From professional multi-room facilities to bedroom computer rigs, the compact utility mixer is ubiquitous. Whether it's being used for its mic preamps and zero-latency monitoring facilities in front of a DAW, or it's submixing a bunch of outboard effects returning to a full-size console, or it's simply operating as a volume knob for a small collection of gear, there's a reason why "utility" is part of the category's name. I'm not sure if Mackie invented the category, but they certainly popularized it when they released the first affordable, mass-produced line of decent-sounding mini mixers almost two decades ago. These days, there's a whole bevy of manufacturers selling similar products. The VLZ3 line is the latest iteration of the compact utility mixer from Mackie.
A couple months ago, I set up my filmmaker wife with a 402-VLZ3 so that she could watch and listen to multiple sources (computer, DV deck, camera) without having to bring up Final Cut Pro in capture-preview mode. With the multiple displays and devices on her desk and the need to reserve space for other devices as-needed, the 402's extremely compact form-factor and easily understood layout were major reasons why I chose it; void of any extraneous plastic trim, its footprint is 6" x 7", and all the jacks and controls are positioned smartly. The 402's capabilities are also perfect for her needs. As you can guess from the name, the 402 has four input channels and a stereo main bus. The first two inputs are mic/line with XLR jacks for mic (with switchable phantom power) and TRS jacks for line (balanced or unbalanced) or Hi-Z instrument-level. The remaining two inputs are TRS (bal/unbal) line only. Instead of taking up valuable real-estate with pan knobs, Mackie chose to use a single button that centers channels 1 and 2 mono or splits them full L/R. Low and high-shelf EQ are included for these two channels. The shelves have no overlap, but if you cut both of them, you get a smooth midrange peak at 1 kHz, and if you boost both of them, you get a smooth dip at 1 kHz. A low-cut filter (100 Hz, 18 dB per octave) allows you to peak the lows by boosting with the low shelf while simultaneously cutting the extreme lows with the filter-a great way to add oomph to a sound while avoiding uncontrolled low-end buildup. Inputs 3 and 4 are on a single level knob, and plugging into just jack 3 centers it mono while plugging in both jacks splits 3 and 4 to L/R. All four channels are permanently assigned to the main stereo bus, which feeds the main L/R outputs as well as a stereo tape send through a single level knob. The main bus also feeds the headphone output through a dedicated headphone volume knob. All very straightforward-and as you'd expect. The nice surprise here is the "tape" facility (which these days would make more sense being called "recorder"). Recalling that the 402 only has a stereo bus and the tape send mirrors the main out, you can feed the tape send to your DAW, and then bring the DAW's output back into the 402's tape return. The tape return has its own level knob and always feeds the headphones but is normally not added to the main out. This way, you can record to your DAW through the 402 while listening on headphones with zero latency to what you're currently recording mixed together with a feed from the DAW. Zero-latency monitoring couldn't get any simpler. You can also choose to assign the tape return to the stereo bus, but watch out for feedback if your recorder is in input-monitoring mode. Unfortunately, if you choose to use the 402's main outs to feed your speakers (which seems the most logical way to do it), changing your speaker level by turning the main level knob also affects the tape send. I wish there were an independent tape send level or a separate speaker level.
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At the same time I chose the 402 for my wife, I picked up an 802-VLZ3 for my office desk. The 802 is a bit larger in footprint (9" x 11"), and along with more input channels (eight as hinted in the name), it has additional features. All channels have three-band EQ, with the same shelves and low-cut as the 402, but with the addition of a fixed-Q midrange centered at 2.5 kHz. Personally, I would have preferred a midrange control for the muddy region of 300-500 Hz, but having control around 2.5 kHz is much more usable than something like 1 kHz, especially for changing the harmonic content of vocals and guitars. Plus, you can effectively control 1 kHz by boosting or cutting both shelves together. In general, the EQ sounds fine, and it's easy to make usable/musical changes (but the EQ is obviously not surgical). With 15 dB of boost or cut, you can still go overboard if you desire. Three of the channels can take mic-level signals via XLR, and the first two can take instrument-level and have insert points as well. All channels are capable of taking line-level via TRS. Some of the channel strips are mono while others are stereo with two inputs each. (Check out the Mackie website for the actual configuration.) There is a mono aux send that can be set pre or post-fader, a stereo aux return, an alternate stereo output bus, and like the 402, a "tape" send/return. Also, the 802 adds a control room submix section that allows you to feed any combination of main L/R bus, alternate bus, and tape return to the dedicated control-room output. Each of the buses and the tape return has its own level knob. Moreover, there's a pre-fader solo function for all input channels. All these additional features allow the bigger 802-which is still a tiny mixer-to be used for more complex recording and mixing tasks as well as for live sound.
The XDR2 mic preamps on both mixers are clean sounding and quiet. I had no problems with any of my mics, from my cheap Radio Shack electret condenser to my many modern ribbon mics. Compared to the unbalanced playback inputs on my Soundcraft Compact 4 (Tape Op #44), the Mackie's tape returns exhibited a lower signal-to-noise ratio due to noticeably higher levels of EMI when fed my desktop's soundcard output (using the same cables with the mixers in the exact same position), but noise wasn't a problem when I patched an M-Audio FireWire Solo into the tape returns instead.
The manuals for both models are comprehensive, and they include detailed connection diagrams and walkthroughs. Even an absolute beginner will have no problem setting up the mixer, and the seasoned pro will discover how flexible these mini mixers really are. In all, I am quite impressed with the two smallest members of the VLZ3 mixer family, and given how usable and flexible they are, it's clear that Mackie really spent the time to design these compact mixers with utility in mind. (402-VLZ3 $129.99 MSRP, 802-VLZ3 $259.99; www.mackie.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.