2012 Winter NAMM Show – Day 3
Oh, geez, this is going to be a tough one to write. Usually I come back to the hotel with a bag full of literature, sort through it, toss what was handed to me that I knew I didn’t need but didn’t want to be impolite and refuse it, and then use the remainder of the pile to remind me of what I saw during the day. By the end of the third day at the show, I had picked up absolutely no product literature, just a couple of business cards and told “go to our web site.” I hate that. Now I have to remember, from the company name, why I want to go to their web site. However, I did get there with a plan, and early enough to re-visit a couple of things before the crowds got too deep to have any significant hands on time.
Mackie has been in and out of the digital mixing console business for about 15 years now and they certainly know the ins and outs of it. This year they’ve jumped back in with the 16 channel DL1608 digital mixer. I thought I’d scream if I saw one more product with the claim “… and you can control it remotely from your iPad . . . “ but in this case I had to contain myself because an iPad is integral to the design. You can’t control it at all without one. The hardware is designed to look and connect like a mixer, but the only controls on it are the input gain trims on the top panel and power switches on the back. The top surface is slanted like a mixing console, providing a mounting tray and dock for the iPad.
The iPad is the control surface, which saves Mackie a heap of money both in design and manufacturing. The iPad, running a custom Mackie app, is pretty much just the user interface – all the processing is done inside the mixer case. There’s a fader view, auxiliary sends, console “strip” with EQ, compression, and gate on every channel. There are also two effect processors, and a set of pre-programmed channel presets that serve as starting points for typical sources. Graphic EQ is available on the main and all aux buses.
It has 16 mic inputs (globally switched phantom power) with Onyx preamps. since live sound is clearly going to be the primary application for this mixer, all of the inputs are on XLR connectors, with the last 4 channels using XLR-TRS combo jacks for those that need ¼” holes. A bit surprisingly, there isn’t a high impedance instrument DI input or two. The preamp gain controls have sufficient range to cover line level inputs so with the proper cables, you can use more than 4 line level sources. Outputs are left and right main mix and 4 mono auxiliaries.
With the iPad is plugged into the docking connector, you get a 17th fader for stereo playback (backing track or break music) of audio stored on the iPad. Of course there’s remote control and support for multiple iPads (up to 10 I think). The application in the version on display here at the show still had a few unfinished features, one being quick access to the aux send faders, another being the full implementation of the remote iPad “permissions” and probably a few more, but everything that I saw worked and was pretty intuitive. There are a few cute things like icons that you can use to identify channels in lieu of text names, and you can even display a photo as the channel label.
Most of what Mackie designs starts off with price being a primary design parameter. The DL 1608, planned for June delivery, is $999. I expect that adding a couple of Dis with the independent input circuit, switching, and jacks would have busted that price point and that’s why you’ll need to bring your own DIs if you need ‘em. And if you don’t already have an iPad, it’s a $1500 mixer, though Mackie is quick to point out that 5 million people have iPads and some of them need mixers.
To get the most out of this mixer, you’ll also need to set up a WiFi access point (which could be a $15 wireless router) and connect it to the Ethernet jack on the mixer. It’s going to be necessary to understand a bit about computer networking technology, but Mackie expect that the users who want to have iPads scattered all over the place will already have some knowledge of setting up a wireless network. That brought to mind a favorite quote of mine from John Watkinson: “Today’s production equipment is IT based and cannot be operated without a passing knowledge of computing, although it seems that it can be operated without a passing knowledge of audio.”
When I was working at Mackie in 2000-2001, I never really warmed up to their d8b digital console, but when I see a digital console today, I can’t help think “Why didn’t they do that like the d8b did?” – there was a lot in the design of that console that made a lot of sense and it’s good to see that Mackie didn’t throw that all in the dumpster, but retained some of the good user interface features that they designed more than 10 years ago. Digital processing has changed a lot in that period, but human brains still work pretty much the same way.
Today I had a pretty good run-through of the Behringer X32 digital console, though it took two Behringer folks to get all my questions answered. It’s quite a bit different from today’s crop of budget priced digital consoles. Unlike most which are designed primarily for live sound and tend to be a bit skimpy when it comes to studio recording, the X32 seems like it’s pretty well equipped to do both tasks competently. It has 24 motorized long throw faders arranged in two groups, but they’re all completely assignable. Each fader has a dedicated color LCD that shows its current function (which can change, of course, when switching banks) and which can be labeled with the channel source. The top left section of the panel is dedicated to channel strip controls which are active for the selected channel.
The essential controls are implemented with knobs, but you can get more detailed by popping up a screen on the built-in color TFT display. One thing that I think I might find a little inconvenient is that rather than having level, frequency, and bandwidth controls for each EQ band, there’s one set of controls with a set of buttons to switch them between bands (this is a 6-band parametric equalizer). While each of the rotary encoders have an indicator of its current position, you need to look at the screen in order to see what the actual settings are. Perhaps this is good, encouraging you to mix with your ears rather than setting in some numbers you expect will be right. I can support that philosophy, but not everyone will be comfortable with it.
There are a bunch of effect processors built in, and one nice feature is that they aren’t limited to a send-return kind of routing, but alternatively, can be patched in line with a channel as an insert processor. This is useful for things like amplifier simulators or a flange or chorus effect that you’re only going to use on a single channel.
Channels can be linked in odd-even pairs, as can auxiliary buses (for stereo headphone feeds), each channel has a dedicated smallish but functional level meter with a pair of large LED ladder meters for the main outputs. There are 8 mute groups and 8 DCA (digitally controlled attenuator) groups that works like VCAs on an analog console. You can “bus” channels together using the DCA groups, or you can do it analog style with subgroup buses if you wish. DCAs work find for mixdown, but if you want to feed your subwoofers from an independent bus or compress the drums overall, there are subgroup buses that allow you to do that. There are 16 outputs available and they can be assigned however you want – mains, subgroups, auxiliaries. In addition, there’s AES/EBU and AES 50 outputs (Klark-Technik, currently keeper-of-the-keys for AES 50, is under the same corporate umbrella as Behringer), Firewire, and ADAT optical I/O. The X32 also integrates with the Behringer P-16 personal monitoring system that allows individual players to create custom monitor mixes with no iPhones required.
I’d probably best stop here before this starts to sound like a review, which it isn’t, because I haven’t spent nearly enough time with it. Perhaps I will after it ships. I can tell you, though, that this is a very flexible console, but, as you might suspect, flexibility comes at a price of convenience some times. There are a few ways of accessing some functions, only one way to access others, and the control surface is large enough so that, at least on first impression, thing are spread around in ways that made me have to look twice to find what I’m looking for. Still, there’s a lot here for this price, which is under $3,000.
Eminence is one of the major manufacturers of speakers used in instrument amplifiers, but they’re pretty hip to technology. I believe it was last year that they came up with a speaker with an adjustable magnet assembly that allowed you to reduce the efficiency of the speaker so you could crank the amplifier without damaging the driver or the audience’s ears. This year’s cool technology product from them is D-Fend. It’s a circuit board that goes between the power amplifier and speaker that’s designed to protect the speaker in a different way than what’s usually done. It’s not uncommon, particularly in powered PA speakers and control room monitors, to have some sort of overload protection, perhaps a poly-fuse, a light bulb to limit current, or a compression circuit. D-Fend takes a different turn on this. It limits the current to the speaker by changing the load that the amplifier sees. When the power threshold is reached, its input impedance goes up. The result is that the amplifier actually delivers less power. Look at the specs for a power amplifier when driving 2, 4, 8, or 16 ohm loads and you’ll see what happens, or just do the Ohm’s Law calculations. Since the speaker always sees the same driving source (the D-Fend circuit board), raising load impedance on the amplifier doesn’t affect the speaker damping. That’s pretty clever. Also clever is that the electronics takes power from the incoming audio so there’s no need for a power supply.
There’s a USB port on the board, and a computer application that allows you to set up a lot of different things. You can set a broadband power limit and be done with it, or, if it’s going into a 2- or 3-way box, you can define power limits for each frequency band. If you’re send a bass-heavy mix to a speaker and the woofer is in danger, the amplifier power will be reduced, saving the speaker, but still keeping the mix in balance. Same if something goes haywire and the tweeter is about to fry.
At the moment, they’re looking for applications – manufacturers who want to build it into their cabinets or perhaps a manufacturer who wants to build it as a stand-alone box. They might do so themselves.
What is it about M-80? That’s a firecracker, isn’t it? There were at least three products displayed at the show that were named M-80. There’s a Telefunken mic which has been around for a few years, though they introduced an M-81 this year which is a little flatter in the midrange. Then there’s an M-80 guitar pickup from L.R. Baggs, and finally, Mackie co-developed a new op amp chip with JRC that will carry the Mackie “Running Man” logo that will give them a consistent supply of a known part that they’ll be using across the board in their products.
It was a full day, but not much that I hadn’t seen before. Sunday will probably be even lower key.