component. All difference information such as reverb, delays, room sounds or other out-of-phase signals comes under the the L-R component.

The Width control has a center-detented Normal position for regular stereo width or image, depending on the stereo width you already have. Rotating the Width control to the left lowers the level of the L-R component, decreasing the stereo width; rotating to the right increases the L-R for an extra wide stereo sound. I used this processor on a mix I thought lacked sufficient stereo size, using the on-board phase meter to monitor the results. I would use this feature conservatively if your mix will be converted to mono or cut to vinyl because it compromises mono capability.

The Direct Input feature allows for external +4dB signals to be mixed into the final output before the Peak Limiter and after the aforementioned Image section. This is an interesting feature. A good use for it is mixing a vocal (with its own processing) into a backing track coming through the MixMaster.

The Peak Limiter operates at a fixed threshold matched to the input of the optional analog-to-digital converter output. This limiter will absolutely prevent you from overloading the digital output. Finally, the Output Trim control sets the final level coming out of the MixMaster.

The Platinum Focusrite MixMaster is a great new analog tool for project and home studios where better control of stereo audio is required for master recordings. Available through Digidesign, MixMaster has an MSRP of $1,395 and the optional 24-bit/96 kHz A/D board retails for $350. You can purchase MixMaster with the A/D board installed from the factory for $1,690.

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