I keep the Fostex cassette four-track recorder I got in 1996 in my desk in my home office. I have a couple of duffle bags full of stuff I’ve taped over the last two decades, 22 and a half minutes of noise per tape, and although almost all of it is complete trash, it’s my trash, and that means something to me. I’ve fiddled around with recording on a computer, and briefly had a digital eight-track whose hard drive died the day after the warranty expired, but I keep coming back to that banged-up old Fostex. It’s easy to use, and I know what I’m doing on it, and it’s not like I’m going to do anything else with the stack of unopened Maxells I’ve been hoarding for years.
Well, I guess I could throw those tapes in the trash, now, as the MixPre-6M might finally be the full-time replacement I need for that old four-track. This little box from Sound Devices isn’t much bigger than a book, but it’s a useful and multifaceted tool for digitally recording a wide variety of projects. It’s been my go-to when I’m messing around at home this past month, but it’s also portable enough to take to the space and easily record our practices. With four XLR/TRS combo inputs, it’s possible to record four tracks at once, minimizing the need for ping-ponging or laying everything down individually, instrument by instrument. And since it can run on either batteries or an AC adapter, you can pretty much take it anywhere you need—like when I used my car as a makeshift vocal booth for a song I was working on a couple of weeks ago. That portability is one of the MixPre-6M’s greatest strengths.
Of course you wouldn’t want to take a recorder anywhere, much less everywhere, if it wasn’t up to snuff. The sound I’m able to get on my MixPre-6M is rich and clear, though, with a Shure SM58 as my primary microphone. I can get a clean, professional sound with ease, and also get something a little crisper and more lo-fi (something a little more like my loyal old Fostex) by letting it clip just a little bit. Sound Devices heavily touts the quality of the MixPre-6M’s custom preamps in their marketing material, and I can hear why. They’re probably the chief selling point here, after the portability—these low-noise preamps can beautifully capture sound from almost any kind of microphone. It also comes with a variety of useful tools built-in, like a metronome, the ability to punch in and out and record overdubs, and reverb. It’s a good, natural reverb sound, too, and doesn’t sound canned or overly digital.
There’s no built in hard drive storage, which is actually a plus for me. My previous experience with a digital eight-track ended abruptly with a permanent hard drive failure. The MixPre-6M records straight to a SD card that you can easily pop in and out of its body. If you don’t want to use the USB connection to patch into a computer, you can just slide that card into your computer’s SD slot and quickly transfer your files. It might be one more step than recording directly into your computer’s DAW, but it’s still simple enough to not be a hassle.
Since I brought up DAWs, let’s talk about why I currently prefer the MixPre-6M to setups using programs like GarageBand or Adobe Audition. It comes down to simplicity, again. You don’t have to plug through a mixer or any other device to record on a MixPre-6M. You don’t have to be anywhere near a computer to use it. You can patch your headphones directly into it and, again, record pretty much anywhere. I hate having to set things up and break them down when I’m done using them, but with the way my house is currently configured I have to put most of my music equipment away when I’m done using them. With the MixPre-6M it’s easier to set up, easier to break down, and easier to get my recordings onto my computer than having to deal with most DAWs.
Obviously there are some drawbacks here, though. As useful as the MixPre-6M is for the kind of small-scale projects I mess around with, it won’t be replacing larger, full-feature set-ups in professional studios. Of course, nobody would expect it to. The touch screen is about as big as it can be on a device this small, meaning it’s a little bit bigger than a postage stamp. That makes it a little hard to read at times, and even harder to accurately scroll through the various options if your fingers are on the thick and stubby side. There are no built-in mics, which probably won’t matter for anybody serious about recording, but does mean you’ll have to buy a microphone on top of paying for the MixPre-6M. And it’s not exactly cheap—it retails for just under $800, which is considerably more than most of its comparable competitors.
If that price point doesn’t scare you away, the MixPre-6M is an ideal solution to your audio recording needs—both at home and abroad. It’s small and portable enough to be great for more than just recording music. I’ve used it to record voiceovers for videos and podcasts, and it’s easy to see how it could be used to record live audio on a video shoot. If your band is playing a show and you want to record it, this might be the easiest way to get a high quality recording (assuming the sound guy cooperates). With a sturdy frame and the ability to easily connect a strap to all four of its corners, you won’t have to worry that much about it getting banged up out in the field. It might be on the high end of the price spectrum, but the MixPre-6M is a brilliant designed and highly useful recording device. I don’t even think I’ll miss that old Fostex, no matter how many memories we’ve forged together.
Correction: Originally this piece referred to the MixPre-6. That is a physically identical product with a different feature set and price point than the MixPre-6M. We’ve updated this piece to refer to the MixPre-6M, its $799 price, and the fact that features like reverb are standard on the 6M and don’t require an additional plugin.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections and also writes about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin. You can hear the band he’s in, Je Suis France, on Spotify, Bandcamp, and pretty much wherever else MP3s are sold or streamed.