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electronic MUSICIAN

MACKIE DESIGNS 1604-VLZ PRO

By Robert DeFord | September 1, 2000

Mackie reinvents the compact 16-channel mixer.

When I'm feeling frustrated with my work, it's usually my creativity, not my equipment, that is lacking in some way. This knowledge gives me strength; I can ignore the hype that surrounds product introductions and keep my wallet securely in my pocket. For example, I have been happily using my trusty Mackie CR-1604 mixer for the past seven years. Unfortunately, that long and peaceful interlude came to an abrupt end when EM asked me to review the new Mackie 1604-VLZ Pro mixer.

Unlike my old CR-1604, the 1604-VLZ Pro provides balanced XLR mic inputs with phantom power on all 16 channels. (A switch on the rear panel globally controls the phantom power.) It also has balanced/unbalanced TRS inputs for all 16 channels. These inputs share the circuitry (but not phantom power) with the mic inputs, which makes the 1604-VLZ highly adaptable to a variety of studio setups and input sources (see Fig. 1). For example, my Kyma sound-design workstation (like most gear with electronically balanced outputs) could be damaged if it were plugged into a phantom-powered input. That's not a problem with the 1604-VLZ Pro: I just plug the Kyma into the TRS inputs. The mixer also offers a handy set of stereo tape-in and tape-out RCA jacks for a CD player, tape deck, or DAT recorder.

This mixer can take virtually any signal you throw at it. Acceptable signals range from instrument levels as low as -50 dB to line levels of -10 dBV and +4 dBu. The trim controls provide 60 dB of gain on each of the 16 channels, and the knobs are along the top row of the channel strips, so you can get to them without reaching behind the unit. Moreover, the knobs are nice and big with clear, easy-to-read markings. And as with the original CR-1604 mixer, all of the input and output connections are housed in a "convertible pod" unit that rotates forward for tabletop use and back for rack-mount use (a set of rack ears comes with the mixer).

A SOUND APPROACHAs a sound sculptor, I often capture natural sounds to use as raw-input waveforms for a variety of synthesis techniques. However, I can't always provide the strong input signals that my old CR-1604 likes to receive. (Just try getting your pet bird to hop up and sing directly into your microphone, or getting a cat to purr at the same volume as a saxophone.) So I was eager to see how well the 1604-VLZ's new Extended Dynamic Range (XDR) mic preamps would perform. I tested the mixer with my little quartz metronome, which has a great tock sound that could make an excellent base waveform for some granular synthesis.

I placed an AKG C 1000S microphone about five feet from the metronome. With this arrangement, the mic would pick up a little reverb from the room along with the tock. I connected the mic to channel 1 of the mixer and ran a cable from the TRS direct output of channel 1 to the Kyma's input. (Channels 1 through 8 on the 1604-VLZ Pro have direct outs that are post-trim, post-EQ, postfader, and postmute.) I ran the Kyma's output into channels 3 and 4 and monitored the main left/ right bus with my headphones. (By the way, the mixer has both stereo control-room and headphone outputs in addition to its main outs.)

Before I sampled the metronome, I used the mixer's EQ section (as I often do) to modify the sound, and I was pleasantly surprised by the control it offered. The 1604-VLZ's 3-band, midsweep equalization section includes a low cut switch that reduces bass frequencies below 75 Hz at a rate of 18 dB per octave. When used with the low EQ knob, the Low Cut switch lets you safely increase frequencies at around 80 Hz by up to 15 dB without adding a bunch of subsonic noise to the mix. Because this frequency corresponds to the punch in bass guitars, kick drums, and fat synthesizer patches, the Low EQ section has great sound-shaping potential.

The two-knob Midrange EQ, with its fixed bandwidth of 111/42 octaves, is also very useful. The Mid knob sets the amount of boost or cut to up to 15 dB, and the Frequency knob sweeps the center frequency from 100 Hz to 8 kHz. I was quite pleased by the control that this section gave me over midrange musical sounds. The hi EQ knob provides up to 15 dB of boost or cut at 12 kHz - just the right frequency to make my sampled cymbals sound hotter - and it adds an overall clarity to my sound sculptures.

Once I had the tock properly equalized, I sampled it, and the results amazed me. As you can tell from the dead-flat baseline to the left of the main pulse in Fig. 2, the 1604-VLZ recorded virtually no noise. The main pulse rises rapidly and is very clean. The room reverberations to the right of the main pulse smoothly decay into total silence. Sweet, natural reverb like this is hard to duplicate electronically.

STUDIO STUDIESI spent two weeks recording a lot of samples with the 1604-VLZ Pro and created a small sound sculpture using my sequencer. Typically I use anywhere from 12 to 20 virtual sequencer tracks to create and store MIDI events for a sculpture. In a sound-sculpting environment, the mixer's main job is to mix the signals from various MIDI-controlled electronic sound-making devices and processors cobbled together to create a sound palette.

In this regard, the 1604-VLZ is a wonderful tool. Its constant loudness pan controls and precision 60 mm faders enable you to create an extraordinarily detailed and clear stereo image. It can handle a wide variety of signals and allows you to record the results flawlessly to a DAT or hard disk recorder. But I still had a big unanswered question: how well would it work in a conventional multitrack recording studio?

To find an answer, I visited Joe Doria, a voice-over and sound-effects specialist who has a 1604-VLZ Pro in his modest home studio. Doria has good ears, knows a lot about recording techniques, and has owned his 1604-VLZ Pro long enough to have given it a good workout.

We used a Midiman Delta 1010 PCI hard disk recording system at the front end to feed eight tracks into Sonic Foundry's Vegas Pro multitrack program. The 1604-VLZ's direct outs are very handy in this configuration, and we ran six of them directly into the Delta.

Because the 1604-VLZ Pro is a 4-bus mixer, you can route signals in a number of ways to accommodate different recording situations. For example, you might use channels 1 through 6 for sound sources such as vocals, guitars, and synths (see Fig. 3). These signals pass through the channel-strip controls, which can feed the signals into the mixer's output section or out through the direct outs.

In our setup, Doria and I patched from the channel direct-out jacks to inputs 1 through 6 of the hard disk recorder. We still had ten other input channels to work with, so we used channels 7 through 12 on the mixer for six drum-set microphones. Using one of the channel-strip switches, we routed these channels to sub outs 1 and 2 (you can just as easily switch them to sub outs 3 and 4 or the main L/R bus). Then we patched sub outs 1 and 2 to inputs 7 and 8 of the hard disk recorder. With this configuration, we ended up with a mix of the six drum mics going to tracks 7 and 8 on the recorder.

The possibilities inherent in the 1604-VLZ's design are just about endless. The eight direct outs and four submix buses provide great flexibility, which complements the exceptional performance of the XDR microphone preamps. Further reinforcing my favorable first impression are numerous little engineering details: LEDs for signal activity (-20 dB), solo, and overload on every channel; the big, bright-red Solo LED in the main section; the control-room monitoring section; the stereo RCA connections and front-panel level controls for tape- or CD-player input; the versatile output section; and the built-in power supply. The mixer's solid-steel chassis and overall construction quality also impressed me; like the original CR-1604, the 1604-VLZ Pro is built like a tank.

THE BOTTOM LINEMackie has crammed a lot of mixer into an 8U rack-mountable chassis, and has enhanced the mixer's appeal and versatility with thoughtful design and careful mechanical engineering. Everything from the sealed rotary controls to the front-panel BNC lamp socket illustrates the company's attention to detail.

What's more, the 1604-VLZ comes with a great manual. It's a gem for beginners and a handy reference for old pros. Not only can you find information quickly, but it's written with just enough humor to make you want to read it.

In short, the 1604-VLZ Pro can help you produce excellent work. No mixer anywhere near this price range has mic preamps superior to the Mackie XDR preamps. If you have a "lone monk" home studio, as I do, you can use the 1604-VLZ Pro to mix a wide variety of off-the-wall sound sources and create recordings that will satisfy the most discriminating audiophile.

If you have a more conventional home studio, you can please any client or record your own group's demo tape or CD with a quality that may just rival that of demos produced on high-end studio consoles. And if you make 8-track hard disk recordings, you'll smile every time you step into your studio, because the 1604-VLZ Pro is a perfect fit for your needs.

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