Pro Tools is, of course, the industry standard recording platform, and for good reason. It’s extremely flexible and it facilitates the creative process by being only as complicated as you want it to be. The new Mbox line-up is the first to be released under the name of AVID, the company which recently acquired Digidesign, and this is the third complete overhaul of the Mbox range. As you might expect, the new-look Mbox line-up features several key hardware differences over the previous version, as well as a cosmetic makeover that brings the look more up-to-date. There are three units in the series (Mbox Mini, Mbox and Mbox Pro), all designed by the same engineering team behind the top-of-the-line ProToolsHD systems. I checked out the first two, and compared them to my trusty Mbox 2 Pro, which I’ve had for about four years now.
Both the Mbox Mini and the Mbox interfaces feature premium analog signal paths and high-performance analog-to-digital converters. The mic preamps are of a higher quality standard than the previous incarnation too – an important point, as the one real criticism I’ve heard levelled at previous versions is that the mic pres are perhaps a little lacking and occasionally require backup from the occasional outboard preamp.
The Mbox Mini’s converters deliver 24-bit, 48kHz sound while the Mbox ups this to 24-bit, 96kHz. The Mbox Pro goes all the way up to 24-bit, 192kHz with ProTools HD, or up to 96kHz with Pro Tools LE. Pro Tools 8.0.4 is included with whichever package you purchase, and it’s contained on a single DVD (Pro Tools 9 is released later this week though). The two new Mboxes on review are connected via USB, although the Mbox Pro is still FireWire capable.
The Mbox Mini interface is compatible with other major recording applications too, with drivers for Logic, Live, Record, Reason, Fruity Loops, Cubase, Nuendo, Sonar, and more. You can also use it as a CoreAudio device with your Mac. It also includes one XLR mic/line combo input with 48 V phantom power; two 1/4-inch instrument inputs (one DI, one switchable line/DI); two balanced 1/4-inch monitor outputs and one 1/4-inch stereo headphone output.
The Mbox interface has the same professional-grade soft-clip limiter circuit found in the high-end Pro Tools|HD 192 I/O audio interface, so you can track much hotter signals without overloading the inputs and clipping. This really makes it easier to get great-sounding tracks in the recording stage, and that’s super-good news for those of us who like to use amp sim software or reamping. The Mbox also includes built-in reverb, echo and delay effects (accessible through the driver settings in Pro Tools) which you can use during tracking – many singers and guitarists will find this very beneficial, and since the reverb is generated within the Mbox itself instead of your computer, it won’t tax resources quite so much. There’s also – gasp! – an integrated guitar tuner (also accessible through the driver settings or by holding down the Pad and Mute buttons), and a Pro Tools multi-function button for accessing various common software parameters like tap session tempo, start/stop record, and create a new track, right there on the front of the interface. It also includes two XLR mic/line combo inputs with 48 V phantom power; two 1/4-inch DI inputs; two balanced 1/4-inch monitor outputs; and one 1/4-inch stereo headphone output with volume control.
In operation, Mbox Mini and Mbox are similar in many ways, although you have more resolution available with the latter’s higher quality converters, as well as a few more more routing options. You can plug more instruments into Mbox and leave them plugged in compared to Mbox Mini. I’d definitely lean towards Mbox rather than Mbox Mini if you’re looking for more of a desktop studio setup with the added ability to cart it around when needed (and doubly so for the even more kitted out new Mbox Pro). It sounds great and is very easy to use. The Mbox’s soft limiter also also extremely transparent and musical – you won’t really know it’s on until you turn it off and hear the obnoxious peaks it’d been preventing.
The Mbox Mini is more for those who only need to record one instrument at a time and aren’t so fussy with needing to connect everything at once. This makes Mbox Mini a great in-the-field unit, especially for those who tend to work in-the-box more than with acoustic instruments, but who might need to lay down the occasional analog instrument or vocal line. Sound quality is great no matter which unit you choose, and I could hear a lot more headroom and dynamic range screaming out of the headphones of each compared to my old Mbox 2 Pro. This goes for my recordings as well as using Mbox as a CoreAudio device for iTunes.
It’s great to see the Mbox line overhauled for 2010, and especially in such a sturdy, high-quality series of units. The overhaul brings the Mbox family into line with the HD series and the visual overhaul to Pro Tools itself, and it’s cool to see AVID take the Digidesign legacy into such a confident new direction. This will become especially apparent once users get their hands on Pro Tools 9 in combination with the new hardware.