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Could this next generation do even better? There was a brief manufacturing period when internal wire links became somewhat undependable, but this issue was resolved quickly and easily on those desks that suffered from it, and the reputation remained untarnished in the minds of most users, myself included.
The manufacturers seem proud of the advances made, citing an improved mic preamp design, more refined EQ and improved mix-bus headroom. Although the VLZ Pro models punched well above their weight anyway, these are all areas in which they were, if you were to be really picky, a little weak. In fact, it always struck me that the remarkable quality of the original XDR mic preamps was let down by the rather average mix bus and limited headroom imposed by the rest of the mixer.
So I was as keen as anyone to see if the new VLZ3 really could raise the bar to a new level. Overview The ergonomic and operational features of the new desk remain almost identical to the previous model. In fact, the only obvious differences I could find are changes to the centre frequencies of the four-band EQ on the stereo channels and the inclusion of a mains input voltage selector. The block diagram published in the handbook is even identical to that for the previous generation console.
Why change that? Phantom power is switched globally across the whole console, but only appears on the XLR sockets, of course. The second pair have orange knobs and are fixed post-fader. As with previous designs, a centre detent identifies the unity gain position, and a further 15dB of gain is available if required. The absence of such a switch is frustrating, as it would not only allow unused EQ circuitry to be bypassed, it would also make it far easier to determine whether EQ adjustments are actually helping to improve a source or just making it louder and brighter!
At the bottom of the channel strip is a pan control Adjacent to the top of the 60mm fader are two dual-purpose LEDs. A red one flickers when the signal level nears clipping, and lights steadily when the channel Mute button is pressed.
The first two stereo channels, and , are equipped with mono mic inputs as well as stereo line inputs. The mic input appears on both channels of the stereo pair and is equipped with the same 60dB gain trim and high-pass filter as the mono channels. There is no insert point on these stereo channels, though, as the socket has been reallocated to serve as the second channel line input. In all cases, plugging a source into only the left line input routes the signal to both channels in dual mono.
All the stereo channel facilities are identical to the mono channel: the same four Aux sends are provided, along with the same bus-routing switches, and so on. The only difference is that instead of a three-band EQ with sweep mid, the stereo channels are equipped with a fixed four-band equaliser. The top and bottom sections provide the same shelf responses at 12kHz and 80Hz, but the two mid bands centre on 2.
This is the first radical departure from the previous version of the desk, as that had centre frequencies of 3kHz and Hz. The new lower settings — especially the low mid — seem to be much more appropriate for tweaking commercial music and thinning out sources like synth pads. Clearly, this change has resulted from the feedback of end users, and is a worthwhile improvement. Output Side The output section of the console is, once again, almost identical to its forebear.
Only the first two aux sends are provided with master level controls, again with unity gain centre detents and 10dB of extra gain available. Each of these aux sends also has a solo after fade button and associated warning LED. Aux sends three and four simply appear on balanced ground compensated output sockets on the rear panel, with no master level controls, and no AFL monitoring. Below the two aux masters is a pair of LEDs to indicate the presence of mains power and the status of phantom power, both being switched on and off from the rear panel.
To the right of the aux send controls is a section handling four dedicated stereo effects returns. Each has an input level control with up to 20dB of gain, and each is routed to the main stereo mix bus by default. However, the first return can also be sent as a mono sum to the aux 1 bus through a separate level control, and the second return can be routed similarly to aux 2.
The third stereo return can be switched away from the main stereo bus and routed, instead, to either pair of subgroups. A group of four push-buttons is used to select the monitored source from the stereo tape return, each pair of subgroups, and the main stereo mix bus.
The tape return is equipped with a rotary level control, providing up to 20dB of gain, and a push button allows the signal to be routed straight to the main mix bus, if required. The tape inputs are provided on a pair of RCA phono sockets, along with a second pair to provide a recording output from the stereo mix bus, all optimised for dBV nominal levels.
A 12V gooseneck lamp feed is also provided on a BNC connector. The headphone amplifier is a very beefy design indeed, capable of producing quite deafening levels — so use with care. Finally, at the bottom of the section, the four subgroup faders are provided with buttons to route their outputs to either or both of the two mix bus channels. Rear Panel Turning now to the rear panel, all but the main outputs are balanced using the versatile ground-compensated topology, while the main outputs XLR and TRS feature fully active output drivers.
The first eight input channels are provided with post-fade direct outputs on TRS sockets, and the four subgroup outputs are doubled up across eight output sockets, to make connection with an eight-track recorder simpler. Group 1 also feeds output 5, group 2 feeds output 6, and so on. The four aux sends are also presented here on TRS sockets, as are the four stereo returns. The control room monitoring outputs are on another pair of TRS sockets, along with duplicates of the main mix-bus outputs, and a pair of unbalanced inserts are provided for the main mix bus.
A summed mono main output is also provided on a single TRS socket, with a separate volume control adjacent to the socket. A pair of male XLRs provides the main stereo mix output, and a recessed push-button allows the level to be attenuated by 40dB, allowing the output to feed the mic input of a recorder or another mixer.
A recessed slide switch determines the input mains voltage, with options for , and V AC. Usefully, a series of graphics printed on the rear panel shows the appropriate connector wiring requirements.
Alternatives The VLZ3 series compares favourably with most analogue mixers in the same price range. Technical All the key features that we associate with Mackie desks have been retained: sealed potentiometers, steel chassis, control knobs designed to pass forces to the console metalwork rather than into the pot mechanisms, and so on.
Most of the improvements to the new console are hidden beneath the top panel, and concern refinements to the circuitry. An important improvement in the new XDR2 preamp is a significantly extended frequency response, but not at the high end: the vital change is in the low frequency LF extension.
In my experience, LF headroom and extension is what differentiates an average mic pre from a great one, and it also helps to avoid heavy phase shifts building up as the signal passes through other circuit stages.
The distortion figures are also much improved, with total harmonic distortion falling to a superb 0. RFI rejection also remains a cornerstone of the input design — important when the circuitry has such a wide bandwidth — and the input impedance has been raised from 1. The other major change to the console is in the mix bus, with a revised topology that keeps the signal level depressed through the mix amps and bus faders, before making up the gain in a post-fade buffer.
This provides greater headroom, making it easier to mix lots of hot signals with less distortion. Indeed, the overall console THD figure has been halved in comparison with the previous design, to just 0. Strangely, though, the crosstalk figures appear to have worsened slightly in the new console, up 2dB from dBu in the previous console to dBu in the new VLZ3. Similarly, the main mix noise with all faders at unity is also a little worse, up 4dB from to In practice, though, I doubt whether anyone would be able to tell the difference, and with the greater headroom and lower distortion offered it is now easier to drive the desk harder than before anyway, permitting a greater dynamic range.
Impressions I have long been a fan of the original VLZ Pro consoles and their XDR preamps, which have always been amongst the best of any budget console and, for that matter, nipping at the heels of many high-end consoles.
Noise levels seem much the same, but the bottom end sounds fuller and more natural. Mix bus headroom was always a weak point in the original designs, but there has been a significant step forward with the VLZ3.
The other important change is to the stereo channel EQ. Reducing the centre frequency of the low-mid band has made it much easier to apply tonal correction that works musically. Overall, then, it seems clear that the Mackie engineers have been listening to customer feedback, and have used it to improve an already very good budget console to something that can stand proud among many high-end professional designs.
Pros Even better sound quality, overall. Robust build but with refreshed styling. Versatile facilities. Professional quality at budget prices. Cons The lack of an EQ bypass still rankles. Summary Based very closely on the previous VLZ Pro model, the new VLZ3 retains the key features of the original but delivers even better sound quality, thanks to several critical circuitry revisions.
The sonic neutrality of the previous generation of console has been retained, but with greater headroom and a less strained sound when driven hard.
Mackie 1642 VLZ3