Mackie HDR24/96 24-Bit/24-Track Disk-based Audio Recorder/Editor

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 PM, George Petersen

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The last time I tested a product that was eagerly talked about, then announced, delayed and finally shipped, it was the Mackie D8B Digital 8-Bus mixer. And at Winter NAMM, February 2000, just over a year ago, Mackie announced an equally ambitious project: a 24-track, 24-bit (and 96kHz capable) disk-based recorder/editor with an affordable base price of $4,999. The product is the Mackie HDR-24/96, and, though it did ship a couple months late, Mackie probably set some kind of record for the speedy delivery of a product of this magnitude; it was definitely worth the wait. The unit offers an ease of use that should make disk-recording novices comfortable, while including an impressive feature set that will appeal to seasoned pros.

Starting from the top, the HDR24/96 is a stand-alone (no computer required) 24-bit/24-track recorder/editor housed in a single four-rackspace chasis weighing in around 35 pounds--a lot less than your typical 400+ pound, 2-inch, analog deck and substantially less than a rack of three ADATs.

Speaking of Modular Di-gital Multitracks, the HD- R24/96's front panel looks and operates (with a few exceptions) a lot like most MDMs. The recorder's faceplate holds few mysteries, and most users can be up and recording just minutes after unpacking the HDR24/96. The front panel is logically laid out, with a bank of 24 (selectable) peak/VU LED meters with track arming lights and buttons beneath each track. A large, bright, numerical LED display shows locations in hours/minutes/seconds/frames or bars/beats/ticks, and includes status LEDs indicating clock and bit status. A 24-character, 4-line LCD indicates operational status and menu navigation with four softkey switches and data Å (increment/decrement) keys beneath the menu select parameters and set modes. Eighteen additional switches are dedicated to various functions--ranging from looping and locate options, monitoring and record safe keys, SMPTE chase enable, etc. And every switch on the HDR24/96 has an associated LED that gives the user quick, visual feedback on what's selected. The idea here is to reduce the user's dependence on menus as much as possible, and other than simple selections such as choosing a project or which disk to record to, the menu operations are mainly "set and forget."

Familiar-looking, tape recorder-style keys (Rwd/Ffd/Stop/Play/Record) handle basic transport functions, and the unit defaults to 2-button (press Record and Play) record enabling; it can be set to one-touch record if desired. A floppy drive is provided for loading software updates, tempo maps or reinstalling the system software, should the user later decide to install a larger internal hard disk (a 20GB drive is included as standard equipment). A second bay is designed to accept interchangeable media, such as Mackie's M90 22GB removable hard drives or 2.2GB Mackie PROJECT cartridges.

Dealing the Cards...

The base HDR24/96 does not include any I/O, and users may choose to fill its three I/O card slots with any of the four I/O cards available--which happen to be the same I/O cards that are offered for Mackie's D8B digital console. The $399 AIO-8 has eight analog inputs and eight analog outputs (all are +4dB line-level), terminated as two 25-pin D-sub connectors that are pin-compatible with the Tascam DA-88 connectors, so all the user needs to do is connect some DB25-to-XLR (or TRS) snakes, and start tracking. The $450 DIO-8 card includes eight channels of digital I/O in both Tascam TDIF and ADAT Lightpipe formats, as well as a TDIF wordclock sync output on a BNC connector for older DTRS decks. The $399 PDI-8 carries four stereo pairs (eight channels) of digital I/O in the form of AES/EBU signals on a single DB25 connector. The OPT-8 is the bargain of the lot: This $99 card has input and output ports (eight channels each) in ADAT Lightpipe format.

Using the AIO-8 converters, the HDR24/96 audio quality was very good overall--in fact, if you've heard Mackie's D8B, then you're already familiar with the HDR24/96's sound. For those who want more, of course, the unit will work with any number of excellent third-party converters. (Many of which cost more than the HDR24/96 itself!) Ninety-six kHz recording (which halves the number of tracks to 12) is made possible by using three of the PDI-8 AES cards in double-wide (double-wire) mode, fed from external third-party 96kHz ADCs.

I/O cards can be mixed and matched as desired and installing them is easy. Each card slides into a slot on the rear panel cardcage, snaps into place with a reassuring thunk and attaches via two captive (no, they don't fall out and get lost, thank you) thumbscrews. Also on the back panel are ports for attaching a PC keyboard, mouse, 1_4-inch punch in/out foot switch, 15-pin D-sub for a SVGA external monitor, Ethernet 100 Base-T via RJ-45, remote control (also RJ-45), MIDI in/out on a 9-pin D-sub (breakout cable to standard 5-pin DIN jacks included) and a sync card with wordclock/SMPTE chase in/video black burst sync. Speaking of the latter, the HDR24/96 locked up nearly instantaneously to incoming SMPTE LTC. Nice!

Going Inside

The HDR24/96 seemed pretty solid--at least hefty--on the outside, so I decided to go inside to check it out. You can learn a lot about a piece of audio gear by completely disassembling it before testing it out, although I don't recommend you do this at home: It's really bad on the warranties! After I removed the 22 (!) screws on the cover, the secrets of the HDR24/96 were revealed--well, some of them, anyway.

The heart of the unit is a PC--a 433MHz Intel Celeron motherboard, to be exact--and it has all of the usual PC stuff there. This is good, because Mackie didn't have to reinvent the wheel to develop this product, and standard items, such as the ATI Rage Pro AGP 8MB monitor graphics card and PC power supplies, are commonly available parts, so if you're HDR24/96 ever "goes south" at some future date, then the fix may involve little more than a quick trip to a local computer swap meet for $20 in parts. Cool! At the same time, components such as the internal IDE drive could be swapped out for a bigger drive someday, and with the way that drive prices have plummeted lately, you might just be picking up a $150 tera byte drive and dropping it into your HDR24/96 in a year or so. Another interesting point is that the motherboard has three RAM slots but only uses one for its 128MB DIMM. As it stands, more RAM wouldn't make a difference in the unit today, but the HDR24/96 also has two unused PCI slots (these are marked as "accessory" slots). Who knows what tomorrow may bring--perhaps a synth/sampler-on-a-card or maybe a dedicated DSP card loaded with hardware plug-ins? And because it locks so well to SMPTE, perhaps one of those "accessory" slots could someday house a sync expansion card supporting Sony 9-pin control, opening up a whole new market for the HDR24/96 in big-time post applications.

Drives!

Perhaps one of the HDR24/96's most intriguing features is the Mackie Media drive bay on the front panel. The bay accepts Mackie Media M90 cartridges--essentially 22GB UDMA IDE hard drives (offering approximately 90 minutes of 24-track record time at 24-bit/48 kHz) that are preformatted, mounted in a standard RH-58 removable drive tray and include a padded library storage case for keeping your creations (or backups) on a bookshelf. Do-it-yourselfers may want to buy their own trays (around $40 from computer suppliers on the Web) and IDE drives, but won't save much money going this route, as Mackie is intentionally keeping the street price of the M90s fairly low--around $199. As it is now, one M90 holds the equivalent of about six reels of 2-inch tape running at 30 ips, making the M90s an affordable alternative for backup or direct recording, because the M90 media has adequate throughput for live 24-track tracking sessions or remote recordings.

Another possibility involves Mackie's "Project Media," which are 2.2GB carts based on Castlewood Systems' ORB drives, using Magneto-Resistive technology to create high-density media on an inexpensive ($29) disk that's about the size of a Zip cartridge. The Project Media kit includes an adapter caddy that allows the ORB disk to slide directly into the HDR24/96's drive bay, offering enough storage for two typical song files, and while not fast enough for direct recording, the ORB disk offers a viable means of file backup and project exchange between studios.

On the subject of file exchange, the HDR24/96 writes files in standard .AIFF format, and there are several ways to transfer files to/from another workstation. The simplest is simply to play all the files (output via Lightpipe) and record them digitally into the other system. Alternatively, files written to either of the HDR24/96's removable drive formats could be read by a PC or a newer Mac--assuming you invest in an external (or internal if you're doing it all the time) RH-58 drive bay. The other option is to use the HDR24/96's built-in 100 Base T Ethernet port to transfer tracks to another Ethernet-equipped computer or server.

Operations

Once the I/Os were installed and the drives selected, I recorded a quick demo project with the basic HDR24/96. On this session, I was using the analog I/Os, and after setting the desired sampling rate and naming a new project, I was off and running and had not yet used the manual at all! Navigating the menus was no sweat, with the only glitch a lack of an Exit key to get you out of a menu. After 90 seconds or so of trial and error (remember, I was trying to get by without consulting the documentation), I realized that pressing the same menu button (Track-Project-Backup-Disk-Utilities-System-Digital I/O-Sync) that gets you in also gets you out from there. It also took me a while to find the page where sampling rates are set: I expected it to be part of the Digital I/O menu; it turned out to be within the Sync page.

Once set, all I had to do was arm some tracks (pushing the buttons under each track meter) and press Play-Record to get rolling. By the way, the transport buttons have a great feel--you can hear the reassuring clunk of an internal relay whenever any of the keys are pressed. I didn't, however, like the AC power switch, which clicks on with a slight touch; unfortunately, it also switches off with a similar light touch. Here, I would have preferred a rocker switch or a pushbutton with a little more force.

So far I had used the HDR24/96 without an external monitor/keyboard/mouse, and here is where a small investment ($200 or so for the package with conventional 17-inch SVGA display) really pays off. The ability to use the HDR24/96 without a monitor is actually one of the product's virtues, especially in situations, such as remote recording gigs, where a monitor is not really required or even desirable--space is often limited at live gigs and a monitor can be distracting to nearby audience members, etc. That said, adding a monitor/keyboard/mouse to the HDR24/96 really opens up the unit's creative and utilitarian potential, as well as speeding operations. Seeing the scrolling waveforms, virtual transport controls, timecode display, onscreen metering, etc., also adds a definite cool factor.

I almost dreaded adding the accessories to the HDR24/96, because, at this point, I still hadn't opened the manual, and my past experiences with adding monitors/mice/etc, to computers or audio devices usually entails a lengthy process of installing drivers, setting preferences and/or resolutions. I feared the worst, but I figured I'd give it a shot and hooked up the Viewsonic View Panel VA800, a 17.5-inch, flat-screen display I reviewed in the January Mix ("Auditions"), along with a Logitech Trackman trackball (sort of a mouse) and a PS/2-style keyboard. I did great with the monitor and mouse, but the HDR24/96's keyboard jack is an older-style, 5-pin, DIN-type, so lacking a mini-DIN to 5-pin adapter (available almost anywhere), I just grabbed an old AT-style keyboard I had laying around, and it worked fine. On power-up, everything worked perfectly, and I should add that the sharp, brilliant display (which, by the way, is immune to speaker monitor magnetic distortion) looked great. And navigating the menus is much simpler with a mouse and monitor--you don't have to squint to see that tiny LCD display!

One distinct advantage of using the keyboard/mouse/monitor rather than front panel navigation is the ability to locate the HDR24/96 remotely from the user. The unit's fan noise is not excessive--about as loud as a PC (which it is)--but it is audible in a quiet control room, and moving the main unit to the floor or farther away in the room does make a difference. As well as accepting the keyboard/mouse input, the HDR24/96 also responds to standard MMC transport commands from a console (Mackie's D8B, perhaps), sequencer or hardware device such as JL Cooper's (www.jlcooper.com) line of external controllers. At press time, Mackie was shipping its $299 RM24, a compact remote control for the HDR24/96, featuring transport keys, track arming, looping and more, including a "meter stick" that displays the level of any selected track. Neither the RM24 nor the HDR24/96 unit itself has hardware jog/shuttle control--this will be offered by the large RM48 remote, a full-function pro auto-locator that includes the ability to control multiple HDR24/96 transports and is due out later this year at $1,499. Both remotes communicate with the HDR-24/96 via standard RJ45/CAT5 cabling and can be placed quite a distance from the main unit.

Editing on the HDR24/96

The real power of an additional monitor is demonstrated when using the extensive and comprehensive editing functions. As well as the usual Cut/Copy/Paste commands, the unit includes such features as 999 levels of undo, nondestructive drag-and-drop crossfades, regions and super regions, looping, track slipping, shuttle and analog style scrubbing, quantization, track/take bouncing, snap-to-grid and 192 virtual takes (eight per track x 24 tracks). The virtual takes are ideal for comp'ing multiple vocal or solo takes into a seamless performance, without having to give up tracks to get it done.

Despite the modestly powered 433MHz CPU, the HDR24/96 never seemed sluggish at all, and edit operations and screen redraws were fast--actually redrawing waveforms as they were being edited. One secret to this is the unit's custom operating system, which is based on the OS developed for the D8B mixer and was designed specifically for audio. The Mackie OS is somewhere between Windows and MacOS in appearance and operation, yet with no "bloating" at all. It's lean and mean--in fact, the entire OS fits on two floppy disks.

The edit interface is clean and logical. A large 24-channel meter panel at the top of the screen (great during tracking/overdubbing) can be re-placed with a large editing tools window, which offers quick access to any of the edit modes, locator points and nudge tools. As with accessing the recording functions, users can stumble in and do about 85% of all editing operations without getting bogged down in manuals or becoming lost. The look and feel of the edit screen will be familiar to anyone who's used other workstations, and users have the option of working with mouse or keyboard commands. The keyboard commands--such as CTL+A to select all regions in a project--are noted at various places in the manual, but some kind of quick reference chart would be nice.

A node tool provides a volume automation function for creating envelopes that can dynamically change track output levels via simply clicking on sections using the pencil tool. Although no substitute for full-blown mix automation, I found it useful for creating fades or muting unwanted sections (say, a tempo count at the beginning of a drum track) without actually deleting the material.

Making Impressions

Overall, I liked the HDR-24/96. There were a few bugs--such as a dive key (quick zoom) that misdirected zoom-ins when looking at expanded virtual takes--but these were relatively minor. There are also a few missing features (for example, track normalization, time compression/expansion and phase inversion) that I'd like to see in the next version--but as Version 1.0 software from a company's first workstation, the HDR24/96 is a stunning development, with excellent sonic quality, an extensive feature set and versatile file management that will allow it to coexist with the rest of the audio universe. Besides, it's easy to use and is priced right. This one rocks!

Mackie Designs; 16220 Wood-Red Road NE, Woodinville, WA 98072; 425/487-4333; fax 425/487-4337.






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