Mackie's first foray into the market for desktop USB devices is a well specified stereo interface with built-in DSP effects.
The Mackie Spike Powered Recording System aims to provide a 'complete desktop solution for 24-bit/96kHz audio recording and MIDI production on a Mac or PC'. It consists of a USB audio and MIDI interface called the XD2, and a bundle of software that includes the Tracktion MIDI + Audio sequencer.
The XD2 is not fixed at 24 bits or 96kHz; 16-bit operation is also supported, as are sampling frequencies of 44.1, 48 and 88.2 kHz. In fact, at the time of writing 88.2 and 96 kHz support is still under development, although Mackie are making public test versions of the drivers available on their web site (44.1 and 48 kHz are already fully supported).
Interestingly, the XD2 contains a SHARC hardware DSP chip, providing built-in EQ and dynamics processing for tracking and monitoring, in addition to the more commonplace I/O stuff. The built-in effects are editable via a software control panel that runs on the host computer, although the effects themselves don't rely on the host CPU.
The Spike bundle supports Windows XP and Mac OS X (10.3 or later) systems. The quoted minimum system requirements are modest: a 750MHz or faster Pentium or Athlon, or a G3 or G4 Mac should do the trick. At least 128MB of RAM is required, although in reality twice that amount would be a sensible minimum and more would probably be an advantage.
You'll also, of course, require one free USB port. The XD2 doesn't draw its power via USB, instead relying on an external mains adaptor for the necessary nine Volts. In the review model, the mains plug on the supplied PSU was of the two-pin 'international' variety, but those that reach the shops should have a standard UK plug. However, the cable could do with being a bit longer.
The XD2 is a good-looking object, based on a kind of rounded shark's fin design. The case is cast in aluminium or something similarly robust and feels extremely sturdy, with a graphite-coloured front panel. It's designed to stand upright, and has a kind of stabilising 'foot' in its base which can be twisted at 90 degrees to the body when the unit is in use, then twisted back flat for easier transportation. The case will stand upright without its foot engaged, but is considerably less stable, so this is not to be recommended.
The front panel features a quarter-inch headphone jack, a knob to adjust headphone level, another to control the level of the analogue monitor outputs, and a Mix knob. The Mix knob allows you to adjust the balance between the XD2's direct, or 'hardware' output, which carries the input signal routed via the XD2's on-board DSP, and the 'USB' signal, which is the output from whatever recording software you happen to be using. With the Mix knob turned all the way to the left, the output is 100 per cent hardware — allowing you to hear the input signal with 'zero' latency — while with the knob turned all the way to the right, the output is 100 per cent software, allowing you to monitor via your favourite effects plug-ins, provided your system latency isn't off-putting. When the Mix knob is centred, you get a 50/50 mix of both signals, allowing you to hear recorded tracks whilst monitoring your input signal with zero latency.
The remaining front-panel controls are duplicated for each of the XD2's input channels. Each one has a straightforward gain knob, coloured LED input meters, an Instrument button which raises the input impedance for DI'd guitars or basses, and a push button to activate a high-pass filter. The high-pass filters are first in the signal path, before the rest of the XD2's effects, but are adjusted via the same software control panel (see below). The XD2 is also capable of supplying 48V of phantom power to any microphones that need it.
On the reverse are the remaining sockets with which the XD2 connects to the outside world. A pair of RCA sockets provides an S/PDIF digital input and output. These must be activated via the XD2's software, and doing so will deactivate the unit's analogue inputs. Signals sent to the S/PDIF input can be processed by the XD2's DSP modules in the same way as analogue signals can.
Standard MIDI In and Out sockets are next up, followed by line-level analogue monitor outputs on quarter-inch jacks. Beneath these are the XD2's main analogue inputs, which use 'combo' sockets that can accept either XLR plugs or quarter-inch jacks. The remaining back-panel connectors are for the 9V PSU, and a standard USB socket for talking to the host computer.
The centrepiece of the Spike software bundle is the Tracktion MIDI + Audio sequencer, originally developed by UK-based Raw Material Software and now exclusively distributed by Mackie. For a more detailed introduction to Tracktion, please refer to John Walden's review in SOS April 2003 issue.
Tracktion has undergone further development and refinement since it was originally released, and now serves as a very capable audio and MIDI recording and editing package. Its user interface is somewhat unconventional, but clean and quite easy to find your way around. I felt at home quickly, and came away impressed. If you're already in a long-term relationship with a sequencer, Tracktion may test your loyalty. If this is your first, you have nothing to fear.
This version of Tracktion is also supplied with Mackie's Final Mix mastering plug-in, an impressive combined multi-band compressor and EQ. This comes with some very good presets suitable for both single-channel and full mix applications, and is great for boosting the loudness and presence of your tracks.
Also included in the bundle is a limited-but-usable 'Mackie edition' of Ableton's popular Live audio looping application. Live has been reviewed a couple of times in SOS, way back in February 2002 and more recently in September 2004. Briefly, Live is a loop-based sequencing 'instrument', which provides Acid-like control over tempo and pitch in audio files, among other features. A nice addition.
A free VST Warmer Phaser plug-in is supplied by Nomad Factory, as a taster for their commercial Blue Tubes bundle, and is another nice extra. It sounds good — convincingly 'analogue' — and is very easy to use.
Of course, Spike owners aren't limited to using their XD2 interface with the bundled software. Standard WDM, ASIO and Core Audio drivers are supplied, allowing easy compatibility with the vast majority of music and audio applications available for Windows and Mac OS.
Sadly, the Spike bundle ships without printed documentation, except for a not-too-illuminating A4 'Quick Start Sheet'. Installation instructions are instead provided in an HTML document on the installer CD, with a slightly longer 'Getting Started' guide and a user manual in PDF format. The documentation itself is well written, and includes a couple of very good introductory tutorials.
Installation, at least under Windows, is a slightly fiddly process. To begin with, you're encouraged to visit the Mackie web site and check for updated drivers, which is sensible enough. The next step is to connect the XD2 to your computer, and then install the Plug and Play drivers via the Found New Hardware Wizard. Then you need to install the ASIO and WDM drivers, followed by the XD2 SoftApp software. Next, you are told to restart your computer, spend a couple of moments updating the XD2's firmware, then finally install the bundled Tracktion software.
None of this is terribly arduous, and to be fair, everything worked just as it was supposed to. I couldn't help feeling, though, that there was some scope for streamlining the installation process a bit, at least for the benefit of less experienced 'entry-level' users, who presumably make up a fair proportion of the intended market for this product.
The supplied Tracktion MIDI + Audio sequencing software runs in demo mode to begin with, and uses the XD2 itself as a kind of copy-protection dongle to authorise the software and remove the demo limitations. However, once Tracktion has been authorised it can be run fully functionally even without the XD2 connected, so the relationship is not as restrictive as with a conventional dongle. See the 'Software' box for more details about the software included in the bundle.
Once everything is installed, the next step is to get acquainted with the XD2 SoftApp program, which provides the software control panel for the XD2's built-in DSP functions. The control panel is large — a screenful at 1024 x 768 — and contains an impressive array of virtual buttons and sliders. An easy way to get started is by loading a few of the supplied preset 'snapshots', to get a feel for how the different modules work. A good selection of snapshots is included for a variety of applications, and edited snapshots can be saved for later recall.
The DSP modules available for each channel include high and low-pass filters, four-band parametric EQ, a compressor module, and a gate/expander module. The two input channels can be linked, so that any settings made for one channel are mirrored by the other, or adjusted separately so that two different mono sources can be processed independently.
I was pleased with the quality of the XD2's effects, which I found to be clean and transparent, and quite usable. While some interesting creative effects can be found with parameters set to their extremes, it's arguably the more utilitarian processes that are more important here and the XD2 doesn't disappoint. There are some useful vocal compressor snapshots, a couple of nice patches for DI'd guitar and bass, and various different noise-reduction settings. These can easily be tweaked to suit your requirements, and good results can generally be had quite quickly.
Several of the included snapshots are clearly designed with mastering applications in mind, and these really come into their own when the XD2's 'USB processing' mode is activated. When the 'USB' input button is illuminated, both the analogue and S/PIDF inputs on the XD2 are bypassed, and input is instead taken from the USB connection. This allows you to process your sequencer's master output via the XD2's effects, and send it back to be recorded as a stereo mixdown. The analogue and S/PDIF outputs carry the same processed output, so it's also possible to bounce your final mix to an external recorder, should you need to. Very handy.
While the SoftApp control panel may be a bit intimidating at first glance, you quickly get used to how it all works. The user guide includes a helpful tutorial explaining how to make a first recording in Tracktion, and I was up and running quickly and without any problems.
After a bit of trial and error, I was able to get sufficiently low latency that software monitoring in Tracktion was bearable, although for normal overdubbing I preferred to set the Mix knob about halfway and take advantage of the hardware. The XD2 generated no noticeable noise, and my recordings sounded clean and clear like they ought to.
To sum up: I like Spike. The XD2 is an impressive device, which packs a lot of functionality into a very small and sturdy package. The on-board effects are a nice feature; they're useful, and at no extra cost to your CPU. The supplied software is good, and the Spike bundle really does include just about everything a beginner would need to get started. Spike would make an ideal, laptop-based portable recording system, but could equally be useful to users whose desktop computers don't allow for easy expansion with PCI cards (those with eMacs and Mac Minis, for example). If you're in the market for a small, self-contained, all-in-one recording package, you should seriously consider Spike.