Mackie Big Knob Studio Plus by Arthur Stone
Big Knob: The Mackie Big Knob Studio + is the biggest and most featured of the Big Knob range: the 'MBKS+' can act as a small studio centrepiece (doing everything except: computer, monitors, instruments) and also has a wider range of studio uses where only parts of it's feature set is utilised. There's a USB audio interface; monitor control section; headphone amps and talkback mic; a range of inputs inc. 2 premium Onyx preamps; and comprehensive routing options that will ensure the MBKS+ connects to a typical small studio and gear.
The layout and ergonomics are very good: tilted top; clear, spaced and illuminated buttons; the knobs are great quality. The build-quality is rugged. The steel sheet does not clang when buttons are clicked. The stable weight gives it a nice solid feel on the desk but it's still light enough to fit in a backpack or case for portable studio facilities or diverse audio roles.
Mackie have long had a good reputation in my book. After years of reading their products reviewed it seems they have a great deal to offer in terms of engineering design and manufacture, and audio know-how. I was looking forward to reviewing the MBKS+ and although, in general, they are not usually mentioned in high-end discussions (more utilitarian maybe) I was expecting gear that could deliver a solid performance. I wasn't disappointed.
Price: UK £252/ Euro 266/ US $300
Approx. retail prices at review date; MRRP is higher.
Software: No software mixer (none needed, thankfully) and a simple Windows-style options and setting page for audio and USB streaming quality. The cue functions, controlled by software with many interfaces, are hardware controlled and this bodes well for non-computer use – as a studio tool for tracking/monitoring or routing hardware instruments.
I didn't check out the bundled Tracktion software but I started out with Mackie Tracktion in the 00's and I really enjoyed using it; I think it's improved a lot over 15 years too.
In Use: I started by downloading the Mackie drivers (smooth process) then simply plugged the unit in to mains power and connected a USB cable. Up-and-running.
First thing I noticed was everything got loud; there's a healthy amount of gain available relative to the volume dial. I think this bodes well for a diverse range of connected gear – plenty of juice available.
Very easy to get started with the controls (without the manual); straightforward with good legends. The feature set is very good with lots of routing possibilities – functionally like a mini-mixer without faders.
The monitor section is straightforward and well laid out. The large monitor dial – the 'Big Knob' – does a good job; similar to the dial in the KRK Ergo. The 3 monitor outs are a rare luxury (you'll just need to buy more monitors eh?).
The headphone amps sounded very good; again plenty of gain on tap with AKG K702, ADAM SP-5, and Apple buds, and no gain-bunching issues. Impressed at sonic balance and dynamics and lack of harshness.
I think the circuitry is low-noise and clear despite some flattering colouration; the workflow is great and not distracting. Quick, instant learning curve. No menu diving; control per function.
The Onyx pre's stood out from similarly-priced interfaces in the width of the preamp's 'sweet spot' relative to gain dial and performance level; there's more room for manoeuvre and capturing dynamics.
The hardware is solid and sits on the desk firmly; the smooth metallic surface gets pleasantly warm to the touch but not hot. The monitor dial – the Big Knob – is surprisingly warm and could potentially be unpleasant in hotter weather. I didn't want to rest my hand on it for long. Tested in UK mild Autumn around 50 - 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 - 15 C).
Making music with the Mackie Big Knob Studio+: As usual I felt inspired by the gear to make some music. The obvious musicality is going to come from the Onyx preamps so I though - vocal and guitar with mic; and some synths via line inputs (non-Onyx).
I connected a Waldorf Streichfett (w/Sunfish mod) polysynth for pad to inputs 3-4 and a Moog Subphatty monosynth into input 2 DI for bass duties. I connected a Shure SM58 dynamic mic plus Simply Sound SS1 'lifter' into input 1 which also supplied phantom-power. I'd swap the DI Moog input for the electro-acoustic Taylor 414ce.
I opened a session in the DAW (Reason) and came across the first limitation of the MBKS+: only 2 input channels. This marks the MBKS+ as a small studio device although the limitation is perfectly suited to this environment and production style – usually overdubbing tracks. The 4 output channels enable a stereo pair (or 2 mono) loop IO whilst still monitoring on the other stereo pair.
I cooked up some beats in Reason and tracked a simple acoustic guitar motif – a repeating riff with a chord change. I monitored on headphones assisted by the 'direct monitoring' dial on the MBKS+. The Taylor was DI'd and sounded awesome via the Onyx preamp – first take. The Taylor can get squawky when DI'd through an inferior preamp but the MBKS+ created a faithful and enhanced reproduction. Cleanly enhanced. Next track – Moog bass. This worked really well with the Onyx pre's detailing the desireable characteristics of the Moog sound. Next a Moog 'cello' and synth strings from the wonderful Waldorf Streichfett (modded by Gearslut Cozmik Producer). The vocal and double-takes and harmonies finished off the track.
The final track, mixed ITB in Reason DAW, is here: YouTube and it's also featured in the video review:
Sound quality: 5/5 For the money this is very good. The 2 Onyx preamps are a pleasure to use with a wide 'sweet spot' for performance.
Ease of use: 4/5 Great ergonomics and clear buttons and little mechanical noise. The latency was quite high with the Mackie drivers but using the cue mix seemed to make the track sound sync'ed well enough. It's robust and portable - so with a laptop and mains power source it can cover a lot of territory. The unit is another source of heat in a hot environment; sometimes it felt too warm to be pleasant when 'riding' the dial.
Features: 4/5 Everything you'd need but limited to 2 channel input and this restricts potential applications.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 Neat, capable, fully-featured audio interface; robust, well-designed and manufactured. I was surprised at the price; great value. Tracktion software is a bonus.
Final thoughts: I would have loved something like the MBKS+ when I was starting out; even today it's a charm to use and is capable of solid audio performance in capturing a performance. The design and ergonomics allow the user to focus on music-making at good audio quality. If audio engineering is more your focus then this is a great unit to learn with until you recognise which higher-end gear you really need and even then the MBKS+ will still perform many utility roles (e.g. synth/fx routing). I can also see the audio quality and IO routing of the MBKS+ being useful to people without a computer in an all-analogue environment.
Credits and links:
Big Knob Series | Mackie
Mackie Big Knob Studio+ manual.
Night-blooming cereus By Aswin KP - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, File:Night-blooming cereus.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Mackie photos used with permission; additional art by Arthur Stone.