Sax player Steve Berlin was taking a well-deserved break with family and friends for the Thanksgiving weekend when we caught up with him at his home base in Seattle, having spent most of the past year on the road with his main band, L.A. rockers Los Lobos. The band, whose core members marked their thirtieth year together this past spring with the release of a new album featuring an all-star guest lineup, is arguably one of the hardest-working bands in the business, a fact which fits Berlin's own work ethic just fine.
A confirmed workaholic and long-time mainstay of the Los Angeles music scene, the veteran sax man hooked up with the band at a gig at L.A.'s famed Whiskey in 1981, where he was playing with another long-time project, The Blasters. "They opened for us that night and I was totally blown away. We all got along great and they asked me to work with them on a recording." The result was the band's acclaimed debut EP, "...And a Time to Dance," co-produced with T-Bone Burnett. Berlin has worked with the band ever since.
Also a sought-after producer and session player, the modest and soft-spoken Berlin has lent his talents to a wide array of artists and styles, with appearances on recordings by everyone from the Beat Farmers and Translator to Paul Simon and the Flesh Eaters. As a producer he has made his mark with artists like Leo Kottke (who he accurately describes as "an American treasure"), John Lee Hooker, Sheryl Crow, Faith No More, Crash Test Dummies, the Replacements, Dave Alvin, String Cheese Incident and the Tail Gators, to name only a few.
With so many hours spent in the studio, Steve Berlin clearly knows his gear, so it was hardly surprising to hear he had taken delivery of one of the first Mackie Onyx 1220 mixers for work on Los Lobos' latest recording and several other current projects. Immediately, he notes, he was impressed with the sound of Mackie's latest small format mixer offering. "I have a couple of very high-end preamps I use in the studio, and one of them went down during a session. We plugged straight into the Onyx and were blown away with how good it sounded."
Owing to the band's heavy touring schedule, the Onyx was almost immediately pressed into service for live recording. "I needed a mixer that I could use not only in the studio, but something tough enough to take on the road with the band," he explains, citing Mackie's reputation for bulletproof construction. In fact, thanks to manufacturing delays, the wait for a road case for the Onyx stretched from a few days to several months. "We ended up transporting the mixer in its shipping carton for most of the tour. The carton looked like hell by the time we finally got a road case, but it held up just fine, and so did the Onyx."
Berlin gives the Onyx's Cal Perkins-designed EQ high marks as well. "The EQ on this mixer is very usable and musical. A little goes a long way." And with the band's wide-ranging tour itinerary, the Onyx's "Planet Earth" switching power supply means it's ready whenever and wherever the next stop might be.
With a few short breaks coming up for studio work, Berlin is also looking forward to putting the Onyx's FireWire interface to good use, plugging in 18 channels of 24 bit/96kHz digital audio to his Apple/EMagic Logic setup.
"I've always liked Mackie mixers, but the Onyx is the best sounding boards they've ever come out with. It's been getting a lot of use, both in the studio and on the road. It's a total workhorse, and a great sounding one at that."