by Craig Anderton
Few products made as much of a splash at Winter 2012 NAMM as the Mackie DL1608. Now, eight months later, it’s finally here—so it’s time to see if it lives up to its promise of merging serious hardware with a zipless user interface. The mixer itself is clearly designed for live performance, which puts additional pressure on the UI to live up to the “ease of use” goal.
In person, the mixer is surprisingly compact—approximately 15.5" x 11.5" x 4". The package includes the mixer itself and various accessories (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The DL1608 package contents. Clockwise from top: the mixer itself, Quick Start guide, iPad lock, additional guide with all the legal boilerplate stuff like “don’t eat the mixer,” and line-lump power supply.
The backward-slanting rear panel has 12 mic/line-level XLR ins, 4 mic/line-level combo jacks to accommodate 1/4" connectors, and six balanced TRS 1/4" send jacks (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: The rear panel is where you make all connections to the mixer.
The two main outs are XLRs. Remaining rear panel features are a power on/off switch, connector for the line-lump power supply, Kensington lock slot, Ethernet to connect to a router for wireless control, and a global phantom power switch that turns on phantom power to all inputs. There’s no way to enable phantom power individually, nor any way to exempt inputs from phantom power; several other Mackie mixers follow the same protocol as a way to meet price point.
The inputs are all teamed with Onyx preamps, whose reputation precedes them. Suffice it to say that the Onyx preamps are known primarily for accuracy, excellent specs, and clarity. They’re not intended to color the sound (and they don’t), but instead are designed with the “straight wire with gain” ethos in mind.
The front panel has 16 gain controls (unity to +60db), each with a bi-color signal present/clip LED (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: Each input has a front panel gain trim control.
There’s also a headphone jack with level control, but the biggest front panel feature is a space to slide in your iPad. The DL1608 can accommodate any iPad from 1st to 3rd generation, and there’s an iPad retainer lock you can screw into the case (security star wrench included) to hold the iPad in place. This is intended mostly for permanent installs, as the iPad is held securely without it. Besides, one of the big features is being able to slip the iPad out of its dock for wireless control, so it’s more likely you’ll leave the lock off rather than on.
And of course, as soon as I turned on the DL1608 I was immediately reminded it’s a digital device—it wanted a firmware update (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4: Updating the firmware was automatic and painless, and took considerably less than the up to 15 minutes Mackie said to expect.
In a nutshell, it’s exceptional. But don’t take my word for it; you can download the free DL1608 app fro the App Store, and run it on your iPad sans mixer to get a feel for how the UI works (of course, the app won’t actually do anything useful without the mixer dock). The iPad is used only for control; all the DSP it controls is hardware within the mixer itself. The screen where you’ll spend the most time shows the faders (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5: The main mixer screen. Note that the Reverb and Delay returns show stereo meters, as the effects are stereo; the input channels are mono.
The master fader is always visible to the right, while swiping the screen scrolls through views of eight channels at a time. This includes inputs 1-16, as well as Reverb and Delay return and iPad output (for playing back sounds from apps that can play in the background—pre-show music, anyone?).
Each channel strip has an EQ thumbnail (touch this to enter signal processor-land), mute button, panpot, gain reduction indicator, fader with 60mm throw and highly readable meters, solo button, and “scribble strip” label. You can enter a name here, as well as select a track icon from among various defaults but you can also choose a photo or use the iPad camera to take a picture. I must say I used to think the concept of track icons was silly when I first saw them, but after using DAWs with track icons, I’ve found them to be hands-down the quickest way to parse tracks fast—this is a great feature in a live performance mixer.
The Master Fader is quite a bit more sophisticated than just controlling a LR stereo output, because in reality, the DL1608 is nine different mixers. The Master Fader has an output selector that chooses among the LR out, the six aux outs, reverb send, and delay send. When you select one of these outputs, all the mixer faders now control the mix to that output. One obvious application is cue mixes, where you can have six separate cue mixes for different musicians by sending the aux outs to individual personal monitors. All these mixes exist simultaneously, so the main LR mix going to the house remains undisturbed to matter how you set the mixes to the other outputs. One very nice touch is each output has an associated color, which is displayed as a small strip along with the faders. Once you memorize which color matches which output, this makes it easy to see which is the currently-selected output.
All Master Fader outs have a Mute button except for the LR out. I can understand why—you don’t want to mute the output accidentally.
Overall, the UI is painless. The targets are relatively large, and it seems like some serious thought went into making the parameters you adjust the most the most accessible, but the other parameters are only a swipe or two away. It will take you 10 minutes tops after setting up the DL1608 to know your way around it.
Each if the 16 input channel strips has the same DSP complement: EQ, noise gate, and compressor. An additional window shows sends for the built-in reverb and delay, but also shows the parameters for these effects. Although aside from sends the reverb and delay parameters are global (i.e., different channels can’t have different reverb algorithms), being able to adjust them from any channel is convenient. Furthermore, the DSP section can swipe left or right if you want to scan through the settings for individual channels without having to return to the mixer and call up the DSP.
The EQ (Fig. 6) has four fully-parametric bands, each of which covers 20Hz to 20kHz, and a high-pass filter (20-700Hz). The upper and low bands can also switch to a shelf response.
Fig. 6: The EQ for each input has five bands—four parametric, and a high-pass filter.
The display shows nodes for each band, so you can drag those around to control amplitude and frequency in addition to using the sliders; dragging nodes gives better frequency resolution, but if you want to set really precise values for various parameters, there’s a numeric readout—touch it to enter values with the iPad’s virtual keyboard. The EQ section is also where you access a polarity reverse button.
The Gate (Fig. 7) has the expected controls: Threshold, Range (reduction amount), Attack, Hold, and Release. The Compressor has Threshold, Ratio (settable to infinity:1 for limiting), Attack, Release, Soft or Hard Knee, and Gain—again, nothing out of the ordinary although the helpful metering shows input level, gain reduction amount, and output level (as does the Gate).
Fig. 7: Gate and compressor parameters.
The Reverb (Fig. 8) actually sounds good, and has nine different algorithms. Parameters are Pre-Delay, Damping, Rolloff, and Decay (up to three seconds).
Fig. 8: The Reverb and Delay parameters are centralized in a single view.
Delay has five algorithms, along with separate tap tempo for the left and right channels (why doesn’t everyone do this?). This applies to the Stereo, Ping-Pong, and Multitap algorithms; the Mono and Tape Echo algorithms are mono, so they have a single tap tempo button. Parameters are delay (up to 1.6 seconds), Feedback, and Damping.
Note that some channels operate differently. The Master output channel has a 31-band graphic EQ, as well as a compressor like the one used for the input channels; these effects are available for all the Master Fader outs except for the Reverb and Delay sends. Also, the Auxes have a pre/post effects button.
The Reverb and Delay returns don’t have Dynamics or Gate, while the iPad playback channel has all DSP except Gate. EQ for the Delay, Reverb, and iPad channels do not include the high-pass filter. Also note that you can’t send reverb into delay or vice-versa, which I assume was done to prevent Horrible Live Sound Feedback Accidents.
To manage all these effects, the DL1608 makes excellent use of presets (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9: Presets make it easy to set up points of departure for individual effects, or complete channel strips.
While you’re on a particular processor, you can access existing presets for that processor or create your own; you can also recall and create input channel presets. Furthermore, you can take snapshots of the entire mixer status.
One of the features filed under “way cool” is that you can record the mixer L/R output as a WAV file within the app, and retrieve it via iTunes (Fig. 10). How’s that for ease of use with live recording?
Fig. 10: Click the record button below the master fader—instant live recording.
You can control the DL1608 wirelessly, although you’ll need a router (not included). In this particular case, “it just worked.” I plugged the DL1608’s Ethernet connection into an Apple Airport Express router, set up the iPad to talk to it, opened the app, and . . . nothing happened. Turns out that Apple Bonjour takes a while to recognize devices, but once that was taken care of, all was well.
In case you’re not aware of the advantages of wireless mixer control, they’re considerable. Probably the most obvious one is to walk around the room and tweak the output 31-band graphic EQ to “ring out” out a room. (One detail: note that to play back music from the iPad, it needs to connect physically to the dock. If you want to use pre-recorded music to ring out a room, you’ll need something like an MP3 or CD player plugged into a mixer input, use a second iPad, or have the band playing—which would be the ideal scenario.)
However, you’re not limited to a single iPad; up to ten iPads can control the mixer, which means musicians can tweak any of their processing on a per-song basis without having to make a trip back to the mixer, and do their own monitor mixes remotely. This is especially relevant due to the six aux outputs that make it easy to set up monitor mixes.
Having spent some quality time with DigiTech’s iPB-10, I was already convinced of the efficacy of teaming an iPad with a hardware dock to allow for gorgeous, touch screen control over some serious hardware. At that point, the question then becomes how good is the hardware, and how good were the designers at making a transparent UI. In both respects, the DL1608 hits the target. Mackie’s mixers and Onyx preamps are certainly a known quantity, and the DL1608—iPad novelty aside—is indeed a real Mackie mixer.
As to the UI, it’s easy to find your way around. I also appreciate that the graphics are nice and big; the buttons and faders are easy targets. Given that Mackie markets this as a live performance mixer, one would expect it to be easy to operate it without requiring serious dexterity; the DL1608 does not disappoint.
My biggest complaint is the global phantom power. If all you’re using is a mix of dynamic and condenser mics, this isn’t an issue. But throw some DI outs or ribbons mics into the mix, and either you need to get rid of the condensers and turn off phantom, or forget about the DI outs and ribbons. I would also like to have seen more use of combo jacks, as with that addition, the DL1608 would make an incredible keyboard rig mixer. It still does, but you’ll need to deal with adapters to get from the typical 1/4" keyboard outs to XLRs once you’ve used up the four combo jacks. Also note there’s no instrument jack, but I don’t consider that an issue—really, who plugs a guitar directly into a mixer? Odds are there’s going to be a pedalboard, wireless receiver, or multieffects output going into the mixer.
As to the major advantages, I think the three biggies are the Onyx preamps, onboard DSP, and wireless control. Having quality EQ, dynamics, reverb, and delay onboard is not only convenient, but they’re about easy to access as possible given that this isn’t an analog mixer with a one-knob-per-parameter design. The wireless control is obviously a huge deal when setting up, but also is especially useful for controlling individualized monitor mixes.
Other advantages are the compact size—it looks bigger in the ads than it really is—as well as the ergonomic layout, with the connections being simultaneously out of the way and readily accessible. The ability to set up multiple mixes may not be a big surprise but is still appreciated, and despite being digital/menu-driven, again Mackie has optimized the iPad UI to make selecting and editing the various mixes as easy as possible.
So yes—the DL1608 does indeed justify the buzz it got at NAMM, and by using the iPad, you save bucks compared to needing a mixer with a built-in touch screen and the “glue” to run it. The DL1608 isn’t just a one-off “cool product”; it proves the viability of live mixing by combining an iPad with pro audio hardware.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.