FIG. 1: The Onyx Satellite is a FireWire audio interface that hosts a preamp pod, which is removable for use in remote recording sessions.
Mackie's Onyx Satellite system is a computer audio interface with a twist — or, more accurately, a dock. The bulk of the unit consists of a base station that hosts inputs, connections, and monitoring controls. Nestled in a large top-panel slot is a compact preamp module that you can easily carry to a remote studio, live gig, or other location (see Fig. 1). You don't have to remove cables to take the module, which Mackie calls the pod, out of your studio. The pod has its own input connections for use at another site, and its onboard gain and volume controls serve the same functions whether docked or running independently, with one exception: when docked, two of the pod's knobs control headphone levels; when undocked, they control the levels of the control room outputs.
Both dock and pod are clad in sturdy gray metal housings. When the pod is docked, it becomes part of the Onyx Satellite's top panel, which is angled about 22 degrees for easy access. The base station can be powered by a full-size FireWire port or the supplied 12 VDC wall-wart adapter. The pod can also run on bus power if your laptop has the standard FireWire connector. If the connector is the smaller 4-pin version, you'll need the wall-wart cable. The unit works with all WDM, GSF, and ASIO applications on PCs and with Core Audio-compatible software on Macs.
On the Launchpad
The base station's top panel gives you selection buttons for the unit's two input sections, A and B. You can connect mics, instruments, and line-level sources to the rear panel and select the source from the top panel. Phantom power, input gain, and headphone controls are on the pod, as are two headphone outputs.
FIG. 2: On the base station, channels 1 and 2 each provide two line-level inputs, an instrument input, an XLR input, and an insert jack. Eight TRS output connectors allow you to set up a surround mix in your audio software.
The base station's rear panel provides five connectors each for inputs 1 and 2: two ¼-inch line level, one ¼-inch instrument, one ¼-inch insert, and one XLR, which accesses one of Mackie's well-regarded Onyx mic preamps (see Fig. 2). Eight balanced ¼-inch outputs, the power-adapter receptacle, and a single FireWire connector complete the rear panel.
A few interesting features help the Onyx Satellite stand apart from standard-issue FireWire interfaces. On the base station, the Talkback section has two buttons: one that sends the operator-engineer's voice to the headphone outputs, and another that sends it to your audio software for slating (vocally identifying a track). A talkback mic is built right into the base station, behind three nearly invisible holes above the Talkback-level knob.
The Onyx Satellite offers convenient monitoring of stereo or surround systems. A switch on the base station's top panel lets you choose between configurations labeled 1-2, for basic stereo monitoring, and 1-6, for monitoring six discrete outputs on the rear panel. Four control room (CR) outputs let you connect two separate pairs of monitor speakers, and an A/B button lets you engage one or the other. When only one pair is connected, you can use the button as a mute switch.
Ready for Takeoff
A single 48V phantom-power switch provides current for condenser mics at the base station's rear-panel mic inputs. (Actually, the voltage is +34V, so some condenser mics could potentially lose headroom or wouldn't work at all, but Mackie has had no reports of such issues.) If you want to use electric guitars or other instruments with high-impedance outputs, you must engage buttons marked with guitar icons on both the pod and the base station; that's four buttons total if you have two guitars plugged into the two input channels.
For each of the two inputs, select a signal source by pressing one of the four buttons marked Mic, 1, 2 (for line 1 and 2), or with a guitar icon. Note that pressing a button does not disable the others on either channel. Although you can press all four to simultaneously activate four inputs on one channel, the signals don't intermingle cleanly. An electric guitar I connected seriously degraded the sound of a dynamic mic plugged into the same channel. However, when I plugged a synth and a guitar processor into the line-level inputs, I heard no degradation.
Pulling the pod out of its dock leaves you with what must be one of the smallest FireWire interfaces around, but with the all-important Onyx preamps and monitoring functions intact. The pod's rear panel features two combo connectors, two CR outputs, a FireWire connector, and the exposed female multipin plug that connects the pod to the base station (see Fig. 3).
FIG. 3: The pod''s rear panel features two combo connectors, two control room outputs, and its own FireWire connector.
The pod's remaining features include two 4-stage LEDs for monitoring levels and two more indicating that the unit is powered up and has an active FireWire connection. When undocking the pod, remember that it gets very warm after prolonged operation in the base station. And don't forget to always mute your speakers and power down the Onyx Satellite before removing the pod; otherwise, you could damage the unit and your speakers, or at least hear a loud, unpleasant pop.
The Onyx Satellite was consistently easy to use and delivered dependably high-quality sound. Although PC users must load drivers from the included CD-ROM (Windows XP SP2 is required), the Satellite is ready to run in Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later. Setup was a breeze, and was slowed only by a condition that affects owners of certain Power Mac G5s (see the sidebar “A Fix for Noisy G5s”).
I connected my powered monitors to the Onyx Satellite's control room A outputs. I plugged a keyboard synth's stereo outputs into input 1 of channels 1 and 2 and a guitar directly into the instrument input of channel 2.
Although the Onyx Satellite includes Mackie Tracktion 2, I was curious to see how well it worked with MOTU Digital Performer (DP). With the Control Room section's Source switch set to Inputs and with converted audio passing directly to the CR outputs, the Onyx Satellite sounded very clean, with lots of headroom. Switching the Source button to DAW, I set up DP to record some stereo tracks. The program defaulted to a 64-byte buffer setting and 44.1 kHz resolution (the Satellite itself is set to 48 kHz at power-up). When I pounded on my keyboard, I could hear no difference between monitoring in the Satellite's direct-input mode and monitoring through a stereo track in DP. (There's no mix control or other option for directly monitoring an input while listening to recorded tracks, but FireWire speed and the unit's design should make latency a nonissue in most applications.) A couple of quick vocal takes with a Studio Projects C3 condenser mic confirmed clean audio, problem-free phantom power, and unnoticeable latency.
After enjoying the Onyx Satellite's smooth operation with the pod docked, I powered down the unit and slid the pod out of its receptacle. I switched the cables feeding my monitors from the base station's CR outputs to the pod's CR outputs and connected a FireWire cable to my upgraded Apple PowerBook G3 Pismo. The Pismo is definitely getting long in the tooth for serious audio work, but the pod connected smoothly and exhibited the same strong audio quality running from the laptop's FireWire bus.
In a real-world situation, of course, I would keep the laptop's and the pod's power cables both connected whenever possible, but for relatively quick field recording, the pod appears to work well with modern laptops that have strong batteries and full-size FireWire connections. In fact, the Onyx Satellite may have the best mic preamps available in a FireWire unit this size. I captured a vocalist at her house using the pod and laptop, transferred the recorded vocal tracks back to my G5 over Ethernet, and slid the pod right back into the base station for guitar overdubs — pretty nifty.
Mackie, which has made smooth transitions from its early triumphs with analog mixers to products such as monitors and digital recording devices, appears to have another winner with the Onyx Satellite. The unit should appeal primarily to users who do a lot of off-site recording and need to maintain preamp consistency. If you need to record overdubs with musicians at various locations or run out for a quick interview to top off a Podcast, the Onyx Satellite delivers a ton of flexibility for a very reasonable price.
Rusty Cutchin is a former editor of EM and a producer, engineer, and music journalist in the New York City area.
A FIX FOR NOISY G5s
Unfortunately, certain Macs emit unwanted noise, including a high-pitched whine, when an audio interface is connected to a FireWire port. As soon as I connected mine, this indeed was the case. I began the often-aggravating task of trying to isolate the noise problem.
As I had suffered this problem before with other FireWire interfaces, I was thrilled to find that the fix was relatively easy. Many users had reported online that a suite of programs for Mac developers, the utilities in CHUD Tools (available at http://developer.apple.com/tools/download), adds a Processor panel to your System Preferences that eliminates this noise with one click. Interested Power Mac G5 users can get more info at www.xlr8yourmac.com/G5/G5_noise_tips.html. I installed the utilities, opened the new panel, and clicked on the designated box, and my Mac became quiet as a mouse.
FireWire audio interface
FEATURES4EASE OF USE5AUDIO QUALITY4VALUE4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Easy setup. Excellent sound quality. Removable preamp pod. Surround monitoring. Built-in talkback mic.
CONS: Phantom power may not be adequate for certain mics. No way to directly monitor an input while playing tracks.