Technology

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

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 3/01/2001 7:00 AM Eastern

The last time I tested a product that was eagerly talked about, thenannounced, delayed and finally shipped, it was the Mackie D8B Digital8-Bus mixer. And at Winter NAMM, February 2000, just over a year ago,Mackie announced an equally ambitious project: a 24-track, 24-bit (and96kHz capable) disk-based recorder/editor with an affordable base priceof $4,999. The product is the Mackie HDR-24/96, and, though it did shipa couple months late, Mackie probably set some kind of record for thespeedy delivery of a product of this magnitude; it was definitely worththe wait. The unit offers an ease of use that should makedisk-recording novices comfortable, while including an impressivefeature set that will appeal to seasoned pros.

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

Speaking of Modular Di-gital Multitracks, the HD- R24/96's frontpanel looks and operates (with a few exceptions) a lot like most MDMs.The recorder's faceplate holds few mysteries, and most users can be upand recording just minutes after unpacking the HDR24/96. The frontpanel is logically laid out, with a bank of 24 (selectable) peak/VU LEDmeters with track arming lights and buttons beneath each track. Alarge, bright, numerical LED display shows locations inhours/minutes/seconds/frames or bars/beats/ticks, and includes statusLEDs indicating clock and bit status. A 24-character, 4-line LCDindicates operational status and menu navigation with four softkeyswitches and data Å (increment/decrement) keys beneath the menuselect parameters and set modes. Eighteen additional switches arededicated to various functions--ranging from looping and locateoptions, monitoring and record safe keys, SMPTE chase enable, etc. Andevery switch on the HDR24/96 has an associated LED that gives the userquick, visual feedback on what's selected. The idea here is to reducethe user's dependence on menus as much as possible, and other thansimple selections such as choosing a project or which disk to recordto, the menu operations are mainly "set and forget."

Familiar-looking, tape recorder-style keys(Rwd/Ffd/Stop/Play/Record) handle basic transport functions, and theunit defaults to 2-button (press Record and Play) record enabling; itcan be set to one-touch record if desired. A floppy drive is providedfor loading software updates, tempo maps or reinstalling the systemsoftware, should the user later decide to install a larger internalhard disk (a 20GB drive is included as standard equipment). A secondbay is designed to accept interchangeable media, such as Mackie's M9022GB 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 tofill its three I/O card slots with any of the four I/O cardsavailable--which happen to be the same I/O cards that are offered forMackie's D8B digital console. The $399 AIO-8 has eight analog inputsand eight analog outputs (all are +4dB line-level), terminated as two25-pin D-sub connectors that are pin-compatible with the Tascam DA-88connectors, so all the user needs to do is connect some DB25-to-XLR (orTRS) snakes, and start tracking. The $450 DIO-8 card includes eightchannels 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 olderDTRS 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 DB25connector. The OPT-8 is the bargain of the lot: This $99 card has inputand output ports (eight channels each) in ADAT Lightpipe format.

Using the AIO-8 converters, the HDR24/96 audio quality was very goodoverall--in fact, if you've heard Mackie's D8B, then you're alreadyfamiliar 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 kHzrecording (which halves the number of tracks to 12) is made possible byusing 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 iseasy. Each card slides into a slot on the rear panel cardcage, snapsinto place with a reassuring thunk and attaches via two captive (no,they don't fall out and get lost, thank you) thumbscrews. Also on theback panel are ports for attaching a PC keyboard, mouse, 1_4-inch punchin/out foot switch, 15-pin D-sub for a SVGA external monitor, Ethernet100 Base-T via RJ-45, remote control (also RJ-45), MIDI in/out on a9-pin D-sub (breakout cable to standard 5-pin DIN jacks included) and async card with wordclock/SMPTE chase in/video black burst sync.Speaking of the latter, the HDR24/96 locked up nearly instantaneouslyto incoming SMPTE LTC. Nice!

Going Inside

The HDR24/96 seemed pretty solid--at least hefty--on the outside, soI decided to go inside to check it out. You can learn a lot about apiece of audio gear by completely disassembling it before testing itout, although I don't recommend you do this at home: It's really bad onthe warranties! After I removed the 22 (!) screws on the cover, thesecrets 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 thisproduct, and standard items, such as the ATI Rage Pro AGP 8MB monitorgraphics card and PC power supplies, are commonly available parts, soif you're HDR24/96 ever "goes south" at some future date, then the fixmay involve little more than a quick trip to a local computer swap meetfor $20 in parts. Cool! At the same time, components such as theinternal IDE drive could be swapped out for a bigger drive someday, andwith the way that drive prices have plummeted lately, you might just bepicking up a $150 tera byte drive and dropping it into your HDR24/96 ina year or so. Another interesting point is that the motherboard hasthree 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 HDR24/96also has two unused PCI slots (these are marked as "accessory" slots).Who knows what tomorrow may bring--perhaps a synth/sampler-on-a-card ormaybe a dedicated DSP card loaded with hardware plug-ins? And becauseit locks so well to SMPTE, perhaps one of those "accessory" slots couldsomeday house a sync expansion card supporting Sony 9-pin control,opening up a whole new market for the HDR24/96 in big-time postapplications.

Drives!

Perhaps one of the HDR24/96's most intriguing features is the MackieMedia drive bay on the front panel. The bay accepts Mackie Media M90cartridges--essentially 22GB UDMA IDE hard drives (offeringapproximately 90 minutes of 24-track record time at 24-bit/48 kHz) thatare preformatted, mounted in a standard RH-58 removable drive tray andinclude a padded library storage case for keeping your creations (orbackups) on a bookshelf. Do-it-yourselfers may want to buy their owntrays (around $40 from computer suppliers on the Web) and IDE drives,but won't save much money going this route, as Mackie is intentionallykeeping the street price of the M90s fairly low--around $199. As it isnow, one M90 holds the equivalent of about six reels of 2-inch taperunning at 30 ips, making the M90s an affordable alternative for backupor direct recording, because the M90 media has adequate throughput forlive 24-track tracking sessions or remote recordings.

Another possibility involves Mackie's "Project Media," which are2.2GB carts based on Castlewood Systems' ORB drives, usingMagneto-Resistive technology to create high-density media on aninexpensive ($29) disk that's about the size of a Zip cartridge. TheProject Media kit includes an adapter caddy that allows the ORB disk toslide directly into the HDR24/96's drive bay, offering enough storagefor two typical song files, and while not fast enough for directrecording, the ORB disk offers a viable means of file backup andproject exchange between studios.

On the subject of file exchange, the HDR24/96 writes files instandard .AIFF format, and there are several ways to transfer filesto/from another workstation. The simplest is simply to play all thefiles (output via Lightpipe) and record them digitally into the othersystem. Alternatively, files written to either of the HDR24/96'sremovable drive formats could be read by a PC or a newer Mac--assumingyou 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 100Base T Ethernet port to transfer tracks to another Ethernet-equippedcomputer or server.

Operations

Once the I/Os were installed and the drives selected, I recorded aquick demo project with the basic HDR24/96. On this session, I wasusing the analog I/Os, and after setting the desired sampling rate andnaming a new project, I was off and running and had not yet used themanual at all! Navigating the menus was no sweat, with the only glitcha lack of an Exit key to get you out of a menu. After 90 seconds or soof trial and error (remember, I was trying to get by without consultingthe documentation), I realized that pressing the same menu button(Track-Project-Backup-Disk-Utilities-System-Digital I/O-Sync) that getsyou in also gets you out from there. It also took me a while to findthe page where sampling rates are set: I expected it to be part of theDigital 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 buttonsunder each track meter) and press Play-Record to get rolling. By theway, the transport buttons have a great feel--you can hear thereassuring clunk of an internal relay whenever any of the keys arepressed. I didn't, however, like the AC power switch, which clicks onwith a slight touch; unfortunately, it also switches off with a similarlight touch. Here, I would have preferred a rocker switch or apushbutton with a little more force.

So far I had used the HDR24/96 without an externalmonitor/keyboard/mouse, and here is where a small investment ($200 orso for the package with conventional 17-inch SVGA display) really paysoff. The ability to use the HDR24/96 without a monitor is actually oneof the product's virtues, especially in situations, such as remoterecording gigs, where a monitor is not really required or evendesirable--space is often limited at live gigs and a monitor can bedistracting to nearby audience members, etc. That said, adding amonitor/keyboard/mouse to the HDR24/96 really opens up the unit'screative and utilitarian potential, as well as speeding operations.Seeing the scrolling waveforms, virtual transport controls, timecodedisplay, onscreen metering, etc., also adds a definite cool factor.

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

One distinct advantage of using the keyboard/mouse/monitor ratherthan front panel navigation is the ability to locate the HDR24/96remotely from the user. The unit's fan noise is not excessive--about asloud 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 doesmake a difference. As well as accepting the keyboard/mouse input, theHDR24/96 also responds to standard MMC transport commands from aconsole (Mackie's D8B, perhaps), sequencer or hardware device such asJL Cooper's (www.jlcooper.com) line of external controllers. At presstime, Mackie was shipping its $299 RM24, a compact remote control forthe HDR24/96, featuring transport keys, track arming, looping and more,including a "meter stick" that displays the level of any selectedtrack. Neither the RM24 nor the HDR24/96 unit itself has hardwarejog/shuttle control--this will be offered by the large RM48 remote, afull-function pro auto-locator that includes the ability to controlmultiple HDR24/96 transports and is due out later this year at $1,499.Both remotes communicate with the HDR-24/96 via standard RJ45/CAT5cabling 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 usingthe extensive and comprehensive editing functions. As well as the usualCut/Copy/Paste commands, the unit includes such features as 999 levelsof undo, nondestructive drag-and-drop crossfades, regions and superregions, 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'ingmultiple vocal or solo takes into a seamless performance, withouthaving to give up tracks to get it done.

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

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

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

Making Impressions

Overall, I liked the HDR-24/96. There were a few bugs--such as adive key (quick zoom) that misdirected zoom-ins when looking atexpanded virtual takes--but these were relatively minor. There are alsoa few missing features (for example, track normalization, timecompression/expansion and phase inversion) that I'd like to see in thenext version--but as Version 1.0 software from a company's firstworkstation, the HDR24/96 is a stunning development, with excellentsonic quality, an extensive feature set and versatile file managementthat 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.