Paul White lends a discerning pair of ears to this hauntingly familiar little mixer and discovers a practical blend of quality, usability, and value for money.
Probably the least well‑kept secret in the music world is that Mackie have done rather well out of their little 12‑ and 16‑channel mixers. The second least well‑kept secret must be that every other mixer manufacturer on the planet is trying to get in on the act by offering an extra channel or two, in a similar format, for a similar price. Spirit's Folio series has already done very well in the UK‑built stakes, while the USA's own Samson is taking a very aggressive stance. Now we see Soundtracs, best known for their recording consoles, launching their own range of well‑specified, budget‑priced, general purpose mixers. I'm sure the fact that the first three letters of Macro are the same as those of Soundtracs' Seattle‑based rivals is nothing more than a coincidence, but one look at the styling of this range leaves you in absolutely no doubt as to whom they are selling against.
The model under review is the Macro 14:2, which is physically small but no more cramped than a typical full‑scale recording console. The use of sheet steel for all the casework lends the desk a utilitarian but purposeful demeanour, and even the normally unwelcome external power supply is fitted with a sensibly thick cable and a locking connector. All the connections and controls for this mixer are located on the top panel, and even though there's no armrest, the front of the case is thoughtfully curved so you don't get grooves in your wrists during long sessions. A 19" rack‑mount kit is available as an option.
The Macro 14:2 follows the now familiar format of offering a combination of mono mic/line channels plus a limited number of stereo, line‑only, channels. In this case you get 10 mic/line channels, each fitted with three‑band EQ, plus two more stereo line‑only channels with two‑band EQ. All the channels have two auxiliary sends: Aux 1 is switchable from pre‑ to post‑fade globally, via a single switch in the Master section; Aux 2 is fixed as a post‑fade effects send. Also global is phantom powering for the mic inputs, and this can be turned on or off in the Master section. As pointed out on many prior occasions, you can plug any balanced mic into a phantom powered input without causing any problems, but it's always advisable to plug the mics in before you switch on the phantom power. Unbalanced mics should never be used with the phantom power switched on; at best the sound will be compromised and at worst you'll damage your mic.
Unlike many budget mixers, the line inputs, Master outputs and Aux outputs are all electronically balanced, though the effects returns, insert points, and phono tape connectors are unbalanced. The two stereo channels have ‑10dB/+4dB sensitivity switching buttons instead of input gain trim pots, and the main output level runs up to +26dBu before clipping — so there's plenty of headroom, even if you're running everything at the professional +4dBu level.
Unlike larger consoles, there's no mic/line switching on the Macro's channels; mics go into the mic input, line sources go into the jack input, and if you connect both at the same time, both sources will be active. In theory, this allows you to mix line and mic signals, but as there's only one Gain control to cover both, there's no way to set the relative balance between the mic and line sources. On all the mono channels, the input Gain control sets the gain for both the mic and line‑level inputs; on the stereo channels, you simply switch between ‑10 and +4. Proper Solo buttons are fitted to each of the channels, which serve the usual dual purpose of isolating individual channels in the headphones and also metering channels one at a time, so that you can optimise the gain setting. The Master outputs are not affected by the Solo button operation.
One of the problems when designing an EQ section with a fixed mic control is to decide on the best centre frequency and bandwidth for general purpose applications. In the case of the Topaz Macro, the High and Low filters provide a shelving response at 10kHz and 70Hz respectively (+/‑15dB) and the Mid control has the same cut/boost range centred around 1kHz. The insert points, which come post‑EQ, are wired ring‑send, tip‑return. This enables them to be used as direct outputs, with a specially wired lead or by plugging a mono jack halfway in. The stereo line inputs have no insert points, but it's a simple enough procedure to connect a signal processor between the signal source and the line input, to achieve the same result.
A short‑travel fader completes the channel controls, though it's worth commenting on the wide scribble area which makes it easy to annotate your current mix.
On a compact stereo mixer of this kind, the Master section is usually pretty basic and includes the obvious things like meters, headphone output, stereo faders as well as the Aux send masters. The Topaz Macro follows these lines, more or less, though there are no Aux send masters. Given that most effects units have their own input gain controls, this doesn't present a problem, and I would imagine this omission was a way of saving space and cost without unduly compromising the performance or usability of the desk.
Two stereo aux returns are fitted, both of which do have master gain controls; the second one doubles as an off‑tape volume control, when a stereo tape machine is played back into the mixer and the Tape button is pressed. Though the desk isn't specifically designed for recording, the provision of 2‑track in and out connections at least makes it possible to mix down and then replay your mix without repatching anything.
Another nice touch on such a simple mixer is the provision of Solo buttons for the two Aux sends, which allow you to check what's being sent to the external effects or to a foldback system. A single stereo fader controls the overall mix level and the metering is handled by two 10‑section LED bargraph meters. A separate headphone level control is located above the master fader and status LEDs are used to indicate whether or not mains power, phantom power, and Solo are active.
Tested with both mic and line level sources, the Topaz Macro performed very cleanly and smoothly with a very low level of background noise — and, to be honest, I'd expect nothing less from one of the UK's more prestigious mixer manufacturers. There was no evidence of distortion or crosstalk at all, and checking the manufacturer's spec confirms that both these figures are creditably low. The frequency response is flat to within 1dB either way from 20Hz up to 30kHz, and I'm pleased to see that the outputs have a sensibly low impedance of 70 Ohms, which means they should happily drive any practical load. There's also adequate level from the headphone output.
The one subjective area on any mixer is the EQ, and though the High and Low sections behaved in a very musical and controllable way, I found that any attempt to boost mid‑frequencies using the fixed Mid control added a nasty 'honky' character to the tone. This isn't a fault of the EQ in any technical way, it's simply that 1kHz is a pretty 'honky' part of the spectrum, but it does highlight the shortcomings of fixed Mid controls. Used in cut mode, the Mid equaliser fared much better and proved itself supremely able to de‑'honk' badly EQ'd sounds. The fact that all the EQ controls have detented pots means you can find the flat position easily, which makes up for the fact that there are no EQ bypass buttons.
I don't believe that multitrack recording would be much fun with any desk of this type, though you could get away with 4‑track work simply by using the insert sends and Aux sends to feed signals onto tape. Alternatively, you could use the main left and right outputs to feed your tape machine and then monitor in mono, using the pre‑fade Aux sends with four of the channel faders turned down.
The Macro really comes into its own for live PA work or direct‑to‑stereo recording, where the tough casework will be appreciated by those who need a mixer they can cart around. The Macro is nice to use on an ergonomic level, it sounds good, and has the right combination of facilities to allow it to tackle just about any conventional mixing job you can think of. Whether the market is really big enough to support the ever‑growing number of compact, general purpose mixers now flooding on to it is another matter, but based on quality and performance, this is one of the better contenders for your money.
David Gibbons, International Sales Engineer for Soundtracs Plc, offered the following response to our review.
Thanks for doing such a comprehensive and balanced review on our new mixer. I noted Paul's observation on the 'honky' character of the Mid EQ band on the mono inputs, and thought you might appreciate some background on the design process that surrounded this.
We spent some time prototyping this mixer, even to the extent that we took our existing sweepable EQ designs and did some blind tests, asking staff to sweep the controls to what they thought would be the most useful fixed High, Mid, and Low bands (without letting them know the range or position of the controls they were sweeping).
We then measured the frequencies they had set those controls to and found that the Highs averaged at 10kHz, the Lows at 70Hz, and the Mids at 1kHz. We built a fixed frequency version of the EQ and found that, due to the nature of fixed circuit design, an unusual thing happens — the Q factor for the Mid band varies according to the amount of cut or boost applied!
When the control is boosted by say 12dB, the Q is about 1.1 (a reasonable compromise between tight control and broad effect). However, if the control is set for 15dB the Q goes to about 1.35, producing a much narrower effect. As you've discovered, this makes it very useful for de‑honking, but potentially dangerous as a boostable +15dB band. Our dilemma then, was whether to restrict the range of the control (say to ‑15dB/+12dB) or to take the risk of having our EQ seem subjectively less musical than others (Mackie, Spirit, and Samson get around this problem by making their Mid fixed bands +/‑12dB controls). In the end, we made it a +/‑15dB control because our philosophy has always been to put the power and creative discretion in the hands of the user, and we will tackle the potential negative effects by putting warnings and explanations in the user manual.
I'm pointing this out because we accept the criticism that the EQ sounds peaky when boosted to 15dB, but we feel that you may be able to help us explain our reasons for designing it this way to potential customers before they have had a chance to peruse our manual.
It is inevitable that the mixer will be thought of in the same frame of reference as the Mackie 1202 and the Spirit Folio, and I have spent a considerable amount of time comparing our product to theirs. I noticed that you mention the absence of Aux masters on the Macro. Again, as you correctly guessed, this is the result of design economy to make the product meet a target market price. I guess for the same reasons, neither the Mackie nor the Spirit mixers have Aux masters either.
I hope this provides a bit more insight into how our minds work here at Soundtracs!
- Maximum Output Level: +26dB Master+21dB Aux Outs
- Frequency Response: 20Hz to 30kHz +/‑ 1dB
- EIN: ‑128dBu (150 ohms)
- Mix Noise: ‑81dB faders down
- Channel Crosstalk: Better than 85dB at 1kHz
- Dimensions: 405mm x 445mm x 85mm
- Weight: 7.15 kg
- Good audio performance.
- Clean, uncramped layout.
- Sensible price.
- External PSU is irritating in live situations.
A well designed and sensibly priced general purpose mixer, but as there are so many companies now building mixers like this, it's really a buyer's market.