©Earl Harper

It’s a Mackie mixer! It’s an audio interface! It’s both – and now it works with Pro Tools, despite the presence of an M-Audio or Digidesign logo anywhere on the case? The Mackie Onyx-i (note that it still has a hefty bulge below the back of the mixer).

It’s been one of the few constants in music technology. To use Pro Tools software, you need Pro Tools hardware – that means M-Audio interfaces for M-Powered (and now Essentials) and Digidesign interfaces for LE and HD. Without M-Audio or Digidesign hardware actively plugged in, the software refuses to run. And there’s no way for a third party to get their audio hardware working with the software.

Or so everyone thought. Without the cooperation of Avid, Mackie says they have managed to get their Onyx-i mixer line working with Pro Tools, and they’ll even “certify” compatibility. At the end of July, a number of audio sites (including Mix and Sonic State, but not CDM) received a package with one of Mackie’s new mixers, a video, and a copy of Pro Tools M-Powered. The message: a “secret” driver provided compatibility between Mackie’s mixer-audio interface package and Pro Tools. (See Sonic State’s writeup.)

So, what’s going on?

Onyx-i – What’s “i”mproved

Before I get into that, first, a word about Mackie’s new Onyx-i mixers. Viral videos aside, I already know many CDM readers don’t actually like Pro Tools, and the Onyx-i has plenty of other features to recommend it. The original Onyx was already an interesting solution, with the potential to combine a full-blown Mackie mixer with a FireWire audio interface. But the hardware was bulky, and adding FireWire support required buying and installing a separate add-in card.

The Onyx-i solves both problems. The entry-level Onyx 820i model adds a compact, inexpensive (street just US$500) 8-channel by 2-channel output option. Also, all of the new Onyx line (up to the 16×16 1640i) have FireWire built-in – no expansion needed. The line still has a rather hefty bulge that sits below the mixers, but at least with the addition of the 820i, there’s an option I could imagine throwing in a backpack. (That’s good news, I think there are more scenarios where you might want simple mixing than need to lug around a 16×16 mixer-interface.) The cheaper Onyx-i models are also competition for the Cakewalk VS-100 I reviewed recently. The Onyx lacks the VS control surface, flash recorder, and the Cakewalk software bundle, but if you were more interested in the mixer to begin with, the Onyx series could be worth a look.

At the high end, the 1640i can stream full 16 x 16 audio channels in and out of your DAW.

©Earl Harper

The Onyx also makes “universal” compatibility a selling point, and that’s where this Pro Tools saga comes in. The Onyx-i is “qualified for use with all major DAWs,” including Logic, SONAR, Cubase, Ableton Live, and … Pro Tools M-Powered 8. Of course, the last entry was assumed to be technically impossible, and Avid has, to my knowledge, never been compatible with any hardware other than their own. (The only exception I can recall is the brief availability of something called Pro Tools FREE, which worked with standard audio drivers and cost nothing, though it had a number of other limitations.)

Mackie’s announcement came with this disclaimer:

The Onyx-i Series Mixers are qualified by Mackie for use with Pro Tools® M-Powered™ 8. Mackie will release a driver (via www.mackie.com) together with full details of how to use the Onyx-i series with Pro Tools® M-Powered™ 8 in the coming weeks.

Avid has declined to comment for the time being on the Onyx-i compatibility claim, though they at least confirmed that they were not involved.

Shaunna Thompson of Mackie emphasized to CDM that there was “no reverse engineering” involved in creating the Onyx-i driver for Pro Tools M-Powered, and that they were “in discussions” with Avid but could not comment further on those discussions or how Avid would respond.

Conventional wisdom about Avid and Pro Tools has been that hardware “lock-in” – the reliance on their hardware – is good for their business. That may well be, and I do believe in hardware choice; it’s part of why Pro Tools hasn’t ever been my main DAW. I do have to point out, though, that every other audio software maker, from big developers to people maintaining open source software, will tell you compatibility is a huge pain. Massive amounts of time get spent on testing and compatibility, particularly when you start combining different operating systems and different combinations of hardware and drivers. So there’s no question that the other thing Avid has been able to do is to reduce some of that complexity, some of the additional sources of support problems, and all the costs associated with both.

But that made me all the more curious about just how the Onyx-i support works.

mpowered

Pro Tools M-Powered software.

Q&A with Mackie

CDM: Can you comment on the inclusion of Pro Tools M-Powered?

Mackie: The “Ransom Packages” that were sent out as part of a viral campaign included a copy of Pro Tools® M -Powered 8. However, the mixers do not come with a copy of Pro Tools; users will need to purchase this separately.

CDM: I’m sure you can’t talk about all the details, but is there anything you can say about how the M-Powered support was reverse-engineered?

Mackie: Mackie did not ‘reverse engineer’ support for Pro Tools M-Powered 8. We created a custom universal driver that enables use with all major DAWs including Pro Tools® M -Powered 8.

CDM: For that matter, at the risk of asking the obvious, why would Mackie want to support Pro Tools given support for other hosts and your own DAW (Tracktion)?

Mackie: The Onyx-i Series interfaces with all major DAW’s including Pro Tools® M -Powered 8 and our very own Tracktion Software. Our customers have been telling us for years that they want a mixer that can interface with Pro Tools® – we are simply giving our customers what they want. 

CDM: Aside from the Pro Tools questions, I’m a little unclear – what’s new in the "-i" versus the original Onyx predecessors?

Mackie: The biggest difference is that the Onyx-i Series has deep FireWire integration. Now you don’t have to buy a separate FireWire card because it’s already built into the mixer offering a significant increase in performance and value over the older Onyx Compact Series. This effectively means you get a premium analog mixer AND an ultra-high quality digital interface. These are the tools you need for serious computer recording.

Every channel on the mixers can be routed pre- or post- EQ to the computer, allowing the user to choose whether to implement EQ to tape or not. Returns from you computer can be routed back through the channel strip for integration into the mix or for mastering the Perkins EQ.

So, Does it Matter?

It seems that if this had happened a few years ago, it might have been explosive news, which is not the sense I got with Mackie’s attempt to “go viral” with that guy, his little dog, and his pantyhose mask. Then again, I’d better not speak too soon, lest I wind up with 100 comments on this post…

For many users, people who want hardware choice may already have found DAWs with which they’re happy. Pro Tools has its loyal users, and people make great music with it – it just happens that the same can be said of Ableton Live, Apple Logic, Reaper, and many others (just in descending order of recent reader interest on this site). And, of course, Mackie also makes their own Tracktion. Mackie actually risks overshadowing the other news here – the ability to buy a single piece of gear that’s both a Mackie mixer and a FireWire audio interface for under $500.

On the other hand, it’d be a fairly significant acheivement to release this driver, and perhaps even to get Avid’s support. And while I had to ask the question above, of course, Mackie wouldn’t do this if they weren’t getting customers bugging them for it. That’s why interoperability ultimately matters: users want certain choices, and (perhaps rightfully) don’t understand why they might be denied those choices.

I’m going to place the burden on Avid on this one, for one reason: Avid claims “interoperability” is one of their new corporate goals. It’s never been entirely clear what they mean. Some of that goal seems to have more to do with interoperability between products in their own product line. (In fairness, that seems a logical place to start!) So I hope whenever Avid and Mackie do finish their discussions, whatever Avid’s decision, we get clear communication for exactly what the “new” Avid’s interoperability goals are. If they feel they have a case for not supporting hardware like Mackie’s, that’s their prerogative. I’d just like to see clear communication from either company, to explain to their user base why they make those choices.

And, of course, I don’t expect that communication from either Mackie or Avid will come from anyone wearing a mask and a disguised voice.

I’ll be watching for the outcome of the discussions between these two industry giants. Stay tuned.

  • synthetic

    Does anyone doubt that support will be broken in the next version of M-powered? Like the Palm Pre/iTunes update battles?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, the simple answer to that is, we don't know. We don't know how this driver works in the first place, and so far, there's no response from Avid. Right now, in fact, there's *no driver*. So speculation at this point would be just that. I'm not ready to call the odds on it, but I'd at least say it's possible Mackie will work something out with Avid.

  • Joe

    Still no firewire 800? That's really lame! When are audio interfaces going to move to 800?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    The issue is, if you get what you need out of FireWire 400 bandwidth, there's no reason to go to FireWire 800, which is far rarer in the marketplace.

    And anyway, if you *get the I/O you need out of FW400*, does it really matter?

  • Byung Kim

    I've always been uncomfortable with Avid's Pro Tools sales tactics. Everything else has flexibilities in many features where Pro Tools is still limited in some area – especially I have to purchase Music Production stuff in order to get more channels. I guess it has been very good for their business. I can see what Mackie is trying to achieve. It's a good option to have and will give a bit of interest in Pro Tools but I don't think it's a ground-shaking deal. Good try though!

  • http://www.vijithassar.com Vijith Assar

    I'm probably dreaming up a more elegant solution than we're actually going to see here, but since there's no involvement from Avid and DAE will presumably be installed alongside Pro Tools, what if it's some sort of transparent driver abstraction akin to Soundflower or CoreAudio aggregate devices?

  • Joe

    Well, I see your point Peter, but Mac laptops don't have 400 anymore, and having to use 400 to 800 cables is a pain in the neck. Besides, if I buy one of these things, I would like to use it for a good few years, and 400 is just really old technology that is on its way out. And while 400 might be good enough for some things, it definitely wouldn't hurt to have the extra bandwidth, especially when you're dealing with a 16×16 mixer, don't you think? And since 800 is backwards compatible, why not just move froward to 800 and let the people who still have computers with 400 use the special cables? 400 will be gone from all computers soon anyway!

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    If you want more audio I/O, check out the RME interfaces. Otherwise, there's really not much point going to FW800. Remember that there are other issues with chipsets, etc., that can be non-trivial.

    Also, compare a subset of Apple's laptops to the installed base of virtually all PCs and the rest of the Mac laptops.

    The Mackie works with 16 x 16 streaming, which means it doesn't *need* any extra bandwidth. ;)

  • flip

    I agree with Joe: FW400 is out. New Mac Pros are all FW800 now too, not just the laptops. I love Mackie, but no FW800 is a deal breaker for me.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Flip, come on. There's nothing stopping you from plugging a FW400 device into a FW800 jack. You need a special FW800 cable to use that shiny new Mac anyway. (I've got loads of 4-pin and 6-pin FW cables around… almost no FW800.)

    I mean, there are other reasons to like this lineup or not, but if you're really looking for lots of I/O, wouldn't you get the RME anyway? 16×16 has long been well within the capabilities of FW400.

  • http://nickkent.net nick kent
  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Nick, that link isn't working for me – just hitting the main Support page. What are you trying to point to?

  • flip

    @Peter: I don't have the shiny new Mac Pro yet… But I will have to migrate within the year, since Logic has given my G5 Quad the one finger salute. Anyone want 16 GB of old SDRAM? Either way, I do have plenty of FW800 cords from all the external drives I've bought. More importantly, I'm wondering why Mackie wouldn't just use FW800. They seem ahead of the curve on many things, but FW800 isn't exactly new. Why should all current Mac users need to use adapters to compensate? I have plenty of reasons to wait until FW800 is common in the audio gear I want to use… Snow Leopard and 3rd party updates, Mac Pro upgrade, Logic upgrade, etc.

  • http://www.curtismacdonald.com/blog Curtis

    I think this is really cool – will be following this development closely.

    I'm a CDM reader AND a big pro tools user (yes, among others like logic and live…) guess I'm one of the few, huh?

    also heard about a beta version of logic 9 being able to open pro tools sessions!! that sort of inter-compatibility has really got my attention.

    -C

  • http://www.musicofsound.co.nz/blog tim

    Kents link went to: 'Free OS9 PT (discontinued)'

    re support, also of note recently:

    http://duc.digidesign.com/showthread.php?t=254166
    The newly released Pro Tools 8.0.1 software will be the last version of Pro Tools to support the following products:

    Original Mbox

    Expansion|HD Chassis

    Macintosh PowerPC Computers

    Pro Tools MIX-era Peripherals

    888|24 I/O, 882|20 I/O, 1622 I/O, 24-Bit ADAT Bridge I/O

    Expect to see a lot of very cheap MBox1s for sale soon…

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @flip: Right, but the question is still not why *wouldn't* Mackie use FW800, but why *would* they?

    First, it's not a Mac thing. In fact, if Mac users are forced to adapt to anything, it's Apple's allergy to actually putting ports on their machines. A $3500 Mac laptop now has less flexible I/O than some netbooks. It's great Apple is ahead of the curve on FW800… but then, many high-end PC laptops have the also-useful external SATA — and more USB2. The Mac hardware is really, really fantastic, don't get me wrong – but I wouldn't use Apple's strange I/O configurations at the moment as a cue for what hardware to buy.

    But mostly, if the gear provides the I/O you want and need, why is there any issue with using FW800 devices with Snow Leopard, a Mac Pro, and Logic? There's absolutely nothing stopping you. I can't see any disadvantage, with the possible exception that, if they're running on the same bus, a FW800 audio interface might slow a FW800 hard disk to FW400 bandwidth?

    Anyway, I don't see much future for FW800. My guess is that if you were really ahead of the curve, you'd be looking at USB3. That support is already up and running on Linux (developed b Intel, no less), and I imagine will be something we see in both mainstream storage and audio I/O.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Curtis: We definitely have Pro Tools users reading CDM, just as we have Pro Tools naysayers. I'd say we have a pretty decent plurality of DAW use, in fact, even with an unusually heavy emphasis on Ableton Live (probably because we have so many live laptop artists). In fact, thinking about doing a survey…

    And, as I said, if you are a Pro Tools user, suddenly this hardware could be a possibility. I can see a strong argument against it, but I do hope Avid will decide to let Mackie do this, even if unsupported.

  • http://rhythminmind.net rhythminmind

    "what if it’s some sort of transparent driver abstraction akin to Soundflower or CoreAudio aggregate devices?"

    This is what I 1st thought.. A hardware mixer with REWIRE support would be fun no…?

  • salamanderanagram

    this is great to see avid's BS strategy of forcing you to use THEIR hardware being challenged. my guess, though is that avid will simply release a new version that breaks compatibility.

    i have to use pro tools for school and i hate it. when pro tools 8 came out my hardware interface stopped working. made by digidesign, for fuck's sake… they can't even get their own hardware working with their own software. finally after uninstalling and reinstalling the new drivers 6 times it started working for pro tools…. and stopped working for ableton and reason. brilliant design guys, thanks a lot.

  • kobe

    Flip, i'll take the ram! email me? nick at truss-systems dot net.

  • s ford

    I am amazed how this been overlooked, something which is absolutely disgusting. The US street value for the 820i is $499, in England, the price of the 820i is £599, which according to xe.com, exchange rate that is US$992.

    Cheers Mackie for f*cking over your English consumers.

    Here are prices from two independent retailers within the UK.
    http://www.soundslive.co.uk/product~name~Mackie-Ohttp://www.dv247.com/mixers/mackie-820i-onyx-i–6

    How can they justify charging almost twice the amount on the other side of the Atlantic?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @s ford – it's generally not that simple. How do you justify it? Because if you're in the US, one reason is your upfront investment is in US dollars. ;) Now, as for all the specifics of how this pricing gets worked out, I sure get confused.

  • nick kent

    Earlier I was pointing out that the limited but free ProTools FREE supported native hardware. When newer OSes came out they weren't supported.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Nick: Right, absolutely, though my recollection is that FREE had limited functionality as a result. And it really would have cost Digidesign to provide native hardware support across OSes. For a free software package, that definitely doesn't make sense. It'll be interesting, though, to see how the Mackie works.

  • gary

    Pro Tools Free was basically ProTools LE 5 but limited to 8 tracks and it could not be used with any sound cards. On Mac it used the built in headphone jack for hearing back. It could use RTAS and Audiosuite plugins. It was great for being able to edit on a laptop. I wish they still provided it.

  • jeroen

    Pro Tools free worked fine for me! For the time it was an affordable(=free) and the interface worked for me! never had the same good feeling with other editors. The bigger PT (LE etc) where out of my price range/ambition.

  • http://www.soilsound.com soilsound

    Good for Mackie! From the beginning, Digidesign decided to create an air of elitism around ProTools. I'm sure we've all heard phrases like, "You've got to use ProTools to get it to sound right." Huh? They played their customers like a violin. Some people are still buying into this nonsense. I understand that this was their business model. That's fine. That's also why they never got a penny from me. Let's see if AVID continues to live in the 90's or moves forward.

  • Tommy Walkear

    £599 for the 820i just does not compute, The m-Audio Nrv10 seems much better value, despite not having fancy eq etc, but it received a very good review in sound on sound from the editor whose opinion I trust. and it has 10 in 10 out not just stereo out like the lower mackie mixers.

    'Onyx-i mixers are more DAW-friendly than any other interface ever'

    this sort of marketing speak makes me laugh.

    my money is on the m-audio, or if i wanted a 'premium' mixer I'd get the allen and heath zed r16,

  • http://ardour.org/ Paul Davis

    I'd just like to point out that Sydec figured out how to interface directly into ProTools years ago. You could run PT without digi software (good luck trying to buy that back then). They sold I/O boxes to do just that; they are now (or were) owned by Solid State, and SSL sells boxes to do this currently (not sure if the Sydec ones are still available). Their choice of input configuration is a bit different than Mackie's, and they are not using M-Powered but "actual" ProTools (e.g HD/MiX systems). They tend to target higher channel counts than most readers here are interested in (64 and up).

  • http://nickkent.net nick kent

    Well about FREE, I agree that it clearly would cost them money to create new code to support OSX and XP and that's understandable from the point of why give something away when you can charge for it.

    It does make me think that had they ported it to OSX then it would have been easy to run 3rd party hardware.

    While it's a sort of moot point now I'd argue that at least the track count and sample rate were probably intentionally crippled though obviously at some point the CPU and throughput would exceed your native hardware.

    Then again obviously some people using it had far more CPU and disk i/o power than others. I would think the fixed 16 bit and 48K might have been intentional.

    I guess my main point was years ago they had a genuine protools, albeit a crippled one that was not tied to their hardware.

  • s ford

    Usually there is some discrepancy with prices when things jump from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

    Usually, UK consumers pay around 20-30% more at least. That's a figure off the top off my head, not exact by any stretch of the imagination.

    The Mackie 820i though is near enough 100% more. Just keeping in line with nearly eveything else, this seems ridiculously overpriced.

    On the damp side of the Atlantic we are used to being ripped off, but this is taking things a little too far!

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  • http://ardour.org/ Paul Davis

    @s ford: keep in mind the difference between VAT and US sales tax. It doesn't account for the whole of the typical 20-30% discrepancy, but the prices you see quoted in the US do NOT include sales tax, whereas as those in the UK DO include VAT. Now, of course, many times there are ways to avoid paying sales tax (none of them actually legal), and there are several states with no sales tax at all. However, it can be as high as 7.5-8% in certain parts of California. Just a little FYI in case you didn't already know this.

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  • s ford

    @ Paul Davis Yes, I am aware of the differences in taxation legislation between US and UK markets and I think it has been missed that I addressed that most products are in line of the range of prices which are to be expected, apart from the Mackie range which are 100% higher in the UK than in the states.

  • http://live.nwrecords.com gbsr

    @s ford: kind of reminds me of the apc40 and the way we had to pay nearly doubled price in europe.

    ontopic: thats one damn sexy mixer.

    now, if they could only make them send midi and be motorized aswell i would be in total heaven.

  • PooPoo the Korruptah

    Pro Fools is an over hyped scam!!!!

  • http://myspace.com/lundquistaudio chris

    So does this effect the original onyx w/firewire? will we be able to use that, or is it only the new onyx-i?

  • Lee Faulkner

    Warning: wait to see if it works with *any* DAW at all…

    I had terrible experiences with Mackie's dXb200 with the FW implementation… followed by an almost miserable time with the Onyx 1200F. Basically they just didn't ever work. (at least with Mac based hosts).

    Admittedly we got all the money back from Mackie … but it took years of hassle and disappointment. While I want to like Mackie (nostalgia) and I wanted both these hi end products to work (it's my business…) I'm afraid Mackie have shown they can't meet their digital potential.

    Shame

    Lee

  • krishna desai

    does it compatible with mixing by using faders and knobs for protools

    • http://www.facebook.com/chrisNova777 Chris Nova

      no it is not a control surface, only an audio interface.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisNova777 Chris Nova

    these mixers are no longer compatible with m-powered 8….the driver has been discontinued.. they have made no effort to disseminate this information through the proper channels.. do not buy them with the intent to use with m-powered 8. DO NOT BUY THEM AT ALL. if you call avid they will tell u mackie has the driver.. if u call mackie they will tell u avid has the driver. both companies have lost my respect showing their blatant disrespect to paying customers in this fiasco.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chrisNova777 Chris Nova

      i purchased m-powered 8 and an onyx 1620i mixer and i’m being told by both companies now to pay an additional 350$ to upgrade to pro tools 10 to be able to use my software with my hardware.