FIG. 1: The Onyx 1620 mixer from Mackie has redesigned mic pre and EQ sections, talkback capability, and an optional FireWire card.
Had Goldilocks been as interested in bussing 16 channels to disc as she was in the perfect bowl of porridge, she would have appreciated the Mackie Onyx mixing consoles: not too analog, not too digital, but just right for a project studio signal hub. The Onyx analog mixer series, including the 1620 model reviewed here, is a superior successor to the mixer design that put Mackie on the map. To some, analog mixers are relics of old-school recording in the wake of complex DAWs, loop recording, and single overdubs. But if you want to record a live band or keep a lot of keyboards and guitars ready to track at any time, you still need a top-shelf mixer. An Onyx series mixer is a little gem of an option.
Bling on Board
The Onyx 1620 brings the functionality of Mackie's groundbreaking CR-1604 and VLZ-series mixers into the present. The Onyx mixers look and feel like Mackie's Digital 8-Bus and Mackie Control, but the heart of an Onyx is all analog. The 1620's design brings to mind a 1604-VLZ with major upgrades to all specs, especially the mic pre and EQ sections. But the mixer's ace in the hole is the optional Onyx FireWire I/O card, which provides an 18-channel pathway for tracking to your computer and a stereo return that pops right into the control room bus for monitoring.
Designed from the ground up to handle live sound and multiple-mic recording sessions, the 1620 (see Fig. 1) features Mackie's Onyx mic preamps on channels 1 through 8. The company had already improved its mixer mic pres with the XDR designs in the VLZ Pro mixers. With the Onyx series, the company claimed to achieve the low noise, high headroom, and dynamic range of boutique preamps.
Also adding a new level of quality to the 1620 is the Perkins EQ section, which is named for its designer, Cal Perkins. Perkins, along with Greg Mackie, designed other Mackie successes such as the XDR mic pres and the HR-series monitors. Perkins went after the sound of certain British mixing consoles of the '60s and '70s by analyzing their circuitry. His efforts give the Onyx EQ sections an extra 6 dB of control (±15 dB) without excessively narrowing the bandwidth of the filters. He was also able to minimize phase shift and add a hardware bypass on every channel.
Other modern additions to the Onyx series include a built-in talkback section with an onboard mic (you can also use an external mic), a DB-25 connector that provides a balanced analog direct-output for every channel, and selectable instrument inputs on channels 1 and 2. The other members of the Onyx mixer line are the 12-channel 1220 ($639) and the 16-channel, 4-bus 1640 ($1,539).
Getting on Top
The 1620's face offers the familiar mixing controls. Channel strips 1 through 8 provide identical mic pre, routing, and EQ controls. Low and high frequency EQ points are fixed at 80 Hz and 12 kHz, respectively. The Low Mid frequency is variable from 100 Hz to 2 kHz; the High Mid frequency ranges from 400 Hz to 8 kHz. Both can be cut or boosted by 15 dB. Each of channels 1 through 8 has a low-cut switch (18 dB per octave at 75 Hz) and a 48V phantom-power switch.
Channels 1 and 2 offer high-impedance instrument inputs with switches to engage them. For many this will mean keeping a guitar plugged into channel 1 or 2 (along with a mic) and switching it in as needed. Channels 3 through 8 automatically switch between mic or line input according to what's plugged in. All channels feature four aux sends with pre/post switches, true hardware EQ bypass switches, solo switches, and 60 mm faders.
The four channel strips to the right of channel 8 host stereo channels 9-10 through 15-16. These channels offer fixed Low, Mid, and High EQ controls set to 80 Hz, 2.5 kHz, and 12 kHz, respectively. The gain pots on these channels provide a range of ±20 dB while the mic pre channels allow a gain of 60 dB (-20 to +40 dB).
The mixer's top panel also houses most of the major output connectors, including stereo control room, Alt 3-4 (accessed whenever a channel's mute button is depressed), headphone, and main outputs, as well as phono-jack tape inputs and outputs. (Although many users may prefer having those outputs on the rear panel, this configuration facilitates quick live setups with the rackmountable 1620.)
The control section of the 1620 houses a bank of switches for monitoring the main mix, Alt 3-4, FireWire card, or tape. Four aux return controls accompany four aux master sends, which can be switched pre or post. The talkback section features an external mic switch, momentary talkback switch, and a switch for assigning the signal to control room and headphone outputs or Aux 1-2 (when using these outputs for headphone mixes). A 12V 0.5A lamp connector, 12-segment stereo LED meter (-30 to +20 dB), and Mackie's trademark Rude Solo Light complete the top panel.
Fire in the Hole
The Onyx 1620's rear panel (see Fig. 2) contains eight ¼-inch TRS channel insert jacks, eight ¼-inch jacks for the four stereo aux returns, and four ¼-inch aux send jacks. Two XLR main outs can be switched from +4 dB to mic level for using the 1620 as a submixer. The main power switch sits above a cable receptacle that accesses the 1620's switching power supply, which works anywhere on earth. (Mackie provides a U.S. and an international power cable with the unit, so you can throw the mixer in a suitcase with confidence when you jet off to parts unknown.)
FIG. 2: The 1620''s rear panel houses twin DB-25 connectors for direct-out analog recording and a slot for the optional FireWire card.
The bottom portion of the 1620's rear panel has two DB-25 connectors for establishing analog direct-out connections to external devices using standard Tascam-format adapter cables. Next to those connectors is an 8-inch horizontal slot that accepts the optional Onyx FireWire I/O card (see Fig. 3), an add-on that most people interested in recording with the Onyx will want to pick up.
The I/O card lets you stream the 1620's 18 independent channels of audio to a Mac or PC at 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution and near-zero latency. You can assign 16 independent channels of audio and a stereo mix to the card's output and monitor two channels of audio coming back from the computer. On a PC, the card also allows you to daisy chain two mixers and assign 32 channels at full resolution to the computer. (On a Mac, that capability requires OS X 10.4, according to Mackie.) The card works with any Windows XP ASIO/WDM host application, such as Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, Ableton Live, or Mackie Tracktion software (included with the card). The card also works with any Mac OS X (10.3) Core Audio host, including Apple Logic, MOTU Digital Performer, Cubase, and Tracktion.
Back to the Mines
I hooked up the Onyx 1620 and the FireWire I/O card with barely a glance at the manual. I removed two screws, connected the card to a 34-pin ribbon cable, slid the card into the slot until it clicked, replaced the screws, and connected the supplied FireWire cable to a port on my dual-processor Mac G5. As promised, the card showed up immediately in OS X's Audio MIDI Setup panel, where you can select 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96 kHz sampling rates. On the Mac, no driver installation is necessary as long as you're using OS X 10.3.5 or greater. On a PC, however, the drivers and control panel, which allows control of latency settings, must be installed using the included CD. (Follow the instructions closely, especially if you're connecting two Onyx mixers to a PC, to ensure proper configuration.) I also connected the Onyx's control room outputs to my powered monitors.
FIG. 3: The Onyx FireWire I/O card contains an output level control and two FireWire connectors for daisy-chaining mixers.
Because I had a connection to the Mac, I pressed the FireWire switch in the Onyx's source section to check Mac audio while I was testing the mixer's input section before launching a recording application. I was surprised to find that OS X's menu bar volume slider, the System Preferences Sound panel, and the Audio MIDI Setup panel didn't offer control of the audio level exiting the FireWire port. Although this is not a problem when using a recording application or other program (such as iTunes) with output controls, it meant that for sounds like system alerts and certain Web pages with audio, the computer was always sending full-volume audio to the Onyx. This could pose a threat to your monitors if (as I did) you trigger an alert or access an audio Web page with the Onyx's control room pot set too high. I emphasize that this is not a problem when running a recording application. However, it's safest to hit the FireWire switch on the Onyx after an audio application with output controls has been launched.
Other than that minor bump, the 1620 was a complete pleasure to work with. I filled up the 1620's inputs with mics, stereo keyboards, a sampler, and guitars in channels 1 and 2 and found it to be one of the quietest and best-sounding Mackie analog mixers I've worked with, including my fondly remembered 32 5 8 unit.
The Onyx pre-amps may not make you toss your outboard tube pre out the window, but they are the best sounding mic pres that I have heard in a small format mixer at this price. The Onyx maintained the character of each of the mics I tried: all sounded crisp and clear, exhibiting a slight boost in the highs around 12 kHz with all settings flat. Channels 1 and 2 took a direct input from a jazz archtop guitar as expected. Each channel offered plenty of headroom, which is a well-known Mackie feature. The extra bandwidth on the new EQ designs made most adjustments a breeze, and the results were warm and musical, even when adding gain to midrange frequencies. Keyboard and sampler sounds were fully formed, and the noise floor stayed put as more inputs were added. As a basic analog mixer, the 1620, like previous Mackie designs, stood out in quality.
Interface the Music
As a multitrack interface for recording, the FireWire card is an excellent addition. After launching Digital Performer (DP) 4.12, I recorded a pass featuring acoustic guitar and female vocals, along with a solo piano track playing simultaneously. By keeping the faders at 0 and adjusting levels with the channel trim controls, I achieved good levels on DP track meters without overdriving any Onyx channels. The converters sounded fine at all sampling rates. No degradation was apparent in the analog mixing section or in the FireWire card's conversion on playback. The system as a whole sounded excellent.
The inclusion of a convenient, speedy, and fine-sounding 24-bit, 96 kHz FireWire interface option for all Onyx mixers is the icing on another triumphant mixing cake by Mackie. The 1620's primary assignment — processing, blending, and improving mic, instrument, and line-level sources — is handled beautifully. Every signal I fed the 1620 came out better on the other end, and I had no trouble interfacing the mixer with my recording application.
I'd be surprised if the Onyx line didn't achieve the same high popularity of previous Mackie mixers. The 1620 is a great choice for those who need to mix the old-fashioned way, and it makes a great front end for those who want to record like young whipper-snappers.
Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted at
ONYX 1620 SPECIFICATIONS
||(8) mono, (4) stereo, (4) stereo aux
||(12) channel, (1) stereo master (60 mm)
||(8) XLR balanced mic; (14) balanced TRS ¼" line; (2) unbalanced ¼" high-impedance inst.; (2) RCA L/R tape; (1) XLR balanced mic (talkback)
||(2) XLR balanced mic (Main L/R); (6) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS (Main L/R, Control Room L/R, Aux 3-4); (2) RCA L/R tape
||optional FireWire card
||(4) ¼" balanced/unbalanced sends; (8) ¼" balanced/unbalanced returns
||(8) ¼" TRS
|Dynamic Range (Mic In to Main Out)
||< 0.004%, 20 Hz-20 kHz @ +4 dBu (Mic In to Main Out)
||Mic In: +0/ -1 dB, 20 Hz-50 kHz Mic Out: +0/ -3 dB, <10 Hz->100 kHz (both @ Unity Gain)
||17.3" (W) 5 20.3" (H) 5 6.6" (D)
analog mixing console
Onyx FireWire I/O card $499.99
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4.5
PROS: Excellent analog sound. Improved preamps. Extended bandwidth on midrange EQs. Talkback section. Rackmountable. FireWire interface option. Good converters.
CONS: Limited DAW control with interface.