Mackie Spike Recording System Review

Mackie SpikeMackie recently introduced Spike, a digital recording solution that combines a high-quality USB-based audio/MIDI interface with software for sequencing and mixing. Mackie is marketing Spike with the phrase “Recording music on your computer doesn’t have to be such a pain in the ass.” We tested Spike to see if it lives up to that promise.

Spike is a hardware and software solution that is designed to provide everything that you need to record from mics, guitars and line-level sources to your computer. It includes: the XD-2, a USB 24-bit 96kHz Audio/MIDI Interface that features high-end mic preamps and onboard dynamics processing; Tracktion, a new multitrack audio/MIDI sequencer; the Nomad Factory Blue Tubes Warmer Phaser plug-in; and a limited version of Ableton’s Live 3.

Mackie intends Spike, combined with a recent computer, to be a complete solution for high-quality digital recording in home studios, project studios, and on-location.

First impressions

On opening the box, the first thing that strikes you about the Spike package is the XD-2 interface, shown at right. The XD-2 feels rugged, made of thick aluminum, rubberized knobs and a tough plastic base. It feels like it could easily take the abuse of on-location work, or being stuffed regularly into a laptop bag.

The XD-2 is attractively designed, with connections sensibly layed out around its body. The front face features all the controls, along with a headphone output. The curved back has two 1/4″ line-ins, two 1/4″ line-outs MIDI In and Out, SPDIF In and Out, a USB connector, and a power socket. The arrangement is great, because all the connections are easy to get to, while all the controls are right on the face.

The XD-2 has a clever “x” base that turns parallel to the body for storage, and perpendicular to the body for extra stability when you stand it up. It locks into place, and gives the XD-2 a large enough footprint that your cables won’t tip it over. It also has rubberized feet, so it won’t slide when you set it on the table.

The specs for the XD-2 are excellent. It supports 24-bit, 96kHz recording, has high-quality mic preamps, and supports ASIO 2.0, WDM and OS X Core Audio. Inside the interface is a SHARC processor, which is a digital signal processor that lets you use dynamic processing and EQ for tracking and monitoring. This can be configured through a graphic interface on the computer, but the processing is handled entirely by the onboard processor.

Face layout and Rear Connections

The front is sensibly layed out. All of the connections are around the curved back, except for the headphone connection, which is conveniently placed at the front bottom. This leaves the front clean and keeps all controls easily accessible.

Mackie spike

At the top, there are two sets of controls for the two inputs. For each, there is a gain pot, and two on-off buttons. One adjusts the input circuit for guitar levels, and the other enables a high-pass filter. In addition, there are three indicator level lights. A 48v button enables/disables phantom power for mics that need it.

Besides the input controls, there are three more pots; one adjust the mix from direct to USB; the second adjust the monitor output level; the last adjusts the Phones level.

Mackie Spike Rear

The two analog inputs have high-headroom Mackie mic preamps, and support mic, line and instrument sources.

Discussing the XD-2’s layout doesn’t really do the interface justice. The XD-2 combines the functions that most users will commonly need for home and location recording. It places them very ergonomically. Even with multiple lines connected, it seems stable and its easy to make connections or change control settings. Best of all, everything is arranged and labeled sensibly, making it easy to use.

The Spike XD-2 USB Interface is fantastic. It’s stylish, easy-to-use, tough and intelligently designed. Its size and construction make the XD-2 a great option for laptop-based studios.

Software

The XD-2 would be useless without software to use it with. The Spike Recording System comes with a CD of software that includes the XD-2 interface software, Tracktion, a cut-down version of Live, and a phaser plug-in.

It’s worth noting that Mackie is only supporting current operating systems with Spike. The minimum requirements are Windows XP, or Mac OS X 10.3.

The CD includes a HTML file that guides you through the installation and authorization process. We tested this on a mid-range Mac system. Unfortunately, the installation documentation is only provided on the CD, as a HTML file. This means that you have to toggle between a web browser and the multiple windows that are used during the install. This is cumbersome, and slows things down. We would like to see a hard copy version of the install instructions included, or at least a version included that is formatted for printing (PDF).

Other than this minor inconvenience, the installs went without a hitch. There are separate installs for Tracktion & Mackie Live. This lets you install only the software that you want to use.

Once you load Tracktion and Live, it is easy to use the XD-2 with these applications. Mackie does not provide any documentation for using the XD-2 with other applications, but says that it should work with applications that support ASIO, WDM, and OS X Core Audio. Using it with Apple’s Garageband only required selecting it within the Garageband preferences.

In addition to Live and Tracktion, Spike includes the Nomad Factory Warmer Phaser and MDA virtual instruments and effects. These add some additional flexibility and sound options.

XD-2 Software

The XD-2 can be configured and controlled from a software interface. While important controls like levels are available directly on the front of the XD-2, the software supports much greater control.

Mackie Spike XD-2 Software

The software lets you configure functions of the onboard dynamics processor, including compression and EQ. It’s important to note that the software interface is controlling the functionality of the XD-2, and is not doing the processing on your computer. This means that you can apply dynamics processing to the incoming signals without any extra load on your machine.

The software is very powerful, and includes features lacking in many of the compressors and EQ’s built into popular audio/MIDI sequencers. The bottom line is that you get excellent control over dynamic processing without a CPU hit. Sweet!

Tracktion

Spike includes a full copy of Tracktion, a Mac & PC audio/MIDI sequencer. It was originally developed by Raw Material Software, and now distributed by Mackie. Tracktion is designed to be easy to use, but powerful.

Tracktion includes many of the features of the top professional digital audio applications:

  • Unlimited track and effect count (based on computer’s processing power)
  • Full VST support, including VSTi synths
  • Drag & drop waveform editing
  • Full automation capabilities
  • Built-in Sampler, Reverb, Chorus, Delay, EQ, Compressor, and Phaser
  • Pitch Shift and Time Stretch features
  • Full ReWire support
  • Audio file rendering, exporting, and archiving capabilities

Tracktion

The Tracktion interface is clean and fairly straightforward. It is simpler than some other applications, partially by design, and partially because of its limited feature set. It is optimized for typical digital audio workstation work, and leaves out tangential functions, like editing in staff views, and notation printing.

Unusually, it dispenses with the usual virtual mixer approach to handling tracks. While you have unlimited tracks, they are basic playback channels. Tracktion lets you apply “filters” to each channel, which lets you add in any functionality that you like. In Tracktion terminology, a “filter” is anything that you drop into a track, such as effects or virtual synths. There are built-in filters provided for common functions, and Tracktion recognizes audio plug-ins and makes them available as filters.

Tracktion provides a set of “filters” to cover most basic needs. These include Reverb, Chorus, Delay, EQ, Compressor, and Phaser. Virtual instruments are also dropped in as filters, and a basic sampler is provided. The effects and sampler are all useful, providing bread-and-butter functionality.

Tracktion’s approach will be new to users that have previously used software with a virtual mixer. It seems strange to have to drop in filters for things like panning or eq to a channel. This is probably a more efficient use of the computer’s processor, because you only put in the filters that you need. However, it can also mean a little extra work to add basic mixer functionality, and that your mixing controls may vary in position from track to track.

A side effect of Tracktion’s lack of virtual mixer is that there are no pre-configured busses or subgroups. While this may make the program easy to use for beginners, more experienced users are likely to scratch their heads the first time they want to do things like apply a reverb across multiple tracks.

Tracktion does provide two options for sharing filters across multiple tracks. The Master Output section lets you drop in filters, such as eq or compression, that are shared across the final mix. The other option is Rack Filters. Rack Filters let you split off audio from multiple tracks and route it to a set of shared filters. This lets you setup up complex routings, and lets several tracks share effects, similar to sub-mixes on a traditional mixer.

Apple’s approach to hiding the mixer in Garageband is more elegant. In Garageband, each track has levels for things like reverb and echo. These hide the complexity of sends while keeping the functionality. Tracktion’s approach, however, provides the flexibility that advanced users will want.

One aspect of Rack Filters that experienced users will love is the ability to create preset racks. If you have a configuration of effects that you use a lot, you can save it as a preset rack. Anytime you need it, you can call up the preset and start routing audio to it.

Most budget sequencers now provide a small set of virtual instruments, such as a subtractive synthesizer and a percussion module. Tracktion lacks this, making it primarily an entry-level recording solution, rather than a soft-studio. Tracktion’s built-in instrument set is limited to a basic sampler. However, because Tracktion supports VST plug-ins, users can use more sophisticated virtual instruments and effects if they have them. A set of plug-ins from MDA are included, and this adds the freeware DX-10 FM virtual synth, along with some additional effects.

Tracktion opens to a tabbed interface. There are tabs for projects, settings, and the open project. A project is single file that contains all the necessary audio and MIDI data to make up a Tracktion arrangement. Once you select a project, the project window lets you directly access the elements included within the project. The settings tab lets you modify Tracktion’s configuration. This is where you can select an audio interface, like the XD-2. The project window is where everything else is done.

The project window is clearly laid out. The bulk of the window is taken up by various tracks. On the left, you can drag inputs to “patch” them to any of the tracks. This is very intuitive, and makes it easy to see the signal path at a glance. To record from the XD-2, you drag one of the audio inputs to connect it to a track and select record. Tracktion starts recording at the current position. At any time, you can drag and drop a “filter” onto the track to add effects or other functions.

The bottom of the window holds menu options, transport controls, and edit options that change, depending on the context of what you are doing. Most common functions are on-screen all the time, which helps make Tracktion fast and easy to use.

Editing capabilities cover basic requirements. For audio, you can do things like time-stretching, normalizing and fades. For MIDI, a piano-roll editor is provided that lets you change the details of MIDI clips. MIDI tracks can be bounced to audio, to minimize load, and for further mixing.

Once you’ve recorded and edited your tracks, you can export out a full mix. Tracktion can output a stereo audio file in several formats.

Tracktion is a straightforward audio/MIDI sequencer for the Mac or PC that provides enough functionality to let you record and mix tracks professionally, while avoiding many of the complexities of other applications. On our test Mac, Tracktion was very stable, and did not crash or exhibit any other unexpected weirdness.

Tracktion’s simplicity comes with some trade-offs, though, making it best for users that are primarily interested in an easy tool for recording and mixing audio.

Ableton Live Mackie

Ableton Live Mackie is a limited version of the popular Ableton Live software application. Live acts as a real-time audio sampler and sequencer, which you can play like an instrument. Live is an excellent application for creating music with loop-based audio files. The Mackie version will look familiar to live fans, except that it has some limitations, to encourage you to upgrade to the full version.

Miscellaneous

While the Spike system is impressive, potential buyers should be aware of a few limitations to the software and documentation provided.

The documentation is fairly limited, and is supplied only in electronic form. We would have liked to see a few trees sacrificed for a printed install manual! Users new to recording could also benefit from step-by-step instructions for working with various sources. Once users go beyond the basics, the many options that the Spike system offers may confuse new users. For example, there are at least three options for applying compression; while recording through the XD-2; using the XD-2 while mixing; and using native plug-ins. Many users will not know when each approach is appropriate.

For “prosumer” home-studio owners, other entry-level recording applications are more attractive than Tracktion. While Tracktion is very powerful, its limitations and lack of an upgrade path mean that power users may eventually hit a brick wall. Our contact at Mackie says that their developers are working on Tracktion 2, and that an updated version should not be far in the future. It will be interesting to see what new features this brings.

In testing the XD-2, we got great results with the two analog inputs. We were not able to test recording at full 96kHz resolution, because of limitations of the current drivers. Beta drivers are now available from Mackie that should address this issue.

None of this should keep users from having a great time with Spike, or from making great recordings. Better documentation, and possibly a different entry-level sequencer, would just make it easier for all users to get started with Spike, and give them more flexibility.

Summary

Mackie’s Spike is a well-rounded package, with rock-solid professional-quality hardware, and capable software. We were especially impressed with the XD-2. The XD-2’s small size and rugged construction make it attractive for recording with laptops. It’s also ideal for home studios and project studios that want to add a pro-quality digital audio interface. The Spike XD-2 sets a new standard for portable audio/MIDI interfaces, with great specs, tank-like construction and a dash of sex appeal.

The only real disappointment with the Spike system was the documentation. Better documentation would make it easier for all users to get started with Spike, and help them get the most of it.

Mackie claims that “Recording music on your computer doesn’t have to be such a pain in the ass.” Spike makes their case pretty well, providing everything that you need to turn a computer into a pro-quality digital audio workstation.

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