Recording Reviews: Mackie Big Knob Studio+ Monitor Controller / Audio Interface
Mackie Big Knob Studio+ Monitor Controller / Audio Interface
Is the Big Dog of the Big Knobs ideal for bigger studio and monitoring setups?
by Phil O'Keefe
- Of the three new units, the Mackie Big Knob Studio+ is the top of the line model. The other models include the Big Knob Passive and the Big Knob Studio. The Big Knob Studio is very similar to the Big Knob Studio+, and although it lacks some of its features, the two units bear more in common with each other than they do with the simpler Big Knob Passive.
- The Big Knob Studio+ is a four input source, three stereo monitor output controller with a few extras that you might not be expecting, like the built in 2x4 24 bit, 192 kHz USB 2.0 audio interface and dual onboard Onyx mic preamps.
- The Mackie Big Knob Studio+ is solidly built using thick folded metal for the housing, and it measures 11.9" W x 6.8" D x 3.2" H. It weighs in at a hefty 4.6 pounds, and that weight, along with four large rubber feet on the bottom help keep it in place on your desktop while you're using it.
- Power is supplied from an included "line lump" style adapter that provides 1.5A at 18V DC to the main unit. A locking ring keeps the power plug firmly attached to the jack to prevent accidental loss of power, which is a nice touch. A rocker style power switch is located next to the power receptacle on the rear panel.
- The vast majority of the connectors for the Big Knob Studio+ are tucked away on the rear panel. Most use 1/4" jacks that can accommodate balanced or unbalanced connectors.
- The USB 2.0 interface is plug and play for Macs, while Windows PC users will need to download a driver from the Mackie Big Knob web page. A Record Source button on the rear panel allows you to select between 2 track and Inputs 1/2 as the recording source.
- There are a total of six inputs. Inputs 1 and 2 are Mic / Line / Instrument inputs, with their own individual gain controls, with 0 to +60 dB of gain available. There is also a single +48V phantom switch and a Stereo Pan button. When engaged, this pans input 1 and 2 hard left and right, respectively. It's not as flexible as individual pan pots, but since you'll usually want them each routed that way for stereo use (or when tracking to individual tracks), it gets the job done. A latching button marked 1/2 selects the mic / line instrument inputs as the monitor source.
- Additional buttons labeled 3/4, 5/6 and USB select from those 2-track input sources, with Inputs 3/4 and 5/6 having dedicated Trim controls that give you +/- 12 dB of gain. These can also be set to unity gain. The buttons are latching, and more than one source can be selected at a time.
- Inputs 5/6 also have a pushbutton switch on the rear panel for suss with +4dB or -10 dB sources.
- On the output side, there are three stereo pairs labeled A, B and C, each with a dedicated -12 dB to 0 dB Trim control, making it easy to adjust all of your monitors to the same playback level. Three push buttons labeled A - C allow you to quickly switch between the connected monitors. These are also latching buttons and more than one can be selected at a time.
- You also get a pair of Studio / Phones Amp 1/4" output jacks for feeding the Cue Mix to your studio's playback monitors or headphone amp, and a pair of 1/4" outputs to send signal to your 2-track mixdown deck. These can be set for -10 dB or +4 dB levels with a rear panel pushbutton, and a top panel mounted Studio Outs level control lets you adjust the overall output volume to taste.
- In between the inputs and output sections of the top panel you'll find the requisite Big Knob volume control, which sets your monitoring / playback level. Right beneath it are Mono, Mute and Dim controls, so you can quickly check the mono compatibility of your mix, dim it for a quick phone call, or mute it entirely if you wish.
- For setting up your input sources, a pair of 16 segment LED input meters with a horizontal layout are placed directly above the Big Knob. They have a +4dBu scale and can display input levels from -24 dB to +8 dB relative to that reference level, and also include an overload indicator.
- For slating takes and communicating with the talent, there is a built-in talkback microphone on the front panel, a Talkback level control, and two momentary pushbutton switches that assign the signal from the Talkback mic to either the 2-Track or Cue output, or both, if you depress and hold both switches simultaneously.
- Would you rather use an external mic for talkback? No problem - a rear panel XLR jack is provided, along with a switch to select between it and the built-in mic. Mackie even includes an unbalanced 1/4" footswitch jack on the rear panel to allow you to trigger the talkback mic with your foot. This can come in very handy if you need to talk to the musicians while you're setting up other things with your hands.
- For the Cue mix, you can select from three different Cue Sources - the Aux Mix input, the selected Sources input(s), or USB Outs 3/4. A pair of rear panel 1/4" jacks are provided for connecting the cue mix outputs from your audio interface or console.
- For near zero latency when recording, Mackie also provides you with a Direct Monitoring knob that lets you select the Inputs, the Cue, or a blended combination of the two at whatever ratio you prefer.
- On the front panel, a 1/8" TRS stereo input is provided that feeds Inputs 3/4, making it easy to connect your smartphone or tablet without having to go hunting around on the back for the right jack.
- The front panel is also where you will find the headphone jacks. Mackie gives you two of them, and each has its own level control, and each one can be set to monitor a different source with their individual 2-Track / Cue source select buttons. The headphone outputs are pretty clean sounding and plenty loud enough to satisfy all but the most volume-crazed listeners.
- Need a DAW to go with your new monitor controller / audio interface? Mackie thoughtfully includes a downloadable copy of Tracktion DAW software with the Big Knob Studio+.
- Turntable users will be disappointed to see that the Phono input of the original Big Knob is no longer included with the Big Knob Studio+.
- No phantom power is provided for external talkback microphones. You'll either need to use a dynamic mic, or provide your own external phantom power if you want to use a condenser as your talkback microphone.
- The placement of the power switch on the rear panel instead of on the front panel is a minor annoyance.
- There are no dedicated analog or digital outputs for the onboard mic preamps beyond the USB connection. This makes them difficult to use as extra mic preamps with your existing audio interface.
If you liked the original Big Knob monitor controller, you're going to really like its replacement. Mackie has kept nearly everything that people loved about the original while adding modern portable device connectivity and new recording / USB audio interface features. My complaints are few. I do wish that there was phantom power supplied to the rear Talkback Mic input, but that's not a deal breaker since you can either use a dynamic mic or an external phantom power supply, but it is a bit of a hassle for those of us who like to use condensers for our talkback microphones. While I'm sure the onboard audio interface will appeal to some users, I do wish that Mackie had included dedicated SPDIF / AES digital and/or analog outputs for the Onyx microphone preamps. This would have made them more useful for people who already have a separate multichannel audio interface that they're happy with, but who might appreciate having a couple more mic preamps on hand for tracking. Since many of the people who will want a large, full-featured monitor controller will have larger studios and will need more than a 2x4 audio interface, I suspect there will be quite a few people who feel similarly. As it is, the audio interface will be ignored by a lot of these users, but it is not totally useless - I found the USB interface came in handy when paired with a second laptop computer that I used as a mixdown "deck." But hey, those are bonus features anyway. The main attraction here is the solid 4x3 monitor controller, and Mackie has done a very good job with those aspects of the Big Knob Studio+. It's built as solidly as the previous Big Knob, and has a similar look and feel to it too, so if you've used the previous Big Knob, you'll feel right at home with the new Big Knob Studio and Big Knob Studio+. Best of all, it's relatively quiet, transparent, and noise-free, which means it doesn't get in the way of what you're trying to listen to.
Of course, giving you a place to hook up your 2-track recording and playback devices and controlling the playback level of multiple sets of monitors isn't all that a good monitor controller needs to be able to do. You also need to be able to provide cue mixes to the players in the studio, and have a way to communicate with them. This is especially important if your studio has separate control and tracking rooms. Fortunately Mackie has you covered here as well, with not only the two headphone outputs, but also the Direct Monitoring feature for near zero latency when tracking, dedicated Studio Outs and a variety of Cue source options. All in all the Mackie Big Knob Studio+ is packed with the kind of features that larger studios and owners of more complex monitoring systems will appreciate, and it comes in at a very reasonable price point too. With solid sonic performance and a very ergonomic layout, it's bound to be at least as successful as its popular predecessor. -HC-
Want to discuss the Mackie Big Knob Studio+ monitor controller, or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Studio Trenches forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Mackie Big Knob Studio+ Monitor Controller ($389.99 MSRP, $299.99 "street")
Mackie's product web page
You can purchase the Mackie Big Knob Studio+ monitor controller from:
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.