Small Object Of Desire
Mackie Designs 1202 Mixer
This compact, inexpensive mixer boasts an impressive audio specification and offers a host of applications.
Little larger than a box of chocolates, this cost-effective mixer combines unusually sophisticated circuit design with down-to-earth, solid engineering. Paul White finds a gap in his studio he didn't know he had.
For a company with only two key products in their current portfolio (though others are due imminently), Mackie have quickly established a reputation for building well-designed, well-engineered products at surprisingly low prices. The company is based in Seattle, the home of the Boeing Aircraft Corporation, and the prevalence of highly efficient engineering contractors in the area must help, though the initial design shows innovation both in terms of circuit design and mechanical construction.
The 1202 under review is a general purpose 12-channel mixer — but not as we know it (Jim). In fact it has four mono channels and four stereo channels, which adds up to 12 signal paths but only eight sets of channel controls. The four mono channels are fitted with very high quality, balanced mic inputs which, unusually on a mixer of this size, are equipped with phantom power. All the controls are rotary pots — a measure necessary to conserve space — and the main signal connections are on the top panel for ease of use. Bargraph metering is provided for the main stereo output, and a tape return facility allows the monitoring of a stereo tape machine without repatching.
Mechanically, the mixer is extremely rugged; the rigid steel chassis is finished in an attractive metallic enamel and has an extrusion along the front edge to break up the austere lines of the flat, steel panels. Power is directly from the mains via an IEC socket — no annoying power adaptors — and a single circuit board construction is used to minimise the number of internal connections and to reduce building costs.
It doesn't take long to tour the controls of the 1202, as there aren't that many, but this doesn't imply that it is any way a trivial product — on the contrary, a lean, mean signal path is good news when it comes to preserving the maximum signal integrity. Because the mono channels and stereo channels are slightly different, it makes sense to explore these separately.
To the left of the mixer are the four mono channels, which are fitted with XLR mic inputs and balanced jack line inputs. The mic input has a gain of 40dB, which, when added to the potential 20dB gain available at the line input, provides up to 60dB of mic gain — a typical figure for a serious mixer. Both the mic and line inputs are active at the same time and may legitimately be used to mix two signals together, with the proviso that there must be some way of controlling the line input level at source. As most electronic instruments and effects units are fitted with output level controls, this should not present a problem, and it could be very useful when you're pushed for inputs.
Global phantom power switching is provided for use with capacitor microphones, and this is to the professional 48V standard. A small gain trim control below the input sockets allows the user to optimise the mic input gain structure, while insert points are fitted to the rear panel in the usual form of stereo jacks. By using a specially made lead or by inserting a normal jack lead halfway, these also double as direct outputs, which is very useful when working with a multitrack. Even though the mixer only has a stereo 'official' output, the direct outs can be used to feed straight into a tape recorder, opening up the possibility of recording more than two signals at a time.
Each channel has two aux send controls which are configured post-fade for use as effects sends. In other words, when the channel gain is turned down, the aux send level also goes down, so the ratio of any added effect always remains the same. Should these need to be used pre-fade, as is the case when they are being used for setting up a cue or foldback mix, a simple internal mod allows the pre/post designation to be switched. These sends have up to 20dB of additional gain in hand which, in practical terms, means that all types of effects units can be accommodated, from semi-pro -10dBv systems to professional +4dBu line levels. Interestingly, the aux send pots have been wired in a way that is the direct opposite of convention, resulting in a marked reduction in mix buss noise. In other words, when the aux send is turned down, its contribution to the mix buss noise also goes down, whereas on traditional designs, it remains constant.
The equaliser is a simple, two-band arrangement offering up to 15dB of cut or boost at 80Hz and 12kHz. In fact, the circuit design of the equaliser is surprisingly sophisticated for a mixer in this price range and sounds unusually smooth and musical. Centre detents are fitted to the controls for accurate centering; this is useful, as EQ bypass buttons are invariably omitted on mixers of this type on the grounds of both space and cost. Finally come the Pan and Gain controls. Pan works in the usual way to move the channel signal between the left and right outputs, while Gain takes the role of the channel fader and controls the signal level. This too has a centre detent at the 'unity gain' position and provides up to 20dB of gain beyond this point to accommodate low signal levels.
The stereo channels are configured in a similar way but have no mic inputs, input trim controls or insert points, and the line inputs are unbalanced. The aux send signals comprise a mono sum of the left and right channel signals, and the pan pot functions as a balance control between the two channel signals. All remaining inputs and outputs are on standard, unbalanced jacks, except for the stereo tape ins and outs in the master section, which are on phonos.
Unlike large multitrack consoles, with their busy and complex master sections, the Mackie 1202 sports just four knobs, two buttons, the masters and a stereo phones jack. It is worth mentioning that the headphone amplifier is both powerful and accurate, something that can't always be said of more expensive mixers, while the ganged master level pot provides enough level to drive professional +4dBu equipment and still leaves a healthy 24dB of headroom. The output jacks are self-switching to work with balanced or unbalanced equipment. It is also possible to feed the headphone output straight into a power amplifier with no problems, which could be useful in some monitoring applications.
Metering is via a pair of three-colour, 12-section LED ladder meters composed of individual LEDs peeping out through holes in the front panel. This is a cost effective approach and, in this case, it also looks tasteful. The meters are calibrated from -30dBu to +22dBu and normally monitor the output level but, to increase their versatility, a switch enables them to monitor the inputs. In Input mode, the left hand meter shows the level of the mix of the four mic inputs, while the right hand meter does the same for all the line inputs. Providing only one mic or line input is checked at a time, this provides a simple and effective means of optimising the gain settings at the start of a session.
Another pleasant surprise is that there are two sets of stereo effects returns, again with Mackie's traditional extra 20dB of available gain, which means that this mixer should be as much at home working with guitar pedal effects as with dedicated studio rack units. Normally, the two effects returns of a stereo pair are routed hard left and right in the mix, but a provision is made for mono use so that if only the left socket is used, the return signal will appear equally on both left and right channels, making it appear to be in the centre. Aux 2 may also be switched to double as a tape input, in which case it is fed from the tape return phonos. This can cause a problem if the tape machine is set to monitor input mode, as a feedback loop is created, with all the howling and screaming that entails. Once you've done it, however, you should know not to do it again!
There are no insert points on the master stereo out, which would have been nice, even though we've no right to expect them on a mixer of this price; there's sufficient panel space for inserts, but whether or not there's room inside the box is another matter.
Surprising though it may be to see so many well-considered features in a low cost mixer, the audio performance of the 1202 is even more of a revelation. Quite simply, this is the quietest mixer in its category, with mic inputs to rival those fitted to desks costing thousands of pounds. The additional gain built into the channels, main outputs and aux sends makes life a lot easier for the musician using an assortment of semi-pro, pro and instrument-level sources, while the simple two-band equaliser works beautifully. Obviously, it doesn't have the scope of a multiband studio equaliser, but for general warming or brightening of sounds, it is fine.
Though not specifically designed with recording in mind, this mixer is close to the ideal for use at the heart of a 4-track recording setup or a MIDI studio. It also works well in conjunction with a larger mixer in the role of instrument or effects submixer, and its small physical size puts it in the frame for location recording or live mixing work. Teamed with a suitable DAT machine and a few good mics, the 1202 should be capable of very professional results, and even though there are only four mic amp channels, the mixer is still cost effective compared to the price of buying two dedicated stereo mic preamps of similar quality. A simple split mic lead would enable three of the mic channels to be used to decode a Middle and Side (MS) microphone pair and, while the theory behind this technique is a little too involved to get into now, we will be covering this vital stereo miking technique in future issues of RM.
In conclusion, I have to say that Mackie have a real winner in the 1202 — it's such a neat little mixer that you're tempted to buy one whether you actually need it or not. There are little criticisms that could be made if the price was a couple of hundred pounds higher, such as the lack of sliders on the channels, the lack of master inserts and the limited number of mic inputs but, seen in context, the features have been chosen to offer the maximum flexibility at the minimum price. In all honesty, I just don't see how they can build these things, ship them half way around the world and then sell them at the price they do and break even, let alone make a profit. It's not often that something so basic as a 12:2 mixer really fires the imagination, but for me, this one does.
Review by Paul White
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