AF’s Weblog

September 17, 2012

Motu Track16 Review

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  MOTU Track16 Review

Track16 is the latest addition to Motu’s range of audio interfaces. The numerous features announced by the manufacturer are very appealing. Let’s see how they translate in the real world!

How Does it Sound?

MOTU Track16MOTU Track16

 

Test system

MacBook Pro QuadCore i7 2.7 GHz
OS 10.6.8
Motu Track 16
Motu CueMix FX 1.6 52865
Logic Pro 9.1.7

 

MOTU Track16

MOTU Track16

Let’s make a first attempt with a Cort Jumbo acoustic guitar (thanks to Nico for his guitars and his presence in front of the mic!) captured by a TLM-103, a mic with an excellent signal-to-noise ratio. Note that you can’t achieve max gain via the control on the interface itself and once you close the window (for example to get free space on your screen), there is nothing on the interface to recall CueMix…

Now let’s have a listen…

Conclusion

MOTU Track16Let’s start with the negatives, for example the bulky and rigid D-Sub cable that takes a lot of space on a table or mixer. That’s certainly a pity for a product sold as a desktop interface. Moreover, sometimes there are audio clicks and I was not able to find the reason why (except when you power on/off). The main drawback is the buzz followed by clicks when you increase the trim setting of the Hi-Z inputs. The quality of the mic preamps equals the quality of similar interfaces at the same price-point. You’ll be able to work without constraints, even if the preamps don’t quite reach the performance of the ones on comparable RME or TC interfaces. However, an ideal solution would be to add an external preamp via the ADAT interface.

Putting that aside, this audio interface offers many advantages. First of all, the number of ins/outs and the way they can be managed from the interface itself. The construction seems pretty sturdy, which is reassuring, especially considering that in this price range you can find several plastic boxes with knobs that fall off… The software is quite impressive, even if it lacks some features, like a real routing matrix for example. Nonetheless, the eight buses, high-quality effects, measurement tools, SMPTE LTC sync, the possibility to save setup presets, etc. make the combination of CueMix FX and Track16 a very useful tool.

Advantages: 
  • Perfect construction
  • Impeccable “toggle display” function
  • Quality converters
  • Immediate mute of the current channel by pushing the knob
  • Excellent display features
  • 32-bit, floating-point internal processing
  • Powerful and effective CueMix FX software
  • Zero-latency monitoring
  • Working with a 32-sample buffer size is not a problem
  • Perfect design
  • Quality of the effects
  • Eight independent mixing buses
  • SMPTE (LTC) sync via single 1/4″ jack
  • Audiodesk 3 included
  • 24 bits/192 kHz
  • ADAT S/Mux

Drawbacks:

  • Audio clicks from time to time and when powering on/off
  • Strange behavior (buzz and clicks) of the Hi-Z Trim controls without a signal present
  • Floor-noise of the preamps is a bit high
  • No real routing matrix
  • ADAT switching system not always reliable
  • D-Sub cable: too rigid and without color marks

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  MOTU Track16 Review

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May 7, 2012

Universal Audio Apollo Review

To read the full detailed article see:  Universal Audio Apollo Review

Universal Audio is a brand like no other in the pro audio world. The company has been competing in the hardware market for over 50 years with preamps, compressors and channel strips. But it has also been present in the plug-in market for about a decade with the famous UAD DSP platform. We have always wondered what would happen if Universal Audio were to combine their analog and digital technologies. Introduced at the NAMM 2012, the Apollo is the first answer. Focus on the Universal Audio interface!

… one giant leap for DSP technology!

We have often asked ourselves why a manufacturer offering high-quality preamps, hardware compressors and plug-ins never conceived a product including all this know-how. They have finally done it with the Apollo, a digital audio interface with four preamps and the famous UAD-2 DSP. We dreamed about an audio interface with a Twin-Finity preamp or even a 1176LN (hardware), but Universal Audio decided to focus on digital audio and to allow the user to work with UAD plug-ins like with classic analog gear. To achieve that, the engineer team developed a system that allows to decrease the latency to less than 2 ms — a bit like Pro Tools HD does —, giving the musician and sound engineer the possibility to process the signal directly during recording sessions. Since the latency time is imperceptible, the musician can play freely and record without any hassles.

Look after your musician

Universal Audio Apollo

Some of you might have doubts about processing the signal during a recording session when using a fully digital system. A couple of decades ago, when recording studios were analog, it was usual to process the signal during recording, for example by inserting a compressor or an EQ in the signal path. Back then plug-ins didn’t exist and the number of compressors and EQs available in the studio was limited. So it was usual to insert processors during takes, even if it meant taking risks and artistic decisions on the spot: there was no other choice! This way of working is still used in modern production environments where some engineers like to take risks and insert hardware compressors and/or EQs during the recording. However, we could ask ourselves whether this workflow makes any sense within a fully digital system. In fact, plug-ins always process the signal after the AD converter. As a consequence, a compressor plug-in won’t be able to reduce the risk of clipping at the converter stage. The same applies to EQs: why should we use destructive processing during the recording, while digital audio technology gives us the possibility to record the settings and edit them later? Modern sequencers give us this chance — it would be a pity not take advantage of it!

Universal Audio Apollo

But inserting plug-ins during the takes can have other advantages. To record a singer you can use a dedicated bus for his monitor headphone mix with the sequencer return and the voice of the singer captured by the microphone in front of him. We all know that musicians need to feel comfortable to perform at their best. When a musician plays well, 50% of your work is already done! That’s the reason why you have to look after the musician: offer him a cup of tee at the right temperature, a bowl of M&Ms without the brown ones, or a flattering sound in his headphones. The Universal Audio interface allows you to insert up to four plug-ins into the channel of the musician/singer with less than 2 ms latency time (1.1ms @ 96kHz, from the analog input to the analog output) and to assign the recorded signal to the monitor headphones adding a bit of compression, a flattering EQ setting and a whiff of reverb so that the musician feels like he’s playing in his favorite cathedral. This can seem superfluous, but it isn’t. The performance of the musician has a direct impact on the final quality of the recording.

But let’s have a look at our all-gray Apollo.

Conclusion

The Apollo was eagerly awaited by many Universal Audio fans and home studio owners — and we must admit that it’s a great achievement! The manufacturer offers you the possibility to insert its famous plug-ins with a latency of less than 2ms, which is more than enough for recording applications. The look and the manufacturing quality are perfect. The mixer is very practical and easy to use. When it comes to audio, the interface offers good quality converters and pretty linear preamps considering the price. We only regret that the mixer is still limited (in the number of Aux buses, for example), that the Thunderbolt option is too expensive and that the interface offers no MIDI or USB connections. But as soon as the plug-ins are available in 64 bits, the interface supports Windows and the mixer offers a couple more features, the Apollo package will be nearly perfect. The user will still have to decide if he “marries” the UAD platform, which forces him to stay faithful to the brand’s plug-ins, otherwise the advantages of the Apollo are limited. But considering the overall quality of the UAD plug-ins, this forced marriage might quickly become a perfect match!

Advantages:
  • Good quality converters
  • Transparent-sounding preamps
  • Less than 2ms latency with inserted plug-ins!
  • One UAD-2 under the hood
  • Nice design
  • High quality construction
  • Simple and easy-to-use mixer
Drawbacks:
  • No MIDI connectors
  • Only FireWire support
  • Thunderbolt option too expensive
  • Currently, only two AUXs in the mixer
  • No Windows support yet
  • No 64 bit plug-ins yet

To read the full detailed article see:  Universal Audio Apollo Review

January 11, 2012

Roland Quad Capture Review

Filed under: audio interface — Tags: , , — audiofanzine @ 3:33 pm

Do you want a small sound card with a high quality sound, clever features, a good construction, and an affordable price? If you do, follow me to give Roland’s Quad Capture a try. If you need even more, follow me too because Roland has something in store for you.

When it comes to audio interfaces, if you ask for renown manufacturers you’ll hear many brand names but probably not Roland.

The brand’s visibility is rather low in this market segment where it used to go under the name Edirol until a couple of years ago. Edirol audio interfaces were no “reference products” but offered a rather good value for money for beginners. Its audio quality didn’t quite meet professional standards. However, Roland has the knowhow for professional audio products: just consider the V-System digital live mixers sold under the brand name RSS (Roland System Solution).

So why not put RSS’ technology into a Roland sound card? That’s what Roland did with the Quad Capture… And it worked!

Description

Roland Quad Capture

The Quad Capture is a 4×4-channel audio interface with 2 analog plus 2 digital inputs and outputs.

Both analog inputs are on XLR/TRS combo connectors, while the line outputs are on balanced 1/4″ jacks. All digital ins and outs are on coaxial connectors. You also get a 1/4″ headphones out.

If we do the math, we have 4 input channels but how many output channels? 2 analog line-level output channels + 2 analog headphones channels + 2 digital output channels = 6 output channels, right?

Unfortunately not! Like the Duo and Tri interfaces, the headphones out doesn’t use dedicated channels, but rather the main output signal is just split inside the hardware to feed both outs. The monitoring quality doesn’t seem to be affected by this. However, in use it can become a bit annoying.

Add a pair of MIDI ins/outs and you get a full overview of the available connections. Surprisingly it lacks ADAT connectors, but considering the price…

Roland Quad Capture

All this is packed in a 19″ half rack typical for 4×4 sound cards. The housing is made out of black metal except for the plastic front plate — and it looks nice. The rounded edges and the chrome binding surrounding the front panel give the unit a sleek but classy look. The big chrome BTR screws give it a professional touch. Considering its light weight (1.26 lbs, it seems that the metal sheet used for the housing is quite thin. But it is made out of aluminum instead of iron, which increases rigidity while decreasing weight. Thus, you can easily fit this sound card together with your laptop inside a (large) carry bag.

Moreover, the quality of the controls and buttons is pretty good. The same applies to the LED indicators on the front plate.

The rear switches are the only negative aspect. These small plastic switches feel quite cheap — the low price doesn’t come without compromises.

However, the quality of the switches is not the main problem, it is the functions they are assigned to.

The Quad looks nice and provides a quality feel that is very different from the abundant plastic products in this price range that try very hard to look pro. Pro musicians or sound engineers won’t be ashamed to take it out of their bags for a session.

Now let’s take a closer look….

Conclusion

If this audio interface had different audio channels for the main and headphones output, I would award it with the “Top Value” Award. In spite of the few cons detected, this audio interface is well built, offers MIDI and digital connections, low-latency operation and premium audio quality for only $270 —easily worth a “Value for Money” Award.

If your are seduced by the premium audio quality but need more connections, give the Octa Capture a chance — my first choice if I had to change my RME Multiface.

Advantages: 
  • Build and look
  • Sound quality
  • Amazing Auto-Sens function
  • Ground lift
  • No additional power supply
  • Price
Drawbacks:
  • Speakers and headphones share he same analog channels
  • Average-quality switches on the rear panel
  • No phantom power indicator
  • No ADAT connectors

To read the full detailed review see:  Roland Quad Capture Review

 

December 1, 2011

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600 Review

With connections on the side and on top, the brand new Fast Track C600 breaks with the typical M-Audio rack and half-rack design. Have manufacturers decided to fight their battle based not only on features but also on design ? Yes, indeed.

Just like the textile and record industries, the small audio world has been hit by popular trends as we can see every year at the main international trade shows, like NAMM and Musikmesse. Not so long ago, Line 6’s modeling amps set a trend followed by all manufacturers, from Ibanez to Vox, Zoom, Fender, and Marshall. A few months later, and by unanimous decision, a new wave of pocket amps and all-tube 5-watt amps came out. Treading in Samplitude’s and Altiverb’s footsteps, all manufacturers wanted to have a convolution reverb in their product range — nowadays replaced by the “algorithm reverb is definitely better” trend. Another follow-the-leader example is the introduction of dozens of pocket recorders following the success of the Zoom H2.

And now, I’m pleased to announce the arrival of a new trend, this time in the world of external audio interfaces: the “desktop” interface. Where does it come from? Hard to tell, even if Mackie’s Onyx Satellite came out in 2006 and TC Electronic’s nice Konnekt 6 (2008) are precursors, recently followed by Steinberg’s CI2 & CI2+, Lexicon’s I-Onix U42S and Roland’s Capture series, and now by the Steinberg UR28M, Propellerhead’s Balance and M-Audio’s new Fast Track C400 and C600…

The principle of a desktop interface is simple: instead of having the controls on the front panel like an effect rack, all controls are placed on the top panel while connections are located on the front or rear sides. This way, the unit can’t be rack mounted but it gains in ease of use. The controls and lighting indicators are bigger, there is more space between them, and sometimes even more features. Which is the case with the Fast Track C600 we want to review today. It looks wonderful, like a fortuitous meeting…

… in a home studio between a sound card and Kubrick’s monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

The first thing you’ll notice after taking it out of the box is that M-Audio took a very unexpected turn regarding design. The gray PVC akin to previous interface series is gone. M-Audio decided to go with Darth Vader-like black plastic, sometimes matte sometimes glossy, together with green, blue, red and orange LEDs. The overall look is really great, even if we would rather have the manufacturer use higher-quality PVC or even metal to give it a more classy feel when you turn knobs and push buttons. However, I must admit that the overall design is very attractive. The C600 is rather light, but heavy enough to stay safe on your desktop (and it also features anti-slip pads). Its great looks and ergonomically designed sloping front panel look very promising.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

The first thing that catches your eye is the big volume control on the right with a pair of smaller controls to adjust the level of the two headphone outs (independent, channels 1/2 and 3/4). Above these rotary controls, you’ll find three buttons to turn on/off the audio outs of the sound card pairwise: “A” for outs 1/2, “B” for outs 3/4 and “C” for outs 5/6. This way, you can use this section as a monitoring controller, connecting a pair of speakers to each output pair and switching between them very easily. This section offers another valuable feature: a MIDI transport panel allowing you to control your sequencer. Play, Rec, Stop, FFW and RWD: all main transport controls are there, and a “Multi” button allows you to program eight sequential steps (define eight operations you want to be performed one after the other when you press the button once). In other words, it’s not a Mackie Control but it’s enough to save you time and increase ease of use. Such controls should be available on all audio interfaces.

On the left you’ll find the controls dedicated to the four audio inputs of the sound card. And once again, the space available on the control panel provides valuable extras, like the 8-segment LED meter for each input. This makes gain adjustment much easier… All other features are pretty standard. You get a Pad button for each input stage and two buttons to turn on/off the Phantom power of inputs 1/2 or 3/4. Inputs 1 and 2 are equipped with an additional button to select the front or rear connectors.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

Are they different? Yes, of course. On the front panel, besides two headphone outs on 1/4″ jacks, you have a pair of jack inputs, one of which (input 2) is a hi-Z instrument input. On the rear panel you have four XLR-1/4″ jack combos for inputs 1-4. So, for inputs 1 and 2 you can select either the rear or the front connectors and that’s why you have Front/Rear buttons on the top panel.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

The rest of the connections on the rear are also standard: six line outs on 1/4″ jacks, S/PDIF in/out on RCA, MIDI in/out on 5-pin DIN, a USB port, and one connector for the power outlet. This detail has some consequences: when you’re using only the USB cable to power the C600, only inputs 1 and 2 are available. If you want to use all four inputs, you have to connect the interface to the power outlet. The same applies to the headphone outs since only one is available when the interface is used without external power supply.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The new Fast Track C600 is a great success in every aspect. The desktop design is very practical, the controls are laid out in a very intuitive manner, instrument inputs and headphone outputs are easily accessible and independent, and the device looks nice. The full-plastic housing gives it a fragile look, but considering the price… When it comes to sound, we noticed an obvious improvement and the comparison with the much more expensive MBox Pro is flattering for the small C600. The preamps and converters perform really nice and this M-Audio interface will certainly be a good choice for musicians who don’t want to spend more than $400 and don’t need more than four preamps. Year after year the quality of budget products increases and the Fast Track C600 confirms this trend.

Advantages:

  • Nice look
  • Practical desktop design
  • Quality preamps and converters
  • Transport keys
  • Big volume control
  • Two independent headphone outs
  • S/PDIF in/out
  • Price

Drawbacks:

  • Plastic housing
  • Sequential Multi button not very useful

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see: Fast Track C600 Review

 

August 28, 2011

Apogee Duet 2 Review

About four years ago, Apogee launched a digital audio FireWire interface called Duet that offered two analog ins and outs. In the meantime, competitors have brought out some very interesting products, especially RME with its attractive Babyface. The brand with the violet logo couldn’t keep its arms crossed so they launched an improved version 2. The verdict?

The FireWire format, which disappeared from the MacBook some time ago only to reappear a few months later, seemed not to convince Apogee. Since the interfaces of this manufacturer are only compatible with Apple computers, they depend on the decisions of Steve Jobs and his friends. That’s why Apogee decided to change its strategy and add a USB controller to its compact interface One. The Duet 2 we review today went the same path — USB instead of FireWire. Is it the only change? No, but before we go any further let’s start unpacking the new Duet.

Unpacking

Apogee Duet 2

Let’s say it like it is: the Duet 2 impressed us as soon as we unpacked it. It looks very nice, professional and rugged. It is miles away from the plastic-looking One and it looks more modern and classy than the Babyface. In summary, it looks great and reliable, a bit like Apple computers… As for the weight and dimensions, the Duet is a bit bigger and heavier than the RME Babyface — its main competitor —, even if the difference is minor.

Along with the interface came a breakout cable with the mic/instrument inputs on big (huge!) XLR and 1/4″ TRS combo connectors, as well as outputs on 1/4″ TRS jacks for your speakers. A small aluminum box is available if you want XLR outputs and separate mic and instrument inputs. Why? For a more convenient fixed installation. Price? €81.33, VAT incl. It’s up to you…

 

Apogee Duet 2

On the front of the interface you’ll find a handy headphones out; The rear side includes a connector for the breakout cable, a USB port and the power connection. An external PSU is also provided but we didn’t use it since our MacBook Pro was powerful enough to feed the Duet 2. The interface has only the essential connections: neither digital nor MIDI ins/outs… A pity considering that the Babyface does have them.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Among high-end mobile interfaces, the Apogee Duet 2 has some important advantages against competitors, like its looks, the manufacturing quality, the OLED display, the soft limiter, and the quality of the preamps and converters. On the other hand, the interface has neither digital nor MIDI ins/outs and provides no processing facilities (EQ, reverb) while some others (e.g. the Babyface) do offer these features for the same price. Moreover, PC users won’t have the possibility to use the Duet 2 — typical Apogee. These are many cons but some Mac users will be seduced by the simplicity of the Maestro software.

Advantages:

  • Manufacturing quality
  • Nice design
  • Audio quality of the preamps and converters
  • USB powered
  • Great OLED display
  • Convenient encoder
  • Soft limiter
  • Maestro’s ease of use

Drawbacks:

  • Supports only Mac computers
  • Big XLR connectors on the breakout cable
  • No processing (EQ, reverb)
  • No digital in/out
  • No MIDI in/out

To read the full detailed review see:  Apogee Duet 2 Review

July 11, 2011

AVID Mbox Pro Review

Filed under: audio interface — Tags: , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 10:37 am

AVID, formerly Digidesign, took advantage of last year’s re-branding to present the third generation of its digital audio budget interfaces: the Mbox series. Today, we’ll give the Mbox Pro a try, the biggest member of the family.

For many years, Mbox interfaces were the entrance ticket to Pro Tools and were an essential tool for home studio owners who wanted to use the famous Digidesign (now AVID) platform. But things have changed a lot recently and now Pro Tools 9 can be used with any digital audio interface. The Mbox series also changed. Even if they already supported other sequencers in the past, they can now be used (and more than ever) with other programs like Cubase, Logic and company. However, the link between Pro Tools and the Mbox is still very strong, especially in terms of some very appealing bundles. Let’s start by unpacking the Mbox Pro.

 

Out of the Box

AVID Mbox Pro

Inside the nice black box with the AVID logo is the interface itself, which makes a good impression at first sight. The design is very appealing, professional but not austere. It looks quite sturdy due to the fact that it has a metal housing and not less due to its heaviness (6.2 lb!). With such a weight, you can be sure it wont slip down from your desk! The dimensions are also generous: 13.7″ x 7.6″ x 2.3″. The knobs are made out of plastic but seem quite rugged. The look of the new Mbox generation is pretty convincing. AVID did a very nice job compared to former versions. However, mobile sound freaks will find that the weight and bulky dimensions of the Mbox Pro are no advantage. In that case we recommend the Mbox and Mbox Mini, which are lighter and ought to be enough if you don’t need many ins/outs. However, it’s important to point out that the three interfaces don’t have the same specs (S/N ratio, dynamic range, etc.), so the differences between the three models are not limited to the number of connections.

Now, let’s have a look at the front and rear panels…

Panels

AVID Mbox Pro

On the well-equipped rear panel you have six analog outs and four analog ins on 1/4″ TRS jacks with switchable +4dBu/-10dBV sensitivity. You also get four inserts on 1/4″ TRS jacks. The inserts are placed between the preamp and the A/D converter in the signal path. The effect send and return are in the same TRS jack (tip=send, ring=return, sleeve=ground). You also get a stereo Aux input on RCAs or minijack. On the right corner there are two mic inputs (3 and 4) on XLR connectors, while on the left corner you have a pair of FireWire ports. Notice that the interface must be connected to its external PSU because it cannot be powered via the FireWire bus of the computer. A 1/4″ footswitch jack will allow you to punch in and out while recording or start playing back audio — very practical! Finally, a D-Sub port provides you with a MIDI in/out on 5-pin DIN connectors, a coaxial S/PDIF connector and a BNC to feed it a wordclock signal using the provided breakout cable. The only regret of the connections is the lack of an ADAT connector!

AVID Mbox Pro

The front panel is also very comprehensive: a pair of XLR/TRS combos for mic inputs 1 and 2 and the two instrument inputs. They all have two switches: the first one to switch between the front inputs 1/2 (mic and instrument) and the two rear line inputs, and the second one to activate the soft limiter (which is a very rare feature on interfaces in this price range). Also notice that all four gain controls are push/pull pots allowing you to activate -20dB pads. In the middle of the front panel, you’ll find four meters with eight-LEDs each. Nice! Next to the meters, there are two buttons: the first one can be assigned to different Pro Tools functions (we already mentioned that the link between the house’s own hardware and software is still strong!) while the other one allows you to turn the 48V phantom power on/off.

You also get two fully independent headphones outputs: they are assigned to different channels and have their own volume control. Sweet! On the right corner you’ll find a big volume control as well as three keys assigned to the master out: a Dim/Mute switch that allows you to cut or decrease the volume of the main output, a Mono switch, and a Speaker button to toggle between three pairs of monitor speakers connected to the analog outs on the rear panel. Once again: very nice!

Now, let’s talk about the software…

Conclusion

The new Mbox Pro interface is a success: it offers a very nice design, it is robust, provides very comprehensive connections, and includes an easy-to-use virtual mixer. Add the effect section and you get a very appealing audio interface, even if it is not perfect. In fact, we missed an ADAT in/out and some additional effects like an EQ and/or a compressor. Moreover, the weight and the size of this interface are not that convenient for mobile recording.

 

When it comes to software, although the system worked perfectly with Cubase, we recommend to use it with Pro Tools for several reasons. First, the convenient Multi button you can assign to different functions, but especially because of the Pro Tools 9 bundles that can save you up to $200 on the sequencer price (the Mbox Pro alone costs $729 and only $999 with Pro Tools 9). Users of other sequencers might want to check competitor products that provide more features for the same price. But if you are looking for a high-quality audio interface and want to start working with Pro Tools 9 without spending a lot of money, the Mbox range is the way to go.

Advantages:

  • Sturdy
  • Nice design
  • Comprehensive analog connections
  • Good sounding preamps and converters
  • Virtual mixer
  • Integrated reverb and delay effects
  • Appealing bundle price with Pro Tools 9

Drawbacks:

  • A bit expensive without bundle
  • Heavy and bulky
  • No ADAT connection
  • No EQ nor compressor in the FX section

To read the full detailed article see:  Avid MBox Pro Review

December 8, 2010

RME Babyface Review

Most manufacturers have been adding compact audio interfaces to their product range for several years, and now is time for RME and its Babyface. Many mobile musicians and sound engineers have been eagerly waiting for this new USB2 compatible interface…

This end of year is full of new launches at RME: the high-end Fireface UFX (already reviewed by AudioFanzine) and the Babyface, which belongs to the affordable line of RME products. The word “affordable” is relative, of course, considering that the Babyface’s price tag is nearly $750… However, the Babyface is the German manufacturer’s most compact and affordable external interface and it will surely appeal to mobile home-studio owners searching for quality.

Inside the box you’ll find the user’s manual, a breakout cable and an extension cable to add inputs and outputs to the Babyface (see below), a USB2 cable, a nice transport bag to carry the interface, the cables and a mic (for example), and the Babyface itself with its blue and gray finish. The interface is quite compact (3.9″ x 1″ x 6.3″) but it is heavy enough (1.1 lb.) to sit stably on your desk — it feels sturdy. This impression is reinforced by the metal housing with the typical RME blue finish. Only the knobs and the jog wheel are made out of plastic. The wheel doesn’t seem to be too tough; the first few months of intensive use will show if it has what is takes…

Plug-in Baby

RME Audio Babyface

In spite of its compact size, the Babyface offers comprehensive connections: two mic inputs on XLR connectors, line outputs (on XLR connectors as well), MIDI in/out on 5-pin DIN connectors, and a headphones minijack output (which can also be used as line out). All connections are routed through the breakout cable, linked to the Babyface via a 25-pin D-Sub connector, similar to the ones on VGA graphic cards. On the interface itself you have an instrument input, which replaces the second mic input when activated via the TotalMix FX software, and a second phones out which is electrically linked to the first one. This means that the maximum output volume decreases when two headphones are connected at the same time, and also that both outputs deliver the same audio signal. In other words, you can’t send different mixes to the headphones. You’ll also find an ADAT Toslink input and output, which is a rather nice surprise considering the size and price of the interface. The ADAT option allows the user to connect an external converter and add 8 in/out channels. Nice! Finally, the interface features a connector for an external PSU (not included) and a USB cable with two connectors, in case the USB bus of your computer doesn’t provide enough current (the manufacturer states that the Babyface requires 300 mA).

RME Audio Babyface

On the top panel you’ll find some LEDs and buttons to control certain parameters without having to use the TotalMix FX software. The jog wheel allows you to control the gain of both analog inputs (simultaneously or separately), the volume of the main line outputs or the phones out level. You can select the mode (In, Out or Phone) using the select buttons underneath the jog wheel. A simple click on the jog wheel allows you to activate the dim function (temporary volume reduction) while in Out or Phone mode. The last LED shows the sync status of the digital clock. The source of the clock can be internal or external (via ADAT and S/PDIF).

Two 10-segment LED meters show the level at the inputs or outputs, which is a very valuable feature considering the size of the interface. Usually, manufacturers use only one or two LEDs for similar products… Well done RME!

Now, let’s take a look at the software package included…

Conclusion

RME succeeded in launching a compact and rugged interface with remarkable sound quality. At about $750, this baby provides two quality mic preamps and converters, ADAT in/out, a jog wheel, a transport bag, and a pair of nice-looking VU-meters. Add TotalMix FX —the virtual mixer that allows you to manage all 22 channels and process the signals (EQ, filter, reverb, and echo)— to the package and you get the best mobile audio interface on the market. It obviously has some drawbacks, like the poor precision of the gain controls, the fact that the two headphones outputs are not independent and the sturdiness of the jog wheel, but nothing is perfect in this world…

Advantages:

  • Quality of the preamps and converters
  • ADAT input and output
  • TotalMix FX with EQ, reverb and echo
  • 10-segment LED level meters
  • Size (it does matter!)
  • Metal housing
  • USB powered
  • Convenient jog wheel and buttons
  • Nice transport bag
  • Xmas is coming soon

Drawbacks:

  • Input gain control in 3 dB steps
  • Will the plastic jog wheel survive over the years?
  • The two headphone outputs are not independent
  • I have to send it back

To read the full detailed article see:  RME Babyface Review

December 1, 2010

Lifting the Lid on Audio Laptops: The Test

In Part 2 we go deeper into PC laptops for music production and put a few choice models to the test.

 

The most sure fire way of removing the headache from selecting a laptop is to pop along to someone who knows what they are doing. If you pick up a laptop from a specialist Audio PC builder then you can feel assured that the DPC latency will be under control (see Part 1), and it would have been tested with numerous audio interfaces. However, regardless of the marketing materials, no laptop is going to be “designed for audio”. With desktop computers Audio PC specialists can carefully choose and combine components to produce a system that will work well for music production. With laptops this isn’t possible. Unless you order direct from the Far East in large container loads then you are not going to get any say over what goes inside a laptop. Audio PC builders have to rebrand and sell someone else’s laptop.

Some name brand manufactures release what’s known as a “whitebox” version of one or more of their range of laptops. This is essentially an unbranded, vanilla laptop chassis without CPU, RAM or hard drive installed. The specialist would then add the missing components to order, rebrand and sell it as their own product.  In the UK at least whitebox laptops are increasingly rare. Asus, MSI and Intel have all had a go in the past but the general feeling is that the money to be made supplying specialist builders isn’t really worth it. That leaves a company called Clevo. Clevo specialise in whitebox laptops, they do nothing else and don’t tend to sell them under their own brand – so they’re not competing with their own customers like the name brands do. They supply laptop shells to all the little companies and shops that wish to brand and their “own” laptop – been doing it for years. There’s nothing wrong in any of this. For people wanting a properly tested and supported laptop for audio then this is the best route. The only downside is that the choice is very restrictive. The chances are that wherever you go the specialists will be selling the same laptop. The laptop won’t have any features specific to music making, it will probably be designed for gaming as much as anything and the best the Audio PC company can do is tweak it and support it for audio use – which is a great thing in itself. The value in having a laptop properly set-up and supported to do the job should not be underestimated. It’s one of the downsides of buying from Apple – you’re not going to get that specialised music production support in the event of trouble.

As an Audio PC builder whitebox laptops can be quite frustrating because you don’t have any control over the internal technology. When a new version arrives there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get it work for music production and you are off again trying to find a new solution. This has been particular difficult with the latest laptop technology from Intel. The mobile Core i3, i5 and i7 CPU’s seem to have brought with them a bumper set of features and components that all get stuffed into the laptop making it really difficult to minimise the DPC latency impact and maximise the firewire bandwidth.

So, instead of restricting ourselves to only whitebox laptops let’s take a look at some name brand manufacturers that just might do the job.

The Laptop Face-Off

Our search resulted in five possible solutions from three manufacturers:

  1. Asus N61JQ i7 720QM 1.6GHz 4GB ATI HD5730 ~ £1000
  2. Fujitsu Lifebook E780 i5 520M 2.4GHz 4GB Nvidia GT330M ~ £1050
  3. Fujitsu Celsius H700 i5 540M 2.6GHz 4GB Nvidia Quadro 880M ~ £1900
  4. Lenovo Thinkpad T510 i5 520M 2.4GHz 3GB Intel HD GFX ~ £1100
  5. Lenovo Thinkpad W510 i7 720QM 1.6GHz 2GB Quadro FX 880M ~ £1650

These aren’t cheap and cheerful, they’re high spec, professional laptops comparable (arguably) to the MacBook Pro – that’s the idea anyway.  It was interesting how out of the box they all had various problems and barriers to working well for music production. I’m pretty experienced with these things and so I knew how to approach the issues but I often wonder how non-technical people get past this point – or even if they do.

Let’s look at them one at a time and then compare some test results…

Conclusion

The similarity between the results of the Fujitsu E780 and Lenovo T510 shows that the technological differences between the two laptops has little effect on the performance. Both units have the Core i5 520M 2.4GHz processor and although the E780 has one more gigabyte of RAM it didn’t make a substantial  difference. The question remains though if the E780 had a graphics solution that didn’t cause a blue screen would the performance be even better? The two Quad Core’s were not as fast as expected but then the comparison between at 2.4GHz dual core and a 1.6GHz Quad core is difficult to make assumptions about – essentially you are comparing 4.8GHz to 6.4GHz and so we should be looking at a 25% performance difference and that is actually not far from what we got. The perception of a Quad Core though would assume a much bigger increase! The Fujitsu H700 was largely untested due to the driver clash problems and so its results are inconclusive. The Asus was always lagging behind the W510 in all but one test – probably down to the lack of available BIOS editing to stabilise the CPU speed but it’s also the cheapest model on test. On performance alone the Lenovo T510 and W510 take the crown although the Fujitsu could equal the performance if the clash with the graphics drivers was sorted out.

The performance differences and behavior of the audio interfaces is worthy of note. The Edirol FA66, which has the most uninspiring driver and control panel, seems to outperform the other, arguably more professional, interfaces by a fair margin. The FA66 also worked the same whether it was connected to a TI chipset card or the internal firewire port – it didn’t seem to care. When plugged into the Fujitsu it was the only interface not to blue screen – instead you got crackly playback. Edirol obviously know what they’re doing in terms of programming – shame they have no sense of style. At the other end the Firestudio misbehaved the most, failing to work successfully on everything except the T510. The Saffire Pro 24 sits safely between the two. I know very little about how driver architecture actually works but my assumptions are that the differences are to do with the amount of channels the interface requires – the FA66 only needs 6in/out, the Saffire 16in 8out whereas the Firestudio needs 24 in/out. Maybe the interface has negotiate the full bandwidth to accommodate all of its ins and outs when plugged into the firewire socket  – further testing required I think. That said, once working the Edirol was a clear winner on performance which must be down to a combination of the technology in the box and quality of the drivers.

Was that helpful? Who knows! I think it shows some of the trials and tribulations involved in choosing a laptop for music production and how performance can vary not just between laptops but also between audio interfaces. As the majority of users don’t get the chance to compare their laptop to others then it all comes down to whether it’s doing what you want it to do. If you can make music on it then it’s doing a good job.

To read the full detailed article see:  Choosing a Laptop for Music Making Part 2

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

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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