Digidesign Mbox

Digidesign Mbox

Byline: Tom Patrick McAuliffe

Digidesign’s new Mbox ($495 MSRP; $400 street) brings 24-bit audio capture to the field. A compact, portable USB device for Mac or PC, the Mbox – along with its bundled software package, which includes Pro Tools LE – lets just about anybody achieve professional audio results at home, in the edit suite, or on the road.

Mbox hardware comes from Focusrite, a well-known audio manufacturer that makes great-sounding mic pre-amps, processors, etc. The two-channel Mbox captures CD-quality, 16-bit audio at 44.1kHz or DVD-compatible, 24-bit audio at 48kHz. Inputs and outputs travel in pairs on the Mbox. Neutrik connectors let you connect microphones, instruments, or line-level devices with either 1/4in. or XLR plugs using the same connection. There’s also a 24-bit stereo S/PDIF digital I/O as well as two headphone outputs – one 1/4in. and one 1/8in. The manufacturer clearly put a lot of thought into the physical design of the hard plastic box. For instance, volume and level control knobs feature little bumps for tactile control.

I needed to record some digital audio for two projects. One was a straight voice-over with a music bed (from CD) for a marketing infomercial, over which I would lay product video. I also wanted to record a live CD during a weekly music gig of the Tom Patrick Show at a local pub. I tested the Mbox on a PC tower with a 2GHz Pentium 4 CPU using Windows XP, but primarily I used a 1GHz PowerBook G4 running Mac OS X (10.2.5).

I found that I needed to upgrade to firmware version 2.0 to use Mbox with Windows XP and to have video play back. Initially my audio capture was sluggish, but I solved that problem once I read in the manual that connecting to a USB hub is a no-no. Digital latency, the time it takes for a computer to process audio and send it to the monitor outputs, was no problem here.

Once Pro Tools and software issues were squared away, I connected a Shure KSM27 studio microphone. Using the included 48V phantom power through the Focusrite mic pre-amps, I heard crystal-clear audio with virtually no noise. To monitor audio you’ll need headphones or powered speakers. However, only one headphone out can be used at a time – silly, as there are times when you need both. Another gripe: there’s no individual volume output control, but rather an input/playback mix knob.

Digidesign has put together a great bundle of applications for the Mbox on top of the included Pro Tools LE software, which comes in versions 5.2 and 6.1 (in XP, OS X, and OS 9.2 flavors).

T-RackS from Italy’s IK Multimedia is billed as an analog mastering plug-in, modeled after the classic tube-based equalizers, compressors and limiters – and it works. There are presets that vary the quality, loudness, and warmth of the “analog-modeled sound” it produces. I was able to take my hollow-sounding narration track for the marketing video and give it some low-end EQ enhancement.

IK Multimedia’s SampleTank 2 LE is a synth audio workstation with pitch shift, time stretch, and resampling, as well as 32 built-in DSP effects. AmpliTube LE is a guitar amp modeler. Also included is Reason Adapted by Propellerhead, a MIDI-based synthesizer, sampler, drum machine, and effects generator. It’s also sample-based music creation software. Through an innovative software algorithm, Ableton Live, an audio and instrument sequencer, treats all audio as elastic matter but keeps MIDI synch and allows remote control. That’s not even the whole bundle, and it’ll take you a month of Sundays to learn all the software that’s included.

The cross-platform Pro Tools LE software has become an industry standard. While it’s great for audio applications, it lacks a few essential features video pros need, most importantly SMPTE timecode support. This is essential for frame-accurate editing of audio to picture (and vice versa). To use the Mbox and Pro Tools effectively for video postproduction, the optional DV Toolkit package is a required purchase. (Mbox includes a 30-day demo version on the Pro Tools 6.1 CD.)

The DV Toolkit option makes background noise reduction a simple affair with the DINR AudioSuite Noise Reduction plug-in, a realtime RTAS filter. One of my clips was almost unusable thanks to an airplane flyover and loud party conversation. After processing, I could use it with no problem. The optional DigiTranslator 2.0 adds software support for the import and export of AAF and OMF media files or projects. This makes your projects compatible with NLEs such as Avid Xpress DV, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Media 100. I was able to confirm this with Adobe Premiere on the PC and Final Cut Pro on the Mac.

DV Toolkit offers lip-synch and audio-alignment abilities via the included VocALign software from Synchro Arts. It stretches or compresses audio to synchronize replacement dialogue, to tighten up doubled vocals, or to align dialog. This application comes with a bit of a learning curve – I found the included Ableton Live easier to use for this purpose.

There’s a price for the functionality that DV Toolkit offers. With a list price of $995 or $795 to upgrade from the demo version, these additional features (some of them essential) certainly aren’t cheap. For pro-level video work, DV Toolkit and the Mbox are a synergistic duo – one won’t do without the other. In the future I’d like to see Digidesign create a bundle focused on video editing for a lower overall cost. But video makers may be able to get along without DV Toolkit, and Mbox would still be a great value.

More and more small video production houses are adding audio services to their offerings to help make economic ends meet. For a highly portable digital audio I/O, the Mbox is perfect for video pros capturing audio to a laptop in the field – be it for ambient background audio, live events, or music recording. At this price point, there’s no real excuse for video that sounds less than professional. Mbox offers something for just about anyone interested in high-quality, 24-bit audio production.

Tom Patrick McAuliffe is a journalist, entertainer, and video creator living on Maui and in Northern California. Reach him at reelcom1@comcast.net .

BOTTOM LINE

Company: Digidesign Daly City, Calif.; (650) 731-6300 www.digidesign.com

Product: Mbox

Assets: Portable 24-bit audio I/O; two headphone inputs, one 1/4in. and one 1/8in.; full suite of bundled applications including Pro Tools LE.

Caveats: The optional DV Toolkit is necessary for SMPTE timecode support.

Demographic: Video pros capturing audio to a laptop in the field.

Price: $495

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