Born In The USA
Mackie CR1604 Mixer
The mixer market is dominated by British manufacturers, with a range of Japanese designs also popular in MIDI setups. However, a new American compact mixer offers impeccable audio quality, and outstanding features and value that look hard to beat. Dave Lockwood welcomes the newcomer.
The Mackie Designs CR1604 is an extremely compact (19" rackmounting) 16-channel stereo audio mixer, with a unique chassis which can be very easily re-configured for optimal rack-mounting or stand alone usage. This trick is achieved by means of the connector/power supply housing, which forms the upper part of the structure; you can remove it and re-orientate it so that the connectors either face backwards or upwards (or even directly to the rear, when racked).
Detachable connector panels for rack-mount mixers are not new, but seldom have I seen the concept executed with such efficiency and elegance, the all-steel frame remaining rigid in either configuration. Something about its compact dimensions and simple, practical styling makes the Mackie CR1604 extremely attractive from the outside. More impressive still, however, are the heavyweight features inside, for this is a no-compromise design when it comes to audio performance.
Although the name may be entirely unfamiliar to UK readers, the desk's designer, Greg Mackie, has a long and impressive personal pedigree with a number of respected US audio manufacturers. This creation will certainly ensure that he is soon held in equally high esteem in this country.
Compact desks too often seem to be conceived as either 'keyboard mixers', where a high quality low-level front-end seems to be deemed unnecessary, or 'purist signal path' designs, which tend to be devoid of too many features that 'the real world' simply demands. The CR1604 sits exactly in the void between these concepts; it has plenty of channels (16 main, plus four stereo returns), decent EQ, access to seven auxes, a fader on every input, yet it also has mic amps that you can use in the most demanding applications. Add to this an excellent headroom and noise spec, and you have quite an attractive proposition.
This is a desk that I would quite happily take on a demanding location recording session, yet it would be equally at home submixing my MIDI gear. The extensive and very well thought out routing and patching facilities would even allow it to be used in a small multitrack recording set-up without too much difficulty.
Each of the 16 channels has a compact (50mm), but pleasantly smooth fader, pan control, 3-band fixed EQ, plus four aux pots. There is no EQ bypass, but all three controls are centre-detented for easy zeroing. The facility is of course less essential with a simple EQ, but I must say I miss it all the same. EQ offers +/-12dB at 80Hz and 12kHz, with a mid-band operating at 2.5kHz (+/-15dB). Notice that Mackie has shifted just a little higher and lower from the traditional 100Hz/10kHz set-up, to some operational advantage I feel. Mid-band 'Q', quoted at 3.3 octaves, is broad enough to be used in creative ways without destroying signal integrity.
Subjectively, the EQ stage is effective, but with a light touch; it does not impose itself on the sound but modifies it, leaving its original character intact. If you need to bring about a fundamental change, either for a special effect or because there is something seriously wrong with the original signal, this is not really the EQ for the job. You will either have to use an external EQ or sort it out at source. This is a very compact desk after all; I think this EQ does the right things to a high standard, and I would certainly be happy to work with it on its own terms.
Auxsend 1 is switchable (individually per channel) between conventional post-fade (post EQ) effects send usage and pre-fade monitor duties. Unusually, and typical of the operational detail of this product, there are separate outputs for the two facilities, enabling some channels to be monitored whilst others access an effect via their Aux 1 controls. Aux 2 is a dedicated postfade send best reserved for any effect which you want all channels to be able to access (such as your main reverb), for the other auxes are switchable. 3 and 4 can be 'shifted' to 5 and 6, accessing a different pair of outputs. Shifting auxes is always a compromise, but in view of the compact dimensions of the desk, and the fact that there are six (seven if you count the monitor separately!) to begin with, this is a pretty impressive line-up.
The aux pots are all centre-detented, offering a range of -60dB to unity gain up to the centre position, and then a further 20dB of gain in the second half of the rotation. Often, with a post-fade send from a channel where the fader is low, it can be difficult to generate enough level to adequately drive the input of the effects device. Traditionally channel aux sends deliver unity gain at the maximum setting, with additional gain available at the aux master stage.
The Mackie has no aux masters, so whilst the 'Unity Plus' auxiliary operation is a feature, it is also, in practice, an operational necessity. The absence of an aux master means that if you run out of headroom at the input to an effect, you will have to either trim the unit's own input gain (watch out for clipping the front-end pre-level control) or alter all the sends feeding that processor individually, possibly losing their relative balance in the process.
The number of aux sends deserves a generous allocation of return channels; the CR1604 offers four stereo returns, with Level and Pan controls and switching to individually mono each stereo pair. The additional gain available on these inputs allows them to interface comfortably with low-level outputs from semi-pro gear. You could even dedicate a pair to 2-track replay, provided you take due precautions to prevent a loop situation arising. Monoing all the returns creates another eight line inputs in an emergency, with the Pan control governing the relative balance of the two sources on each level pot. You will be stuck with a centre perspective, but it will get you out of trouble.
The channel Pan pot is a true constant power configuration, maintaining subjectively equal loudness whether the signal is placed centrally or coming from just one side. This is an apparently small point that will doubtless leave many users entirely unmoved, but those with an eye for detail will appreciate it; this design will not be out of place in serious professional recording and broadcasting environments.
Unusually, the channel faders are also notched. Unity gain is found at the centre of their short travel, with 20dB of gain above this rather than the more usual 10dB. Notable by its absence from the channel line-up, however, is an input gain control. These are actually located on the connector panel. This is neither compromise nor cosmetics. The CR1604 is intended to be used in a slightly different way to most other desks, one which is actually simpler and perhaps less open to error for the non-technical than the conventional method, in my opinion. To optimise the gain structure of the Mackie on any input you simply set the gain trim to the position that nominally matches the output of the source, and park the fader at unity. If you are using line level sources of known or predictable level, that is probably all you need to do. The 20dB of gain available on the fader frequently obviates the need to return to the gain control at all. Optimum microphone signal sensitivity, inevitably less controlled and predictable, can be similarly pre-set with the aid of the metering, via the solo facility (there is also an overload warning LED on every channel, using multi-point detection).
That little exercise is what the technical side of mixing is all about; optimising the gain structure of the desk, ensuring that no unnecessary amplification or attenuation is used, which would inevitably compromise either headroom or noise. You don't need to know anything about the actual circuit topology of Unity Plus operation to appreciate it in operation, but it's probably nice to have a basic understanding the concept; in summary, it configures each level control to adjust the gain of an individual amplifier stage. When a control is set to minimum, noise from that stage is therefore drastically reduced. Think about that all over the desk, and you will begin to see the point. Of course there are other ways of achieving low-noise operation, but they are more complex and inevitably cost more to implement. This is elegantly simple, and with every stage presenting less noise to the mix bus, a 10dB improvement in overall noise level is claimed.
Another really neat feature of the Mackie is the 'Mute/Alt 3/4' switching provided on every channel. Instead of a conventional mute circuit the design simply incorporates a second pair of main output busses. Flipping a channel from the main to the secondary bus, when it is not actually connected to anything, naturally achieves muting! However, these outputs are also available as busses for tape sends in a small 4 or 8-track set-up. Incorporating this extra bit of flexibility, so simple in concept and execution, yet so far-reaching in its practical implication, was a master-stroke, considerably extending the potential of this desk for this type of usage. Of course there have always been plenty of ways of squeezing multitrack sends out of basically stereo desks when necessary, via auxes and direct outs etc, but this is far more elegant and intuitive in use. Among the master facilities is a switch designated 'Alternate Preview', which allows 'muted' channels (assigned to 'Alternate Outputs 3 and 4') to be monitored separately via the headphone circuit.
The channel Solo facility is a true stereo solo-in-place, and although there are no solo-safes on the returns, they can be soloed collectively themselves. All that is required for full 'solo in position with effects' is simultaneous use of the appropriate two solos; an excellent facility for a desk at this level of the market. Solo-in-place is normally a destructive operation, taking out all the other program paths. Here you get a choice; the Solo to Main switch determines whether you solo into the stereo bus, or just the headphones, in which case the main bus remains unaffected — another thoughtful touch. The Solo/Phones circuit has its own level control, a fader placed alongside the separate Left and Right main pair. The feed to this output is taken before the master faders however, so whilst the phones circuit is clean and quiet enough to be used to drive a monitoring amplifier, you would not hear a fade in this configuration. Perhaps that is my one operational gripe; I would have liked 'pre/post master faders' to have been a switchable option when monitoring main outs. There is plenty of headphone level, certainly more than I could ever comfortably use, coming from what sounds like an above average quality headphone amplifier stage; there is an effortlessness about it compared to the rather strained output of some systems.
A Main Output Mute, which also leaves the headphones active, is provided. Level metering is via a pair of 10-segment peak-reading LED columns, calibrated -20 to +4dB in green, with a yellow at +8dB, and a red 'clip' indicator. 0VU corresponds to an unbalanced 0dBu (0.775V) output, with the balanced level conventionally some 6dB higher than indicated.
The connector panel is a separate housing, bolted just above the main control surface. There are 16 gain controls, setting channel sensitivity. Although small, the pots still feel like precision components, and they can be manipulated comfortably and sufficiently accurately. There are high quality balanced mic amps, using XLRs (with global 48V phantom switching), on the first six channels only. These channels also have balanced (auto-unbalancing) line inputs on 1/4" jacks. The other 10 channels offer only unbalanced 1/4" jack line inputs. Pursuing the 'separate chassis block' concept of the Mackie still further, if more mic amps are needed you can purchase an additional bank of 10 in the form of the logically named 'XLR10'. This bolts-on securely (with no wiring necessary beyond connecting a small multipin block) next to the existing connector panel, whether it is orientated upwards or backwards, and it carries another 10 gain controls for the new inputs (which feed channels 7 to 16). Surprisingly, the line inputs on channels 7 to 16 still work when the XLR10 is connected, so I suppose you could, at a pinch, operate both together, balancing the signals via their separate gain controls. This nominally 16 into two design can actually combine 34 sources into four outputs in this configuration (16 mic sources, 10 line sources from the 'doubled' inputs, plus eight returns; main and alternate outputs used)! 48V Phantom switching on the XLR10 is again global.
These are no ordinary mic amps either. They are a rather nice pad-less discrete component design, with extremely low noise throughout the gain range, and a subjective transparency to match many stand-alone esoteric mic amps I have heard. They are audibly superior to those found in many compact consoles, and coupled to the low-noise high-headroom performance of the desk as a whole, make for a very classy sounding system indeed, worthy of the highest quality microphones, but capable of wringing the best possible performance from lesser models.
The first eight channels feature insert points (tip-send/ring-return stereo jacks), which can also be used as direct outputs for multitrack recording, by inserting a jack only to the ring circuit. Inserts on all 16 would obviously have been preferable purely from a convenience point of view, but the practical limitation is, in fact, almost negligible. You would rarely use more than 50% of channels with inserts, and in such a small system you can easily swap sources around if a signal that requires processing appears in the wrong block. The stereo bus has an insert pair, and also a mono output. All jack connectors are high quality metal types, securely panel-mounted (no direct-to-PCB mountings to fail under the strain of frequent usage here!).
This is a lot of mixer for the money. If it were only half as good, or twice the price, I think it might still be an attractive proposition. The high quality audio performance sets it apart a little from much of the potential competition. Compromises and omissions there certainly are; there have to be in a desk of this size. There is no integral talkback, no on-board oscillator, and no specific 2-track return facility. That is fine by me, as they are all things I am content to take care of externally. I am quite happy to trade them off for something you can't see, namely mix summing amp headroom. If you stay within the gain rules, then it doesn't seem to matter what you throw at it, this desk remains clean. It doesn't clip, it doesn't squash and it doesn't start losing transparency as you add elements to the mix.
I found the CR1604 a delight to use; it has a quality feel to it. Pots (all sealed types) and faders (solidly engineered units, with P & G-type wide tops) are smooth and consistent, and the whole build quality inspires confidence in longevity and reliability. As a non-modular design, access for servicing is limited without major disassembly, although the high-grade components seemingly used throughout just might reduce the need for routine maintenance, for things such as noisy pots, to practically nil.
Fader resolution is obviously very limited; you are covering unity gain to infinity attenuation in an inch! In some applications however, this will not present a problem. Many MIDI systems are now entirely software-mixed, so the faders never have to move once the initial balance is set. Location recording work, even when multi-miked, tends not to require any drastic moment-to-moment rebalancing like a multitrack mix, only the odd fader-ride. I do miss the resolution of a long-throw fader on the master outputs however, for smooth fade-outs. Fading through the 'unity notch' if you are starting off from above it is not that easy either; a certain amount of downward pressure was the best method I could find of smoothing-out the crossing in the middle of a fade. It just might have been better to have been content with merely a unity marking and to have left the notch off the master faders.
Infinity attenuation (how quiet a signal is with the fader all the way down) is not specified, but I encountered no practical limitations during testing. Inter-circuit crosstalk is at acceptable levels throughout the system, and inter-channel crosstalk seems particularly low.
There is probably no such thing as a typical user of any product, but here are a couple of outline profiles to consider in the context of the potential market for this desk: at one extreme, the MIDI system operator, often working from home, principally requires a decent number of channels in a compact frame size, but above all, a lot of signal routing versatility and plenty of auxiliaries. Perhaps at the other end of the recording spectrum is the location recordist, who may border on the 'purist' in outlook, using simple mic techniques, seeking a rugged yet high-spec compact desk, above all with high quality mic amps. Previously, I don't think those two could have bought the same desk. They might now. Between those two poles lie many more applications; sub-mixer for larger systems, keyboard mixer, sound-reinforcement/PA mixer for mobile use or installations. I doubt if the Mackie would disappoint in any of those applications.
The one omission I have not yet mentioned is that there is no MIDI muting. Apart from simple cost factors, I think its absence from this model actually makes sense: MIDI muting is at its most valuable with large MIDI systems, shutting down inoperative channels to prevent cumulative noise build-up, and also with tape systems, where it adds a degree of non-destructive editing. I think the CR1604 will be employed in a lot of different ways, but multitrack users will be in a minority, and 16 channels is within the realms of an inherently 'noise-manageable' system size.
I really liked this compact desk; I appreciate all the little bits of insightful design that serve to help rather than frustrate whatever you are trying to achieve, and expand the desk's versatility without expanding its dimensions. With the limited bussing arrangements, it is perhaps not easy to recommend it for use in a multitrack context, other than for the user with plenty of previous experience, who will know exactly what non-standard procedures and compromises he is committing himself to. For anybody else shopping in this area of the market, the Mackie Designs CR1604 has put down quite a marker for the competition to measure up to.
Mackie CR1604 £799 inc VAT.
XLR10 (10 extra mic amps) £289 inc VAT.
Rotopod (Adaptor for rotating connectors) £69.75 inc VAT.
Key Audio Systems, (Contact Details).
Review by Dave Lockwood
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