Mackie Soundscape 32 Review
by Eddie Ciletti
This review is divided into the following sections:
Soundscape-32 ($6,500 list) is a 2U hardware-dedicated workstation that
supports resolutions up to 96kHz / 24-bit. You might be fooled by
its intuitive and uncluttered design, but Soundscape has an underlying
power and flexibility that will make even a modestly endowed PC rock and
roll. I’ve been mixing 24-tracks to 5.1 on original hardware since 1998,
on a Pentium, a system that is still a reliable performer. (See
the SIDEBAR: The Channel History.) Soundscape-32 continues the
tradition, with 32-track capability at normal sample rates, half as many
tracks in high-res mode. (Prior to purchase by Mackie, Soundscape-32 was
formerly known as "REd." That’s good news because both system and software
are mature and well tested.)
Soundscape-32 (with your PC) is a stand-alone product, perfect for broadcast
and production applications where the emphasis is on efficiency, reliability
and simplicity. Music mixing is rarely that simple, but to demonstrate
how robust the system is I opened Adobe Premiere and simultaneously played
a recent video project while Soundscape played a 24 track
automated mix. There were no glitches, no hiccups and no complaints from
either program. (My modest computer is a dual Celeron.)
The Big Easy, and my focus for this review, is the Mixpander DSP Card;
it raises the roof on processing headroom kinda like dropping a hydrogen-powered
V-8 into a Volkswagen. So pop the sun-roof, transport yourself to the AutoStrada
cause we’re headed for Tuscany with the hammer down. (That’s my fantasy.
Substitute as necessary.)
DOWN ON THE FARM
The ability to add DSP is not exclusive to Soundscape. Pro Tools has
"farm cards" and now companies like Universal Audio (UAD-1) and TC Works
(PowerCore) are making cards for native-based systems. Mixpander not only
increases Soundscape’s power, it also opens 16 bi-directional portals into
Native programs like Cubase, Cool Edit Pro (confirmed) and Gigasampler.
Unlike any host-based software, Soundscape doesn’t care about computer
power, it can tolerate a computer crash and continue to play through it.
Within the system, latency is extremely low. Even with lots of processing
it’s only up about a dozen samples at 44.1kHz, translating to 0.27milliseconds.
(Sound travels at about 1-foot/mS. Latency decreases with increased sample
rates and / or higher processor speeds.) When interfacing with host-based
programs, Mixpander’s driver contribution is about 1.5mS, going and coming.
While experienced with this product, not every new feature could be
tested so I tried something unusual — both for myself and as a reviewer
— posting a message and a request for feedback on the Soundscape message
board. That a workstation can be many things to many people, I though
was important reason to learn how the system is used and what features
were important to users. One user mentioned that Spindelay's ASIO
FX processor allows access to the whole range of VST plugins. Another
reminded me of the integrated Video Player, which I did actually test.
Soundscape-32 can also Import and Export Pro Tools projects and while
my own testing was not comprehensive in this area, I learned that the PT
session needs to be saved on the Mac side with PC compatability.
The emphasis is on the word "session" which includes the file that will
restore all of the audio tracks to their proper location with whatever
tweaks may have been done to them. The Import feature can not read individual
audio files unless they have been saved in a PC compatible format like
".wav" although with some experimentation I was able to do this will Cool
Edit Pro. My personal request would be for Soundscape to make the
Import feature more transparent, capable of opening both session and sound
files from other programs regardless of platform.
TESTING 1, 2, 3: The Fun Part
Software installation was fast and mostly quite simple. The program
itself fits on two floppy discs, as do most of the plug-ins — although
no floppies were actually used — everything was downloaded from the net.
The newly updated and released operations manual is the largest file (a
7.4MB Adobe "pdf" document) compiled with plenty of real world experience,
it’s extremely detailed and comprehensive.
While it was not necessary to run Soundscape on a Dual Celeron system,
the pair of 21-inch Dual-Monitors was the deciding factor, a necessity
for all workstations. Some programs consist of several windows that can
get annoying on a single monitor. Soundscape has two primary windows. The
Arrange Window is the place where audio tracks and automation are displayed.
The Mixer Window has two modes, wide and narrow, a multitrack session mixer
can easily fill a 16:9 monitor (in either mode), a future upgrade for sure.
Once the hardware was installed and happy (see Playing
the Slots) I formatted a new 60gig drive the slow way. There is
a quick format mode, but I just wanted to see how long it would take. Let’s
just say the process started before the sun went down and didn’t finish
before midnight.. Meanwhile, I already had plenty of sessions on the old
system ALL were within three-percent of exhausting the available resources.
Since the goal was to test Soundscape-32 with Mixpander, it seemed a practical
place to start, kinda like moving from a one-room apartment into an entire
office building floor.
My old system consisted of two 12-channel boxes linked together, the
habit of using only one drive per unit turned out to be quite serendipitous.
The two drives slid into Soundscape-32 and mounted transparently. All of
the project folders, sound files, arrangements (session files) and mixer
files appeared in the File Manager window. Two clicks and the tracks and
mixer appeared; only the second set of twelve tracks needed re-assigning
at the mixer. I was quickly off and running…
Out of necessity, I became quite adept at conserving resources, sculpting
wonderful 24-track to 5.1 and stereo mixes, albeit to outside recorders.
There formerly was not enough "extra" DSP to add a single TC Dynamizer
(a simple version of the Finalyzer) or a Reverb during a 24-track mix down.
(I often "captured" reverb and saved multi-band processing for the mastering
The recording started life as a 24-track adat session. With Soundscape-32
and Mixpander, I had a Dynamizer on the Main mix as well as a sub-mix of
the snare and room tracks. Two kick tracks and a bass were sub-grouped
and mildly peak limited using the Soundscape dynamics processor — which
I love for its visual translation of the work being done. The four-band
equalizer is not new, but is such an improvement over its two-band predecessor
both in terms of sonics and features.
The mix in progress was nowhere near tapping out the system, so Reverbs,
Dynamizers and EQs were randomly added everywhere. The system
never ran out of gas and I noticed resource optimization was balancing
the load on each DSP chip each time a new plug-in was added. I could
become very spoiled.
CRASH TEST, DUMMY
With the exception of the initial hardware installation — which included
tweaking the location of the various PCI cards along with a beta version
of the software — the system did not crash during three weeks of testing.
I used Version 3.6 exclusively. No sound files were ever lost and
there are 99 levels of undo, although the latter consumes memory and, used
to excess can slow the system down although I never experienced this. I
save often and "save as" when major changes are made. (See
the SIDEBAR: Playing the Slots.)
Automation and control surface options deserve mention because Mackie
has probably done more to push development in this area than any other
since acquiring Soundscape. Randomly mating controllers and workstations
will yield mixed results and often, minimum functionality. You expect the
faders, mutes and transport controls to work. But Plug-ins vary greatly
and present a challenge for developers. That’s why the claim "that Mackie
Control interfaces seamlessly with Soundscape-32" is so encouraging.
I believe a little DIY software package should be included with every
controller and workstation so that users with lots of time on their hands
can bring all of the pieces together. Like LINUX, people should be able
to contribute their work toward the common good. Meanwhile, back in reality
land, I tested Soundscpe-32 with CM Labs’ MotorMix (www.cmlabs.net).
I did focus on faders, balance, mute and transport controls because those
were the required tasks at that stage of the project. My only request is
to enable access to Console Manager from more than just the mystery icon
at the bottom right corner of Window’s System Tray.
Who doesn’t have a wish list for their workstation? My requests
are simple. (Yeah Right!) Soundscape has great potential as a mastering
tool. Quite often, I put each "item" on its own pair of tracks and stereo
fader. Placing ID flags from 101 upward translate into Track Start IDs
via the burning package. Only trouble is, the package does not recognize
a multitrack session. This adds several extra steps to the process and
extra reverse steps if changes need to be made.
I’d also like to be able to burn CDs in real time from the arrange window
to either a stand-alone CD burner or the computer’s burner. My other request
is for a Stereo mixer Module with a width control, from Mono to hard-panned.
Stereo modules require less desktop space, simplifying level, EQ, effects
and dynamics linking for track pairs.
I have always loved the power of workstations. Did I need to describe
every feature to sell you on what I believe is a great workstation? Soundscape-32
just happens to be perhapos THE MOST RELIABLE workstation that behaves
like a piece of dedicated hardware (because it is).
For all the potential time that can be spent on a session, especially
considering musicians fees and their priceless performances, stability
becomes one of the best features and the biggest selling points for any
product, specifically Soundscape-32. And, while I generally shy away from
users groups, I must say the Soundscape crew are a responsive and helpful
bunch. Go to the "Support" section of www.soundscape-digital.com
and ask them yourself. People who have this system swear by it, not
End of review
TABLE-1: A very short list of similarly featured workstations
and DSP expansion cards. There are many plug-ins for Soundscape including
offerings from Aphex, Arboretum, Cedar, Dolby, Drawmer, Spin Audio and
Synchro Arts, in addition to the TC Works and Wave Mechanics plug-ins mentioned
HARDWARE: The Old In-Out
Unlike many systems that provide only a digital interface (that may
also be proprietary), Soundscape-32 includes basic Analog I/O — Stereo
IN and 4-channel OUT — perfectly suited for basic Audio Production and
Sound-for-Picture applications. Digital I/O comes in two flavors: AES and
TDIF. The AES I/O replicates the Analog connections (plus Word Clock I/O)
but in addition, these portals can be independently routed. The three
TDIF connectors can directly interface with any or all of the following:
Tascam’s DTRS products (DA-X8 series of tape machines), Soundscape’s own
8-channel I/O boxes or your own preference of digital conversion. (That’s
24-channels plus the Analog and AES inputs.) MIDI I/O for Timecode is part
of the package, options include SMPTE Timecode I/O and RS-422 / 9-pin support.
A flip-down front panel reveals two hard drive caddies that accept standard
IDE drives. (There are two internal IDE hard drive bays as well.) Each
bay supports up to 137GB, providing over half a Terabyte (548GB) of storage
capacity. Soundscape-32 is capable of thirty-two tracks of 24-bit recording
at 44.1kHz / 48kHz, half as many tracks at 88.2kHz / 96kHz.
CONTROL and EXPANSION
For processor-intensive applications such as multi-track music production,
an Expansion port links Soundscape-32 to MIXPANDER — there are two PCI
card options with an additional five or nine DSP chips. Of course I chose
the 9-chip card! Two systems can be controlled from a single PCI interface
card — up to four hardware units max — totaling 128 simultaneous audio
tracks at standard resolution. The system can also be controlled via printer
port and a special "EPP" cable, handy for portable applications via laptop.
(The cable was not supplied and this feature was not tested.)
SIDEBAR: The Channel History
I first reviewed Soundscape in 1994 after which I purchased two systems
(8-tracks each) and then upgraded both to 12 channels plus real-time effects.
That the system is still running
on a Pentium and only last summer
did software development — which had been running concurrently with Soundscape
32 — reach the limit of the hardware is testimony to the foundation on
which the system was built. Compared to that old hardware, Soundscape-32
adds 8 tracks and higher resolution,
in half the rack space, with
the same familiar interface.
Soundscape has been in existence since 1993. Two years ago Mackie purchased
Sydec — Soundscape’s Belgian parent — translating into higher visibility
and more users on this side of the Atlantic. As a result of the acquisition,
original Soundscape and Paris owners have, for a limited time, a $2,500
trade-up credit that can be applied to a new Soundscape-32 system.
SIDEBAR: Playing The Slots
Computers are remarkably powerful and fast, yet there
is still a system performance limit as determined by the weakest link.
This might include the operating system, a hard drive's performance as
well as the PCI slots and what’s stuffed into them. Not all cards play
well with others, not all PCI slots equally gifted.
I am a firm believer in dedicating a computer to a minimal number of
tasks. That said, my own PC is a dual-processor Celeron, running Win2k,
with dual monitors and five PCI slots. Four slots are stuffed with cards
— Network, Soundscape Controller, Soundscape Mixpander and Canopus (for
video capture). I wanted to fill that last slot with a Creative Labs Audigy2
card — it has a soft DVD-A player as well as a Game Port for MIDI (to interface
with the MotorMix controller) — but as soon as that slot was filled all
sorts of bizarre things started happening. That card will go into another
computer. A generic sound card worked just fine in one of the ISA slots.