Hands-On Review:Mackie Onyx Satellite FireWire Interface

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Indisputable proof two heads are better than one

By Oscar Sommers


Mackie Onyx Satellite FireWire Interface

Fast food, cell phones, laptops, wireless internet, planes, trains, and automobiles. We’re constantly on the go and we expect the products and services we use to come along for the ride, otherwise they get left behind. Musicians are no different. We want to be able to make music when and where we want, the way we want to do it. For musicians who record on their computer, the prospects have gotten especially juicy over the past few years thanks to FireWire computer audio interfaces. Combine a high-bandwidth FireWire interface with a laptop and you’ve got a portable recording setup.


Of course, moving your audio interface around presents some unique problems. Unplugging and storing all your cables every time you want to record a gig or band rehearsal is a pain, one that's led some people to invest in two interfaces: one for home and one for the road. It’s a pretty expensive way to avoid reconnecting the cables in your studio. That’s where the Mackie Onyx Satellite comes in. It’s a portable FireWire recording system that delivers serious desktop computer recording power yet easily unplugs from your home setup to go on the road. The "wow" factor of the Satellite system is off the charts, and it works just as well in real life as it does on paper.


Extraterrestrial device


The Onyx Satellite solves the problems associated with transporting your audio interface in a uniquely innovative way. The Satellite is actually a two-piece system stealthily disguised as one piece of gear. There’s a Satellite Base Station and a Satellite Pod that form a single unit until you’re ready to go, then you pull the Pod smoothly out of the Base Station. Your home computer and recording equipment stay connected to the Base Station while you head out with the Pod. Pretty slick, huh? No more crawling behind your computer desk with a flashlight trying to remember which XLR cable goes into which input. Is that a spider?! Aiieee!!


Beside the two-piece form factor that allows you to avoid arachnid encounters, the Satellite has a lot of other things going for it. It’s a professional unit with the audio quality needed for serious studio recordings via two Onyx mic preamps. These are Mackie’s next-generation, hi-fi mic pres that deliver smooth-as-butter gain and clean and clear sonics.


When you’ve got the Pod plugged into the Base Station, the Satellite system is a 2x8 interface with an XLR mic connection, Hi-Z guitar/instrument jack, balanced stereo line jacks, and a TRS insert on each input channel. Of the eight available analog output channels, four are TRS line-level outs and two are divided into L/R connections for use with studio monitors. The remaining two are dedicated headphone jacks. By itself, the Pod is a 2x2 unit using combo balanced XLR/1/4" jacks for the inputs and TRS outputs for monitoring or sends. Both units have a FireWire port for connecting to your Mac or PC.


The two units hook up via a 66-pin jack with the female receptacle residing on the back of the Pod. The design of the Pod dock really won’t let you screw up the connection. Grooves on the Pod housing correspond with grooves inside the dock and it slips in and out with a seamless movement free of any hang-ups. Once it’s in, the Pod doesn’t wiggle—it’s a tight and solid fit.


Constant companion


As you’d expect from any piece of Mackie gear—especially one designed for road work—the Satellite is extremely rugged. It easily appears to be the most substantial, unbreakable recording interface to have graced my studio. The Base Station has a thick, formed-steel frame with ABS plastic surrounding the dock opening. The Pod boasts even more durable construction than the Base Station, with a seamless, thick extruded aluminum casing and stamped steel face and back plates secured by 16 hardened screws. I’d say you could probably back a truck over it and not be concerned. The Pod can be powered by 6-pin FireWire bus or AC adapter. Mackie also ships a 4-pin FireWire converter which requires AC power.


The Base Station doesn’t simply mimic the controls of the Pod, it expands the Pod’s functionality. There’s a talkback function and monitor control functions for the source and level on the face. With control of six outputs, you can dive into surround mixing. You can also select which input—mic, instrument, line level 1, line level 2—is active on each channel. Preamp gain, phantom power, and headphone level are controlled on the Pod.


Thanks to the Onyx preamps and precision converters, the Satellite’s sonic performance backs up its professional features. It supports up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution and the Onyx pres deliver high-fidelity sound that’s just as natural and big as it is pristine. The Satellite includes a full version of Mackie’s Tracktion 2 recording and sequencing software and a healthy complement of plug-ins, so you can start recording immediately. Tracktion is a unique take on the standard recording/sequencing software that’s fast and powerful. Of course, you can use your Satellite with whatever software you prefer, as its drivers support nearly every sound program out there.


With its premium analog preamps, advanced circuitry, intuitive software, and smart design, the Satellite is seriously tempting. Whether you’re looking for a portable interface or simply a small interface that doesn’t take up much room, the Satellite fits the bill.


Features & Specs:


  • Innovative 2-piece FireWire recording system
  • Rugged all-metal construction
  • Dual Onyx mic preamps
  • 8 inputs (2 active at any time)
  • Handles microphones, line sources, and instruments
  • 6 line-level outputs
  • 2 headphone jacks
  • 24-bit/96kHz capable sound quality
  • Control room functions
  • Talkback with onboard mic
  • A/B monitor switching
  • 6-channel volume control for surround sound mixing
  • FireWire protocol for low-latency realtime recording
  • Pod operates on bus power
  • Works with all ASIO- and Core Audio-compatible software, Mac and PC
  • Bundled with Tracktion 2 software
  • AC adapter included