When I first heard about the U.420 compact mixers from Mackie, I immediately realized where they would be effective. I asked Mackie to send the U.420d version to my colleague Brandon Miller, who is a working DJ in the modern sense of the word, producing music at home and then presenting that music in performance. Concurrently, Mackie sent me the U.420. Brandon's take on the mixer follows my quick opinion. Mackie isn't the first company to release an integrated mixer and interface. Putting a mixer and interface together into a single package seems like a no-brainer idea, but most of the integrated systems I've seen aren't for the plug-it-in-and-make-music crowd. Instead, they still require some amount of geekery to configure and use, especially when you factor in concepts like computer-induced latency and overdubbing. The U.420 and U.420d, on the other hand, really are as no-brain-required as you can get-perfect for the musician who'd rather make music than put on a propeller-hat. In fact, these Mackies are configured out-of-the-box for zero-latency direct monitoring by default. (Why aren't other
interface/mixers designed this way?) Anyway, before I start repeating what Brandon said in his
review below, let me point out a few things he skipped. As with all Mackie products, the manual is well-written, gets you up-and-running quickly, walks you through all the typical usage scenarios in detail, and is entertaining. No pocket protectors needed, even if your needs are more complex than you think. The U.420 is the simpler of the two models, relying on rotary faders, four stereo line-level inputs (with a single instrument-level DI and a phono preamp). The U.420d adds mic preamps with linear faders and a crossfader. They're both suitable for a wide array of desktop production and on-stage performance duties. Although they're not as bulletproof as Mackie's metal-chassis VLZ3 compact line, they are heavy enough that hanging cables won't pull them off a desk. Also, the three-band EQ, available on all four stereo input channels, is worth mentioning. Each band can be turned down to kill for extreme filtering effects. Using the sweepable mid as a band-cut is especially cool! Enough said-let's move on to Brandon's review. -AH
Mackie sports an amazingly diverse lineup. From loudspeakers to preamps, studio monitors to control surfaces-they've got a piece of gear in each category. Amazingly enough, they do them all really well. This latest offering in their compact mixer lineup is no exception. A really exciting piece of gear here for those that have been tied to an audio interface for the computer and a separate mixer for outboard gear that needs to play outside of the computer. The Mackie U.420d packs an unbelievable amount of features into a compact, super-affordable package. For less than the cost of a PreSonus FireBox or an M-Audio FireWire 410, you get a FireWire interface and fully-functional standalone mixer whose functions work flawlessly together right out of the box in only the time it takes to patch in your cables. The setup into which I introduced the mixer consisted of a pair of CD turntables, a vinyl turntable, a DJ mixer, a separate analog mixer, a digital effects processor, an iPod, a Mac desktop, and a pair of studio monitors. Without the U.420d, I was running the turntables and effects processor into the DJ mixer which then had two sets of outputs, one going into an analog compact mixer and the other going into a FireWire audio interface and into the computer. I needed the analog mixer for latency-free monitoring but needed a central box for the speaker connection. But I didn't always want everything in the studio powered up, and sometimes I wanted my computer power available to run other applications, or I simply didn't want the added steps to get going. The U.420d really has the ability to replace three pieces of gear in that setup: the DJ mixer, the analog mixer, and the FireWire interface. With two stereo line inputs, two phono preamp inputs, two mono Neutrik Combo inputs for mic/line/instrument-level, 1/4" stereo outputs, 1/4" stereo aux sends, two vertical faders, one horizontal fader, and a FireWire interface, I can route absolutely everything mentioned into the U.420d and into the computer at will.
It really starts to get exciting when you get into how this mixer integrates with your computer. My Mac with Logic Pro and Ableton Live needed no software or driver installation to recognize the interface (although Win XP requires driver installation), and I was digitizing vinyl records (a project of mine) five minutes after unwrapping the mixer. Another great feature of this mixer is the loop-out button that tells the mixer whether or not to include what it receives via its FireWire input into the mix that's sent back through the FireWire port. This feature is a serious standout, and the basic idea is that you can choose to send the computer only what's played into the mixer (e.g., overdub a vocal or guitar on a track you've arranged in any DAW), or you can choose to send the sum of the mixer's analog inputs and the feed from the computer back to the computer (e.g., a stereo mix of a live set including outboard instruments and gear alongside loops, effects, samples, and songs emanating from your computer). All the dials and faders on the mixer are laid out in a compact, yet easily-accessible and fully-functional way. It's got an LED output meter and a large master-volume knob down the center of the box that make monitoring and controlling what's going on in your setup super easy. Latency during recording is always a big issue with any interface and Mackie has a decent solution in the way that they've wired the headphone outputs. It's wired before the main volume knob so that you can monitor your input (before it's been routed through the computer) mixed with the computer's output in your headphones with the master volume down, thus eliminating any latency. (The only drawback here is that you aren't able to monitor any effects or plug-ins you might be using on the track you intend to record since you're monitoring the signal before it's processed. But as explained in the manual, you can feed the track being recorded back from the DAW to the mixer, and as long as you can reduce latency settings in your DAW to acceptable levels, you can monitor the effects while you record.)
A few minor issues with the box are the tricky TRS connectors in the back (connections were snug and didn't affect performance at all, but a few cables took some force to get into place) and the lack of more robust software routing. If I want to run Ableton Live through this mixer alone, I don't have the ability to route a separate cue mix to just the headphones for cuing sounds before sending them to the master output. But these are really minor issues when weighed against the incredible functionality this mixer offers. A truly fantastic piece of gear for those looking to get a solid standalone mixer that includes some really unique and powerful FireWire functionality, those wishing to un-clutter a home studio but maintain or improve I/O options, those wanting an instant recording studio at an amazing price, or those seeking robust portability and ease of use for mixing and recording of live gigs. At under $300 street and coming bundled with Tracktion (Mackie's full-featured DAW), the U.420d is an easy sell, especially considering that it replaces three devices-DJ mixer, utility mixer, and interface-at my home production desk. ($299.99 & $359.99 MSRP; www.mackie.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.