Mackie Digital X Bus

The Mackie X.200 Digital Medium-Format Production Console is definitely a product for our age.
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The Mackie X.200 Digital Medium-Format Production Console is definitely a product for our age. Digital audio workstations are ubiquitous — with current versions offering increasingly powerful user features and functionality — so a standalone console has to offer a lot more bang for the buck than it did a few years back. The Digital X Bus console, retailing at close to $13,000, is a major winner in terms of simplicity of operation and front panel features. The console's ergonomic layout, co-developed by Mackie and SaneWave, puts assignable hardware controls directly in-line with the corresponding functions displayed on a pair of 15-inch touchscreens. (These, interestingly, display an inverted image during system boot. Its designers decided that the viewing angle and clarity would be enhanced by physically inverting the two TFT display panels in front of the user; a simple setup command simply flips the video feed once the Widows OS system is implemented. A neat trick!)

The Look

I have always shied away from touchscreens for a number of reasons. They are rarely mounted at the right angle — leading to shoulder and/or wrist pain — and seldom offer much more functionality than I can achieve with a conventional mouse, track ball or graphics tablet. The X.200 changes all that. the combination of see-and-poke for rapid system setup, routing and function assignment is not only easy to master, but within just a few minutes you wonder how you used to do it in the olden days.

Both the X.200 console and its larger cousin, the X.400, accommodate 192 kHz sample rates. The X.200 accepts 68 inputs and offers 76 outputs while running at 96 kHz; half these I/Os are available at the higher sampling rate. A modular rear panel I/O card frame supports as many as 64 analog mic/line inputs with digitally-controlled mic trims; digital I/O cards accept AES/EBU, TDIF and ADAT/optical format signals. Optional FireWire-capable I/O cards handle connection of audio to Mac or Windows PCs. The console's faders and rotary controls can additionally be mapped to command a variety of DAWs, including Pro Tools, Logic and Nuendo, using HUI and Universal Control protocols. This is useful considering the X-Series' PC-based internal mix engine supports VST plug-ins for signal processing — a neat feature if you have a favorite EQ or dynamics sound that you want to use on a remix session, while replaying edited tracks, for example, from a companion DAW.

The two Digital X Bus models — X.200 and X.400 — share a basic feature set, but there are interesting differences. The X.200 is a "meat-and-potatoes" tracking/mixing console, while the X.400 is positioned for surround sound projects and post production. The X.400's dual processors offer additional mixing bandwidth, while an extra card slot provides 24 additional I/O channels, for a total of 92 inputs and 100 outputs at a 96 kHz sample rate, plus extra surround functionality via up to 24 assignment busses. The X.400 also ships with a preloaded Universal Audio UAD-1 DSP card for instant access to the UA's processing plug-ins; the same card is an option for the X.200.

The Digital X Bus's modular architecture picks up added flexibility via the back panel chassis, which allows the analog/digital complement to be loaded according to the user's requirements. One is able to accommodate a busy tracking date with additional mic sources, for example. (Two cards are fitted as stock: a Sync Card, which provides word clock and LTC I/O; and a Mix Out Card that provides control room and headphone feeds, plus analog and digital main mix bus outs.)

Currently available I/O cards include the Mic/Line 4, a four analog mic/line input card with digitally remote-controlled mic preamps and 48V phantom power per mic input; the Mic/Line 8, an eight analog mic/line input card with preamps and 48V power; an eight balanced analog line level I/O (jumper selectable (+4 d BU/-10 dBV); eight ADAT optical digital I/Os at 96 kHz (four at 192 kHz) or eight channels of TDIF digital I/O at 96 kHz; eight channels of AES/EBU digital audio I/O at 96 kHz; plus a FireWire Card that carries up to 24 I/Os at 44.1 kHz/48 kHz (eight I/O at 96) – all you need is an OSX Core Audio (Mac) or ASIO/WDM (Windows XP)-compatible DAW application.

Dynamics and Other Goodies

The X.200 Music Production Console boasts a powerful dynamics section — a

full-feature compressor/limiter plus gate/expander — and four-band parametric EQ section on every I/O signal path, plus a total of 12 aux sends, selectable pre/post-fader, and a pair of DSP insert points per channel capable of accepting VST plug-ins. The unit supports full 7.1-channel surround mixing and monitoring. The automation system offers both event editing and a choice of dynamic/real-time or scene/snapshot storage and recall. Mic preamp level settings are stored with automation data, a useful feature. The X.200 behaves in all other aspects like a conventional console, with tape machine-like transport controls with auto locator memories — a rear-panel nine-pin connector supports common serial protocols, while MIDI Machine Control also is available for computer-based and similar transports. The console will also generate and/or chase-sync to external LTC and MTC. And the system includes a comprehensive control-room section with selectable monitoring, talkback and phones for interfacing with the immediate environment.

Internal assignment is via an array of eight mix/surround busses that, in turn, can be routed to main mix, channels or outputs. The console additionally boasts eight VCA-style virtual groups, plus channel linking. And onboard processing doesn't stop at EQ and dynamics; the X.200 incorporates built-in stereo reverb and delay effects that can be accessed via conventional aux sends and returns, although the optional UAD-1 plug-ins offer a very powerful alternative. (As your might expect from a power developer like Universal Audio).

Once a physical I/O configuration has been sorted out, the time comes to set inputs to virtual channels and busses, sends and monitor feed to output ports. This is when the X.200's dual 15-inch touchscreens really come into their own. The screens map all major features and functions as virtual controls, using large, button-style graphics and a minimum of pull-down menus. A combination of sensitive touch detection and Mackie's proprietary tracking algorithm produces screens that are remarkably accurate, enabling precise moves to be achieved via the GUI interfaces. Each of the 24 on-surface channels is equipped with a real-time rotary control, and a 100 mm Penny & Giles motorized fader. The rotary encoders are mapped to the corresponding on-screen graphics directly above them, including such everyday functions as mute, solo and pan, with faders and switches remaining in hardware, just the way your fingers like them. And for control of everyday functions — adding channel labels, editing mix titles and other chores — the console boasts standard USB ports for an external mouse, keyboard or jog wheel.

But the $64,000 Question is surely, "What's the big deal?" The market is full of assignable 72-channel/multibus/24-fader digital consoles. What sets the Mackie X.200 apart from the rest is its processing horsepower. Its designers have taken a stable Windows OS and linked it to a powerful mixing and processing engine. The latter is based on a proprietary architecture using a PCI-based accelerator card that employs a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip to handle the conversion of integer to floating-point math. The X.200's main processor, delegating the heavy lifting to the accelerator card, can handle complex mixing while simultaneously running an array of VST plug-ins. A big bonus is that such a topology ensures ultra-low total system latency from analog input to output - real-time overdubs are a viable feature of this console, unlike other medium-format digital consoles, and some DAWs.

Laid out in front of you on the business end of the X.200 are two banks of 12 input/output faders plus a master, with onscreen controls that fall readily to hand, plus easy-to-access stereo/surround assignment and monitoring functions. Running in-channel signals to outboards is easy to set up — "outboard" being off-console units and/or virtual processing within the box — and then to add the results to whatever outputs are being used, either tracking busses or a final mix. The transport section behaves as advertised, while the jog/shuttle wheel is weighted just right for swift scrolling and tape/disc/DAW transport control. Metering is more than comprehensive, with appropriate displays where you need them, and user-adjustable ballistics on the console-wide meter bridge that offers a variety of meter-scale ranges. Control room monitoring can be set to feed a pair of headphones — really useful if you are tracking within a rehearsal room for example, or a dedicated overdub environment — plus ganged surround-level controls and a handy reference-level adjustment. (The X.200 features a built-in white/pink noise and variable-frequency generator with a spectrum analyzer for checking/tweaking system response.)

All in all, mixing a multichannel project on an X.200 Digital Production Console is a refreshing experience. The system is quick and agile and, in my experience at least, totally bulletproof. The control surface is compact but totally adequate with plenty of on-surface assignable controls and a wide landscape set of touch controls. The system is capable of running at 192 kHz sample rates, extending its usefulness to classical music, mastering and scoring sessions — although many users would be pushed to hear any difference between 24/96 and 192! — with full connectivity to popular DAWs and recorders via flexible analog, digital and FireWire I/Os. The EQ and dynamics section are easy to learn and powerful in operation. The Mackie Digital X Bus X.200 is a console for all reasons.

My sincere thanks to Jeff Goodman, who until recently served as Mackie's X Bus Product Manager, for a great demo session, and Michael Warren, who provided access to an X.200 at the MW Audio showroom close to Marina del Rey, California.

For more information contact Mackie at 425-487-4333 or www.mackie.com.