Digidesign has souped-up its entry-level ‘studio in a box’ with more I/O and a bit more besides. Brad Watts tucks in.
Digidesign has certainly had more than its fair share of loyal customers over the years, as well as a smaller band of vociferous detractors, but no matter which camp you consider yourself resident of, none would contest the fact that the ProTools platform permeates the audio world like no other. In a universe where tape has all but disappeared in favour of hard drives, Digidesign has earned a position in history as being the professional studio replacement for tape and tape editing.
The musical revolution that has taken place in the home since CPU-based (native) processing became a viable alternative to vastly more expensive, proprietary DSP card-driven platforms, has spawned an explosion of entry-level interfaces, and the latest of these is Digidesign’s own Mbox 2, which utilises its ubiquitous LE software. Building on the considerable success of the original Mbox – which itself gave rise to a series of copycats – Digidesign’s Mbox 2 looks set to make ProTools to recording what the Windows platform has become to the internet. The beauty of these cheaper ProTools LE devices lies in their seamless integration with ProTools TDM software. A project can be recorded, edited and tweaked until it’s time to migrate the session up to a more empowered DSP-driven HD and TDM systems. The power of LE means many projects are fully realised on these native CPU processing-based systems, never leaving the LE software realm unless the limits of the 32 simultaneous audio tracks prove too constraining.
All things evolve so I suppose it was inevitable that the diminutive Mbox would eventually be superseded by the next-generation hardware. The newly designed Mbox 2 has changed to a far more sensible horizontal format, much like almost every other piece of audio equipment. It was never a smart move to have the original Mbox standing vertically, especially when the headphone socket was at the top of the unit. They simply keep falling over. The bizarre thing is, other manufacturers went ahead and copied the idea! But just in case you’re keen on the vertical-style placement, Digidesign has hedged its bets and constructed the Mbox 2 such that it can also point heavenwards with the aid of a handle fixed to the front panel. But, for mine, horizontal is best. In which case the handle raises the front panel sufficiently away from the unit’s resting position, giving you perfect access to the controls. Plus the handle, being rubberised, prevents the device from slipping about on the table and ending up on the floor destroying your headphone cable. If however, you find the handle tends to dig into your ribs when carting the Mbox 2 between sessions in your backpack, it can be replaced with the (supplied) flat faceplate, again rubberised to combat slippage. An allen key is included to facilitate the changeover. Cosmetically the Mbox 2 looks good snuggled alongside an iBook or Powerbook. Windows machines are supported too, of course, but they don’t look quite as nice, do they? [Thanks Brad, you can get back off your iHorse now – Ed.]
Technically the Mbox 2 sounds much better than the ‘classic’ Mbox. The dynamic range of both the A/D and D/A has been increased by 3dB to 106dB. The supported sample rates remain at 44.1 and 48k (a limitation of the USB 1.1 format). Total harmonic noise combined with distortion has dropped to a healthy 0.00079% of the published dynamic range – an amazing increase compared with the old machine’s 0.003% (of 103dB) spec. Specifications for the two microphone preamps remain exactly the same as the old model but no longer sport the Focusrite branding. Each mic amp, however, is now provided with a –20dB pad button this time around.
What the classic Mbox did have over its successor were insert point jacks. I’d imagine these were possibly the least used feature – having met a few Mbox owners in my time – and these have been dropped in favour of the inclusion of Midi I/O. Again, a sensible decision on the part of the designers. You quickly ran out of USB ports when using an original Mbox combined with a separate USB Midi interface, plus the ensuing cabling tangle-up can leave your work environment feeling a bit like ‘camping out’. With Midi included in the Mbox 2 things are now a lot tidier.
The controls are a much neater affair also. Gone is the old balance control between monitoring and mix levels in preference for separate controls for each. The old method left you constantly adjusting headphone levels in relation to your live and mix balance. The headphone jack is a full size ¼-inch number – vaguely more ‘pro’ than those teensy-weensy 1/8-inch mini-jack connectors. The mono button remains unscathed, thank goodness; a feature that thankfully Digidesign still recognises the benefits of and this feature should be far more widespread among entry level interfaces in my opinion. Out the back in connection land the Mbox 2 dispenses with combo XLR/jack inputs and replaces them with separate inputs for mic, D.I. and line. More space on the back panel (thanks to its increased size) allows more opportunity to avoid clutter by keeping a few sound sources plugged in at all times and simply choosing which source you’re recording via the front panel switches.
Four Simultaneous Tracks
The biggest news, however, is that the Mbox 2 can record four tracks at once as opposed to its predecessor’s maximum of two: two tracks via the analogue inputs and two via the coaxial S/PDIF input. That is a bonus! Speaking of bonuses, Digidesign is handing out free software packages with Mbox 2. The ProTools ‘Ignition Pack’ includes a bunch of applications and plug-ins to augment your ProTools LE rig. There’s Reason Adapted for some squelch and synthesis, Ableton Live Lite 4, Sampletank SE to get some further bread and butter sounds occurring, a stack of REX files courtesy of Bunker 8, Amplitube LE for guitars, T-Racks EQ and Melodyne Uno Essential for retuning mono audio lines. On top of that lot they throw in FXPansion’s BFD Lite – probably the version of BFD we should all be running. Last but not least there’s an instructional DVD on ProTools and a year’s membership to Broadjam.com – the online mp3 hosting and sales point for musicians wishing to avoid the record companies and sell online.
And if all that doesn’t satisfy your appetite for plug-ins, for an extra 180 bucks you can purchase the Mbox 2 Factory, which provides yet another significant bundle of plug-ins over and above the ones already thrown in with Mbox 2, as well as an iLok USB Smart Key. Among these Factory extras are Maxim, Moogerfooger, the Joe Meek SC2 Compressor and VC5 ‘Meeqalizer’ and the kooky Cosmonaut Voice. Digidesign has also put a lot of work into the sound drivers for Mbox 2. Because the Mbox 2 is a native Core Audio device, any Macintosh application will happily play via the unit without requiring the old Digidesign Core Audio manager. There’s even a surround aspect to the Mbox 2. The unit can be put into AC-3 mode to enable 24-bit DTS playback via the S/PDIF output.
Right Out of the Box
So what do I think? The case for the Mbox 2 is pretty compelling. The original Mbox shaped the whole ‘recording on the go’ paradigm, and, in the Mbox 2, Digidesign has upped the ante with a better feature set… and it’s cheaper. Quite simply, it’s had a lot more thought put into the layout and general ergonomics and it sounds better. Four inputs make a huge difference, as do the separate mic, instrument and line inputs. The addition of Midi I/O avoids the expense and bother of another interface. It’s feasible you could keep the majority of your gear plugged into the Mbox 2 permanently – no need for the mess of cables and a constantly tipping over interface. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that Mbox 2 will be enormously successful.
• $765; Mbox 2 Factory: $945.