When picking the right gear to convert analog sound to digital data on your Mac, you’ll weigh price, bit-rate and sampling options, the number and type of inputs and outputs (I/O), transfer protocols, and other music-related functions. And, of course, you’ll consider sound quality. With its included industry-standard software, good-quality mike preamps, and portability, Digidesign’s USB-based Mbox is a reasonable option. It may be just what you need if you’re venturing into digital recording, or if you want to use your PowerBook or iBook to record on the road.
Ins, Outs, and Arounds
The attractive Mbox will look right at home next to a stylish Mac. Its inputs and outputs are on its back (with the exception of a front headphone jack), and the controller knobs and buttons on the front of the unit are clearly marked, work smoothly, and reduce the need to use your mouse during a recording session.
On the unit’s back, you’ll find two jacks that combine XLR and quarter-inch TRS/TS inputs for microphones, instruments, or lines; two quarter-inch TRS analog I/O for effects devices; and 24-bit stereo digital I/O via S/PDIF. There is also a second headphone jack on the back of the unit; either jack enables you to hear what you’re recording (and monitor previously recorded tracks at the same time).
The quarter-inch TRS inputs can be used to route a signal through off-board effects devices, such as reverbs or compressors, but the Mbox won’t let you record both the modified and unmodified sound, as you can with more-expensive gear. However, the included Pro Tools 5.2 LE software has plug-ins that let you add effects after you record.
The Mbox provides two channels of 24-bit A/D/A (analog/digital/analog) conversion at either 44.1kHz or 48kHz with more than 100 decibels of dynamic range, which should suit the needs of most beginners. The Mbox also contains two Focusrite mike preamps with 48 volts of Phantom power, so you can use condenser mikes, which work well with acoustic instruments and voices. That the Mbox sits outside your Mac is also a plus: by converting analog audio into digital in an external box instead of via a PCI card, you negate the risk of adding noises that originate inside your Mac.
We used the Mbox comfortably with an early Power Mac G4 and a Titanium PowerBook G4. For outdoor recording, however, be sure to carry extra batteries for your portable Mac — the Mbox is power-hungry.
Haves and Have-Nots
If you need to integrate MIDI audio, the Mbox may not be right for you. To monitor MIDI hardware, you’ll need to surrender one of the Mbox’s recording inputs, and you won’t hear the MIDI parts in stereo. One workaround is to use a software synthesizer such as Native Instruments’ Absynth (http://www.nativeinstruments.de), which Digidesign’s Direct Connect engine supports. This will restore the use of the “lost” input, but it’s an additional cost.
You can also record your MIDI tracks to audio separately. The Mbox handles 24 mono tracks of playback on “Digidesign-qualified” systems, which include all Macs with built-in USB ports. However, hubs and PCI card-enabled USB ports aren’t supported.
What’s That Sound?
To test the Mbox’s sound quality, we converted, at 48kHz, the audio output of a MIDI track via a higher-end Apogee Rosetta unit, a 16-bit Audiomedia III PCI card (to represent the low end), and the Mbox. As we’d expected, the Apogee’s audio clearly sounded the best, but the Mbox’s audio sounded very good, certainly better than the Audiomedia’s.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
As long as you don’t already have hardware that performs some of the Mbox’s functions or need to set up a band that includes MIDI instruments, the Mbox is a very nice way to start your digital-recording career (or hobby); it provides portability and easy-to-use software at a decent price relative to similar products.