Mackie Spike System

My friend’s studio occupies a space in his Manhattan apartment that is barely larger than a walk-in closet. A complex audio interface with 24 simultaneous inputs is overkill in a situation like that—a high-quality stereo pair will do quite nicely, thank you. If your recording environment fits this description, you might want to check out Mackie’s Spike System ($495 retail/$399 street).

The hardware is compact enough to fit into a knapsack with room for the power supply, audio cables, a couple of mics, and even your laptop. That said, Spike isn’t strictly a mobile system—you’re still tethered to a wall-wart. I ran the interface on my decidedly non-mobile dual G4, 1.42 GHz PowerMac with a variety of software applications. The Spike package gives you plenty of tools to get up and running, including a copy of Mackie’s Tracktion audio/MIDI production software (reviewed in the December ’04 issue of GP), Tracktion’s included plug-ins, and a handful of demo plug-ins. If you already have recording software, that’s fine, too.

The system revolves around the XD-2 audio interface, which, when viewed from the front panel, looks like the offspring of a 1950s-era rocket ship and a channel strip. Gain controls for each channel are easy to reach, as are low/high impedance and high-pass filter buttons. Each channel has a three-color LED level meter—it’s not deluxe, but it’s enough to help you avoid clipping. You can balance the mix between direct input and the tracks already recorded in your computer, and also adjust the monitor and headphone volumes. The headphone jack is located at the bottom of the front panel. All other analog and digital gozintas and gozoutas are located on the back of the unit.

Installing the drivers and the control panel proved to be a confusing affair at first, due to a combination of pilot error and a somewhat unclear browser-based installation procedure. The PDF manual isn’t bad, however, and when I finally decided to read it, my installation problems disappeared.

Spike’s software control panel gets you to several powerful built-in DSP functions, and you can apply them on input or on mixdown. Each channel supplies a decent-sounding 4-band parametric EQ, a compressor/limiter, and an expander/gate. You’ll also need to run the software to get to Spike’s built-in low-pass filter. The DSP features work fine—especially considering that the XD-2 handles the load instead of your computer—but you might not want to ditch dedicated plug-ins in their favor.

I recorded a few bluegrass banjo tracks to an existing arrangement, and the XD-2 delivered the full high-end range of the instrument with plenty of the fat, low-end plunk that keeps a good ax from sounding shrill. Likewise, tracks recorded with a Martin D18 were tonally balanced and clear. The tracks I recorded with several software synths sounded just fine, and the built-in compressor did a great job on the sampled drum tracks.

The Spike system is a worthy contender for space-challenged musicians. There are a batch of other interfaces with a similar price, feature set, and footprint, but Spike’s built-in DSP and nice-sounding preamps add great value. Did I say that it also looks cool?