Interview with Greg Mackie
founder and president of Mackie Designs, Inc.
Interviewed by Mel Lambert in December 1995
In five short years, the name "Mackie" has become virtually synonymous with affordable, high-quality mixing consoles for recording and live sound. Company founder Greg Mackie was been in the business for several decades. He scored a notable success with Tapco, a company he founded in the early Seventies, and which was eventually sold to Electro-Voice. His second company, Audio Control, designed and manufactured hi-fi equalizers and analyzers. He set up Mackie Designs in 1888, and unveiled his first product- a four-buss console- in 1990. The rest, as they say, is history, from a start-up to a company with yearly sales of $50 million in just half a decade is remarkable indeed.
How would you summarize your company's overall philosophy?
Our overall philosophy is to pretty much ignore what's happened in the past, and develop the absolute best products we can possibly offer at a reasonable price. We don't bind ourselves with preconceived notions that the industry has placed on certain products, but rather look at what the end user is really trying to accomplish. And how do we best make a product which can accomplish that goal? One thing we've found time and time again is that audio quality is rarely a function of cost, it's more a function of attention to detail and the willingness to take that extra path in the prototype phase.
Mackie consoles tend to be relatively simple. I don't mean unsophisticated, but pretty much a "meat and potatoes" design. Nothing real fancy; just good ergonomics and high quality electronics. Was that your intention?
Our first mixer, the 1604, was actually fairly sophisticated for the times. But things have changed in the past four or five years and our newer products do [offer] more sophistication. Yes, we've never aimed at the very top market, we're aiming at a market where we can sell enough units so that we can manufacture at a reasonable cost. With mixers, the only way to be able to manufacture a product of that quality at good prices [is to] use automated machinery.
In your company's five-year history of producing consoles, what new features has the industry asked for?
People are asking for more features. We have many competitors that are going after the same market. There's a rush on Who can have the most knobs on the front panel? But we have to remember that, at the end of the day, it's the audio quality that is important, plus ease of operation- you can't just clutter up [the design] with features that aren't useful.
But people are looking for more auxiliary sends, more sophisticated EQ, automation?
Yes, all of those. More EQ is number one, more aux sends... part of the market wants [Ultramix] automation. More channels, of course, but it depends on the application. Right now, we sell to distinctly different markets. We have consoles designed for live sound. We have recording consoles, and we've always had our compact, general-purpose mixers designed for a wide number of applications.
In the past 1 0 years, recording and PA consoles have gotten more sophisticated, so many of the features needed in recording also work in live sound. Our eight-bus console is designed more for recording, but can also be used for live sound. People find that they love the recording features, and they find applications for live sound. But there are recording features, like the flip switches, and specific buttons and knobs that have to do with tracking, that can get in the way of live sound. A live sound console's got to be, first and foremost, easy and fast to use. You've got to have panel layouts that are easy to understand, you've got to be able to see it in low light. Our new SR Series of [24/32- channel/four-buss] sound reinforcement mixers are designed for front of house.
Do you find that the live-sound environment is much more hostile for a console? With high RFI levels, and more unstable power supplies, does the design have to be different from recording boards?
The environment is more hostile. Number one, the cables get longer, and become tuned to certain RF frequencies, which can cause problems. All of our mixers have RF traps on the input pre-amp to make them as RF-proof as possible. RF problems tends to [result from] bad cabling or bad grounding. But a recording studio can also be really hostile, with CRT noise, computer radiation, and- a major problem in home studios- wall warts. They radiate a tremendous amount of magnetic flux, cables running next to [wall-mounted transformers and DC power supplies] causes all kinds of hum problems.
What do you do to reduce the amount of RFI that gets into your boards?
The major difference we have over most or all of our competitors is that the input jacks are all grounded to a metal plane. You want RF to be stopped at the input. That is the ground plane for the whole console. RF traps at the input drop the RF right into the ground point of the chassis. The circuit board also has grounding, but that's your secondary back-up. Typical consoles [have] plastic jacks that rely on the circuit board for grounding, you can never have as good a ground on a circuit board as you can on a chassis.
And also you use a single-board design approach on your eight-buss boards?
They're semi-modular, with eight channels on a board, daisy chained together with flexible cables across the output busses and the power rails. That way, we don't have mechanical breakage problems.
Are there any hot IC chips around you're using that maybe the competition isn't?
What we're seeing is more and more manufacturers are using the same parts we're using. The IC we use is a very good audio part, yet you hear about people that ask for extremely high slew rate, and this and that. You have to be careful. There's a certain point where "faster" doesn't buy you anything- as a matter of fact, it can buy you oscillation or RF problems. To design for the best audio quality,
The first thing you've got to do is make sure your circuit is stable. If you have a circuit that's sitting there on the edge of oscillation, it sounds very bad. That's why we use the best chips that we can, and their reliability has been phenomenally good. They're very low noise, and they sound very good.
We do pay a lot of attention to gain structure. We use very low impedance on our busses, we've done that since the beginning. It costs more money and draws more power from the power supply, but the end result is a more predictable design with better specs, lower noise and lower crosstalk.
Do you optimize bandwidth flat out to maybe 50-60 kHz, and then start truncating?
We design all our products to be about 1 dB down at 60 kHz which, admittedly, is a very wide bandwidth. But if you have a number of products in series, maybe an equalizer, a compressor-limiter, and a crossover, and each one of these is rolling off 1. 0 to 1. 5 dB at 20 kHz- which is not untypical- pretty soon the system is going to roll off at 15 kHz or below. And that's audible!
We keep the bandwidth as wide as we can. If you start going higher than 60 kHz, you're asking for more RF problems.
What about metering? A lot of people run into problems with headroom on digital multitracks.
A problem we see is people record too hot, which causes several problems. First, there is distortion during the recording process. Second, during playback the level is much too hot going back to the mixer. A good rule of thumb with ADATs, for example, is to view -15 as your 0 dB reference point. This gives you 15 dB of headroom, and a low noise floor.
Keep in mind that the type of music may change the way you record. If you're recording live. you need to record cold; if you're recording compressed synth patches, you could record somewhat hotter.
Our consoles are designed to be operated very cold because of their exceptionally low noise performance. This gives extremely high headroom. With some older designed mixers, operating hot was a way to get above the noise floor. But then you have limited headroom. But, in reality, this is a bigger subject than can be summed up in a few paragraphs; it really merits a much bigger article.
Do you have clip indicators at various points throughout the signal path?
We have clip and signal present indicators on the channel strip of virtually all of our consoles. There are two LEDs: green is- 20 and red is overload. The circuit monitors three points in the circuit for our eight- bus console.
What lies in the future? Maybe digitally-controlled consoles?
We're working on fully-digital consoles, digitally-controlled analog consoles, and larger analog consoles.
Let's talk about your company's image in the trade press. You run very busy ads, with lots of technical information. What's the idea there?
Part of the reason I left Tapco was my disgust with how bad the advertising was. People read trade publications for the ads, as well as the rest of the contents. These ads, in my opinion, should inform and educate as much as possible. That makes our ads dense, but it also gives the readers the information they need. I notice that many of our competitors are also finally realizing that!
We have an entire in-house ad agency, we do all the artwork, write all the copy, and handle film preparation. We also prepare our newsletter in the same way. One of my goals has been to have the best advertising possible, and the only way to do that was to have an in-house agency where we can communicate back and forth, and really get hands on. Plus, when we started, we couldn't have afforded an outside agency.
You believe that an informed customer is a smarter customer is a loyal customer?
Your firm recently went through a public offering. Are you pleased with the result?
You're also accountable to more people than you were before.
Yes, but that's okay. Even though our brochures have always been off-the-cuff- kind of humorous- the business side has always been taken absolutely seriously. From before day #1, we had a computer model of our business plan, including projected sales products, gross profit, and the rest. We could change model "What Ifs," and see what would happen to the company. We've been very careful, we've worked real hard at it, and were able to grow almost totally from profits.
Which is pretty unusual. The time to go public is [at a time] when you don't have to do it. Internally, we said that the only way we'd do it is if it didn't destroy our corporate culture. People work very, very hard here, and they care about the company. Everyone's going in the same direction at the same time. A large part of our success- or maybe all of it- is directly due to the people and how focused they've stayed. Being accountable to more people means we've got to have better products than ever.
Was your business model pretty much on track throughout the last five years?
I'd love to be able to say that we were such good managers that planned to be this size, but we didn't. My first goal was to grow the company to be about the size of Tapco: about $7 million a year (and that was back in 1 975). As the company started to grow, we passed that quite abruptly.
What are your yearly sales now?
Last year  was close to $50 million. Along with the fast growth, we spent a lot of money on capital equipment. We've got some of the finest automated assembly equipment you can buy. We've spent lots of money on upgrading the manufacturing process so we can make products in America that are of the highest quality, yet at a reasonable price. There's a lot of pride Involved with that. For the most part, all of the products that we design and manufacture are ones that I've wanted personally and use in my own home studio.
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