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Review: Phoenix Audio Nicerizer Junior

Phoenix Audio’s new streamlined take on the summing box concept is light on features but big on sound. With just two outputs, 16 buttons and pan pots, the Nicerizer Junior puts Greg Walker’s preconceptions to the test.

By

12 February 2015

Before I get into the specifics of the Nicerizer Junior I’d like to clearly state up front that I’m a longstanding ‘Summing Sceptic’. I’ve never really bought into the idea of dumbing down the classic analogue mixing console signal path to the point where all the fun stuff is gone (faders, equalisers, compressors, routing matrices, auxiliaries or buses anyone?). I’ve always felt that what’s left is a dreary box that doesn’t amount to much more than an adding machine with a couple of transformers in it. I know we’re all trying to cut costs but is this really necessary or desirable? It might sound okay, but is it worth shelling out serious money for? You can imagine my disquiet then when the box that arrived from Mixmasters for my perusal turned out to devote 16 of its 18 red aluminium knobs to panning! Yep, the Nicerizer Junior is a 2RU box that can put a source into the right speaker, the left speaker or even somewhere inbetween! Okay, I’m being facetious here, but as I wired the thing up to my rig I kept thinking to myself ‘this better do something special or I’m going to take the whole summing thing down next issue!’

SUMTHING FOR NOTHING

Where I had to give an initial tick to Phoenix Audio was in the connectivity department. The two eight-channel D-sub input connectors on the back of the Nicerizer Junior are a no-brainer for a quick analogue hook-up. Everyone who makes multichannel audio gear should use this format and then we can all buy D-sub patch bays and the world will be a saner, less cluttered place. I connected eight channels from my UA Apollo and another eight from my RME converter into the Nicerizer’s inputs, then ran the XLR stereo outputs from the Nicerizer through a pair of tasty JLM PEQ500s on their way back to the Apollo’s inputs for some analogue EQ sweetening. 

The Nicerizer Junior has an additional set of XLR stereo outs for parallel processing and a master volume pot for each of these stereo pairs. Here I immediately wished there was a master bus insert so I could strap my EQs across both pairs of outputs prior to hitting something in the nature of heavy outboard compression on the second output. I also wanted inserts on another set of D-subs (even eight channels would have been handy) in order to integrate more of my outboard nick-nacks without having to wire them inline, but of course Phoenix Audio has eschewed those kinds of options with this ‘Junior’ model in its summing line and have thus kept costs down. 

Phoenix Audio’s original version of its Nicerizer 16 (now out of production) had transformer-balanced inputs on every channel as well as the outputs. It’s worth noting that the Nicerizer Junior evolved from version two of the Nicerizer 16, and incorporates the same Class A transformerless input stage. Where the two units differ is in the ‘16’ model’s provision of features such as master bus inserts, metering, XLR inputs, headphone monitoring and stereo width control. Of course, all this comes at a price and Phoenix Audio has obviously seen a gap in the summing market for something more stripped back and affordable. 

Given all this, I decided to keep it simple myself and avoid compression in the audio chain so that I could really hear what the Nicerizer Junior offered in terms of sonic qualities. Panning and master volume aside, the only other features on the Nicerizer Junior’s front panel apart from the red backlit power switch are the 16 white +8dB input gain boost switches. When engaged, these boost signal to the circuitry and help induce higher levels of harmonic colouration in your chain.

NEED TO KNOW

  • PRICE

    $2772

  • CONTACT

    Mixmasters: (08) 8278 8506 or sales@mixmasters.com.au

  • PROS

    • Smooth dynamics & introduces very useable harmonic saturation
    • +8dB input gain switches add extra oomph
    • Extra stereo outputs for parallel treatments

  • CONS

    • No inserts
    • Pan controls are redundant in many mix situations
    • No transformers on the 16 inputs

  • SUMMARY

    The Nicerizer’s small feature set is redeemed by great-sounding harmonics and a relatively affordable price tag. The variable gain setting switches allow for some play in the gain structure and there are 16 pan pots to play with. A one trick pony, but it’s a pretty good trick.

SUM & DIFFERENCE

Once I started playing around with the Nicerizer Junior on a variety of rock, pop and electronic material I had to admit to myself that it was sounding pretty good. When I A/B’d various Nicerized and straight digital versions of the same mixes it was quite clear that the outboard box sounded, umm…nicer. At the standard gain setting there’s a subtle but definite sweetening of the mix elements; vocals soar satisfyingly, electric guitars gain a little weight and definition, drums sound a little punchier and more robust and there’s an attractive overall tonal signature and sense of unity about mixes that have gone through the summing circuitry. There’s also a gentle smoothing of transients which is quite pleasing and helps differentiate the overall effect from the straight digital mix. Once the +8dB gain switches are engaged the game changes a bit and the effect of the circuitry becomes much more obvious. Harmonic distortion starts to kick in and there are some great ‘hot’ mix tones to be had, particularly on more aggressive material. A big surprise for me was how much the Nicerizer Junior could compress the dynamic range of the mix. At the more heavy handed end of the spectrum I reckon I was getting around 4-6dB of dynamic range squeezed out of my mix if not more, and the overall effect did indeed have something of the ‘analogue console’ sonic quality we all lust after.

The qualifying statement here though (just like on a Neve or SSL console) is that you have to be careful not to overcook it. As the Nicerizer Jr runs out of headroom, mixes can start to sound very stressed and transient details get well and truly smeared. By grouping all the channels of the mix in my DAW I could ride the whole thing up and down until I found the sweet spot in terms of clarity, saturated harmonics and transient response.

Unlike on a console (where you can drive individual sources at different levels using input gain and channel faders) you don’t really have the option to selectively cook some of your sources more robustly using the +8dB setting. All the heavy lifting is done by the transformers at the output stage, therefore almost all the harmonic ‘drive’ on tap happens downstream from the inputs and after the summing process itself. On one of the singles I was mixing during the review period, I found the +8dB setting was driving the drums too hard, squashing the transients down too much where I wanted to keep them open and dynamic, so I had to run the whole mix at a lower input gain setting to keep the particular push-pull of that mix working the way I wanted it to. I can imagine some people would find the panning controls useful but I have to say that once I had them panned hard left and right to accommodate the stereo pairs coming out of my DAW I never touched them again. Even when mixing with mono lead vocals and bass I always run these sources and their associated effects (inevitably in stereo) through a stereo pair. Personally I find that most contemporary mixes allow no room in a 16-channel setup for luxuries like mono kick and snare (not when you’ve got five pairs of guitars, three stereo keyboards, tons of backing vocals, electronic samples, percussion, and effects, several different treatments for drums and lead vocals in different parts of the song). I would happily have individual panning for just four channels and sacrificed the rest for that lovely width control on the Nicerizer 16 v2. This minor gripe aside I had a lot of fun with the sound this summing box delivered and the fact it got used on two mission-critical single mixes speaks for its professional quality and ‘vibe’ factor.

PLAY NICE?

While many would claim the digital versus analogue debate has been well and truly won by digital, to my ears there are undoubtedly some things analogue still does better. Top of that list would be blending sounds together and endowing them with a pleasing euphony. For that reason the Phoenix Audio Nicerizer Junior did ultimately convince me of its value in the studio. While it took a while for me to warm to its charms, I now shudder to think of it disappearing back into the courier’s van. It barely interferes with the digital workflow at all and serves up quality sonic results. It’s not the magic-bullet ninja box all on its own and it is frustratingly lacking in features (such as channel and master inserts) but in the fight against harsh digital mixes the Nicerizer Junior is a real weapon that delivers a decent lick of the big console sound at a fraction of the cost.

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