Mackie crown their DL series of app–controlled mixers with this full–featured stagebox–format model. Find out what’s new in our exclusive review!
Most live–sound mixers that offer wireless control also have physical control surfaces. With their new DL32R, however, Mackie have followed an all–wireless approach, based on their original iPad–controlled DL1608 concept. Having used a DL1608 since its introduction, I can say that it is pretty friendly, it has excellent EQ and dynamics, and the format saves both on setup time and on cabling. I have to admit that I was somewhat nervous the first few times I used the DL1608, as I didn’t know how reliably the wireless link would hold up, but having used it for a couple of years now I can confirm that I’ve never had any dropouts. If you do move out of Wi–Fi range, the mixer continues doing whatever it is set to do until you get back in range — there’s no interruption to the audio.
The new DL32R is a 32–channel live–sound mixer, and can be seen as a straight evolution of the DL1608 paradigm but with a rackmount format, an increased I/O count, numerous new facilities including Dante compatibility (yet to be added in the version under review), the option to save and share settings via Dropbox, the ability to handle multitrack recording and playback, and complete wireless control over all parameters — including preamp gain. When Dante is operational it will be full 32x32-capable and independent of any USB routing. Currently, full 32x32 routing is possible via USB.
Though at the time of writing the DL32R wasn’t due to be released for several weeks, we were fortunate enough to get hold of one of the very first hardware units along with a late beta version of the Master Fader software that runs it. When I reviewed the DL1608, I felt that a few graphical improvements could perhaps have been made to the app to improve navigation, and it seems that some of these have now been added. Once the release version 3 of the Master Fader app becomes available in late 2014, existing DL1608 users will also benefit from many of these improvements.
Presented as a 3U rack unit with an integral universal–voltage power supply, the DL32R is ideally suited to placement at the side of or even on the stage where it can function as a stage box. A pair of metal handles allow for lifting and they also protect the connector panel. The DL32R connects to any suitable third–party wireless router via a standard Ethernet cable, and the router then talks to your iPad running the free–to–download Master Fader app. In fact, you can download and run the app without the mixer to see if you like the look of it before you decide to buy the mixer. Apple’s Airport Express is a safe choice of router and is easy to set up.
All the casework is metal rather than plastic, and there’s inbuilt cooling from two low–noise fans. All the audio connections are on the front panel, and this time around they’re all on XLRs, other than the last eight inputs (which are on combi XLR/jack connectors), and the headphone socket and two monitor outs, all of which are on quarter–inch jacks. There are now 14 assignable XLR analogue outputs (outputs 13 and 14 normally carrying the main output), and a further AES-format digital output allows the connection of external digital processors or effects. These outputs may be used to carry monitor mixes, bus outs, effects sends, mix matrices or whatever you deem appropriate, and the default setup maps the first 10 aux sends to the first 10 XLR outputs. Routing is easily set up via a dedicated routing page in the Master Fader app — just touch a node to break the connection or touch an intersection to create a new routing node. Sources are on the horizontal axis, destinations on the vertical axis, and you can feed a single source to multiple destinations if you wish.
There’s no dedicated iPad dock this time around, and you can’t run it with a wired connection to the iPad as you could with the DL1608, though there is a USB port and you can charge USB devices from it. I thought this might be because Mackie were wrong–footed by Apple after the release of the DL1608 when Apple canned the 30–pin iPad connector and replaced it with the current Lightning connector. I checked with Mackie and this was their reply: “We didn’t make it wireless–only because of Apple. We made it wireless–only because we truly believe wireless mixing is the future. We focused on making the best wireless workflow and having a docked iPad isn’t compatible with that. The majority of our DL1608 users mix wirelessly at every show and tell us that’s what they like most about the DL1608. With the DL32R we removed the few remaining barriers (remote controlled mic preamps and recording and playback) and delivered a product that allows complete wireless control.”
While I fully understand that sentiment (as I also work fully wireless with my DL1608), I still feel that being able to control the system from a cabled iPad would be a useful backup option in case the router decided to blow up mid-show. When working live you can never have too many contingency plans!
On the rear panel are an Ethernet port, an IEC mains inlet and a pair of USB 2 connectors (one type A, one type B), while two status LEDs on the front panel confirm power up and network lock. If no network communication is found, the network LED flashes. When locked it stays lit. Once the system is configured, all the components are recognised next time they are connected and powered up. As with the DL1608, you can also either sync the mixer to the current iPad settings or vice versa.
The input stage is based around what Mackie term their new Onyx+ recallable mic preamps, which have remote–controllable gain and phantom power switching — an omission often criticised in the DL1608. These preamps are designed to be flat down to 20Hz within 1dB at all gain settings, and the topography keeps the signal–to–noise ratio high right across the gain range, whereas some designs only look good on paper when measured at full unity gain. I didn’t have a full tech spec at the time of the review, though its subjective performance suggests that it is at least the equal of other Mackie products in terms of noise and distortion. If you need to change gain during a performance no noise is introduced, and there’s now also a digital gain trim after the remote gain stage. On my DL1608 I tend to use the channel compressor gain make-up as a gain trim.
As pioneered in the DL1608, multiple iOS devices, such as iPads, iPad Minis or iPhones, can be used to control a single DL32R, enabling either the performers themselves or, for example, a monitor engineer to control specific aspects of the mix. While such remote-control freedom could lead to anarchy, the main engineer can restrict the access of other devices to the relevant controls via the Settings page, where the Access Limits tab gives access to the functions that may be included or excluded, after which the Lock button is used to lock or unlock your selection with a passcode. Communication with the Wi–Fi router is also passcode protected to avoid uninvited third parties trying to get at your mix controls.
A major new feature is the ability to use the DL32R to record live gigs, or indeed to use it as a studio recorder/mixer. There are two options here, one of which is to simply plug in a suitable USB 2 hard drive, which currently allows for 24–track record and 24–track playback at 48kHz, 24–bit, all controlled via the app, though it is anticipated that a future firmware update will allow for full 32–track record and playback. Mackie loaned us a 500GB Seagate Go drive for test purposes and that worked fine. At larger venues the playback facility can also be useful in doing a virtual soundcheck, though in smaller venues the contribution of the backline to what the audience ultimately hear means this technique is of limited use. It is also possible to play pre–recorded click tracks or backing parts at the same time as recording. Mackie tell us that this ability to record and play back simultaneously and independently with complete wireless control is unique to the DL32R.
As of now, if you need 32–track recording, you can hook up a computer to the unit’s USB 2 port and then record directly into your DAW, just as you would any other audio interface, with the proviso that only a 48kHz sample rate is supported. I needed no special drivers on my MacBook Pro; the DL32R just showed up in my Logic Pro audio devices menu. A Windows driver is available for PC users. Having only a 48kHz sample rate is mildly irritating, though most DAWs handle sample–rate conversion pretty transparently these days. Of course the recording facility is specifically designed to record live shows, so although you could use the DL32R and a hard drive to capture a studio session, you would still need to work with a DAW in order to edit what you recorded.
The functionality of the mixer section follows the same lines as the DL1608 but with many enhancements. For example, there are now two dedicated reverb sends feeding two separate reverb processors in the DSP section, as well as one delay send. As before, all channels have the benefit of gating, compression and a high–pass filter, plus a four–band parametric EQ with both modern parametric and traditional ‘British’ response types. All buses have access to both a four–band parametric EQ and a 31–band graphic EQ, plus a compressor/limiter and time–alignment delay.
Up to six subgroups are available within the routing section, each of which has a full EQ section and a compressor. It is also possible to set up six virtual VCA fader groups and six mute groups. Given all the input and output options available in this mixer, the routing map covers a pretty big area, so you will need to scroll both vertically and horizontally to see it all.
As with earlier versions of Master Fader, only eight channels can be viewed on the iPad at a time if you want to make adjustments in what I always think of as the ‘Home’ view, but you can swipe horizontally to move along the channels. A new addition is an overview page that shows the status of all 32 inputs including their gain trim and preamp gain settings, as well as the effects fader levels and mute–group status. Touch on any fader there and you go directly to the single channel view for that input where you can adjust whatever you need to, including providing phantom power for individual channels.
To further simplify navigation, the operator can now also create specific view groups that show, for example, only the drum mics or only the vocals — a sensible time-saver.
One of the criticisms of the original Master Fader software was that the coloured fader caps denoting which mixing layer was active were not really obvious enough. Well, that’s been addressed, and once you stray away from the main channel view, all the aux layers now have a coloured border around each fader panel. However, there are more sends than there are colour options, so by default the first two auxes are given one colour, the next pair another colour, and so on. Maybe you would prefer to use a different colour for each of the auxes you are using? No problem, as the colours are now assignable. Furthermore, the selected layer is now signalled much more assertively in large print in the layer-selection area to the right of the screen.
Another simple but useful addition is that the user can now select a coloured band to be visible below the ‘scribble strip’ at the bottom of each channel. I find this very useful when doing events involving multiple acts, as it allows me to identify correspondingly colour–coded mics and DI boxes. In both fader and channel–strip views, a fader on the right gives control over the overall level of whichever layer you are on. You can also choose from a list of monochrome icons or import your own photos directly from iPhoto to use as channel idents, though I’d like to see more standard icons to denote DI boxes and some of the more common instruments found outside a guitar/bass/drums/keyboard setup.
Small bar readouts at the top of the channel strips show the input gain and gain trim settings, and below these are a miniature graph of the EQ shape, and two gain–reduction bars for the compressor and gate dynamics section. The layer section has also been improved so that when you touch the mix layer ident on the right of the screen, a whole panel opens up showing the left/right mix, all the auxes, reverbs one and two, delay, six subgroups, six VCA groups and the six matrix outs. You can then select the layer you wish to access by touching the appropriate legend.
Another tweak I noticed is that the ‘grow and glow’ control selection is now more obvious, with a brighter glow. Controls only become active when you touch them for a half or second or so — that way nothing gets moved by accident if you run your finger across the screen. The top-of-screen navigation aids have also been tweaked so at the left we now have icons for overview, normal fader view or single channel–strip view. At the right we have icons for settings, routing, recording and solo/mutes, which provide fast access to muting the effects, clearing soloed channels and delay tap tempo, plus faders for the monitor out and talkback. Of course talkback mics would have to be connected via the mixer hardware (maybe via a radio system if you need it), and the same goes for the phones — audio doesn’t go over the wireless system to and from the iPad, so some wireless solution may be necessary, such as in–ear monitors sourced from the monitor outputs.
The Show icon takes you to the screen where you save or load snapshots or Shows (sequences of snapshots). As before, you have to dismiss the Shows page by tapping it again, though my preference would always be for tapping the fader view icon to take you right back to your main left/right mixer view regardless of what window is currently open, as that is pretty much the main screen when working with this app and sometimes you need to get back there very quickly.
The channel pan control is right above the channel mute control, and unless you are very careful you can end up accidentally muting the channel when all you are trying to do is adjust the pan position. This could be fixed very easily by moving the pan or mute control up into the info section of the strip, maybe between the EQ and dynamics readouts, where touching a nearby piece of screen real estate wouldn’t cause anything untoward to happen. My other ‘wishlist’ items from earlier versions of Master Fader have also yet to be realised, namely two or three assignable buttons always visible in the header bar. I’d assign one to mute all effects, as you have to be able to do that in a fraction of a second if the singer decides to start telling a joke rather than starting the next song. You can easily set up mute groups to kill effects, monitors and so on, but that requires one extra step to open the mute group panel and sometimes that’s a second or two you don’t have to spare.
From the viewpoint of an existing DL1608 user, the DL32R feels pretty familiar despite all those extra ‘grown–up’ features. While the DL1608 adopted a somewhat stripped–down mixing environment in order to feel user-friendly when operated by musicians, the DL32R has pretty much all the features you’d expect from a full–scale live–sound desk, with a very generous number of assignable outputs making it well suited to larger concerts, hire companies, theatres and bands needing greater sophistication. The ability to make live recordings is also a potential money-earner if you’re doing live sound on a commercial basis, and even at this beta stage of the software it appears to be very reliable and simple to use.
Despite all the extra features, the core elements of the Master Fader control app remain straightforward and intuitive, where the extra overview page is a useful bonus. No manual was available at the time of this review but I didn’t have to shout “Help!” on many occasions. I like the clearer flagging of the mixer layers, and on the whole the layout is ergonomic, though I can’t promise not to keep emailing Mackie when I think something could be improved upon. But because Master Fader is an app, it does benefit from regular updates.
By way of sound, the DL32R performs much as you’d expect a respectable analogue mixer to, with quiet preamps and noiseless gain changes. Of course the EQ is more like a software plug–in than a channel-strip EQ from an analogue desk, and that stood me in good stead the first time I did a commercial session with my own DL1608, which has exactly the same choices of EQ. I was working with a band of three violin players where the musical director knew exactly which frequency to notch out on each instrument to get the required tonality. Had I been using a small analogue desk, it would have been a case of “Would that be bass, middle or treble, sir?” but with the Mackie EQ, putting in a 7dB dip at 1.23kHz was no problem at all. I also find the variable–frequency low–cut filters really useful for getting rid of mic popping.
The reverb is probably the weakest point when it comes to sonics, and many users have made similar comments. Used in very small doses it is OK for adding a little ‘wet’ to a vocal but add much more and its shortcomings start to show — it can sound very muddy. I know Mackie are aware of this and an improved version is on their to–do list, so I just hope they get around to it sooner rather than later. The delay section (which has mono or stereo options) is fine, and having a tap-tempo facility makes life very easy for getting delays to follow the song tempo.
It’s a joy to be able to stand on stage and set up the monitor mixes for the performers, as you can hear exactly what they are getting. It can be very frustrating working with small to medium–sized analogue consoles as few have enough monitor sends to meet all requirements, but there’s no shortage here. And then there’s the multicore — or lack of it. Not having a multicore frees up your choice of mixing position, it gets rid of a significant tripping hazard, it makes setting up a lot faster, and when doing festivals it means you don’t have to rewind a multicore through a bucket of wet towels to get all the mud off it!
In theory at least, the lack of any moving parts other than the cooling fans should help long–term reliability, and because operation is entirely wireless, should Apple discontinue the iPad in an unlikely fit of corporate U–turn–ness, I’m sure Mackie could design the app to run on an alternative tablet device.
Overall then, the DL32R represents a coming of age for the DL series, and should be an ideal fit for those who want a serious feature set and aren’t wedded to the idea of a physical control surface.
There are alternatives with no physical control surface, such as the rack versions of the Behringer X32 (though I/O accessories are required for the Core version). Going a little smaller, there’s the new QSC TouchMix 16, and PreSonus have also recently launched their rackmount Studiolive mixers, called the RM series.