by Mike Rivers
It was 18 years ago that Mackie introduced the CR1604, kick starting the emerging eight-track home recording studio. Sporting six "world class" mic preamps, 16 input channels, bussing and routing that made sense for recording a soloist with a bunch of instruments or small group, all packed in a solid steel chassis (early ads showed Greg Mackie standing on one), and selling for under a grand, the CR1604 launched a huge number of home and small commercial studios.
In 1996, a significant facelift brought us the 1604-VLZ, with a true 4-bus architecture, sixteen improved mic preamps, sweepable mid-band EQ, and a number of other refinements. The VLZ-Pro Series in 1999 further improved the input section, lowered overall distortion, and continued to be a consistent good seller.
It seemed that with Mackie's introduction of the Onyx series in 2004 with its further sonic improvements, architecture better suited for today's applications, and optional FireWire computer interface, the VLZ line would soon be phased out. Instead, the VLZ-Pro co-existed with the Onyx for the next three years — they're actually rather different mixers. Then, last year, the third generation VLZ3 line was introduced.
If you're familiar with the Mackie VLZ product line — specifically the 1604-VLZ Pro — you know the 1604-VLZ3. This is a solid, highly functional design and Mackie didn't try to fix something that wasn't broken. The basic setup is sixteen mic/line input channels with Mackie's third generation XDR2 mic preamps, a three band equalizer with high and low frequency shelving, low-cut filter, and a mid-range sweep, six auxiliary send busses, and four assignable subgroup busses in addition to the main stereo bus. There are four stereo auxiliary returns, separate main and control room outputs, post-EQ/fader direct outputs on the first eight channels and insert jacks directly following the mic preamp on each channel and just ahead of main stereo fader.
VLZ3 1500Hz 6dB Boost, Q=0.63 The Mackie compact mixers have always straddled the fence between studio and live sound applications so there are a number of specific features that primarily support the live sound world. For example auxiliary returns 1 and 2, in addition to going to the main L/R bus, can be routed to auxiliary sends 1 and 2 to provide effects to stage monitors. Auxiliary send 3 can be assigned to submasters 1-2 or 3-4. For studio applications, auxiliary send 4 can be removed from the main mix and sent only to the headphones and control room for those situations where you're recording the main stereo mix and a musician wants to hear too much reverb or a click track in his phones. A mono left+right output is provided with a separate level control (on the rear panel) to feed an auxiliary speaker or a mono PA system. A BNC connector on the top panel provides 12 VDC to power an optional gooseneck light.
With exception of the mic inputs which are on XLR connectors, ?" TRS jacks are used for all inputs and outputs. Phantom power is controlled by a single switch, which affects all channels. With 14 assorted condenser mics (all I had handy) connected and powered up, the phantom supply remains within tolerance at 45.7 volts, so there should be plenty of poop to power a full load of condenser mics. The power supply is internal with an IEC connector for the power cord on the rear of the chassis. A voltage selector switch accommodates line voltages of 100, 120 and 240 volts.
VLZ 1500Hz 6dB Boost, Q=0.43 Construction is similar to the previous 1604 models. The VLZ3 series is built totally in China, but there's nothing cheap about the feel or appearance. The main control surface chassis and I/O connector chassis are separate pieces interconnected by a handful of cables and bolted together. As shipped, the connectors are located at the back of the mixer.
The connector can easily be relocated to the underside of the main chassis, putting the connectors behind the front panel to facilitate connections in a rack mounted installation. An optional RotoPod bracket allows mounting the connector's chassis so that all of the connectors are topside, a convenient arrangement either for rack mounting or for a studio setup where you'll be doing a lot of patching. A pair of rack mounting ears is supplied. The chassis is heavy gauge steel, assembled with the Mackie standard too-many screws.
So far, with exception of the multi-voltage AC power supply, This VLZ3 sounds just like the previous model … and functionally and feature-wise, it is. There are some cosmetic improvements, but more interestingly, there are some important changes under the hood.
The low frequency response of the previous generation XDR mic preamps rolls off below 50 Hz, being 5 dB down at 20 Hz when running near full gain (though this isn't a problem when using less than 40 dB of gain). The frequency response of the new XDR2 preamps is dead flat down to 30 Hz at full gain and only 1 dB down at 20 Hz. Mackie claims that distortion is lower on the XDR2 than the XDR, but it's so low that I can't measure it – I'll trust them.
The equalizer section is different from the previous generation. Mackie describes the difference as less interaction between equalizer bands as a result of re-arranging the components so that adjacent bands don't use adjacent op-amps in the same IC. Re-arrangement of the components may have a small contribution the reduced interaction between bands, but the real secret is that the bandwidth of the VLZ3's mid-range EQ is noticeably narrower (Q=0.63) than on the VLZ (Q=0.43).
The other significant change with the VLZ3 electronics is that the internal gain structure has been modified. One of the problems with the earlier generations was that, with a lot of hot inputs, the sum of the channels was a greater level than the mix bus could handle, resulting in clipping the whole mix. Perceptive operators eventually learned to run the master fader high and keep the channel levels lower to provide more headroom for the mix when things got louder (as they tend to do in a live show). This raised the noise floor a bit but it was hardly noticeable in a typical show, and a tad more noise is preferable to distortion.
In the VLZ3, Mackie has essentially implemented this master fader trick internally by reducing the level of the channels going to the bus and making it up by adding gain just ahead of the master fader. Newer generation op amps and quieter resistors has allowed for additional gain at the output without compromising the noise performance of the mixer.
Since for many, this mixer will have its primary use as a set of mic preamps for recording to a DAW, a primary concern is how they sound. No worries here — Mackie has always done well in this area, and the preamps in earlier generation VLZ mixers have long been a solid economical choice for clean, general-purpose applications. On some sources, the VLZ3 preamps sounded just a bit smoother than a VLZ-Pro with several mics that I tried, but honestly, it's a tough call. The flatter low frequency response of the VLZ3 may contribute to the overall smoothness and warmth by better conveying low frequency room ambience even though sources such as vocals and acoustic guitars don't extend down into the 20-30Hz region. On the high end, there was very little if any difference between the VLZ-Pro and VLZ3. I threw an Onyx into the comparison and found it to be somewhat fuller all around than either the VLZ-Pro or VLZ3, which is comforting since the Onyx is Mackie's premium mixer line.
Fast Facts Applications
Studio, project studio, broadcast production, live sound
16 mic/line channels with inserts, 3 band EQ with mid-range sweep, 4 subgroup busses, 6 auxiliary sends, auxiliary returns routable to auxiliary sends for effects-to-monitors.
Mackie Designs | 425-487-4333 | www.mackie.com While the preamps sound fine, adjusting them was a bit fiddly. The gain trim pot (on most if not all of their newer products, including this one) has a taper that's substantially different at the ends than in the middle. The 25 dB gain change is pretty smooth between the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions, but the gain change is 20 dB between 3 o'clock and full clockwise (about 5 o'clock). The intent is to offer good control resolution in the range of 15 to 40 dB preamp gain, and this makes sense for many typical combinations of mics and sources, but how often do we find ourselves recording something "normal?"
Since I record almost exclusively acoustic instruments and like the sound of some fairly low-sensitivity mics, I often need to set the trims near the top of their range where it's difficult to get the optimum setting. This is mostly an academic fidget, because the preamps are quiet enough so that it's no big deal to run the gain a little low and make up a couple of dB elsewhere in the chain. What is equally annoying is that with the trim near the top of its range, it's easy to jostle the control resulting in a gain change of a couple of dB. On more than one occasion, I set the gain to a specific value for a measurement and found that ten minutes later it had changed. Other rotary gain controls have a more practical taper.
These new rotary pots don't feel as mechanically solid as those on the older generation mixers, though that could be because the knobs extend further out from the panel than they used to, giving a longer unsupported lever arm to on the board-mounted pot element.
One welcome mechanical improvement is with the quarter-inch jacks. It's a fairly common trick to use the channel insert jacks as direct (preamp) outputs for recording by inserting a plug to the first "click." When half-way in, the plug tip picks up the preamp output signal without breaking the jack's normalling contacts, leaving the channel signal path intact. This was always a little risky because the plug was a bit wobbly with the tip grabbed by the ring contact of the jack. The jacks on the VLZ3 grip a plug in the half-in position much more solidly than on the earlier VLZ and Onyx mixers.
As far as actually using the 1604-VLZ3 for mixing, there really isn't much to say. It does what it needs to do and it does it well with no big surprises. While the low-cut filter works just fine, I've often found the equalizer section in earlier Mackie mixers to be rather ineffective. The VLZ3, with its narrower mid-band section, is more useful, with the difference being most apparent when cutting to clean up proximity effect mud or to reduce lower-mid frequency leakage. With the earlier generations Mackies, it was difficult to get to where I wanted to go; when cutting what I wanted, as much as I wanted, other things changed too much. I found less of this out-of-band action with the VLZ3, resulting in less fiddling with the equalizer knobs and getting a good mix more quickly.
To confirm what I perceived about the EQ after mixing a couple of live shows, I fed the mixer some rather sloppy multitrack live festival stage recordings. I first mixed the tracks on a 1604-VLZ, then moved the cables over to the 1604-VLZ3 and mixed it again. By golly, it was indeed easier to get a decent mix. Thinking it might have been the second time because I had a practice run, I tried another set of tracks, mixing first on the VLZ3, then on the VLZ, and again, I found that the VLZ3 made it easier and quicker to clean up messy tracks. In each case, I ended up preferring the overall sound of the VLZ3 mix, finding that it was cleaner overall and a bit fuller on the bottom end without sounding boomy or muddy.
I confirmed that the change to the internal gain structure does what's intended by pushing the channel gain trims higher than I normally would. Since I've never experienced the oft-discussed problem of bus headroom (likely because of the kind of music I work with) I probably would have overlooked this improvement, but since it doesn't appear to have any disadvantages and it might help in some situations, it's certainly a worthwhile update.
"Family Ties" The VLZ3 series includes the 1202-VLZ3 and 1402-VLZ3, 1642-VLZ3, and 1604-VLZ3, all upgraded versions of their corresponding VLZ-Pro models. At the Winter 2008 NAMM show, Mackie introduced two new VLZ3 models — more like cousins than siblings — the 802-VLZ3 and 402-VLZ3, which are four and eight channels, respectively. The tiny 402 offers two XDR2 mic preamps — a stereo line level input and two-band EQ on the mic channels. The larger 802 has three mic input channels with 3 band EQ (fixed center frequency as in the 1402), one stereo and two mono line inputs. The 402, more applicable as a DAW front and back end than a mixer, has no pan pots. Instead, it offers a button which assigns the two mic channels either hard left and right or center panned, solving the monitoring problem that some DAW interfaces have when using a single mic. The 802 is a more conventional mixer design for the user who require just a few inputs with excellent audio quality. Summary
The 1604 is a good, sensible design. It's been around for a long time because it works well, and now works even better. The first generation mic preamps sounded quite good and have improved with every update, including this one. You don't want to mess around too much with a good thing, and Mackie has followed that mantra.
There are a couple of things that I think deserved updating but didn't get it this time around. One is the Tape Outputs. These RCA jacks are tied directly to the main outputs and, like the mains, can put out +20 dBu before clipping. That wasn't a problem back in the day when recorders had real input level controls, allowing the recorder to accommodate any reasonable line level source. Today, however, those Tape Output jacks are more likely to be connected to a pocket sized flash memory digital recorder than to your grandfather's Sony. All of the mini recorders that we've tested here at PAR clipped at the front end (ahead of its record level control) when presented with an input signal much higher than +10 dBu or so. It would have been good to bring the Tape Outputs down to the old "consumer" level so an external pad isn't needed to prevent a distorted recording. Also, since the Main fader is usually used to control the overall PA volume, it's likely to change during the show. While the Main (post-fader) outputs are fine when using the VLZ3 as a recording mixer, having the Tape Output jacks pre-fader would have been my preference when using it as a PA mixer and recording the board mix.
Unlike the smaller models in the family, the 16 channel mixers (1604 and 1642) have the main outputs on ?" TRS jacks rather than XLRs. This is a carryover from the previous generations, and it's simply because there's no room for the larger connectors on the panel (and their oft-useful mic/line output level switch). Though it would mean eliminating something or increasing the size of the back panel, I wish they could have found a place to put XLRs so I don't have to carry adapters.
There are a lot of similar mixers out there, and most of them sound pretty good. You have a lot of choices, but the Mackie 1604?VLZ3 gives me the sense that I'm using a good quality one, too. And for me, that makes the job easier and more fun. It's a solid, proven design that worked well years ago and works even better now.
Mike Rivers, a retired location sound recording engineer, operates a studio in Falls Church, Va.