Review: Mackie DL1608 iPad Mixer
Not just another add-on iPad mixer app, Mackie’s DL1608 is the next step to ‘fully’ digital live mixing.
The idea of what a live console should be, is changing. The kitchen sink approach to the digital ‘revolution’ has manifested entirely new forms, and completely different ways of functioning. But when the kitchen sink is reduced to the size of a sexy, slate, flat wash basin, the decision of what to throw in becomes harder. Do you go with the comeliest features or revert to the tried and true stalwart functions of live mixing?
The question is especially pertinent for devices like Mackie’s 16-channel DL1608. Because while the iPad has typically been a significant add-on feature that allows wireless mixing and setup of most digital consoles, the DL1608 was the first to rely completely on it. Packing an entire mix engine into a glorified e-reader and still have it be useful as a working, stable device for live work is a big ask — and potentially, a revolutionary idea.
The DL1608 is essentially a 16-in, 8-out (6 aux on balanced TRS, stereo main output on XLR) live AD/DA converter for all generations of the iPad. While its dock connector is the traditional 30-pin connector, you can use an adaptor to accommodate the new lighting connector, and by unscrewing the base plate you can even squeeze in an original iPad. And while the DL1608 is what you’re actually purchasing, it’s really just a hub for the iPad. The fact that you can slide the iPad into the unit is a mere formality, the real magic happens when you unchain it.
The real guts of the machine is in Mackie’s Master Fader software, downloadable from the Apple app store for free. It turns what is essentially a dumb device into a digital mixer, with virtual faders, virtual EQs, virtually everything you need to mix a small live show — wirelessly.
DOWN THE WIRELESS ROUTE
There is one caveat with going wireless though — it’s BYO router. While the DL1608 has an ethernet port on the rear, it doesn’t serve as a wireless router by itself. Nonetheless, setting up a wireless network was pretty painless, and as long as you light them up in the right sequence — router first, DL1608 second — all should be fine. The range of the iPad was pretty impressive, I couldn’t get it to drop out anywhere in an auditorium that can seat 400 on a domestic wireless N router. If you do lose connection, which sometimes happens if you let the iPad lock, a quick reboot of the iPad’s wireless settings usually fixes it. And while you’re trying to rectify the issue the DL1608 just keeps trucking along where you left it. If you really get stuck you can obviously just slide the iPad back into its dock and everything will reconnect in a jiff.
If you have multiple iPads running (up to 10), you can lock them out of your main mix via the Settings page. You can limit access to one or all of your outputs, input or output DSP, muting, soloing, channel IDs, presets and snapshots. And if you’ve got a particularly fiddly musician, you can assign a four-digit lock code to prevent them unlocking any settings. So by leaving each musician’s relevant aux and output DSP open they can adjust their own levels, and tweak the response of their wedge or IEM without messing anything else up.
Potentially this could be a great alternative to some of the established personal monitoring systems, so I decided to try it out mixing a local young band and see how they got on with the new technology.
For the test I patched in the DL1608 and let them have a play on multiple iPads, with mixed results. While one technically-minded youngster (the bass player, would you believe?) had a ball and quickly had his own foldback balanced, the vocalists struggled a little. The bass player enjoyed the ability to hear more of himself, and felt he had a better balance than usual, though the vocalists tended towards a ‘more of me’ approach. It got to the extent where all they had in their mix were the three vocal channels and no instruments. Wondering why they were sounding a little pitchy, I took a look and added some keyboard and bass back into the mix to give them a foundation. Overall though, I was surprised to find that everyone was fairly restrained as far as levels were concerned, and favoured turning other instruments down to achieve a balance, which certainly helped the FOH mix. So for a beginner’s usability test, it seemed to be a win.
EFFECT OF PROCESSING
Back onboard, each channel has a four-band EQ, with switchable bell or shelf functions in the low and high bands, with ±15dB of boost or cut. There’s also a 12dB/octave high pass filter that can cut off up to 700Hz. The compressor and gate have the same controls and GUI you would find on any standard DAW compressor, and at the top of the display is a readout of the adjustments you’re making, so you can set parameters with precision.
The DL1608 is also furnished with a stereo reverb and delay. The effects have sends on each channel as well as faders dedicated to the returns that are adjustable for each of the six auxes as well as the main outs if you only want a wet mix in FOH. there are a bunch of really usable presets for each, with the tape delays performing very musically. Though I found the longer reverb tails to be a little artificial, and when there was too much of a build up of material, the delay also struggled. It seemed more to do with the limitations of the DSP processing than the algorithms themselves though.
We’re pretty spoilt for choice in the DAW environment these days, and it’s easy to look over the fact that not too long ago we all would have gone ga-ga over a budget-friendly live console with EQ and dynamics on each channel, as well as two onboard effects units. The DL1608 definitely packs a lot of punch into a small format.
NEED TO KNOW
TOUCH & FEEL
Overall the touch side of things is well implemented. Swiping never really gets you into trouble because the canvas is quite large, and once you select the EQ panel, you can either swipe up for dynamics, down for effects, or either side for the next channel.
While you have to recall a default preset to flatten the graphic EQs, which are across all the outputs, you can double tap any of the 31 bands as a quick way to zero them. And the Draw function lets you sculpt in broad EQ strokes with ease. Though you’d want to be wary of accidentally grabbing a resonant area and boosting it 12dB.
The screen only shows up to eight channels at a time, and you can’t define a ‘sticky’ channel to remain present at all times, which is the common downfall of digital mixers. So if you want a finger on your vocal, you’ll have to find it.
CHOOSE YOUR POISON
There are some interesting trade-offs across the board; for instance, there are no set stereo channels and you can’t gang two channels as a stereo pair, it means that adjusting EQ or levels on a stereo keyboard or DJ setup for instance would require changing each channel’s setting individually. On the other hand, Mackie has incorporated a snapshot feature that lets you save 20 snapshots in each of the 19 customisable ‘shows’. So while you lose things that are bog standard on the average Mackie analogue mixer, you gain powerful features you never would have known you needed 10 years ago.
The Master Fader app also has a dedicated stereo channel for playback from within the iPad. It’s great to be able to run audio straight out of iTunes, Dropbox, or the like, and have it appear within Master Fader. One thing to watch out for though is the lack of a gain control on that particular channel, combined with the fact that it solos exclusively PFL. So if you want to solo and preview that mastered track playing in iTunes, you’ll want to dip your headphone level a bit or risk losing your ears for a while.
There is a Mackie DL1608 forum dedicated to feature requests, where the channel linking/grouping feature (which also asks for DCAs or something similar) was first requested in July 2012. It’s amassed over 700 votes since, ranking second in the ‘charts’, and is still without a resolution or mention of an impending one.
One area where Mackie has been listening though is in the development of an iPhone, iPod Touch app, which will bring some of the iPad app features to more people on stage, however, it wasn’t available at the time of print. Unfortunately, one oversight that looks permanent is that the DL1608 doesn’t appear to be a class compliant USB device, so you can’t use it to record 16 channels onto your iPad. Otherwise it would have been a real killer.
All in all, it’s a handy device that multiplies in usability the more iDevices you have hooked up. While virtual faders may not replace the real thing on the big stage yet, you only have to look at DAWs to see the writing on the tablet for smaller installations, and the millions of gigging musicians.