Mackie Onyx 1200F FireWire Audio MIDI Interface

One of the touted features of the 1200F is its ability to function as a standalone mixer when not connected to a computer.
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The Mackie Onyx 1200F, big brother of the Onyx 400F (reviewed in PAR June 2007) has finally arrived on the scene after being introduced at the October 2005 AES show. At first glance, the $1599 (street price) 1200F is a FireWire audio interface with 12 mic inputs, but there’s much more when you look behind the front panel: a whopping 30 independent input channels and 34 output channels.

Features

The Onyx 1200F offers 12 high-quality Mackie Onyx mic preamps, which share XLR Combo jacks with line inputs; 16 ADAT Optical, and stereo digital AES/EBU or S/PDIF comprise the input list. The assortment of output channels is only slightly different; eight balanced analog, 16 ADAT optical, an AES/EBU or S/PDIF pair, and four stereo headphone outputs. There are two MIDI inputs and outputs, word clock in and out, pre-A/D inserts on analog inputs one and two, and analog inputs 11 and 12 can be switched to high-impedance instrument jacks on the front. Whew! It’s all housed in a single, two-rack space, solid-steel box, it’s 24-bit throughout, and supports sample rates up to 192 kHz.

The 1200F also integrates 17 32-input DSP mixers and comprehensive (and some not so comprehensive) routing capabilities. In describing the 1200F, I’m reminded of the late-night TV commercial: It dices! It slices! It mixes! But wait! There’s more! Let’s have a look at the details …

The main attraction for many will be the dozen Onyx mic preamps. Channels 1 and 2 have balanced insert points between the mic preamp and A/D converter configured as a pair of normalled TRS jacks. Four TOSLink connectors provide 16 ADAT Optical I/O channels at 44.1/48 kHz and eight channels at 88.2/96 kHz using the S/Mux ADAT protocol extension.

The eight balanced analog outputs are on a 25-pin D-subminiature connector (TASCAM wiring), each fed from its own mixer. A single front-panel volume control adjusts all eight simultaneously, handy when using those outputs to feed a surround monitoring system. For other applications, this master analog output level control can be bypassed with a button, sending full level to all eight outputs.

Individual front-panel volume controls are provided for the stereo control room monitor outputs and front-panel headphone jacks. A button or footswitch selects between two pairs of rear-panel control room output jacks to accommodate main and alternate speakers. Talkback to the headphone outputs is accommodated by an XLR mic input with a front-panel on/off switch and volume control.

Each analog input channel has a gain control, mic/line switch, and phantom power switch with an indicating LED. Front-panel level monitoring is via 12 4step LED meters.

The A/D converter reaches 0 dBFS at the same point that the analog input stage reaches clipping, so the top red LED—really, no foolin’—means clipping. The LED meters can also be switched to display digital output levels and the input level to each of the headphone amplifiers. Higher resolution metering is available on the software console, but the front-panel LEDs will keep you out of trouble if you’re careful to keep them in the green or orange range.

Clock source and sample rate can be selected from the software control panel or from the front panel when not connected to a computer, with LEDs to indicate the current settings.

The 1200F features a worldwide power supply (100-240 VAC, 5060 Hz) with both a US and European power cord supplied. Two parallel FireWire connectors allow daisy chaining of other FireWire devices which, with the latest firmware version, can be a second Onyx 1200F or a 400F.

Due to FireWire streaming rate limitations, only 16 inputs and 16 outputs are allowed at 88.2/96 kHz, or eight of each at 176.4/192 kHz. Input and output limits are counted independently, so at 192 kHz, you can’t, for example, use all 12 mic inputs even though you need only one stereo headphone or control room output.

The software console consists of one setup page and 17 pages of mixers. On a PC, it’s installed along with the drivers. On a Mac (which requires no additional drivers), the console is installed directly. Tabs along the top and bottom edges of the screen select the Settings window or one of the mixers. It looks complicated at first, but it’s pretty easy to navigate.

The left-hand pane of the Settings window selects the sample rate, clock source, the active stereo digital input (AES/EBU or S/PDIF—both outputs are always live) and its channel status bit format (Professional or Consumer), the source for the Control Room outputs, and the ASIO buffer size. The right-hand pane is for selecting the active inputs and outputs when operating at higher sample rates. The mixer can be disabled, turning the 1200F into a straight FireWire I/O interface with 30 inputs and 34 outputs available to the DAW program.

There are 17 stereo mixer “layers,” one for each output pair, with 30 input channels and a DAW return pair for each mixer. Mixer controls are limited to level faders, pan sliders, and mute, and solo (to the control room outputs) buttons.

The faders have a comfortable working range, though the pan sliders are rather small and touchy. Each input channel has a bar graph level meter adjacent to its fader. The meters are skinny and it takes a sharp eye to read them, but they’re accurate and have a useful ballistic response as well as a “sticky” overload indicator. There’s no provision for copying one mix to another mixer, so each output mix must be created from scratch. Initial setup for a tracking session with several headphone mixes can be time-consuming.

Closing the Console program saves all current settings (both setup and mixes) in the 1200F’s flash memory. When the 1200F is powered up without the computer connected, those settings will be in place. This can be convenient or a nuisance, depending on what you were doing when you shut down and what you’ll be doing when you power up. The intent is to be able to use the 1200F as a standalone mixer, but without the on-screen console, relative levels, panning, and mute status are as-remembered, with mixing control limited to adjustment of the input gains.

Setups can be named, saved as a computer file, and recalled from the software console, making it quick to reset the 1200F if you have several work-in-progress projects or standalone mix configurations.

Fast FactsKey Features
12 excellent-sounding mic preamps (and four more than the average multi-pre box); expandable up to 18 additional I/O channels via ADAT Optical and AES/EBU or S/PDIF digital I/O; two MIDI inputs and outputs; four independent headphone outputs; eight analog outputs with a common volume control for surround monitoring; low latency monitor mixing; dual, switchable control room monitor outputs; talkback to headphones; clock synchronization to word clock, ADAT, S/PDIF, or AES/EBU data stream; BNC word clock input and output

Price
$2,049 list

Contact
Mackie | 800-898-3211 | www.mackie.comThe mic preamp is identical both in sound and circuitry to that of the well-respected Onyx mixers, so there are no surprises here. Quiescent noise at maximum gain with the input terminated with a 150-ohm resistor peaks at around 68 dBFS, typical for this sort of preamp. Wideband EIN measured at the insert output is –128 dBu, which is pretty close to the theoretical maximum. THD+N is below 0.01 percent (my measurement limit) at 35 dB gain. There’s no audible power line frequency hum or buzz.

Frequency response from mic input to monitor out is essentially flat up to half the sample rate, with the low end being about 1.5 dB down at 20 Hz at maximum gain, though it’s only about 0.1 dB down at 20 Hz when running at 30 dB gain. Mic input impedance is 2.4 kilo-ohms. This provides a good match for most of today’s popular transformerless condenser mics, but an SM-57 will sound better with a 500-ohm load, a trick I picked up from experimenting with input impedance switch on a Mackie 800R preamp.

Internal gain structure (preamp gain plus A/D converter sensitivity) is similar to other contemporary mic preamps with digital output; a calm speaking voice a foot away from a typical dynamic mic won’t hit 0 dBFS even at full gain, but sensitivity is completely adequate for typical studio applications such as close miking of acoustic instruments and vocals, or distant miking of drums, orchestra, or choir. With exception of the high impedance instrument pickup inputs, all analog inputs are differential, and all outputs are single-ended balanced (no signal on the low side). Polarity is preserved throughout.

A/D and D/A conversion employs AKM AK5385 and AK4358 chips, respectively. These are mid-range chips in a high-grade product line and the 1200F’s performance, end to end, is excellent. Mixing is done with a DSP chip, and an FPGA chip handles the routing tasks. The box isn’t crowded, and the circuit boards and chassis are nicely laid out, but there’s a lot of circuitry and firmware here.

In Use

The 1200F uses the standard Core Audio drivers in Macintosh OS X 10.3.9 or newer, while Windows requires installing a Mackie driver. The installation procedure, including installing the software console, is straightforward. After a bit of poking around to get the feel of the console, I plugged in some mics and started listening.

The preamps are clean and quiet, with no obvious coloration, but the input gain knobs are rather touchy. With about half of their 60 dB gain adjustment range occurring in the last 90 degrees of rotation, optimizing gain with low output mics or quiet sources is fiddly. The gain knobs feel wobbly, and at the top of the range, the gain can jump a dB or by just touching the knob.

Other controls worked and felt fine, though turning the Analog Output level control rapidly produces a curious echo-y zipper noise on the monitored signal. The high-impedance (1 M-ohm) instrument inputs sounded excellent on both a guitar and a bass, with plenty of headroom, good clarity, and no unexpected hum or buzz.

I wanted to see how close the 1200F’s internal mixer could get to the functionality of tracking with a real console. My dream was to emulate a split console, with the 1200F’s mixer serving as the “input” part of the monitor mix and the DAW’s mixer representing the “tape returns.” It sort of worked, but it would take some getting used to, and I’m not sure this is the optimum dream.

The 1200F has many signal paths, some of which are (virtually) hard-wired; this can sometimes make things more complicated than they should be. Take headphone mixes for example; each headphone output has its own dedicated mixer, and each mixer has its own dedicated pair of DAW returns to bring recorded tracks into the mix. Headphone Mix #1 uses DAW outputs 25-26, Headphone Mix #2 uses DAW outputs 27-28, and so on. If you want four headphone mixes (or even if you want to send the same headphone mix to each of the four headphone jacks) you need four stereo auxiliary sends on each of your DAW’s tracks to get a mix of those tracks into the 1200F mixer.

At times, having independent mixes of the recorded tracks is important, for example when overdubbing a group of players. But more often than not—and particularly when tracking a band together—a single mix (which could be as simple as a click track) will satisfy everyone in the studio. It would be nice to be able to use the same stereo DAW output in more than one 1200F mixer. Since you have full control over the inputs (which are available in every mix) you could easily give each player a basic mix of recorded tracks plus “more me,” which is usually what’s requested during tracking.

Setting up a mix with the on-screen faders is fairly quick, though the pans are a bit finicky and don’t follow the “constant power” law, common to Mackie’s mixers. What’s missing, however, is channel equalization. With a conventional console, you can easily brighten the rhythm guitar in the headphones while recording the track flat (to make final EQ decisions later), but there’s no provision for doing that in the 1200F mixer. Should you want to add reverb to a monitor mix while tracking, you’ll probably have enough outputs so that you can use one mixer as a reverb send, though if you’re using all the mic inputs, you might come up short finding a return input. Since many FX units today have digital I/O, this might be a good application for the 1200F’s AES/EBU or S/PDIF connections.

One of the touted features of the 1200F is its ability to function as a standalone mixer when not connected to a computer. With only the input trims to adjust the balance between inputs, and the routing and panning fixed by what was saved when it was last shut down, its flexibility is rather limited.

Product PointsPlus

  • Sounds great – mic preamps, A/D, D/A
  • Lots of inputs and outputs of many flavors
  • Input routing is highly flexible

Minus

  • Reduced I/O capacity above 48 kHz sample rate
  • DAW returns have dedicated assignments
  • Mixer latency may cause problems for vocalists

Score
The 1200F is for the serious DAW user, particularly in the working environment with a separate studio and control room. For the small project studio, it may be overkill.It’s hard to talk about digital recording without mentioning latency. Computer latency is largely dependent on how large a sample buffer is required for glitch-free operation. The 1200F’s driver can be set to buffer between 32 and 2048 samples, but your particular system might need more. The modest 1.3 GHz Pentium laptop I used for most of my testing needed an ASIO buffer setting of 96 samples (about 2 milliseconds worth at 44.1 kHz) for clickless playback of an eighttrack project. Naturally, your mileage will vary.

Since input monitoring during tracking is an important feature, let’s take a look at the latency of the monitor path. The 1200F manual uses the phrase “zero latency,” but it really isn’t. (Other Mackie publications more accurately describe it as “low latency.”) There’s delay through the A/D and D/A converters, plus some time is required for DSP number-crunching in the mixer. A trip from mic in to line or headphone out takes just under 3 milliseconds at 44.1 kHz. Doubling the sample rate cuts that delay in half, suggesting that nearly all of the monitor latency is a function of the digital filters in the A/D and D/A converter chips.

Most players won’t be thrown off by a 3 ms delay, but vocalists might have a different problem. The delayed sound of your voice in the headphones arrives at your eardrum at a slightly different time as the direct sound from your vocal cords. When added together, there will be phase cancellation at certain frequencies. The singer’s voice will sound fine on the control room monitors and in everyone else’s headphones, but it might sound odd in the singer’s own headphones. Some singers find this bothersome, some don’t notice or can ignore it, and others turn up the phones volume so the electronic signal swamps out the acoustic one and the comb filter nulls become negligible. During my preamplifier testing, my voiceover subject asked me if the mic was in the wrong position when she first heard herself from the 1200F’s headphone output.

I used my Mackie 800R preamp to check out the 1200F’s ADAT optical input, comparing the sound of a mic connected to the 1200F with the same mic connected to the 800R. Since they use the same mic preamp circuit and A/D converter chips, I expected the sound to be essentially identical through both paths, but it wasn’t. The high end sounded slightly harsher through the 1200F. As a sanity check, I connected an analog output of the 800R to the 1200F through an Insert input. Now the two preamps sounded identical.

Q: What can make a digital interface less than perfect?

A: Clocking.

For my initial ADAT input check, I had set the 1200F to synchronize its word clock from the incoming ADAT stream. Returning to the ADAT connection between the 800R and 1200F, I set the 1200F to internal word clock, the 800R to external word clock, and used the 1200F’s BNC word clock output to sync the 800R. Now, the mic sounded identical through either preamp. This tends to support the lore that deriving a clock signal from an incoming ADAT optical stream isn’t quite as robust as a direct word clock connection. Since I rarely use ADAT I/O, I can’t vouch for the quality of the cables lying around the shop, but this illustrates the importance of good digital connections or at least a reason to question them if something doesn’t sound right.

There’s something here for everybody … almost. But there are some things I’d like to see done a little differently. Here are some of my thoughts:

Talkback goes only to the headphone outputs. It would be nice if it also went to the FireWire outputs for slating tracks. The ability to copy and paste between mixers would be a real timesaver, allowing you to use one mix as a template for others. Along the same line, rather than having each mixer’s DAW returns hard-wired to a specific pair of FireWire streams, I’d like to be able to select the DAW outputs used in each mix. If only one mix of the recorded tracks is required, there’s no need to send multiple copies of it back through the FireWire stream. And along those same lines, being able to bring more than one DAW stem mix into each mixer (for example, drums) would be welcome.

I couldn’t come up with a good reason to use a foot switch for swapping between the two sets of control room monitors, but a switch to turn the monitor mix on or off in the second set of monitor jacks would be handy. The alternate monitor jacks could then feed a set of speakers in the studio so the musicians could hear the playback without coming into the control room.

Since not all inputs and outputs are available at higher sample rates, having the deselected channels grayed out on the mixer screen would reduce confusion.

Finally, and this is strictly personal thing, but I found the concept of a switching among a bunch of similar-looking mixers to be confusing. I’d rather see a more conventional mixer layout with the various outputs controlled by traditional “send” controls on a single screen.

Summary

The 1200F is a great-sounding FireWire interface priced at less than you’d expect to pay for a dozen pro-quality mic preamps. With the monitor mixer, four headphone amplifiers, and expansion via two sets of ADAT Optical I/O and stereo digital ports, two MIDI inputs and outputs, plus a full version of Mackie’s Tracktion 3 DAW software, and you have the basis for a very sophisticated recording system. With the 1200F’s versatility, it would fit nicely either in a one-room personal studio or a traditional studio and control room setup.

There’s a lot to the 1200F, and it deserves a detailed application guide in addition to the fairly basic manual. While many individual users may be initially attracted to the 1200F simply for its large number of inputs, it really doesn’t show its full colors until you start recording the whole band, giving everyone a custom headphone mix while tracking, and then mixing the project in surround.