Digidesign Mbox 2 with Pro Tools LE Reviewed

Having edited with Avid for many years, and Pro Tools coming from the same company, it all seemed so simple: I would write a review on the new Mbox 2. However, while I have edited with Avid and other video editing tools for many years, I have somehow managed to escape Pro Tools, instead performing my audio editing on another product.

So with some trepidation, I took on the new Digidesign Mbox 2, a USB powered portable mixer/input device. Included with the Mbox 2 is the Pro Tools LE software package and a USB cable. The Mbox 2 has two input positions, each capable of accepting a microphone via XLR, line input via 1/4″ phone plug (TRS), or a direct input also via 1/4″ phone plug (TS) from guitar, etc. Each input position features a volume control, a -30dB pad and the ability to provide 48v phantom power. It should be noted that the Mbox 2 draws its power from its USB 2.0 connection, so according to the manufacturer, USB hubs are not supported.

Out of the Box

The front panel has (from left to right), the 1/4″ headphone jack, headphone volume control, monitor volume control, mix, which controls the amount of input signal verses the output signal going to your monitor or headphones, a mono/ stereo switch (labeled mono for the indent position), the 48V phantom power switch, each with LED indicators for the mono mode and 48V mode. There are also the two input strips, each with the -30dB pad and a mic/direct input switch. Each input has peak indicators, and direct input or DI/Mic LED indicators. You can run a total of two mic, line or DI inputs as well as another stereo input via the S/PDIF connection.

On the back panel, 1/4″ phone plug monitor L-R outputs, S/PDIF in and out (RCA/Coax), MIDI in and out and the USB connector.

Features

Features of the new Mbox 2 include new Digidesign mic preamps, new Digidesign A/D and D/A converters that provide more headroom and a lower noise floor then the previous model. These claims came through with shining colors as I did some test recordings with one of my favorite local groups, Ruby Hollow. With the improved noise floor, I was able to capture everything from the “subtle nuances” to the band in full tilt, with little fear of hitting the ceiling, headroom-wise. Advantageous if you can’t ride gain.

The Mbox 2 allows you to use the S/PDIF input simultaneously with the two analog inputs, so you can use a keyboard, drum box, etc. (providing it had a S/PDIF output).

The Mbox 2 now provides a MIDI interface with a full 16 channels in and out.

In the disc package you get the Pro Tools LE software, a healthy set of plug-ins, enough audio loops and sounds to fill its own DVD, and a training video DVD. There are additional plug-ins on the Mbox 2 disc that require the Mbox Factory, which has an iLok USB key or dongle. The training video is aimed squarely at the musician, exploring recording, MIDI features and scoring functions. If you are beginning on Pro Tools and looking for training in other areas, such as editing dialog, effects or other sound for your video project, you will need to seek other resource materials and peripherals. Also be prepared: Pro Tools and its peripherals take up a lot of space (over 5GB, not including the audio loops and sounds disc).


There’s a Reason why the Name Includes the Word “Pro”

Pro Tools is an extremely comprehensive audio editing system, and has always shined as a leader. It is the de facto standard for music, television and motion pictures, and new to this version is an updated look, a dedicated midi edit window, score editor and some new virtual instruments. Also new is an enhanced elastic audio function that allows you to stretch audio as needed with more flexibility. This is handy for extending musical elements, such as guitar notes, but could also be used for finessing dialog or vocals back into sync (or otherwise), as you can break down and stretch or shrink individual syllables with ease. If you are musically inclined, you will have a blast exploring the various new virtual instruments included. You’ll most certainly want to invest in the companion M-Audio keyboard (see sidebar). If you are investing in Pro Tools as a means of editing audio for picture, again, you might be disappointed: Working with sound and picture displayed requires upgrades and/or peripherals (see below). However, one of the shining benefits of Pro Tools is it’s comprehensive metadata capabilities, which is of benefit whether you are editing music or sound for picture. As for plug-ins, there are enough 3rd party vendors to fill a phone book-sized directory.

While most audio editing applications exist as a single product line, Pro Tools offers several variations from the reasonably priced Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools M-Powered to the Pro Tools HD…not unlike General Motors offering variations in their trucks from Chevy, Cadillac and GMC. With the Mbox 2, you get Pro-Tools LE. The Pro Tools used at this level draw their processing power from your computer’s CPU, unlike the high-end Pro Tools HD, which utilizes additional outboard gear for processing the audio and easing the burden on your CPU. So, the maximum number of tracks available is affected by the speed of your computer, but given the speed of today’s CPUs (even those a few years old), the number of tracks available shouldn’t be an issue with all but the most complicated projects.

Pro Tools makes sure that projects created in one version are compatible with another version, so if you start in LE, you will be able to export it over to Pro Tools HD.

One of the things I found frustrating with this package is that in order to use Pro Tools LE, you must have the Mbox 2 attached, so the software will “see” the Mbox 2, which in this case also functions as a dongle. This can be annoying if you’re on a laptop and wish to just edit, not record. Likewise, if you leave the Mbox 2 plugged in to your laptop, it will continue to draw power even if your computer goes into sleep mode. This can prove particularly annoying while on battery power. When using the Mbox, you must use the Mbox’s headphone output, as it will not allow you to use the laptop’s headphone output. It would be nice if the unit had a mini (1/8″) headphone jack for today’s headphones, and the headphone output could stand to be a little louder. Another potential frustration, particularly for Videomaker readers, is that in order to work with sound for picture (let’s say you wanted to sweeten your soundtrack), you will need to have Pro Tools LE with Complete Production Toolkit or DV Toolkit 2, or Pro Tools LE and an Avid video peripheral.

All in all, Digidesign has beautifully upgraded the Mbox series with this new addition, and if basic recording and editing is what you need (keeping in mind that even today’s basic tools are amazingly powerful) this is a great package. However, should you be aiming to mix and edit against your video, you will need to purchase a more comprehensive version and/or additional components.

But Wait, There’s More…

While working on the Mbox-2 / Pro Tools combination, Digidesign sent us some more goodies: Speakers, Piano Keyboard and USB Mic, all geared to work with the Mbox.

Speakers

M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 powered reference monitors:

Near Field Monitors are extremely popular these days, whether as a secondary set of “close-up” speakers in the recording studio, or as the primary set of speakers in a small digital audio workstation setup. The AV 40 set consists of two two-way speakers, with a 4′ woofer and a 3/4″ dome tweeter. Both speakers feature a bass reflex port, magnetic shielding and wood cabinets. The left speaker contains the amplifier for both speakers, as well as junction point for input and output wiring. Rear inputs can be either 1/4″ phone plug or RCA style phono jacks. Completing the rear panel are speaker output for the right channel speaker, and a bass boost control. On the front panel you will find the volume knob (backlit!), a 1/8″ headphone jack, and a 1/8″ input jack for your portable audio player, or laptop. In use, these speakers can get quite loud, more then adequate for most workstation environments. Stereo imaging is good, and clear, however bass response is okay, but typical for speakers of this size. Bottom line: A very nice set of tabletop speakers but a subwoofer option would be nice.

Keyboard

M-Audio has a new Pro Tools Keystudio. a 49 key USB MIDI keyboard. This allows you to play piano, synthesizer and organ, as well as guitars and percussion instruments.

While it is intended to compliment your Pro Tools setup, it will also work with Garage Band and other MIDI software.

Included with Keystudio is Pro Tools M-Powered Essential, a scaled down version of Pro Tools, handy if you’re just starting out. Included on the DVD are over sixty virtual instruments to explore with your new keyboard, as well as music loops and templates. Also included are adapters for plugging in a microphone or headphones via USB, in case you don’t have anything in your gear bag.

The keyboard is USB powered, plugging in directly to your computer and working with the supplied software. On the top/front surface, a volume control, keys to shift octaves up or down, an edit mode key as well as pitch bend and modulation wheels. The remainder is of course, the 49 keys. On the back, the USB port, a jack for an optional sustain pedal, and an on/off switch. Also included in the package is a USB adapter allowing you to plug in a mic or line level input, as well as a pair of headphones. As with most USB peripherals of this nature, they want to draw power from the computer. Care should be used when plugging in several items, as it is conceivable that you could exceed the power output capabilities of your computer, especially if you’re on a laptop on batteries.


Mic

M-Audio also has a new microphone, the Producer USB. Designed to plug in directly to a USB port, this mic is suitable for setups without mixers, Where the typical XLR connector would be found, a USB port now occupies that position. The mic features a headphone output on the body, handy for situations where you need to listen at the mic position. Finally, a blue LED illuminates on the business side of the microphone, letting you know it is connected to the computer’s USB port, and reminding you which side the pickup is aimed at…

One of the most common complaints with USB microphones is low signal output; the Producer USB mic does not seem to suffer from the same issues. Plugging it into my PC laptop, it had no trouble finding the new device. After a moment spent in the windows mixer control panel, it functioned seamlessly with my audio recording software. If you don’t find yourself needing an input mixer and you already have suitable audio software, this can be a handy device for basic recording. Like most large-diaphragm microphones, this one performs nicely with both voice and instruments. The only drawback is that with the lack of a traditional XLR output, this mic is forever doomed to being nothing more then a peripheral for your computer. I would say it’s great for simple on- the- go projects, and as your audio rig grows, you may want to keep this in your gig bag as a great emergency “go-to” mic when all else fails.

TECH SPECS

System Requirements:

OS:Digidesign-qualified Windows Vista- (32-bit Business or Ultimate), Windows XP- or Mac OS X 10.5-based computer, minimum

RAM: 1GB

Drive: DVD-ROM or equivalent for software installation

Port: Available USB port for Mbox 2 system (USB hubs not supported)

Analog Inputs-2

Mic: XLR with 48V phantom power

Mic preamp: >120 dB EIN @ > 50 dB gain

Line: 1/4″

DI: 1/4″

Maximum Input: 8.7 V RMS (balanced), or +21 dBu

Analog Line Outputs-2

Maximum Output: +4 dBV into 1 kohm

Unbalanced output connectors

Digital I/O

S/PDIF I/O (24-bit)

RCA jacks

Dimensions

Height, box: 4.9cm; with handle: 7.7cm; with handle cover: 5.6cm

Width: 22.4cm

Depth: 18.4cm (includes knobs)

Weight: 1.23 kg.

A/D

Sample Rate: 44.1, 48 kHz

Dynamic Range: 106 dB (A-weighted), 103 dB (unweighted)

THD+N (line input): 0.00079% (-102 dB) @ 1 kHz1,3

THD+N @ 40 dB gain (mic input): 0.006% (-84 dB) @ 1 kHz1

Mic EIN (unweighted): -120 dB @ 40 dB gain, 150 ohm source

Frequency Response: +0/-0.5 dB, 20 Hz 20 kHz3

Maximum Input: +21 dBu

Input Impedance (pad off): Mic=3.5 kOhm; Line=10 kOhm; DI= >1 MOhm

D/A

Sample Rate: 44.1, 48 kHz

Dynamic Range: 106 dB (A-weighted), 103 dB (unweighted)

THD+N: 0.003% (-90.4 dB); -1 dBFS @ 1 kHz1,3

Frequency Response: +/-0.5 dB, 20 Hz 20 kHz3

Strengths

  • Reasonably priced entry into the world of Pro-Tools, the de-facto industry standard
  • Compatibility with Full versions of Pro-Tools (such as Pro Tools HD, etc.)
  • Excellent Plug-In Bundles (enough to fill a phone book sized catalog)
  • Elastic Audio (way cool!)

Weaknesses

  • Mbox must be attached in order to edit
  • If on a laptop, Mbox could drain battery during idle
  • Additional components needed for use with video
  • Headphone output could be louder

Mark Speer is a video educator specializing in audio production.

Digidesign

2001 Junipero Serra Blvd.

Daly City, CA 94014

www.digidesign.com

$495

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