Can mixers this small really provide all the preamps and monitor control facilities you need?
While large consoles may attract all the longing glances, the reality is that many studios now can do without them, but there remains a very real role for smaller mixers, both live and in the studio. Mackie are one of the leaders in this market with their VLZ3 series, as you'll know if you read Hugh Robjohns' review of the 1642 VLZ3 in SOS May 2007 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/may07/articles/mackie1642.htm), but they've also released much smaller models employing the same technology.
The 802 VLZ3, and its even smaller sibling the 402 VLZ3, feature the same circuit design and tough steel-chassis construction as their larger siblings but have slightly condensed feature sets, and of course fewer input channels. But there are some other useful features, too: for example, one thing that's novel in both is that they have three mounting holes in the base to attach an optional mic-stand adaptor, and this makes them particularly convenient for live use.
With three mic/line channels and two dedicated stereo line-input channels, a stereo effects return and a tape return, the 802 VLZ3 can mix a maximum of 11 inputs. The stereo inputs are normally panned hard left and right, but plugging into the left input only places the mono signal equally in both channels, to give a central image.
All three mic/line channels have balanced XLR mic inputs, balanced TRS-jack line inputs, TRS insert points (which, with the right cable, can double as direct outs), and globally switchable phantom power. Because of the size of the mixer, the PSU is in the form of an external adaptor, with a sensible locking connector. Each mono channel has input gain trims, an aux send and a three-band EQ, with a fixed 2.5kHz mid control between the usual 12kHz and 80Hz high- and low-shelving controls. All mic/line channels have low-cut switches, but channels 2 and 3 also have instrument switches to convert the line inputs to high-impedance DI inputs.
All three EQ sections have a ±15dB range with centre detents at the flat position. The same EQ is available on the two dedicated stereo channels, and all the main channels have pan/balance and level control (with +12dB extra gain) on rotary pots, Mute/Alt 3/4 buttons and PFL Solo buttons. The Mute/Alt 3/4 idea was introduced by Mackie many years ago as a low-cost means of combining the functions of a mute and a routing button. Essentially the mixer is designed with an extra pair of output buses, and this button routes the signal there instead of to the main output. If you don't need the extra outputs, routing a signal to Alt 3/4 essentially mutes it — but of course if you do need all four outputs at the same time, then you have no mute buttons.
The main outputs are presented on both balanced XLRs and jacks, and a neat touch is that the output level can be switched between +4dBu and mic level, so that you could use the 802 VLZ3 as a submixer feeding into a pair of mic inputs on a larger console. Other than the tape ins and outs, which are on RCA phonos, the remaining signal connections are on quarter-inch jacks. All the jack sockets are metal and — other than the insert points, of course — all can be used either balanced or unbalanced.
As you'd expect from a small mixer, the master section is fairly simple, with rotary level controls both for the main and control room outputs. The control room source can be either Alt 3/4, Tape (or both) or the main mix. An 'Assign to Main Mix' button routes Alt 3/4, or Tape when selected, into the main mix. Lines printed on the front panel make the routing fairly obvious. The phones output, which has a separate level control, follows the control-room assignment and pressing a solo button puts only the soloed signal into the control room and phones outputs. The PFL shows up on the right output meter but, as you'd expect, the main output isn't interrupted. A flashing 'rude' solo button shows when any channel's solo button is active. The single aux send also has a level control, plus a global pre-post switch (for foldback or effect send use), so there are plenty of routing options — for example, to record the three mic outputs via separate DAW input channels while sending the stereo line inputs to yet another pair of DAW inputs.
A useful trick with small mixers is to feed the DAW output back into the tape inputs and set the control room source as Tape. This separates the mixer and the monitor section so that you can use the mixer channels and routing buttons to feed the DAW while using the Control Room level control to adjust your monitor level. In this role, the mixer can replace discrete outboard mic preamps, monitor controller and a headphone amp in the smaller studio.
Electrically, the mixer is substantially the same as its larger family members, but being smaller it has a simpler signal path, so on paper, at least, its performance should be slightly better. The mic amps offer better than -129dB EIN at maximum gain and there's plenty of headroom: the main outputs can handle up to +28dB before clipping, and the other outputs at least +22dB; the mic inputs can accommodate up to +21dB, and all other inputs up to +22dB. An overall frequency response of 30Hz-30kHz (+0/-1dB) is quoted at 60dB of gain, and this rises to 10Hz-100kHz (+0/-3dB) at unity gain. Distortion measured at 35dB gain, 20Hz-20kHz, is 0.001 percent. What this all adds up to is big Mackie mixer spec in a small mixer!
The 402 VLZ3 is an even simpler affair. Indeed, it is about as basic as a mixer can be while still being deserving of the name! Like the 802 (and unlike the bigger mixers in the series), it runs from an external power supply. As Mackie's advertising makes abundantly clear, it takes up about the same desk space as a small paperback book.
The 802 gives you two mic/line channels with switchable phantom power, a stereo channel with jack inputs and a rotary level-control, and a further stereo 'tape' input using XLRs, again with a rotary level control. The tape input can be assigned to the main mix via a button, although it always feeds the phones output, which in other respects follows the main mix and has its own level control. The two mic/line channels have two-band EQ, (±15dB at 80Hz and 12kHz) input-gain trims and rotary level-controls, but gone are the insert points and aux sends of the larger models. A further rotary control is used to adjust the master output level, and there's a stereo, nine-stage LED meter to the right, showing the output level in both channels. The output also goes to a pair of 'Tape Out' phonos. While there are no pan controls, a '1L 2R' button sets the mic/line channels so that the first feeds only the left output and the second only the right, which means that you can separate the two mic amps for recording into different channels in your DAW.
Because there's no conventional monitor switching, you can't use the mixer in the usual way, as a front end for recording while at the same time using the output section as a monitor controller (by selecting to monitor only the tape return and using that as your DAW input). However, you can achieve zero-latency source monitoring while recording, by monitoring via headphones and feeding the DAW output back into the tape input, providing the 'Assign to Main' button is set to 'off'.
Despite its simplicity, the 402 VLZ3 offers a pair of very proficient and quiet mic amps that are exactly the same as in the larger VLZ3 mixers, and these can be used for recording as an alternative to a pair of stand-alone mic preamps — and you get the benefit of basic but effective EQ too. This mixer should also work well for location recording direct to a stereo device, or for mixing a couple of mics and instruments for a small-scale live sound event, where the tape input can be used to handle an additional stereo line-level source such as an MP3 player or keyboard.
The VLZ3 mic preamps sound extremely good. An expensive boutique preamp may give you more 'character', but there's little that these mixers can't handle, and I'd have no hesitation in using them for serious recording projects. The high- and low-shelving EQs work smoothly and predictably for general tone-shaping, while the fixed-mid controls are better suited to cutting than boosting —but used in moderation they're fine for reducing harshness in vocals and acoustic guitars.
The 802 would be a good choice to act as a monitor controller and preamp for a DAW system (if you don't need to record more than three mic tracks at a time), but it will also appeal to live performers. The 402 is rather more limited, because it has no insert points and aux sends, and the lack of monitor switching means you can't use it as the centre of a DAW signal-routing system, but it's worth the ticket price purely for the two mic amps, and it can similarly serve for basic live sound use, as well as offering a decent front end for direct-to-stereo location recording. (If you're looking for points of comparison, try models by manufacturers such as Alesis, Soundcraft, Behringer, Edirol and Phonic.)
These two little mixers extend the range of formats available within the VLZ3 series at a bargain price without compromising the excellent sound or build quality.
- Good, clean-sounding preamps.
- 802 performs well as a monitor controller.
- Easy-to-use layout.
- Sturdy construction.
- Some users prefer faders to knobs.
These budget 'swiss-army-knife' mixers sound good and are ideal for basic home-recording and live-sound duties.
802 VLZ3 £199; 402 VLZ3 £109.
Prices include VAT.
Mackie UK +44 (0)1494 557398.