AF’s Weblog

August 31, 2010

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP Review

The FireWire digital audio interface market is somewhat saturated with products like the M-Audio ProFire610 or the TC Electronic Impact Twin which we already tested here at AudioFanzine — now is the time to pick at Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 DSP…

Focusrite’s range of external digital audio interfaces is very comprehensive, including the small Saffire 6 USB with 2 ins/4 outs, the big Saffire 56 with 28 ins/outs, the Pro 40 with 20 ins/outs, and two Saffire Pro 24 (16 ins/8 outs) with or without integrated DSP. We will test the version with integrated DSP, MixControl 2 software and VRM technology (Virtual Reference Monitoring).

Before testing the software package, let’s open the box…

Physically Ordinary

The Saffire Pro 24 DSP didn’t really impress us when we took it out of the box… The interface, which is a bit less wide but deeper than the M-Audio ProFire 610, has a very classic look compared to the TC Electronic products for example. Its dimensions and weight are standard: 8.5″ x 1.8″ x 8.65″ and 3.5 lb. Everything looks pretty sturdy. It includes four sticky rubber feet for the bottom so that it doesn’t slip off. The controls are small but easily accessible since they are well spaced out. The interface is provided with a six-pin FireWire cable, a mains adapter (in case the computer’s FireWire interface cannot provide enough power), a “lite” version of Ableton Live 8, one GB of “Loopmasters” samples, the Novation Bass Station virtual synth, and the drivers CD, of course.

Now, let’s take a closer look to the interface…

Front/rear Panels

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP

The front panel of the interface features two inputs on Neutrik combos (XLR + 1/4″ TRS), with switchable 48V phantom power, to connect a microphone (dynamic or condenser mic), a musical instrument or a line signal. The selection between instrument and line source must be made via the MixControl software because the interface does not provide any input level selector. A small, red LED is the only way to know that instrument level is activated. The interface also provides two gain controls for the inputs; their range is from -10 dB to +36 dB for the mic signals and +13 dB to +60 dB for instrument signals.

In the center of the front panel, four level meters with five LEDs each show the signal level for each of the four inputs. It’s not ideal but it’s still better than the ProFire610 or the Impact Twin… Three green LEDs allow you to monitor the on/off status, the FireWire connection and the internal or external clock sync.

On the right side of the front panel, you’ll find three additional volume controls. The first one is conceived for studio monitors and also features mute and dim (-18 dB) buttons. The two other volume controls are dedicated to the pair of headphones outputs. Each headphones output can have its own mix (see below), which is a very valuable feature!

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP

The rear panel hosts the connectors, i.e. analog and digital ins and outs. On the left, you’ll find two coaxial S/PDIF connectors (in and out), the power switch (we would rather have it on the front panel…) and the connector for the mains adapter. You’ll also find 5-pin DIN MIDI in/out connectors, a 6-pin FireWire connector, an optical input to be used with ADAT or S/PDIF signals, and six analog line outputs on 1/4″ TRS connectors just like the two analog line inputs (3 and 4). You can connect balanced or unbalanced jacks to the interface and choose between two different levels (Hi and Lo Gain with +16 dBu and -10 dBV respectively) using the MixControl software.

And now that we’ve mentioned the MixControl…

Let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

For about $400, Focusrite offers a very comprehensive and reliable audio interface with 16 inputs and 8 outputs (analog, S/PDIF and even ADAT!). The software package is also very interesting. It features a virtual mixer called MixControl that can proudly stand up to its competitors. The routing functions are very flexible and you can create up to eight different mixes assignable to the line or headphones outs. The insert processors available for the first two inputs make a very good job, while the VST and AU compatible plugin suite is a valuable complement. The icing on the cake is the VRM technology that allows you to simulate different rooms and speaker pairs in your headphones. You’ll be finally able to mix in silence!

Among the drawbacks we can include its boring look, the lack of a physical switch to select either line or instrument sources and the position of the power switch (on the rear panel). But they are only small details…

The Saffire Pro 24 DSP is certainly one of the best digital audio FireWire interfaces in the $400 price segment.

Advantages:

  • Good-quality preamps
  • Construction quality
  • Price
  • Two independent headphones outputs
  • Eight different mixes thanks to the MixControl
  • Insert EQ and compressor on the first two inputs
  • Reverb for monitoring applications
  • Flexible routing
  • VST and AU plugin bundle with four processors
  • ADAT and S/PDIF digital ins/outs
  • Driver stability (with our computer)
  • Four five-segment meters on the front panel
  • Possibility to link other Focusrite interfaces
  • Virtual Reference Monitoring
  • Live Lite 8 included
  • FireWire powered

Disadvantages:

  • No line/instrument level switch on the front panel
  • Very boring look
  • Power switch on the rear panel

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP Review

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August 30, 2010

Ohm Studio Teaser – Going Beyond Old Sequencer Paradigms

Filed under: Sequencers, Software — Tags: , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 1:34 pm

When developing the Ohm Studio dared to break some old sequencer standards: for example, a track is not anymore a synonym of audio bus, it’s actually a timeline ready for all your ideas. Why is this the case? Because Ohm Studio’s GUI has been built from the ground up, keeping in mind both the creative workflow and the online collaborative ethos. Watch this video to understand how useful it could be…

August 24, 2010

Dave Smith Instruments Tetra Review

The Tetra hosts four Mopho voices in an extremely compact housing, meaning you get an analog polyphonic, programmable and a very affordable synth. A closer look…

In 2002, Dave Smith decided to embark on a new hardware synth adventure in order to create instruments that would be pleasant to touch, program, play and hear… In those early days, he launched the Evolver: a small hybrid module that included digital waveforms from the Prophet-VS, as well as analog oscillators and low-pass filters. When it came out, nobody payed attention to a small integrated circuit in the unit: the DSI-120, which was developed together with Curtis — well-known for the VCOs, VCAs, VCFs, envelopes, and other integrated circuits he developed from the late 70’s to the late 80’s, and which glorified analog synths, transforming them into polyphonic and giving them more stability. It was this same DSI-120 that was used for every voice of the Prophet-08 in 2007, making “modern” analog polyphonic synths affordable back then. In 2008, the Mopho extended the already long career of the integrated circuit that provides no less than two DCOs, a low-pass VCF and a stereo VCA. By the end of 2009, DSI presented the Tetra — a Mopho on steroids including four DSI-120 circuits!

First Inspection

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

The Tetra is a bluish-gray compact module made out of rugged metal and fitted in the same housing as the Mopho. The housing is covered with a layer of Lexan (a printed, soft PVC sheet): the manufacturer says this solution is more expensive than standard silkscreen but adds features like higher printing definition, waterproof LCD and longer durability. The rotary controls have black “deluxe” knobs with chrome binding that remind us of the Prophet-5, but smaller. The Tetra features eight incremental encoders (pitch, attack, decay/release, select + four freely assignable encoders) as well as three potentiometers (volume, cutoff, resonance). All encoders have plastic axes, while all potentiometers are top quality and firmly mounted on the device. The choice of encoders or potentiometers for filter parameter control could certainly be discussed; some will prefer to edit signals accurately and without value drops or threshold effects, while others will prefer to get an immediate response over a short editing range. Dave Smith explains that customer feedback shows that most users choose the second option. Anyway, the potentiometers have three different responses: Jump (the edited parameter jumps to the value matching the physical position of the potentiometer as soon as you turn it), relative (the parameter changes smoothly according to the physical range still available) and passthru (the parameter changes only when the physical position of the potentiometer passes through the stored value). In the middle of the front panel you’ll find an easily readable, blue backlit LCD with 2 x 16 digits. The rest of the front panel is scattered with small selectors: playing mode, navigation (programs/banks), memory save, encoders’ assignment mode, editing layer, and note triggering (“Push It!” with activated LEDs when the Tetra plays back tones).

Handling

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Ergonomics were no highlight of the Mopho… and given the number of parameters of the Tetra, they didn’t really improve that much considering that editing possibilities are now fourfold! cTo edit a sound, you can use either the row of five encoders/pots with hard assignment or the four freely assignable encoders. To assign a parameter, press the “Assign” button and turn one of the four encoders until you reach the desired parameter. Afterwards, push the “Assign” button again to exit assignment mode and go back to sound editing. Luckily, the assignment is saved with each program! When a program has two layers, push the Edit B / Combo button to access the second layer. In Combo mode, editing can be quite exasperating: it is impossible to access the four sound layers because each assignable encoder is dedicated to one of the voices (so you don’t have direct access to the three other parameters anymore) and the other pots/encoders control all layers simultaneously. Some of the first users have already asked for an OS update. Until then, you’ll have to use Sound Tower’s editor for Mac/PC (either the free “lite” version or the commercial “pro” version)…

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Now, let’s take a look at the rear connection panel: separate phones output, four unbalanced audio outputs (including one stereo pair), Midi in + out + polychain connector (to chain up to four Tetras, or two Tetras and a Prophet-08), USB2 port (Midi over USB but no audio), external power supply (standard power supply with auto voltage detection and exchangeable connector). And that’s it? Yes, that’s it! No on/off power switch and, most importantly, no audio input to process external signals! An excellent solution to protect the Mopho… The Tetra holds two small PCBs: an analog board (for the four voices) connected to the motherboard that includes the digital circuitry (processor) and connections. Several remarks: the layout of the surface mounted components (SMC) and the assembly quality of the product are impressive (see picture). From the connection design between the boards we can easily envision several possibilities in other configurations. To be continued…

Dave Smith Instruments - TetraDave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Now let’s get in deeper into the machine…

Live Addiction

As a summary, the Tetra is a powerful polyphonic, multitimbral analog synth. Its price is very reasonable considering that this compact unit hosts a real sound synthesis monster with only a few direct controls. This, however, is also its main limitation because the design doesn’t allow direct and easy editing. Thus, the Sound Tower editor is indispensable. If you consider the Tetra’s outstanding sound quality and the lack of serious competitors, it ought to take you no time to understand that it is the perfect live instrument to complement digital synths and other cold-sounding workstations. So, when is the keyboard version coming out?

Advantages:

  • Value for money
  • Sound quality
  • Compact and rugged housing
  • Polyphony and multitimbrality
  • Modulation possibilities
  • Arpeggiators and sequencers
  • Separate outputs
  • USB2 interface

Drawbacks:

  • Editing ease
  • Limited Combo mode
  • No audio input
  • No on/off power switch
  • External power supply

To read the full detailed article with sound samples please see:  Tetra Review

August 17, 2010

Schecter Ultra Bass Review

Filed under: Bass — Tags: , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:59 pm

I was very curious when I started this review. In spite of all the years in the guitar world, I have to admit that I had never had the opportunity to test an instrument by this manufacturer. This company’s story reads like an American fairy tale…

In 1976, David Schecter gave his name to his newly founded company: Schecter Guitar Research. In those early days, the company was a workshop that provided everything to build a guitar (body, neck, pickups, bridges, etc.); it was dedicated exclusively to spare parts.

At the time, the manufacturer supplied two of the most important electric instrument manufacturers (can you guess who theses giants were?) and only ventured in the instrument manufacturing industry in 1979. The workshop became a “custom shop” that produced high-class instruments inspired mainly by Fender concepts. Within four years, the manufacturer became very successful and was bought by Texas investors. The custom shop then moved and started production in series of instruments still largely inspired by Leo (you could say they were Fender copies).

The company came back to its roots in 1987, when it was bought by Hisatake Shibuya, owner of ESP. He moved all manufacturing back to California and transformed it into a custom shop distributing prestigious guitars.

In 1996 and thanks to its new manager, Michael Ciravolo, who wanted to stress the corporate identity of the company, the brand finally drops its obsession with Fender designs.

He also expanded production to Asia (in Incheon, a province of South Korea) where he subcontracted the production of an instrument series conceived for the masses.

In Incheon is also the main factory of a well-known manufacturer called CORT, whose makings can be found in the catalogs of numerous brands out there…

Now, let me introduce the instrument we want to test today: the SCHECTER ULTRA is a bass guitar with a hybrid and original look. It is made in Korea and equipped with standard passive electronics.

Don’t Forget Your Roots

Schecter Ultra Bass

The design of this bass guitar is a mix of a Telecaster and a Gibson Thunderbird. The Thunderbird heritage is present in the headstock and the bottom part of the body, while the top of the body (the part close to the neck) reminds the famous Fender guitar.

The shape of the body lets you rest your right arm on it, which gives the instrument a very personal touch somewhere between rock, vintage and psychedelic.

The neck-through body includes three maple plies and two walnut plies. The neck is 34″ long (22 frets), 38 mm width at the nut and 62 mm width at the last fret. The fingerboard is made out of a dark purplish rosewood (probably Indian rosewood).

Handling and playing comfort remind a Jazz Bass, except for the back of the neck that has a glossy varnish.

Our test instrument has a two-color sunburst finish from headstock to body. The headstock is inspired by the Thunderbird with a center part raised 2 mm above the rest. It looks nice and well manufactured!

Schecter Ultra BassThe three parts of the body are made out of mahogany and the two-piece bridge includes a tune-o-matic and a tailpiece. The nut is made by Black Tusk (synthetic ivory) and the sealed, lubricated tuners are Grover (and look a bit too cheap).

The electronics includes a pair of passive EMG HZ humbuckers, two volume and one tone control. Nothing prestigious, the American brand’s HZ Pickup Series is made in Korea.

When it comes to finish, the instrument I hold in my hands is irreproachable.

The two-color paint and the varnish look very clean. There are no knots to be seen in the wood, the fret work is very clean and the body shape is perfect.

The overall weight is ok which is surprising considering the size of the body and that it is neck-through.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Price

Let’s end this review taking a look at the price tag: about $1,400. It’s a bit painful, for a bass guitar made in South Korea!

But there are also top Korean instruments by similar brands: Fender, Lakland, Tom Laulhardt, TUNE… The question is: is the Schecter Ultra worth its price?

Good finish, nice sound, neck-through body, original look (although inspired by two other brands), and a perfectly adjusted instrument. So far, so good! But for about $1,400, we expected more from a standard instrument made in a country where manpower is inexpensive: better pickups than these EMG licensed models, better machine heads or at least a flight case or a gig bag…

Instead of the wonderful cardboard box this not-so-cheap Schecter comes in! Yes, that’s not a joke and it makes the price seems even higher. This is my personal opinion and not a negative judgment. I am confident this bass will be of interest to lots of musicians all over the world, regardless of its price.

Advantages:

  • Neck
  • Finish
  • Look
  • Effective overall sound

Disadvantages:

  • Cheap pickups
  • Tuners
  • Sold in a cardboard box

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Schecter Ultra Bass Review

August 5, 2010

Akai Miniak Review

After having repositioned Alesis on the market, Numark seems to have entrusted Akai with the fate of the synth/drum machine product range. The Miniak is the first Akai synth “in the modern era”.

Late after the extinction of analog dinosaurs, musicians started to rediscover and revere these fat monsters. Manufacturers, which were developing preset-based digital workstations, decided to digitally model the behavior of analog circuitries. The last step was to conceive ergonomic user interfaces that included direct controls for a more authentic playing feel (to make the illusion more real, say analog fundamentalists). Very few manufacturers started to develop real programmable, polyphonic analog synths… One of the exceptions was Alesis who, against all odds, launched ten years ago the most powerful analog synth in history: Andromeda. This was a masterly achievement but also their deathblow: Numark bought the manufacturer in 2001, drastically reduced the Andromeda market price and launched a very successful range of analog modeling synths.

In 2003, the Ion provided eight voices of pure happiness with three powerful oscillators, two full-featured filters and a front panel fully packed with control elements. More affordable versions came out pretty fast: born in 2004, the Micron used the same sound synthesis as the Ion and even added effects to the rig, but it was hosted in a compact housing with reduced space for controls — not very ergonomic. Numark bought Akai Professional the same year and immediately redeployed the MPC product range. Now, they have introduced the Miniak: a Micron synth repacked under the Akai brand. So, the key question is: do they need cash and have relied on a tried and tested technology already amortized, or is it a strategic move to try to reposition the two brands? Anyway, people under 20 will think the Miniak is the first Akai analog synth. With a bit of luck, the rest of us might remember that their first analog synth was the AX80. In 1985!

New Look

Akai Miniak

Repacking means getting a new outfit. With its strong black PVC housing mounted on a rugged metal bottom side, the Miniak is no exception to the rule. The unit is manufactured in Taiwan and has a remarkable construction quality. The impression of sturdiness is reinforced by the weight of the unit: 11 lb. are quite a lot for such a compact device. It’s actually a big difference in comparison to the Micron’s aluminum lightness! The finish is perfect, be it the silkscreen or the encoders that use a metal axis screwed on the housing for a longer life. The three XYZ encoders are absolute encoders: they can be assigned to sound synthesis parameters and they have 12-bit resolution, which translates into 4,096 possible values. The fourth encoder is labeled Data. This incremental control with push function allows you to switch between menus and parameter edition.

Akai Miniak

Besides the play mode, sequence triggering and volume controls, you’ll find three quality wheels (pitch plus two freely assignable modulation wheels) that light up orange. The 37 half-weighted keys are velocity and aftertouch but not pressure sensitive. The response of these standard sized keys is quite good and make playing easier. There is an XLR input for dynamic microphones, like the gooseneck mic included. All other connections — firmly screwed on the housing — are on the rear panel: a socket for the external power supply, power on/off switch, stereo inputs and outputs on balanced TRS connectors, phones out, two footswitch inputs, MIDI in/out/thru, and a connector for a notebook-type anti-theft device. Just like on the Micron, we miss a USB port on this synth…

Arduous Editing

Akai Miniak

Getting started is pretty straightforward: just look at the silkscreen and push, simultaneously, the “program” button and a key to select a bank; then simply browse the programs with the incremental knob. Now, you can play the keyboard, trigger rhythm patterns and arpeggios, depending on the note you play; adjust the tempo with the “Tap tempo” button; and edit three sound parameters using the assignable XYZ encoders or the three wheels. Dedicated buttons allow you to transpose the keyboard up to three octaves up and down, considering that the Miniak can handle all 128 MIDI notes. It’s ideal for live performances!

Akai Miniak

On the other hand, editing possibilities are very frustrating because, excluding the three assignable encoders, all other settings must be made via menu pages. Once again, push the “Programs” button and a key to access the section you wish to edit (oscillators, pre-mix, filters, outputs, envelopes, etc.). Afterwards, you’ll have to browse the menu pages using the “Data” selector: push it to edit a parameter and push it again to toggle back to navigation mode… Considering the large number of editable parameters, you’ll beg for a dedicated editor. But it’s no use: Akai doesn’t provide anything! However, you’ll find a VST/standalone editor for Windows from HyperSynth: http://www.hypersynth.com/miniak-editor.html (which we haven’t tried out). By the way, we would also like to criticize something else: the backlit LCD display has only 2×16 digits and is much too small to manage the countless parameters. It is hardly readable in spite of its adjustable contrast (blue characters on blue background) and it is too recessed into the panel (the readability decreases when you don’t stand directly above the display).

Now let’s dig into the sound!….

Born to Run

Finally, the Miniak is a very compact, rugged and clever instrument that produces vintage synth emulations as well as modern techno sounds. Compared with the Micron, the biggest change is only aesthetic. However, the Miniak does bring some improvements in the control layout, which enhances operation. The Miniak is a stage monster conceived to be transported all over the world to play live on stage. On the other hand, it is not so powerful for direct editing. That’s the other side of the coin: with such a small size and price, it offers a very limited number of direct controls. This is when we start dreaming about a Maxiak fully packed with knobs and buttons!

Advantages:

  • Sound quality and versatility
  • Powerful sound synthesis
  • Control resolution
  • Construction quality
  • Compact and easily transportable
  • Integrated effects
  • Included gooseneck mic
  • Pattern generator
  • Real dynamic keyboard

Drawbacks:

  • Complex direct editing
  • No USB port
  • No dedicated editor
  • Vocoder’s intelligibility

To read the full (this is just the beginning) detailed article with sound samples see:  Akai Miniak Review

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