Price: $1300-$2000 New
Pros: High quality, Simple to setup and use, Widely supported in almost every audio and video DAW
Cons: High price tag compared to similar options, Dependant on how the DAW uses the controls as to how useful it could be
Model: MCU Pro
- Proprietary Mackie communication protocol for seamless music production software integration
- 100mm touch-sensitive Alps motorized faders
- V-Pot control over software, plug-in effects and virtual instruments
- More than 50 dedicated push-buttons for fine control of software parameters
- Tape-style transport controls
- Full meter display with track names and parameters
- Quick cursor-style buttons for Up, Down, Left, Right and Zoom
- Onboard USB MIDI interface for direct connection to Mac or PC and up to 3 additional pieces of external MIDI gear
- Software-specific Lexan overlays included
- Expandable via optional Mackie Control Extender Pro and C4 Pro modules
- High quality, Duriable and built to last
- Includes Tracktion 3™ Music Production Software for Mac or PC
The first impression before even ordering one is these are expensive for a MIDI controller. Lets face it, without a PC attached these are as useless as a train without a track. But when you have a good DAW (or several DAWs) and have the need to access a lot of functions quickly especially around track control, the price is easily matched with the benefits. I already knew what a benefit it would be after owning a BCF2000 for over a year. It was a great device but I was constantly wishing I had access to the controls it didn't have.
These can cost over $2000 in Australia new which was more than I was willing to pay. Even the previous model second hand was running around $600. WIth some research I found a company that would ship one of these for $1000 including postage from America which is over HALF of what I could get here. 7 days later it arrived in it's huge box and I was already excited. The first thing you realise is it is quite big, but I had already got the measurements of the unit and measured the space on my desk. This is called being prepared.
Unboxing the mixer it is quite a solid piece of equipment and the feel of the sliders and controls are all quality. Having nice long touch-sensitive controls means accurate tweaking of volume and effects is simple. The display on the top and all the controls are easy to access and see. One thing is this is quite heavy (at least 7KG) and not the most compact. It does mean it's very easy to access controls without needing needle fingers, but I would not want to have to cart this to a gig, it's a studio piece of hardware really and would offer little benefit for a DJ.
As already said, this is a well built unit. One of the tell tale signs that the original Mackie MCU was such a well designed and accepted unit is the fact this new design is pretty much exactly the same.
The whole surface is metal with durable screen printed labels that detail what the default functions are. The faders have nice metal knobs and are smooth and firm to use (not wobbly and clunky sounding like the BCF2000).
The function buttons are typical hard plastic buttons with a definitive click to them which is nice. The transport buttons are very well made and designed to take the heavy hands of someone constantly tapping away at them. They have a very nice click and remind me of some older quality reel-to-reel machines.
The LCD "scribble strip" as it is called is a nice easy to read white text on blue background VFD display and all the LED indicators for the buttons are bright and easy to see.
A nice big jog wheel is in the lower right that differs from the previous unit as this is a big knob rather than an indented wheel and it is a solid metal knob allowing quick scrolling through projects with a simple flick.
Quality and build wise I would go out on a limb and say this scores almost a perfect score. The only single complaint really is the macro knobs above each channel are endless encoders and are good qualityt but have the "click" as you turn them in increments. While this does prevent accidentally moving them I find it more difficult to do fine control and prefer smooth action but this is a personal thing and these are still just as good quality.
Upgraded Features Over Original MCU
With a new release of a product the first thing you want to know is what is actually new. Well, the new metal face is a silver not grey, the buttons are now square, not round, the footprint is apparently slightly smaller and probably the biggest upgrade feature is the inclusion of a USB port for connection direct to PC. One additional feature is the switch from the P&G faders to "ALPS" faders which apparently are more reliable and smoother over a longer time period. Not sure on that but it's nice to hear.
It almost seems like the the engineers were asked to make a new version and after adding a USB port they were out of ideas on how to make this thing better so just changed the surface apperance a little. The price remained about the same (maybe a bit more) but it does mean you can find the older version for around $500.
One word of caution I would make is that replacing faders in this thing can get expensive and even with just 1 faulty it can ruin the whole appeal of using it. A second hand unit is a dicey choice because you have no idea what has gotten in there or how it has been used. I prefer to buy most mixers (MIDI and Audio) from new unless the price is just too good.
Connecting & Powering Up
Well, connection is simple. Just power and a USB cable. When switching on the deck it powers on and the faders all fly to the top and then back to the bottom as a power on test. All LEDs also glow during this test and the LCD displays the firmware version. The PC picks up the unit as a USB Audio Device and will list 3 ports available for the main desk and the additional MIDI I/O connections on the back. Apparently, the very first pro units manufactured used the original P&G faders (probably to use up stock) and the easy way to tell which faders are used is that when powered on, if the faders calibrate 1 at a time it's the older faders (like on the original MCU) and if they all move at the same time, it's the new ones. From powerup comes time to get it configured with the DAW.
Setup & Configuration (Ableton \ Cubase \ Vegas Pro 9)
When I initially wrote this review I had setup and configured the MCU Pro with Ableton Live 8 and Cubase 5 on a Windows XP machine. Now in 2013 I can confirm that under Windows 7 (64bit) the process is the same and as simple as connecting the MCU to the PC.
In XP the MCU will list 3 "USB Audio Devices" for the MCU Pro. In Windows 7 it will label the ports as USB Audio MCU Pro or similar which makes setup in the DAW much easier., The 3 ports corespond to the mixer itself (1) and the MIDI I/O and thru ports for additional gear and extenders. For just using the mixer itself we only need to worry about the first port.
In Ableton all that is needed to do is go to the MIDI setup in Prefferences and set the MCU port 1 as a MACKIE control surface. The MCU will then spring to life and the faders and LCD will update with info from the software.
Cubase is pretty much the same process and Vegas is a little trickier as you have to set the MIDI port to be used within Vegas then create a control surface and use the Mackie template then set the MIDI device In/Out to the correct ports. Still straight forward but n ot as simple as the DAWs.
Using The Thing
It has to be said that what the MCU and similar devices do is take what is in the DAW and place it directly in front of you. the great thing about a control surface over a mouse is that you have direct access to controls and can move and touch more than 1 at a time and in most cases without really looking. I mainly use this in Ableton and it operates great. I can easily access all channel features for every channel, switch to sends and adjust, easily find effects in channels and tweak every mapped control with details on the LCD strip. What takes getting use to is actually training yourself to use the desk over the mouse. It does take some getting use to but it is quicker when you get it down and after 2 years of use it is second nature now.
There are a lot of functions for editing that are mapped to buttons (such as undo / redo / back to arrangement / draw .etc) which take hands of the keyboard quite a bit which is great and it is possible to navigate through the clips and launch and stop then easily. There is loads of info on the mixer through the LCD and indicators that once you know where they are and what they do is simple to get an idea of what is going on very quickly. With all the information and function that is available on this control it does help to take your eyes off the screen completely. When mixing the individual tracks and doing some automation it is simple to do without touching the mouse or looking at the screen.
Switching the controls between plugin control, sends, channels etc is simple and easy and I was surprised at how easy it was to access the plugins and effects in channels and tweak their values. The LCD scribble strip makes this possible by displaying the parameter names and values so you can easily see what you are doing. Once you have done this once or twice you can naively just press a few buttons and start tweaking.
The MCU is provided with several lexan overlays that fit over the button section to provide labelling for different DAWS. The default screen printed one is a default set of commands that apply closely to Pro Tools. There are overlays for Cubase\Nuendo, Logic, Pro Tools, Vegas, Cool Edit.... But not Ableton.
It was slated that an Ableton overlay was being produced for the older MCU but this was never offered. The MCU Pro has square buttons, not round, so the new overlays have to fit this new design.
Without the overlay the controls for Ableton can be confusing and not wanting to stick labels all over the nice surface I decided to make my own overlay.I found a design already completed for the older MCU and used that as a design template and within photoshop I made new square button cutouts (left). I then printed this out on magnetic A4 paper and used a craft scalpel knife and ruler to carefully (and tediously) cut out all the button holes.
For the LED and screw holes I used a nail punch and hammer to punch out nice round holes. The finished product was just as professional as the actual lexan templates but was magnetic so sticks to the surface perfectly and is still looking new after 1 year of hands on use.
If you want this template to make your own just click the above image and save this to your PC. Print it out and it should just fit right on. You can also download my modified Photoshop file to make your own tweaks Here
Issues & Tweaks
This is mainly to do with Ableton Live. As it comes out the box the MCU is a very capable piece of gear. There is one thing though that can be a bit of a pain. The LCD display can show both audio level data and parameter feedback when controlling effects but there is a bug in the script for the MCU in ableton. When playing a project any track with audio playing will not show any control parameter. You need to stop playback to see the value (just shows ......... instead of the parameter value).
The issue can be fixed pretty easy by downloading a decompiled python script and simply making a small edit. You don't need to know anything about programming and you can see a thread where several of us had issues and how to address this HERE
UPDATE: As of Live 9.1 myself and a couple of MCU owners have managed to get Ableton to fix this and the new MCU integration script works as expected. There is no further hacking needed from mLive 9.1 onward!
There are 16 "User Assignable" buttons that simply send note on-off MIDI data. These can be mapped within Ableton to anything you like and I personally use a program called Bome MIDI Translator which can intercept any data from any of my controllers and send a different command in its place. I use this to take the MIDI commands and send keyboard combinations to Save, Open, Split Audio, Overwrite, Automation Arm etc. This gives me quick access to many editing features really quickly and helps to expand on the functionality even further. I have also used this to change how the scroll wheel works so it scrolls not just the cursor but the dispolay too. Useful changes to make the product fit my needs.
After a full 2 years of using the MCU I could not be happier with how it performs. It was money well spent and though many may see it as an expensive mixer it adds a lot of fun and functionality to a studio setup. This is more apparent when doing vocal and film mixing work where you sometimes need access to several levels all at once and being able to just grab and automate something while doing something else is great.
The small issues I have had and worked around are more than acceptable and the unit still looks and behaves as if it was new. It is the single most used piece of gear I own behind my audio interface.
Having used the cheaper BCF2000 I can certainly say that if you are serious about this level of control you really should look at a decent controller like the MCU. There are others out on the market but I know the MCU has a strong history and wide acceptance in software circles so my trust was placed in the right location.
The MCU was purchased after almost 10 years of DAW use and only when I felt I was at the level to make use of it. This is not a piece of gear I would recommend to a beginner as it would just get in the way of learning the software itself. It is suited more to the users that see the potential and know what they want. I can honestly say though that if this is something you feel would be of use you won't be dissapointed.