What it is: An 8-in, 2-out mixer with FireWire interface (up to 24- bit/96kHz) for connecting to a computer. However, it’s also compatible with Pro Tools M-Powered 8 (a first, considering the hardware isn’t made by M-Audio) as well as other hosts like Sonar, Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer, Samplitude, Live, etc.
Distinguishing characteristic: It’s a big deal that Mackie is offering hardware for a market formerly held exclusively by M-Audio. I won’t offer any opinions concerning the legality of all this, because I don’t have a clue; check Mackie’s website for breaking news. I’ll take the 820i at face value: a computer interface that just happens to work with M-Powered software (the 820i will not work with Pro Tools LE or higher). However, Mac fans take note—although the 820i works out of the box with Core Audio, you need to install Mackie’s Universal Driver for Pro Tools M-Powered compatibility.
Up and running: I patched the 820i into an Intel Mac, so the process was simple because the 820i subscribes to the gospel of FireWire audio according to Core Audio. It’s almost as simple with Windows, except you install the software first, then hook up the mixer so the computer can “see” it.
First impressions: The 820i has good build quality—it’s sturdy, the knobs don’t wobble, the jacks are held on with real nuts, the switches feel positive, and we’re dealing with metal—not plastic. I mention this because several recent pieces of Mackie gear I’ve reviewed are equally robust, so it seems to be a trend. The input/output connectors (except for an XLR pair of master outs, 1/4" control room outs, and alternate 1/4" bus outs) are toward the top of the front panel, and there are only rotary knobs—no faders. This makes sense if you think of the 820i as primarily a recording interface; for mixing, you’d likely want a more evolved control surface, with multiple channels of moving faders.
My hunch is that Mackie feels there’s a market for Pro Tools users who want the “sound” (or lack thereof) of the Onyx preamps, as well as those who want an audio interface based on a Mackie mixer paradigm. As to the preamps, I find them accurate, defined, and pretty much colorless— they seem to have been designed by someone with a “straight wire-with-gain” philosophy. I’ve never heard anyone call the Onyx preamps “warm,” but I don’t think that’s the point; if you want warm, throw in a transformer or tube stage—or even a decent vintage channel strip plug-in.
Some find the Onyx preamps “brittle,” but I see them similarly to recording a guitar direct: You get all the signal, and then you can do whatever you want with it.
Going deeper: There are two “main” input channels with mic pres and the option to choose line or instrument input (each has individual phantom power). Inputs 3+4 are either stereo line inputs, or dedicated to another mic input (same as channels 1 and 2, but without the instrument input; it also has its own phantom power). Inputs 5+6 and 7+8 are line inputs. Any of these channels, as well as a set of aux sends, can dump into FireWire via a pre/post Send button. However, you don’t have the same flexibility coming back: The 820i receives only two FireWire returns (typically from your DAW’s master out), although the larger 1640i returns all 16 channels.
The Perkins EQ is an unexpected bonus. Channels 1+2 have high, low, and sweepable mid EQ; channels 3+4 (or third mic in) have four fixed stages of EQ; and inputs 5+6 and 7+8 have three bands of fixed EQ (12kHz, 2.5kHz, and 80Hz). You can enable these for recording.
Of course, you’ll find all the standard mixer features: Mute/Solo switches (including the rude solo light!), two aux buses, talk back, a control room section, and the like.
Conclusions: There are two main aspects to the 820i. The first is Digi compatibility, and the second is using a mixer paradigm for a computer interface. For recording bands, this makes a lot of sense, as you can still send out a decent number of tracks individually. For songwriters, it’s simple to hook up a drum machine, guitar or piano, and mic—if the tracks are keepers, well, so much the better. In this context, the 820i worked great with non-M-Powered programs on both Mac and Windows.
As a mixer-based interface, the 820i works as advertised, and is a very cost-effective interface regardless of which host you prefer. In particular, those who use Pro Tools M-Powered and other programs will find it convenient not to have to switch interfaces. Yes, Mackie’s definitely on to something here.
Price: $469.99 MSRP