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Tech How-to: Mackie Sound Mixer Cleaning (Fixing Scratchy Knobs/Pots)

This project has been on my radar for a while, and the time has finally come. The 1604 VLZ3 is a really great audio mixer, but this particular one sat unused, collecting dust for several years. That layer was thick and, in retrospect, my approach to cleaning it up probably resulted in making some of the knobs (potentiometers / pots) sound scratchy upon turning. Oddly, the scratch is limited to only some of the white EQ knobs (the 100-8k range, which is the outlined below).

knobs, faders, and buttons of a Mackie 1604-VLZ3 mixer - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

Specifically, I went over the board with a standard vacuum cleaner bristle brush, then used compressed air to clean the areas between the knobs, where the brush wouldn’t reach. DON’T DO THAT!!! My hunch is that the mixer worked perfectly, until all that dust got blown around. I should have instead used a moist q-tip or barely damp paper towel for surface cleaning.

Now, let’s explore fixing those scratchy EQs….

Tools needed:

  • cleaning spray (see details in the paragraph below)

  • Phillips head screwdriver

  • small Allen wrench / hex key (size details explained below)

  • protective gloves, like latex or nitrile rubber

  • possibly end-cutters/pincers, pliers, or similar hand tool to remove knobs

  • optional but helpful: a muffin pan to keep the screws and knobs organized

I’ve researched this topic thoroughly, and opinions about the best approach vary. Some people recommend CRC Contact Cleaner. Others recommend DeoxIT D5 for all the internal components. Others say to use D5 on the pots and DeoxIT F5, or white lithium grease, on the faders. Another cleaner is called Nu-trol. That tells me there’s no single, perfect solution, so I went with the cleaner mentioned the most: the D5 spray (~$15).

DeoxIT D5 cleaning spray can - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

In a pinch, some people have reported removing the knob caps from an otherwise-intact board and working cleaner into the pots from the top. That approach could make problems even worse, since it can work surface dust down into the electronics. Even though the disassembly and cleaning process is tedious, it’s really for the best.

So, to begin this teardown, make sure the board is completely unplugged - the power cable, instrument/mic cables, everything! From there, very gently put the mixer face down on a soft, clean surface. Remove the four screws securing the ribbon cable cover.

Mackie 1604 sound board with ribbon cable cover screws circled - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

Next, pick a side - right or left - and remove the three standard screws shown below, and the two with washers. Then, move to the opposite side and remove the same set of screws. When that's done, the patchbay will be free from the mixer housing.

Mackie 1604 audio mixer on its side during disassembly - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

Mackie 1604 VLZ3 sound mixer with patchbay pod removed - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

Now it’s time to remove all the knobs. It’s tedious, with 171 of those, plus 21 fader caps on the board. If the knobs haven’t ever been removed, they’ll be snug. You can use pliers to pull them off, but clamping down on the plastic will probably cause some superficial damage.

damage on a Mackie sound mixer knob, caused by using pliers for removal - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

Instead, I tried a pair of old end-cutters/pincers, which allowed me to grip the caps from almost their base, leaving less noticeable indentations.

using an end-cutter / pincers to remove knobs from a Mackie audio board - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

Once those are off, carefully flip the board on its side. Out of necessity, I used a 1.5 mm Allen wrench to remove the 19 tiny screws that hold the circuit board and housing together. The metric wrench wasn't a completely snug fit, but it's what I had available.... I've read 1/16 is the proper size. If you only have the 1.5 mm version, be very careful to not strip out the screws. Having the board on its side isn’t crucial, but I found it provides a little more leverage for this task.

location of allen screws on the top of a Mackie 1604 sound mixer - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

When all the tiny screws are out, carefully put the board face down again. I have bad memories from my teenage years of accidentally destroying ribbon cables while trying to unseat them from old computers, so I Ieft these intact. Grab ahold of the circuit board from both sides, and gently pull up, to separate it from the housing.

Internal electronics on the circuit board of a Mackie 1604 VLZ3 sound mixer - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

From there, turning the circuit board over and gently resting it against the patchbay offered a nice work area.

knobs, faders, and electronics of a Mackie 1604 sound mixer upon disassembly - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

I should have next cleaned every single potentiometer shaft/arm/stem/post/whatever-your-preferred-term-is but didn’t notice how dusty they were until later. These feel tacky, and I’m guessing that’s a design feature, to keep at least some gunk from getting worked down into the pots.

dust and fibers on potentiometer posts inside an audio mixing board - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

So, it’s finally time to directly address the dust issue. Since we’re dealing with a chemical solution, it’s smart to wear gloves and spray in a well-ventilated area. The cleaning spray has three settings: low, medium, and high. Low is ideal.

low, medium, and high adjustment settings on a cleaning spray can - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

To minimize overspray even more, I cut down a drinking straw to a few inches length...

cutting a drinking straw to help direct DeoxIT D5 spray into a potentiometer - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

This straw fit perfectly over each pot and kept the DeoxIT from getting all over. Even with the shortest burst possible and set to “low”, it was sometimes enough spray to overfill the pot and run down onto the board. A little bit probably won’t hurt anything in the long run, but the excess fluid definitely won't help anything, so I sopped it up.

using a stray to direct DeoxIT cleaning spray onto a potentiometer inside a mixing board - photo by KilmerMedia, all rights reserved

After each spray, cycle through the range of these rotary knobs several times at a medium to fast speed, to thoroughly work the cleaning solution down into the pot and loosen up any dust inside.

When you're done spraying the problem areas (or the whole thing), let the solution rest for a couple minutes, before hooking the power back up and testing the mixer. Once you do that, be careful to not touch any of the internal circuity!

My initial pass of spraying the problem EQ channels got most of the scratch out, and a follow-up pass completely fixed it.

Keep in mind these cleaning sprays will thin out the mechanical grease in the pots, which provides some resistance when turning each knob. I wish the white EQ knobs on this board still had that smoother motion, but even better is having a board that sounds good again!

Reassembly is just the reverse of disassembly. The circuit board fits precisely and snugly in the metal housing, and it took me a minute to get the faders and knob shafts lined up right.

The tiny screws go back on next. At the risk of stripping those, they should be snug but not cranked down.

So there you have it... If you have any questions about this process, don't hesitate to leave a comment below.


"Tech How-to: Mackie 1604 VLZ Sound Mixer Cleaning (Scratchy Knobs/Pots)"

by Justin Kilmer

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