It's hard to believe that Mackie mixers have only been around for five years, and in that time they've grown from a garage operation into a world-leading company that even the Japanese look up to and respect. The man behind the company is Greg Mackie, an ex-Boeing worker who used to make guitar amps and PA gear in his spare time. Inevitably, Greg left Boeing and set up TAPCO with school chum Martin Schneider, making small PA mixers. These look crude by today's standards, but they were immensely popular then, and by 1974 TAPCO's sales figures were running into millions. Eventually, the company grew, taking on new partners, until it became so large that Greg and Martin had to leave to regain control of their own destinies. Martin set up his own silk-screening business, while Greg stayed with audio, setting up AudioControl, where he built equalisers and analysers designed for use in home systems. However, Greg still felt a strong affinity for the pro-audio and MI markets and ultimately sold AudioControl to start yet another venture, designing and building compact mixers, recognising that the rash of growth in the keyboard and MIDI market provided new opportunities for those building the right kind of mixer at the right price.
The company's first product was the LM1602 keyboard mixer, but it was the 1604 that turned Mackie into a front-runner. Greg was forced to move his manufacturing out of his condo and into a factory, though this was outgrown in just nine months. This trend continued, with the company moving to larger premises about once a year; at the time of my visit, they'd had the foundations of a 90,000 square-foot factory laid to replace the already impressive 30,000 square-foot factory they currently occupy.
I first spoke to Greg Mackie three or four years ago, when he explained that the Seattle area has a wealth of electronic and engineering companies able to supply sub-contracting services, largely due to the presence of Boeing. Other famous music names in the Seattle area are Symetrix, Rane and Carver, not to mention the software giant Microsoft (known locally as The Borg!), Hewlett Packard, Applied Technologies Labs, Fluke -- and a great many more.
What I find surprising is that Mackie have achieved such success with just three main products: the 1202, the 1604 and the 8-Buss mixers. I was also surprised at the amount of in-house manufacturing -- the only thing farmed out now is the metalwork. Much of the board assembly work is done using automatic component insertion machines, and latest designs are moving to surface-mount technology, which has meant the purchase of two more specialised machines at a cost of around three quarters of a million dollars each. But important though the technology is, the real reason for the success of Mackie is that the products are designed to offer the right balance of performance, flexibility and build quality at a price the end user can afford. This has meant building a manufacturing facility efficient enough to out-perform Far Eastern facilities, including the Japanese, and this seems to have been achieved by a combination of good working practices and a commitment to creating a working environment in which staff morale and motivation is always high. Greg is quick to point out that Mackie is a team effort, though most of the members of staff I spoke to suggested that Greg was one of those people who could walk into virtually any area of the factory (or admin. department) and find ways to make things happen more efficiently.
Angie Rivers is the Production Manager for Mackie, and is responsible for around 200 assembly workers, though this number will increase when they move to the new factory in December. Mackie obviously has a very liberal attitude towards promotional clothing, as Angie was wearing an Alesis X2 T-shirt when we met! Angie started out assembling proucts for Carver and then moved into liaison between manufacturing and engineering, which provided her with a good grounding for her present position. She's been at Mackie almost since the start, and despite still being only in her mid '20s, she obviously has an astute and well-focused mind when it comes to running a factory. I commented that her workforce seemed to be growing very quickly.
"Last August, we had just 80 employees -- we've added 120 in eleven months! We add them as fast as we can, but we have to maintain the quality and level of training while we're doing it. It's a really fine line between demand and our ability to produce, because we don't want to compromise our quality at all."
Angie was kind enough to give me the guided tour of the shop floor; I asked whether the regular factory moves interfered with her production schedules.
"Not at all. This is our fourth building, so we're pretty much experts at this moving thing. We'll shut down for half a day on Friday, move Friday night and over the weekend, and be in full production at 7am Monday. I don't look forward to moving, but I do look forward to being there."
One of the new additions to the automated assembly system is an axial component insertion machine, which is used to fit components such as electrolytic capacitors.
"This used to take up to 60% of board assembly time, and the machine does about the same work as eight people. We have about 50 people doing hand insertion, but all the machines are going too. The plan is to move even more towards automation and then use the people we already have in final assembly to enable us to produce larger quantities. The automated insertion machines also check the components as they are inserted for value, polarity and correct position on the circuit board.
"Some components still have to be inserted by hand, including ICs, some mylar capacitors, pots, switches and LEDs."
At the soldering stage, precision jigs are used to align the potentiometers and sockets so that they mate perfectly with the metalwork -- also manufactured with computer precision.
"We use a lot of pots and switches, so these people are stuffing about a million parts a week by hand. The circuit board panels, all double-sided glass fibre with plated-through holes, are built in standard sizes which, depending on the end product, may actually comprise multiples of smaller circuit boards. This makes them easier to flow solder, and the panels can be cut up into individual boards after soldering. From the time a board is assembled to the time the product is completed is typically half a day, and we ship all our product every day.
"Once the boards are built, they move on to board-level test, where they are 100% tested and any faults rectified before the board is put into a chassis. We have recently combined the production lines for the 1202 and 1604, with a separate production area for the 8-Buss consoles and expansion modules. All the mixers are final tested at the end of the line using real music -- some of the employees bring in their own CDs!"
The 8-Buss mixers are assembled on individual carts or trolleys rather than on the bench, which keeps them mobile and prevents them getting scratched during manufacture.
"The top of the chassis is fixed on the cart face down and fixed through the screw holes at the side. All assembly and test is done with the mixer on the cart, so the console is only handled once when it's going into the box. Each circuit board holds eight channels of mixer circuitry, so we can use the same board in all formats of the mixer as well as in the expander."
We've found that mixers don't require any burn-in period, though 8-Buss power supplies are soak tested because of the heat they produce. We get a return rate of less than 1%, and most of these turn out not to be faulty at all. Everything in the studio gets connected to the mixer, so if there's a problem, the mixer always gets blamed.
"We run the production line so that the export models (different mains voltages) are produced on different days, and all export models are shipped on Fridays."
It is evident that you have good morale and efficiency here, as well as effective internal communications, but how is this achieved?
"One thing we do is produce a monthly internal newsletter in which we address any employees' birthdays, we introduce new employees, and because many of our people are also musicians, we advertise their gigs. We also include new product news and reports from the field. We want our people to be proud of the product they build, so we want to give them as much information as possible. It's also important that as we grow, we keep that small company feeling and have everybody play a part.
"I think the high level of productivity and quality control is primarily down to attitude and the belief that we can do it. There's a perception in the United States that you can't cost-effectively manufacture here, and we've proved that to be wrong. We pay a competitive base wage as well as a productivity bonus which, on average, means they earn an extra $2.50 an hour."
"Most of the time, we still can't build enough mixers to supply demand, but every month we add people and get better at what we're doing. We have daily goals rather than monthly goals -- with monthly goals it's too easy to fall behind -- and our production people are really dedicated to doing what needs to be done to satisfy our customers."
How easy is it to get supplies on time from your metalwork contractors?
"Before the 8-Buss console, we had a single metalwork supplier but now we have five, and all have bought more equipment so that they can keep up with our demands. That's also true of some of our circuit board suppliers, and Mackie is now just about Panasonic's biggest customer for electro-mechanical components, so they tend to look after us. We have a shorter lead time on components, which helps enormously when you're introducing a new model. We have multiple vendors supplying all the time, and understandably, individual suppliers don't want too much of their business to come from a single company, as it puts them in a very vulnerable position."
Too many got burnt when Boeing cut back the work it was contracting out.
"Right. This building came vacant because of one of those casualties. Ultimately, I wouldn't be surprised if we went into manufacturing some of our own custom components, just so we could control our own destiny."
Do you ever have fights with Greg because of the way he's so closely involved in all the departments?
"Yes I do. One of the things I enjoy about working for Greg is that you can fight with him, and our fights are always productive. It's usually that we have different approaches to accomplishing the same thing, and if you have a good argument with evidence to support it, he'll defer to you and give you the opportunity to prove it."
Of course no look at Mackie the company would be complete without firing off a few questions at Mackie the man. Firstly, I was curious to know what Greg's views were on integral automation systems, rather than add-ons such as OttoMix.
"You will have noticed that there actually was a MIDI In socket on earlier prototypes of the 8-buss console, so you can tell that we've been thinking about this question for some time. At this point in the evolution of automation, we're tending toward outboard systems -- this will be the format for our upcoming 8-Buss automation system. One of the reasons -- and I keep emphasising the phrase 'at this point' -- is cost. We prefer to offer our desks at the most reasonable price possible, and building in MIDI-automated volume and muting would add significantly to the cost. On the other hand, I can definitely see a time in the future when mixers will be considered as just another MIDI controlled device. However, better control surfaces will be needed, so it must wait until the technology becomes more affordable or until the majority of purchasers are prepared to pay the extra cost. Until then, we'll keep it as an option.
"A final reason is that MIDI isn't the only interface that we must consider. Mixers used in video applications use completely different protocols, and because we must consider this growing and important market, we want to keep our options open."
How will your add-on automation system be presented?
"As I stated before, we're very committed to affordable automation. For the most part, it will take the form of easily-implemented external control boxes that connect into a mixer's inserts and then create an easily-accessible insert 'patchbay' on the face of the automation box. We will also be releasing an expander box that adds 32 more channels of automation and a fader pack interface. Finally, we're offering a very powerful software package that ties the whole thing together.
"This modular approach gives the user the greatest possible flexibility -- they're not paying for automation if they don't want it and they can add more channels as necessary. They can control the automation with a fader pack, a mouse and software, or a combination of both. In fact, they can use our upcoming automation system with any mixer that has inserts or anything else that has line outputs."
With digital consoles, it is possible to automate just about every switch, fader and knob on the console, but how far is it practical to go with digitally controlled analogue before the cost gets out of hand?
"Until digital sound undergoes at least one more iteration of improvement, I feel that digital control of analogue mixers is the only practical approach. At the high end, Euphonix has done a great job of proving this. As to how we're approaching analogue mixer automation, well -- our new line of automation products for the 8-Buss is the best illustration, and when you see the whole package unveiled, I think you'll see some real surprises.
"In terms of sound quality, our current automation approach has satisfied even the pickiest ears. It's free of zipper noise and distortion, it doesn't compromise the mixer in any way, and it offers perfectly even, step-free level control."
I have to mention the Yamaha ProMix 01, because whatever else it does, it sets a new target in terms of what kind of facilities people expect to get at a given price. On the other hand, it also emphasises the problem involved in connecting one piece of digital equipment to another -- the ProMix 01 has only analogue inputs, presumably to get around the problem of matching sample rates and synchronisation.
"First let me say that the ProMix 01 is a very impressive technical achievement. Not having heard it yet, I can't comment on its sonics, but there's obviously some very serious engineering here. Our hats off to Yamaha in that respect.
"However, at the risk of sounding like sour grapes, we've also noticed the limitations you just mentioned. But that's not what we have the biggest problem with -- it's the user interface. Analogue mixers are, by nature, full of redundancy, with EQ, aux sends, switches and so on duplicated on every channel. So why is it done? It's done to ensure that the user is never more than one step away from being able to make a change. More Hi-Mid boost on the hi-hat channel? You reach out and turn the knob on that channel. This is a critical factor in terms of usability, especially in live situations.
"When you must cycle through a series of options, make a choice and then affect a change, you've lost your ability to be spontaneously creative or head off a problem quickly. The current state of digital interfaces makes this kind of multiple step approach necessary for the product developers, but it's very difficult for the end-users to operate.
"Sonics aside, it's the inherent usability and ergonomics that make or break a console in the long run. We spend a lot of time trying to make our mixers easy to use. Our current R&D efforts are aimed not only at improving the sound quality of our products but also making sure that every single control is the right size, right colour, correctly labelled and fast to use. In that context, we take the Yamaha ProMix 01 seriously to task."
But you must be thinking of digital audio circuitry long term?
"We are making a full-scale, but at the same time long-term commitment to digital. It has to sound as good as analogue before we would present a Mackie digital console to the marketplace. That means 24-bit A-to-Ds and D-to-As which, currently, would make something like the 8-Buss phenomenally expensive. In out opinion, digital is getting there, but it definitely isn't there yet. So our R&D department has a long road ahead of it. I can envisage a long line of prototype mixers which will never make it past my office because of the way they sound. To be digital and Mackie, it will have to sound extremely good indeed.
"On the other hand you're absolutely right: the digital interface is very attractive, but while it can offer storage, recall, some visual feedback and many other valuable enhancements to the creative process, it must also afford the user the same level of convenience as the traditional analogue channel strip approach. That's the area where we're concentrating our efforts. As I mentioned earlier, I think you'll be very impressed when we finally take the wraps off some of the things we're currently involved in. For the foreseeable future, we believe that digital control of analogue will offer the best possible combination of sonics and price."
Why has nobody built a conventional analogue mixer with electronic ground lift on the line inputs, to help eliminate the hum problems that seem to plague so many home studios, especially those using a lot of MIDI gear? It would have seemed a logical thing to put on your new 3204 keyboard mixer.
"We recommend that the user lifts the ground at the keyboard end, since the mixer input grounds are part of the master ground plane of the entire mixer. Incidentally, our method of input grounding is going to be used as a model for future AES grounding schemes for audio mixers."
Will we see Mackie diversifying in the same way that Alesis have?
"Diversification is the key! You'll soon see a Mackie grand piano, Mackie CD players -- and, of course, a Mackie motorcycle. Just kidding!
"We're 100% committed to specialising in mixers. There are lots of kinds of mixers: broadcast mixers; video-post mixers; film mixers; monitor mixers; ENG mixers; multimedia mixers; powered mixers; permanent installation contractors' mixers. The more kinds of mixers we make, the better we get at it and the more economies of scale we can pass on to the consumer. Specialisation focuses our engineering, manufacturing and support to make the best mixers ever. We believe in keeping to the product categories that we have experience in and where we have something special to offer. We can continue to produce mixers for many years to come and still, in effect, diversify as much as we care to."
My next call was on David Firestone, Vice President of Sales and Marketing. I asked whether it was unusual for a company to reach this size with a history of only three major products.
"One of the video post-production magazines pursued us for an article describing how we'd specifically designed the product for their market. We stalled them for a long time because we couldn't give them a very good answer, but finally, I told them that we didn't design it specifically for their market -- Greg just designed a very versatile mixer. We planned the products to be good, but we didn't realise there'd be such a wide demand, and I think that's a reflection on the state of the industry. People are getting their dream in being able to have their own studio at a price that's affordable, and our products are really good for use with digital recording in terms of sound quality.
"Take the 1202; we don't know where the legs are on this thing, but the more we make, the more we sell. They go into every kind of market; people use them almost like an audio toolbox. Greg has one at home and he really loves using it."
It must make it easier to focus your marketing resources when you have a concise product line.
"That's true, and we debate all the time about how we'll handle a larger range of products, because it makes it difficult, not just from the marketing point of view, but also in manufacturing. One thing we'll continue to do is share technology; for example, the mic preamps in the 1202 are the same as those in the 8-Buss series because there's no reason to change them. Our products are separated by features rather than by quality, so it becomes an application-driven thing, and hopefully we can divide the applications into enough categories so as not to make it complicated for the customer."
Now that you have an established product line that spans small mixer to large mixer, and the keyboard mixer just coming on line, where do you go next? So far you've succeeded because your products are versatile enough to address several markets, but will extending your product line mean designing products for specialist applications?
"There's clearly lots of room for products in the specialist markets. I'm always asking everybody in the retail business whether their mic sales or digital recorder sales have gone up or down. There seem to be lots of products being sold to plug into both the inputs and outputs of mixers, and there are lots of applications that we just haven't touched yet.
"There is a commercial sound market; the presentation market is one category of that where you get seminars or presentations set up in hotels. Between that and teleconferencing, the potential market is huge. One of the reps made a point that contractors are very conservative and don't like to change what they're using, even if it isn't the best product for the job. However, our 8-Buss was specified in many contracts before it had even been brought to market. How could that happen if that's the way contractors really are? We set a precedent, and with our design and manufacturing capabilities, we can access some pretty big markets if we define them well enough.
"Another niche becomes evident if you look at the marketing pyramid, which shows high sales of low cost items at the bottom and a very small number of sales of very specialised products at the top. There's a whole bunch of people out there who want to take a shot at moving up to the real stuff after they've messed around with the entry-level stuff. We think there's really good potential in the entry-level market by giving people quality at a point where they may not necessarily even know what they really want, but by making sure they get everything they need, we can be sure that when they get it home, they'll really like it.
"The 1202 is a strange product because it is really an entry-level mixer, but it's also good enough to use as a professional tool. It's amazing how many pros are using it because of the quality and its small size. But there's also people looking for more channels, but without the expense."