Hands-On Review:Mackie Onyx Mixers

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Mackie Onyx Mixers

Powerful, comprehensive performance in a compact package

By E.A. Tennaway

After spending a month with Mackie's new Onyx series mixers, I've come away with reinforced respect for this company's design smarts. The Onyx line represents a genuine breakthrough in compact-form mixers, offering a powerful range of possibilities for computer-based musicians and producers.


Mackie Onyx Mixers I decided to focus on the 1620 model—the middle sibling in the series. Its price makes it accessible to just about anyone and it shares most of the formidable capabilities of the four-bus 1640 model. The features and specs below detail the key differences among the three models.


Firing it up
I received all three models together with the optional FireWire card. Installing the card in the 1620 was a snap and gave me instant connectivity to my Mac G5 running OS X Version 10.3.5.


While physically compact, the 1620 with its rugged steel case and solid-feeling knobs is both very durable and user-friendly. It's small and light—great for mobile producers working with a laptop. Most of the connectors are located on the top for easy access. The back panel houses two D-Sub connectors as recording outs, as well as channel inserts, aux sends, XLR main outs, and an input for an external talkback mic.


The control surface—with its rounded corners and perforated grille at the rear— has a sleek, modern look that's distinct from other Mackie mixers, yet the layout seems instantly familiar and is highly intuitive. Every control is just where you'd expect it to be.


Click to Enlarge Pres like you wouldn't believe
The 1620 has a straightforward dual-bus 16:2 architecture that incorporates eight newly-designed mic preamps with big-board specs. The Onyx family gets its name from Mackie new Onyx mic pres—the next evolution of the venerated XDR preamp found in their VLZ mixers. The Onyx pre has custom chips that deliver low-noise, high-headroom performance for breathtaking levels of transparency and accuracy. I was consistently floored by the level of detail and clarity. The sound was highly musical and I could push gain levels with relative impunity; these babies handled every microphone type with aplomb from super-hot condensers to a ribbon model with miniscule line-level output. All this without adding any appreciable noise.


Channels 1 and 2 have switchable high-impedance instrument level inputs for going direct. All eight of the mono mic/line channels offer independent phantom-power switching. The channels all have an input gain control and gain trim adjustment using the solo switches in PFL mode so signal levels appear on the main meter section.


Click to Enlarge Sweet tweakability
Channels 9 through 16 are configured as stereo pairs with three-band EQ while the mono-only channels offer four-band EQ. All channels have a hardware EQ bypass and the mono channels are equipped with low-cut filters and pre-EQ inserts.


The brain behind the Onyx EQ sections is designer Cal Perkins who set out to replicate the sound of classic British mixing consoles from the '60s and '70s. Cal started with the traditional Wien Bridge circuit that trades boost/cut capability for a wider, more musical Q filter. Hard research resulted in a variation of the circuit that produced the wide range that modern engineers demand while preserving the musicality that made those vintage consoles legendary. Regardless of my input signal, the Perkins EQ consistently produced velvety-smooth tweaks that took the honk out of my acoustic-electric guitar's piezo pickup and the brittleness out of a cornet solo. In both cases, the EQ section imparted a warm, round sound that left the essential character of the instruments intact.


Click to Enlarge Hook it up with anything
The pair of DB25 connectors built into the Onyx back panel gives every single channel a direct output meaning that with the appropriate breakout cables you can connect it to just about anything including many digital consoles, hard-disk recorders, and analog or ADAT tape machines. And since the signal path comes directly from the channel preamp, you're assured of sending the highest-quality signal possible. These recording outputs are post-channel gain, but are pre-EQ, pre-insert, and pre-fader. This is very handy for mixing a live gig with a full complement of mixer EQ and fader tweaks plus outboard processors on channel inserts while sending a completely unaffected signal to your digital gear.


Another unexpected feature at the Onyx's price level is a talkback section with an onboard mic. Its signal can be routed to the Control Room/Phones, to Aux 1/2, or to both. You can even hook up an external mic so you can can dictate your producer's vision from anywhere in your studio.


Serious firepower
The optional FireWire card instantly transforms the Onyx 1620 into a powerful front end for computer-based audio production. It sends up to 18 channels (12 channels with the 1620) of 24/96 audio to your PC or Mac plus a Left/Right stereo “quick mix” with level trim control and provides two-channel monitoring. The Onyx A/D converters have pristine specs rivaling pro studio units. With the card installed, you've got a DAW that trumps anything else in its price range PLUS a powerful mixing desk! Factor in Mackie's included Tracktion software, a simple yet comprehensive recording app for getting your ideas down fast, and you're looking at one amazingly cost-effective buy!


Features & Specs



Onyx 1220Onyx 1620
  • 12-channel small-format mixer
  • 4 mic preamps
  • 3-band Perkins EQ
  • 2 aux sends with pre/post switches
  • 4 stereo line-level inputs
  • 14 independent audio channels through FireWire
  • 16-channel small-format mixer
  • 2-bus architecture
  • 8 mic preamps
  • 4-band Perkins EQ
  • 4 aux sends with pre/post switches
  • 4 stereo line-level inputs
  • 18 independent audio channels through FireWire
Onyx 1640 addsShared Features
  • 4-bus architecture
  • 16 mic preamps
  • 2 aux sends plus solo switches
  • Desktop or rackmount operation
  • Optional FireWire card
  • 2 channels of monitoring with FireWire card
  • Tracktion recording software
  • Onyx preamps
  • Talkback section and mic
  • 48V phantom power on all mic inputs
  • True hardware EQ bypass
  • Planet Earth switching power supply
  • 60mm logarithmic taper faders
  • Balanced direct outs
  • Selectable instrument inputs on channels 1 and 2
  • Sweepable mids on mic/line channels