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MACKIE DESIGNS Mackie Control

September 1, 2003
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I love mixing with knobs and sliders. The interaction with aphysical surface can infuse a mix with a gestural fluidity that isn'teasy to accomplish with mouse-based mixing. Entering theMIDI-controller market at the low end of the price range, Mackie's newdevice, called simply the Mackie Control, offers an easy way to addknobs and faders to your favorite software DAW. The unit is a modestlypriced mixing and control surface with a well-designed and rich featureset.

FIG. 1: The Mackie Control's top panelis packed with buttons, knobs, and sliders. The clear labels andoptional Lexan overlays for most popular DAWs make it easy to find yourway around.

You won't find a bit of wasted space on the Mackie Control's toppanel: buttons, knobs, faders, and displays festoon all the availablereal estate (see Fig. 1). Nonetheless, the unit doesn't feelcluttered; there's plenty of room between the controls even for largehands. The modular layout and clean, simple, silk-screened labels makeit relatively easy to learn your way around the unit's dozens ofcontrols.

Like most Mackie products, the Control is dark gray with highlightsin light gray, black, and white. It may not win any beauty contests,but it has a utilitarian, neutral look that should fit easily into moststudio color schemes. Small LEDs are positioned in or near many of thebuttons to indicate their status. At the top of the unit, a displayarea features a two-line blue LCD screen and dedicated LED numerals toindicate elapsed time or song position.

FIG. 2: The Mackie Control's spartanrear panel provides single MIDI In and Out ports along with twofootswitch jacks and an External Control pedaljack.

The Mackie Control offers few connections on its rear panel (seeFig. 2). The single MIDI In and Out jacks must both be connectedto your MIDI interface for proper communication. Two user-configurablefootswitch jacks let you control various DAW functions, and an ExternalControl jack accepts a control-voltage input that you can route toperform additional functions. Last, there's a power jack for theline-lump DC-adapter cord

FROM THE TOP

The Mackie Control features eight identical fader channel stripsthat are similar in design and layout to the strips on Mackie's HUI andBaby HUI. The volume sliders are touch-sensitive 100 mm Penny and Gileslong-throw faders. Above each fader, a Select button assigns theprimary focus to the associated track. Solo and Mute buttons areprovided along with a Signal LED that lights up to indicate trackactivity. Above the LED, a Record/Ready button enables thecorresponding track for recording. The knob at the top of each strip isused for a variety of context-specific tasks. It's ringed with LEDs toindicate the approximate setting of such parameters as pan position orsend level. You can push down on a knob to select variouscontext-related functions. Above each fader channel, the blue LCD areashows each track name, but it also shows various parameter values whenin different modes.

The inclusion of a ninth fader track dedicated to master volumelevel is most welcome. That fader is missing from the HUI, the BabyHUI, and many other control surfaces and makes this unit feel more likea traditional mixing console.

Above the Master fader, the Fader Banks section provides buttonsthat let you change which DAW tracks are currently controlled by theMackie Control's faders. You can shift the faders in banks of eight (1through 8, 9 through 16, and so forth) or one channel at a time (1through 8, 2 through 9, and so forth). An Edit button provides accessto plug-in parameters, and a Flip button swaps control between thefaders and the rotary knobs. It's a great feature that lets you quicklycontrol pan, send level, various plug-in values, and other parametersby using the faders instead of the usual knobs. I often relied on thisbutton to make the the mixing process more fluid.

Above the Fader Banks section, the Assignment section provides sixbuttons that determine which parameters the rotary knobs control. TheI/O, Sends, and Plug-Ins buttons let you scroll through choices toselect a current setting. Pan is self-explanatory, and EQ and Dynamicstypically open an EQ or dynamics plug-in that is already assigned tothe given track, although the behavior might change a bit depending onthe DAW being controlled.

The transport section provides the five standard buttons (Rewind,Fast-Forward, Stop, Play, and Record, in that order). The buttons arebig and friendly with LEDs above each one to indicate the status. Belowthe transport buttons, a large scrub/shuttle wheel makes it easy topinpoint specific places in the music. The neighboring keys help withtrack navigation. When the Zoom button in the center is engaged,however, the arrow keys provide horizontal and vertical trackzooming.

MACKIE DOES DAWS

The Mackie Control's Master Control section, in the upper rightcorner, is dedicated to 39 DAW-specific buttons. Because eachmanufacturer organizes and assigns its buttons to best suit itsproduct's capabilities, Mackie supplies free Lexan stick-on overlaysthat provide button labels for each supported program. You canpermanently attach an overlay to the top panel or swap it with othersfor compatibility with multiple products. (Additional overlays can beobtained from Mackie as needed.)

The typical controls that are assigned to this region include windowcontrols (to display various program windows), mix automation controls,common menu selections (such as Save and Undo), recording and transportoptions, and so forth. I like Mackie's approach of standardizing thebasic mixer and transport controls while providing a large area devotedto a range of DAW-specific functions.

Each software manufacturer creates its own implementation of thecontrol surface. As of this writing, drivers are available for CakewalkSonar; Magix Samplitude and Sequoia; MOTU Digital Performer; RML LabsSawStudio; Steinberg Nuendo, Cubase SX, and Cubase SL; and SyntrilliumCool Edit Pro (but not Adobe Audition). New firmware, which implementsa full-featured HUI mode of operation, provides complete control overDigidesign's Pro Tools and Emagic's Logic Audio and Logic Platinum. (Ifyou already own a Mackie Control, you can purchase an upgrade kitdirectly from Mackie to install the firmware and use the HUI mode ifyou choose.)

If you have the desktop space and the budget to accommodateadditional controls, Mackie offers the Mackie Control Extender($1,099), which includes an additional eight fader strips and requiresits own MIDI channel. You can connect multiple extenders to create avery large virtual mixing surface.

Mackie has also recently announced a new addition to the controlsurface product line: the Mackie Control C4 ($1,099). This expansionunit features 32 rotary knobs and no faders. The knobs are used tocontrol complex plug-ins, virtual synths, and samplers that have anespecially large number of parameters.

IN OPERATION

It's important to understand that in evaluating the Mackie Controlwith a particular program, you are essentially evaluating the programand its associated driver and the capabilities that they provide.That's because the software developers are responsible for assigningthe specific features and functions to the Mackie Control's buttons,knobs, and sliders. I therefore chose to evaluate the Mackie Control'sintegration with two popular DAWs, one on the Mac and one on the PC, toprovide a sample overview.

Nuendo (PC)

I took the Mackie Control for a test drive with a PC running Nuendo1.61. After installing the appropriate version of Nuendo, I plugged inthe MIDI cables and got down to work within minutes. I put the systemthrough its paces with ease: I recorded audio, scrubbed it back andforth, zoomed in and out, panned, and executed all the other basic DAWcommands without any problems. I especially liked the plug-in editing,which was intuitive and smooth.

I assigned EQ to a track, hit the track Select button and the EQbutton, and the EQ plug-in window popped up onscreen. All the salientparameters were mapped to the rotary controls. Pressing the Flip buttonmoved the EQ parameters to the eight faders, which made for a reallymusical processing experience. Overall, the coupling between Nuendo andthe Mackie Control felt clean, natural, and responsive.

Digital Performer (Mac)

Next, I plugged the Mackie Control into an Apple G4 running DigitalPerformer 3.11. Just as with Nuendo on the PC, the basic operations,such as transport controls, fader levels, and pan positions, worked asadvertised.

Many of Digital Performer's functions, such as bringing forward thethree primary windows and toggling on and off options such as Overdubmode, Count-off, and Click worked fine. Others, such as vertical zoom,worked in some modes but not all. Some operations rely on variousmodifier buttons that change the functionality. For example, for theCycle and Punch buttons, pressing the button with no modifiers sets thestart point. Adding Shift sets the end point; adding Control togglesthe mode on and off.

I also found that the EQ and Dynamics buttons didn't bring updynamics or EQ plug-ins for editing the way they did in Nuendo; theyhad other functions unrelated to the names on the labels. I was able toedit EQ parameters (in the ParaEQ plug-in) by holding down the Editbutton, selecting the appropriate plug-in for that track, and pressingthe rotary knob. That process never brought the plug-in window up onthe screen, though. (According to MOTU, that's because DigitalPerformer doesn't force you to use dedicated EQ and dynamics in everychannel strip. The program lets you choose the desired plug-in on onlythe tracks where they're needed.) All in all, Steinberg'simplementation of the Mackie Control provided a more intuitiveexperience than MOTU's.

BOOK LEARNIN'

The documentation for Mackie products is usually pretty good; inthis case, however, Mackie has dropped the ball. The unit ships with afour-page “Quick-Start Guide” that offers three pages oflegalese and return information and one page of instructions on how towire the Control into your studio.

Mackie's idea is to have the DAW manufacturers write separatemanuals covering the Control's interactions with their software.However, much of the basic functionality of the Control is the sameacross all systems, and that material should have been included in auser manual that accompanies the product, leaving the DAW manufacturersto write about their specific implementations.

The quality of the documentation from the different manufacturerswas inconsistent. For example, Steinberg's manuals for Cubase andNuendo were thorough and well written. MOTU's Digital Performer 3documentation consisted of a brief six-page draft with many mistakes,although the documentation for Digital Performer 4 was much moreextensive, with graphics and descriptions of general as well asspecific controls. (The newer documentation is now available forDigital Performer 3 users on MOTU's Web site.)

UNDER CONTROL

The Mackie Control is a fine piece of hardware. Its design andfunctionality are first-rate, the faders feel great, and the featureset is impressive. The price is reasonable for a controller of thisdepth, and the availability of additional expander modules allows for acustom-built virtual mixing system of any size.

The potential weak point in this product is that Mackie must rely oneach DAW manufacturer to create a robust interface for the MackieControl. Nevertheless, if you're looking for an inexpensive andexpandable control surface for your studio, I'd definitely take thisproduct into consideration. I would, however, try it (as I would justabout any other control surface that I've seen) before buying it. Ifpossible, spend a few hours running a Mackie Control with your favoriteDAW to see how you like it. If the operation feels smooth andintuitive, then feed your mouse to the cat and say hello to a much moreenjoyable mixing experience.


Nick Peck creates sound for film and games and still lugshis Hammond and Leslie to jazz gigs. Send him an e-mail at nick@perceptivesound.com.

Mackie Control Specifications

Number of Channels

(8) track faders, (1) master fader

Faders

(9) 100 mm Penny and Giles long-throw touch-sensitive motorizedfaders

Displays

2-line LCD, 2-character LED Assignment display, 10-character LEDelapsed-time/current-position display

MIDI I/O

(1) In, (1) Out

Other Connectors

(2) ¼" foot-switch, (1) ¼" external control

Power

100-240V at 50/60 Hz line-lump 12 VDC transformer

DAWs Currently Supported

Mac: Digidesign Pro Tools; Emagic Logic Audio and Logic Platinum;MOTU Digital Performer; Steinberg Nuendo, Cubase SX, and Cubase SL.Win: Cakewalk Sonar; Digidesign Pro Tools; Magix Samplitude andSequoia; RML Labs SawStudio; Steinberg Nuendo, Cubase SX, and CubaseSL; Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro.

Dimensions

17.4" (W) × 3.8" (H) × 17.5" (D)

Weight

14.5 lb.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Mackie Designs
Mackie Control
MIDI control surface
$1,299

FEATURES4.0
EASE OF USE3.0
DOCUMENTATION2.0
VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Provides 100 mm motorized touch-sensitive faders.Robust and complete feature set with good implementation acrossmultiple platforms. Expandable system to fit your needs and budget.

CONS: No numeric keypad. Some aspects of the user interfacedesign may be a bit unintuitive.

Manufacturer

Mackie Designs Inc.
tel. (800) 898-3211
e-mail sales@mackie.com
Web www.mackie.com

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