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electronic MUSICIAN

MACKIE DESIGNS DIGITAL 8-BUS (D8B) V. 2

By Jeff Casey | February 1, 2000

The Mackie Designs Digital 8-Bus (D8B) was probably the most anticipated release in the digital mixer market since the Yamaha 02R. Not only is Mackie a giant in the affordable mixer industry, but the sheer hype that preceded the D8B's release had many people waiting with bated breath. The question is, now that the D8B has been out for a while (Mackie just released version 3.0 of the operating system) and people have had a chance to check it out, does the D8B measure up to the hype?

First of all, lest there be any confusion, the D8B is a large mixer. This is not a console for, say, a single-ADAT studio-this board costs just under $10,000. It offers 48 mixdown channels (split as 24 channel inputs and 24 tape returns), 8 buses, 16 internal effects returns, 12 aux sends, dynamic and scene automation, a full-size meter bridge, 4-band parametric EQ and dynamics processing on every channel and tape return, up to 16 internal multi-effects processors, transport controls, and a wealth of digital connectivity options.

But that's not all that comes in this box-the rack-mount unit is actually a CPU, which is the brains of the board. Inside are essentially the inner workings of a PC, including a 166 MHz Pentium processor, internal hard drive, and 3.5-inch floppy disk drive. There are ports on the rear for connecting a PC-compatible monitor, mouse, and keyboard, so working with the console's rather small built-in display (6.5- X 1-inch, 40- X 2-character) becomes a nonissue. This arrangement provides much of the functionality that you'd expect from a DAW. It's important to note that all of the mixer's parameters are accessible right from the surface of the unit; however, I'd seriously recommend spending a few hundred dollars on the aforementioned peripherals. A separate, rack-mountable unit houses the power supply.

IN AND OUTAnalog I/O is abundant on the D8B. Channels 1 through 12 offer both XLR mic-level inputs and 1/4-inch TRS line-level inputs. Each of these channels has individual mic/line switches on the front of the console. Phantom power is available, again on individual switches for channels 1 through 12, though the switches are on the rear of the mixer, a location that I found a bit cumbersome (see Fig. 1). Channels 13 through 24 are accessed via 1/4-inch TRS jacks. All of the input channels (channels 1 through 24) have trim pots for adjusting the input gain, as well as a prefader LED meter.

In addition to a pair of XLR master output jacks, the D8B has several 1/4-inch outputs, including a set of master outputs, a set of studio outputs, and two sets of control-room outputs (main and near field). The unit provides three 2-track inputs (also on 1/4-inch jacks), as well as a 1/4-inch input for connecting a talkback mic. You get two headphone jacks and a 1/4-inch jack for connecting a punch in/out pedal. The 12 1/4-inch aux-send jacks are located here as well.

The eight balanced line-level bus outputs are analog, and they appear on a 25-pin D-sub connector on the rear panel (this port can also be used to output surround-sound mixes). Also included is a 2-channel digital I/O card, which provides AES/EBU and S/PDIF connections. The tape returns (channels 25 through 48) are accessed by installing I/O cards in the three dedicated expansion card slots. Cards are available in a number of formats, including ADAT (Lightpipe), TDIF, AES/EBU, and analog.

Besides these expansion options, the D8B has an additional slot, referred to as Alt I/O, that allows you to add another 8 inputs and outputs to the mixer's capacity via an additional analog or digital expansion card. There are also slots for four multi-effects cards (including one already occupied by the MFX card that comes with the mixer) and one slot for a sync card that handles ESAM II machine control, word clock, and SMPTE.

DIGITAL DAZEThe D8B's setup is similar to that of a split-style analog board, and once you get the hang of working with this console, you'll realize that it's quite user friendly. The D8B has 24 channel strips and a master section. Each channel strip contains a 100 mm fader; mute, solo, and channel-select buttons; automation edit buttons (Assign and Write); a Record Enable button; and an assignable soft knob, which controls a number of different parameters (pan pot, aux-send levels, and so on).

Like most digital boards, the D8B employs fader layers. This concept allows the console to handle a large number of input channels, tape returns, buses, and so forth, without being 25 feet long. On the D8B are four fader layers: Fader Bank 1 controls the 24 channel inputs; Bank 2 handles the 24 tape returns; Bank 3 controls the 16 internal effects returns and the 8 Alt returns; and Bank 4 services the 8 bus masters, 8 MIDI controllers, and 8 virtual subgroups. The fader layers are switched using corresponding buttons located in the Master section.

In addition to the fader-layer selection buttons, the Master section also contains the master fader, as well as assignment buttons for the soft knobs. Here is where you can assign a number of different parameters to the channel soft knobs, including pan, solo level, digital trim, level to tape, and the aux-send or effects-send levels.

At the top right of the console is what Mackie calls the Fat Channel. This section is where you access all of the D8B's EQ, dynamics, and multi-effects functions. You can also use the Fat Channel controls to edit things like file storage information, sync settings, and basic system data. Located below the Fat Channel is the monitoring section. Monitoring is comprehensive: you can pull signal from virtually any source within the board and send it to any number of destinations. For soloing, you can select both PFL and AFL, as well as a mode called Mixdown Solo, which acts as a destructive solo, muting all other channels to the main outputs. Of particular interest is the fact that you can copy the monitor mix to the selected aux-send controls. This lets you set up a basic cue mix without expending much effort.

COMPUTER SAVVYSo, if the D8B's functions are so easily accessible from the mixer, why would you need to use a monitor, keyboard, and mouse? Well, you don't, but they will make you feel at home if you've grown accustomed to working with DAWs or other recording software. You could literally put the D8B and your multitracks in another room and run the session right from your keyboard/ monitor setup.

The main work area onscreen is the Channel Overview (see Fig. 2). It is laid out much like the D8B would be if it were an analog board. At the top of each channel strip is an assignment section, which allows you to route signal to any or all of the eight buses, to the L-R bus, or directly to the corresponding multitrack channel. Below that are four buttons for engaging a phase-reverse feature, and for calling up the compressor, gate, and EQ for that channel. A small graph below the EQ button displays the channel's current EQ curve. Next is the aux assignment section, which displays a horizontal meter next to each aux send, showing you the level of that bus. Below that are the automation-enable buttons; pan pot; select, solo, and mute buttons; and fader.

Clicking on the EQ buttons or gate and compressor buttons opens a display for the respective processor for that channel. At the bottom of the page are seven menu buttons for opening the Setup, Snapshot, Locator, Surround Sound, Event List, Mix Editor, and Fat Channel windows.

HAVE YOU BEEN CONVERTED?My production assistant and I put this console through the wringer. I used a pair of Genelec 1031A speakers to evaluate the D8B, and I also referenced on my Yamaha NS10m set. First, we checked out the converters. (Granted, with all the digital connectivity in today's world, the only place converters really matter is on the channel inputs, and with digital mic preamps hitting the streets, it's only a matter of time before the all-digital console is here.)

The first test involved miking an acoustic guitar with an Audio-Technica AT4033. I first checked out the D8B's onboard preamps by plugging the mic directly into the XLR jack on channel 1. The input converters really surprised me-in a positive way. The preamps were transparent, which works well for recording instruments like acoustic guitar, for which you usually want a crisp, clear sound.

I then patched the mic through a Neve 9098, with all processing, save for the preamp, disengaged. The transfer of signal into the D8B was also transparent through the line input, and the 9098 delivered the exact sound I was anticipating: a round tone with a lot of presence. From what I could gather, all the output converters performed well, too.

To test the onboard EQ, dynamics, and multi-effects, we ran an 8-track project off of my computer, with signal transferred using an ADAT Lightpipe cable. The song consisted of a stereo pair of drum tracks (premixed), a bass guitar track, two acoustic guitar tracks, an electric lead guitar track, a vocal track, and a percussion track.

FOUR IS ENOUGHThe D8B features is 32-bit floating-point internal processing. It's worth noting that one of the men behind the D8B's design used to work at Trident in the '70s and '80s, where he designed a number of its high-end boards.

As mentioned earlier, every channel and tape return has a 4-band, fully parametric EQ. This is something usually found only on DAWs. Having four channels of band attenuation, each with adjustable Q control, lets you really tweak the tracks. A nice touch is an A/B feature, which lets you compare different settings.

I brought up the two acoustic guitar tracks and panned them hard left and right. First, I attenuated the low end by rolling off all frequencies below 100 Hz. I also boosted a little around 1.5 kHz to add some body to the tracks. The midrange EQ was warm, and even when I had the gain around +9 dB it still sounded natural. The EQ really shone in bringing out the upper frequencies, especially above 7 kHz. Although the tracks had been recorded with a rather bright mic, a Shure SM-81, I was able to coax even more definition out of the them with the D8B's EQ.

A stereo pair of drum tracks is one of the most difficult selections to equalize, but the D8B was more than equal to the task. Without much fuss I was able to get a decent sound for the drums, and I found the EQ to be just as flexible as the one on my DAW. The only caveat I'll issue is to be cautious when boosting lower frequencies: a small twist of the knob yields strong results.

HOME ON THE DYNAMIC RANGENext, we put the D8B's dynamics processing capabilities to the test. Like the equalization, compression and gating are available on every input channel and tape return. We tried the compressors on each track, starting with the bass guitar. I toggled between compression and limiting, and got satisfactory results with both. I was really impressed, however, with the limiting. The limiting action was superb: the onboard limiter in conjunction with an outboard tube compressor yielded some of the best results I've heard from a digital console. The compressors also worked quite well on both the vocal and drum tracks.

The gates were extremely easy to work with. Our percussion track consisted of a shaker during the verses and a pair of claves during the chorus. I engaged the gate to check out the action during the clave part. I found it was easy to dial in an appropriate threshold, and within a few seconds I had the parameters set. The presets are decent, and they provide good starting points for dialing in settings.

Although the dynamics processors performed admirably on a mix, I also wanted to test the compressors on a live signal being recorded to hard disk. For this, I again pulled out the AT4033, and recorded my assistant (who's also a singer) doing a heartfelt rendition of Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz." For a song as dynamic as that, the D8B's compressors held up nicely. I usually employ an outboard tube unit for this task, and although I don't think I'd change my practice in session with the D8B, the compressors effectively tamed the erratic vocal. Listening back to the track, I determined that a little extra compression during the mixdown (about a 2:1 ratio) would blend the track nicely with the other instruments.

AFFECTED BY THE EFFECTSA stock D8B also ships with a single MFX Mackie-built effects card that houses two multi-effects engines. With it you get reverbs, as well as a variety of chorus and delay-type effects. The delays each have a 3-band EQ-a very cool touch.

As part of its system 3.0 release, Mackie Designs has introduced the UFX card, which gives you an additional 4 channels of DSP (up to four of these cards can be installed, for a total of 16 channels of DSP) and the ability to mount third-party effects plug-ins. A number of these plug-ins are already available from companies such as Drawmer, Massenburg, Antares, and TC Electronic, and more are planned. Of course, you can always patch in your own outboard processors via the D8B's 12 external aux sends.

MOVING PICTURESThe D8B offers scene and dynamic automation with moving faders. It gives you two automation modes: Auto-Touch mode automatically write-enables any parameter when you move its corresponding hardware controller, and Trim Level mode allows levels to be tweaked rather than rewritten.

Automating the mixes was a breeze. I was expecting to be up against an automation system as complex as an SSL's, but the D8B is simple and intuitive-I didn't even have to open the manual to figure it out. I typically found myself doing a pass or two manually, and then tweaking the mix using the Mix Editor screen. Once again, working with the monitor reminded me of working with a software sequencer, and editing the automation visually made it easy to tweak my original console moves.

The console sports a complete transport section, which features traditional controls such as Play, Stop, Rewind, and so on, as well as a transport position indicator and a second numeric display. You can configure the time display for SMPTE or MTC, and the secondary display shows either snapshot memories or locator points, depending on the selected mode. You can sync the D8B to any MMC-equipped recorder or Sony 9-pin compatible device via the optional sync I/O card. Finally, an included numeric keypad accommodates data entry and locate functions, and a jog/shuttle wheel allows for scrolling the transport.

JUDGMENTSo did I like the D8B? Of course I did. Could I afford one? My wife would have to be the judge of that! Seriously, this is a console for professional studios. The weekend enthusiast probably doesn't need a board of this magnitude.

If you've got the need for one, though, the D8B is probably the most powerful and versatile digital console of its class. It's perfectly designed to accommodate a 24-track digital setup, and the ample I/O options and routing capabilities make it compatible with just about any arrangement. The effects are abundant, and the concept of third-party processing opens the door to a world of options. And the board sounds good. The compressors are powerful but smooth, the EQs are warm, and the entire signal path is noise free. If you have the means, take the D8B for a test-drive-I think you'll agree it's the Ferrari of affordable digital mixers.

Jeff Casey would like to thank Steve Oppenheimer for the opportunity to spend two years at one of the finest music publications on the market.

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