Hands-On Review:Mackie 1604-VLZ PRO 16-Channel Mic/Line Mixer
In the last few years, the words “affordable sound equipment” have graced these pages so often they’ve become a cliché. The fact is, tape machines, mixers, microphones, power amps, monitors and signal processors for both recording and live sound have gotten so much better and less expensive that the lines between home equipment and professional gear have blurred considerably.
The same can’t be said about microphone preamps, however. While professional studios favor expensive external preamps that cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars each, home studio users and live-sound engineers are often content to use the preamps built into their mixing consoles. This may save money, but built-in preamps are usually inferior components that are designed to get the job done adequately, without the warmth, detail and clarity offered by high-end units.
Mackie’s VLZ Series compact mixers have been an exception to this trend. While their preamps would never have been mistaken for vintage Neve units, they were certainly better than those found in your average affordable console. Many users were more than satisfied with them, but apparently the folks at Mackie were not. That’s why two years ago they set out to design preamps for their boards that would rival outboard preamps in the $1,000-to-$2,000 price range. After countless hours and a sizable investment in research and development, they’ve introduced the VLZ PRO Series mixers, featuring the new XDR preamps. The preamps are designed not only to sound better but to avoid problems with patching and interference both in sound reinforcement and recording situations.
The 1604-VLZ PRO is identical to the 1604-VLZ in my home studio, except, of course, for the mic preamps. (Mackie has also updated the 1202-VLZ and the 1402-VLZ with the same XDR preamps.) As a longtime VLZ user, I was happy to see that the company didn’t make any unnecessary changes to the console: it still features 16 channels, each with three-band eq (with sweepable mids), four busses, eight direct outs, six aux sends, four stereo aux returns, inserts on each channel, phantom power and all of the features that made the 1604-VLZ such a popular board to begin with.
The real test was to hear how the new mic preamps sounded. I recorded acoustic guitar, electric guitar and vocal tracks to an Alesis ADAT and direct to a Panasonic DAT machine using a variety of microphones through the VLZ PRO’s preamps. For comparison purposes, I also recorded them through my old VLZ. With the tapes played back through a set of Event 20/20 monitors, the difference between the two boards was rather dramatic. The new XDR preamps gave the clean electric guitar a clearer, smoother high end, while it imbued the acoustic with a fuller sound and better translation of the instrument’s low end. Vocals, too, had more warmth and presence, and all instruments recorded with the XDR preamps had more ambience to them, with a broader dynamic range and full spectrum of frequencies.
Mackie engineers set four criteria when they designed the XDR preamps, and the VLZ PRO seems to live up to each of them. First, they wanted to create a mic preamp that could stand up to the destructive external forces associated with microphone connections. With the XDR preamps, you can connect and disconnect condenser mics through a patch bay without fearing that the board’s phantom power will damage the mic preamps.
Secondly, they believed that a mic preamp shouldn’t be prone to Radio Frequency Interference (RFI). Thus, the XDRs are designed to shut out interference from radio stations, cell phones, microwave ovens and more.
Thirdly, the engineers decided that a mic preamp’s response shouldn’t vary with mic cable impedance loads. For this reason, the XDR can accept a wide range of impedances, so running long cables and using different microphones won’t affect the preamp’s frequency response. And fourth, they felt that a mic preamp should be accurate, sound good and have very low noise and wide bandwidth at any gain level. Given its wide dynamic range (over 130 dB) and extremely low Total Harmonic Distortion level (.0007 percent), let’s just say the XDR sounds great.
The Bottom Line
With its new XDR preamps, Mackie has improved upon what was already the best compact mixer on the market. And at this price, buying the 1604-VLZ PRO is like getting a high-end mic preamp with a great mixer attached. Way to go, Mackie.