AF’s Weblog

November 23, 2010

RME FireFace UFX Review

Six years after the FireFace 800, RME hits the external audio interface market again with a new flagship product: the FireFace UFX, which doesn’t really replace its big brother — it outright and blatantly outclasses it. Focus on what could be the ultimate interface.

We have been waiting a long time for a new product that would replace the famous FireFace 800 — a best-seller and a standard among digital audio interfaces. We were surprised to discover a new FireFace that isn’t meant to replace the 800 but to extend the top range of RME products. Yes, the UFX beats the old good FireFace 800 in every respect, but it is also much more expensive. So, what’s new? Let’s have a closer look…

RME FireFace UFX

The interface won’t look that unfamiliar when you unpack it: the FireFace UFX is a 1U rack with exactly the same dimensions as the FireFace 800. It has the classic RME look: blue, gray and metal. It looks serious but we’ve seen sexier things! However, there is no doubt that this is a FireFace…

However, taking a closer look you will notice that the interface is very different from its big brother — both at the software and hardware levels. Let’s start with the hardware.

Nice Looks, Nice Display

RME FireFace UFX

The front panel is equipped with four Neutrik combo connectors for XLR and 1/4″ jacks. You can feed the inputs with a mic, line or instrument (guitar, bass, etc.) signal. Each of the four analog inputs has three LEDs to indicate when a signal is present, the 48-V phantom power for condenser mics is on and the 1/4″ jack is selected. We’ll explain further on how to use these features.

On the right hand, you’ll find the two fully independent, in terms of volume settings and source selection, headphone outputs (9/10 and 11/12). In other words, each headphone gets its own mix.

RME FireFace UFX

You’ll also find standard MIDI ins/outs in the form of 5-pin DIN connectors, plus a mysterious host type USB port. A quick look in the documentation revealed that this port has currently no function, but the manufacturer promises that it will allow the user to connect a USB key or a hard drive in the future (with a firmware upgrade?). The FireFace UFX will then become a standalone direct-to-disk recording system giving you the possibility to record and read audio files directly from the USB storage device. Nice! The manufacturer promises to free you completely from your computer, which will surely appeal to nomad sound engineers. To be followed very closely!

In the middle of the front panel, a 10-segment LED bar allows the user to monitor the sync (WordClock, AES or ADAT), the MIDI transfer and the status of the USB and FireWire connections. Yes, you read that right: the interface offers USB and FireWire operation — a milestone in RME history.

RME FireFace UFX

Let’s close this front panel overview with the most important thing: the brand new multifunction color display which has a pretty good definition. Besides the VU-meters for all (analog and digital) inputs, it also gives you access to all channel parameters, mic in level settings, headphones and master out level settings, the interface’s setup, and even internal FX settings (reverb, echo, etc.). The three rotary encoders and the four buttons next to the display allow you to easily browse the menus and access almost all parameters without having to look at your computer screen. This looks very promising when you think about the future USB direct-to-disc facility…

The display’s resolution makes it possible to show lots of information and it makes browsing easy. We just regret that there is only one control to set the level of the main out and the two headphones outputs. Separate controls for the phones outs would have been better, especially when a mistake could lead to very loud signals in the headphones and you wanted to lower the volume quickly…

No cons otherwise. Hats off RME!

Now, let’s take a look at the rear connections…

Conclusion

RME decided to bring out the full artillery with its new digital audio USB and FireWire interface. The UFX is so comprehensive that it’s difficult to find drawbacks: very comprehensive connections, up to 60 channels, color display with good definition, USB and FireWire support, almost perfect TotalMix FX software, insert effects (compressor, EQ…), send effects (reverb, echo) and an upcoming function that will allow you to record and play audio data directly on and from a USB key or hard drive! The audio quality is guaranteed with the high-class preamps and converters. On the other hand, we miss dedicated controls to adjust the headphones volume, a more comprehensive remote control, and a more friendly price. Anyway, the new reference has arrived and its name is FireFace UFX.

Advantages:

  • Quality of the preamps and converters
  • 60 channels!
  • Comprehensive connections
  • Convenient and accurate color display
  • USB and FireWire support
  • Very short latency
  • Good stability with our computer
  • Good-quality internal processing and effects
  • Very comprehensive TotalMix FX software
  • Future direct-to-disk capability

Drawbacks:

  • Headphones and main outs share the same volume control
  • Limited (and only optional) remote control
  • Price tag: over $2000

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  RME Fireface UFX Review

November 17, 2010

Choosing a Laptop for Music Making: Part 1

Finding the right laptop for music production can be rather troublesome. In this, the first of two articles, we’re going to look at the reasons why laptops have problems and what can be done about it.

With a desktop computer you can select a few good components, screw the thing together, tweak Windows and you’re off making music. With a laptop there’s no real knowing what’s inside the box and you certainly couldn’t build one yourself. So, you have to make a choice, take a stab, and hope for the best.

The thing is that it really should just work. You should be able to buy a laptop, plug in a compatible interface, install some software and make some music – why would that be difficult? In many cases it’s not and often people do exactly that, but sometimes you can run into trouble with audio dropouts, glitching, clicks and pops or simply a refusal to work.

In this, the first of two articles, I’m going to be looking at the reasons why laptops have problems and what can be done about it. In the second article I’m going to be looking at whether there are some smart choices out there for music production and live performance and I’m going to be revealing the testing I did in trying to find the next model to use as the Rain UK Livebook.

The Apple MacBook Pro

Before we do, let’s get past the ubiquitous Apple MacBook Pro.

It’s everywhere, the glow of that white piece of fruit, throbbing annoyingly. Every electronic musician or DJ seems to have one. Every piece of marketing from a music manufacturer with a laptop product seems to feature one. It would be silly to do an article on audio laptops without mentioning it. The MacBook Pro is beautifully designed, elegant and ergonomic. The aluminium shell has a great quality to it, the backlit keyboard fantastic for live performance, it’s built with quality components and runs OSX which works wonderfully with Apple compatible products.

 

The biggest down side is the price. A 15” MacBook Pro starts at $1700, but that’s only the beginning. The standard 5400rpm drive really needs to be upgraded to a 7200rpm one for audio work which adds a further $200. Standard tech support is only for 90 days unless you purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan for an additional $349, so without even thinking about it you’re over two grand and that’s for the entry level machine. Apple do somehow manage to generate a kind of mystical energy field around their products which makes them appear head and shoulders above anything else. In reality they are simply good quality laptops which share many of the same pros and cons of other good quality laptops. They have a tendency to run hot and the fans can be noisy; the battery life can be poor (although the latest generation are much improved, many Mac users complain of poor battery life after a years use so we don’t yet know how the new ones will pan out); they only have a couple of USB slots and with the standard version described above there’s no ExpressCard slot.

On the up side they do have powered firewire which is a fabulous thing that’s sorely missing on PC laptops. As with all Apple products you have the security of knowing that whatever works with it will work very well – however, that also means that your options are limited when compared to the PC. You can also run Windows on a MacBook Pro, but then it becomes a very very expensive PC as many of the advantages are to be found in the smooth flowing proprietary nature of OSX.

I don’t think you’d ever be disappointed with a MacBook Pro, and at that price you’d hope that you never would be. Are there alternatives? I believe so yes. I believe the laptop you get free when signing up to Tesco (popular supermarket chain in the UK) broadband is capable of making music, however, if you want to do things a bit more properly and can aim for a quality laptop then they can be completely capable of doing the job just as well.

Now let’s take a look at some of the problems with laptops…

Firewire Bandwidth

This is increasingly an area of concern. With most professional audio interfaces favouring the firewire connection then you need to have a good, working firewire connection on your laptop. But these things are never straightforward. It seems that not all firewire connections are the same. The specification appears to allow for enormous variation in the quality of the chipset and the drivers. In most cases, for most devices, such as cameras and external hard drives, then it all works fine.

For real-time, multichannel, high definition audio it can be a different story. It’s become accepted now that the Texas Instrument (TI) firewire chipset is the best choice for audio interfaces. Very few, if any, laptops come with a TI chipset firewire socket, the chipset is usually by another manufacturer and would appear as a generic “OHCI IEEE1394 Firewire port” in Windows. The only way around this is to get an ExpressCard firewire card (like this one from Startech) which fits into the side of the laptop (assuming it has a slot for it). Unfortunately our troubles are not quite over. The Firewire card connects to the system via the PCIe bus. The PCIe bus has a finite amount of resources and has to share them with other devices attached to the system. Modern laptops tend to pack in components so you get modems, Bluetooth, fingerprint security, the inbuilt firewire port and the graphics engine all vying for the same resources and the same bandwidth. Firewire is designed to negotiate for what it needs, however, multichannel audio needs more bandwidth than any other firewire device and it may be that there simply isn’t the room with all the other junk connected.

The best solution is, of course, to use a USB audio interface! There’s a sense of frustration in the industry with firewire at the moment. The amount of problems people have and the subsequent technical support load it causes for the manufacturers are having an impact. USB 3 has just arrived giving much greater bandwidth and speed than firewire and I imagine that it won’t be long before we see professional interfaces with USB3 sockets on them.

With all that in mind the chances are that your choice of laptop will work fine! DPC latency can usually be tackled by disabling stuff, and the firewire bandwidth problem is not that common. But they are both worth checking out as soon as you get your laptop so you can return it within the 7 day cooling off period.

In part 2 I’ll be looking at getting a laptop from Audio PC companies and also how Rain UK came up with their new Livebook.

To read the full detailed article see:  Choosing a Laptop for Music Making Part 1

 

November 15, 2010

27 Acoustic Guitars Tried and Tested

Whenever you choose a guitar you might first fall in love with appearances, but also, and above all, you cherish its sound character. Six-string fans sometimes don’t have the opportunity to listen to many instruments under good conditions. AudioFanzine is well aware of that and decided to record 27 guitars using first-class gear…

Welcome to the big acoustic demo trial-a-thon!  Thanks to your favorite website (that’s Audiofanzine of course ;-) , you can now listen to 27 acoustic guitars played in finger picking style and with a pick: from the most prestigious instruments to the most affordable, all body shapes, famous and renowned models as well as runner-ups.

Everything was recorded and filmed at the facilities of the “Rock & Chanson” music school. We used a pair of DPA 4011 (cardioid, large-diaphragm condenser) microphones, one pointing to the 12th fret and the second one to the bridge, plus a DPA 4006 (omnidirectional, large-diaphragm condenser) microphone as room mic. Both DPA 4011s were connected to an al.so MP-2 preamp while the DPA 4006 fed an al.so MP-1 preamp. The audio interface used was an RME FireFace 800. The signal wasn’t EQed or compressed.

Here is the first one of 27:

To see all 27 videos please visit:   27 Acoustic Guitars

November 10, 2010

Speakers, Amps & Impedance Feature Article

Filed under: Speakers — Tags: , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 10:39 am

Considering that speaker/amp connections, impedance, the different combinations, and incorrect wiring are a recurring source of confusion for audio heads and musicians, we decided to try to clear things up a little.

We will try to explain the most common cases and you’ll have the possibility to post your specific questions in the forums.

The two most common notions that we will use here are impedance (stated in Ohms, Ω, and which has a value from 2 to 8 or even 16 in most cases) and output power (stated in Watts, W, with a value ranging from 1 to 1,000 or even more, since some bass amps produce over 1,200 watts of power!). Following, we will briefly refer to the efficiency of a speaker, which is stated in decibels (dB) in most manufacturer spec sheets, and shouldn’t be confused with the output power stated in the same unity; don’t worry, we will explain you why.

An Ohm Story

So, we will focus on impedance and power, both for speakers and amps, and explain how to combine them for the best results and to avoid any problems. The output power delivered by an amp, regardless of whether it’s a tube or solid-state amp, is given for a certain impedance. If you fail to follow the indications given you could damage your amplifier more or less seriously, which will surely be detrimental to your wallet. Besides this tutorial, you should read the product manual of your amp first to know how to connect the system the best way.

From now on, we will use the term “amp” for “power amplifier.” In most cases a so-called “amplifier head” combines a preamplification stage (gain, EQ, compression, FX loop, one or more channels, etc.) and a power amplification stage (including the volume control and a presence parameter on some tube amps). Thus, when we speak of tube or solid-state amps, the term applies to the power stage. The fact that a preamp stage features tubes has no consequence on the behavior of a solid-state power amplification stage.

On the other hand, a combo amplifier system includes an amplifier head (preamp + power amp) plus a speaker — all within the same cabinet. But from an electronics point of view, each element has to be considered separately. The internal speaker of a combo has its own impedance and has the same electronic behavior as an external speaker cabinet. Everything that we state here applies to an amplifier head with one or two external speaker cabinets, or to a combo — an amplifier head with a speaker plus an eventual additional speaker cabinet.

We address guitar and bass players from the point of view of a musician. P.A. amplifiers work under the same theoretical basis, but they show a specific behavior. To answer your specific questions about P.A. systems, please refer to the P.A. forum.

Faithful to our “from musicians to musicians” philosophy, we will simplify everything, which will result in electronics specialists thinking our descriptions are inexact. Our goal is to explain to you how to connect your gear, and although it is always nice to understand how it works it is not necessary to know every single detail!

Let’s start with some easy theory: what is impedance?

An Ohm Story

The impedance of a speaker is the “electrical resistance” to the flow of current for a given frequency. The symbol for impedance is “Z.” The higher the impedance, the more the speaker opposes the current being delivered, and the less it develops output power for a given initial power. The resistance of an 8-ohm speaker is two times higher than that of a 4-ohm speaker. In other words, a 4-ohm speaker will let more current pass through the circuitry than an 8-ohm speaker. The lower the impedance, the more the load increases for the amp feeding it, up to the point where it could short circuit.

The impedance of an amp refers to the resistance it can handle (or it expects to experience) when a speaker is connected. In fact, the electronic circuit is conceived to work with a given impedance, which is often very low according to its construction (about tenfold less than the speaker’s), making output stages very vulnerable to excessively high loads. That’s why manufacturers state the impedance the amp can support in the user’s manual. If the resistance is too low or too high the amp could suffer damages.

Serial, parallel…

In electronics there are two ways to wire a circuit: in series and in parallel. A serial connection means that the components are wired successively in the circuit like in a string of pearls (or like stomp boxes connected one after another). A parallel connection means that the circuits is divided in several branches that feed different elements and are later on brought together again.

An Ohm Story

In the case of an amp with speaker cabinets, most connections between the amplifier head and the speaker cabinets are made in parallel. For example, the great majority of bass amplifier head manufacturers offer amps with two parallel outputs. The signal is common in the beginning, but it is divided among the two connectors, it goes through one or several speakers, and comes back (via the same cable) into the amp where it meets again with the ground/earth. The same applies to the great majority of guitar amps with two parallel outputs.

It might happen that inside the speaker cabinet some speakers have a serial wiring (i.e. they are directly connected to each other) while the others have a parallel wiring… But then again, if you already open or wire the speakers of a cabinet, you don’t need this tutorial!

Except in some rare cases (for example if you have to connect together a lot of speakers or you have weird speaker cabinets), guitar players will usually find only parallel connections, and will have to connect the amp output directly to the speaker.

 

Some speaker cabinets provide pass-through outputs that allow you to chain several speaker cabinets without coming back to the amp. Although such wiring is electrically correct, it’s better to avoid them in practice. To avoid any potential problems, don’t leave room for doubt (“which connector should I use to link my two speaker cabinets?”). Regarding such pass-through outputs on speaker cabinets, some manufacturers choose parallel wiring while the others use serial wiring. In short, it’s a headache. Use such connectors only if you know exactly what you’re doing!

Instrument cable, speaker cable…

An instrument cable is a small-diameter wire that includes a single isolated conductor surrounded by a shield. A speaker cable includes two isolated conductors and no shield. It can be an actual risk for amps (especially tube amps) if you don’t use the proper cable: to connect a speaker, you must always use a speaker cable. If you’re not sure, don’t do anything: the conductor of an instrument cable has a very small diameter, which can lead to overheating and destruction of the conductor. As a consequence, the full power cannot be transmitted anymore, which can cause damages to the amp’s output transformer.

Now let’s dig in deeper…

Conclusion

After this brief subjective digression, let’s come back to more objective things. When you choose an amp head and matching speaker cabinets or a combo plus an additional speaker, pay attention to the output power of the amp and its output impedance, as well as to the power handling and the impedance of the speakers to be sure it’s a safe system. Afterwards, it is also crucial to pay attention to connections: a wrong wiring can damage your speakers, your amp or both. So, read the specs of the product carefully and connect the right speaker to the right amp with the right cable… and make your sound rock!

To read the full detailed article see:  An Ohm Story

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