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Ecler Nuo5 Mixer Review - by Deft - November 2004

Background & Main Interface

I think it is fair to say that Ecler have one of the lower profiles of all the scratch mixer manufacturers, especially outside of Europe where the cost of their flagship scratch mixer the Hak 360 is more comparable to the Rane TTM-56. Still, they were the first company to bring us cut-in lag adjustment as one of their mixer features in conjunction with their contactless magnetic 'Eternal' fader. They also have a good history of pro-audio equipment outside of the scratch mixer niche, which I always find reassuring. It should mean they have the experience, knowledge and expertise in-house to maintain a high standard of design, production and quality control.

Officially unveiled at Musikmesse 2004 (March/April), the Nuo-5 sparked considerable interest here at Skratchworx (for me anyway) as a fully featured club mixer but having the key advantage of a great crossfader bolted onto it. We'd had the disappointment of the fader decay problems of the Denon DN-X1500 and up to this point the only real >2 channel 'scratch capable' mixer options were the Rane Empath or the Vestax PMC-37Pro. Both limited to 3 main stereo channels, there was still obviously demand from those who were looking for a few more connection options.

But, it was not only this which was intriguing about the Nuo-5. It was the touted reprogrammable effects set, promising extra user customisation and the first time you could ever really interact with your mixer on a software level (with the important proviso that you are a Windows user!)(Boo!... Gizmo)
 
The layout of the Nuo-5 bucks the usual trend of centred main controls and extras around the edges. The cross- and channel faders are shifted to the left slightly and the whole effects and monitoring section is in it's own vertical strip section next to it. The effects section and metering/master level controls are nicely separated and offset by their own silver/grey panels. Just below these you have the extra crossfader controls and monitoring section. The front panel is totally clear aside from an extra 1/4" headphone socket, which comes as a very welcome addition to the one on the top panel.

The 4 main channel strips have phono/line selectors, gain controls and extra large eq knobs with a bass cut switch just below. They don't have individual channel meters, but have SP (Signal Present) and PEAK LEDs up by the gain controls. Each channel has it's own PFL ON (Pre-fader listening) and FX SEND switches. The first noticeable thing past this point is that channels 2 & 3 don't have crossfader assign switches! They are permanently routed to either side of the crossfader. So it's almost like the Nuo-5 is a normal 2-channel mixer with extra channels bolted on either side. Channels 1 & 4 have full crossfader assign switches (XFA/MIX/XFB) and the small extra channel 5 can only be routed to XFB or MIX, though I have no idea or explanation as to why this is so. Channel 5 is effectively the MIC channel but also doubles as an extra LINE input, which is useful. The eq controls on this channel are regular size and there is no bass cut switch, with a small rotary control for the channel instead of a linefader.

Other items of note on the top panel are the RCA connections for a LINE input and REC output. Useful for when you need to hook up a portable recording or playback device without access to the back panel. The main balanced out (XLR) is rated at 0dBV, but can be internally jumped to +6dBV. Honestly, as Ecler are obviously aiming this at the pro/install market, it would be more sensible to have the default as +6dBV in my opinion. This also leads us onto the two different type of line inputs Ecler offer on the Nuo-5; H-LINE and L-LINE. This is to handle different line level sources. Typically, 'professional' equipment will be connected into the H-LINE (0dBV) and more 'consumer' style equipment will go into the L-LINE (-10dBV). This means you should be able to achieve the best signal-to-noise ratio for your line level sources and to avoid clipping the mixer at the input stage. With the range of equipment I tried into the different inputs the gains covered enough range to deal with mismatches and I really couldn't hear any differences in audio quality. Still, for best performance you should try and match your sources up with the different input types. The other two things on the back panel you don't see very often on a dj mixer are the USB port and MIDI OUT port - but more on those later.

In Use - Main Controls

Although there are no individual channel meters, there is a dedicated PFL L+R summed 12-segment meter which is very clear and monitors any channel which has been cued using the PFL ON switches. For those still struggling with being able to set their gain controls correctly there are the PEAK LEDs for each channel which should give a visual warning of when clipping will start to occur. They tended to be quite accurate in predicting when distortion was going to happen when I drove the mixer too hard! Individual channel meters would have been nice but having a separate meter for the PFL section is better than a kick in the teeth. Just below the PFL meter is a L+R switch which is essentially a switch to give a mono master output - useful for those dodgy cartridge or cable moments.

The eq is very much a creative tool as the frequency bands have been placed so that you can remove all the audio by setting all controls to 'cut'. This is the same as the Hak360 and I have to admit I'm a big fan of the control and sound of the eq. I found the bass cut switches very useful for scratching and dropping the bass of a track out mid-mix. The eq knobs are nice and big but mean there is not an abundance of space between adjacent bands.

The channel faders are Ecler 60mm Profaders. They have a good solid feel and nice amount of resistance. However, the channel fader curves are all under the control of a single two-way switch; soft or sharp. These two settings give a cut-in over around a third of the fader travel at either end. There are no reverse switches and I find it a bit disappointing that there is no 'middle' setting giving a more graceful fade. Also, the bottom of the channel fader travel is very close to the crossfader which made the area feel cramped if either channel 2 or 3 were down. The fader area didn't seem to benefit from the same kind of protective coating that the Hak360 faceplate has, as there was evidence of wear on the markings. As mentioned previously, channels 2 & 3 have no crossfader assign switches. This really makes the signal routing a lot less flexible than you would reasonably expect on a mixer of this sort. Would it have killed Ecler to have crossfader assign switches for channels 2 & 3?

The Eternal fader feels really solid and the cut-in time adjustment allows you to obtain an instantaneous cut-in at any point upto around 4mm from the edge of the fader travel. The extra FADE/SWITCH control and curve shaping makes this one of the more versatile faders on the market - backed by Ecler's 5 year guarantee. Apparently the retail unit also ships with a standard 45mm Ecler Profader in case people want to swap the Eternal fader out - though I'm not really sure why you'd want to do this as they actually have a fairly similar feel. Also, the FADE/SWITCH and CUT-IN controls don't work with the Profader.

Cueing is fairly simple using the PFL channel switches in conjunction with the PFL/MIX rotary. Nothing terribly exciting here, though the absence of a split-cue function may annoy some. The PFL channel signals are taken post-eq/pre-fader and the MIX signal is unaffected by the master level controls.

In Use - Effects

The Nuo-5 boasts a full set of 12 effects and there aren't any weak ones in the chain. The last 3 of the set (Echo Reverb, Filtered Echo & Flanger Echo) are pairings of the 9 core effects but actually add a lot more than you might think to the repertoire available. The effects section control is straight forward enough - you have 3 unlimited-turn rotaries which control the effect selection, the timing characteristics (if applicable) and a final parameter control which varies with the effect type. All of these rotaries dual function as push controls which will activate the effect, cycle through pre-set timings or in the case of the parameter rotary - be used as a tap-tempo control. In conjunction with the lovely full-size wet/dry fader and fx input level control you have a pretty decent amount of hands on tweakability.

But it doesn't just stop there! In conjunction with the supplied Edi:Lab 1.0 software you can get deep and dirty into the effects and customise them. There were no problems with the software install on my PC running Windows XP Pro SP2. It is a simple procedure of hooking the mixer up by the supplied USB cable and setting it into "PC mode" by holding the PARAMETER control for 5 seconds. You can then go through each effect type and audition the changes you make in real-time to whatever audio you have running through the mixer. For example, you can alter the oscillator type, slope and resonance of the L.F.O Filter. The reverb settings include parameters such as the density, early reflection time and phase. The depth and feedback of the flanger are under your full control as is the sampling rate of the pitch shifter - giving the ability for a nice instant layer of dirt to your audio!

I have to admit, I was expecting the effects editing to be a little dull and superficial. This was definitely not the case. It was a strange feeling editing the effects much like a DX/VST plug-in window, but you really get a good level of interaction and it adds that personal touch you don't get on any other mixer. You have the facility of saving the settings so you can switch presets around as much as you'd like - although obviously you need to hook the mixer back up to your PC. So it is probably not something you are likely to do mid-set, though it is possible. I have even got all my 'Skratchworx' settings zipped up here for all you other Nuo-5 owners.

Overall, the sound and quality of the effects are really good with enough range to really mangle the audio if you want to. It's also worth mentioning that the pitch shifter works perfectly real-time with no glitching whatsoever, unlike the Denon DN-X1500. The TAP tempo control gives very dubious results however, and by default the mixer doesn't actually display the calculated BPM, so you have no idea if it's even in the right ball-park. You can view it through the Edi:Lab software and it actually seemed to do a pretty good job all in all. I had no noticeable problems with the time-synchronised effects so maybe it is better to have it hidden so that over anxious types don't get upset.

My main gripe with the effects section is that it would have been even sweeter if you could assign the PARAMETERS knob on the Nuo-5 to other effect characteristics. For example, being able to control the depth and feedback of the flanger on the mixer itself would be great, as would the phase% and depth% of the phaser effect. This could be edited in Edi:Lab itself or Ecler might have also been able to squeeze a second parameters knob on there somewhere. Djs want hands on control, so the more knobs the better! The only other thing that I found a bit annoying was that because the PARAMETERS knob is of the unlimited-turn type, you need to rotate it a full 4 times to sweep through the whole 100 steps. So it makes adjusting the full parameter control rhythmically more difficult than it should be.

The only complication of the effects section is that the internal effects behave in essentially what is a 'pre-fader' way, as the processor output is controlled by the channel fader VCA system. However, if you select the FX SEND on an empty channel, the effected signal is routed through that in order to maintain the effect output if you close off the source channel. In real terms this means you can conserve the delay or reverb tail after you cut off the dry signal! It took the input of a third party in order for me to realise this. So, if in doubt - read the manual (that is twice now in two reviews!).

The Nuo-5 also has an external effects send/return loop linked in with the internal effects section. The sends are controlled by the same FX SEND switches. So you can't send separate channels to the internal effects and an external effect box - but you can layer two effects on the same channel. This is just a consequence of the routing - but it does have an advantage in that the internal effects processor can handle multiple channels at once. For example, you could apply a flanger effect to 2 out of 3 audible channels. The external effects loop is a bit of a headache but Ecler have gone a long way to correcting the total shambles of effects routing that features on their Hak360. The routing is still a little hazy even after looking at my review notes! A signal flow diagram would have been very welcome. The good news is that you can utilise the external effects loop in both pre- and post-fader ways and you can use the wet/dry fader from the internal effects section. However there was still a bit of confusion in my mind about controlling the return level and removing it from the dry signal when working in post-fader mode. The easiest way to remove it was to just deselect the FX SEND switch. I think it would come down to setting it up how you are happy depending on your effects unit - but I still found it overly complicated and a bit convoluted.

MIDI

It's quite easy to forget but the Nuo-5 also has a MIDI OUT port for sending of MIDI CLOCK data and start/stop signals. I would love to tell you all about this feature but I simply couldn't get Ableton Live 4 to sync upto it. It was definitely receiving the MIDI CLOCK but that was as far as I got in the time I had the unit. More of a problem my end with the software, but this unfortunately means I can't tell you how accurate or well the clock signal was working. Sorry.

Summary

The Nuo-5 sounds great, feels solid and really offers very worthy unique effects customisation. The inflexible channel routing and complicated external effects loop are it's main weak areas, alongside the channel fader curve choices. However, if you can learn to live with these points you will have the benefit of a superb contactless fader coupled with a great effects set all in a 4+1 channel configuration. For me, this makes it the key contender in this area.

Rating - 8/10

Thanks to David Faulkes at Miltec Ltd for the loan of the unit, and to Jonny Thrice at Soundwerks Audio for helping me to read the manual!

 



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