Digidesign's Mbox 2 line has included three affordable USB audio interfaces of varying sizes and with varying analog and digital I/O and monitoring options, all of which come with Pro Tools LE software. But until now — because Pro Tools software always requires some kind of attached audio interface to boot — there hasn't been an extremely portable way to work on Pro Tools sessions when space is the most precious. Enter the Mbox 2 Micro, a USB flash-drive-size interface that lets you run — and comes bundled with — Pro Tools LE 7.4 software, including its powerful new Elastic Time features (see “What's Up, Stretch?” in the March 2008 Remix or on remixmag.com).
BLUE STEEL BEAUTY
The Mbox 2 Micro may look like a USB thumb drive, but it's made of robust and durable anodized aluminum, rather than cheap plastic. There's no onboard data storage either. Instead, the Micro lets you launch Pro Tools LE and gives you a high-quality audio output. It comes with the ultra-popular DAW software for Windows or Mac and supports Pro Tools sessions of as many as 32 audio tracks and 256 MIDI tracks. It also includes the standard Pro Tools LE plug-in bundle, including seven Bomb Factory dynamics plugs; 38 Digirack plugs, including many EQ and dynamics plug-ins and effects such as chorus, delay, reverb and flanger; the free sample-playback version of Digidesign Structure; and Digidesign Xpand!, a virtual instrument with more than 1,000 presets running the gamut from acoustic instruments to evolving synth-scapes.
Installation was simple: load the software from the disk, connect the Micro, launch Pro Tools and rock on. Digidesign also includes a USB extension cable, which is handy for placing the Micro in a more convenient and less vulnerable position than jutting out of a laptop. I recently used the cable when sitting on the aisle seat of a plane, so that a speeding beverage cart or an errant toddler wouldn't knock the Micro from its perch and potentially damage it.
At $279, the Mbox 2 Micro represents the least expensive way to acquire Pro Tools LE software, but there are a couple of caveats to bear in mind. First, there are no audio inputs, so you won't be able to record audio into Pro Tools while using it. The capped end of the Micro has the USB 1.1 connection (compatible with USB 2 ports as well), and the business end of the Micro hosts a single ⅛-inch stereo audio output for connecting headphones for speaker sets, a volume output dial, a green LED for indicating activity, a lanyard slot and that's it. Without audio inputs, your Pro Tools sessions when using the Micro are limited to editing, mixing and sequencing MIDI instruments.
That limitation means that the Mbox 2 Micro may not be a perfect primary Pro Tools interface for most users; rather, it will either serve as a secondary (or tertiary) Pro Tools setup for frequent travelers who want to access their sessions on a plane, or as a primary interface for those who only need Pro Tools for remixing, live use or for simple tracks using solely virtual instruments.
In either case, a second concern may come into play: The Mbox 2 Micro supports a maximum audio resolution of 24 bits/48 kHz. That may be plenty for a lot of producers, but if you're working with 24-bit/96 kHz audio in other sessions, you'll have to down-convert the tracks for use with the Micro. That's an inconvenience, but it's also not ideal if you prefer to downsample audio only once after the final stereo master is complete.
PLUG IT IN, PLUG IT IN
There are no doubt a lot of people who won't mind the aforementioned issues, and for those folks, the Mbox 2 Micro is a godsend. My personal case is an example. While Pro Tools is not my main DAW, it is for my bandmate. And I often want to take his Pro Tools LE sessions and add synth and drum tracks from plug-in instruments and/or remix the songs. For those purposes, the Micro is perfect. It's the most affordable and space-saving key to open up Pro Tools, and it lets me work anywhere I can take a laptop: on a plane, mass transit, the couch, in bed, at the park, etc.
Another big plus with the Micro is the high-end sound quality of its ⅛-inch output. I tested it on a 2007 model MacBook Pro 2.4 GHz; audio from the headphone port of the laptop is unacceptably noisy and thin. Out of the Mbox 2 Micro, sounds have a much fuller body, and you can hear way more detail in the music, such as reverb tails on snare hits and sharper edges on electric guitar riffs or squelchy synths.
You can also select the Micro as your output for other DAWs and as your computer's default audio output, so you can listen to everything — not just Pro Tools — with the Micro's excellent audio quality. So if you're an audiophile, it's great just for listening to music, whether or not you are actually working in Pro Tools. Also, there's plenty of power in the Micro's output. At maximum, I found it too loud for comfortable or healthy headphone monitoring, but I'd rather have too much power available than not enough.
On most counts, the Mbox 2 Micro is an absolute gift of convenience from Digidesign. If you already own another Pro Tools LE system, the Mbox 2 Micro still costs $279 whether you need the software or not, but if you're a heavy Pro Tools user, the sheer delight of being able to take your rig anywhere with minimal hassle is enough to slap a grin on your face. Next up, an Mbox 2 Nano that wirelessly connects direct to your brain?
MBOX 2 MICRO > $279
Pros: Most affordable path to Pro Tools LE. Small enough to use in any situation. High-quality audio output is a big step up from a laptop's built-in output.
Cons: Doesn't support 24-bit 96 kHz audio (max resolution is 24 bits/48 kHz).
Mac: G4, G5 or Intel; OS 10.4.x
PC: Windows XP (Home or Professional)/Vista 32-bit (Ultimate or Business)