MACKIE ONYX SATELLITE
This Firewire interface is really cute. It looks like there was some spring-cleaning around the Mackie workshop and someone unearthed a pile of parts left over from early Big Knob prototypes. ‘Top work!’, might have decreed Greg Mackie. ‘Now fashion me a Firewire interface that will slip into the top. Make it removable, and get a pair of Onyx mic preamps in there as well!’. All of a sudden you’ve got a Mackie Onyx Satellite Base Station.
You’ve really got to hand it to the Mackie juggernaut for coming up with a new, and more importantly, useful twist on the portable Firewire audio interface theme. Here’s an outline of the concept:
Say you have a Firewire audio interface that you use with your laptop. It’s not the greatest unit on Earth but it does the job, and didn’t cost too much more than your initial budget allowed. It’s a standard two-in/two-out device that also sports a couple of mic preamps.
The majority of your recording work is done at home with your only computer – a laptop. Usually this is in the same room as your microphones but occasionally you aim for a modicum of isolation and record vocals in the adjoining room. More often than not you have a mic plugged in but you regularly require a bass or guitar at a moment’s notice. When these occasions arise, you unplug your mic and plug in a guitar and/or a bass, bouzouki or one of Simmo’s ‘wailing kangling’. Then later, when you need the microphone again for some backing vocal ideas, you unplug your instruments and plug the mic back in. Before long there are cables strewn all over the place and it’s beginning to look like you’ve been camping out with a roadie. You regularly concede that talkback facilities would be useful in many of these situations and make a huge difference to the patina of professionalism you endeavour to maintain, as would a suitable method of switching between your nearfield monitors and the ghetto blaster you check mixes on.
MY PORTABLE RIG
Occasionally you like to take your interface and lappie over to a friend’s place to record vocals in their fabulous-sounding library. So you unplug everything, pack it all up and whip out to capture a few takes for the current project. As usual, this drags on much longer than the couple of hours promised. The singer was late and the guitarist spent most of the evening arguing with his girlfriend on the phone. So you end up arriving home from the session around 2am and fancy a quick listen to the results before settling in for the remaining hour of Quizmania. You go to set up your recording system and suddenly everything becomes way too difficult. You’re confronted with a rat’s nest of cables bursting from your backpack, and the decision as to which monitor cable is left and which is right has to be fluked. It’s a 50/50 gamble so you take the punt, and get it wrong – twice. You quietly begin muttering something about needing two audio interfaces and get to thinking: ‘A stay-at-home interface would be handy’. It could be something a little upmarket that you can leave plugged in at home – with enough inputs to avoid that constant re-patching nightmare. The second interface you’ll use for those impromptu sessions at your mates’ places.
But hold on a minute, that particular pipe dream is going to blow the budget completely. It took months of Quizmania to get the cash together for the interface you already have! Well this, dear readers, is where the Mackie Satellite presents as quite an attractive solution.
GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM
The Mackie Satellite Base Station (or SBS as I’ll occasionally refer to it) is a Firewire interface that consists of two physical components – the Base Station and the portable Satellite unit. As mentioned, the unit sports a similar ‘cut’ to the Mackie Big Knob – although slightly shorter in length and a good degree taller – especially once the Satellite unit is positioned in the dock. Admittedly, it isn’t an overly attractive piece of kit. Its knobs, buttons and various extrusions jut into the air and to my eye, it’s a tad ugly, but such is the nature of the design – cramming two sets of I/O into the space of one inevitably involves certain aesthetic compromises it would seem. More crucially, where the real beauty of the SBS lies, is in the sheer practicality of the concept: a device that allows you to leave all your studio wiring intact when you take to the road, and restore the setup in one second when you return is a stroke of practical genius… poetry in motion!
Like all Mackie products, the Base Station is built from hard-wearing steel plate and finished in Mackie’s usual gun-metal grey. To keep travelling weight to a minimum, the Satellite enclosure is built using a black anodised extruded aluminium and consequently weighs a paltry 800 grams. But before we dive headlong into connectivity of the Satellite unit itself, let’s first consider the Base Station’s connections, as this is where the SBS will do the majority of its work. Bear in mind that the Base Station must have the Satellite docked in order to function.
The SBS is, in reality, one interface. With the important circuitry housed within the Satellite unit, the SBS purely broadens the versatility of the combined system. On the rear of the Base Station are TRS jack connections for two pairs of control room monitors, and switching between each set occurs via a top panel A/B switch. A second Control Room switch brings into play the additional four TRS outputs for 5.1 surround monitoring. When engaged, the Control Room level pot will attenuate level from the Outputs 3 through to 6 (in addition to the stereo left and right outputs). When disengaged, the unit reverts to normal stereo monitoring mode and the additional outputs (3-6) retain full output, requiring adjustment from within the DAW software being used. In this circumstance the extra outputs could be used for additional headphone monitor mixes.
Following these are the two input channels of the Base Station. While there are only two input channels to the system, alongside the Onyx mic preamp inputs, Mackie has added two line inputs and a high-impedance instrument input per channel, with push-button switching on the front panel for swapping between input sources. A pair of TRS insert points round out the Base Station’s I/O capabilities.
So looking at this input complement you could have two mics, two instruments and four lots of line level signal, all connected at any one time, and gleefully switch between each as required. Input gain and global phantom power is adjusted via the controls mounted in the Satellite unit, as is the pair of headphone outputs – each with their own level control (these control pots are also mounted on the Satellite unit). The only remaining control on the Base Station is talkback level via the in-built talkback mic, with provision for sending that signal to either your DAW software and/or the headphone outputs on the Satellite unit.
A slight tug is all that’s required to separate the Satellite unit from the clutches of the Base Station. Mackie advises shutting down power to the SBS before connecting or reconnecting the Satellite unit, and I wholeheartedly concur. Disconnecting Firewire devices such as this while power is engaged can be detrimental to the Firewire bus of either your computer or the attached peripheral. While we’re on the subject of power, both the Base Station and the Satellite will function via bus power alone, provided of course you’re connecting to a six-pin Firewire port. Physical and electrical connection between the two devices is via a multi-pin connector, which looks very similar to the style of connector used for mating discrete channel strips and the main circuitry in an analogue console. One would seriously hope this connector will be able to withstand the rigours of repeated separation; only time and usage will reveal if this is a weakness of the Satellite Base Station. This would be my main concern with the SBS if I were considering a purchase. Having said that, manufacturers of this style of connector usually rate the connector lifetime at approximately 400 ‘mating cycles’. That’s 400 disconnections and reconnections – give or take, depending on how corrosive the environment is. So, knowing that, if you took the Satellite out of the Base Station once a week, you’ll get a good eight years out of the unit. I’d imagine most users of the SBS would be removing the Satellite once or twice a week, resulting in a life of between four and eight years. This is pretty much the working life of any interface anyway, so I’d imagine you’ll probably be after a different device well before that stage.
So, quibbles aside, what’s the Satellite unit got to offer the wandering recordist when disengaged from the Base Station? Well, the Satellite is a bare-bones interface offering two input connectors as combo XLR/TRS connectors and TRS control room monitor outputs. The ‘CR’ output level is controlled via the control room knob, which also adjusts the Phones 1 output – Phones 2 output has its own volume knob. Alongside it there are the two gain knobs and buttons to choose the unbalanced instrument inputs and the global phantom power button. Incidentally, like most Mackie mic preamps, phantom power output is, in fact, 37.5V. It’s a pretty simple interface, sounds exactly the same as the Base Station unit and, as I suggested, is light enough and small enough to throw in your backpack at a moment’s notice.
BACK TO BASE
So while I may have a few grievances with some of the manufacturing choices, for many people I’d imagine the Satellite Base Station could fulfill their requirements. No other manufacturer can offer the same flexibility, and indeed, nobody but Mackie builds such a beast. If the convenience factor is your primary concern then the SBS most definitely gets a guernsey. If you’re content fuddling about with cables at 2am and need a few more inputs and perhaps digital I/O then you will undoubtedly have to look elsewhere. As it stands, nothing does what the Satellite Base Station can do.