Review: Mackie Big Knob Studio - EMusician

Review: Mackie Big Knob Studio

A multifaceted front end for your DAW
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The original Mackie Big Knob came out at a time when the home studio was beginning to switch away from console-based setups to in-the-box recording. It provided the monitor-section functions that were missing from mixer-less studios, such as speaker switching and talkback. The name Big Knob was derived from the large silver volume control that dominated the unit.

Big Knob Studio combines an
 audio interface and monitor-controller functionality in a single, affordable unit.

Big Knob Studio combines an  audio interface and monitor-controller functionality in a single, affordable unit.

Three different models make up the latest products in the Big Knob series. Two of them, Big Knob Studio (reviewed here) and Big Knob Studio+, combine monitor controller features with a USB 2.0 audio interface, positioning them as all-in-one DAW front-ends. The third model, Big Knob Passive, is strictly a monitor controller and has an entirely passive signal path (see sidebar, “The Rest of the Family”).

ALL BUTTONED UP

Big Knob Studio is a desktop unit that measures just under 12" wide—about 1.5" less than the original. The metal-housed unit feels solidly built, which is typical of Mackie gear. It offers a similar look to its predecessor—dark grey color with a large silver knob in the middle—but with some design changes for the rest of the buttons and knobs.

Big Knob Studio now has round, hard-plastic buttons that light up when engaged, making it easy to see what you have selected. The top panel, where most of the controls reside, is angled up, and the majority of the I/O is located on the back.

I used the Big Knob Studio with my iMac and was up and running right away because the controller’s interface is USB class-compliant on the Mac, requiring no driver. Windows users will need to install a driver. Mackie includes a copy of its DAW software, Tracktion T7 DAW and plug-in bundle (Mac/Win), to all registered owners.

ON THE WAY IN

Big Knob Studio’s 2x2 interface supports resolutions up to 24-bit, 192 kHz. It features two XLR/1/4" combo jacks that can accept line, mic, and instrument signals. The XLR inputs connect internally to a pair of Mackie Onyx preamps. On the top panel are Mic/Line/Inst gain controls for level setting. You can switch the level of the inputs between +4 and -10db operation, allowing you to use it with both pro and semi-pro gear. Phantom power is available for both inputs and is switched on and off globally.

Left and right front panel Gain knobs govern the input level for the preamps. A switch called Stereo Pan sends preamp One discretely to the left output and preamp Two to the right in the monitor mix, as opposed to both entering the mix in mono. This is useful when recording stereo sources.

I tried out Big Knob Studio on several projects and was impressed with the sound of the Onyx mic preamps. I used the unit to record a variety of sources, including vocals, acoustic guitar, and DI electric guitar. The preamps sounded clear and present and always produced good results.

In addition to its recording inputs, Big Knob Studio offers another audio port, strictly for monitoring, called the 3/4 Input. You can access it two ways: From a pair of 1/4" inputs on the back or a 3.5mm jack on the front panel. You can use either of them, but not simultaneously. If you connect cables to both, the 3.5mm port will take precedence. The 3/4 Trim knob controls the input level. Because you can’t record into your DAW from the 3/4 Input, its primary purpose is for bringing in reference music or other audio into the monitors. The 3.5 mm input allows you to easily connect a portable device such as a phone or tablet.

DIRECT TO DAW

Like many interfaces in its price range, Big Knob Studio tackles the latency issue with a Direct Monitoring system in which you turn a knob to change the ratio of input source signal and playback from the DAW. For an interface with this few inputs and outputs, it is a simple and effective solution that doesn’t require you to learn complicated mixer software. But keep in mind that the Big Knob Studio does not include MIDI I/O.

The top panel also features a 16-step LED meter that reads from left to right and measures input level. The 12th step on the meter is labeled 0 dB, the 15th step +8 dB. The final step is a red LED that indicates clipping. According to the manual, it is best to keep levels “between the green and yellow LEDs.”

In practice, this was not the case, at least on the unit I had. Signals hitting the yellow sounded clipped, without triggering the red lights. It’s not a huge issue, but I would recommend keeping the peaks more in the +2 to +4 range to avoid clipping.

ON THE WAY OUT

Although it only has two output channels, Big Knob Studio gives you quite a few options for where to send them. Two pairs of 1/4" monitor outputs (Monitor A and B) allow you to feed two different sets of monitors, and you can switch between them with the Monitor Select A and B buttons on the top panel. You also get separate Trim controls for Monitors A and B.

The 2TR (2-Track) output is another line-level out, which provides the same signal as is sent to the monitors. With so much of today’s DAW production happening in-the-box, I don’t know how many people will use the 2TR output to feed a separate mixdown recorder, but it’s there if you need it.

Several of the control-room features affect only the Monitor outputs. The Dim button provides -20 dB of attenuation. You’d use it in a situation where you wanted to lower the level in the control room briefly without affecting the Cue mix. The Mute button shuts down all output, and the Mono button sums the left and right channels through the Monitor outputs. Lastly, there is the Big Knob itself, a large volume knob that controls the level of the selected input sources going to the monitors.

You also get two 1/4" headphone outputs—Phones 1 and Phones 2. They’re not separately addressable, but each has its own level control. The headphone amp is loud, and I never had to turn it up much to get a hefty level in the phones.

CUE IT

In addition to the expected audio I/O, the rear panel includes a button to select between
 2-track and Inputs 1/2 when using the USB port, as well as 1/4" jacks for the 3/4 connection and 2-track output. Mackie was able to keep the size of the Big Knob Studio down by using an external power supply; the +18VDC connector is also on the rear panel.

In addition to the expected audio I/O, the rear panel includes a button to select between  2-track and Inputs 1/2 when using the USB port, as well as 1/4" jacks for the 3/4 connection and 2-track output. Mackie was able to keep the size of the Big Knob Studio down by using an external power supply; the +18VDC connector is also on the rear panel.

Big Knob Studio gives you plenty of control over which sources get sent to the monitor path, which affects both the Cue mix in the headphones and the Monitor and 2TR outputs. You get three source-select buttons: Inputs 1/2, Inputs 3/4 and USB. Any of these, or any combination, can be selected and will appear in the monitor path.

You also can switch the source for the two headphone outputs between the Cue circuit and the 2TR (2-track) output. The difference is that the Cue signal is impacted by the Direct Monitoring knob and the included talkback mic, whereas the 2TR signal isn’t.

Pressing the To Cue button activates the talkback mic in the Cue path and attenuates the signal from the other input sources by -20 dB. You control talkback level with a knob of the same name, which makes it easy to set it to a comfortable volume for it in the headphone feed. The talkback feature is nicely implemented.

I’d love to see Mackie come out with a multichannel interface with Big Knob functionality built in. That would widen the appeal of this product line to recordists who track drums and ensembles.

BIG KNOB, BIG DEAL?

Big Knob Studio is a worthy addition to the Big Knob line. Its combination of audio interface and monitor controller functionality makes it a unique, all-in-one hardware solution for DAW studios.

Overall, it is solidly built and provides sound quality that you don’t often find in an interface at this price point. If you don’t record more than a couple of instruments at a time, Big Knob Studio is an excellent value.

Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from the New York area. Check out his website at michaelwilliamlevine.com.

STRENGTHS

Monitoring section with 2x2 audio interface. Preamps sound better than those in many other units at this price. 3/4 Input. Flexible routing. Powerful headphone amp. Lighted buttons. Solidly built.

LIMITATIONS

No MIDI I/O. Only two recording inputs. Input clips before meter indicates clipping.

$199
Mackie.com

The Rest of the Family

Fig. 1. Big Knob Studio+
 offers more features and flexibility than the Big Knob Studio.

Fig. 1. Big Knob Studio+  offers more features and flexibility than the Big Knob Studio.

Big Knob Studio falls in the middle of the Big Knob hierarchy. The flagship is Big Knob Studio+ ($299; see Figure 1), which provides functionality above and beyond what is in Big Knob Studio. It’s a 2x4 recording interface, and it lets you connect three pairs of monitors and switch between them, as compared to two pairs on Big Knob Studio.

Other added features include a jack for connecting an external mic to the Talkback circuit. You also get a footswitch jack for triggering the Talkback mic, which is a useful feature if you’re playing an instrument and engineering at the same time. An additional pair of inputs called Aux Mix/Cue In let you connect a separate cue mix when used in conjunction with an analog mixer or a second sound card.

Big Knob Passive ($69), the least expensive of the three new models, is the only one of the three that does not include an audio interface. It offers two-way monitor switching and two-way input switching, along with Mono, Mute and Dim switches. Because it’s entirely passive, it has minimal impact on audio quality.