Can you really mix a live show without any physical controls? If you have a DL1608 and an Apple iPad, it seems you can...
When it was first unveiled at the NAMM show, Mackie's DL1608 live-sound mixer caused quite a stir. Not only was it relatively inexpensive, it also allowed remote control of the mix from one or more (up to 10, in fact) iPads via Wi-Fi. This means that, using the DL1608, you can leave the mixer on stage and control the mix from the front using only an iPad, with no multicores to worry about. As I regularly mix pub gigs, the prospect of not having to roll out a multicore appealed to me immediately.
What's more, if you're in a band but don't have the luxury of a sound engineer, you can take the iPad out front during soundchecking, to listen and make some adjustments, then dock the iPad and mix from the stage. Yes, working a touchscreen rather than physical faders takes a little getting used to, but it's not that hard!
The key to the operation of the DL1608 is Mackie's free Master Fader iPad application, and because this is a downloadable app, it means that improvements can be incorporated into later revisions. The Master Fader app is downloaded via iTunes, and once you've installed it you will probably be asked to allow it to update the DL1608 firmware (a process that takes several minutes).
Operation is exactly the same whether you're working with the iPad docked or over Wi-Fi, except that recording to and playing back audio from the iPad (see 'Play & Record' box) is not possible when mixing via Wi-Fi, as there isn't enough bandwidth.
For wireless use, you need to take your own Wi-Fi router to the venue and then position it to ensure the maximum possible range. The router then plugs into the back of the mixer using a standard Ethernet cable. The wireless range depends on the situation, but is pretty much as you'd expect from a typical Wi-Fi device, so in a pub or small club venue where there's line of sight to the stage, the range should be more than adequate. All my tests were done using an off-the-shelf Apple Airport Express (see 'Going Wireless' box).
The DL1608 has 16 inputs and 10 outputs, the latter comprising six aux outs, the stereo mix out and the headphone output (which normally duplicates the main mix). All 16 inputs can handle mic-level signals via Mackie's Onyx mic preamps, with the last four inputs having XLR/jack 'combi' connectors, allowing them also to accept line or instrument inputs on jacks. Power comes from an external power block that attaches via a locking connector, which is a pity, really, as internal power supplies feel so much more professional.
Aside from on/off and phantom-power switches, the only physical controls on the mixer relate to the input gain settings and the headphone output level. Each input gain trim also has a small LED associated with it that acts as a signal/clip indicator by showing green or red. All the connections, other than the power inlet and a network port, are on the sloping rear panel, with the main area of the front panel being given over to the iPad dock.
All three versions of the iPad are currently supported: the mixer comes with adaptors to accommodate the three different sizes, although if you use a first-generation iPad you'll need to remove four screws and take out the DL1608 tray insert (my iPad 3, however, slotted in straight away). For installation work, you can lock the iPad into the mixer, and also secure the mixer itself using a third-party Kensington Lock security fixture.
Constructionally, the mixer case is mainly plastic, but it seems adequately tough and it is certainly compact and light. There's not much to look at until you dock an iPad, as the iPad is the only way of viewing and adjusting the mixer's controls. Internally, the signal from the Onyx preamps passes through 24-bit Cirrus Logic converters with a quoted dynamic range of 114dB, which should allow for plenty of headroom without noise ever being an issue.
So what does the gigging band really need from a live mixer? Aux sends, of course, and here we have six sends that can be used for providing separate monitor mixes or feeding external effects. Then we need some delay and reverb effects to add to the vocals, and there are two internal send buses for this very purpose, which feed the built-in effects.
Each channel has access to a gate, a compressor and a four-band parametric EQ, which can be adjusted using sliders or by dragging the EQ curve directly. Additionally, all of the aux outputs, as well as the main mix output, have their own compressor/limiter, as well as a 31-band graphic EQ.
In the introduction, I mentioned multiple iPad support — surely a recipe for anarchy? Well, it could be, but the idea really is to allow individual band members to adjust their own monitor mixes, while the front-of-house engineer gets on with the job of balancing the gig. At present, though, there's no way of locking individual musicians out of messing up the main mix or the foldback mixes of other players, which would make me less nervous about connecting multiple iPads. I reviewed the first version of the release app, however, and Mackie have plans to update and improve the feature set via regular revisions, so this might be something they could add. Apparently, they're already getting useful user feedback from the beta version.
Pretty much all digital mixers have the ability to create and save scenes, and this one is no exception. On the DL1608, these are called Snapshots, and are essentially collections of fader and effects settings that can be saved to and recalled from the mixer. Once a Snapshot is loaded, the faders may be adjusted manually, so the engineer can still ride the guitar fader for solos and so on. Snapshots can be very useful at smaller variety-style gigs, to store settings for different acts, and, of course, the mixer could also be used for theatre mixing, where preset scenes are the usual way of working. Everything that can be adjusted from the iPad can be stored in a Snapshot, although the physical gain trims on the mixer itself cannot.
As well as Snapshots, the DL1608 has a channel presets section. Here you can store specific channel setups for things like vocals, kick drums, guitars and so on, and a good selection of starting points comes already loaded on the desk.
When making a preset, I sometimes leave the EQ set flat, but with the frequency and Q controls set to something appropriate for the instrument or voice in question. Further adjustment then only requires me to change the EQ cut or boost settings. These channel presets can then be called up to make it fast and easy to build up mixer Snapshots.
Finally, the DL1608 features 'Shows'. These are sets of slots into which you can save Snapshots (up to 99 per Show), so you can, for example, set up a Show with a different Snapshot for each song.
With Master Fader running and the 'Online' message showing at the top of the screen (if you're working via Wi-Fi), the screen shows eight of the channel faders at a time, plus the master fader on the right. Below each channel fader is a channel ID box, which can be set to reflect whatever is connected to that channel's input (see 'Channel Identification' box). Mackie have adopted what they call a 'glow and grow' approach to the fader caps, where you have to touch them for half a second or so to allow them to move — a useful safeguard against accidental operation. Once your finger comes to rest on a fader cap, it glows and expands in size slightly.
The meters running up the fader slots show the input (pre-fader) level, and are calibrated with 10dB of headroom above the 0dB mark. As digital circuitry isn't keen on clipping, it is best to aim to peak at 0dB rather than running the channels as hot as possible. Channel pans are in the form of horizontal sliders, and tapping any pan slider twice centralises it. The red bar above the fader shows any gain reduction due to gating or compression. The mute and solo buttons are clearly marked and light up in red when active.
Channels for the reverb, delay and stereo iPad playback are shown directly after mixer channel 16, and you can get to the channels beyond the first eight simply by swiping the display horizontally in the meter area. The reverb and delay bus screens differ slightly from the other channel strips, as they are stereo, to carry the outputs from the stereo on-board effects. This means that the horizontal slider controls just below their mute buttons adjust their balance rather than pan, as is the case for the mono channels. There are no dynamics in the effects channels either, so you don't see the red gain-reduction bars that are visible across the top of all the mono channel faders. There are also no aux send faders to send the reverb or delay back to themselves, which is just as well, as such errors can cause horrible feedback.
As with a typical analogue console, the solo buttons enable the mix engineer to audition channels before they are brought up in the mix. When one or more solo buttons are engaged, only the solo'd channels are heard in the headphones. Solo is taken pre-fader, so the level of the channel fader or mute button status does not affect the level heard in the headphones. Any EQ changes will also be audible in the headphones.
Smaller digital mixers tend to be all about control layers, and if you look to the right of the master fader you'll see a vertical strip of abbreviations denoting the L/R mix, aux sends 1-6, reverb and delay. Using the 'glow and grow' button press, you can select the layer you wish to access. If you hit A1, for example, the faders will relate to aux send 1, which you can set to pre- or post-fader using the buttons above the master fader. Note, however, that when on an aux layer, the master fader controls the relevant aux output level, not the main mix level.
Below any open faders is a coloured line where the slot in a hardware mixer would normally be, and this is colour coded to show you which page you're on (the main mix, an aux mix or reverb/delay). While this is a good idea, it can be hard to differentiate the dark blue, lighter blue and purple lines they've used for some of the auxes. A more prominent block of colour, perhaps in the header bar at the top of the screen, would be a little more obvious.
On the subject of the header bar, this contains a window showing the value of the last parameter adjusted, as well as the Snapshot and Preset buttons, which take you to the Snapshot and Preset pages. Unlike the other pages (EQ, Dynamics, and so on), in Snapshot or Preset mode there is no Mixer button to take you back, which seems a little inconsistent. Instead, you have to tap the Snapshot or Preset button again to exit that mode and return to the mixer screen. I'd have liked to see a single button here for muting both the reverb and delay, as you never know when the singer will decide to tell a joke and you need to switch off the effects in less time than it takes them to draw breath!
Tapping the symbol above the Wi-Fi icon in the header bar accesses settings for the Master Fader app, including a Devices section for choosing which DL1608 device to control, in case you're using more than one DL1608 at the same time. If the mixer can't 'see' an iPad, the word 'Offline' will be shown below the tool menu.
A small EQ graph at the top of each channel shows any curve you've set up, and also, if you tap it, allows you to access the EQ section. Once in the EQ screen, you have access to a four-band equaliser comprising high and low shelving filters and two fully parametric mid-bands (the high and low filters can optionally be made parametric types too). Additionally, there's a variable-frequency low-cut filter.
To the left of the EQ graph is the channel strip you're working on, while to the right is the master fader. A display in the centre of the header bar shows the status or value of the last parameter that was adjusted, and the EQ can be tweaked either by using the small sliders below the graph, or by dragging on the EQ graph directly. A button lets you switch the EQ on and off, plug-in style, and a further button allows the channel polarity to be inverted. A Mixer button at the top left takes you right back to the main mixer display. From the EQ screen, you can also swipe vertically to get to the dynamics screen. This works, but I'd have preferred simple buttons, as the swiping can be a bit hit-and-miss if you touch the wrong part of the screen.
The Dynamics page shows the gate in the top half of the screen and the compressor at the bottom, with bypass buttons and five user-adjustable controls for each. Both the compressor and gate have threshold, attack and release controls, and the gate also has hold-time adjustment and a range setting, to determine how much the signal is attenuated when the gate is closed. The compressor has ratio and gain controls, as well as a hard/soft-knee switch. Both the gate and compressor sections show a graphical display of input against output, including a gain-reduction bar. Like the EQ, the gate and compression parameters can be adjusted either via sliders, or via the 'balls' on each graph, which can be dragged to change parameters directly.
From both the Dynamics and EQ screens, swiping from left to right moves backwards and forwards through the channels. Swiping all the way to the end of the channels brings up the effects view, which shows reverb above the delay. Each effect has four adjustable parameters, in addition to the channel send level and the effect output level. There is a choice of nine reverb types, from plate and ambience, through various room sizes (up to a cathedral), to gated reverb, and even a spring. The delay has mono, tape, stereo, ping-pong and multi-tap modes, and delay times can be set either via a tap-tempo button (two, in fact, for stereo delays), or numerically. The remaining delay controls are for feedback and HF damping, while the reverb offers adjustable pre-delay, damping, decay time and HF roll-off.
Above the master fader is a thumbnail of a 31-band graphic equaliser, and tapping this opens a full-size graphic EQ window, where you can either adjust individual faders or hit the Draw button to draw the curve in by hand. Again, you have to swipe from the EQ page to get to the compressor/limiter. This is much like the dynamics section available for the input channels, but without the gate. There's enough adjustment range for it to be used as a straightforward compressor or, with the ratio set to maximum, as a limiter to prevent output levels from becoming too high.
My experience with the Mackie DL1608 was largely positive, as the app is pretty well thought-out, even in this first version, and I experienced no noticeable delay at all when operating buttons or faders over Wi-Fi. I was worried that the touch faders might not be adequately precise, but this wasn't a problem — they are sensibly long and stay put when you release them. The EQ is workmanlike and effective, while the effects are rather good, and certainly up to the task. Also, six aux sends available for monitor mixes is more than many much larger consoles give you.
Worried about what happens if the Wi-Fi link goes down for any reason? In that event, because the iPad doesn't pass audio itself, the mixer simply retains its current settings, giving you time to dock the iPad and continue working.
My original observation regarding better visual differentiation between the L/R mix and the various aux layers still stands, and it would probably speed up proceedings if the EQ page were redesigned slightly to accommodate aux-send levels, so that it could function as a comprehensive channel strip. I'd also really like an all-effects bypass button in the header bar to kill the delay and reverb in one go.
I mentioned to Mackie that I thought the snapshots section should also include a song list, where you could drag and drop songs into a new running order, and also link each song to a suitable snapshot. After all, it is quite likely that many songs will need the same snapshot, so this would avoid duplication. Whether this appears in an update remains to be seen, but all that aside, the mixer is very usable as it is, and packs a lot of functionality into its compact form.
For those playing pub gigs and similar venues, the Wi-Fi control aspect is a big deal, as there are Health & Safety issues associated with trying to route a multicore from the stage to the mixing position, and there's always the problem of the landlord saying "You can't put that there!” when you find the perfect spot for the mixer. At larger gigs, he Wi-Fi controllability also gives you the chance to walk around the stage and adjust the monitor balance.
The availability of consumer technology — in this case, iPads — brings so much sophisticated functionality at such a low price point. The problem with consumer technology, though, is that it changes very quickly, so if the iPad evolves into a radically different product over the next few years, you might find yourself trawling eBay for a suitable used one that is still compatible with the mixer. Personally, that's a chance I'm prepared to take with the DL1608 — I want one!
None of the available alternatives are directly comparable in features or in price, although the option of iPad remote control is offered by the PreSonus StudioLive mixers and the new Line 6 StageScape M20d mixer, as well as by several high-end professional consoles.
There are lots of Wi-Fi routers that will work with the DL1608 — it just needs to connect to the mixer via Ethernet. Mackie strongly suggest going with 802.11n as the Wi-Fi mode, though 802.11g also works.
To get set up, you plug a Cat 5 Ethernet cable into the network port on the back of the mixer, and then plug the other end into a LAN port on the router (not a WAN port). Mackie also suggest setting Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) for security purposes, as you don't want audience members loading up the app and then dialling into your mix! If you're given a choice of Wi-Fi band, Mackie also recommend using 5GHz, though 2.4GHz also works fine. You should also enable Auto Channel Selection so that the Wi-Fi channel with the least interference will be selected automatically. That should work but, if not, Mackie have a troubleshooting section on their web site to help get you up and running. With my Apple Airport Express, setting up was even simpler: I just connected it and followed the on-screen instructions in the iPad's network settings section, and it all worked once I'd done a mixer firmware update.
Identifying channels only by their numbers means finding your reading glasses and paying attention — two things our engineer prefers not to do, if he can help it! Naming mixer channels is fine, and the Master Fader app allows this, but the wonderful graphic capability of the iPad comes into its own here, as you can import photos of instruments or even the band members to use as channel identification. There are a few stock icons you can use in the factory channel presets section, but creating your own adds a whole new sense of style to the proceedings! All you need is to ensure you have pics of the band members or of suitable instruments in your iPad, and then when you tap the Channel ID button, a menu will open asking you to name the channel or to select an image from an available photo.
You might want to use backing tracks during a gig, or to play background music during a break in a show. This is catered for with a special mixer channel, separate from the physical inputs, that lets you play back music from iTunes or another music app (as long as it supports background playback). You can also record your gig mix in stereo, using the Master Fader app, but you can't record all individual tracks individually, nice though that would be.
Recording is achieved by pressing the Record button, which is in the same place on the master fader strip as the solo button is on the input channels.