Hands-On Review:Flexible routing, killer effects keep your setups simple


 

 

 

 

On the road, again
If you’re like me, you’re a do-it-yourself kind of musician. No roadies, no guitar techs, no sound engineers. You load it in. You set it up. You run the sound check. And after the gig, you tear it down and lug it all out to the van, ready for the next date.


And man, does that get old. After you set up your racks, run the cabling, get your mics and amps positioned and set, tweak your desk, and get the monitors and mains the way you want them, the music performance sometimes seems like a mere afterthought. As somebody always on the lookout for ways to simplify this process, when I came across Mackie’s CFX mixer line, I immediately saw a potential way to streamline my setup process. They had the versatile routing I craved, solid graphic EQ control, and above all, what was touted by Mackie as a set of truly useful, onboard musical effects.


I was dubious. Most of my pro audio buddies look down their noses at those onboard effects stuffed into mixers and amps. And they’re right. Most of those effects are tinny, unconvincing, and are rarely useful either in live sound or recording situations. So I approached the CFX line with a mixture of hope and cynicism.


First impressions
The desk I checked out is the CFX-20, the top of the product range. But its smaller siblings, the CFX-16 and CFX-12, share all the same key features with less channel and I/O capacities.


A quick survey of the control surface revealed nothing extraordinary. Closer inspection disclosed routing to four buses, a nice measure of flexibility when recording. All the audio connections are on top, including the XLR main mix outputs, so patching was a straight-ahead proposition. The mixer channels are all configured identically other than the last four. These four are set up as two stereo, line-only channels without low-cut switches or insert points. All the mono channels have balanced mic and line inputs with globally switchable phantom power and TRS jack insert points. A single input gain trim sets both mic and line levels. A low-cut switch activates a sub-100Hz filter.


There’s no mic/line switch—just plug into the input you need. A yellow LED indicates when you hit a reasonable peak level. I found that when the LED just flashes on peaks, you're solidly in the output ballpark. Though you can quickly optimize your gain structure this way, Mackie also includes standard PFL buttons at the bottom of the channel faders. Hitting the PFL buttons doesn’t effect the main outputs, just the meters and phones, so goofing up your sound in mid-performance isn’t likely.


Both the stereo and mono channels are equipped with four aux sends. The first pair are switchable for pre- or post-fade operation. The second two are dedicated post-effects sends, the first feeds the EFX1 output, the other feeds the internal effects processor and the EFX output jack. Logically, the master send controls for the EFX1 and Aux one and two are located in the master section. The master feed level to the internal effects processor can be controlled in the EFX section. This offers a lot of operational flexibility.


Mastering the master
The console’s master section is pretty conventionally laid out. Aside from the aux send masters mentioned above, it has an effects return level control, plus knobs for tape and phone level as well as a utility output level. The latter follows the main stereo output, but provides independent level control. Phone tape ins and outs are accompanied by a Break switch which kills all mixer output other than the tape return. In the studio this is handy for monitoring taped mixes. On the gig, you can mute the mixer while playing tapes or CDs. A stereo bar-graph meter gives you an easy-to-read snapshot, and flashing red LEDs remind you that you have a Solo or PFL button down.

All things being equalized
The nine-band EQ lets you easily shape the main output, but should you need to do some external overall processing, there are main insert points. Phantom mic power is switched from the master and the switch has an amber warning LED. A BNC socket lets you install an optional gooseneck lamp—not really an option in some of the near-black venues I play.


Effective effects
The EFX section has input and output-to-mix as well as Aux one and two knobs for feeding effects to monitors in live or overdub situations. A Bypass button does just what you’d expect; a Wide button creates the sense of a broadened stereo sound field.

But it’s the effects set itself that distinguishes the CFX line from the competition. Mackie’s Digital Group developed them as a part of their world-class 32-bit digital recording consoles. The number-crunching power which 32-bit processing offers enabled Mackie to develop a repertoire of sounds based on the same algorithms that fuel the highest-end DSPs out there.


There are eight main reverbs including gated and reverse, four delays, phaser, flanger, chorus, and a spring reverb for good measure. All 16 are accessible from a rotary knob with Time and Damping knobs to readily shape each. And every one of these effects sounds good. So good in fact, you may decide to leave that rack full of outboard effects at home.


If you’re a do-itself-yourself guy like me, and a crew of roadies doesn’t figure in your future, a CFX console could make your life on the road a whole lot simpler. It’ll let you do more playing and less engineering. And after all, isn’t that what the biz is all about?






Features & Specs


All CFX mixers feature:

  • True four bus design
  • Two stereo line channels
  • Sixteen onboard 32-bit effects
  • True stereo nine-band graphic EQ
  • Four-band fixed EQ on stereo line channels
  • Three-band mono channel EQ with swept mid and low cut filter
  • Aux sends: two pre/post, one external post, one internal post
  • Two stereo aux returns
  • Stereo RCA tape ins/outs
  • 60mm log-taper faders
  • Separate subwoofer crossover/output
  • Channel trims with LED level indicators
  • XLR subwoofer out with 75Hz filter


CFX-20

  • Twenty channels
  • Sixteen mic/line channels
  • Two stereo line channels
  • Sixteen mic pre-amps
  • Sixteen channel inserts
  • 26" wide


CFX-16

  • Sixteen channels
  • Twelve mic/line channels
  • Two stereo line channels
  • Twelve mic pre-amps
  • Twelve channel inserts
  • 21.4" wide


CFX-12

  • Twelve channels
  • Eight mic/line channels
  • Two stereo line channels
  • Eight mic pre-amps
  • Eight channel inserts
  • 17.2" wide