Mackie's Spike powered recording system brings together all the essential add-ons for a basic computer-based recording environment: USB audio-MIDI interface with ASIO, WDM, and OS X Core Audio support; multitrack recording software; and a generous supply of effects. That may be a standard combination of tools, but Spike is a new dog with new tricks for a package in this price range.
FIG. 1: The XD-2 USB audio interface provides I/O and DSP functions for the Spike system and is secured by a swivel base that can be tucked away for transport.
The system boasts hardware processing of dynamics and EQ; a unique recording program, Tracktion, which offers a simplified graphic interface; and the Nomad Factory Warmer Phaser plug-in. The package is impressive, but does its performance make Spike a bulldog or just a lovable puppy for novice recordists?
READY FOR LAUNCH
The brains of the system are contained in the XD-2 audio interface (see Fig. 1), a deceptively simple desktop unit that resembles, depending on how you view it, a rocket ship or a slice of charcoal and silver pie. The slim interface sits vertically and is stabilized by a unique spring-loaded arched base that must be pulled from the bottom of the unit and rotated to a position perpendicular to the main body for stability.
The base is important; without it the 2¼-pound XD-2 will stand on its own but fall over easily if bumped. A warning label urging the user to position the base first would be helpful; those who want to rip open the box and start using the XD-2 without reading the setup guide might not realize the base is tucked into the bottom of the unit. The base provides a safe anchor, but you still need to hold the unit when inserting or unplugging a headphone jack.
Viewed head-on, the XD-2's surface looks like a truncated channel strip and offers some of the same functions. At the top of the front panel are the channel 1 input controls: a button to switch the channel's input from mic to instrument, a button to engage a digital highpass filter in the input's signal path (postconversion), and a gain pot. Below that is a duplicate set of controls for channel 2, and between them is a button to engage 48V phantom power on both mic inputs.
Three pots, labeled Mix, Monitor, and Phones, reside beneath the channel 2 input controls. The Mix pot adjusts the level of input signal relative to audio from the computer. At the fully counterclockwise DIR position, only signals fed to the XD-2's inputs can be monitored at the unit's outputs. At the fully clockwise USB position, only audio from the computer is available. Rotating the pot to a midpoint provides a mix of input and playback audio. The Monitor and Phones pots control the levels at the unit's main outputs and front-panel headphone jack respectively.
FIG. 2: The XD-2''s curved rear panel provides basic S/PDIF, MIDI, USB, mic/instrument input, and monitor output connections.
The XD-2's quarter-round rear panel (see Fig. 2) creates some extra space between plug ends and makes access to connections easy. The topmost connections are standard S/PDIF in and out, followed by MIDI In and Out and monitor L/R jacks, which accept ¼-inch TRS plugs. Two combo connectors for channels 1 and 2 reside below the monitor outputs. The connectors can accept balanced ¼-inch instrument cables or XLR mic connectors for feeding the unit's mic pres. The XD-2's 9 VDC power connector and USB port are below the combo connectors. The unit does not get power from the USB port.
The power supply is necessary for one of the XD-2's most attractive features: the internal SHARC chip that provides digital signal processing on input or during mixdown. Those controls are accessed from the XD-2's control panel, which is included with other third-party software on the installation CD-ROM.
The Spike system supplies drivers only for Windows XP and Mac OS X. (For this review I used a dual-processor Power Mac G5/2 GHz with 512 MB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.3.4.) Installing the driver is simple but requires a Web browser; installation instructions are in an HTML file. The Spike user manual and Getting Started guide are included on the CD as PDF files. Other than a single-page “Quick Start Sheet,” no hard-copy instructions are provided.
After installation the XD-2 icon appears on screen. Double-clicking on the icon opens the control panel in Setup mode. There you can save and load settings, switch to S/PDIF clock sync, switch between mono and stereo monitor settings, and choose the unit's sampling-rate mode. A software update (available by download at mackie.com/spike_update/alpha2.html) will enable a 96 kHz sampling rate during recording or playback, but not simultaneously.
Clicking the Overview button in the View Select area at the extreme right of the panel provides input, routing, and meter controls. The USB button in the Input Select area determines whether the unit's DSP functions apply to audio signals at the XD-2's input section or those from the computer. You can select S/PDIF input in this area if a clock source is apparent at the S/PDIF input. The incoming digital signal will pass through the digital filters before accessing the other built-in effects.
Also in the Overview screen are indicators for high-impedance input and phantom power that light when one of their associated front-panel switches is depressed; LED meters indicating input and output levels for both channels; HP/LP Filter settings; and output gain controls. The front-panel gain pots control input levels when the USB button is off.
When you select the DSP button in the View Select area, the control panel shows the complete range of EQ, compression, and gate controls that are built in to the XD-2 (see Fig. 3). Each pair of modules can be linked for stereo operation. You can't stretch the control panel window, but you can click the Zoom button in the left margin to enlarge one channel's modules into the full window and click the S button to toggle channels. The enlarged view makes it easier to see graphs and buttons.
FIG. 3: The XD2''s control panel enables access to the unit''s built-in DSP functions, which include 4-band parametric EQ, compression, and gating.
One design element of note: The XD-2's lowpass and highpass filter graphs show up in the EQ module's space when zoomed, although the filters occur in the signal path before the DSP section. The values for the four filters are set and the lowpass filters are engaged in the Overview section of the window. However, the highpass filters can only be engaged from the XD-2's front panel. All settings revert to default values when you exit the control panel, so it's a good idea to save XD-2 settings you will need again.
The modules work like standard plug-ins. You can drag nodes or sliders in any module to adjust parameters. In the EQ section you can adjust frequency, gain or Q (bands 2 and 3), or select shelving filters (bands 1 and 2). The compressor section provides the standard controls and meters, as well as a variable knee slider when the Soft button is selected. (A Limit button kicks the compressor's Ratio value to maximum.) The gate module provides a Ratio slider when the Expand button is selected to enable downward expansion.
WALKING THE DOG
I installed the XD-2 Mac driver and was happy to see communication with the computer established quickly. Because I was eager to check out the unit's DSP, I began my Spike experience by downloading Tracktion (see the sidebar “Gaining Tracktion”) and recording some audio. I patched in a Roland synth to one of the XD-2's instrument inputs, and after a quicker-than-expected session with Tracktion's onscreen manual, I began combining some drum loops and synth parts into a groove.
The XD-2's input section performed as promised. The synth sounds I initially fed it sounded fine through the XD-2's monitor outputs. I recorded a drum loop into track 1 of Tracktion, and started a bass overdub. I adjusted the XD-2's Mix knob and listened to the direct bass signal while playing to the recorded drum loop. No noise was generated by the interface's mix of direct input and audio signals from the computer. As you might expect, however, on playback the bass track was way behind the drum track.
I turned the Mix knob clockwise to the 12 o'clock position to compare the direct signal with its postcomputer version. The long delay indicated that a change in Tracktion's buffer settings was needed. Although the program allows sample settings as low as 14 (.3 ms), 64 was the lowest number the program could handle without digital noise and audio breakup. At this setting I could monitor in full USB mode, and tracks began to sync nicely. The XD-2's knobs exercised their digital control silently, and the unit's preamps lived up to the high-quality label Mackie assigns them.
That was also true when I plugged a pair of large-diaphragm condensers into the XD-2's mic pres and recorded a solo acoustic guitar and female vocalist. The results were virtually indistinguishable from the ones I obtained recording the same singer with an outboard tube preamp a week earlier. Only a tinge of added brightness on the top end indicated the later recording's mics were feeding a different preamp.
FIG. 4: Nomad Factory''s Warmer Phaser plug-in, which is included with the Spike system, offers tube emulation.
On the original synth groove, I added a short guitar lead. I plugged a Strat into channel 2, turned the mix knob to Direct, and set the XD-2's channel 1 compressor to a -3 threshold with a 10:1 ratio. I then accessed the included Warmer Phaser plug-in (see Fig. 4) from within Tracktion and added some reverb and distortion to beef up the guitar part. The Warmer Phaser's tube emulation improved the guitar part noticeably and Tracktion's drag-and-drop filter scheme worked seamlessly.
The resulting audio clip is available online (see Web Clip 1). Later I ran the mix through the XD-2's stereo compressor and EQ to create a final mix (see Web Clip 2). The reprocessed mix, with added stereo compression and EQ from the XD-2, was recorded back into Traction. The XD-2's onboard processing made the process transparent and speedy. The EQ and compression results were more than serviceable — not as smooth as high-quality third-party plug-ins, but fine for quick fixes on the demos for which Spike is most likely to be used.
RECORDIST'S BEST FRIEND
The Spike system's blend of a handy and efficient audio interface and (in Tracktion) a one-screen, low-overhead recording application is a good bet for people who are new to recording. It's an even better bet for those who have some experience with sequencing. Spike also has great potential for the pro who needs a laptop-based system for travel or for live or field recording.
With hardware processing on the front- and back ends of the recording process, the system saves CPU cycles for those running Windows XP and Mac OS X on older computers. The compact and feature-rich XD-2 alone may justify the price of the system. And with the included software, Spike is a solid package for anyone who wants to create basic start-to-finish projects in their computer.
Rusty Cutchinis an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spike desktop recording system $495
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.5AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: DSP in hardware; Front panel Mix control on XD-2. Simple setup. Versatile software. Extensive pop-up help in Tracktion.
CONS: Windows XP or Mac OS X only. No insert points on XD-2. No external sync in Tracktion.
Spike XD-2 Specifications
Analog Inputs (2) ¼"/XLR combo connectors Analog Outputs (2) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS Digital I/O Coaxial S/PDIF Headphone Outputs (1) ¼" MIDI Ports In, Out Highpass, Lowpass Filters 18 dB/octave, 20 Hz-20 kHz Dynamic Range -101.0 dB (XLR In, nominal gain) Distortion (THD) @ 1 kHz <.009% Frequency Response @ 0/-0.5 dB 20 Hz-20 kHz A/D/A Converter 16-bit, 24-bit Sampling Rate 44.1/48 kHz; 88.2/96 kHz Dimensions 5.6" (W) 5 8.85" (H) 5 8.7" (D) Weight 2.25 lbs.
If you've ever been frustrated because software applications get more complex, expensive, and visually bloated with each revision, then Tracktion may be just the digital audio recorder and MIDI sequencer for you. Originally created by UK programmer and musician Julian Storer for Raw Material Software, Tracktion (now distributed exclusively by Mackie) attempts to wipe away the onscreen clutter created by multiple windows, including (yikes) the Mix window (see Fig. A).
FIG. A: Traction saves overhead by eliminating windows and providing dedicated areas on the main screen for plug-in parameters and filter icons, which can be placed into a track where needed.
At first that may make Tracktion appear to be a consumer-type program unworthy of serious studio use, but you'll be hard-pressed to find features that Tracktion doesn't offer. Taking advantage of them means learning some new ways of working, but it takes only one session to get hip to Tracktion's paradigm. And except for a minor inconvenience here or there, you may find that the savings on system overhead, screen redraw time, and cash (Mackie sells Tracktion on its Web site for $80) are worth the trade-offs.
Tracktion offers unlimited tracks; a built-in sampler; VST, VSTi, and ReWire 2.0 support; and a Freeze Tracks feature. The program supports DirectSound and ASIO audio devices in Windows as well as OS X Core Audio devices, and can handle any sampling rate supported by the system's hardware, performing playback sampling-rate conversion on the fly. There's also support for playback latencies below 3 ms (hardware permitting) and live recording and direct editing of automation elements.
Tips Tracktion implements many of its features in unique ways. A modification to an audio clip (including a volume or pan change) requires a “filter.” When in use, filters are represented by icons that sit in a space to the right of the track. When you want a compressor, overdrive, delay, or other processor, you simply drag the filter icon into a track, and a pop-up window appears. You choose the filter you want, and its parameters and settings appear in the large area at the bottom of the screen. (Third-party plug-ins appear in their original windows.) Each track has three default filters — volume, pan, and meters — in place when a project launches. Volume and pan can't be deleted, but any other filter type can be added, deleted, or reordered at will.
You can also combine effects into “rack filters,” which allow more complex routing schemes that can be saved. A ReWire filter is provided, so you can link Tracktion to other ReWire-savvy programs.
The input section to the left of the tracks area also makes use of icons, and with the Spike system, the XD-2's left and right channels and MIDI input each get an icon. To assign input 1 of the XD-2 to track 5 in Tracktion, for example, just drag the input 1 icon to the area left of track 5. Click on the icon, and all your options, including a level meter, appear at the bottom of the screen. With MIDI, drag the MIDI input icon to the front of the desired track, click on the icon, and pick an output destination such as the XD-2 for the MIDI data. You can also drag VST instruments onto a track to receive MIDI data. A simple VSTi synth is one of the Maxim Digital Audio plug-ins included with Tracktion.
POP GOES THE HELP
If Tracktion's limited graphical interface makes you scratch your head, you'll be snapped to attention by all the pop-up info and help screens that jump into action with virtually every cursor movement. Some users may find all the messages confusing, but I thought they made it easy to learn the program without a manual. Only a limited HTML file (mostly an extensive FAQ list with linked answers) is available. But if you have any experience with sequencers, the pop-up help is all you'll need, and you'll probably turn the feature off in about an hour.
Tracktion also offers a full range of file-management options, common file import and export capabilities, and selectable data compression. These schemes make it easy to transfer files on the Internet without loss of quality.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Tracktion is a robust addition to the Spike system. The more I used the program, the more I enjoyed its simplicity and the power under its hood — power reserved for processing audio data rather than being eaten up by a complex graphical interface. For an $80 sequencer, Tracktion packs a respectable punch.
The program doesn't have everything, of course. There's no built-in audio editor. Individual clips must be rendered to a new file and reimported for such simple processes as normalization. There's no provision for external sync. (According to Mackie, version 2, due out in early 2005, will offer this feature.) But Tracktion's ability to communicate through ReWire, make use of the wide variety of VST effects and instruments, and intelligently perform a multitude of tasks within one main screen make it a big advantage to the Spike system.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G3/650 MHz; 128 MB RAM; Mac OS X 10.2
PC: Pentium III/750 MHz; 128 MB RAM; Windows XP