Mackie Designs CR1604 Mixer
One of the nerve centres of any studio is its mixing desk - but how do you choose a mixer which is both affordable and expandable? Tim Goodyer discovers a desk which is built to last and to grow - and cost very little.
If the beauty of a MIDI-based music setup is its ability to meet changing requirements, it's a beauty that's been sadly missing from most affordable mixing desks. Until now.
The trend of major manufacturers of mixing desks producing "budget" desks to appeal to the growing home/pre-production studio market is now well established. Companies such as DDA, with their Interface, Soundcraft, with their Spirit and Soundtracs, with their Solo, represent "affordable quality" in mixers. Understandably, the desks arising from this marketing direction have attracted considerable attention from musicians and press alike, pushing long-standing affordable desk designs like Studiomaster's Pro-Line and Mixdown out of the limelight somewhat. The arrival of a new manufacturer of budget desks, however, may help redirect our attention.
American company Mackie are the newcomers in question. They're not here to tell you how long their more upmarket desks have been favoured by "name" producers or how the design of their budget desk is derived from the mega-expensive circuitry of one of the upmarket leaders. Instead they're here with a clean slate and a refreshingly realistic attitude to cost-effective mixing desks. And they've come up with some remarkable ideas.
Let's not pretend that the basic Mackie CR1604 is going to be snapped up by any major recording studios - it has the home studio first timer and the MIDI maniac firmly in its sights. But this modest 16-into-four desk will allow you to expand it to accommodate some 48 line ins and 16 balanced mic ins with 12 stereo effects returns, 24 direct outs and MIDI muting - without the usual complication and compromise of cascading one submix into another.
It's nice to know you're buying a piece of gear which isn't destined to appear in MT's Readers' Ads in six months' time.
The basic building block of the Mackie system is the CR1604 16:4 mixer. This boasts 16 inputs (six mic on XLR sockets, ten line on unbalanced jacks), and two stereo output pairs. Each input channel is equipped with four aux sends, three-band EQ (±15dB/80Hz; ±12dB/2.5kHz; ±15dB/12kHz), a pan pot, solo button, Mute/Alt button (which removes the signal from the main stereo output and redirects it to an alternative stereo output pair) and a 5cm-throw channel fader. The master section of the desk hosts four aux return level and pan pots, mono buttons for the aux returns, Aux Solo button, LED ladder level meters, Alt Preview button, Main Output Mute button, Solo to Main button, power LED, solo active LED, headphone jack, and master outs and Solo/Phone level on 5cm-throw faders. There's also room for a piece of masking tape under the faders for use as a scribble strip. In the top left-hand corner there is a socket for a gooseneck light.
The overall layout is tidy and compact enough to facilitate mounting in a standard 19" rack should it suit your requirements. To this end, all connections to the CR1604 are made via a special section of the design which allows you to have the sockets as a "conventional" rear panel or on the opposite face of the unit from the controls - so that they are accessible from the rear of your rack. Additionally, you can use Mackie's Rotopod to bring the connections onto the same face as the controls, for maximum accessibility when the mixer is used as a flatbed.
Apart from the power lead (to the internal transformer), this panel houses trim pots for each input channel, a quarter-inch jack for each channel, XLRs for each of the first six input channels (with globally-switchable 48V phantom power), insert points for input channels 1-8 (which can also be used as direct outs if the jack is not fully inserted into the socket), six aux sends, four stereo aux returns, insert point for the main mix, two outs from the "Alt" buss, a mono output from the main stereo mix and a monitor output.
The build quality of the entire unit is solid to say the least. It's heavy (18lb) and sturdy, and you won't find a piece of plastic where a piece of metal will do a better job. You'll be seeing this mixer around in years to come.
"Mackie are here with a clean slate and a refreshingly realistic attitude to cost-effective mixing desks."
The first aspect of the CR1604's operation to consider is whether or not you want to rack it up. If you do, you'll find the necessary mounting lugs included and you'll be faced with your second decision: whether you want the panel surface flush with the front of the rack or recessed to protect the controls. Before you can actually tighten the bolts, you'll also have to decide whether you want the connections to be accessible from the front of the rack (most likely for studio installation) or the back (better for a pre-wired gigging setup).
Connecting the outputs from your synths, samplers and drum machines to the 1604's line inputs and optimising the input gain shouldn't need explanation. Neither should the connection of your effects units to the mixer's effects sends and returns - except to point out that the Mono buttons in the main section are invaluable if you're using anything with a mono output.
One of the main operational considerations depends on whether you want to run it with or without sub-groups. Although you can't really regard the Mackie as having conventional sub-grouping facilities, it is possible to use the Mute/Alt buttons to create a stereo submix within the main stereo mix. When the Mute/Alt button on a channel is pressed, it sends that signal to the alternative stereo output pair on the rear panel. If this pair is patched back into the mixer (either on two of the main input channels or one of the stereo fx returns) this "alternative" mix can be treated as a stereo sub-group. Of course, using two input channels will give you full control over EQ and effects on the sub-group but it will also reduce the 1604's input capacity by two. You might prefer to use a mono submix, requiring only one input channel to be sacrificed. Using the aux returns will mean that you have no EQ or effects operating globally on the submix, and it will mean you have to mix the submix into the main mix on a pot in the top right-hand corner of the desk, rather than on a fader with the rest of the mix.
The alternative mode of operation is running the 1604 with a multitrack. Here you can route any input channel to any of the four output jacks (these can be split between tape inputs if you're running more than four tracks of tape).
Moving on, we come to the effects routings. Aux Send 1 is pre-fade and can be switched between aux buss 1 and the Monitor buss. Send 2 is post-fade and dedicated to aux buss 2. Sends 3 and 4 are also post-fade and may be switched between aux busses 5 and 6 - that is, Sends 3 and 4 can be routed to busses 3 and 4 or 5 and 6. If Send 3 is routed to buss 5, Send 4 is automatically routed to buss 6. The Aux Solo button (in the master section) solos all the aux busses together on the headphone mix. If you want to audition them over your monitors you have also to press Solo to Main.
Similarly, the Alt mix can be routed to the headphone buss with the Alt Preview button in the main section.
"The CR1604 has something of the feel of a Land Rover to it - it was built to be used."
Making more of the CR1604 than a straightforward 16-into-two (or four) mixer is made easy by virtue of Mackie's "bolt-on" extras. The XLR10, for example, will add ten balanced line mic inputs to the six integral to the basic design. Interestingly, these work alongside the channel 7-16 line inputs, effectively adding ten mic inputs to the 1604's facilities - although the mic and line in on channel 10, say, share the same EQ and effects.
The Mixer Mixer may sound like a mild attack of tautology but is actually Mackie's method of expanding the CR1604. This allows the interconnection of three 1604s to give a 48-input, 12-stereo fx return, mixing facility - which can be rack mounted.
MIDI automation is also included in the Mackie Plan, but rather than bog-standard channel muting or prestigious VCA (dynamic) systems found on other desks, this takes the form of resistive network dynamic automation. Consequently you've got full fader automation (and muting) over the desk's input channels, aux returns and master outputs. The automation circuitry is internally-mounted and comes in CR1604-sized blocks so that it's possible to automate anything from a single 1604 up to a three-1604/Mixer Mixer system. Further, the resistive network approach to dynamic automation precludes the problem of "zipper" noise sometimes encountered with coarsely-stepped VCAs.
The CR1604 has something of the feel of a Land Rover to it - it was built to be used. The level of attention paid to every aspect of the desk's design and construction is impressive, as is the overall concept of expandability.
I'd say that the system is little short of ideal for someone starting small but hoping to develop their setup beyond their current horizons and budget. Although other manufacturers claim that expandability tends to be an option that helps sell desks, yet is rarely taken up by its owners, I can readily imagine adding a second CR1604 if I'd invested in a first. And a third if it suited me.
My main criticism of the design rests on the performance of the EQ, which is adequate if a little bland. In the context of a traditional studio, I could imagine adding a couple of carefully-chosen parametrics to my outboard gear. In the context of synths and drum machines, however, the level of control presented by the sound sources themselves tends to leave you either needing very little EQ or bucketloads of it - in which case outboard EQ is almost unavoidable.
If I had reached the point in the development of my MIDI setup at which a mixer had become a necessity, I'd certainly need to see the Mackie before I'd buy anything at all.
Prices CR1604 mixer, £799; Rotopod, £47.49; XLR10, £289; Mixer Mixer, £229. All prices include VAT.
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