ROUNDUP Audio Interfaces . . . for a Song

November 28, 2012
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By MARTY CUTLER

WE ADMIT IT: COMPUTER RECORDING INTERFACES AREN’T AS SEXY AS SYNTHS or virtual instruments—at least not at first glance. Nonetheless, they’re the conduit between your musical concept and reality. We set out to find the latest and greatest desktop wedges and half-rack boxes under $500, though in a couple of cases something was so cool for the ducats that we raised the size or price ceiling just a little.

To put the interfaces through their paces, I ran a variety of tests using standalone synths, an electric guitar, my trusty Stelling five-string banjo, several different DAW packages, and dynamic and condenser mics including Shure SM57 and KSM32 models.

Akai EIE and EIE Pro

The retro styling of the EIE and EIE Pro is an eye catcher, but there’s plenty of substance and a couple of thoughtful surprises. Both units offer the same large VU meters, which glow bright red if you overload the inputs and are large enough to read from across the room.

The standard and Pro units off er two channels fed by four analog inputs, and four outputs, with four XLR/TRS combo jacks on the front and four TRS jacks on the rear. Four inserts let you pipe your choice of outboard processing into the pre-conversion signal chain. A monitor selector switch can choose inputs one and two, three and four, or both channel pairs. In addition to the USB-B jack for computer connection, the units include three powered type A connectors, so you can connect multiple EIE units, drives, controllers, or dongles—very welcome, as USB devices tend to multiply like ants at a picnic. The EIE’s five-pin MIDI jacks are welcome when I want to drag my beloved Kawai K5000 (or any pre-USB hardware synth) out of the closet.

The build is solid, with resolutely positive switching, and no wobbly knobs. Each channel offers a switch for 48V phantom power, and switches for each of the four inputs toggle between mic/ line and guitar input. The hi-Z setting served my Brian Moore iGuitar well, adding more tuneful realism to my amp-modeling plug-ins.

The major difference between the EIE and EIE Pro is audio resolution: The former is 16-bit/48kHz while the Pro goes to 24-bit/96kHz. Both sound great and are easy to use. The street price difference is not much more than $50, making springing for the Pro a no-brainer.

EIE: $299 list | $199 street
EIE Pro: $449 list | $249 street
akaipro.com

 

Apogee Duet 2

Heads turned when Apogee brought their highly regarded converters to affordable, small-footprint devices like the Duet 2. USB powered and roughly the same size as a hard drive, it places nearly all its I/O on a breakout cable, except the headphone jack. My first impression was that a dangling cable was more messy than beneficial, but it has its advantages in small recording spaces where things get moved around. The cable holds a pair of balanced XLR/TRS combo inputs, plus balanced 1/4" outs. An additional $100 buys a breakout box that has separate pairs of XLR and 1/4" ins, plus XLR outs.

When you download drivers, you also receive Maestro 2, a software control panel where you can set input levels, switch between line and instrument, enable phantom power, and set the sample rate (up to 192kHz). Connecting the Duet 2 by USB launches a popup that offers to set it as the default interface, sparing you a trip to Audio/ MIDI Setup or System Preferences. Note that the Duet 2 is for Mac only.

The crisp OLED display is easy on the eye, and in conjunction with a large center wheel, you can control levels for input, monitor output, and headphones. I was impressed with the high resolution and smoothness of the wheel—no abrupt level changes here.

The Duet 2 immediately distinguished itself with velvety highs and detailed reproduction of transients and other sonic nuances. It conveyed the rich tone and transients of my Stelling banjo without sounding tubby. Close-miked recordings of flugelhorn solos carried the embouchure noise clearly. Synth plug-ins sparkled. Although its price edges past the top end of our range, the Duet 2’s stellar converters make it a great choice if quality of I/O is more important than quantity.

$595 street (no list price given)
apogeedigital.com

 

Avid Mbox

Flanked by the Mbox Mini and Mbox Pro (reviewed June ’11), the middle-child Mbox offers two 1/4" guitar inputs on the front, two balanced XLR/TRS combo jacks on the rear, and an additional two channels via coaxial S/PDIF. Th ere’s also conventional fivepin MIDI in addition to USB.

Other than input selection, a global phantom power switch, and a 20dB pad, there’s not much on the front. Despite the absence of a display, the Pro Tools Hardware menu allows a variety of assignments to the Mbox’s useful Multi button, including functions such as adding tracks, record start/stop, even saving the session. You can also turn on the built-in reverb for sweetening headphone mixes (but not for tracking, which you’d be unlikely to do anyway). From the same menu, the Mbox control panel can set up reverb, sends and returns, choose the sample rate (up to 24-bit/96kHz), configure the S/PDIF, check instrument tuning, and save your configuration as a preset. Though this button only works with Pro Tools, the Mbox otherwise showed up without a hitch in Cubase, Ableton Live, Presonus Studio One, and Reason.

The combo inputs each have a Soft Limit button that added a bit of pleasing crunch when I ran my electric guitar hot; it works well on mics to eliminate digital clipping on a vocalist’s occasional too-hot note. You can mix front and rear inputs, which is handy for quick-and-dirty singer and guitar sessions, but keep in mind you can only record two channels at a time.

The Mbox’s sound quality is very good, and tremendously improved over earlier-generation units. The build is hefty and solid, and you can cop one bundled with Pro Tools Express for around $499 street, or with full Pro Tools 10 at around $820 street.

$599 list | $499 street
avid.com

 

 Avid Fast Track C600
Avid Fast Track C600

The 24-bit/96kHz C600 works similarly to the Mbox in some ways, but its deskwedge form and generous controller features set it apart. Like the Mbox, the C600 sports a multi-function button, but it’s far more programmable using your host’s key commands. More importantly, the transport controls worked immediately in every DAW I threw at it (not just Pro Tools), with no need for initial setup in the host. Considering the fiddly interaction of some software with even pro-level control surfaces, that’s no mean feat.

Four physical inputs feed two stereo channels. As with the Mbox, you get either front-panel line inputs or rear-panel combo jacks (but not both at once) for recording channels 1 and 2. All four physical inputs have a 20dB pad and a gain knob, and each has independent phantom power. The analog outs, grouped as three stereo pairs, let you feed additional monitors; buttons select any combination of the three, making the C600 a monitor controller. Multi-segment LED meters for every input are far more helpful than a single lamp that glows red for overload.

I appreciate the dual headphone outs with independent level controls; however, if you power the C600 via USB, the second headphone out, the second pair of analog ins, and the third pair of outs are disabled.

The preamps and audio quality of the C600 are solid and professional sounding. There’s no soft limit feature, but there is a built-in reverb for adding to a vocalist’s headphone mix. The C600 isn’t metal, but its high-impact plastic feels durable.

$499.99 list | $399.99 street
avid.com

ESI U24 XL

For sheer compactness, ESI has a host of affordable audio interfaces you can tuck into a shirt pocket. ESI has historically been hailed for low latency, having once made the go-to interfaces for users of the dearly departed GigaStudio sampler.

The most suitable to keyboardists on the go is perhaps the U24 XL, which offers optical as well as coaxial S/PDIF. The unit is somewhat larger than their tiny UGM96 (see keyboardmag.com/october2012 for a review), but still small enough to put in your pocket. You can choose 16- or 24-bit resolution, but the sample rate only goes to 48kHz—still fine for many recording applications. The two balanced analog inputs are line-level only, so factor in an external preamp if you want to record mics or guitars. The U24 has control panel software for Mac OS and Windows, which you’ll need in order to change the input and output levels. Windows users get DirectWire, a software scheme that lets Windows applications using different drivers receive audio streams. The street price makes it a good value, but brings it within $50 of the Akai EIE, which has the same maximum sample rate specs, no S/PDIF, but more I/O and metering. But if you travel with a hardware keyboard you want to record in stereo, and need to hear your soft synths, and don’t want anything else getting in the way, the ultra-slim U24 XL is very attractive.

$179 list | $129 street
esi-audio.com

 Focusrite Scarlett 18i6
Focusrite Scarlett 18i6

Next to Focusrite’s long-standing reputation for great-sounding mic preamps (which is still deserved today), the Scarlett 18i6’s big draw is the remarkable number of inputs crammed into a half-rack. Although you only have a pair of analog outs, the internal mixer dishes up to 18 recording channels at once: eight analog ins, eight ADAT lightpipe, and stereo S/ PDIF. Software called MixControl adds considerable flexibility when routing channels.

The Front panel holds a couple of combo jacks with gain knobs. The phantom power switch engages both mic inputs, but the software lets you mix and match line and instrument ins. To the right, a single LED for each of the eight analog inputs indicates signal and overload: not my idea of a level meter, but adequate for preliminary gain trimming.

Most of the action happens in software. You can create up to six independent stereo or mono mixes for monitoring purposes, making it comfortable for multiple musicians to record at once. You can feed any physical input, or output from your host software, into any of the 18 channels. Scarlett 18i6 is a versatile, compact solution for recording multiple sources at once.

$399 list | $299 street
focusrite.com

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP

Not everyone can book time at Hans Zimmer’s studio for their project; many of us make do in a spare room, garage, or basement. Likewise, we might not have the ideal monitors or acoustics, or conditions might compel us to mix using headphones. All is not lost.

The Pro 24 DSP holds a generous amount of I/O flexibility. There’s a pair of combo jacks on the front (with common phantom power and independent input-gain knobs) along with two independent headphone outs. On the rear, you get a couple of line-level inputs, ADAT lightpipe I/O (which can be switched to optical S/PDIF), plus coaxial S/PDIF. Add six configurable balanced analog outs and MIDI, pour all this into the MixControl software, and routing capabilities expand tremendously. You can quickly route any input to any other, even feeding one application’s audio into another.

The biggest attraction (again, next to the great mic preamps) is arguably the built-in DSP, which includes Virtual Reference Monitoring: speaker modeling that provides headphone mixes with a selection of simulated monitors in simulated rooms. MixControl also grants access to the onboard reverb, EQ, and compression, which can be routed independently to simultaneous mixes. The reverb is quite good, albeit shorter on tweakable parameters than your average plug-in. The builtin EQ and compressor are simple and effective.

The Saffire Pro 24 DSP can pull its power from FireWire or from the provided power supply— the latter lets you use it as a standalone mixer. Although it’s not readily programmable from the front panel, you can use the MixControl software to set up routing and settings for reverb and other DSP. Combine the super-high quality preamps with the VRM and eff ects DSP, then add to that a standalone mixer with sophisticated routing, and the Saffire Pro 24 DSP is a tremendous value.

$499.99 list | $399.99 street
focusrite.com

MOTU MicroBook II
MOTU MicroBook II

Deceptively simple on the surface, the MicroBook II packs six inputs, eight outputs, an eightbus mixer, and built-in DSP into a package barely larger than a smartphone. Two rotary encoders provide access to levels, and serve as buttons to toggle phantom power for the single mic-pre input, a 20dB pad on one, and level control of speakers and headphones. Stereo line ins are on balanced 1/4" jacks, with a second stereo in on an 1/8" mini jack, for a phone or MP3 player. The unit is strictly USB2 bus powered.

A single XLR mic input feeds a terrificsounding mic preamp and MOTU’s high-quality converters. Live banjo and guitar tracks sounded crisp and clear without shrillness. Going in the other direction, analog-modeled sawtooth pads were fat and warm. The electric guitar input on the front panel went a long way toward convincingly piping my Brian Moore iGuitar into Native Instruments Guitar Rig.

Setup in Digital Performer was easy; the choice of track outputs included the main outs, line outs, headphones, or Aux—which plays all outputs simultaneously. Selecting (for instance) headphones for the track output in your host program kills all other outputs: a preferable approach to powering my monitors down or adding a monitor controller (the idea here is compact portability) when I record acoustic tracks. In other hosts, the track-output nomenclature defaulted to the hosts’ own track names, but it all worked as advertised.

The CueMix FX app not only controls the MicroBook II’s built-in EQ and compression; you can apply effects individually or simultaneously to inputs or outputs, so you can (for instance) feed effects to headphones without placing them in the recording chain.

The MicroBook II is an ideal choice for the mobile musician in need of an affordable and simple but flexible I/O. If you need to record stereo keys, guitar or bass, and vocals, along with hearing your soft synths, this unit will handle the job with ease.

$269 list | $249 street
motu.com

 MOTU Track16
MOTU Track16

The Track16 represents an entirely new direction for MOTU. It connects over FireWire or USB, and can be powered by FireWire, but given the quantity of I/O to drive, requires a power supply (included) for USB use.

Apart from a hi-Z input for guitar and a 1/8" stereo in, all analog inputs live on a supplied breakout cable—likewise for outputs other than the two headphone jacks. Eight-channel ADAT lightpipe I/O is on the chassis itself; it supports four channels at 96kHz. At 192kHz (yes, the Track16 goes that high) only the analog I/O is active.

The solidly built chassis hosts an array of color-coded buttons representing ins and outs. Selecting a button changes its backlight color, and focuses the large rotary encoder on a specifi c input or output level. Pressing the encoder mutes the selection or selects mic inputs; the encoder can also engage the 20dB pad or phantom power.

In order to pack sufficient info on the Track16’s hefty signal flow, the four pairs of LEDs use the Meters switch to toggle between assorted inputs and outputs, as labeled beneath each meter pair. The button glows blue for one set and white for the other, matching the text on the panel itself.

Drivers installed without a hitch, and showed up without issue in all my DAWs. Though I’d been changing drivers for each interface, Digital Performer had the driver for Track16 already selected when I first tested it—nice.

As with the other MOTU interfaces, Track16 includes CueMix FX software, and the built-in hardware DSP surpasses the MicroBook II with a nice built-in reverb.

As feature-rich as the Track16 is, its most significant feature is its sparkling, transparent sound. The unit invites comparison with Apogee’s Duet 2, albeit with a scintilla less gloss in the higher frequencies. The mic preamps sound every bit as good as the Duet 2’s. The Track16 has much more I/O, and CueMix FX and its sophisticated routing hits a home run.

$595 list | $549 street
motu.com

 MOTU UltraLite Mk. 3 Hybrid
MOTU UltraLite Mk. 3 Hybrid

The current UltraLite represents the high end of MOTU’s compact half-rack interfaces. It connects via FireWire or USB, can draw power from FireWire, and comes with a power supply for USB use. It supports audio resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. It’s about the size of a paperback book, and hosts two mic pres, plus six balanced 1/4" analog ins, eight balanced analog outs, balanced 1/4" main outs, coaxial S/PDIF, MIDI, and a headphone out. Its complement of built-in DSP and front-panel access to all routing and DSP parameters makes it a worthy standalone mixer when you don’t want to schlep a computer.

You can get to every parameter from the UltraLite’s front panel, and pressing knobs inward invokes additional functions. For example, pressing either of the mic trim knobs engages the pad; pressing and holding engages phantom power. Other controls adjust effects sends and their parameters for each channel, sample rate, clock source, and lots more. All this is more visual in the CueMix FX software, but it’s great to route and mix without being tethered to my computer. Keyboardists can easily set up their own keys-and-vox submix with reverb, EQ, and dynamics processing—and if your rig combines software synths with hardware, the UltraLite Mk. 3 Hybrid works well if you want to carry one box instead of a separate audio interface and mixer. Beyond all the features, the terrific sound quality makes it a top choice.

$595 list | $549 street
motu.com

 Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6
  Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6

It’s built like it came from a heavy-gravity planet— plenty of mass despite being smaller than a paperback—yet the Komplete Audio 6 (KA6) manages four channels of balanced analog I/O, two channels of coaxial S/PDIF, and MIDI. It also looks great and has an easy user interface. The manual provides tons of detail, but you probably won’t need it to get up and running.

The heft adds enough ballast to prevent it from getting jerked around by its cabling: a problem with compact interfaces you might perch on some blank panel space on your keyboard. The front panel neatly divides into three main areas: input, monitor, and headphone. Analog inputs are a pair of combo jacks, each with a line/mic switch; phantom power engages with a rear-panel button. The KA6 is strictly USB powered.

If latency while recording is an issue, a button toggles direct monitoring of your preconversion signal; hold it a few more seconds and the unit cycles to select either or both of the two output pairs’ signals. A second button toggles between stereo and mono output, which is handy if you need to check for phase issues.

Sonically, the KA6 competes with the other units at the top of our list with sweet-sounding conversion and excellent detail and imaging. It was so easy to set up and so portable that I used it to record a couple of tracks for last-minute national jingle sessions, which I’ve put clips of at keyboardmag.com/october2012. Native Instruments KA6 easily bridges the gap between convenience and sonic excellence.

$249 list | $229 street
native-instruments.com

 PreSonus AudioBox 44VSL
PreSonus AudioBox 44VSL

The AudioBox has a solid, all-metal build and can sit as easily in a half-rack space as on your desktop. The I/O scheme is easy to understand: Inputs are on the front, and all four outputs (plus a separate main out and headphones) are on the rear. Four combo jacks grace the front; the 1/4" ins of the first two are suitable for electric guitars and other high-impedance signals, and the second two are for line-level signals such as keyboards. The Class- A preamps sound superb, and are the same as in PreSonus’ flagship StudioLive mixers. The phantom power button is global, so take care not to use anything that doesn’t like phantom alongside anything that needs it. The AudioBox connects via USB but requires the included power supply. In addition to separate volume controls for the headphones and main outs, a mix knob blends between the analog inputs and computer playback for zero-latency monitoring.

VSL (Virtual Studio Live) gives you the equivalent of the StudioLive’s “Fat Channel.” This can apply independently to channels and busses, and includes EQ, compression, gating, limiting, and more. There’s also included reverb and delay, both of which sounded great. EQ was easy to set up, with sweepable mids and a choice of sweepable or shelving for highs and lows. You can use the DSP as “courtesy” effects that aren’t printed, or track with the Fat Channel (but not the reverb or delay) inline. These aren’t one-size-fits-all channel strips, but more like flexible, configurable plugins without the CPU drain.

The VSL app’s browser hosts a slew of useful presets listed by application: recording guitars, ducking music under voice-overs, and plenty more. Much like in PreSonus’ Studio One DAW, you simply drag-and-drop the preset from the browser to the relevant channel or bus. As with Studio One, the workflow for setting things up to taste is unparalleled— the layout is elegant and the topology tells all. Throw a copy of Studio One Artist into the bargain, and you have a practically irresistible deal, especially at a street price of roughly $250. Last but not least, you’ve got to love a manual that finishes with a recipe for gumbo.

$379.95 list | $299.95 street
presonus.com

 PreSonus FireStudio Mobile
PreSonus FireStudio Mobile

Don’t let its size fool you; this baby may occupy half the footprint of the 44VSL, but it’s armed for bear with FireWire bus power or AC, eight analog ins, two outs, S/PDIF, and MIDI.

Two inputs on the front are combo jacks, which also support hi-Z 1/4" ins for guitars, basses, or keyboards such as a passive Rhodes. Each features a gain control; phantom power affects both at once. The front also hosts main and headphone volume controls. The two mic preamps are the same Class-A type as in the StudioLive mixers. Six balanced TRS jacks add line-level input, and S/PDIF input and output connect to the rear (along with MIDI) via a breakout cable.

Interaction with PreSonus’ Studio One DAW is quick and handy. Setting up cue mixes is a breeze. The manual spends a good deal of space on Studio One, if only because the FireStudio is so easy to use that there’s just not that much to explain. Both this unit and the AudioBox set up as easily in Reason, Digital Performer, and everything else.

Choosing between the two PreSonus boxes is a tough call. Here, you don’t get the Fat Channel of the AudioBox, but the FireStudio is buspowered, adds S/PDIF, and since it’s FireWire, is expandable via daisy-chaining more interfaces. Both come with Studio One Artist. The AudioBox 44VSL has more mic inputs, but the FireStudio has more inputs overall. Either is a no-brainer for the micro-footprint studio.

$299.95 list | $249.95 list
presonus.com

 Steinberg UR28M
Steinberg UR28M

Steinberg has produced a few interfaces to accompany their Nuendo and Cubase DAWs. The UR28M represents one of the most recent, with workflow hooks into the company’s software.

The surface is canted slightly forward, making the controls visible, with all switches on the top. All I/O, including headphone jacks, is on the rear, keeping the controls unobstructed. Top-mounted buttons toggle mic/line input levels, with a translucent phantom power button that glows red. Another button lets you choose your source. Including coaxial S/PDIF, you get six inputs and eight outputs. Outputs can feed three separate monitor mixes, and buttons at the top right can switch between each monitor/mix.

Central to the unit’s DSP capabilities is the DSP MixFX software. Using this, you can program the UR28M for use as a computer-free mixer. When used with the UR28M, Cubase has its own dedicated windows for accessing the DSP Mix FX functions, and attempting to launch the standalone console will result in an error message that the USB port is already in use.

The DSP MixFX console software is for using the UR28M with any other host program—I instantiated it as a plug-in in PreSonus Studio One Pro without a hitch. If you use the mixer effects in Cubase or any other DAW, you’ll need a software e-licenser or a dongle. Reverb-X was worth that step. It’s a very sweet-sounding, programmable reverb with parameters to spare; it can launch in any VST host, along with the UR28M software channel strip, which includes compression and EQ.

The mic preamps sounded very good, with plenty of detail, and the ability to supply an independent headphone mix to a second musician is a boon. As a desktop recording interface-plusmonitor controller, the UR28M comes in at a very attractive $399 street price.

$499.99 list | $399.99 street
steinberg.net

 TASCAM US-2000
TASCAM US-2000

The TASCAM US-2000’s full-rack dimensions knock it out of micro-footprint territory, but its tremendous feature set and under-$400 street price make it worthy of inclusion here.

You get four outputs and 18 simultaneous inputs including eight mic inputs—a front-panel pair sport combi jacks for electric guitar or bass. Phantom power affects mic inputs in pairs, and you can monitor each pair of channels separately or as a linked stereo pair.

For zero-latency monitoring, a knob mixes direct monitoring of the inputs with the computer output. Uniquely, a knob governing overall input level is handy if you’re recording a live band and need to dial everything back at once.

It’s supremely important to get good levels in a digital recording system. So it’s great to see a five-segment ladder LED for each input and output channel as opposed to the single green-or-red LEDs common at this price.

The rear panel is armed for bear, with the remaining six mic inputs on XLR jacks, and six balanced line inputs in switchable mono or stereo pairs. Each pair can be set to –10 or +4dB. A pair of insert jacks for the two combi inputs is a plus if you want to add an outboard compressor or an effect.

Software drivers and the control panel were quick and easy to install, and once I was up and running, the mic pres sounded quite good. My banjo sounded fat and rich, and plugging into the hi-Z jack with my iGuitar’s piezo pickups produced a detailed, almost acoustic tone, suitable for clean rhythm tracks. Bottom line: The US- 2000’s I/O and seriously versatile features make it worth making room for in your rack.

$649.99 list | $399.99 street
tascam.com

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