Hands-On Product Review:
Mackie 1604-VLZ3 16-Channel/4-Bus Mixer

A new standard in compact mixers
By Doug Thompson

Mackie 1604-VLZ3 16-Channel/4-Bus MixerWay back in the 1990s, Mackie introduced the VLZ Pro compact mixer line, which single-handedly invented the "musician-friendly" compact mixer category. In fact, the 1604-VLZ Pro quickly became the most successful, best-selling mixer of all time. I’ve been using mine since they first came out, and what a workhorse it’s been!  It has seen me through more gigs than I can count without a single failure.  Not only has it served as my live sound mixer for club dates and private parties, I’ve also used it to record demos of the various bands I’ve been in.  I’ve lost track of how many times it’s been in and out of the rack and saying that it looks a little shop-worn is indeed an understatement.

It’s always been difficult for me to part with a good piece of gear, especially one that has worked this well. My 1604-VLZ Pro has been rained on, dropped, and subjected to the various indignities that plague the nightclub environment—clouds of cigarette smoke, the occasional spilled beer, and the seemingly endless exposure to the dust and "club goo" that forms a thin layer over everything I own. The 1604-VLZ Pro has taken all this abuse, and more, without so much as a whimper.

What’s new?

When I heard there was a new 1604-VLZ3. I wondered, how much better could it be?  After giving it a thorough workout I can vouch for the fact that this latest version of the perennial favorite is an absolute knockout! And with the exact same price as the VLZ Pro, it will please both dedicated Mackie users and newcomers alike. In retrospect I’m really glad that I took the plunge and placed the order.

I felt just like a kid at Christmas when the UPS driver dropped off my package. As you can probably tell, I don’t get new toys every day, so this was something special. The new 1604-VLZ3 looks great and the Rotopod I/O lets me set up the patchbay in a variety of desktop and rackmount configurations.

Mackie 1604-VLZ3
16-Channel/4-Bus Mixer

First gig with the 1604-VLZ3

Since the 1604-VLZ3 has been completely redesigned from the ground up, I thought it might take a little getting used to. So, in order to familiarize myself with the new board, I asked a friend to let me mix his classic rock band’s next club gig. Sometimes the best surprise is that there’s no surprise at all. The new VLZs control layout is exactly the same as the VLZ Pro! No steep learning curve here; I can practically close my eyes and grab the knob I need without looking. And the new color scheme makes it easy to read, even in a dimly lit club. Setting up the VLZ3 ringing out the room, and riding the faders was a breeze—everything seemed like second nature.

Sound quality

Probably the most noticeable difference between the 1604-VLZ3 and its VLZ Pro predecessor is the sound quality. The new XDR2 mic preamps are the best I’ve heard in this price range. They are superbly transparent and offer tremendous headroom versus the original XDR pres. Even with a relatively low output mic on the kick drum, I was able to crank up the gain without any noticeable loss of low end.

And the new 3-band active EQ is better than ever—in fact the individual controls seem to be more focused, more independent of each other.  I find that I often use the sweepable mid frequency as a second upper bass control.  By sweeping the frequency down to somewhere between 250 and 600Hz, I can give the kick drum and bass guitar real in-your-face punch, without the boominess that often occurs when the low EQ is cranked.  And the top end sparkles—something you really notice when you start adding effects to the mix.

All in all

Even though it’s hard to say goodbye to an old friend, I have to admit that I love the new Mackie 1604-VLZ3 mixer. Not only is the new look an upgrade to my professional image, but the sound quality of the VLZ3 is a marked improvement. My live mixes were good before, now they are highly detailed and cleaner than ever. Studio-quality sound in a nightclub—imagine that. Hey, maybe it’s time to replace my old, battle-scarred 1402-VLZ Pro too.