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MACKIE ONYX 400F + A CUSTOM MOD ONYX 1640

July 6, 2006
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There seems to be quite a lot of mid-grade mic preamp/FireWire interfaces around these days. Mackie’s entry into the field puts an emphasis on its new Onyx mic preamps, which are the first four of ten total inputs. For me this makes it more functional than your standard 2 mic pre FireWire interface, but not enough to do an involved field recording. That’s what the more pro 1200f with 12 pres is for. The Onyx 400f is more for small personal setups and is around $700 — a thousand dollars less than its big brother. It’s a combination of a quality multi-channel mic preamp and a music production interface complete with MIDI, SPDIF, and sync capabilities. It’s also bundled with a program called Tracktion2 — a simple but powerful audio and MIDI sequencer.

The Onyx control panel and Tracktion were very easy to install on my Mac G5. The control panel has a simple and effective layout with a digital mixer that can work (with last saved settings) as a standalone mixer without a computer. In typical Mackie fashion, the manual is well laid out and easy to read. The big question is, how do Onyx preamps sound? I thought they sounded great for a unit like this and found myself turning to them often while tracking drums and bass for my band Icy Demons. They have a nice body to them and sound far superior to what I remember the pres on a Mackie 1604 to sound like. They seem more robust than the Focusrite Octopre preamps I reviewed a couple months back. I like the Focusrites for their crispness with drums, whereas the Mackie sounded very well balanced for bass and synths. The instrument inputs on channels 1 and 2 sound great and were used often. Playback sounded nice through the control room outputs and the two separate headphone amps on the front panel seemed handy for quick two-person recording sessions. The unit can do 192kHz, which is impressive for the $600–$700 range. The Tracktion software is confusing at first — but it looks cool. Its modern interface looks like Ableton Live and has functions that make it well suited for sequencing type work — like ReWire support and a built-in sampler. I wouldn’t use it as my main tracking program, but I could see having some fun with its refreshing layout and features (by the way, the mutes and solos are on the right instead of the left).

You can use the Onyx audio and MIDI drivers with any program as well and its MIDI inputs are a welcome addition to my new HD system. The Onyx sounds great and has many of the features I would need to make music on the go or to be the center of a small production room. Well done.
—Griffin Rodriguez

MACKIE ONYX 1640 FRONT END AUDIO/SOUNDLAB MOD


I purchased a Mackie 1640 Onyx about a year ago. I planned on using it for teaching signal flow in an audio class and for doing live remote recording. I was doing a demonstration for a class and realized that the direct outs on the DB25 connectors were pre EQ. After all of the hype about these new improved Mackie Perkins EQs I couldn’t believe that there were no way to route them to the direct outs. I asked my dealer (Front End Audio) about it and told them of my disappointment and that I thought that it was a serious design flaw. I’m sure that many people wanted to use these EQ’s for tracking drums and other EQ hungry sources. About six months later, I learned that the Front End Audio guys had taken the bull by the horns and arranged to have a local tech mod the consoles so the direct outs (and FireWire outputs) could be made post EQ. Other options for the modification include making the outputs pre/post fader and/or pre/post insert. Mackie agreed to let them do it under warranty as well. I had this modification done and put it to work.

My first test of the console was a live remote recording. I tracked a live band that included drums, bass, four guitars, and three vocals through the console, while doing the house mix on the same console. I routed the direct outs to my Mackie HDR 24/96 digital recorder via DB25 connectors. It was a very simplistic setup. The house sound was much better than when the old Mackie 1604-VLZ was used. I took the tracks back to the studio and transferred them to my Pro Tools HD rig and did a quick mix for the band. I was quite happy with the results. The EQ that I printed for the drums sounded very good — not thin like my previous experience tracking with Mackies. The band was very happy with the results as well.

After that recording worked out, I decided to test out the console in the studio. I usually use Daking, ADL, Chameleon, Toft, Neve, and other outboard pre’s when tracking drums. I took the modified Onyx into the studio and ran the entire kit through the console and into my HD rig via the DB25 outputs. I used my usual mics (D112s, 421s, 441, 57, KM100s, and a Yamaha Subkick) for this session. The kit was my house vintage Ludwigs that I’ve recorded hundreds of times. I used the trim plug in on my HD rig to make up for the lack of phase reverse on the console. I found myself very comfortable with the sound of the 1640. The EQs were useful in cutting the low mid mud out of the kick and toms and adding attack to kick and snare. The sound of the pres and EQs did have a bit more of a Trident/Toft meets Mackie sort of sound. Mackie’s attempt to make the EQ’s sound British was noticeable. The bandwidth and frequency selection of the EQ covered my needs very well. The drum recording had a very open quality. It lacked the serious low-end thud of my Dakings on kick, but using the Yamaha Subkick kept the low end very big sounding. The snare sounded very big and crisp with a good low-end punch as well. The artists were quite happy with the results.

Needless to say I’m not getting rid of any of my outboard pre/eqs, but I will be using my modified Onyx 1640 for many tasks in the future. I have lined up several more remote live recordings in which I plan on using this console to do the house mix and the recording sends simultaneously. I currently use the analog outs to a digital multitrack but I may install the FireWire card at some point and take a laptop out instead. For some people this modification may not be useful, but for me it doubled the usefulness of the console.
—Jason Chaffe

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