When Mackie released the Big Knob in 2005, it was a groundbreaking product. At the time, working entirely in the box was still new terrain, and people were starting to look at what parts of a large-format console they deemed necessary. Since then, a few competing products have stepped up to challenge the Big Knob at its price point, but the original has maintained its popularity.
In its first update after more than a decade, Big Knob has been reborn in three new versions. The simplest, Big Knob Passive, allows a pair of stereo inputs to be routed to a choice of monitor pairs with a level control at a price well under $100. Big Knob Studio ups the inputs and outputs, as expected. The flagship, Big Knob Studio+, maintains the bulk of the original unit’s functionality, while adding a few modern conveniences.
On the Surface
The primary function of the unit is to route inputs to monitors. Three stereo analog input pairs can be routed to three different monitor pairs, with all of these inputs and outputs having dedicated trims to match their levels. One significant new feature on the latest model is the integrated USB audio interface, which can perform at sampling rates up to 24-bit, 192 kHz with no need for external DA conversion. On top of that, a pair of Mackie’s Onyx preamps has essentially replaced the phono preamp from the original model and can be routed back to the DAW for recording purposes. Another new feature, not to be overlooked, is the front-mounted 1/8-inch input jack, which makes it easy to reference mixes from client’s smartphone.
When the original Big Knob came into being, mixdown decks were a more significant part of studio workflows, so there were essentially three different analog output pairs dedicated to printing mixes. This has been scaled back to a single pair, plus the integrated USB interface.
Mackie Big Knob Studio+
The other significant change is that the new model streamlines the creation of artists’ headphone mixes from the control room. The Big Knob Studio+ sets up a separate path that can build a mix from DAW returns, aux inputs or the main mix source and route it to the artists’ headphone amp. This path provides zero-latency input monitoring from the onboard preamps. The onboard headphone jacks can now easily, and independently, toggle between this mix and the main monitor mix at the push of a button.
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When I received the Big Knob Studio+, I subbed it in for the Dangerous Source that I use for monitor control in my laptop-based secondary setup. There were a few features of the Source that I missed immediately. (Admittedly, the Source is more expensive.) For one, the Source uses XLRs for almost everything, where the Big Knob Studio+ is all about TRS connections. This meant switching a lot of cables or adding adapters. Also, I often use the dual-purpose AES and S/PDIF digital input of the Source to monitor external interfaces, but the Big Knob Studio+ has no digital inputs. This means more 1/4-inch analog connections are necessary to accomplish the same goal.
The good news was that when using USB to feed the Big Knob Studio+, and using the unit for music playback, checking mixes and other general playback duties, the DA conversion was good. However, it lacked some of the airy openness in the top end and punchiness of the low end that I associate with the Dangerous converters. I would say that it outperformed other products in its price range, though. The overall sound of the Big Knob Studio+ was surprisingly crisp and detailed while still having a clean bottom end.
There are also some other big pluses. For one, across the large top surface, everything is well laid out and easy to see. Setting the control room level with a big knob makes it easier to find a perfect monitoring level. The dimming and mono summing, which aren’t available on the Dangerous Source, are handy. Since mid-side processing started taking off, mono summing to check the results simultaneously has become an absolute necessity. While my Studio A has a monitor controller with mono summing, my laptop setup has required a plug-in based solution, so the hardware alternative from the Big Knob Studio+ is more than welcome.
My mobile tracking rack typically hangs out in the room where I was demoing the Big Knob Studio+, as I use that room to track guitar and vocal overdubs. If that rig is packed up, USB to the Dangerous Source becomes the primary audio interface for mixing and general playback. If I have to track a quick overdub, I usually have to connect another interface to come up with an input and mic preamp. The fact that the Big Knob Studio+ has a pair of built-in preamps that can track right to the DAW is incredibly convenient.
I wound up using those to track a fuzzed-out, amped guitar and was very pleased with the sound. Using a combo of a ribbon mic and an SM57, the ribbon paired with the preamp had a fat low end, with a kind of melt-y personality. The upper midrange from the SM57 had more transparent cleanliness that sparkled and cut through. Another time, I used one of the preamps for a vocal and again was impressed by the detail in the top end. Altogether, the preamps were usable, not just an add-on to look good on paper. The sound was even clean and quiet enough to use them for a voiceover or to pick up some quick Foley.
Related: Mackie's New Big Knob Family Now Shipping, Mix, Oct. 17, 2017
The real question I had going into the review, however, was whether a unit like this would even be necessary now that so many interfaces are integrating the Big Knob’s features. That question answered itself in a tracking scenario. I had been using a rackmount interface for mobile recording. That device included a multipurpose knob that could control inputs and outputs, plus it had a pair of front-panel headphone jacks with dedicated volume controls. In a setup where I was in the same room as the band, I monitored through headphones while recording, but had monitors set up for playback and rough mixes.
I had the main mix feeding my headphones, where I was soloing things, auditioning effects and rough mixing in real time. The artists were all working off of a secondary mix that was routed to their headphone boxes. I had the headphone jacks on the interface set up where one was playing my mix; the other was playing the artists’ headphone mix. As the musicians would ask for things, I would switch my headphones between the two jacks. When checking their mix during a take, I would try to make the change during loud drum fills that would mask the clicking sound. After a take, they would want to hear playback. Their mix was somewhat utilitarian and accounted for all the drums that they heard in the room. For playback, I would tweak it to make it more presentable and then switch it back for the next take.
Adding the Big Knob Studio+ to my setup made all of these functions so much easier. I could route their mix out of the interface, into the aux input of the monitor controller and run that out to their headphone amp. At the push of a button, I could switch my headphone feed between my mix and their mix without having to switch headphone jacks. When it came time to play back for the artists, I could flip a switch and run my mix to all of their headphones so they could evaluate the performance. Integrated talkback made it easy to converse with the musicians while headphones were on. Again, most of these functions could have been accomplished with the onboard functionality in many interfaces, but it would typically have required additional steps or awkward software-based switching.
Another place where the Big Knob Studio+ shines is in listening to references while mixing. If the client wants their mix to sound like a particular album, or they want it to fit in with other music on a playlist or radio station, it’s nice to be able to compare the overall amount of low end, the snare-to-vocal ratio or the amount of reverb in the mix. It’s also nice to be able to prove to them that this mission has been accomplished, which requires the ability to flip back and forth between the mix and a level-compensated reference. Routing the DAW to one pair of inputs, with Spotify, Apple Music or the client’s phone feeding another pair, I could trim the mastered references to compare to the active mix and easily A-B the two through the same monitors.
Still the Leader
It seems like the Big Knob Studio and Studio+ still dominate their price peers. The only competition appears to be the PreSonus Monitor Station V2 and the Behringer Control2USB, which, if you look at the back panel, is essentially a copy of the original Big Knob. The new Big Knobs have surpassed the original. While devices like the SPL Crimson serve up very similar functionality and superior sonic quality, the price tag triples starting at that unit, with prices for other high-end monitor controllers shooting up from there.
Related: Mackie Big Knob and Monitors Energize Mosher Elementary Music Program, Mix, Jan. 9, 2018
If you are running something like a Universal Audio Twin or Apogee Quartet, the Big Knob Studio series might seem redundant. When working with an Apogee Element, on the other hand, at $199, the Big Knob Studio seems like a much better buy than the optional Apogee Element Control unit.
While this device may be more prone to distortion or coloration than $1,000+ units, I did not find that it inhibited my ability to make critical mixing decisions. It’s inexpensive, well thought out, and it will up your game. Check it out, and it might be the device that you didn’t even know you were looking for.
Brandon T. Hickey is an Arizona-based recording and post-production engineer.
Product: Big Knob Studio+
Price: $299 street
Pros: Welcome improvements such as mic preamps and USB interface; thorough monitoring functions.
Cons: No digital inputs, except for USB.