As much of a gear-head as I am, you'd think that I would have had a digital audio mixer a long time ago. But, no. I didn't. Until today.
I finally did decide to add a digital audio mixer to my PA system, and I probably would have waited, as I was in greater need of a more powerful main amp and another pair of monitors. But I was offered a price on a Mackie DL1608 that I simply couldn't refuse. The DL1608 will replace a Mackie CFX20-II.
Price aside, I chose to go with the Mackie for its compact size and easy-to-use iOS-based control application. Up to 10 devices can log into the DL1608 via WiFi to control the various main and auxiliary mixes on the console. Every aspect of operation, with the exception of preamp levels, is controlled through the iPad interface. The app, by the way, will run on any iPad ever made. I compared the control app to those offered by Behringer, Presonus (both their older StudioLive and newer StudioLive AI versions), the app for the Allen and Heath QU-series, as well as some lesser-known mixers from Alto (Italy) and Phonic. The Mackie system was the most straight-forward of all the of the control apps I looked at, and it seemed that more thought went into the app design than most of the others. At least one app that was for a mixer that has a hardware interface included offered every option in the mixer as part of the app, including internal patchbay options that really aren't necessary in a live control app -- especially on a mixer that has a dedicated hardware console with built-in touch screen. Those are things you neither need, nor want, to wade through in the heat of the moment during a live show.
There's an amazing amount of power built into this little mixer. The only other mixer in its class that can beat it might be the Behringer X18, assuming it ever ships (the Behringer has been delayed several times since it was originally announced).
The main view of the iPad app is pretty straightforward. There are channel faders, solos, pans, and mutes, as well as a master fader. There are also indicators showing a representation of the channel and main EQ settings, and a few additional options. The "scribble strip" can be easily customized, too, allowing for text and graphics on each channel. My example image shows simple icons, but the could be replaced with actual photos of the performers or instruments, if desired. By the way, those faders are actual 60mm faders on a full-size iPad. On a iPad Mini, they're only 48mm.
Tapping the little EQ graphic at the top of the channel opens the rest of the channel strip for that channel, starting with the EQ section. Once there, you can adjust all the usual EQ (in this case, a 4-band parametric EQ) settings -- frequency, gain, and Q for each band -- as well as a high-pass filter. The low and high bands can be switched between shelving and bell curves. At the top-center of the screen, there's an indication of the exact setting for the parameter you're currently adjusting. Once a control is tapped, it's setting can also be typed into the display box for precise control. Channel phasing is also set in the EQ section.
You can also select a "vintage" EQ as well, which I actually prefer -- I am, after all, an olde phart. Again, there are some very nice control options, such as high-pass filter frequency, the center frequency for the three EQ bands, and a "width" for the midrange control.
When viewing the channel strip controls, the channel fader, mute, pan, and solo, as well as the master fader and mute are also still available, along with buttons to access presets for the the active channel strip section -- EQ, dynamics, or effects. You can also jump directly to the master output EQ and compressor settings from here.
Each channel also features a gate and compressor. Like the EQ section, the gate and compressor in the dynamics section can be switched to "vintage" effects.
There are also reverb and delay sends for each channel, and they can be returned to the main mix, as well as to any or all of the six aux mixes. There are only two effects processors for the entire mixer -- one reverb and one delay. There are nine different types of reverb available, and five delay types.
There are some shortcomings to the effects section, but since I've been finding that the more sound I do, the less reverb and delay I use, so I doubt that I'll really notice. When I am using effects, I do like to be able to bring some of the delay into the reverb, and there's no way to do that on the DL1608 (or any of the other digital boards I've looked at). My old board has a touch of reverb on some of the delays, but that doesn't seem to be the case on the DL1608. I suppose I could route the delay output to one of the Aux buses, and bring that back in on a channel, but that seems a terrible waste of an Aux bus (hey, Mackei geeks, are you reading?).
There have been some complaints about the sound of the effects, but, other than the reverb presets sounding a little brittle -- a complaint I have with the majority of low- and mid-priced digital reverbs -- they really aren't bad at all. Punching in the "M Vox" input preset loads up gate, compressor, and EQ settings that make vocals through even a really crappy mic sound quite decent.
For outputs, the DL1608 sports a stereo main out, and six aux mixes. Each output has a 31-band graphic EQ, a simultaneously available 4-band parametric EQ and compression. The compressor. In addition, the outputs feature a delay. You can use this for setting up speakers mid-house, or time-aligning a subwoofer on the floor with flown mains. The output delay is pretty sophisticated, too, in that you can specify delay time/distance and ambient temperature.
The 31-band graphic EQ features a 2X view to make dialing in precise settings easier, and a handy "draw" mode that allows tracing an EQ curve across all frequencies just by swiping your finger across the screen.
The compressor and parametric EQ are the same as those found on the inputs, so there's not a lot to talk about there, except... Having both EQs simultaneously available is really pretty handy. It allows setting up a nice, baseline EQ for the PA itself, and then loading the second EQ to take care of room specifics, or cancel just a small slice of spectrum that's causing some annoying ringing. Or, after dialing in the room empty with a noise source and RTA on the 31-band EQ, a parametric curve could be added to compensate for the acoustic difference between the room empty and the room full of sweaty, dancing people.
On the back of the mixer are all the connectors and the input gain pots are on the top-back. The DL1608 is physically pretty compact, so it's tight quarters back there. There are 16 inputs, 12 of which are on standard XLR-F connectors, with the remaining four having XLR-F/TRS combo connectors. There are two XLR-M main outputs, and 6 TRS aux outs -- everyone in the band could get their own monitor mix! There's also a locking barrel-type power connector, an RJ-45 ethernet port for connecting a WiFi router, a master power switch and an global 48V phantom power switch.
Along with the input gain pots on the top panel, there's also a stereo 1/4" headphone jack and headphone volume control.
You'll note that twice I mentioned that the input gain controls are on pots. That means that input gain settings can't be captured and recalled along with all the rest of the settings. To me, that's the one shortcoming of this package, and something I really wish Mackie had thought about. Of course, Mackie's not the only digital mixer manufacturer to do this. The Presonus StudioLive consoles have the same shortcoming, which Behringer and even Allen and Heath have overcome. In fairness, the Allen adn Heath boards start at twice the price of this little Mackie, and as I mentioned earlier, the comparable Behringer still isn't shipping.
Setting up iOS devices to control the mixer is a breeze. Simply install the free app from the Apple App Store, power up, and if the iPad is docked to the mixer, turn everything on. If you want to use the wireless control, you have to add a wireless router. Depending on the brand, the setup can be easy or a pain. I chose an inexpensive, but not bottom-of-the-line Netgear dual-band model, and chose not to use the default router settings. The default worked. I just wanted my IP addresses to be something other than 192.168.1.xxx, and wanted to use network names and passwords I could actually remember.
Once I had the router set to my liking and connected, and my iPad Mini and iPhone 5 talking to the router, I plugged the iPad into the board and powered everything up. My DL1608 has the older, 30-pin Apple Dock Connector, and I currently have only an iPad Mini, which uses the new Lightning connector, so I connected through a 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter cable, which works perfectly. After a moment of checking and synchronizing, I had control of the mixer with the iPad. Neat. When I unplugged the iPad, it automatically switched over to wireless control, with only a very slight pause in operation between the two.
Next, I started fooling with the iPhone. There's a cut-down version of the control app called My Fader that runs on an iPhone (any iPhone, 4 or newer). The idea behind My Fader is that a performer on stage could adjust their own monitor mix, or if you mix your band from the stage, a trusted friend with an iPhone (or iPod Touch) could make mix adjustments in the house. My Fader offers minimal control -- channel and master levels only. But, it's pretty handy nonetheless. It's really neat to watch the faders on one app move when you touch another device.
One thing not shown in the snapshots here are all the meters in operation. That's because I made all the snapshots before I actually had the mixer in hand. Each channel features input level monitoring. I think the pick-off point for the metering is just after the preamp, and before anything else, so it's a really good gauge of input levels. The main output meters are stereo, and the aux outputs meters are mono.
An iPad that's docked to the DL1608 can be a source of backing tracks or break tunes, if desired, and there's a dedicated fader for that purpose. It's not documented anywhere that I've seen, but that feature also works with an iPhone (at least, it works on my iPhone 5) if it's plugged into the dock connector. Additionally, a docked iPad can record the stereo mix to, oddly enough, a .WAV file at either 44.1KHz or 48KHz, with a bit depth of 16- or 24-bits, assuming you've got enough free space on the iPad's internal memory. These functions do not work with devices running on a WiFi connection.
There's a whole lot that can be done with stored "shows," "snapshots," "view's," and "presets" to make setting up quick and easy -- once you've done everything the first time. For instance, views can be set up that only include some of the faders, and they can be switched out on the fly. For example, my band is a five-piece. We have four singers, one guitar player, a bass player, a drummer and me on keyboards. We sometimes do a shared show with another band that's a four-piece. They have two singers, three guitars (two players), bass and drums. With the DL1608, if I plan well enough in advance, I can set up a show that includes all of the required inputs (4 vocals, 4 guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums), but display only those channels required for the band actually on stage. When changing views, changes don't get pushed automatically to all connected devices, but it's not difficult for users of other devices to switch between views.
So, what's missing from the DL1608? Really, not much.
- I already mentioned that the pre-amps aren't digitally-controlled and their levels can't be saved and recalled.
- I also already mentioned the in-ability to cross-feed the effects without wasting aux buses.
- There are no sub-groups, which I used to use all the time, but find myself using less and less. Subgroups are handy for doing quick balances between, say, vocals and instruments, or doing quick multi-track recordings. A lot of years ago, I used to mix a band on a board that had 4 sub groups. With that band, I sent all the vocals to sub-group 1, instruments except drums to sub-mix 2, drums to sub-mix 3, and effects returns to sub-mix 4. If the drummer got louder as the night wore on, it was an easy matter to back off sub-group 3 to settle him back into the mix, as opposed to having to twiddle six faders at once.
- You can't plug more than sixteen inputs into the board. But what do you really expect for a digital mixer in this price range? I know prices of cool electronics keep dropping, but right now, sixteen is about all you get for this kind of money. If I'm doing something that needs more than 16 channels I'll likely also need more PA than I own, so I'll just rent a whole system that's got a bigger mixer.
- Finally, you can't dash up to the board, grab a fader or knob, and make a quick adjustment (except for input gain) or shutting off the board. I'm certain I'll run into other limitations down the line. But, depending on what it is you need to grab, the same is true of most digital mixers to some extent -- you have to tell the mixer what set of functions to access before the controls do what you need them to do. In general, working with digital mixers requires you to think a little more and drink a little less during the gig -- not necessarily a bad thing.
So, there you have it. My initial thoughts on actually owning a Mackie DL1608 digital mixer, which I've wanted since the day it was introduced two years ago.
- You can read lots more about the Mackie DL1608 on their web site: http://www.mackie.com/products/dlseries/
- You can watch some really cool, if not goofy, videos that explain all of the features and operation here: http://mackie.com/products/dl1608-dl806
- You can find links to the iOS apps here: http://mackie.com/products/dl1608-dl806 (note: the apps run in demo mode without a mixer, so you can get a feel for how things work. Many of the apps for the other digital mixers also have demo modes)
- There are a bazillion other videos about the DL1608 mixer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Mackie+DL1608
Oh, yeah, at the top of this article, I mentioned more power and more monitors. They should all arrive sometime next week...
[I've added a follow-up post covering moving from the Mackie DL1608 to the Behringer X Air XR18 which might be of interest]