I’m at my happiest when I’m making music; either gigging or writing and recording songs. And for recording music, I’ve been using some pretty antiquated software and hardware that has served me well these past 10 years. But I knew these past few months that I would have to eventually upgrade as the Macbook that I was using was dying a slow death and rather than get it repaired, which would cost more than what the machine is now worth, I decided to move over to my newer Macbook that I keep up to date with the latest stuff. But moving also meant that I could no longer use my trusty MBox 2 which was made for a much older version of OSX was going to be unusable.
As fate would have it, my old Macbook finally died, and to make matters worse, I had come up with a new song for which I wanted to lay down tracks so I wouldn’t forget it.
I sort of solved the problem, at least musically, by recording my guitars into GarageBand on my new Macbook using an IK Multimedia StealthPlug. And though I knew my sound quality would suffer, I knew it would have to serve while I searched out different audio interface solutions.
After spending the next few days reading reviews and coming to terms with my allowable budget for a new unit, I narrowed it down to three units: Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6, Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 (2nd Gen), and the M-Audio M-Track 2X2M. I REALLY liked the Focusrite, but it was just at the very edge of my comfort zone with respect to price and I have learned to be disciplined in that department after having wasted thousands on gear in the past. I then set my sights on the Komplete Audio 6, and that was a very cool machine. It was close to the price of the Focusrite – about 30 bucks less expensive – but far enough below my threshold that I was okay with the price, and I was all set to get it. Then I saw a video review on the M-Track 2X2M and was very impressed with its features and its price of only $149.
My needs for recording are actually pretty simple: I’m not in the business of creating production-quality recordings; I just want good enough quality to achieve reasonably-sounding demos. I need two inputs so I can record acoustic and vocal simultaneously if I want, but I also need MIDI. As long as a unit had those things, and had reasonable sound quality, I’d be fine. And after seeing that review, going for the M-Track was a pretty easy decision. It had everything that I needed plus I’ve got some M-Audio gear, and have always been satisfied with their quality. On top of that, M-Audio gear is notoriously compatible with Macs; you never need a special driver. I didn’t know if the other units required a special driver, but I knew that the M-Track would work with my Mac right out of the box. So I got the unit.
Once I hooked it up, which involved nothing more than connecting the included USB cable, I was up and running. When I opened up GarageBand, it automatically detected that I had hooked up a new audio interface and asked me if I wanted to use it. Simple as that!
As far as the unit itself, I DIG IT! It is a lesson in simplicity. There are gain control knobs for the inputs, a USB/Direct mix level knob to adjust how much you hear from your DAW and how much from your instrument and finally, a headphones volume. The big knob in the center is to control your monitor output. I record with headphones when I’m in the house, so I haven’t used that feature yet. But I will when I record amps in my home studio.
As far as sound quality is concerned. I don’t think I have sensitive enough ears to be able to tell the difference between this and a more expensive unit, but I can say that the sound quality of this unit versus my old MBox2 is drastically better. With my MBox 2, I had to do a lot of tweaking in my DAW to get decent sounds, and I always felt my raw recordings of instruments were a little dry. But the M-Track’s clarity is lightyears beyond the MBox 2. Though I couldn’t do a side-by-side comparison, after years of having to deal with the MBox 2 sound quality, just being able to get great recordings and not have to tweak them except for adding effects and adding “normal” dynamics like compression was simply a godsend!
Finally, I couldn’t detect ANY latency with this unit whatsoever. That’s always a concern with audio interfaces. But I have a late-model MacBook so it’s fast all-around. It also helps that I was using a decent DAW. What, you don’t think GarageBand is up to snuff because it comes free with OSX? If it was an older version, I’d tend to agree with you on that. But GarageBand’s audio engine is built from the same core as Logic, so it’s essentially a dummy’s version of Logic. The sound quality from that is pretty good. Here’s the new song I recorded last night that proves it.
Is it production-quality? Probably not because Logic is infinitely more tweakable than GarageBand. But for my purposes, it creates stupendous sound!
A Quick Word on GarageBand
This program has come so far since I began using it, especially in the drum loops department. For years, I pieced together drum loops to create my drum tracks. It was so obvious that I was using loops because there are only so many fills and tweaks you could make on an audio loop, thus it was very limiting. But at least with this version of GarageBand, there’s Smart Drums, and I have to say that I’m completely blown away by this. On the surface, it’s just like dropping in a regular audio loop. But what you can do with that loop is incredible! Smart Drums allows you change the complexity and attack, change the toms and cymbals, and add some background percussion as well. Then on top of that, by twiddling a virtual knob, you can adjust the loop to have fills in the loop itself!
To be honest, I discovered this feature a bit accidentally. But after I started playing with it, I was hooked! I finally could get decent drum tracks and not have to pore over an endless succession of loops to get the right mix. It made the work of getting a decent-sounding drum track incredibly fast. For instance, for “Loved” above, once I finally worked on the drum track, which I always do last because it has been such a pain in the ass, I couldn’t believe that I finished in about 15 minutes! It normally would take me an hour or more.
As far as other stuff is concerned, the one thing GarageBand has for it is incredible simplicity. But all that is relative. Coming from the Logic world, even though Logic is much more complex, GarageBand follows the same UI paradigm, so where I’d expect things to be in Logic are in similar places in GarageBand. If I start using the included Cubase LE that came with the M-Track, it will be a different story.