With improved Firewire routing and Pro Tools compatibility, this new Onyx design offers much more than a few tweaks...
Mackie's first generation of Onyx mixers were great mixers in their own right, but as interfaces, they were a little limited. The Firewire outputs from mixer to Mac/PC were all pre‑EQ, and the return only stereo. The newest models change this, and add other useful features including 24‑bit, 96kHz conversion and an optional driver for Digidesign's Pro Tools M‑Powered software.
The flagship of the Onyx range, this analogue desk has 16 mono mic/line channels, each with a four‑band, dual swept‑mid EQ and a 60mm channel fader. There are also six aux sends per channel, four sub‑groups, the main stereo outs and a comprehensive master section. Despite including all those controls and faders, the 1640i can fit in a standard 19‑inch rack, using the supplied adaptor brackets.
Construction is solid, with steel sheet used for all the main surfaces, and a silver wrap‑around front/side piece with rounded corners. A ventilated section at the rear hosts the I/O connections, and the universal power supply is built‑in.
If having the I/O on the end panel isn't ideal, don't worry: Mackie's RotoPod concept means a few minutes with a screwdriver is all you need to flip the rear panel to put all of the sockets facing backwards, so that they emerge behind rather than on top of the mixer when it's rackmounted vertically. If you want the connectors to face forwards instead, you'll need to buy an adaptor kit, but it can still be achieved relatively easily. This flexibility enables the mixer to be built into studio furniture while allowing access to the connectors.
The 1640i has full 16‑in, 16‑out Firewire capability, so it's able to provide all the simultaneous I/O allowed by Pro Tools M‑Powered. It also incorporates intuitive routing buttons that route all channels, aux sends, subgroups and master L/R to the DAW inputs. By default, the 16 Firewire outputs are fed from the channels, pre‑fader, with a choice of pre‑ or post‑EQ sourcing, while selecting other routing options removes some of the input Firewire channels and redeploys them where needed. The DAW outputs return to the 16 mixer channels by default, but there are alternative routing options.
The 16 input channels are identical, except that the first two also offer an instrument DI option. Each channel has its own 48V phantom‑power button, as well as a separate source button for feeding the channel input from a DAW Firewire return, and a low‑cut filter switch. Up to 60dB of mic gain is available on the Onyx mic preamp, and after this in the signal chain there's a button to select the Firewire output from the channel to be pre‑ or post‑EQ.
The four‑band Cal Perkins-designed EQ offers a 'British' EQ character. The usual high (12kHz) and low (80Hz) shelving filters are teamed with two sweepable mids, covering the 400Hz to 8kHz and 100Hz to 2kHz ranges. All four EQ sections offer up to ±15dB of gain, and there's an EQ bypass button directly below the EQ section.
A pan control is placed just above the channel fader, along with large mute and solo buttons, and smaller routing buttons to send the channel signal to busses 1/2, 3/4 (labelled Subs) or to the main stereo output. Status LEDs are fitted for both the mute and solo buttons, while the channel level is monitored by a simple four‑LED meter calibrated at ‑20dB, 0dB, +10dB and overload.
There's plenty in the master section, but the layout is nice and simple. The headphone jack and a 12V BNC socket for a desk light are located at the top of the panel, with the Control Room section beneath. The latter offers separate level controls for the Control Room output and the headphone output, both of which carry the same signal, selected by the buttons above. You have a choice of monitoring the Main Mix, Tape (a two‑track external input), Subs 1/2, Subs 3/4 or Firewire returns 1/2, and have the option to route these directly to the main mix rather than to channels 1/2. This is useful if you still want to mix 'in the box', but also if you need a quick means of switching the mixer to play back a stereo signal from your computer — from iTunes, for example. A stereo, 12‑segment meter displays the output levels, and those of any soloed tracks. Tape In has its own level control, and can be routed to the main mix using the Tape To Main Mix button.
All six aux sends have pre/post switches, for setting them up as monitor or effects sends, and each has a solo button. Solo can be set to AFL (after-fade listen) or PFL (pre-fade listen), with Mackie's traditional flashing 'rude solo' light to warn when one or more solo buttons are pressed. A rotary control adjusts the solo level: a good thing, as PFL can get pretty loud sometimes. A Firewire button allows the six aux signals to be sent out on Firewire channels 9‑14 in place of those input channels. Alongside are four stereo aux‑return controls fed from the rear panel aux‑return jacks. Return 4 can be fed to the control room and 'phones only, if needed. Returns 1 and 2 also have 'EFX to Mon' knobs, allowing connected effects like a vocalist's 'comfort' reverb to be added to monitor sends 5 and 6. Aux 3 has a switch to route it to the main output or to the Subs busses, with a further button selecting Subs 1/2 or 3/4.
There's also a talkback system which uses an inbuilt electret microphone (an external mic can be used if preferred), and this is routable to the headphones or the aux 1‑6 outputs. A rotary control sets the level, and a non‑latching switch activates the talkback while dimming the control‑room speakers.
Four group faders and the stereo main fader complete the tour of the master section. There are separate routing buttons above each sub fader to feed it to the left or right of the main mix, and a Firewire routing button sends the busses to the Firewire outputs usually employed by desk channels 5‑8. The Main Mix can be assigned to Firewire output channels 15/16 for recording back to the DAW.
All 16 analogue channels benefit from balanced jack inputs for line‑level signals (which may be used as unbalanced high‑impedance DI inputs on channels 1 and 2). Insert points are on the familiar TRS (tip send) jack, and the balanced mic inputs on standard XLRs. XLRs are also used for the external talkback mic input and for the balanced main outputs, which may be switched between a +4dBu operating level and mic level using a recessed switch. The main outs are also mirrored on a pair of TRS balanced jacks, plus a further mono out jack with its own output level control, which is a nice touch.
Inserts are provided on the main outputs, while the stereo Tape ins and outs are on RCA phonos. TRS balanced jacks are used for the control‑room outs, sub outs, aux sends and aux returns. An unexpected and useful addition comes in the form of a pair of D‑subs that provide 16 channels of direct record outputs, taken post gain‑trim but pre‑insert point and pre‑EQ. Again, these are fully balanced, and they're wired to the industry‑standard Tascam spec.
The Onyx preamps are the same ones used in earlier Onyx designs, which at the time I compared with the preamps in Hugh Robjohns' Mackie VLZ Pro mixer. If anything the Onyx preamps are a little warmer and smoother, but subjectively there's very little in it: they are quiet, clean and have adequate headroom for all normal applications. I have no doubt that more money will buy you better preamps, but these are already so good that in the majority of applications, any improvement is likely to be quite subtle. Even if you already use an M‑Audio interface with Pro Tools, you may welcome the character of the Onyx preamps, which sound subtly flattering on many sources. The one slight issue I noticed is that most of the usable gain range comes in the top quarter of the pot's rotation: although not ideal, I can certainly live with it.
I've met the same EQ in earlier Onyx mixers. It's less clinical and a bit more 'musical' than that on Mackie's VLZ range (Mackie would say 'more British'!). I appreciate the range of the lower‑mid control, which gets you right down into those problematic lower-mid, high-bass areas that so many mid controls stop short of. I'd have preferred the upper mid to run from, say, 600Hz to 12kHz to give more upper reach and less overlap, but that's being really picky. Any fixed-Q swept EQ has its limitations, but this one would give many bigger, more costly consoles a run for their money.
My practical tests put a lot fun back into mixing. Like anyone of a 'certain age', I grew up mixing on hardware and find it far quicker and more intuitive than mixing in software, even with a control surface. A single Firewire 400 cable is all it took to get connected, and the Onyx showed up in Logic's audio hardware list right away. A test run revealed sound quality at least as good as I was getting from my own hardware.
I don't know why it should be, but I always find it slightly easier to balance sounds on an analogue mixer than in software, and having 16 inputs allows even a complex a mix to be broken down into the main individual tracks plus any logical subgroups. Then there are those inserts and aux sends, which mean bits of perfectly good outboard kit that have been languishing in the cupboard for the past few years can once more play a part in the studio.
It was exactly the same story in Pro Tools once I'd installed the driver. The Pro Tools driver emulates the M-Audio 2626, and in fact Pro Tools sees it as a 2626. However, this results in a conflict if the system sees both drivers at the same time. Currently you need to uninstall any M‑Audio 2626 driver before installing the Mackie version, but both companies are working together to find a solution to this issue.
If you're using the Onyx simply to combine the outputs from Pro Tools to create your final mix, you can patch in your hardware processors using the mixer inserts and aux sends in the usual way. However, if you like to get more creative with your routing and intend to send certain channels or groups back to Pro Tools for further processing, you need to bear in mind that Pro Tools M‑Powered has, as yet, no automatic delay compensation, and routing channels in and out of the box incurs delays on those channels, just as inserting plug-ins can do.
Though this mixer isn't exactly at the budget end of the audio interface spectrum, the Onyx 1640i costs far less than you might expect to pay for a full‑featured recording mixer plus a separate 16‑in, 16‑out audio interface. The feature set is very well thought‑out, there's no obvious corner-cutting, and the seamless Firewire integration makes digital routing just as intuitive as any of the mixer's usual analogue routing functions. I like the sound too, the 60mm faders are long enough for comfortable mixing, and of course the inclusion of control-room source switching, talkback and a headphone amp means you'll usually be able to manage without a separate monitor controller.
If you have a need to record multiple mic inputs at the same time, or you simply want to mix in the analogue domain or have a convenient means of plumbing hardware processors into your DAW, the Onyx 1640i is a very serious proposition indeed.
Furthermore, if you're a Pro Tools M‑Powered user and want to incorporate an analogue mixer with a built‑in interface, then there's really no competition: the Mackie Onyx is the only game in town.
There are several Firewire and USB mixers on the market, but for this amount of I/O and quality of preamp, the only real competitor is Allen & Heath's ZED R16, which boasts a few additional features but has fewer DAW‑routing options. Only the Mackie doubles up as a Pro Tools interface.
Windows drivers are included, and these suport all major DAWs except Pro Tools. Mac users don't require drivers unless working with Pro Tools M‑Powered. The Pro Tools M‑Powered driver for Windows or Mac can be downloaded from Mackie's web site for under $50 (US) once the mixer is registered. At the time of writing this review, Pro Tools M‑Powered was not yet compatible with Apple's Snow Leopard OS, though the mixer will interface with other DAWs that work on that OS. Firewire aggregation on a Mac supports the connection of multiple 1640is.
- Mackie Onyx sound quality.
- Comprehensive feature set.
- Flexible routing of Firewire I/O.
- Pro Tools M‑Powered compatibility.
- Most of the gain is in the last quarter of travel of the trim pots.
- Pro Tools driver can't be used alongside a standard M‑Audio Profire 2626 driver.
I like almost everything about this mixer, from the feature set and Firewire implementation to the way it sounds. If you work on a computer but want to integrate an analogue mixer, this is the way to go!