Hands-On Review:Mackie Recording Hardware and Software
Mackie Recording Hardware and Software
Computer recording, Mackie style
By Oscar Sommers
When Mackie shipped the revolutionary Tracktion recording software and the Spike USB computer recording system, the company showed it could play the computer recording game. With the updated Tracktion 2 software and release of the peerless Onyx 400F they are going for checkmate. Tracktion, Spike, and the Onyx 400F all offer innovative and great-sounding solutions for musicians needing to scratch their computer-recording itch.
Mackie’s first entry into the arena of FireWire audio interfaces is the 24-bit/192kHz Onyx 400F. It boasts 10 total channels, four channels with Mackie’s flagship Onyx mic preamps, a 10x10 DSP mixer, and 64-bit floating-point processing. The 400F is billed by Mackie as a "Superior recording preamp and FireWire interface in a single box." After a few days with the 400F, I have to agree with their assessment: the 400F’s preamps deliver the best performance I’ve ever heard in a FireWire interface. In comparison to outboard preamps, you’d have to spend double the price of the 400F to get equal performance, and then you wouldn’t have that nifty FireWire cable to plug into your computer. The Onyx pres make whatever is recorded through them sound spacious, deep, and fat without coloring the sound. No matter the gain level or the source they are exceptionally clear, providing lots of clean and tonally transparent gain that allows the natural dynamic of the performance to shine.
Of course, the circuitry behind the mic pres is equally pristine. Mackie designed the cleanest analog circuitry, invested in high-quality converters, and sourced an advanced DSP chip. The analog-to-digital converters in the 400F are designed to process the audio from the analog circuitry fully intact. These are the same converter chips used in the Digital X Bus, and their 192kHz sampling rate ensures that all harmonic and high-frequency content is faithfully represented. The DSP duties are handled by a custom-designed Texas Instruments chip with 64-bit processing that trumps any currently available DSP chip and handles your audio quickly and cleanly.
The 400F is not only an extremely capable professional recording interface, it also leads a secret double life as a standalone mixer. Using the DSP mixing software that ships with the 400F, you can set up a mix on your computer, save it, then unplug the 400F and take it with you to use as a 10x10 rackmount mixer or patchbay on the gig or at a different studio. If you’re running Mac OS 10.4, you can even daisy-chain two 400Fs for an instant 20x20 audio interface with an aggregate devices function (drivers to allow Windows users to daisy chain are in development). The 400F also has nice touches such as dual independent headphone jacks, monitor level control, TRS inserts on the four Onyx preamp channels, Tracktion 2 DAW software, and a generous plug-in bundle aimed at professional productions.
For the musician who wants a small setup to let them record on their computer, Mackie has created the Spike powered recording system. It simplifies recording without taking away all the features you want for your music. The Spike system is the pairing of the XD-2 audio/MIDI interface and Tracktion multitrack software. With a Buck Rogers rocketship vibe backed up by two Mackie mic preamps, 24-bit/96kHz audio, high-fidelity DSP circuitry, and Tracktion 2 DAW software, the Spike system has mojo. Together with its small footprint and small price, its overall appeal is undeniable.
The two-channel XD-2 interface handles mic, instrument, and line-level signals with XLR/1/4" TRS combo jacks and S/PDIF I/O on its curved, easy-access rear panel. It also has MIDI I/O, monitor L/R, and, on the front, an independent-level headphone jack. It’s the perfect amount of I/O for a small yet effective computer-based setup. You also get level meters for the two analog channels, an instrument input button for direct-recording guitars, and a high-pass filter. A low-pass filter is accessible from the XD-2’s control software.
Three things set the XD-2 apart from its low-cost USB competitors. The first is its high-quality mic preamps. Mackie has been doing analog audio for a long time and that experience shows in the XD-2’s mic pres. Silent, smooth, and transparent, they easily outclass a lot of outboard preamps. Why spend an extra 300-500 bucks if you don’t have to? The second is the XD-2s DSP circuitry. Analog Devices SHARC-based, the same processor used in powerful rackmount effects units, it gives you killer sounds without killing your CPU. And the third thing that distinguishes the XD-2 is its legendary Mackie toughness. It’s small and portable all-metal chassis is built to take a lot of abuse without blinking, which is more than you can say for the plastic cases housing most USB interfaces.
The painless install process puts the XD-2 control software, Tracktion, and the Spike-exclusive software plug-ins on your system in a flash. If your hard drive space is tight, don’t worry: the Spike software barely takes up any room. And even better, it sips your CPU’s processing cycles, making it an excellent candidate for musicians with older computers. My five-year-old Power Mac Cube with 512MB RAM running OS 10.3 handled it just fine. Also, the software you get isn’t an LE version of bigger, more professional software, it’s the real deal, so you aren’t limited by a maximum track count or anything. The XD-2 also performed flawlessly during recording, playback, and overdubbing without latency being an issue. In fact, I didn’t have to adjust any settings at all.
We all have a favorite computer application. It’s fast, intuitive, powerful, and doesn’t get in the way: it simply works. Whether it’s your email program, web browser, or digital photo editor, it makes your life easier. But you don’t expect your email program to look like a mailbox, and your photo editor doesn’t look like a darkroom or cutting board. So why should your audio software look like a mixing board or hardware recording workstation? That’s the brilliance of Tracktion. It’s a fresh take on the software DAW that doesn’t try to emulate anything. Its engineers threw everything out the window to focus on designing a simple, intuitive, and uncluttered interface.
I’ve always disliked the way other DAWs give you multiple windows to float between to control your audio, so Tracktion’s single-screen interface was a breath of fresh air. I was also immediately impressed by how much sense the layout of the audio window makes, with inputs on the left, audio in the middle, and mixing/effects/plug-ins/outputs on the right. You can control the properties of whatever you select in the properties panel below the audio section, and the transport controls are just to the right of that.
Tracktion gives you audio recording, MIDI sequencing, effects, virtual instruments, powerful mixing tools, and a handful of genuinely useful plug-ins. It installed faster on my computer than any other piece of audio software I’ve ever installed. When it was done there was an alias on my desktop and it took up only 35MB of hard drive space. The best part is that Tracktion does everything DAW software is supposed to do, it just does it easier and better.
When you want to do something, Tracktion gets out of your way to let you do it. Want to edit a MIDI sequence? Just click on the title bar of the clip and the clip will automatically expand and present you with the tools you need to work on it. Nifty, huh? Everything in Tracktion works in a similarly intuitive way, making it easier than ever to make your music. And Tracktion sips your computer’s resources, so you don’t have to worry about hiccups, freezes, or lock-ups.
Like so many of my fellow gear heads, I am frequently blinded by flashy features and specs. Using the Spike and Onyx 400F reminded me, above all, it’s about the sound. Sure, they have some very attractive specs but I was blown away by the great-sounding audio they delivered, not the numbers on their product sheets. Mackie has entered the computer recording interface market while keeping its ears set locked on the goal of spectacular sound, and it shows in the Onyx 400F, Spike, and Tracktion 2.