Digidesign has rolled out two big upgrades, giving me the chance to check out for this review the Mbox2 and Pro Tools LE 7. Now they're both completely MIDI-fied, delivering powerful functionality and a whole new set of tools for Pro Tools LE users. Digidesign has always stayed focused on perfecting the audio abilities of Pro Tools, making it an industry standard. That focus has turned to MIDI with Pro Tools 7 LE and, as a result, it ships with a whole raft of MIDI-friendly features. This new MIDI-equipped Mbox is ready and waiting to be your complete tracking and composing solution.
Mbox 2, ahoy!
When designing the Mbox2, Digidesign took the opportunity to give it a new look and layout. It's still compact with a solid feel thanks to an aluminum case that protects its circuitry-but now it's designed to be positioned either vertically or horizontally. A removable handle attachment makes the Mbox2 easy to grab and places the face at an easy-to-read angle when it's horizontal. The layout of the face is different, even if the features have stayed the same. The headphone jack and level knob are still on the front, as are the buttons for Mono, 48V, Pad, DI/Mic, and controls for the two analog channels. I like the new setup better, though. The arrangement feels more intuitive, and a new design for the knobs makes them easier to use. The controls feel smooth, steady, and solid. With the exception of the headphone out, all the I/O is kept on the back, including the MIDI ports. There's also S/PDIF I/O, dual TRS 1/4" monitor outs, and the I/O for the two analog channels. Each channel features an XLR in, 1/4" instrument jack, and TRS line input-a healthy array of options that should meet anyone's small home-studio or portable tracking needs.
Internally, the preamps on the analog XLR inputs have been upgraded. Digidesignas switched to a design based very closely on the preamp from the Digi002 and Digi 002R. This circuit is an upgrade over the previous unit thanks to two features. First, it's designed to operate in closer cooperation with the power supply, so response is cleaner and quicker across the frequency range. Second, the sound is more transparent, so what hits your hard drive is purer, giving you increased processing flexibility with your audio.
Pro Tools does MIDI
There are a number of upgrades in version 7 of Pro Tools, but its seriously upgraded MIDI capabilities are a definite highlight. Plus, all the added features are extremely accessible. An example is the new Instrument Tracks. Instrument Tracks give you access to MIDI and its automation in the same channel strip for insanely easy tracking, editing, and monitoring control over both. You get 32 Instrument Tracks in a session, enough to insert nearly any instrument you want.
As you'd probably expect, Instrument Tracks also blend features from standard audio and MIDI tracks. Like standard MIDI tracks, they support multiple outputs for triggering more than one MIDI device from the same track, as well as triggering for external MIDI units. You can route and monitor the audio output with up to 10 sends on each track, and use plug-ins as inserts to process your audio. Add up all the Instrument Tracks features and it quickly becomes obvious that separate MIDI tracks will be rare. That lets you fill your 32-track count with more audio while using less tracks per session and saving some of your computer's resources.
You'll also find other MIDI tools like realtime MIDI processing, sample-based MIDI, an on-screen MIDI keyboard, a Selecting and Splitting Notes window, a Quantize Groove window, input support for Quantize Groove, a Remove Duplicate Notes command, and new options for importing MIDI to a timeline. These, as well as a few other features, give Pro Tools and MIDI hand-in-hand functionality.
Besides MIDI, there are other new tricks in Pro Tools LE 7. The first is the elimination of separate audio and MIDI regions. Now there are regions, all contained in the same list, that can easily be looped for more flexibility in composing. Next, Digidesign reorganized the commands and created some new menus to offer an improved and easier-to-navigate menu system. Pro Tools LE 7 also supports REX and AAC files, and drag-and-drop audio and MIDI from the Finder, and it loads sessions faster. It also offers hyper-threading and dual processor support and-my personal favorite-has immensely helpful Tool Tips through all the windows.
The short time I spent with the Mbox2 and Pro Tools LE 7 was immensely satisfying. Installation of the hardware and software on my Power Mac was quick, easy, and painless. Firing up a fresh session was too. I definitely saw a quicker response than the last version I used: 6.8.1. LE 7 was responsive and agile the entire time, and I quickly became a big fan of Instrument Tracks, revised menu system, and Tool Tips. I also like the hardware control over latency the Mbox2 gives you with the Mix knob. The new Ignition Pack software bundle that comes with the Mbox2 is incredible, too. It even includes FXpansion's BFD drum library, my favorite because of its realistic, tweakable sounds and cool, well-designed graphic interface. If you're not a Pro Tools user yet, now is a great time to become one. Digidesign has made Pro Tools LE 7 and the Mbox2 even more of a sweet deal for music making.