Maybe I’m old school, but I find it difficult to record and mix without a console. When making decisions about the sound of a piece of music (as opposed to the structure of the song), I find it much more intuitive to use faders, knobs, and buttons instead of a mouse; as Allen Farmelo explained to me while writing the Euphonix Artist Series controller review (Tape Op #76), a different part of the brain is exercised when you’re using physical controls on a worksurface versus virtual controls on a screen. That’s why I prefer sitting behind a mixing desk, even if I’m operating a DAW. My personal studio, for example, revolves around a medium-format Sony DMX-R100 console (#25), which is currently configured with 64 channels of digital I/O and 40/24 channels of analog. In my custom-built silent PC (#67), I have an RME HDSPe MADI card (#63), connected to an RME MADI Router (#63), which in turn connects to the DMX-R100 as well as Apogee AD/DA–16X converters (#58). Yes, the system is extremely capable, and yes, it’s also very complicated to set up; granted, once configured for the I/O that you plan to use, you don’t have to remap anything. And I also have four short racks of analog gear, with two patchbays (mic and line–level) to support all the interconnectivity.
So it was with giddiness that I first plugged the Mackie Onyx 1640i into my laptop, opened up Cubase (#75), and had 16 channels of I/O going through a well-featured analog mixer — no soundcards, no audio routers, and no cabling other than a single FireWire cord between the computer and the mixer. Within minutes, I was able to plug in mics, headphones, and speakers; record into Cubase; listen back from Cubase; apply analog EQ and effects; and set up an artist monitor mix. If you’ve used any Mackie mixer in the past, you’ll probably agree that “Mackies” are dead simple to operate while still supporting many “advanced” features. Mackie Onyx-i mixers are no exception; their FireWire connectivity defaults to what you would expect, but the controls are there to do more advanced routing. Let’s first look at the layout of the 1640i, the most feature-rich of the Onyx-i line, and the workflows it supports. We’ll then cover its smallest sibling, the 820i.
In short, the 1640i is 16x16 FireWire interface married seamlessly to a 16-channel analog mixer. Each of its sixteen faders is equipped with an Onyx mic preamp that accepts mic or line–level. The first two faders can also be switched to Hi-Z instrument-level, and all 16 have individually-selectable phantom power, low-cut filter, 4-band EQ with two semi-parametric mid bands, six mono aux sends, mute, and solo. Thankfully, each fader has LEDs to display mute and solo status, and 4-step LED meters to show post-EQ signal level. The first LED on the level meter lights up at –20 dB; I wish it indicated a lower level, so even quieter signals could be visually checked. The output of each fader can be assigned to any combination of the main L/R bus and subgroup pairs 1/2 and 3/4; and the six aux sends are each pre or post-fader selectable on a global level.
Each fader also has an insert, which sits right before the EQ within the signal flow; an analog direct out; its own FireWire send; and a FW return that is pre-insert. Smartly, the direct out and FW send are together selectable to be pre-FW return or post-EQ. Putting the 1640i’s architecture into perspective, this means that each fader can be individually configured to send its analog input to the DAW while its analog input or a return from the DAW is sent to any assigned buses. Or just as easily, each fader can take input from the DAW, process the signal via analog insert and on-board EQ, then send back the processed signal to the DAW. In my opinion, Mackie has actually delivered on the heretofore impossible promise of a small-format console that you can use to track, process, and mix a full 16 channels to/from your DAW without any crazy workarounds, compromises — or spaghetti wiring.
For example, imagine you’ve got drums and bass already recorded, and you’re bringing them back to the 1640i as individual channels on faders 1-12, and you want to overdub two guitar tracks and two vocals. Plug the guitar mics into faders 13-14 and the vocal mics into faders 15-16, and configure these faders to monitor their analog inputs. Record the guitars while listening back to the drums and bass; and note that you’ll be hearing the guitars with zero latency. When you’re happy with the guitar tracks, switch the guitar faders to monitor the DAW and move on to the vocals — neither repatching nor additional faders required. Now let’s further imagine that you were EQ’ing all of your drum tracks while you were finishing these overdubs, and you had an analog compressor inserted on your room-mic tracks. What if you now decide you want to “print” the EQ and compression back to the DAW? Flip a few switches on the 1640i, set up your DAW to bounce the individual tracks, and hit record. Again, dead simple. And of course, when you’re ready to mix, setting up the 1640i is a no-brainer.
If that’s not enough for you, the manual explains that a qualified Mackie technician can pop open the 1640i and modify the direct out and FW send to be post-insert instead of pre-FW return, and/or post-fader instead of post-EQ. (Reference the block diagram in the manual for a clear picture of signal flow, with and without modifications.)
In the master section of the 1640i are four faders for subgroups 1/2 and 3/4 and a single fader for the main L/R bus, as well as one knob each for control room and headphone levels. There’s also a talkback facility with a built-in mic (or you can plug in an external mic) which you can assign to headphones or all aux 1-6 outputs; I wish you could choose which auxes, but otherwise, I found that talkback worked well.
The CR and headphone outputs receive the same feed — any combination of L/R; subgroups 1/2 and 3/4; “Tape”; and FW 1/2. “Tape” is Mackie’s nod to us old-schoolers; you can of course string whatever type of 2-track you fancy to the RCA I/O that Mackie provides here. FW 1/2 is a handy way of selecting in-the-box mix or iTunes playback. And because the sources are summable, you can do things like record an instrument or vocal while playing against a pre-recorded demo or guide track, without a lot of fuss.
The four subgroup faders each have individual L and R buttons to assign to the main mix — your choice to use them as mono or stereo-paired subgroups. There’s also a button to feed the subgroups to FW 5-8 — an effective way to mix and record stems into your DAW. Likewise, the main L/R bus can be assigned to FW 15-16 for easy capture of the mix.
The six aux sends are each selectable pre or post–fader globally; you can also solo each send bus. (The pre-fader tap is post-EQ, but it can be internally modified to be pre-EQ.) In addition to the analog outputs for the aux sends, you can also assign the aux sends to FW 9-14; this allows you to use your computer as a virtual effects rack using any host program (like standard DAWs or a purposefully-implemented system like Waves MultiRack) while employing the 1640i as a live-sound mixer. Imagine showing up at your next live-sound gig with your laptop configured with all the plug-in effects you need to mix front-of-house.
There are four stereo aux returns, all of which are normally assigned to the main L/R mix as you would expect. But again, Mackie provides some very useful alternative routing schemes by allowing you to route return 1 to send 5 and return 2 to send 6 (with level knobs); return 3 to subgroups 1/2 or 3/4; and return 4 to CR and phones only. Therefore, you can add in a lot of “comfort reverb” into the artist cue mix while hearing less of it in the control room; or feed a click track to the stage without the audience hearing it; or add effects to a submix and ride the submix fader without losing your dry/wet balance.
Anyway, you get the picture — routing options are abound. Download and read the well-written manual from Mackie’s website if you desire more detail. An informative block diagram is included, as are several hookup diagrams with example configurations. I think the most important takeaway here is that the 1640i is an analog mixer with very flexible routing that also happens to be a 16x16 AD/DA converter, and as such, there’s very little physical patching required in order for it to perform in many different scenarios. Plus, true zero-latency, in-line monitoring is just part of its natural workflow — no trickery or jumping through hoops fighting your DAW’s I/O configuration or using up double channels on your mixer.
Soundwise, I’m also impressed. The 1640i’s Onyx mic preamps are clean and quiet without sounding boring; if anything, they add a teeny bit of spice to what is captured, but not enough that sixteen channels worth of flavor becomes overpowering. I found the Perkins EQs to be musical and easy to use. With a wide Q on the mid bands, you can’t really go wrong with them; and if you want surgical EQ instead, you can rely on your DAW.
If the rackmountable 1640i is considered a compact mixer, than the Onyx 820i, the smallest sibling in the Onyx-i family, must be a subcompact. The 820i provides eight channels of FireWire connectivity from DAW to mixer, and two channels from mixer to DAW. Five faders are provided. The first two are mono, handling mic, line, or Hi-Z input levels; each has an analog insert, low-cut filter, phantom power, and 3-band EQ with semi-parametric mid. Fader 3/4 can operate as a mono mic channel or as a stereo line, and it incorporates a simple 4-band fixed EQ. Faders 5/6 and 7/8 are stereo line with 3-band fixed EQ. Additionally, Fader 7/8 can take input from FW 1-2. All have a FW send that can be switched pre-insert or post-EQ, two aux sends that are each globally switchable pre/post-fader, pan/balance, mute (which is actually an assignment to the “extra” Alt 3/4 bus), solo, and a rotary level knob. Like its big brother, the 820i can be internally modified to move the taps for the FW and aux sends. The 820i’s control room source is also a multi-select switch that lets you monitor any combination of L/R, Alt 3/4, Tape, and FW 1/2; and additionally, CR can be assigned to the main L/R mix (which turns off the mix routing into CR). The aux sends can be optionally routed to the DAW via FW 5-6, and return 2 can be assigned to aux send 1. The main mix defaults to feeding FW 7-8. Again, Mackie delivers very flexible routing to cover a wide range of workflows for initial recording, overdubbing, analog processing, and mixing — without repatching a bunch of cables or using double faders. A big plus is the inclusion of talkback — something most compact mixers lack — which means the 820i would work well as the audio hub of a voiceover or overdub suite. I’m happily using it for all of my desktop I/O needs in my studio office (which is more like a “B Room”), running Cubase and Pro Tools, as well as all the standard apps and tools that come with a Mac.
All of the Onyx-i mixers are capable of 24-bit, 96 kHz operation; and all are bundled with Tracktion (Tape Op #54), a simple-to-use but well-featured DAW. The whole Onyx-i line is also compatible with all major DAWs, including the “open” Pro Tools 9 (Tape Op #81) and Pro Tools 10, via ASIO, WDM, or Core Audio. Pro Tools M-Powered 8 is also supported if you install the optional Mackie Universal Driver. (But be careful with PT 8, as it doesn’t include delay compensation, so overdubbing and processing through any analog chain can lead to inter-track phase problems.) Build quality is typical of the upper-level products from Mackie — everything looks and feels solid.
I can’t recommend the Onyx-i series enough. Sure, if all you need is a way to get a mic into your computer and a stereo mix out to your headphones, there are many, lower-cost solutions out there. But if what you require is an actual recording console — whether you are recording whole ensembles or overdubbing individual artists — the Onyx-i mixers are hard to beat. Despite their compact nature, they’re highly configurable while being simple to operate; and they sound great. Moreover, with all of their built-in I/O and routing capabilities, you’ll spend less time repatching and more time making music — and most likely, you’ll find that breaking “out of the box” is actually quite easy and can lead to some very creative recording endeavors.
(820i $400 street, 1640i $1500; www.mackie.com) –AH
by Chris Koltay
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