Studio, location, broadcast
Four Onyx preamps; eight channels of AD/DA conversion, 24-bit/192-kHz FireWire I/O; control and headphone monitoring, Tracktion 2 and 3 music production software
Mackie | 800-258-6883 | www.mackie.com My experience with Mackie products would not qualify me as a “Mackoid.” But the Onyx 400F mic preamp and FireWire interface sounded like an interesting product, and with all the good things I have heard about the Onyx mic pres it seemed like a good item to check out.
The $699 (street) 400F has a total of 10 inputs: four Onyx microphone preamps (1-4) on XLR Combo connectors, four balanced TRS line level inputs (5-8), as well as a SPDIF on an RCA Connector. The mic inputs have a front panel global 48 V phantom switch. On the output side there are again 10 options: eight balanced line level outputs, as well as a SPDIF digital output pair.
The first two mic inputs have 1/4-inch jacks on the front panel, with a switch to accommodate high-impedance instruments such as electric bass or guitar, thus eliminating needing a DI box. All four microphone inputs have insert jacks on the back to allow analog EQ or compressors to be inserted before AD conversion. The front panel sports a control room monitor control, as well as two headphone jacks with separate level controls.
The Onyx 400 lives in a 1U rack mount with its chassis measuring only seven inches deep. The rack ears can be removed so it can fit better in a gig bag with a laptop, which is what I have done for my location test recordings.
Construction is first rate, featuring a steel chassis, handsome aluminum front panel, solid aluminum knobs and positive interlocking pushbutton switches. I popped the hood and saw nothing but quality components such as a Texas Instruments TMS320C6713 floating point DSP engine. This TI part is capable of 1800 million instructions per second and can operate with 32-bit or 64-bit word instructions. Converters are 24-bit, 192-kHz AKM 5385 and 4358 with supported sample rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz. Clock source can be set to Internal, External on BNC connector or SPDIF on an RCA connector. MIDI In and Out is also supported. A pair of 6-pin FireWire connectors allows for daisy chaining to devices like external hard drives or optical drives.
The 400F is bundled with Console software that allows you to choose the sample rate from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz for the internal converters and external clock from either the BNC or the SPDIF input. A matrix mixer allows you to provide a separate mix for each output pair.
(According to Mackie the DSP mixer has some specific advantages, allowing several near-zero latency mixes while recording — even with an older, slower computer — and the ability to act as a standalone mixer/router even with no computer attached; the DSP mixer retains settings when the computer is disconnected. — Ed.)
The analog control room and headphone outputs can mirror either output 1 and 2 or 7 and 8. (Mackie confirms that a new control panel and firmware is available, while the C/R and phones outs can now mirror any of the five output pairs; this new firmware also allows daisy chained 400F’s, for a 20x20 or 30x30 DAW-recognized system. — Ed.)This matrix mixer can be disabled.
Also bundled with the 400F is a full version of Mackie’s Tracktion 2 music production software (Buyers will also find a free version of the newer Tracktion 3 in their online account. - Ed.), along with a full complement of mixing and mastering plug-ins. A long 6-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable is included.
I was curious to see how the 400F would perform connected to my simple Compaq laptop. Compaq uses the smaller 4-pin FireWire connector, so I had to use a 6-pin to 4-pin cable to make the connection, a short one I might add. The ASIO driver, as well as the Console software and Tracktion 2, loaded fine so now it was show time.
It was a warm, still night, so the frogs in the creek in front of our house were singing their hearts out; “What a great live source with plenty of harmonically rich sounds,” I thought. So I gathered up a pair of Shure KSM 141 microphones, a stereo bar, mic stand and set out for the pier. A few minutes later I was listening to frogs over my Grado headphones through the Onyx 400F, and it sounded great! The Onyx mic preamps sounded even better than I expected: clean, quiet (even with full gain) and uncolored. If it sounded this great on the phones the AD and DA converter and headphone amp must be great, too.
I called our PAR leader John Gatski the next day and told him of my experience with the Onyx 400F to record frogs. He laughed and said, “I think our readers would like to hear how 400F sounds with music as source material as well as frogs.”
Luckily, I had an opportunity to record a really great Franco-Flemish Double Manual harpsichord made by Ernest Nicholas Miller. I again used a pair of Shure KSM 141 condenser microphones set in an omni-directional polar pattern plugged directly into the Onyx mic pres. The sound was very clean and uncolored. Ernest commented the bass of his instrument sounded exceptionally good.
I switched from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz sampling and experienced some clicking noises, probably due to the pedestrian hard drive on my laptop not keeping up with the data rate. (Mackie notes users employing at least an external 3.5-inch, 7200 rpm FireWire drive should not have clicks. — Ed.) I increased the buffer sample size in the Mackie Console software, which reduced the noise but did not completely eliminate it. Switching to a sample rate of 88.2 kHz with the increased buffer size eliminated the noise and seemed to open up the upper harmonics, while providing more depth perception.
I played both the harpsichord and frog recordings back using Wavelab 5 and these recordings sounded increasingly more open and spacious to me.
The Mackie Onyx 400R is a high quality component costing less than many stand alone 4-channel mic preamps. When you add eight channels of AD and DA conversion, control room and headphone monitoring, along with production software, you have a nice recipe for a simple (remember, less is more), high-quality music recording solution.