News From The Woods - September 26, 2013


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published September 26, 2013

"Planned Obsolescence"

Now, you all know me well enough to know I'm not a ranter and that I generally avoid confrontations and spewing flames at the drop of a hat. But every now and then, something comes along that just bakes me. This is one of those times……

When it was time for my studio to make the move to digital, back in 2005, I needed a new audio mixer that could convert my audio signal to digital. There weren't a lot of those around in those days that didn't cost over $10K. I drug my heels all the way through 2004, nursing along my analog studio, until the new Mackie ONYX 1640 mixer came out. With the affordable Mackie I could downsize and upgrade at the same time.

Yes, there were other mixers that could also send digital audio via Firewire, but the Mackie had three things the others did not: ONYX mic pre's, Perkins ("British") EQ, and the Mackie reputation for quality products and quality service.

I remember Greg Mackie before he had his own brand. It was Mackie's technology that was behind TAPCO in the 70's. They produced quality and innovation with no sticker shock. The TAPCO 4400 spring reverb was a main tool in my fledgling 4 track recording studio. Today they have achieved vintage status. When the Mackie line came out in later years the connection wasn't lost on me.

I sold my beloved Soundcraft TS-12 console with its ancient FAME automation system through an audio broker in Nashville, and made enough on the sale to fund my new digital studio, centered around the 1640. I bought it from Sweetwater Sound, along with a road case, the necessary cables, and a Firewire card to the tune of $2,468.54 on July 27, 2005.

I loved it from the moment I took it out of the box. At first, I was concerned that the construction and materials might be "cheap", based on comparing my analog console's feel to the new smaller format of the Mackie. I could tell right away that I'd have to really guard this mixer, because the plastic controls were fixed directly to the PC boards under the hood and that this gear would not take kindly to spills, bumps, or other rough handling. On the plus side, however, it had a much smaller footprint, almost as much design and operating options as the aging $25,000 British console I previously owned, and the capability of simultaneously sending audio to both my computer, in digital form via Firewire, and to my 16 track analog reel-to-reel recorder for that special sound of real analog tape.

But what really won me over was the sound of my recordings! The sixteen individual ONYX mic pre's are in the same realm of many of these expensive boutique mic pre-amps. And the EQ section leans towards that sweet musical "British" EQ found on larger vintage decks. Also, it would be easy to configure this mixer as a live sound mixer and STILL record 16 channels of discrete audio to a computer. It is a live recordist's dream come true. It's been the most reliable piece of gear in my studio and has worked flawlessly for eight years.

Until today.

I came downstairs last Sunday to power up the studio and do some mixing. When I flipped the main switch to the Furman power conditioner driving the system, everything came up but the Mackie. It sat there and produced a beating noise out of the speakers, while lights on the mixer flashed in unison with the sound. I turned off the power, and turned it back on. Same problem, and after about five seconds the sound got louder. I powered it down, unplugged the Firewire cable, and powered it back up. Same trouble. I knew this was not going to be good, and decided to only power it up and down one more time, while shooting a video clip of the result.

My recording studio was now dead in the water.

I sent an urgent email off to Mackie tech support, including my video clip, but got no reply for two days, so I took the initiative and called them. After talking with a pleasant tech named Paul, he explained that they were short handed and went to fetch the email. Three minutes later he was back on the phone and I could hear him playing the video clip in the background. Without hesitation he said it looked and sounded to him like it was a power supply problem. He then told me the nearest authorized repair center was in Jonesboro. I inquired if he thought they might have a power supply on hand. His reply was "No, everyone orders the parts from us".

Now, I know enough about electronics that a dead power supply is usually not a good (read: cheap) thing to replace, but at least it was a "basic" thing. I casually asked Paul if he could tell me the price and availability of a power supply so I'd know what to expect. He said he'd connect me with the parts department. About two songs later, a parts rep named Doug came online. I told him what I needed and he went away for about a minute while consulting his database. When he returned he informed me that "that model" is no longer supported by Mackie.

I was speechless.

I stammered, "Well, okay….. But where can I get a power supply. He said "You can't." I won't continue from here because it is just a series of back and forth with me being incredulous about the notion that Mackie won't even SERVICE an eight year old piece of expensive equipment…. And him repeating "I'm very sorry . . . . . . I understand. . . . . I'm sorry" . . . . . . etc., etc.

The more he apologized the more pissed off I became. I told him over and over I was not directing this at him personally, but he happened to be the Mackie representative on the other end of the line and had no alternative solution for his customer.

To his credit, he handled it well, and never lost his temper. Of course he couldn't help me either. The best he could do was to give me the name of another pro audio dealer that might possibly have an idea where I might get one. Oh, yes… he was ALSO helpful in looking up the price of the NEW 1640i mixer for me. I guess he must have had a hot link to Sweetwater on his computer. I asked to speak to a superior but he said it was still too early in the day for all the staff to come in. However, before I hung up he DID take my number to give to his superior, and then gave me her mailing address. He apologized one more time before hanging up. I believe he genuinely felt sorry for me and I DID have some pretty tough questions for him to answer:

WHY would a manufacturer make a product who's potential life span far exceeded the manufacturers desire to support it?

WHY aren't manufacturers required to issue support warnings on their products? (In my case, for instance): "5 years Maximum Responsibly on behalf of the manufacturer to service or carry parts for this product". I understand warranty expirations, but this is like they've completely washed their hands of any responsibility to service their products.

WHY can't they at least offer some form or alternative solution, such as designing power supplies for an upgrade of the same unit to be compatible with the earlier model?

WHY must I invest $1,200.00 into ANOTHER Mackie 1640(i) when I have a perfectly good working one that just needs a simple power supply? Would that power supply have cost me $1,200.00 - if they bothered to even keep one in stock ?

WHO makes these policy decisions for Mackie ??? Does he drive a Beemer with a Bose in it, or is he a "real" person that understands his market and his user base??….

And at that policy meeting, WHERE was the PR guy that writes the copy about how Mackie stands behind every unit and has the customer's best interests at heart when it comes to support?

And finally….. WHY would I cheerfully purchase a new Mackie after all this crap, and instead just invest in a manufacturer that at least supports their own gear for ten or twenty years? Just last month, my RODE NT "Classic" (purchased new in 1998 for $2,500.00) developed some audio artifacts after it fell to the floor accidently (it even bent the windscreen). I sent it to their repair facility and it was returned fixed less that two weeks later. There was NO repair invoice included because the microphone has a LIFETIME WARRANTY on it!

I suppose I am just asking for too much for my piddly $2,468.54 investment.

How about you?


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