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MACKIE CONTROL UNIVERSAL

December 1, 2003
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Combat boots, whips and restraints can be fun when you're a freak about control but so can a really well-designed control surface for your digital audio sequencer. (The latter being a less-risky business if you have conservative neighbors.) There's just nothing like real faders and knobs to control a mix, because face it, pushing faders and turning knobs with a mouse is totally awkward. The problem with most high-quality control surfaces (those having moving faders and dedicated controls) is that they are designed to be used exclusively with only one digital audio sequencer. If you regularly employ more than one program, the control surface that functions perfectly with program A becomes an oversized paperweight when you're working in program B.

Years ago, the product design team at Mackie had the idea to create a control surface that could control a variety of different applications: a universal control surface. The company's first commercial effort was the HUI, which met with only limited success because the unit was pricey ($3,000) and its control “profile” was implemented in just a handful of digital audio sequencers. A new leaner and meaner control surface, the Mackie Control, was introduced this past year. Although smaller than the HUI and lacking LED meters and a built-in monitor section, the Mackie Control does include nine Penny + Giles motorized faders, a long LED that parallels the channel strips, a scrub wheel, dedicated transport keys and a host of buttons and V-Pots — all at about a third of the HUI's price.

A QUICK REFRESHER

The Mackie Control was designed as a universal control surface, but until the most recent ROM updates, it did not work with a couple of important digital audio sequencers, namely Digidesign Pro Tools and Emagic Logic Audio. Version 2.0 added a HUI mode for operation with Pro Tools and other programs that support HUI. And the most recent update, version 2.1, adds a Logic Control mode for operation with Logic Audio. Consequently, with three distinct modes of operation — HUI, Logic Control and the original Mackie Control — at its disposal, the new Mackie Control Universal really does fulfill the promise of a universal control surface.

The Mackie Control Universal is the new Mackie Control, featuring ROM 2.1 and screened labels that reflect the Logic Control mode (versus the button labels of the original Mackie Control, which reflected Soundscape). If you already own a Mackie Control, you can update it to a Mackie Control Universal functionally by replacing its ROM chip with a version 2.0 ROM chip; all it will be missing then are the Logic Control button labels. The version 2.0 ROM can be purchased directly from Mackie for $99 (not including shipping) and is user-installable. A HUI control surface overlay card (called a “Lexan” overlay after the material that it is made from) is employed to give the Mackie Control's buttons HUI labels and ships with the update. Version 2.1 is available as a free downloadable update from Mackie's Website. It's a MIDI SysEx file that you send from Logic Audio to the Mackie Control to perform the update. For those who will be using the Mackie Control Universal with more than one digital audio sequencer, extra Lexan overlays are available from Mackie for $10 each. (Price does not include shipping.) However, a Logic Control Lexan is not currently planned.

One companion product, the Extender, completes the Mackie Control experience. The Extender is a channel-strip sidecar featuring eight channel strips that are identical to those on the Mackie Control. For this review, I tested a Mackie Control that I personally updated to a Mackie Control Universal, and two Extenders (which I also updated to ROM 2.1). I tried this setup on a Mac with Pro Tools (5.1.3), MOTU Digital Performer (3.1.1) and Logic Audio (6.1.1) in OS 9.2.2. The MIDI interface employed was a MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV (USB).

PLUG IN, SET UP

There's not much to plug in to set up the Mackie Control Universal, just MIDI In and Out to your MIDI interface. Even though it's a control surface, you must connect both the MIDI In and Out because its moving faders and displays depend on active sensing to constantly track the state of your digital audio sequencer. Subsequently, two-way MIDI communication is crucial. (You can move an onscreen fader with your mouse and cause a fader to move on the control surface.) MIDI Thru ports are absent, so every surface requires its own set of MIDI ports. If, for example, you want to hook up a Mackie Control and two Extenders, you need a MIDI interface with at least three free MIDI ports. It would be nice if the controllers packed a USB connection for plugging directly into your computer, as that would be convenient and save on MIDI ports.

Before your digital audio sequencer will recognize any Mackie control surface, it must be booted in the mode that your program supports. Do this by holding down the Select buttons for channels 1 and 2 while powering up. A dialog appears prompting you to select a mode; press the V-Pot (V-Pots function both as dials and buttons) beneath the appropriate mode. If you use a program that recognizes both the HUI and the Mackie Control Universal (or Logic Control) profiles, use the Control Universal profile because it is more comprehensive. (For example, because HUI does not have a dedicated master fader, this fader is dead in HUI mode.)

Whether you are using OMS, FreeMIDI or Core MIDI, you must configure your MIDI studio setup before your digital audio sequencer will recognize the control surfaces. If you are familiar with this procedure, it will be a breeze because the Mackie controllers can be treated just like any other MIDI instrument in your studio. Once your MIDI studio setup is properly configured, you can boot up your digital audio sequencer and set its control-surface preferences. Every digital audio sequencer has a slightly different method for assigning control surfaces, but what's common among most of the programs is that you must first enable the controller's profile and then assign the appropriate MIDI In and Out ports for that profile. With the control surface preferences set, press Enter: Two-way MIDI communication is established, and all of the controllers' faders snap to attention — a particularly satisfying sight and sound.

READY TO RUMBLE

The Lexan overlays have an adhesive backing, but I recommend not removing the wax paper that covers them. Instead, leave the wax paper in place and simply place the overlay over the controls. The buttons are plenty tall enough that the overlay sits comfortably without sliding off or interfering with your button pushing. Then, when you switch to a different mode to work in a different program, it's a simple matter of popping on a different Lexan overlay. I have a couple of overlays, HUI and Digital Performer, and while one is in use, I keep the other stashed under the Mackie Control Universal.

The Mackie Control Universal and a couple of Extenders make any desktop recording system appear very pro. Their color scheme is largely the classic Mackie gray, but the horizontal LED strip running the length of each unit has a blue backlight, and the Mackie Control Universal has a large red timecode display, which adds some color. The backlit LED is well-designed, and information lines up beautifully with the channel strips, reflecting the name of each virtual mixer channel along with its meter. In addition to each channel's fader and V-Pot (which, by default, is a pan control), a small green LED functions as a handy signal indicator (or, in the case of a MIDI channel, an activity indicator).

The Mackie Control Universal has a ninth fader that permanently follows your program's master fader (assuming your session contains a master fader). This feature is a stroke of genius because it's the next best thing to having an onboard monitor section, complete with a dedicated knob for controlling the speaker and headphone levels. (Nevertheless, I would still like an onboard monitor section like that of the HUI or Digidesign's Digi 002 — perhaps Mackie can design a monitor sidecar to round out its control-surface product line.)

The unit's parameter-control and transport sections are chock-full of buttons to access many of the most commonly used functions in your digital audio sequencer — in particular, note and waveform editing, plug-in parameters, automation modes, transport functions and file commands (such as Save and Undo/Redo). A set of Left/Right and Up/Down Arrow keys makes zooming in and out of tracks a snap. It's almost possible to mix without touching the computer's mouse and keyboard, but some commands still require those tools; it really depends on which digital audio sequencer you use and how you work. The real-world controls help you to concentrate on listening rather than seeing your music. You aren't stuck staring at the computer screen to execute every command, but you still need to keep your computer's monitor in sight for some visual feedback.

EXTENDED SERVICE

Getting around the Mackie Control Universal is easy because all of its controls are logically arranged. For example, all of the editing keys are grouped together, as are the Automation mode keys. Just locate the set of control keys for the commands that you need, and you're ready to operate. The V-Pots feel great (not cheap) to turn and press, and the transport keys are large with nice, positive action. The buttons of the unit's control section feel a bit small; if you're a klutz or have really big fingers, they might be annoying. (I'm used to units with larger buttons.) The faders don't feel as silky-smooth as those on more expensive control surfaces (like Digidesign's ProControl, which sells for $11,995). For example, I really had to plant my finger firmly on a fader to ensure that it would not fight back and that the onscreen fader would track my moves. Nevertheless, when you consider the price of this unit, the faders are just fine.

Initially, I attempted to test the control surfaces in OS X but quickly found that Apple's Core MIDI was not cooperating. Even though Core MIDI recognized the units and all of the digital audio sequencers addressed the units, MIDI communications were extremely unreliable. Communication with the host application was continually lost, and what appeared to be MIDI logjams made for slow and unresponsive controls. HUI mode with Pro Tools, having the most lost-communication messages, was by far the worst, but the performance with Digital Performer wasn't far behind. For example, the master fader in Digital Performer would pop up in two places at the same time on the control surfaces. The performance with Logic Audio was better, but it also suffered from sluggish and unpredictable behavior. When I switched to OS 9.2.2 and OMS 2.3.8, my testing proceeded without a hitch — that darn OS X again.

HUI mode, with Pro Tools, is not as comprehensive a control profile as the Mackie Control Universal is with other programs. For example, the unit's master fader will not address a master fader in Pro Tools. The Extenders are nice for extra faders and pan controls, but that's about it. When you switch the V-Pots on the Mackie Control Universal from pan to send controls, the Extenders' V-Pots do not follow. But the biggest problem I encountered is that with the controller to the right and the Extenders at its left, it's impossible to get channel 1 to move over to the Mackie Control. If you want to adjust the send on channel 1, you must defer to your mouse. It would be a huge improvement if banking (the process of moving groups of eight faders at a time across the control surfaces) and channeling (the process of moving one fader at a time across the surfaces) faders were circular operations; then, it wouldn't matter where the Mackie Control was in the control-surface chain.

The Mackie Control profile in Digital Performer is more complete. For example, when you switch the V-Pots from pan to send controls, the Extenders follow right along. Inserting plug-ins on a channel is a breeze: You can easily scroll through the available plug-ins for both audio and MIDI mixer channels right from the control surface without even a sideways glance at your computer screen. The confusing thing in Digital Performer is that the channels you see in the program's mixer may be different than the channels on the control surfaces. This is because hidden channels still show up on the control surfaces. It would make much more sense if the Mackie reflected only the visible channels in the Mixer window: Hide a channel in the program, and it disappears from the control surfaces — plain and simple.

By far, the most impressive profile is Logic Control. With the control surfaces set to Logic Control mode, Logic Audio will automatically recognize all of the control surfaces and set up your session accordingly. I was impressed by the original Logic Control units distributed by Emagic, and according to Mackie, the Mackie Control Universal employs the same profile specifications. However, because I have the original Mackie Control and Mackie isn't making Lexan overlays for Logic Audio (remember, the original Mackie Control labels were for Soundscape), it was downright impossible to tell how all of the buttons functioned. As best as I could tell, the implementation looked really good, but a Logic Audio overlay would sure be appreciated.

COMPLETE CONTROL

If real-world control of your digital audio sequencer is what you crave, the Mackie Control Universal and a couple of Extenders are the ticket. However, how well the Mackie Control Universal system is supported seems to vary from program to program, and this may affect your level of satisfaction. Furthermore, if you have already committed to OS X, unreliable MIDI performance in this operating system with certain programs may put a serious cramp in your quest for total control. But I have a feeling that the profiles will continue to improve, growing more comprehensive with time. The best thing that I can say about the Mackie Control Universal and my two Extenders is that I can't imagine working without them. No matter what digital audio sequencer you use, having real-world controls (even just transport, fader and pan controls) is incredibly empowering and guaranteed to speed up your creative efforts.

Product Summary

MACKIE

MACKIE CONTROL UNIVERSAL > $1,299; $1,099 (EXTENDER)

Pros: Good support by wide range of applications. Multiple control-surface operating modes with ROM version 2.1. Well-designed interface and controls. Reasonably priced. Expandable.

Cons: Dedicated MIDI In and Out ports required for every control surface. Unreliable MIDI communications in OS X under Core MIDI.

Contact: tel. (800) 258-6883; e-mail sales@mackie.com; Web www.mackie.com

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