Field Report: Mackie Onyx Blackbird

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Radio production facilities are interesting places. Hard-hitting, high-quality audio production can (for the most part) be accomplished with tried-and-true stereo in and out. Occasionally, however, multitracking is needed. For example, I recently recorded a university chamber choir to be used on a special radio program on our network. For the best recording (in this case), I ended up tracking five mics. When this type of project occurs, especially when pristine audio is a must, FireWire technology is my immediate go-to. The Onyx Blackbird from Mackie is a fantastic solution for making a PC or Mac workstation a 16-track (or more) recording powerhouse.

Mackie Onyx Blackbird

A few facts

The Onyx Blackbird lives in a 1RU chassis and interfaces via FireWire. The Onyx name is derived from Mackie's high-end line of microphone preamps, which the Blackbird uses on all eight analog inputs. The first two Onyx preamps have an 80Hz roll off, and can be switched between mic and line. Two insert jacks allow for external processing of inputs one and two. All eight inputs have 48V phantom power available. Six other inputs can be used as mic or line. Up to four Blackbirds can be linked via FireWire for a total of 32 controlled inputs. (Up to eight Blackbirds can be inter-connected for up to 64 inputs.) The Blackbird will sync internally, but will also accept a word clock reference via BNC jacks. Optical Toslink ADAT lightpipe S/MUX II) inputs and outputs are located on the rear of the unit with sampling rates from 44.1kHz to 96kHz. The power plug-in is a simple IEC cord. For analog monitoring, stereo main, alternate and monitor outputs are found on 1/4" TRS jacks.

Each analog input has a familiar Mackie gain control knob with the "U" indication. When set at U (unity), the incoming gain structure is not affected. However, the mic inputs can be ramped up 60dB, and the line level inputs can be attenuated 15dB or amplified 45dB. Each input has a dual-colored LED that indicates good input levels by lighting as green. The LEDS will turn red when the inputs are overdriven. Inputs 1 and 2 have high-pass filters, and a Hi-Z switch that allows for proper impedance matching when plugging a guitar directly into the 1/4" line input jacks. The direct monitor section allows musicians or vocal talent to monitor inputs 1 and 2 prior to the Blackbird's digital processing or routing. This allows for zero-latency, and can be monitored in stereo or mono. The direct monitor section works in tandem with the monitor level. The monitor output can feed powered monitors or amplifiers via 1/4" jacks on the back of the Blackbird.

Two sets of headphones can be used on the front panel, with individual level control. Audio from an onboard mix or custom mix from the Blackbird Control software can be routed to the headphones with the push of a button. A green LED on the front panel indicates whether the Blackbird is receiving acceptable clock sync as a standalone unit or from its host.

The back of the Blackbird is a busy yet simple place. There are two Firewire jacks for host control and connection to another Blackbird, two BNC word clock jacks for syncing and four optical Toslink jacks for ADAT I/O. Alternate L/R out jacks provide an unbalanced output for a headphone amp or external audio device. The balanced main out jacks can be used in live applications when a mix of the Blackbird input channels is needed. The monitor jacks correspond with the monitor control previously mentioned on the front of the Blackbird.

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