As the original model has been covered in many reviews over the years, we’ll focus on the updates. Rest assured beloved items such as the roto-pod, tank-tough chassis, 60mm faders, and flexible bus routings are still present.
A subtle—but very useful—update is the use of slightly larger fonts for control labels. In low-light situations, the larger print makes it easy to find a particular control. We have several revisions of Mackie mixers in house; in a side-by-side comparison, despite the larger print size, the surface still doesn’t appear cluttered. Also note that cosmetically, the darker gray/brown chassis has been lightened to a metallic silver.
Most of the other updates are not as visible, but they add up to improved sonic performance. Mackie claims the VLZ3’s new preamps, dubbed XDR2 (Extended Dynamic Range), have wider gain and dynamic range, as well as extended low frequency response. But no matter what any brochure says, in the real world sound is what counts.
First off, this mixer is definitely quieter than previous versions. (And even the first generation Mackies had respectable signal-to-noise characteristics.) We used the review unit for all of the EQ Television sessions (www.eqmag.tv) done at Treelady Studios. Everyone commented that the drums, guitars, and narration sounded clear and solid. Sure, it’s easy to be a snob about mic preamps, especially with so many cool pieces out there. But you could record an entire CD with these preamps if needed. They are quiet, clean, and give a lot of gain if required. Of course, they don’t have the sense of depth you get with a True Systems, Great River, or John Hardy preamp—but most of those units cost many times (per channel) as much as the Mackie preamps.
Comparing apples to apples, you won’t find preamps that sound this good on another small format mixer in this price range.
The equalizer has been tweaked to improve its “musicality.” This is tough to quantify, because what sounds good to one person might be harsh to another. The low frequency is centered at 80Hz; I would have preferred 90Hz, but 80Hz provides more flexibility to more people. Likewise, the high band is centered at 12kHz—a good spot to grab unruly hi-hats or sibilance. The mid band can sweep from 100Hz to 8kHz, which is just about as good as you can get in an analog unit. We also found that the equalizer sounded more natural than previous versions, especially when applying two bands to neighboring frequencies. Whereas the VLZPro EQs are more surgical, the VLZ3 emphasizes a sweeter interaction of the bands. This is not a bad thing at all, especially when the result is an EQ that sounds less intrusive over a broad range of applications.
Mackie also improved the overall mix bus headroom—a fact we demonstrated in our drum tracking videos. Granted, if you set up your gain stages correctly (via the level setting process common to all Mackie mixers), it’s unlikely you’ll overload the mixer anyway. But headroom is one spec where more is indeed more, and more headroom is always beneficial. Doing a quick stem mixing comparison against a VLZ model, at the same gain settings I found the 1604-VLZ3 to be a bit more open. It seemed to be less a part of the signal chain . . . more invisible, more out of the way.
If you already own a Mackie 1604 mixer, you don’t necessarily need to run out and upgrade it—although owners of the original version will hear an appreciable difference from one end of the unit to the other. But if you’re looking for a keyboard mixer, studio mixer, or just want some solid-sounding preamps, the 1604-VLZ3 delivers a heck of a lot of bang-for-the-buck. You may find less expensive 16-channel mixers, but they won’t sound as good or be as durable as the Mackie. Nor will their control labels be as readable!