Face it: If you make music, you want Digidesign Pro Tools. Even if you don't know you want it, you do. It's impossible to turn on the radio, pop in a CD or watch a movie made in the past 10 years that hasn't been touched by some form of Digidesign software and hardware.
Unfortunately, for mere mortals, it's tough to cough up the $10,000 (sans computer) for an entry-level TDM system. About two years ago, however, someone at Digi realized that there are people out there who don't live in the Hollywood Hills and don't make the after-Grammy parties, who might benefit from a scaled-down, affordable version of its flagship product. Enter Pro Tools LE software and the Digi 001 hardware system. Limited to 24 audio tracks, and with most of the video-editing features disabled, the Digi 001/Pro Tools LE package was a massive hit, selling for about $900 and giving nearly 95 percent of the audio-editing functionality of its pro system.
And all was wonderful in home-studio land until the iMac and laptop users of the world wanted their own piece of the Pro Tools action. Now, with the Mbox, Digi has found a way to meet everyone's needs. About the size of a paperback book, the Mbox is a 2-channel, USB audio interface that is packaged with the latest version of Pro Tools LE.
The Mbox doesn't look like an audio powerhouse — where are the rack ears? Although the USB-powered Mbox is all about portability, it also includes some impressive features and specs: two Focusrite mic preamps with 48V phantom power; XLR/¼-inch combination inputs, ¼-inch TRS inserts and outputs, S/PDIF I/O, two headphone outputs, and 24-bit A/D/A converters with 44.1 and 48kHz sampling rates. The Mbox also boasts zero-latency record monitoring, so you don't hear a delay between what you play and what you hear in your monitor setup. But conspicuously lacking is any sort of MIDI interface. (I'll discuss alternate solutions for that later.)
KNOBS ON THE FRONT, JACKS ON THE BACK
All of the Mbox's controls are located on the front panel. There is a Gain knob for each of the two inputs and a button that allows you to switch between the three input sources (mic, line and instrument). Also, each input source has a corresponding reminder light and a peak warning light next to the Gain knobs.
Next in line is the Mix knob, which controls the amount of monitoring latency. Latency while recording has long been the great demon plaguing computer-based recording. It takes a noticeable amount of time for the computer to process incoming signals and play them back, so when you are tracking, say, a guitar, you hear what you played slightly after you play it — it sounds like having a digital delay patched into your headphones. The standard solution to this problem has been to adjust your sound card's latency settings for recording and playback. The problem is, low-latency settings put a greater strain on your computer's CPU. The Mbox's Mix control allows you to easily blend the monitor levels between playback and input signals. While tracking, adjust the Mix knob for the perfect blend of your input signal and tracks. When you are done tracking and want to mix your track, turn the Mix knob all the way to the right to hear just your recorded tracks.
Rounding out the front panel is the headphone volume and a ⅛-inch miniplug for headphones. The back panel also has a ¼-inch headphone jack; unfortunately, you can't use both simultaneously — you'll have to buy a splitter cable if you want to record with a friend.
TOOLS THAT RULE
In a nutshell, Pro Tools LE software is a native audio/MIDI recorder/sequencer (meaning it uses your computer's processor and memory to process audio) that gives you 24 audio tracks and a maximum of 128 MIDI tracks to play with. Although other native audio sequencers claim to be able to play back massive amounts of audio tracks, in truth, that is only possible on systems with the fastest processors and plenty of RAM — not so with Pro Tools LE. As long as your computer fulfills the minimum system requirements, Mbox and Pro Tools LE will deliver 24 tracks of audio playback.
The biggest advantages of Pro Tools are its simplicity and ease of use. More than 10 years of software development have evolved Pro Tools into an incredibly streamlined environment for audio manipulation. Instead of tons of windows for every conceivable editing function as with other audio sequencers, Pro Tools basically has two windows, Edit and Mix, in which you will spend 99 percent of your time working.
The Edit window lets you view and edit your audio and MIDI tracks graphically (see Fig. 1). The Mbox has six editing tools: Zoomer for zooming the tracks in and out for greater detail, Trimmer for resizing audio regions or MIDI notes, Selector for selecting things to edit, Grabber for “grabbing” pieces of material and moving them around, and Scrubber for moving across audio regions to hear the audio as if you were “scrubbing” tape across a tape head. Scrubber is excellent for pinpointing areas you want to edit. The Pencil tool is for inserting MIDI notes, drawing automation curves and manually repairing clicks and glitches in your audio.
The Mix window displays your track as if it were a conventional hardware mixer (see Fig. 2). Each audio track gets its own channel strip with a volume fader, a level meter, a pan control, Automation mode, input/output selectors for routing audio to and from the Mbox, and insert and send controls for routing audio to software plug-ins and the inserts on the unit's back panel. The channel strips for MIDI tracks lack the insert and send functions.
The Mix window is so complete, you have no need for a hardware mixer. Get hip to the automation functions — they allow you to record and playback all your volume, pan, mute and plug-in parameters. That allows you to do your mixes in multiple passes, tweaking the controls one at a time to build a monster final mix. It's also cool to watch all of the faders and controls move by themselves when you hit Play.
Pro Tools LE ships with the DigiRack set of audio plug-ins, including compression, EQ, delay and reverb. They are adequate for your basic recording needs, but the reverb does sound a bit shrill on vocals. A multitude of third-party Real-Time Audio Suite (RTAS) plug-ins are out there, most of which are of exceptional quality. Digidesign includes a few third-party plug-ins, but they are demo versions and quit working after 30 days unless you purchase a license.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
I had no problem setting up and using the Mbox system. Just install the software and drivers, plug the Mbox into your computer's USB port, and you're good to go. The slim hardcopy manual includes enough information to get new users up to speed, and the complete Pro Tools manual is included on the CD as a PDF.
The sound quality of the Mbox/Pro Tools LE package is nothing short of amazing. The Focusrite preamps are crystal clear and give generous headroom when recording, so you can really hit them without the signal distorting. The zero-latency monitoring works great when tracking; I was able to dial up a setting without the annoying latency delay described previously.
I used a 600MHz Apple iBook for testing, and it had plenty of power for the 20 tracks I amassed — I even had CPU to spare for about five plug-ins. The reverb and delay plugs appear to eat up the most horsepower, so you may need to bounce your processed track to disk to free up more CPU usage. As mentioned previously, the Mbox gets its power directly from the USB port on your computer, but the battery drain seems minimal. Without the Mbox, my iBook battery would last about three-and-a-half hours. With the Mbox, I was only down to about three hours, which makes the Mbox ideal for portable recording.
The one major complaint I have with the Mbox system is the lack of MIDI ports. How Digidesign let this major design omission slip by is a mystery. The LE software has a great set of MIDI features; to suggest, however, that the Mbox is an all-in-one studio solution is a bit far-fetched without hardware MIDI. You can buy a small USB interface, but if you only have one free USB port on your computer, your only choice is to use a USB hub, which Digidesign recommends against because USB hubs can decrease reliable connections for audio use. Another option is to buy a compatible software synth and use the MIDI tracks in LE to fire them off.
CLOSE THE BOX
Pro Tools, an I/O box with Focusrite preamps and USB bus power for $495? Well, sign me up! A completely portable Pro Tools system is hard to pass up, even if it doesn't have a MIDI interface.
Just for kicks, Digidesign has made Mbox compatible with its DigiStudio online collaboration. You can go on the Web, find people all over the world and share sessions with them. It's a pretty hot setup and will likely expand as more users sign on. Another excellent feature is that you can take your Mbox sessions to a Pro Tools TDM studio and open them right up.
If you want to taste Pro Tools before buying, download Pro Tools Free from the Digidesign Website. It gives you all of the features of LE but is limited to eight tracks of playback. It uses your computer's built-in sound capabilities, eliminating the need for additional Digi hardware. So check it out — you know you want it.
Pros: Affordable. Easy to use. Outstanding sound quality. Pro Tools LE software included. Portable.
Cons: No MIDI In/Out. No ASIO driver.
Overall rating: 4.5